Me: “Are you okay?”
Coworker: “Actually, I’m not feeling so great today. Thanks for asking.”
Me: “You should go home. It’s not nice to bring your illness to work.”
Coworker: “I’m not sick. It’s my allergies.”
Me: “I don’t believe in allergies. Allergies are something people make up so that no one will complain when they come to work sick.”
Coworker: “How can you not believe in allergies? So many people have them!”
Me: “I’ve never experienced allergies. Therefore, they must not be true.”
Coworker: “But my nose is running and I’m sneezing all day!”
Me: “You mean exactly as if you were sick? Because you’re sick.”
Coworker: “But it happens the same time every year!”
Me: “Most people get the flu the same time every year. Go home. Don’t share your germs.”
Coworker: “But so many people have allergies!”
Me: “You mean so many people get sick so often.”
Coworker: “My doctor diagnosed my allergies!”
Coworker: “I told him my symptoms, and he said that’s allergies.”
Me: “That’s not a very scientific test.”
Coworker: “I’m glad I know you well enough to know you are just being belligerent. Otherwise, I would be very upset. You can be very convincing, even when you know you are wrong.”
There’s a difference between evidence and proof. Both can be used to build a case. Both are important in understanding what’s really going on in the world. Both use simple ideas to build more complex thoughts. In all these ways and more, they are very similar. They are different, though. A proof uses agreed presuppositions to establish something which must be true. Evidence builds the case that a certain detail or event is likely to be true. A good way to know the difference is that if it’s a proof, and then later it is established that what you prove is false, then that means one of your presuppositions is false. If it’s evidence, then your presuppositions can remain true, you’ve just added more evidence that took the probabilities in another direction.
Whenever we talk about history, we are always dealing with evidence, not proof. That said, people do tend to throw those two words around as though they’re synonyms, or as though proof is just really convincing evidence. I’m not here to correct that trend. In other articles, I may even make that kind of hyperbolic analogy myself. It’s harmless most of the time, and usually those of us who think deeply know what is intended whenever the words are used indiscriminately. Here, though, it’s important that I draw that distinction because I’ve already talked about the most convincing proof of God, but now I’m going to talk about the most convincing evidence of God. They’re different, and I’m treating them differently. In my proof, I presume that there is good, that good comes from judgment, and that good is both absolute and relative because it comes from personal judgment. I talk about what kind of God that implies. If one could somehow demonstrate that this God doesn’t exist, it would mean that one or more of my presumptions is wrong.
I also offer some evidence for my presuppositions there. I talk about how wolves and ants obey the same sort of sense of right and wrong, but with less thought and therefore less perfectly than the best of us humans. They draw the benefits of following right and wrong as far as they do, therefore right and wrong, prosocial and antisocial, love and hate, all are real independent of our belief about them.
There are other reasons to believe in God, though. There is evidence of God in history and present understanding. Some people actually find the evidence more convincing than the proof. You see, we don’t believe in the God of Love only, we also believe he’s a God of Miracles. Really, there’s a reason to hope he’s a God of Miracles: if he’s not, then we’re basically guessing at what he wants. Right and wrong become utilitarian: when we do good, coordinate our society, and act with love, it increases the chance that good will happen. Doing good becomes like getting a flu vaccine. Even someone who has been vaccinated can still get the flu, but it’s less likely than someone who hasn’t been vaccinated. As the percentage of people in the population who have been vaccinated goes up, the chances of an epidemic ravaging the population goes down, and the chances of even those who have an ineffective vaccine are protected by the herd immunity. In the same way, as there is more good going on, it doesn’t completely eliminate the possibility of something bad happening to you. It only reduces the chances drastically, and those who do fall victim to natural misfortunes are protected by a righteous and loving society. This is the goal of utilitarianism in a nutshell. It’s why utilitarianism seems to work so well. Where utilitarianism fails is when it treats right and wrong as a mechanical process and not a product of personal choice and determination guided by the God of Love. Since I believe the God of Love determines what is truly right and wrong, there is a value in getting messages from this God that can be verified. This is why we hope that the God of Love is also the God of Miracles.
There is a problem with the God of Miracles, though. It’s subtle, but it’s real. You see, the God of Love is something that we can demonstrate philosophically, but there’s no philosophical reason proving that this God will communicate with us through miracles. There’s reason to hope he will. There’s reason to suspect he will. There’s even reason to trust that this God has spoken and will speak to us through miracles. But you can’t prove he has or will speak through miracles. What’s more, there’s no proof of exactly what miracles he will choose to work through, or who he will provide these miracles to. This means that anything we can’t otherwise explain could either be a miracle, or could just be something we haven’t yet learned how to explain. The God of Miracles and the God of the Gaps can have a lot of overlap.
