Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Moral Objection to Miracles

If the direct action of God, independent of secondary causation, is an intelligible concept, then it would appear to have been sparingly and strangely used. Miracles must be by definition, relatively infrequent or else the whole idea of the laws of nature… would be undermined, and ordered life as we know it would be an impossibility. Yet even so it would seem strange that no miraculous intervention prevented Auschwitz or Hiroshima, while the purposes apparently forwarded by some of the miracles acclaimed in traditional Christian faith seem trivial by comparison. -Maurice Wiles
For one person to receive miraculous assistance while someone else who‘s situation resembles the first case in every important respect doesn‘t would be unjust; but an infinitely good being would not be responsible for such injustices. So a miraculous event would not be brought about by God. -Matt McCormick
There is a huge amount of evil in the world—psychological and physical suffering, malnutrition, starvation, pandemics, cruelty, torture, poverty, racism, lynching, sexism, child abuse, assault, war, sudden deaths from natural disasters—the list is appalling. . . . Instead of using miracles to feed a small number, to transform water into wine, or to convert a few people, God could very well be performing miracles that have a much larger effect, especially on the lives of the millions of children whose suffering is particularly incomprehensible to anyone with a sense of justice. The question is why a good God would be concerned with details like the need for wine at a wedding, and yet apparently not be concerned with huge tragedies like the holocaust of six million Jews. -Christine Overall

In New York, on March 3, 1964 at 3:15am, Kitty Genovese was driving home from her long shift at the bar where she worked. She parked her car and proceeded to walk her normal route to her apartment, as she had done countless times before. Before she arrived at the front door of the building, she was confronted by a man, Winston Mosely. Frightened, Kitty began running in the opposite direction toward the main street, but the man gave chase. He caught up with her and stabbed her twice in the back. Bloodied and cold, she screamed, “Oh my God! He stabbed me! Help me!” The neighbors heard cries but kept their windows closed and their blinds drawn. No one came to her aid. No one felt compelled to help this woman, suffering and dying in the dark on a street in New York. Her attacker had driven away, but returned 10 minutes later. Upon observing her condition, he proceeded to stab her several more times and then rape her. Mosely fled the scene. Someone finally called the police. Kitty Genovese died a few minutes later en route to the hospital.

The neighbors of this woman could have easily intervened to save her from suffering, rape, and death. It would have taken, at most, a few seconds to call the police. Was that too much to ask for? By having not intervened, they seem to be partially, morally culpable for what happened. Their intervention could have saved her life. But they chose to ignore her cries for help. Perhaps we could not sustain a legal case against them in a court of law, but in terms of fundamental, basic morality—empathy and compassion for a fellow, innocent human being on the verge of death—how could they have remained silent? Most of us are morally appalled at their lack of action, and rightly so.

Maybe it would have been a different case had the neighbors been standing 10 feet away, witnessing Mosely attacking Genovese whilst holding a semi-automatic weapon in his other hand. Refraining from taking action in that case might be justified if one is afraid for their life. That might be excusable. But seeing someone suffering when there is no direct threat to one’s own life, and still choosing to remain silent, how can that ever be justified? Is not silence in the face of evil morally reprehensible? Surely! And this is especially the case when no danger poses a threat to anyone besides the one already suffering!

By this standard, then, it seems that God incriminates Himself. God is like the neighbor who hears the cries of Kitty Genovese-- screaming and bleeding--and chooses to ignore her and let her die. He is the bystander holding the phone in his hand who witnesses a violent stabbing and rape and yet chooses not to alert the police authorities. He hears the cries of human persons, whom he supposedly loves, in pain. He can see those who are sick, dying, broken-hearted, and suffering from all manner of physical and emotional pains. Why does He not interfere in every instant of suffering to save those who are victims? Like the neighbors of Kitty Genovese, it is both within God’s power to save the sufferer and it does not cost Him anything. If God is all-good, then He would want to eliminate all evil and if God is all-powerful then He would be able to eliminate all evil, and yet evil exists. To further compound this, theists claim that God can, and does, do miracles. That is, God intervenes, either directly or indirectly, to bring about the betterment of certain states of affairs and/or the prevention of certain other states of affairs. God can heal the sick, raise the dead, feed the multitudes, calm storms, and alleviate hurts and pains. Many theists claim that God, not only can do these things, but has done them both in the age of the prophets and apostles and even today. The problem here is now the tension between the magnitude of evil that is so commonplace in the world and the fact that God sometimes does perform miracles to alleviate suffering or intervene in human affairs to bring about the betterment of circumstances in some other way.

