The Contingency Definition of Miracles

R.F Holland & Paul Tillich 

The Contingency View of Miracles: 

  • An alternate way popular with modern theologians to look at miracles is to refer to a sign pointing to God
  • Miracles are signs from God, & hold religious significance
  • They reveal something about God to people

R F Holland 

  • Holland takes an anti real approach to miracles
  • Holland defines a miracle as:
    “A remarkable & beneficial coincidence that is interpreted in a religious fashion”
  • This is different from the views of Hume, Swinburne etc. as Holland focuses on interpretation
  • If a person interprets a “remarkable and beneficial coincidence” as a miracle, then for them it is one & holds great significance for that person
  • One strength of Holland’s approach is that he distinguishes between beneficial and non beneficial – a criticism of Swinburne or Hume could be that ” a violation of a law of nature” could be a terrible thing, & if this happened what motive would God have for causing it?
  • Holland’s example is that of a child on a railway crossing – in the story a child playing on the tracks gets stuck, & an express train on the tracks is not due to stop & cannot see the child to stop in time. The mother emerges from her house without enough time to save her child, but by chance the train stops just before hitting the boy. The mother thanks God for the miracle which has occurred.
  • Holland points out that the train could have stopped for many different reasons – the driver had fainted & landed on the brake in time to stop the train, there was an electrical fault which caused the train to stop immediately etc.
  • However because the mother interpreted the event in a religious fashion – it is a miracle. 

Criticisms of Holland: 

– All miracles cannot be anti real; as already discussed the survival of Christianity depends on certain miracles having definitely happened, such as Jesus’ resurrection

C S Lewis gave a brilliant counter to anti real miracles, explaining his trilemma. In the Bible, Jesus Christ says many things such as “I am the son of God” or ” I can heal this man” which suggest he is undeniably the son of God & capable of miracles. Either this is objectively true (realism) or it is false. If it’s false, either Jesus was a madman & so not worthy of being followed or the real son of God, or he was a liar – not the son of God but a manipulator who therefore was not the messiah.

– Under Holland, miracles could also simply be a product of people’s minds; delusions as described by Dawkins or Atkins which cannot be trusted

Paul Tillich 

  • According to Tillich a miracle is a sign event – something that is of religious significance & tells us something about God
  • This comes from miracles in the Bible, which are signs from God
  • For example, in Mark 2: 1-12 Jesus heals a paralysed man, suggesting that he has the authority to forgive sins (the view that illness was caused by sin was a common one in Jesus’ time)
  1. For Tillich, miracles are astonishing “without contradicting the rational structure of reality” – by which he meant they do not violate laws of nature
  2. Miracles point to what Tillich called “the mystery of being” & reveal something about God’s nature
  3. Miracles reveal God to people, and this revelation causes an ecstatic overwhelming experience for the recipient

Criticisms of Tillich 

– Tillich’s approach with signs, though it may survive the criticisms put forward by David Hume by avoiding taking miracles literally therefore does not survive the criticisms of traditional theists such as C S Lewis

– The same problems apply here as they do to Holland’s view


Modern Science and Miracles

Can People Believe in Miracles Given the Findings of Modern Science? 


David Hume 

  • Hume used probability to argue that there will always be more likely explanations than those coming from religion when it comes to miracles
  • Scientific discoveries made the chances of miracles seem lower and lower – God was just an answer to a question mankind had yet to find the true answer to
  • He also spoke of laws of nature, which we have discovered through science & which are rarely broken
  • This however has been criticised greatly, such as by Swinburne who didn’t see laws of nature in such a fixed light
  • Theists such as Swinburne have pointed out that Hume left very little room for discovery which hinders his argument
  • For example Albert Einstein’s law of general relativity replaced Newton’s laws of physics which Hume would have learnt

Peter Atkins 

  • A chemist who argues against miracles
  • Atkins suggested people seek publicity or are deluded or hallucinate etc. which is why they believe in miracles
  • However, as pointed out by Swinburne when criticising Hume’s subsidiary claims – you cannot assume a person is unintelligent or foolish just because of their beliefs.
    – Although this still does not refute Hume’s main claim – surely it is still more likely that a person is seeking fame rather than they saw someone rise from the dead

