Essentials of Apologetics - Lesson 10

Are Miracles Possible?

In this lesson, you will gain insight into the exploration of miracles, starting with a shift from discussing the existence of God to questioning whether God has revealed himself. Dr. McDowell challenges skeptics who reject miracles based on their worldview, using a scenario at Berkeley to illustrate the impact of presuppositions about science and miracles. The lesson emphasizes the philosophical aspects of miracles, arguing that they make sense in a world operating under regular patterns. It asserts the need for an open-minded investigation, placing the burden of proof on skeptics to show the impossibility of God's existence. The lesson concludes by hinting at a broader case for theism and Christianity, suggesting that the evidence for miracles is not only possible but overwhelming.

Sean McDowell
Essentials of Apologetics
Lesson 10
Watching Now
Are Miracles Possible?

I. Introduction and Recap

A. Overview of Previous Sessions

B. Importance of Truth in Moral and Religious Questions

C. General Revelation vs. Special Revelation

II. Shifting Focus: Has God Spoken?

A. Analogy: God's Signature on the World

B. Transition to the Question of Miracles

III. The Challenge of Miracles

A. Historical Objections to the Resurrection

B. Worldview Objections: God's Existence and Miracles

C. Gary Habermas' Insights on the Leading Objection

IV. Are Miracles Possible?

A. Anecdote: Conversation with Berkeley Students

B. Examining Scientific Observations and the Possibility of Miracles

C. Understanding Miracles in the Context of God's Existence

V. Addressing Worldview Barriers

A. Clarification of the Skeptic's Worldview

B. Importance of God's Possible Existence for Considering Miracles

C. Shift in Burden of Proof: Skeptic's Responsibility

VI. Building a Case for Miracles

A. Craig Keener's Study on Miracles

B. Types of Miracles Reported Today

C. Eyewitness Testimonies and Keener's Conclusions

VII. Verification of Miracles

A. Catholic Criteria for Determining Miracles

B. Keener's Scholarly Approach and Careful Documentation

VIII. Conclusion and Questions

A. Cumulative Case for Christianity

B. Open-mindedness to Follow Evidence

C. Addressing Questions from the Audience

  • Gain a comprehensive understanding of apologetics, the theological discipline of defending the Christian faith, through a personal mall encounter that highlights the importance of being prepared to provide reasoned defenses, with a focus on biblical foundations, addressing objections, and fulfilling a ministry to those with questions.
  • This second lesson on apologetics, highlights the importance of understanding worldviews, using practical exercises and examples to illustrate how our minds shape beliefs, categorizing worldviews based on their answers to fundamental questions, and exploring Christianity's unique perspective on creation, the world's problem, and the solution through Jesus.
  • This lesson explores Antony Flew's shift from atheism to recognizing Christianity's uniqueness. Dr. McDowell provides four reasons why a spiritual quest ought to begin with Christianity: testability in history, free salvation, a livable worldview, and Jesus' central role beyond religious boundaries. The lesson includes a Q&A time reviewing Islam's view on Jesus and Darwin's evolution.
  • Debunking the myth of blind faith, Sean counters with a scriptural foundation, using personal encounters and anecdotes. Examining biblical narratives, especially in Exodus and the New Testament, reveals a pattern: God provides evidence, imparts knowledge, and calls for faith and action. The story of doubting Thomas underscores that belief aligns with evidence, not against it. The lesson closes by emphasizing faith's dynamic nature, which can be fortified through evidence-based study.
  • In this session, you'll delve into the speaker's exploration of truth, gaining insights into its multifaceted importance in various life aspects. The session highlights three key reasons for the significance of truth, introduces the correspondence theory, and underlines the implicit connection between Christianity and truth, offering a comprehensive understanding of the topic.
  • You gain a deep understanding of the distinction between subjective and objective claims in this lesson, illustrated through relatable examples like ice cream preferences. Sean communicates that subjective claims rely on personal beliefs, while objective claims are based on the external world. Overall, you will develop a nuanced perspective on truth, specifically in differentiating between subjective and objective claims, with a focus on moral values.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insights into the moral argument for the existence of God. Sean draws from a personal debate experience, emphasizing that God provides a solid foundation for moral values. Three key points are highlighted: the need for a transcendent standard for right and wrong, the role of free will in moral accountability, and the requirement for divine grounding of human value. The lesson challenges naturalistic worldviews, asserting that they fail to offer a satisfactory explanation for objective morality, ultimately suggesting that living in accordance with God's design leads to true freedom and fulfillment.