The God of the Gaps has never been compelling to me. The gaps keep getting smaller, and God keeps breaking out of them. The idea that “anything we can’t explain means God did it” has let many people down. Eventually the things they thought were attributed to God or the gods turned out to be completely ordinary natural phenomena. This problem is made worse by the false belief that a miracle can only be a miracle if there’s no natural explanation. Most of the most important miracles in my life are not notable for their explanation or lack thereof, but their timing. It’s not that God did something that couldn’t be explained, but that he did a perfectly natural thing right after I asked for it or just when I really needed it.
Maybe a real life example could be helpful. In the spring of 2011, I decided to take my son to a playground. When I stepped out onto my front porch, there was a six foot wooden garden stake. This was strange. I hadn’t been doing any gardening. My wife hadn’t been doing any gardening. I picked up the stake, confused, when out of the blue a large English boxer jumped into my front yard and started growling at me and my son. I raised the stake and caused the dog to back off long enough to get back into the house safely with my son and call animal control. Then I went back into my front yard and kept an eye on the dog until animal control arrived. The dog was very aggressive and lunged at me and attacked the animal control officers when they arrived.
Now, I don’t know exactly how that garden stake ended up in my front porch, but I have a theory. I think someone was walking by, using the garden stake as a walking stick. They were tired, and rested a moment at my porch. When they continued their walk, they forgot the stake. I could be wrong, but this theory fits all the available data. Granted, there’s not much data to contradict, but among the available solutions, it seems to be the most likely. The miracle isn’t that God caused a stick to materialize on my porch in a flash of light, descending from heaven in a beam of light as slowly as a feather. It’s that when I needed a stick, that was the very day that a stick appeared. I don’t need to know the name of the one that left the stick to see that, somehow, God guided them to bring the stick to me. They probably got home and wondered what happened to their walking stick. To further this theory, I put the stake back in the front yard once the situation was resolved, and some time over the next few days it disappeared. I think the original owner traced their steps and found their walking stick and took it home.
This is not the only example in my life of this sort of miracle. It’s the one that makes the best version of the point I’m trying to make. I’ve also had several of the type of miracle that defies natural explanation. I still remember when we finally got the diagnosis for my son’s genetic condition. He was five. The geneticist and his aid were there to give us the prognosis. Probably never learn to eat, speak, or walk. My son toddled over to the toys, taking a handful of yogurt bites, and started to play. We asked the aid if she was sure she had the right information. “This is based on his genetic array.”
My son raised his hands and shouted, “Hooray!” because he misheard the word “array.” My son’s abilities continue to evade explanation: while at thirteen he has drastically limited cognitive and physical abilities, his abilities are far and away beyond what his genetic tests indicate. He’s a miracle child, even though you have to understand the whole situation to understand the miracle. We found out that my daughter was on the way after I had my vasectomy. I had my vasectomy as a result of being told that my chances of having a child with healthy genetics were relatively slim. Annie defies the odds and shows no signs of chromosomal abnormalities. She is my second miracle child.
When I first started thinking about translating the Bible, I was digging into the details of textual criticism, and in desperation I prayed to God for guidance. The next week at my favorite bookstore, I found George Howard’s book, but it was on the wrong shelf in the wrong section. God has been very active in my life as I’ve pursued the deepest understanding of his word.
Even in the Bible, not every miracle is a big budget production. Joseph interprets dreams. (Genesis 40-41) Gideon put down a fleece. (Judges 6:36-40) Samson is strong. (Judges 14-16) God was seen in the still, small voice, not the fire and the earthquake. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
One of my favorite historical figures, Joan of Arc, was led to her sword by means of miraculous visions. Her voices told her that a sword was buried behind the altar at Saint Catherine’s Church of Fierbois. She sent instructions to the church, and when they looked they found it. It was rusty, but the rust was easily removed and became a beautiful sword when presented to her.
I also want to be clear that the big budget, burning bush, fire from heaven, voice in the night, etc sort of miracle is totally something I believe in. When my first son was born, he was in the NICU for a few weeks. My wife and I would sleep at home and then spend all day in the NICU with him. One morning, I woke up from an intense dream about Carson getting something pulled out of his mouth and a small celebration of the fact he was breathing. It was strange. My wife woke up crying. She had a dream that Carson was choking. I comforted her, and told her I got the other half of the message and he was fine. I sent her to get a shower while I called the NICU. The nurse answered, and I said, “How is Carson doing?”
“He’s fine. We’ve got him,” she said.
“Okay, ten minutes ago he was choking. What happened? And how is he doing?”
She paused. “How did you know that?”
“I’m his father. Now what happened? And how is he now?”
“But how did you know about that?”
“I told you, I’m his father.”
She took a breath, and then gave me the whole story. A breathing hose had come loose while he was feeding, but they were able to reattach it within moments.
“Thank you. I would appreciate being kept in the loop on these things going forward,” I said.