Why does God heal in some cases and not others? Why does God alleviate suffering in some cases and not others? Why does God intervene in the circumstances of some individuals and yet allow the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, the Bubonic plague, and other horrible atrocities and tragedies?

The focus of this article deals with the philosophical problem of miracles, not the emotional problem of miracles. The philosophical problem of miracles is an academic question. It asks, “Is it irrational, illogical, or inconsistent to say that God is all-good and all-powerful and yet not perform miracles in certain dire situations?” The emotional, or existential, problem of miracles pertains to people’s emotional dislike of the notion of miracles and/or a God who would selectively choose the recipients of beneficial, divine assistance. I will attempt to give a rational explanation for the problem of miracles and show that there is no logical incompatibility between God’s omnipotence, benevolence, and selective miracle-performing.

The proponent of the problem of miracles makes five critical assumptions that are largely unjustified:

  1. God’s selectively choosing the instances in which he intervenes is completely arbitrary.
  2. The instances in which God enacts miracles are trivial in comparison to other horrible instances that have played out in history (Auschwitz, Nanking, etc.).
  3. The horrible instances which ‘played out’ in history were bereft of any divine intervention.
  4. God has no morally sufficient reason(s) for refraining from performing miracles in other instances.
  5. The primary purpose of miracles is to prevent or alleviate suffering in the lives of human persons.

1. The critic may argue that God’s choice of recipients, times, and contexts in which he enacts miracles is completely arbitrary. For example, let us suppose that there are two individuals suffering from pancreatic cancer in a hospital ward. Both have a wife and child. Both work for the same engineering firm. Both were in equally good health before being diagnosed. Now let us suppose that God intervenes to heal one of them and not the other. Assuming that this was truly due to divine intervention, the critical response might be to blow the whistle and shout, “Unfair!” God observed two people in identical situations and yet only healed one of them. This, at least, seems arbitrary. But the most that can be said is that this seems arbitrary. The arbitrariness objection cannot be sustained because of the objector’s inability to demonstrate that God’s choosing to intervene in one situation and refrain from intervening in another situation is completely arbitrary. Furthermore, it is impossible to know that the two cases are identical. Both victims are indeed suffering from the same type and level of pancreatic cancer, both are experiencing the same amount of pain, both have a wife and child, both work for the same company, both were in equal health before the diagnosis, but that is as far as we can go. To assume that both cases, and indeed any two comparable cases, are identical, seems outside the scope of our ability to know.

2. The second assumption is like the first in that it views God’s supposed interventions as being unjustified. If God is performing miracles, then He is failing at choosing the most significant instances in which he could bring about the greatest good. He might heal the cancer victim tomorrow and yet he left Auschwitz at the mercy of the Nazis. He heals one broken heart and yet he let Adam Lanza walk into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut and kill twenty students and six teachers. The ‘miracles’ that take place in the world seem to be trivial in comparison to the inexorable atrocities and evils in the world.

This objection sounds powerful, and intuitively, it seems as though there might be a strong case here, but it suffers from the assumption of claiming more than we can possibly know. It is evident that we cannot really know that the instances in which miracles are supposed to have occurred are “trivial”; at most we can say that they seem trivial in light of our background knowledge. The seemingness objection cannot be sustained as it is predicated on incomplete information. Until it can be shown that one case of suffering really is trivial and not worth divine intervention, the objection holds no sway. Moreover, there are instances that may seem trivial and yet are not. The Christian tradition provides one such counter-example to this objection with the Resurrection of Jesus. To an outsider who knows nothing at all about the Christian faith, Jesus, etc., the idea of God raising one man from the dead seems trivial in light of all the other horrors that were not prevented. And yet, if the Christian tradition is true, then the miracle of the Resurrection is the most important event in all of history, for it validated the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of the sin of the world so that men could be saved from sin and death and made right with God. That seemingly trivial event turned out to be the most important event in history. The accusation of triviality is made on grounds of incomplete knowledge; hence it is not a good objection. There may be more to a ‘trivial’ event than meets the eye. Furthermore, this assumption contains within it another assumption, namely the idea that instances of suffering are commensurable—that is to say that different events in which suffering takes place can be weighed against each other and ranked in terms of ‘high suffering’, ‘low suffering’, ‘worthy of divine intervention’, and ‘not worthy of divine intervention’.

3. The third assumption is that the evil instances throughout history, which we look back upon in horror, were completely bereft of divine intervention. Again, what reason do we have to think that this is true? It could very well be the case that the atrocities throughout history would have been much worse had they not been held at bay by some divine intervention. We cannot demonstrate either to be true—maybe there was some divine intervention during the Holocaust and maybe there was not, but the point is that it is presumptuous to assume that there were no miracles enacted in the worst atrocities throughout history. There could have been miraculous events, unbeknownst to us, yet known only to those for whom the miraculous event served to save or rescue.