Richard Dawkins 

  1. People have strange & disturbing experiences, such as “dreaming of someone for the first time & waking up to discover they are dead”Russell Stannard. Other experiences might be great coincidence 
  2. Occasionally you would expect people to have coincidental experiences in life to which they attach special significance
  3. Examples of places such as Lourdes could be explained by the placebo effect. People go to Lourdes believing they will be cured & are then cured

Not Ruling out Miracles 

  • Many scientists acknowledge the possibility of God acting in the world somehow
  • Few scientists would speak of God violating laws of nature
  • But many would discuss God acting through natural laws

John Polkinghorn 

  1. Intelligent life that can think about what it does has only existed for a few million years, therefore if God only acts through people it implies God has been “an inactive spectator” for most of history
  2. If God works through people, he affects the way the physical processes of the world work by affecting you
  3. In unprecedented circumstance, it is entirely conceivable that God will act in totally novel & unexpected ways – leaving the possibility of God intervening

Maurice Wiles – Miracles

Wiles’ View on Miracles


“Miracles Cannot Happen” 

  • Maurice Wiles was a Christian who argued against the miraculous
  • For Wiles, disbelief in miracles stems from God’s morality – not from science or physical improbability
  • This links well to the problem of evil
  • Wiles had a realist view on miracles – for him they had a definition & could not happen

Wiles’ Argument; God’s Action in the World 

  1. If miracles are violations of laws of natures, then they have to occur infrequently otherwise they would cease to be violations & laws of nature would loose their meaning
  2. The pattern of the occurrence of miracles seems strange
    – By this, Wiles is referring indirectly to the problem of evil – if God can enact miracles, why did he part the red sea but allow 6 million Jewish people to die in the Holocaust?
  3. The large number of evil events which are not & have not been prevented by God – such as the Holocaust – raise questions about God’s omnipotence & goodness

The Problem of Evil 

  • First outlined by Epicurus in the Epicurean paradox
  • Epicurus provided the logical problem of evil, stating that: Evil exists in the world, either God is not omnipotent and so is powerless to stop it, or he is not omnibenevolent and does not want to. And if God is not omnipotent of omnibenevolent, then why call him God?
  • J L Mackie later adapted this into the triangular problem of evil we recognise today
  • William Rowe gave the evidential problem of evil
  • He stated that we can see there is gratuitous evil in the world – this is evil which has no logical purpose for being there (tackling the point made in several theodicies that suffering is for human benefit) – for example, a fawn dying horrifically in a forest fire.
    There is no reason for this evil to be there, and again either God is powerless to stop it or does not care to do so.
  • The problem of evil ties in well with miracles, as as rightly pointed out by Wiles – how can God justify performing certain miracles but not others? 

Arbitrary or Partisan 

  • Wiles goes on to argue that if God is capable of performing miracles, he must either be arbitrary or partisan
  • An arbitrary God would make decisions that are not based on reason, they’re random & make no sense – therefore explaining the way in which God has decided when to perform miracles
  • If God is arbitrary, then why should we dedicate ourselves to him as our Lord and Saviour?
  • A partisan God is biased – God decides when and who to perform miracles for because he loves certain sects of people or creatures above others
  • A partisan God cannot be omnibenevolent, and this also raises questions as to whether such a God would be worthy as being respected as the almighty
  • Therefore Wiles comes to the conclusion that God cannot and does not intervene – he takes a deistic approach to God
  • Wiles believed that God’s only miracle was the creation of the world, but since then he has not been able to intervene.