I’ve had a dozen or so such dreams in my life. Enough to recognize them when they happen. Enough to hope they don’t happen any more often than necessary.
This is where the accusation of being unscientific often rears its ugly head. Science, the claim goes, is about what’s provable and repeatable. This isn’t really the case, though. Think about all those dinosaur books that we all read as children. At one time, they thought that apatosaurus (identified as brontosaurus at the time) was a slow moving, solitary, swamp dwelling, semi-amphibious giant lizard with green scaly skin eating mostly moss. Now they think that apatosaurus was an agile, desert dwelling heard animal closer related to birds than lizards with brown or grey, lumpy skin and structures somewhere between a quill and a feather on its head. The reason for these changes in ideas are accumulation of evidence. Not proof: evidence. We haven’t proven anything about apatosaurus. We have made many statements about our findings related to apatosaurus fossils, but we don’t really have any way to test any of them. Even if we were to clone them Jurassic Park style, it still wouldn’t prove what environment they were in originally, especially if the clones lived well in several environments.
Then consider the so-called “Oh My God” particle. We have only rarely seen the same thing happen in decades, and there remains no good explanation where they come from when they do happen. We can’t make particles with that much energy. It’s not repeatable. We don’t know what caused it. It defies our expectations of particle physics in some ways. Yet we still believe it happened.
Miracles, when they happen, are the actions of God. He’s in charge of deciding which miracles he will and won’t answer. God doesn’t owe us anything. Anyone who is a parent and has tried to get their toddler to demonstrate a newly acquired ability or say a word they just learned knows this frustration.
Some people have even lost faith when their prayers weren’t answered the way or time that they wanted. I don’t understand this. If God answered every prayer, then God wouldn’t really be all that powerful. We would be the all-powerful ones. Then we wouldn’t call him our God, we would call him our slave. People then try to moderate this, saying, “Then why can’t he just answer all good prayers?” or something similar, but that’s just the same problem. We still wouldn’t call him God, then. We would still call him our slave. We would just call him our good slave.
I do understand being disappointed when your prayers aren’t answered the way you want. It’s the same kind if disappointment I feel when I flip a light switch and it turns out the light bulb is burned out. The intensity is different, but it’s the same sense of disappointment. I don’t stop believing in electricity just because the light stops working, though. I recognize the evidence for electricity that has been around for decades, and then start checking to see what’s wrong. In the same way, I don’t expect the thought that some prayers must go unanswered in order for God to truly be God to be comforting to those in desperate situations. No one ever said the truth would always be comforting.
When miracles happen, they are when God is most in control. It’s almost by definition not going to be because we are making demands of God or deals with God. I don’t dare limit God by saying he can’t work when we start making demands and deals, but when he does it’s because he decided to, not because our demands or deals were especially convincing.
There are some high profile miracles. There are books written that record and document miracles. (Miracles, Tim Stafford; The Case for Miracles, Lee Strobel; A Book of Miracles, Dr. Bernie Siegel; Miracles We Have Seen, Dr Harley Rotbard) Atheists are quick to dismiss these miracles as being God of the Gaps explanations. They have already decided that miracles don’t happen, so these can’t be miracles. That’s not a very scientific view of the situation. The Oh My God Particle only happened once. For decades Spinosaurus was known from only one specimen. Masiakasaurus had only incomplete specimens for years. When someone is determined that there are no miracles, the anti-God of the gaps is all they need. Regardless of what happens, they’ve already decided that it can’t be a miracle. If it only happens once, they decided it didn’t happen. (Unless it’s “science.”) As a saying attributed to Thomas Aquinas goes, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
I will admit that some people go overboard the other way. There are miracle hypochondriacs, calling every moment in their life a miracle, praising God for finding a lost pencil or making it to the gas station with a half a tank of gas. I think that for the sake of their own souls, they’re doing themselves a great service. For those of us trying to play apologetics, though, it can make things difficult. Like psychologists through the twentieth century that were eager to accept any data they could squeeze into their theories ultimately brought every conclusion of the science to question, these miracle hypochondriacs make it hard for us apologetic sorts, because when I try to talk about miracles, my interroculator has in mind finding a really good parking spot, where I’m thinking of curing a back deformity caused by typhus. A skeptic is perfectly happy to stand on a stage and declare that every miracle they have investigated has a perfectly natural explanation, because they found a cooling vent or tubes or whatever explains the situation. An honest examination that seeks to explain miracles needs to explain these one time events as well as the prestigious miracles. There’s enough of these that they can’t all by psychosomatic.
For my part, my faith in the anti-God of the gaps is not all that strong. With all the miracles reported and recorded, trusting in the anti-God of those gaps, trusting that there’s always an explanation that doesn’t rely on the supernatural, takes every bit as much faith as belief in God.