I. Under What Conditions Does God Grant Signs?
II. Studying the Concordance on Signs
III. How Do We Know a Sign is Genuine or False?
IV. Various Camps Regarding Signs
V. Hume / Miracles
VI. Spinoza / Miracles
VII. Signs are Supernatural, not Unnatural
VIII. The Purpose of Signs
I. Under What Conditions Does God Grant Signs?
Following quotes taken from Zondervan’s NASB Study Bible, 1999.
1. God gives signs without us having to ask for one (note, not all verses
in this section illustrate the main point):
Exodus 3:12 NASB note: “sign” A visible proof or guarantee that what God
has promised, He would surely fulfill.
Exodus 4:8 NASB note: “sign” A supernatural event or phenomenon designed to demonstrate authority, provide assurance (Josh. 2:12-13), bear testimony (Is. 19:19-20), give warning (Num. 17:10) or encourage faith.
2. God gives signs when we ask:
Luke 1:18 NASB note: “How will I know this for certain?” Like Abraham (Gen. 15:8), Gideon (Judg. 6:11-40) and Hezekiah (2 Kin. 20:8), Zacharias asked for a sign (cf. 1 Cor. 1:22).
See Gen. 24:7, 40 – Abraham’s oldest servant asks for a sign when seeking wife for Isaac.
All of these who asked for a sign, were given a sign, if you count
Zacharias’ muteness (due to his disbelief) and regained speech as a sign.
3. God may not give signs if we ask with wrong motives:
Luke 11:29 NASB note: “seeks for a sign” On several occasions Jews asked for miraculous signs (v. 16, Matt. 12:38, Mark 8:11), but Jesus rejected their requests because they had wrong motives.
Mark 8:11 NASB note: The Pharisees wanted more compelling proof of Jesus’ divine authority than His miracles, but He refused to perform such a sign because the request came from unbelief. [ question: does this note imply there is a difference between signs and miracles? Or is it just saying the Pharisees were not satisfied with the wonders they were already witnessing, and wanted to see something even more wonderful? That’s my guess. ] Oh… I just read something else which answers my question! :0) Read on…
Luke 11:16 NASB note: Jesus had just healed a mute. Here was their sign, and they would not recognize it.
God has sovereignty over the lots cast by pagans in the Jonah narrative.
I don’t think we should be surprised that God talks to pagans, considering His heart for them (and His great commission to reach them). And I don’t think we should see signs and miracles, in and of themselves, as signs of evil and rebellion. After all, there were so many signs all throughout the Bible, and many still experience them (especially in the mission field).
But I do agree that the Pharisees who sought a sign… sign after sign after sign, never satisfied… they weren’t trying to “test the spirits” by demanding a sign from Jesus, who had already healed many and performed many miracles… they were only demanding a sign (who are you to convict us?) to escape facing the uncomfortable truth. You don’t have to have signs to face the truth.
But that does not rule out that God will use signs to reach some people, if it is His will. We wouldn’t be living in light of the resurrection (the sign of Jonah) otherwise.
II. Studying the Concordance on Signs
In Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible / Subject Index, look up: “Miracle” “Miracles of the Bible-Old Testament” “Miracles of the Bible-New Testament” “Miracles pretended, or false” (see below) “Sign-an outward token having spiritual significance” “Signify-to make known by signs”
In the Strong’s concordance, look up the occurrence of these words in verses: Miracle, Miracles, Signified, Signifieth, Signifying, Signs
“Miracles pretended, or false” (freebie)
Egyptian magicians (Ex. 7:11-22, NASB note: either through sleight of hand or by means of demonic power) (Ex. 8:18,19)
In support of false religions (Deut. 13:1-3) NASB note: Eventual fulfillment is one test of true prophecy (18:21-22), but the more stringent rule given here guards against intelligent foresight masquerading as prophecy and against coincidental fulfillment of the predictions of false prophets.
Witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:9-12) NASB note: The episode has been understood in many different ways, among them the following: 1. God permitted the spirit of Samuel to appear to the woman. 2. The woman had contact with an evil or devilish spirit in the form of Samuel by whom she was deceived or controlled. 3. By using parapsychological powers such as telepathy or clairvoyance, the woman was able to discern Saul’s thoughts and picture Samuel in her own mind. Whatever the explanation of this mysterious affair, the medium was used in some way to convey to Saul that the impending battle would bring death, would dash his hopes for a dynasty and would conclude his reign with a devastating defeat of Israel that would leave the nation at the mercy of the Philistines, the very people against whom he had struggled all his years as king. And this would come, as Samuel had previously announced (15:26,28), because of his unfaithfulness to the Lord.