  • Explore the Christian view on the soul, diving into its significance through moral law and beauty. Analyze arguments supporting its existence, like its role in free will, using analogies. Address contemporary debates on gender and transgender issues, suggesting a dual human nature. Incorporate biblical references, evaluating flawed arguments and introducing stronger ones. Discuss practical implications for personal well-being. This lesson explores the soul's concept from a Christian standpoint.
  • Gain insights into the intricate relationship between science and faith, exploring arguments for God's existence, the concept of fine-tuning in cosmology and biology, and the conclusion that the fine-tuning of the universe and DNA's information complexity point towards a fine tuner and an author of life, offering compelling evidence for the existence of God.
  • In this exploration of miracles, the lesson shifts from discussing God's existence to questioning divine revelation, challenging skeptics to reconsider their worldview and illustrating the philosophical underpinnings of miracles, ultimately emphasizing an open-minded investigation and hinting at a compelling case for theism and Christianity with overwhelming evidence for miracles.
  • You will gain a comprehensive understanding of near-death experiences (NDEs) and their potential as a compelling apologetic tool, exploring evidentiary aspects, transformative impacts, objections, and the significance of information unattainable by natural means in supporting the case for an afterlife and the soul.
  • Dr. McDowell reviews the overwhelming evidence of the resurrection and the significance of the resurrection.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the historical evidence supporting the resurrection of Jesus, including the crucifixion, discovery of the empty tomb by women, early and multiple accounts of Jesus's appearances, and the transformative impact on the disciples, ultimately challenging alternative explanations and asserting the resurrection as the most reasonable conclusion based on historical facts.
  • Exploring the Bible's trustworthiness through the character and copy tests, this lesson establishes the reliability of the New Testament by highlighting the writers' honesty, the disciples' willingness to endure hardships, and the exceptional proximity and quantity of early manuscripts.
  • In this lesson, you will gain a thorough understanding of the New Testament's reliability through an exploration of its extensive manuscript evidence, addressing skeptics' concerns about variations, and highlighting corroboration from external sources such as historical records and archaeology.
  • In this lesson, you will gain an understanding of the problem of evil and suffering, exploring its intellectual and emotional dimensions, drawing on personal experiences, historical perspectives, and a philosophical approach, and laying the groundwork for a more in-depth exploration in the next session.
  • In this lesson, you will learn of the logical problem of evil, exploring the philosophical challenge to God's existence posed by the coexistence of omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and evil, while examining the limitations of God's power, the compatibility of free will, and the unique Christian perspective emphasizing the redemptive nature of the incarnation and the cross in addressing the problem of evil.
  • Gain insights into responding to objections in apologetics, including addressing conflicts between a loving God and hell, defending the Bible against contradictions, clarifying misconceptions about God's stance on homosexuality, explaining the concept of the Trinity, and attributing natural evil to the brokenness of the world due to sin.
  • Gain insights into a personal and relational approach to apologetics by understanding that everyone is an apologist and theologian, as the lesson, through anecdotes, underscores the importance of discerning underlying questions, emphasizing active listening and probing inquiries to address the genuine needs and heartaches beneath surface-level queries.
  • Gain insights into effective spiritual conversations by asking four key questions: understanding beliefs, exploring reasons behind them, finding common ground, and navigating areas of disagreement, with an emphasis on listening and fostering genuine understanding.

