During a recent trip to the library, I wound up picking up a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Miracles. It wasn’t what I was looking for, I was looking for a book on eucharistic miracles, but it caught my eye. (Was that a miracle? Or just the nature of the Dewey Decimal System?)

Strobel dismisses Hume’s definition of miracle: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature” as being too skeptical. He says his preferred definition of “miracle” is from Richard L. Purtill:

“A miracle is an event brought about by the power of God that is a temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history.”

I find this odd, because the laws of nature are just descriptions of the ordinary course of nature. Which means that Purtill’s definition is essentially identical to Humes, but with added conditions! In fact, Purtill’s definition is useless, if you’re trying, as many people are, to use miracles as proof of God’s existence. To demonstrate that something is miraculous, you would not only have to already know that God exists, and that the event was brought about by his power, but also why he did it! Even devout Christians are always talking about God’s “mysterious ways” and whatnot, so that doesn’t seem possible or reasonable. There is simply no way to distinguish between a magician with supernatural powers trying to convince you that God exists and an act of God, so how could you ever determine that something was a miracle?

Of course, I can see where Purtill is coming from. Hume’s definition of “miracle” would cover any supernatural event. Many people believe in supernatural events that they wouldn’t call miracles, say one brought about by a witch or a demon. And there could also be supernatural events brought about by God that wouldn’t generally be called miracles, like a smiting. The term miracle generally implies that the speaker believes that the supernatural event was a good thing and brought about by a religious entity.

Personally, I don’t really care much about that part anyway. If there are temporary exceptions to the ordinary course of nature, that’s what I’m interested in. My preferred definition for comes from Men in Black III: “A miracle is what seems impossible but happens anyway.[1]

Whether something was done by God or God’s motivations for doing so is just a distraction. Demonstrating that the impossible occurred is challenging enough without having to tie it to a particular deity, or establish that it’s a good thing, which is always a matter of opinion. If you were to pray to win the lottery and God granted your prayer, that would be a miracle for you and a curse for the person who would have won naturally.

You need to first establish that a supernatural event happened before considering why or how. If I ever get passed that first step, then I’ll worry about the nuances of whether the other aspects of “miracle” are relevant. “What seems impossible but happens anyway” is the only part of the definition that matters to me for now.

[1] If you think this cultural reference is obscure, just wait for part 2!