False prophets (Matt. 7:22,23) (Matt 24:24)
False christs (Matt. 24:24)
Deceive the ungodly (Rev. 13:13) (Rev. 19:20)
Sign of apostasy (2 Thess. 2:3, 9 NASB note: Satan empowers him with miracles, signs and wonders) (Rev. 13:13)
III. How Do We Know a Sign is Genuine or False?
Today, we can say that if a sign contradicts what God has revealed of Himself, then you know that sign is false and not from God. But what about before God had revealed anything of Himself? Why trust the old miracles, signs, and wonders – considering Satan can appear as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14)… not to mention the reality of mental illness? Just remember Deuteronomy 13:1-4 – that is the litmus to keep from being deceived – that is the key. Remember it.
For example, I was asked recently in a philosophy chat forum, if I walked into my back yard and saw a burning bush and it started talking to me… would I have faith that it was God talking to me (as opposed to, say, just a delusion)? I answered that I would believe it was God if He told me the truth. They asked if that was how Moses knew the burning bush was God… because He told him the truth? It is really interesting to read that passage and think of all the doubts running through Moses’ mind, some that God was addressing before Moses even spoke them. Read it: Exodus 3:1-4:17. Moses was quite skeptical.
IV. Various Camps Regarding Signs
“People break down into two groups when they experience something lucky. Group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. [ Deep down ] they see it as a sign-evidence that [ whatever’s going to happen ] there’s someone out there watching out for them, [ someone there to help them ]. Group number two sees it as just pure luck, a happy turn of chance. Deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. So what you have to ask yourself is: What kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or put the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?” – Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) from the M. Night Shyamalan movie “Signs”.
Which of the following options would you choose?
Option 1: All remarkable coincidences happen for no real reason at all. The imagination injects meaning — simply a case of self-suggestion. For example, you notice something out of your ordinary; its weirdness triggers your psyche to start automatically scanning for it everywhere (even if unaware) to make the potentially threatening ‘unknown’ into a benign ‘known’.
Option 2: Many events are acausally (as far as we can observe cause-and-effect) connected and are meaningfully coincident (rather than due to chance) – they are synchronic. The explanation lies in quantum mechanics – according to the way the universe is structured, the mind of the observer acausally affects the objective universe, without any control over it, and without requiring the assistance of a Middle Man.
Option 3: The real reason synchronicity occurs is due to an interaction between our minds and the Creator of the universe. Bringing about and directing us to notice a remarkable (highly improbable) coincidence [for example: the co-reoccurrence of multiple symbols that had been (re)occurring separately] is an artistic creation of meaningful communication (the essential communication being “I love you no matter what and I will never leave you or forget you”). Numbers 11:29, 1 Corinthians 14.
Option 4: What’s love got to do… got to do with it? (…aaaand we’re back – at option 1).
Having recently read Moby Dick (Melville) and Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky) – I noticed they both drop the word “presentiment” into their novels (as well as monomania and a few other off-topic similarities). I find it curious that there are people in the world who experience miracles like this in real life – they do not just read it in novels – and they do not conclude that God authored it for them. This leads me to believe the phenomenon they experience is Satanic/demonic in origin, a counterfeit – or foreshadowing by God that they won’t realize until later in life. It would be very easy for a demon to deceive a person that they had received the future (and that God is not necessary for genuine foreknowledge to occur), if you consider that demons stalk, study and intimately know their humans’ habits and time-honored rationalizations. This is just a warning. Luke 11:35.
Important not to forget: the sign is not what is important – what the sign points to is important. If it points away from God, no matter how miraculous, it’s a false sign. Deuteronomy 13:1-4, Matthew 6:21-23.
V. Hume / Miracles
The following is the blending of two sections of Josh McDowell’s “The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict” (Thomas Nelson, 1999). The two sections are: 1. Chapter 12: The Presupposition of Anti-Supernaturalism / Science and Miracles / Hume’s Philosophical Argument (pp. 360-361), and 2. Chapter 39: Defending Miracles / Answering Objections to Miracles / David Hume Claims that Miracles Are Incredible (pp. 667-670). The only thing I excluded was a small quote by Westphal.
“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. … Nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happens in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior,” (Hume, ECHU, 126-127 or 144-146, 148).
Hume is not arguing that miracles are impossible because the laws of nature cannot be broken. That sort of argument, as we discovered with Spinoza, begs the question. Hume, as an empiricist, is limited to an inductive approach to reality, notwithstanding truisms. And induction yields, at best, probability, not absolute certainty. Rather, Hume is utilizing a particular argumentative style known as reduction ad absurdum. This form of argument seeks to establish that the opposing view results in absurdity. Thus, Hume first grants the theistic claim that miracles are rare events, and then he shows how improbable they are in light of the regularity of nature’s laws. That is, Hume argues that miracles are deemed highly improbable because the natural laws of which miracles must be exceptions inform us of the greater evidence.
