Many scholars and historians believe that miracles lie outside of the purview of their academic discipline. Bart Ehrman is one such historian who maintains that belief in miracles in history contains “a set of presuppositions that are not generally shared by historians doing their work” and that “the historian has no access to “supernatural forces” but only to the public record, that is, to events that can be observed and interpreted by any reasonable person” (1).
The central contention of Ehrman’s argument is that because historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and the chances of a miracle happening, by definition, are infinitesimally remote, historians can never demonstrate that a miracle probably happened. Here we understand a miracle to be an event in history for which natural explanations are inadequate. The nature of a miracle is such that there could be no natural cause of it. Consider the following syllogism representing Ehrman’s argument (2),
P1. A miracle is by definition the most improbable of events; the probability of a miracle is infinitesimally remote,
P2. A historian can establish only what probably happened in the past,
C. A historian can never establish that a miracle happened.
Importantly, Ehrman is nowhere in this argument positively claiming that miracles never occur. He is rather asserting that they are always incredibly improbable.
According to this argument, because miracles happening is infinitesimally remote and since historians must choose the most probable explanation, the historian is never warranted in selecting a miracle hypothesis. Ehrman is not the only scholar to argue for this perspective. Gregory W. Dawes of the University of Otago stated that according to many we live in a world “in which miracles are (at best) an explanation of last resort’ (3). According to Michael Goulder “even if speculative, a natural explanation is to be preferred” (4).
Supernaturalists will object to Ehrman’s argument likely disputing P1 and questioning why one should consider the miracle hypothesis necessarily the least probable explanation at all times. Ehrman responds that this is because miracles “do not happen all the time” and “defy all probability” (5). Moreover, those who claim to have seen or performed miracles have either lied or were mistaken about what they saw. Therefore, it is more probable that alleged witnesses to miracles documented in historical sources are wrong in their reports of the occurrence of a miracle.
Several points need to be considered here. As noted, it appears presumptuous to claim that miracles are the least likely explanation for all events. It is also circular reasoning: miracles are the least probable explanation because miracles are the least probable explanation. This begs the question.
The supernaturalist will agree that miracles are unlikely and rare. If miracles occurred all the time, then they would not be miracles, which is why miracles must by definition be rare occurrences. But it does not follow from this that miracles cannot ever be a likely explanation for a particular event in history. As supernaturalists argue, a miracle might explain some particular event more strongly than all alternative naturalistic alternatives. The supernaturalist claims that if this can be demonstrated on historical grounds, then he is warranted to accept the miracle hypothesis as the best explanation.
This also raises the question: what if it is the naturalistic explanation that is contrived and improbable when trying to explain a miracle event? Perhaps an explanation appealing to a miracle might have greater explanatory scope, which would be a refutation of P1 in Ehrman’s argument because then at least some miracle explanation might be probable.
There are also worldview considerations that tend to open another entire debate concerning the existence of God. If a personal theistic God exists, then it is certainly possible for miracles to happen, a point even skeptics will concede. Of course, if no such being exists and nature is all that there is, then miracles would be impossible and all alleged miraculous events, whether historical or contemporary, must be mistaken and have some naturalistic explanation. But the skeptic cannot just assume God’s non-existence; as historian Michael Licona contends, “In order to demonstrate that a miracle is improbable, Ehrman would have to provide the necessary background knowledge that God’s existence is improbable or that, if God exists, it is improbable that he would want to act in a particular situation” (6). Consequently, what appears a simple debate on its surface becomes much more complicated.
1. Ehrman, Bart. 2013. Historians and the Problem of Miracle. Available.
2. Licona, Michael., and Jan G. Van der Watt. 2009. Historians and miracles: the principle of analogy and antecedent probability reconsidered. Available.
3. Dawes, Gregory. 1998. “A degree of objectivity: Christian faith and the limits of history.” Stimulus 6(3):32-37. p. 35.
4. Goulder, Michael. 1996. “The baseless fabric of a vision”. In Resurrection Reconsidered, edited by G. D’Costa, 48-61. Oneworld. p. 52.
5. Ehrman, Bart. 2008. The New Testament: A historical introduction to the early Christian writings. Oxford University Press. p. 243.
6. Licona, Michael., and Jan G. Van der Watt. 2009. Ibid.