In this day and age, it is critical that followers of Jesus know how to think clearly and biblically about their faith and how it intersects with and often contrasts with how the world thinks. These areas include one's worldview, the fact that faith is not blind, why the truth matters, why seeing design in creation points to a designer, and evidence for the soul, resurrection, and the Bible. How can God allow evil, and how do we talk with skeptics? Dr. McDowell discusses these topics and others in this easy-to-understand course on apologetics.

Are Miracles Possible?
Sean McDowell
Lesson 10
Essentials of Apologetics

All right. As we start this next session on the possibility of miracles, let's take a little stock of what we've covered so far. So far, we've talked about there's such a thing as truth, why truth is important, and we've clarified that both moral and religious questions deal with objective truth. We've started to make a case without using the Bible or using what's called special revelation towards the Christian faith. General revelation are things that are accessible to everybody, such as beauty in nature pointing towards a divine artist, such as nature itself, like we see in Romans chapter one, creation cries out for a creator. Even the evidence for the soul, we didn't have to point to chapter and verse to make a case for that. Now, we're starting to shift and we're asking a more particular question.

We might be saying, "Okay, there's a God that exists, there's a mind behind the universe, and the moral law tells us this must be a moral mind." But has this God spoken? Has this God revealed himself? That's the question we're shifting to, and I think that's what's required for us to know distinctly that Christianity is true. So if you think about a painting, for example, what's interesting about a painting is oftentimes the artist will sign it. Why? If you make a beautiful painting, you rightly deserve some credit for making something of beauty. Well, an interesting question is, if God has made this whole world, has God signed it, so to speak? Has God spoken? Has God made himself known? And this is where we start to get into God speaking through miracles. Now, what's interesting about this is we start getting into the Bible and the resurrection and some of the particular evidences for Christianity.

This is arguably the biggest objection that people have. So when you look at the evidence for the resurrection, people used to say things like, "Well, Jesus didn't really die on the cross," or, "The women went to the wrong tomb," or, "Jesus never existed." Although, it still exists on the internet and some people push those theories, the most common objection is more on the level of worldview, that either God doesn't exist or, if God exists, miracles don't happen. Arguably, the leading expert in the world on the resurrection is Gary Habermas. He spent his life and for decades 60, 70 hours plus reading everything on the resurrection. And he wrote in an article a few years ago, he said, "The biggest objection people have now is tied to even the possibility of miracles." So, before we get to the evidence for the resurrection and the positive case, let's ask the question, are miracles even possible?

A number of years ago, I was speaking up at Berkeley, and I met afterwards with a couple of skeptics who came to my talk and they said, "Hey, we noticed you're coming back in a couple of weeks. Would you be willing to have a conversation with us?" I said, "Sure." So I came back in a couple of weeks, was working with a church there, and I thought they were undergrads, but I discovered one was a master's student in math and the other was a PhD student in physics at Berkeley. Obviously, pretty smart folks. We sat down. I'll never forget what this physics student said to me. He looked at me and he goes, "So you believe in miracles, right?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Do you think Jesus rose from the grave?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Hasn't science shown that dead people stay dead?" Has science shown this?

Now, put yourself in his position. Hopefully, you're picking up in this class that whenever people say stuff, I'm listening, thinking, what does this tell me about this person's worldview? So here's a student, a PhD grad student in physics at Berkeley, obviously, really intelligent, also puts a lot of stock and cred in science. And in his mind, if I'm going to follow Jesus, I've got to give up science. Can you see why that's such an almost impossible step for him to take? That's why it's important to listen to people carefully and try to gauge what their worldview is and, frankly, what the real barrier for them is. So through the conversation, I pointed out a few things. I said, "Let me ask you a question. So the scientific revolution, say we trace it back to the time of Francis Bacon a few 100 years ago. Do you think before then people knew that dead people stay dead?"

