Are Miracles Improbable? Rethinking What Makes Something “Likely” to Happen

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

September 24, 2019

Our world’s skepticism over miracles is nothing new.  Ever since David Hume, philosophers and scholars have been making the case against the possibility of miracles.

But, now things have shifted. Hume has been roundly (and decisively) rebutted and philosophers now realize that one cannot prove miracles are impossible.  But, not to worry, now there’s a new argument.  Now the argument is that miracles are simply improbable.

So improbable, in fact, that we should never prefer a miraculous explanation over a naturalistic one. Given how unlikely miracles are, it is always more likely that a miracle did not occur. Thus, it is argued, historians would have no reason to ever affirm that a miracle actually took place.

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, has made exactly this argument. Give the improbability of the resurrection, he insists that we must always choose another explanation: “Any other scenario [besides a miracle]—no matter how unlikely—is more likely than the one in which a great miracle occurred, since the miracle defies all probability (or else we wouldn’t call it a miracle)” (How Jesus Became God, 173).

Now, this sort of argument sounds persuasive at first glance. But, it runs into some serious problems. For one, the probability of any event cannot be determined only by considering the event itself. The probability of that event depends on the broader context that surrounds that event.

For example, imagine I was headed to a track meet and wanted to know the probability of seeing someone break a 4-minute mile. I might think the chances of that are quite remote. But, there’s no way to answer that question without considering the larger context. If the track meet was just for local high school teams, then yes, the odds would be very, very low.

But, what if the track meet was for the Olympic trials? Then the odds would not be low at all.  Indeed, given that context, it is quite likely I would see someone break a 4-minute mile.

The same is true when we consider the probability of a miraculous event. If a person believed God did not exist (or at least did not intervene in the world), then they would view the probability of a miracle as very, very low. And they’d be right. In a Godless universe, we would have to assume that Jesus of Nazareth died and rose from the dead naturally. The odds of that would be astronomically small, especially after three days.

But, what if the broader context included the existence of the Christian God—a God that has, and continues to, intervene in the world?  Then, a miracle would not be an unlikely occurrence at all. Indeed, Craig Keener even goes as far to say that, on a theistic worldview, “miracles might even be expected” (Miracles, 139).

Here’s the big point: the probability of a miraculous event is contingent on a person’s overall worldview and the assumptions they make about reality. And this puts the skeptic in a rather difficult place. In order to claim that a miracle is improbable, he would first have to show that the Christian God does not exist. And if he cannot do that (and he cannot), then he has no basis to claim that miracles are improbable.

But, there’s a second (and even bigger) problem with this probability argument against miracles. Even if an event is highly improbable, sometimes it is still reasonable to believe that an event has occurred if there’s good evidence for doing so.

As an example, imagine a scenario where you are playing poker with friends.  After the cards are dealt, your friend proclaims, “I have a royal flush!” Admittedly, you might be skeptical. After all, the odds of being dealt a royal flush (without drawing additional cards) is about 1 in 650,000. Indeed, it is so unlikely, that it would not be unreasonable for you to explore other possible explanations: the dealer stacked the deck in his favor, he misread the cards, he’s lying, he cheated, etc.

But a little investigative work would quickly rule out these other options. You could take a look at the cards yourself (ruling out that your friend misread them or lied). And you could consider whether your friend was a reliable witness—ruling out that he cheated.  And this would lead you, in the end, to conclude that the event indeed had occurred, even if it is extremely rare.

Imagine how absurd it would be if you said to your friend, “Well, I still don’t believe you got a royal flush. After all, we must always reject highly improbable explanations in favor of more probable explanations. So I conclude that you must have cheated.” No! The mere improbability of an event is not enough, in and of itself, to reject its occurrence.  We have to consider other factors such as the empirical evidence, reliability of eyewitnesses, etc.

In the end, it all comes down to one’s worldview.  If one is not closed off to the possibility of the miraculous, they are willing to consider the evidence. Either way, there is no reason why we should feel compelled to always pick a non-miraculous explanation. With credible eyewitnesses and solid evidence, we should be quite willing to think that a miracle might just have occurred.

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