4. The fourth assumption is that God has no morally sufficient reasons for not performing miracles in certain situations. As was the case with the first three assumptions, this position claims more than can be justified. God may have morally sufficient reasons. It is not logically impossible for God to have morally sufficient reasons that justify his refraining from enacting miracles in certain instances. Until a case can be made to illustrate that God can have no morally sufficient reasons for withholding intervention at some instances, this objection is baseless.

5. The fifth assumption is that God performs miracles primarily to alleviate suffering in the lives of individuals. When God heals someone, he does it solely for the purpose of removing the pain that encumbers that individual and prevents them from being happy and properly-functioning. As we saw with the fourth assumption, it may seem that God has no morally sufficient reasons for being selective in where, when, and how often he chooses to enact miracles. But neither of these is justified. Why should we think that this is the case? If God exists, then why should we assume that God is most concerned with providing humans with a life full of comfort and ease?

Certainly God’s maximal benevolence can be invoked here. The critic can argue that God is maximally benevolent, hence he must be all-good towards his creation. His actions must be all-good. This is not a controversial point. It makes sense to say that God, if He is all-good, should be most concerned with providing individuals with the greatest good in life, but the point of contention lies in defining that which is ‘good’ in life. Why should we think that the greatest good is a comfortable life, free from all forms of suffering? The conflict lies in defining that which is “the greatest good for the human person.” The critic can argue that the greatest good is happiness, comfort, and an alleviation of suffering in the lives of human persons. But why should we believe this to be the case? What reason do we have to think that happiness and comfort are the greatest goods? I contend that if God exists, then the greatest good must be deeper than comfort and ease in this world. The greatest good that could come about in an individual’s life is his/her entering into a personal, knowledge of God. William Lane Craig writes:

The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God. One reason that the problem of evil seems so intractable is that people tend naturally to assume that if God exists, then His purpose for human life is happiness in this world. God's role is to provide a comfortable environment for His human pets…We are not God's pets, and the goal of human life is not happiness per se, but the knowledge of God--which in the end will bring true and everlasting human fulfillment. Many evils occur in life which may be utterly pointless with respect to the goal of producing human happiness; but they may not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God. Innocent human suffering provides an occasion for deeper dependency and trust in God, either on the part of the sufferer or those around him.

If God is all-benevolent, then he will endeavor to bring about the greatest good for us. The greatest good is not necessarily a life of comfort and ease.Now, if such is the case, then the knowledge of God is more important than our temporary comfort in this life. God is more than a mere, cosmic thermostat existing to make the world perfectly conducive to human flourishing and comfort, yet bereft of an intimate relationship with Him. Why then does God not intervene in the lives of everyone who is suffering in order to bring about a knowledge of himself in the heart and mind of them by way of the alleviation of suffering? God may refrain from healing an individual with cancer if He knows that the sickness will bring the man and perhaps others around him or who are influenced by him, into a knowledge of Him at a later point. If God is the greatest good, and He wants the greatest good for us, which is for us to come to know Him in a meaningful sense, then miracles are not primarily instances of divine assistance, rather they are revelatory experiences whereby we can see him and know him.

It is also important to understand that no human is entitled to a miracle. No person has rights to miraculous occurrences. Every miracle is an instance of divine grace meant for the purpose of displaying the reality of God only in such circumstances as will lead to believing faith in the hearts of some individuals. God performs miracles in order to demonstrate himself and his power. It may be the case that God only performs miracles in instances whereby an individual, or individuals, will come to a meaningful knowledge of him as a result of the miracle. It may be the case that God knows that a certain individual will not come to a believing faith even after witnessing the miracle, and then choose to not enact that miracle. Hence, a miracle is an act that comes about either directly or indirectly by God’s intervention in the world, that would not have otherwise come about had not God intervened, and its purpose is to serve as a revelatory delineation of God in order to bring about a greater knowledge of Himself to a person or group of persons.

In conclusion, not only are all five of these presuppositions unjustified, that is that they are simply presupposed without warrant, but it would also seem most difficult, if not impossible, to provide justification for any of them. At most one could rephrase the assumptions in terms of ‘seemingness’. For example: “God’s selectively choosing the instances in which he intervenes seems completely arbitrary” or “It seems as though God has no morally sufficient reasons for performing miracles only in some instances.” Until a case is made for why we should think these assumptions to be true, we cannot accept them.

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