He's like, "Yes." I said, "So do we really need science to tell us that dead people stay dead?" I said, "No. Pretty much from the beginning people have observed that when you die, it seems irreversible, right?" I said, "Okay, so let's establish that." I said, "Second, what is the claim about the resurrection? Is the claim that Jesus died and came back naturally?" I said, "Is that the claim?" He said, "No." I said, "If it were, that would seem to conflict with science." What's the claim about the resurrection? That Jesus died and was brought back supernaturally. So if there is a God who created us and who made the laws of physics and science, could this God choose to, say, override the normal way that nature works if this God chose to do so? And the answer has to be yes.

So in some sense, if I hold up this clicker, science tells us that if I let go of this, it's going to be attracted to the larger object, which in this case is earth. It's called the law of gravity. But if I hold it here or if I drop it and catch it, I didn't violate the laws of science. As an intelligent agent, I stopped the laws from operating the way it normally operates. Look, if there's a God that made this world, and, again, the laws of this world, it seems that this God normally has set things up to operate according to a certain pattern. I stopped and said, "By the way, the idea of a miracle only makes sense if the world operates under regular patterns, doesn't it? If the world was chaotic, you wouldn't know what a miracle was. You couldn't decipher it from anything else. It's only if the world is ordinary and then there's certain things out of the ordinary that we can call a miracle."

But if a God has set this up, why couldn't this God choose to override the normal laws of nature that says when somebody dies they stay dead? So it seems to me the question is not, what does science naturally observe? But is there a God? Because if there is a God, then it seems miracles are possible. That's the heart of the question. You see, his objection was not on the level of the facts. He didn't say, "Jesus didn't really die. The tomb wasn't really open." Before we even looked at the evidence for the historical Jesus or the truth of Christianity, his presuppositions ruled out the conclusion at the advance because in his mind miracles aren't possible. An interesting example that might help to explain this better is, a few years ago, I was with my family up at Hume Lake and we got to go visit this stump of a tree that's called the General Noble Tree.

Now, this is up in Sequoia National Park towards the middle northern part of California. What's amazing about this tree is it's 3,200 years old. That roughly traces back to the time of King David. Now, this is believed by some to have been the largest tree possibly that has ever existed. Now, just let that sink in. Redwoods are taller than sequoias, but sequoias have bigger mass. Interestingly enough, the size of a pine cone for a Sequoia tree is about this big, and the seed is about the size of an oat from oatmeal. I keep one on my desk to remind me that small things can have great power. You can have a big impact, and it reminds me daily to do that when I see it. Well, what's interesting about this tree is, when some explorers first came over to California and went back and told their friends, they saw trees this big, people would not believe it. They refused to do so.

Well, so some explorers went back and sadly cut down the General Noble Tree, brought it to the 1897 Chicago World Fair, and set it up for people to see. And guess what? Still many people would not believe it. Think about that. They had the testimony of people, they had empirical evidence, but they still refuse to believe it. In fact, to this day, it's actually called the Great California Hoax. Now, there's other things I would maybe like to dub the Great California Hoax, but I digress. You search it, you can read up on this, and it's fascinating. You see, here's what happens. We have a certain way of seeing the world, and if we're presented with evidence that is contrary to how we think the world works, we have one of two options. Dismiss the evidence and maintain the worldview or change and shift our worldview to accommodate the evidence.

That's exactly what is happening today when many people look at the evidence for Jesus and the evidence for the scriptures. You can shift your worldview or you can dismiss the evidence, and the biggest worldview barrier to believing in the resurrection is that it's supernatural and that it requires a miracle. Here's how I pushed back on these students at Berkeley. I said, "Look, if God possibly exists, then miracles are possible." Notice the wording here is very careful. If God possibly exists, then miracles are possible. I'm not even saying miracles are actual, yet. I'm simply saying, if we're beginning an investigation into the possibility that an account could be miraculous, we don't have to prove that God is real. All we have to show is that it's possible that God exists, because if it's possible that God exists, then this is possibly a miracle.