Hume’s argument can be summarized as follows:
1. A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence.
2. Natural law is by definition a description of regular occurrence.
3. The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare.
4. Wise individuals always base belief on the greater evidence.
5. Therefore, wise individuals should never believe in miracles. (Geisler, MMM, 27-28).
Hume’s notion of uniform experience either begs the question or is guilty of special pleading. As Geisler notes, “Hume speaks of ‘uniform’ experience in his argument against miracles, but this either begs the question or else is special pleading. It begs the question if Hume presumes to know the experience is uniform in advance of looking at the evidence. For how can we know that all possible experience will conform to naturalism, unless we have access to all possible experiences, including those in the future? If, on the other hand, Hume simply means by ‘uniform’ experience the select experiences of some persons (who have not encountered a miracle), then this is special pleading,” (Geisler, MMM, 28).
Instead of weighing the evidence in favor of miracles, Hume simply plays statistical games [adds evidence against them]. Geisler puts it this way:
“Hume does not really weigh evidence for miracles; rather, he adds evidence against them. Since death occurs over and over again and resurrection occurs only on rare occasions at best, Hume simply adds up all the deaths against the very few alleged resurrections and rejects the latter. … But this does not involve weighing the evidence to determine whether or not a given person, say Jesus of Nazareth … has been raised from the dead. It is simply adding up the evidence of all other occasions where people have died and have not been raised and using it to overwhelm any possible evidence that some person who died was brought back to life. … Second, this argument equates quantity of evidence and probability. It says, in effect, that we should always believe what is most probable (in the sense of “enjoying the highest odds”). But this is silly. On these grounds a dice player should not believe the dice show three sixes on the first roll, since the odds against it are 1,635,013,559,600 to 1! What Hume seems to overlook is that wise people base their belief on facts not simply on odds. Sometimes the “odds” against an event are high (based on past observation), but the evidence for the event is otherwise very good (based on current observation or reliable testimony). Hume’s argument confuses quantity of evidence with the quality of evidence. Evidence should be weighed, not added,” (Geisler, MMM, as cited in Geivett, IDM, 78-79).
Moreover, Hume confuses the probability of historical events with the way in which scientists employ probability to formulate scientific law (3rd paragraph) [and overlooks the importance of indirect evidence in support of miracles (2nd paragraph)]. As Nash explains:
“First, Hume cleverly manipulates the theist into admitting that he (the theist) must believe in natural order since without such an order, there cannot be any way of recognizing exceptions to the order. Then, Hume hammers the theist with the obvious fact that the probability for the theist’s alleged violations of natural laws must always be much less than the probability that the exception has not occurred. …
“Hume was wrong when he suggested that miracles are supported only by direct evidence cited in the testimony of people who claim to have witnessed them. There can also be important indirect evidence for miracles. Even if some person (Jones, let us say) did not observe some alleged miracle (thus making him dependent on the testimony of others who did), Jones may still be able to see abiding effects of the miracle. Suppose the miracle in questions concerns the healing of a person who has been blind for years. Jones may be dependent on the testimony of others that they saw the healing occur, but perhaps Jones is now able to discern for himself that the formerly blind person can now see. The situation is analogous to that of someone who hears the testimony that a tornado has ravaged his city. Since he was not an eyewitness to the storm, he is dependent on the testimony of eyewitnesses who were there. But when this person arrives on the scene and sees the incredible devastation—cars on top of houses, other houses blow apart, trees uprooted—all this functions as indirect evidence to confirm the eyewitness testimony of others. In this way, certain effects of a miracle that exist after the event can serve as indirect evidence that the event happened. …
“Critics of Hume have complained that his argument is based on a defective view of probability. For one thing, Hume treats the probability of events in history like miracles in the same way he treats the probability of the recurring events that give rise to the formulation of scientific laws. In the case of scientific laws, probability is tied into the frequency of occurrence; the more times scientists observe similar occurrences under similar conditions, the greater the probability that their formulation of the law is correct. But historical events including miracles are different; the events of history are unique and nonrepeatable. Therefore, treating historical events including miracles with the same notion of probability the scientist uses in formulating his laws ignore a fundamental difference between the two subject matters,” (Nash, FR, 230, 233-234).