Criticisms of Wiles 

Christian Tradition 

  • The Bible & Christian tradition clearly describes God as being interventionist
  • Stories of Biblical miracles indicate God interacts with the world – several of these could only have happened literally for Christianity to survive
    – For example the virgin birth & the resurrection of Christ.
  • As Wiles identifies as a Christian, this is a severe weakness as his ideas directly conflict with the teachings of Christianity
  • John Polkinghorn argues that Wiles’ view of God doesn’t reflect empirical experience of God. For example, the many accounts of people who have had their prayers answered
    – This is flawed and Wiles’ point still stands – why is a woman’s prayer to find her cat answered while the prayers of millions of victims of genocide are ignored?

Human Rationality

  • Wiles’ arguments depend on the fact that human rationality of what is random, what is rational & logical can be applied to God
  • God is beyond human comprehension – He takes actions we cannot hope to interpret correctly which are part of a greater plan only He understands


Richard Swinburne – Miracles

Swinburne’s Philosophy of Miracles 


Richard Swinburne’s Belief in Miracles: 

  • Richard Swinburne is a theist who believes in the existence of a Judaeo Christian God
  • Swinburne relied on empiricism when it came to miracles – looking at evidence from the world around us to see miraculous events
  • Swinburne is a realist


“An occurrence of a non-repeatable counter instance to a law of nature” 
– Swinburne believes miracles are evident & obvious as they go against what we understand to be laws of nature
– By “non repeatable” he means that a simple human could not copy a miraculous act of God

Swinburne and Laws of Nature 

  • Swinburne, though he identifies the existence of laws of nature in his definition of a miracle, does not understand them in the same way as David Hume
  • While Hume suggests laws of nature are fixed, absolute and indisputable, Swinburne describes them as “generalisations
    – this means that we see trends or patterns in the world (again showing Swinburne’s empiricism) and attribute these patterns to laws
  • Therefore deviations from these laws can happen – if natural laws are just based on collected evidence, there can be outliers
  • Swinburne identifies natural laws as corrigible – they are the best description & understanding of the world we currently have, but are subject to change with new evidence
  • On miracles, Swinburne says that a miraculous event does not fit in with laws of nature as we understand them, but equally the event alone doesn’t prove the law inaccurate

Argument from Credulity:

When speaking of both accounts of the miraculous and religious experience, Swinburne makes two arguments, one from credulity and one from testimony.

  • If one perceives something to have happened then it probably has
  • Generally it is reasonable to believe that the world is as it appears
  • We can and do trust empirical evidence

Argument from Testimony: 

  • Generally people tell the truth
  • We should believe a person’s account unless we have a serious reason not to

Swinburne’s Evidence for Miracles: 

According to Swinburne, there are four different types of evidence for miracles. This refutes Hume’s claim that there is either no valid evidence or that the evidence is deceiving & false.

  1. Memories of our experiences
  2. Testimony from other people about their experiences
  3. Physical traces of the event – such as a person who has been healed
  4. Understanding of modern science & what is thought to be impossible – if something goes against this, we can describe it as miraculous

Main Argument 

Accept as many sources of evidence as possible, the more evidence there is to support a miracle claim, the higher the probability the miracle happened.

Subsidiary Claims

  1. Different sources of evidence should be consistent & should support each other
  2. The value placed on evidence should be based upon “empirical reliability” – relating to Swinburne’s argument from testimony, if you have a reason not to believe someone’s account this detracts from their evidence
  3. Avoid rejecting evidence without good reason

Criticisms of Swinburne: 

On Laws of Nature 

  • The “non repeatable counter instances” of which Swinburne speaks that he labels miracles can be adequately explained by science.
  • For example, in Drosophila (common fruit flies) scientists had discovered the unusual occurrence of legs growing in the place of antennae on a fly’s head.
    This is a perfect example of a counter occurrence which seemingly goes against nature – one which, Swinburne would argue, had to have been caused by a deity.
  • However the unusual occurrence or deviation from a law of nature was actually simply caused by a mutation in the antennapedia gene, which just switched on the gene coding for the development of legs.
  • Linking to this, a more general criticism of Swinburne is that he makes no distinction of “good/bad” miracles. He simply describes them as “an occurrence of a non repeatable counter instance to a law of nature”
  • The mutation in fruit flies of the antennapedia gene fits this description – but is definitely not a positive or beneficial miracle – what reason would God have in causing it?