So what does that mean for the skeptic? To begin an investigation where you rule out the possibility of a miracle from the beginning, what do you have to show? You have to show that the existence of God is impossible. The burden of proof is on the skeptic to show that God either doesn't or can't possibly exist. Now, how would you do such a thing? Well, maybe you would make the claim that the Trinity is inherently a contradiction. Maybe you'd say that evil disproves the existence of God, and we're going to talk about that. But it's important for us to see the burden of proof. For a miracle to be possible, we don't have to prove that God exists. All we have to do is show it's not impossible, and then the open-minded person would be open to follow the evidence where it leads.

Now, with that said, I think we can go a lot further. Rather than just showing that miracles are possible, I think a very good case can be made that miracles are actual and they take place today. A few years ago, one of the leading New Testament scholars in the world, Craig Keener, wrote a massive two volume study simply called Miracles. Now, why he stopped and did this study is he was writing a multi-volume commentary on Acts, and if you read the Book of Acts, a lot of miracles come up. And he thought, huh, has there been a scholarly assessment of the miraculous? So he spent years studying this and documenting as carefully as he possibly could, what are the reports of miracles? Now, keep in mind what his goal is. If you're in college, you're talking to the skeptic online, the name Hume will very quickly come up. David Hume from the 18th century allegedly gave the death-nail to the possibility of miracles.

He said, "If we hear a report of the miraculous, we can pretty much dismiss this as a barbarous claim that is most likely deception or somebody's lying or they're mistaken. Miracles are not a regular part of the modern world," he argued in the 18th century. All Keener is saying is, "That is way too quick of a dismissal." He says, "There's hundreds of millions of people worldwide who believe they have seen or experienced the miraculous." And so here's what he writes, a few things he says, for example, "Eyewitnesses report Gospel type miracles today." Now, what do we mean by gospel type miracles? Radical healings, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and, yes, the dead coming back to life. We have those reports. Another example, "Some miracles," he said, "are better attested than others." I think that's fair. Some have multiple counts. Some are one. So that's a very fair assessment than he gives.

Third, "We have greater confidence in miracle claims than we do many other claims we simply accept, history, psychology, economics. If we just would be consistent, we would accept the miraculous." Fourth, "Sometimes miracles do not occur." His wife was pregnant multiple times and they had over and over again pain painful miscarriages. So ironically, the man who's done some of the most to advance miracles today says, "In my own life many times God did not do a miracle." So to say God does miracles doesn't mean God always answers our prayers in the way we want God to answer our prayers. That doesn't follow. Fifth, "Miracles are reported in different countries and from a variety of denominations." So he studies China, he studies the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, America, Protestant denominations, Orthodox denominations, Catholic denominations, Pentecostal, non-Pentecostal, Baptist, on and on and on.

So the range of diversity of people reporting miracles, he says, is really great. Here's a quote. He says, "Today, the testimonial evidence for miracles is overwhelming." By the way, whenever you hear a scholar use the word overwhelming, that should get your attention. Editing scholars are supposed to understate things. For him to use overwhelming was very calculated. "The testimony of evidence for miracles is overwhelming compared with what was available to Hume in his day. Had he lived in our day, an argument based on the non-experience of miracles would have proved much more difficult and much less persuasive to his contemporaries," and I think he's right. And then Keener says, "Hundreds of millions of persons alive today claim that they have witnessed or experienced miraculous healings." Hundreds of millions. For example, one of the most commonly cited reasons why somebody in China would become a Christian, and there are tens of millions if not more in China, is a miracle.