British Philosopher C.D. Broad appealed to indirect evidence to support the cornerstone miracle of the Christian faith—the resurrection of Christ:
“We have testimony to the effect that the disciples were exceedingly depressed at the time of the Crucifixion; that they had extremely little faith in the future; and that, after a certain time, this depression disappeared, and they believed that they had evidence that their Master had risen from the dead Now none of these alleged facts is in the least odd or improbable, and we have therefore little ground for not accepting them on the testimony offered us. But having done this, we are faced with the problem of accounting for the facts which we have accepted. What caused the disciples to believe, contrary to their previous conviction, and in spite of their feeling of depression, that Christ had risen from the dead? Clearly, one explanation is that he actually had arisen. And this explanation accounts for the facts so well that we may at least say that the indirect evidence for the miracle is far and away stronger than the direct evidence,” (Broad, HTCM, 91-92).
Another strong rebuttal against Hume’s position that “nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happens in the common course of nature” is made by C.S. Lewis. Lewis cogently answers Hume’s assertion [exposes the circular character of Hume’s use of “uniform experience”]: “Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately, we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports of them to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle,” (Lewis, M, 102 or 105).
“The critical historian, confronted with some story of a miracle, will usually dismiss it out of hand … to justify his procedure, he will have to appeal to precisely the principle which Hume advanced: the ‘absolute impossibility of miraculous nature’ or the events attested must, ‘in the eyes of all reasonable people … alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation,’” (Flew, M, as cited in Edwards, EP, 351-352). In other words, it is a circular argument: If miracles are impossible, then the report of any miraculous event must be false, and therefore, miracles are impossible.”
VI. Spinoza / Miracles
The following is an excerpt from Josh McDowell’s “The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict” (Thomas Nelson, 1999). The excerpt is specifically the section Answering Objections to Miracles / Benedict Spinoza Claims that Miracles Are Impossible from Chapter 39: Defending Miracles.
Benedict Spinoza declares that “nature cannot be contravened, but … she preserves a fixed an immutable order.” In fact, “If anyone asserted that God acts in contravention to the laws of nature, he, ipso facto, would be compelled to assert that God acted against His own nature—an evident absurdity,” (Spinoza, ATPT, 82-83).
It is important to note that Spinoza’s rational pantheism determined his position on miracles. For Spinoza, transcendence is rejected because nature and God are ontologically identical. God is all; and all is God. Accordingly, if God is immutable and the laws of nature are a modal quality of God, then the laws of nature are immutable. Hence, a miracle is an absurdity, for it would entail a mutation (violation) of an immutable order, namely, God’s very essence.
Spinoza’s view can be summarized as follows:
“1. Miracles are violations of natural laws.
2. Natural laws are immutable.
3. It is impossible to violate immutable laws.
4. Therefore, miracles are impossible,” (Geisler, MMM, 15).
A miracle is not a contravention of nature, but an introduction of a new event into nature by a supernatural cause. Nature is not surprised when an event is caused by the supernatural, but hastens to accommodate the new event. As Lewis explains:
“If events ever come from beyond Nature altogether, she will be no more incommoded by them. Be sure she will rush to the point where she is invaded, as the defensive forces rush to a cut in our finger, and there hasten to accommodate the newcomer. … The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern. It does not violate the law’s proviso, “If A, then B”: it says, “But this time instead of A, A2,” and Nature, speaking through all her laws replies, “Then B2” and naturalizes the immigrant, as she well knows how. She is an accomplished hostess,” (Lewis, M, 60).
According to Stephen Evans, the description of miracle as a “break” or “interruption” with respect to natural law incorrectly presumes God’s absence from creation prior to His miraculous activity. But God is constantly present to His creation as the sustaining, necessary Being. Hence, whereas miracles entail special acts of God, nature is still held into being by the normal activity of God. As Evans explains:
“It is, however, somewhat incorrect to call such special actions “breaks” or “interruptions” in the natural order. Such terminology implies that God is not normally present in the natural order; but if God exists at all, then he must be regarded as responsible for the whole of that natural order. The contrast, then, is not between “nature” and the very unusual divine “interventions” into nature, but between God’s normal activity in upholding the natural order and some special activity on God’s part. Thus, when God does a miracle, he does not suddenly enter a created order from which he is normally absent. Rather, he acts in a special way in a natural order which he continually upholds and in which he is constantly present,” (Evans, WB, 88).
