Miracles, maths and mystery…

Posted by on Sep 15, 2015 in Blog | 2 comments

I can still remember the sneer from one of the panelists at an evangelistic atheist site. Desperate to convert others to her newly found atheism she declared: ‘Christians are really, really bad at maths. When doctors say your cancer is incurable, what they mean is that there is only a 1 in a 1000 chance that it won’t prove terminal. When it doesn’t, religious nutters happily proclaim, “a miracle”. No it’s not. It is the 1 in a 1000 cases which comes around, on average, once every thousand cases. Low odds come off in the ratio they are meant to. It’s not a miracle.’

And is that simply that? Miracles nothing more than the one in a thousand, ten thousand or millionth case. After all, while I have never won lotto, someone does – perhaps, unlike me, they took the trouble to buy a ticket. But the odds were still against them, yet miraculously they come off. No, not miraculous – someone has to win.

The question of miracles is tackled by Craig S Keener in his monumental 2 volume work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. His particular aim is to demonstrate the credibility of the miracles recorded in the New Testament, and he does an outstanding job of it. An interesting point he makes is that there are at least 200 million people alive today who claim that a miracle has happened to them. The majority live in the developing world… I can hear the panelist sneer again, ‘Yeah right. Super credible.’ But as Keener points out, if you say miracles cannot happen it is a little confronting to find that you have 200 million seriously unusual events to explain away. Is it all dogey maths, superstition and faulty memory? Or is it that when people don’t assume that miracles can’t happen, they are more likely to occur? A case of belief opening the door to seeing.

You might remember the Chesterton witticism. ‘When I pray, co incidences happen. When I don’t, they don’t.’ What are we to make of it? Is it simply heightened awareness – my prayers making me aware of something I might otherwise have missed? Or is it that something actually happens.

Philosopher Alvin Platinga points out that some things in life are truely basic – we need no explanation or proof for them because we know that our life works when we operate from them, and that it doesn’t when we don’t. Our experience makes the need for another layer of explanation redundant. Those outside of the experience may require more, but insiders don’t.

A crisis of belief occurs when that which we have assumed to be truly basic no longer works. And you might well know someone who has had an experience like that, when something so momentous happened that they had to rethink everything.

What is remarkable about the Christian faith is not that from time to time people have a crisis of faith, but that so many hold on to it to the end. It keeps on working for them. Actually, it often holds up most strongly at times you would think it would fall away, like in the midst of tragedy and disaster. Is it just their wishful thinking that has caused literally millions to say, ‘In my darkest hour, that was when I sensed that God was closest to me’?

A true case, and no, I can’t prove it was true, but I was there at the time… so I know it is true, even if that does not convince you.

She was a member of the church where I was pastor, and had just been given the dreaded news. Yes, the lump was a tumor; yes it was malignant; no they could not operate, it was too close to a key artery. She asked the elders of the church to come and pray, and we did. I remember the sweeping sense of sadness I felt that night. She was about 40 – her children not grown. I looked at her anxious husband and thought about the deep sadness they were to face. Though she was being offered chemo and radiation therapy she had been warned that the chances of success were very small. I sensed the many tears that were to be shed in that house.

Except – except that when she went back to the specialist a few days later to sort out her treatment plan she was told, ‘Strange. Very strange. The tumor has gone. Never seen that happen before. Better monitor it. Something odd going on, but for now, you are off the hook.’ And she has been off it ever since.

I can hear the panelist say, ‘very nice, but please don’t use the M word. That was no miracle. Unlikely odds came off for her. Call it luck if you like, but a miracle, well hardly.’

‘And what about the prayer before?’ I might object..

‘What about it?’ she asks. ‘Pretty normal to pray in a crisis, but it really doesn’t change the odds.’

So that’s that. No miracles, just statistics.

Hmmm…Perhaps, but it sounds pretty reductionist to me. No other possibility to be entertained here. No nuance even considered. Mystery and miracles quickly dismissed as impossible. Why? Well, because we have proclaimed that miracles can’t happen. If they appear to have, we’ve misread the information. It all comes back to the statistics. And no, that is not being close minded, just objective, regardless of the odds.

Her family don’t see it like that. Actually her husband didn’t believe before this happened, and now he does. And she would say that she knows, like she knows, like she knows that God healed her. And her doctor still calls her his miracle patient, though he might just mean that she won a different kind of lottery.

So that’s story one. According to Keener, there are at least 199 999 999 more to be told. But hey, clearly none of them can be true. No matter what you hear, block your ears. The M word is not to be spoken.

Or how about this thought. Most people believe because belief works for them. And the research is pretty conclusive, and has been duplicated over and over again. People of faith are more Iikely to have successful marriages, have lower rates of depression and live a little longer. And when those things don’t go to plan, they usually cope better. Given that we are talking statistics, odds are that things go a little worse when faith is abandoned.

Why abandon what is working? Some things in life are truly basic, and can appropriately be believed. Of course, if your atheism isn’t working for you, it might be time to face your crisis of faith.

Nice chatting…


  1. Thank you Brian for this.

    It amazes me how sceptical folks are when you tell them of miracles one has personally witnessed or been involved in. It’s almost ‘oh well let’s pass on that one’!
    Blessings to you and the family

    • It is puzzling. And when you add up how many people claim something truly extraordinary, you realise that people who automatically dismiss the possibility of the miraculous just don’t want to allow anything that pushes them out of their comfort zone.

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