On Credulity and Testimony

  • Our senses deceive us constantly – a short sighted person for example could easily mistake a log in a distant river for a sea monster
    – this shows how credulity is flawed to suggest we can “generally” trust our senses as this is simply not the case
  • Developing on this, believers in a priori knowledge such as Plato would go so far as to suggest our senses are always deceiving us -in his allegory of the cave Plato clearly outlines how humanity can be likened to prisoners, happily trapped by the world we perceive to be true through our senses
  • Testimony is also incredibly flawed, as while Swinburne states we can generally trust people, this is naive at best and foolish at worst
    – Perfectly rational people may have secret or irrational reasons for lying which could never anticipate
  • Hume points out that often people either want to believe something, or they are tricked themselves – therefore even if someone’s testimony is believed by the provider, it may still not be true

On Evidence for Miracles 

  • Swinburne, despite giving 4 different examples of evidence which could be used for miracles, does not successfully refute Hume’s main claim
  • For example, even if a congregation of people came forward and claimed they had seen someone rise from the dead, the number of people giving evidence does not negate the fact that there are multiple other possible explanations (more likely miracles, as Hume would say) which can account for it
  • Swinburne highlights the importance of empirical reliability, which is entirely undermined by the arguments against his principle of credulity – our senses deceive us all the time, showing that empirical evidence can not be trusted as fact

Thomas Aquinas – Miracles

Aquinas’ Philosophy of Miracles 


“That which has a divine cause, not that whose cause a human person fails to understand”

– Aquinas suggests all miracles are caused by the divine, in his eyes, the Judaeo – Christian God

– He explains that the reason such events are miraculous and unbelievable is due to their divine origin, not simply because humans do not understand what is causing them


Thomas Aquinas, like David Hume, takes a realist approach when it comes to miracles.

Realist = the belief that there are objective truths which have always existed and will always exist. Statements are either true or false and always have been, regardless of human knowledge.
For example; the world has always been round, even when people thought it was flat.

Biblical Miracles: 

As a monk, Aquinas followed the Bible closely & so believed in the miraculous accounts told in it.

What are the Purposes of Biblical Miracles? 

  • For Jewish people, miracles in the Bible show evidence of God’s love and care for his chosen people
  • For Christians, miracles are used as proof to show that Jesus Christ lived
    ! Christianity cannot survive without the literal miracle of Jesus’ birth and resurrection – as this is the basis of the Christian faith !
  • Another literal use of Biblical miracles for Christians is that they give indication of what the kingdom of God will be like
  • To take a more anti – real approach, Biblical miracles can be used as myths or analogies which give deeper meaning. Rather than taking certain events literally, they should be viewed figuratively & understood at a deeper level
    ! As aforementioned though, not all Biblical miracles can be analogies, Christ’s birth and resurrection have to be literal for Christianity to survive !

Examples of Biblical Miracles

Exodus 14;21-2

“The Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back and turned it into dry land”
– Shows the power of God as the almighty & his love for the Jewish people. Could be viewed as a myth which still holds the same meaning

Matthew 1:18-23 

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : his mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant with the Holy Spirit”
– Shows the miraculous conception of Jesus indicating he is the son of God. Can only be taken literally in order for Jesus to be the Messiah & son of God

Criticisms of Aquinas: 

Aquinas’ definition is flawed – many miraculous events were just down to human understanding 

  • Events such as the sun rising every morning which may previously have been dubbed a miracle can now easily be explained due to our knowledge of the solar system
  • While Aquinas claims miracles are evidence of the divine, many of them can be explained by scientific or other means
    There remain unanswered crucial questions which Aquinas’ definition still applies to, such as the existence of the universe

Use of Hume’s Main Claim 

  • Hume’s argument involving weighing up the least likely miracle can be used against Aquinas
  • For example: which is more likely – that Jesus healed a blind man or that the account is inaccurate, the witnesses were tricked/lied to etc.