Moreover, Spinoza’s argument begs the question. Spinoza’s definition of the laws of nature (as immutable) necessarily precludes the possibility of miracles. Based on his rational method, rather than on empirical observation, Spinoza assumed a priori that nature is inviolable. As Normal Geisler explains: “Spinoza’s Euclidean (deductive) rationalism suffers from an acute case of petitio principii (begging the question). For, as David Hume notes, anything validly deducible from premises must have already been present in those premises from the beginning. But if the antisupernatural is already presupposed in Spinoza’s rationalistic premises, then it is no surprise to discover him attacking the miracles of the Bible.” Geisler adds, “What Spinoza needed to do, but did not, was to provide some sound argument for his rationalistic presuppositions.” Spinoza, “spins them out in the thin air of rational speculation, but they are never firmly attached to the firm ground of empirical observation,” (Geisler, MMM, 18, 21).
VII. Signs are Supernatural, not Unnatural
From God’s perspective, there are no miracles. It is unreasonable to call anything you experience unnatural, because if it really were, it would not be experienced in the natural universe. Therefore, supernatural does not equal unnatural — it means there is more to nature than our conceptual frameworks have allowed for previously. But if you’re saying God does not communicate with what to us seem as miracles — then you’re wrong.
I would call “business as usual” the standard miracle that people are so used to, they don’t consider it a miracle. Only when there is a radical break in “business as usual” do they label something a miracle…. but such breaks are just little blips of miracle within the giant unrecognized miracle…
“A miracle is an act of God in the natural world that confirms the message of God through His prophet or apostle (Heb. 2:3-4). Miracles are automatically possible in a theistic world where there is a sovereign God beyond the world in control of its processes and laws. Miracles are not contrary to nature; rather, they go beyond natural events. Natural law is the way God regularly operates in His world; miracles are the way He acts occasionally. Since God is all-powerful, He can do anything that is not a contradiction. Therefore, miracles are possible,” (380, Geisler and Feinberg, “Intro. to Philo. / A Christian Perspective”).
“Supernaturalism is a third implication of theism. The naturalist who does not believe in God considers the universe to be ‘the whole show.’ The theist, by contrast, believes that there is more—namely a supernatural realm. The theist believes that the world is radically dependent on an all-powerful God who created and who continually sustains the world. If this is true, it follows logically that such a God can also intervene in the world. This kind of special intervention in the world is called a miracle.
Theists do not believe that natural laws are fixed and immutable and, hence, inviolable. They believe that natural laws are descriptions of the regular way God works in His creation, not prescriptions of how He must work. Miracles, then, are events manifesting the irregular or special way God works in the world. It is essential to theism to maintain the possibility of miracles. In short, if there is a God who can act in the world, then it follows that there can be special acts of God (miracles) in the world,” (273, ibid).
“The deist’s strong view of scientific natural law is now discarded by modern science. Scientists no longer speak of unbreakable prescriptive ‘laws’ but of descriptive ‘maps’ or ‘models.’ The universe is no longer ‘closed’ but is open to the unusual and the irregular. Therefore, from the scientific point of view there is no reason that miraculous events cannot be a subclass of the ‘unusual’ in nature. To be sure miracles will be more than merely unusual; the will have moral and theological characteristics as well. But a miracle will be at least a scientifically unusual event. And in this sense miracles are not unscientific,” (277, ibid).
VIII. The Purpose of Signs
“Healing the World
“I don’t want to be too hard on people who struggle with the idea of God’s intervention in the natural order. Miracles are hard to believe in, and they should be. In Matthew 28 we are told that the apostles met the risen Jesus on a mountainside in Galilee. ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted’ (verse 17). That is a remarkable admission. Here is the author of an early Christian document telling us that some of the founders of Christianity couldn’t believe the miracle of the resurrection, even when they were looking straight at him with their eyes and touching him with their hands. There is no other reason for this to be in the account unless it really happened.
“The passage shows us several things. It is a warning not to think that only we modern, scientific people have to struggle with the idea of the miraculous, while ancient, more primitive people did not. The apostles responded like any group of modern people—some believed their eyes and some didn’t. It is also an encouragement to patience. All the apostles ended up as great leaders in the church, but some had a lot more trouble believing than others.
“The most instructive thing about this text is, however, what it says about the purpose of Biblical miracles. They lead not simply to cognitive belief, but to worship, to awe and wonder. Jesus’ miracles in particular were never magic tricks, designed only to impress and coerce. You never see him say something like: ‘See that tree over there? Watch me make it burst into flames!” Instead, he used miraculous power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. Why? We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order. The Bible tells us that God did not originally make the world to have disease, hunger, and death in it. Jesus has come to redeem where it is wrong and heal the world where it is broken. His miracles are not just proofs that he has power but also wonderful foretastes of what he is going to do with that power. Jesus’ miracles are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we all want is coming,” (95-96, Keller, “The Reason for God / Belief in an Age of Skepticism”)