Miracles and Coincidences
In the introduction to his book, “Mere Christianity,” C. S. Lewis discusses some concerns that he has with how some words in the English language end up becoming more or less useless. He uses the word “gentleman” as an example. He explains that this word used to convey information about a person (that he was a land-owner or of noble birth) but it became simply a word used to describe how an individual esteems a particular person in a more subjective way.
To me, the word “miracle” is becoming similar. The meaning of the word “miracle” was originally intended to describe an event that could not have any “natural” explanation. In fact, for the purposes of ensuring that we’re on the same page here, let’s define miracles.
Miracles, as I am referring to them here, are “the production of events which are beyond the causal powers of the natural entities existing at the relevant time and place.” This is the definition cited often by Dr. William Lane Craig and I prefer this to any definition that touts a miracle as a “violation” of natural laws.
Using this definition, we should be able to see how the word “miracle” is very abused these days. For example, if you got a front parking spot at the mall during the Christmas rush…that’s not a miracle! The Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl was not a miracle! And so on and so forth.
If we continue to attribute these things as miracles, we move toward rendering the word “miracle” completely useless. The more we use this term in such common vernacular, the more we begin changing its meaning to be a description of nothing more than an event or occurrence of something which a particular individual subjectively believes to have been improbable.
Note the difference in those two concepts of miracle. In the one case, there is no natural way that any natural, causal entities could have brought about an event at that time and in that place. In the latter definition, one person believes an event to be unlikely. It does not matter whether or not that person knows much about the event. In fact, if one person has a great deal of experience with a given event and another doesn’t, the one person will cite it as a natural course of events and the latter will attribute it to a miracle.
For example, in the case of the Arizona Cardinals…when they won the conference and were going to the Super Bowl, it was all over the news. “It’s a Miracle!” Well, actually, what it is is that they practiced hard, had a very good plan and some very effective plays which they executed well and scored more points than they allowed to be scored agains them. There is a perfectly natural explanation for why they went to the Super Bowl.
Now, on the flip side…What about where there really IS a miracle?
An example of that might be a cancer patient with a malignant tumor that has been aggressively growing and then suddenly is completely gone. This type of thing has reportedly happened before. There is no medical explanation for it. There were no entities active at the time and place which would account for such a thing.
In this case, what would the skeptic say? Probably something like, “Well, maybe the doctors were just wrong.” True. Maybe they were. But then again, maybe they weren’t. The failing on the side of the believer is to dogmatically shun the former possibility and embrace the latter. The failing of the skeptic would be to do precisely the opposite.
In either case, all the possibilities are not being considered. However, as is more often pointed out by skeptics and critics (another loss for the Christian side), it doesn’t always come down to just possibilities. It more often comes down to probabilities.
So, in our above example, both ideas are possible. The doctors could have been wrong. Yet, it could have been a miracle. But these options are not 50-50. If multiple doctors who specialize in this sort of thing determine that the patient is terminal and they suddenly and inexplicably recover with zero evidence of any remaining tumor, I’d say that the odds are not in favor of this just being a mistake.
All that to basically say, let’s be careful about attributing things as being “miraculous.” It drains away the power and the idea of what a miracle really is and renders it a simple, mundane, subjective improbability. That’s not a very flattering concept for God, given that, to Christians, He is the only one capable of pulling off an actual miracle.
Grace, love and peace.