Is the argument from miracles hopelessly fallacious? Stephen Woodford, AKA ‘Rationality Rules,’ believes so. In his popular YouTube video ‘The Argument From Miracles-Debunked’ Woodford says the argument from miracles commits four major fallacies.
In my last post, I looked at Woodford’s first two objections saw that they didn’t really hold up under scrutiny. I’d recommend giving it a read before continuing in this post. Go ahead; I’ll be right here when you get back.
Alright, now let’s turn to his final two objections and see if they do any better. Oh, and if you want to watch Rationality Rules’ video in full, here you go:
GOD OF THE GAPS?
Here’s Stephen’s 3rd objection:
“a third fallacy that ravishes miraculous assertions – this question is, “how exactly can we distinguish a miracle from an unlikely natural occurrence that we are yet to comprehend?” It’s a very simple question, but it’s a brilliant one (if I do say so myself) – because it forces the proponent to bare their Burden of Proof rather than allowing them to shift it to you by appealing to ignorance. or they simply appeal to ignorance – then guess what – their assertion is unsubstantiated, and therefore their argument is too – meaning that it’s game over; no ifs, no buts, it’s over.”
What Stephen is saying here is the argument from miracles commits the God of the gaps fallacy. The popular atheist website Rational Wiki says the God of the gaps fallacy: “is a logical fallacy that occurs when believers invoke ‘Goddidit’ to account for some natural phenomena that science cannot (at the time of the argument) explain. This concept resembles what systems theorists refer to as an “explanatory principle.” “God of the gaps” is a bad argument not only on logical grounds but on empirical grounds: there is a long history of “gaps” being filled and the remaining gaps for God thus getting smaller and smaller, suggesting “we don’t know yet” as an alternative that works better in practice; naturalistic explanations for still-mysterious phenomena always remain possible, especially in the future where research may uncover more information.”
There’s a problem with this line of argument, however. As I argued in my previous post, the resurrection of Jesus would strongly imply theism and critics would agree. This is exactly why they attack the evidence. For example, they’ll argue against the historicity of the empty tomb or claim that the disciples’ experienced hallucinations to explain the data.
Since most skeptics clearly get the implications for Jesus’ resurrection, it seems crazy for Woodford to agree with Christians that Jesus was resurrected, but then to say that someday science will have a natural explanation for such an event.
As Christian thinker Michael Jones notes, this kind of reasoning commits the “future humans of the gaps” fallacy. A future human of the gaps argument would say “I don’t know the answer to the evidence we have, but I know that intelligent people in the future will have an answer and that it will confirm my atheistic worldview.” This is just blind faith and question-begging to the extreme.
Furthermore, the argument from miracles isn’t just about plugging God into gaps in our understanding. It just depends on the evidence that we have.
For example, if I were to come home and my back door was kicked in, my house was trashed, and my TV and computer was missing, I’d call the cops. If the police came, assessed the evidence and then accused me of committing a “burglar of the gaps” argument, I wouldn’t accept that. No sane person would.
Some things are clearly caused by agents, and not impersonal, natural causes. If Jesus’ resurrection happened, that would count as one such event. This is why we have to look at the evidence we have and see what best explains the data. We can’t just shrug and say, “we don’t know, but future humans will figure out that it happened naturalistically.”
Are Miracle Stories Just Based On Personal Anecdotes and Appeals to Emotion?
In the last part of the video, Stephen refers to fake faith healers. He claims that these miracles are just based on personal anecdotes and emotional experiences, and hence reasons that all miracle claims are like these examples.
These objections certainly could explain some so-called faith healings. That said, I’d recommend Woodford check out Dr. Craig Keener’s two-volume work on miracles and see if he still thinks all prayer-healing testimonies are fake.
But let’s set that aside for now. If we don’t rule out miracles from the start, we could see if they pass some minimum, religiously-neutral criteria to see if they could be reasonably accepted:
- Are they reported from far, far away?
- Are they reported a long period of time after the alleged events?
- Do they fit the prejudices of those whom they are reported to?
What happens when we look at the resurrection through this filter?
While there was a messianic expectation during Jesus’ time, no one expected the Messiah to be crucified and resurrected ahead of the general resurrection that was to occur at the end of time. Tom Wright belabors this point in great detail in his magnum opus, The Resurrection of the Son of God.
Not only that, this miracle didn’t pass without inspection. Jesus’ opponents could have produced a body, and yet we read in Matthew and in Justin Martyr that the story given to explain the empty tomb was the disciples’ stole the body. (Matthew 28:12-13, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 108) Moreover, the disciples preached the resurrection in the city where Jesus was killed, in front of a hostile audience, within weeks after his death.
For comparison, if you want to start a faith-healing cult, you’re not going to go to Mecca to do it. You might not make it past baggage claim. But the disciples’ risked their necks to proclaim what they believed they witnessed.
For these reasons Jeff Lowder, one of the founders of infidels.org, says:
“I remember thinking to myself that if I took the time to investigate the resurrection, I could make anyone who believed it look like a fool. Or so I thought… I was about to discard it as ‘another illogical religious belief,’… yet I found it extremely difficult to deal with as a critic.”
So far from debunking the argument from miracles, I think Woodford’s charges of fallaciousness miss the mark. We can’t excuse ourselves from looking at the evidence for miracle claims; they have to be judged on a case by case basis.
Originally published at Cross Examined on August 11, 2019.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.