Are so-called miracles actually only things that could happen naturally, as Hitchens argued?

Q. I’ve heard of many seemingly credible instances of God working miracles of healing in our time.  But the late Christopher Hitchens, one of the “New Atheists,” made a point that I’ve wondered about. He asked why, if God is performing these miracles, they only happen in cases that could be explained by natural means. For example, miraculous cures are claimed in situations like cancer, where a remission is possible anyway. But why do we never hear of something like a person miraculously growing back a limb?

The first problem I have with Hitchens’ objection is that it can never be satisfied.  It starts by identifying the limits of what has been claimed as miraculous activity by God, and then insists that if God were real, He would do something beyond those limits.  If we actually did have attested cases of people growing back limbs in answer to prayer, Hitchens would just ask something like, “Why hasn’t God ever turned an 80-year-old back into a 20-year-old?”  Whatever the actual limits of what people of faith accept and claim as miraculous, there has to be something beyond these limits (God can’t have done everything we could possibly imagine), and so an atheist would simply argue that unless God did this or that other thing, God isn’t real.

My next problem with Hitchens’ argument is that the purpose of miracles is not to prove that God exists (even though people sometimes appeal to them as proof).  And so any failure to do miracles of some particular kind does not prove that God doesn’t exist.  The purpose of miracles is rather to proclaim that God’s kingdom is breaking into our world.  When Jesus sent out his disciples to expand his own mission, he told them, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”

If God really is selective about what kinds of miracles to perform, we might say that God chooses to do miracles that have a symbolic meaning that discloses the character of the kingdom they are announcing.  For example, the healing of lepers sounds the theme of cleansing so closely associated with God’s saving work.  The restoration of sight to the blind speaks of God’s light coming into the world, to enlighten those who are in darkness.  Enabling the lame to walk alludes symbolically to the Old Testament image of “walking” as a metaphor for following God’s ways.  Miracles of these types are all attested in the ministry of Christ and his apostles.

If there is any other kind of selectivity at work in the kinds of miracles God does, one might say, though only from observation, that it appears that in this present world, God has limited Himself to miracles of restoring what is there, rather than of re-creating what has been lost.  And so God might cure a lung of cancer, but not necessarily recreate a lost limb.  If this is so, it may be because a new creation, a re-creation, is coming, and we are all to look forward to that time, in faith and patience, when lost things will be restored.  In the meantime, we are called upon to use all of our compassion and ingenuity to support, comfort, strengthen, and empower people who have suffered losses.  In fact, if we are not out to disprove the existence of God, we can freely see how God is just as much at work through the efforts of people who develop prosthetics and do physical therapy as through more ostensibly “miraculous” means.

My final observation would be that there’s always a challenge that comes along with a miracle, that is, an intervention of God in our world.  The challenge is to recognize that God has done it.  The gospel of John, after its lengthy account of Jesus’ ministry, marvels, “Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.”  So if it were generally true that God intervenes to do things that might happen naturally anyway (like a remission of cancer), this should not surprise us.  This provides a challenge and an opportunity to our faith, and I think this is intentional.

But there are things that help us be confident that God, rather than mere natural forces, have been at work.  For example, it has been observed that we can have confidence that God has answered our prayers through a certain means if (1) the answer comes while we are praying, or (2) if the answer comes when it is needed most, or (3) the answer comes with a special kindness attached, or (4) the answer comes despite great difficulties that make it unlikely, or (5) we receive above and beyond what we ask for.  And if all or most of these things happen together, we are likely to be so convinced that God really has intervened on our behalf that we cease wondering whether this is so, and simply praise and thank God, no matter how skeptical someone looking on from the outside might be!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Are so-called miracles actually only things that could happen naturally, as Hitchens argued?”

  1. Wow, what a great answer to a Good Question. It is called faith for a very good reason. This brings up an question though. I accept the premise that God is not a giant Santa Claus and will not restore a limb, turn an 80 year into a 20 year old, or heal a difficult disease. That said, knowing what miracles God does in his earthly kingdom makes it difficult, for me anyway, to fully understand and apply what Paul writes in Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengths me.” As a believer, how can I apply this appropriately into my daily walk?

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I believe that the statement you cite from Philippians has a very specific reference. Here is the context (in the NIV translation): “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” While most English translations say “all things” instead of “all this,” a couple of versions say “all these things,” understanding the Greek term panta to refer back to contentment in all situations. This is certainly legitimate grammatically, and I think it’s the translation that makes the most sense in the context. So “I can do all things” doesn’t mean I can do anything and everything I might think of, or that others might expect of me. It means that by God’s grace I can be “content in any and every situation.” And I think that’s something we can all reasonably aspire to, God helping us.

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