One might disagree with all of these claims, but one cannot simply arbitrarily exclude all the claimants from the modern world. From a macro perspective, the testimony to miracles today is remarkable. You can look at a couple of cases, and you're welcome to pull and look this up. This is just from a blog. I took two recent peer-reviewed cases of miracles and just documented them. You can read these online and assess them yourself. This is a story, and this is in a peer-reviewed journal, of a 23-year-old male with gastroparesis, a very severe stomach issue he developed as a very young child. Dependent on a feeding tube. He was at a prayer service and a man who told a story of having just been hit by a huge car, his insides coming out, praying and being healed, said, "Can I pray for you?" That night he was prayed for and ate his first meal without a tube and was totally healed within days.

Now, one response is that this is mind over matter. Well, placebos can maybe get you rid of a headache but not reconstruct your stomach. Another example, again, you can read this and assess it, is a case of a woman who was legally blind and after prayer she had her sight restored. She lost her sight in 1959, but in 1972, her husband started praying for her. He was not charismatic, did not speak in tongues, and had not heard of any modern answer to prayers. After the prayer, she opened her eyes and saw her husband for the first time after 13 years of blindness. Can you imagine that? Her sight improved dramatically and has remained intact since this article was written, which at that time was 47 years later. Some say, "Well, maybe she was so moved by the prayer and it was psychosomatic." Well, the article documents evidence of macular disease that was restored.

These are just two cases. Keener has a more recent book. JP Morlan has a book on this. More and more cases are coming out about the miraculous that certainly sum up for us in some ways where we have been. If you look at the larger case for theism, not yet Christianity, you might say the origin of the universe points towards a cause outside of the universe. You might say the fine-tuning of the universe points towards a fine tuner. The origin of life and the information points towards an author of life. Moral values and duties point towards a moral law-giver. Free will points towards the reality of the soul and an immaterial realm. Human value points towards a transcendent source and a value giver. Beauty points towards a divine artist. Even trusting our senses, like Darwin said, "Evolution undermines the trusting of our senses, but we trust our senses," points towards some kind of design.

Near death experiences we're going to look at next, and then specifically the evidence for Jesus. Can you see how the case for Christianity is cumulative? I'm a Christian because I think it answers the big questions of life better than any other worldview does. Any specific questions about modern a miracles before we move next to near-death experiences? Yeah, go ahead.

What is the definition of miracles?

There's a lot of debate about how exactly to define a miracle, but here's a couple of things that are at play. It's something that is going to deeply resist a natural explanation. Oftentimes, when people look at something supernatural, they'll try to first rule out, could it be coincidence? Could it be psychosomatic? So it points towards a supernatural cause, but it's also the timing that sets a miracle apart. So when the Red Sea was split, it wasn't just randomly split. It's at the moment that Israel, the Hebrews get there, need to cross it. At that point, the wind comes? So it's not only this separation of the waters that points towards some supernatural cause, but it's the very timing itself. Hume defined a miracle as "a violation of the laws of nature." I don't like that definition because it calls a miracle a violation. I think it's more of an overriding or a superseding of the normal progression of nature which God has set into motion. It's a great question. Any other questions about miracles?

When they talk about miracles, is there a verification process? Is it verified through one source, two sources, three sources? What's an acceptable verification?

So what's an acceptable verification process for miracles? Now, one thing I would say is interesting is, I'm not Catholic, but if you look at the Catholic criteria for determining something is a miracle, it's a very careful, methodical process of doing so. Sometimes from the outside, when people look at different Christian positions, will just say, "Oh, you're so gullible and willing to accept anything." Well, that's not true with the Catholic Church and that's not true for Keener. He's a scholar. Now, sometimes he says, "I got this from one source." He'll concede that as he does so, but many other times he'll write, he'll say, "There's multiple sources of this." He even documents a couple of kinds of video testimony potentially for it. So I would say there are some Christians certainly gullible and willing to accept things as a miracle, but in the case of Keener and his study, he's a very careful scholar. Those two peer-reviewed journal articles are very careful in how they write it.