In New York, on March 3, 1964 at 3:15am, Kitty Genovese was attacked, raped, and killed after driving home from work. Her neighbors heard her screams and did nothing. They could have easily saved 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. Seeing someone suffering and choosing to remain silent is inexcusable. Is not silence in the face of evil morally reprehensible? 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. Christians claim that God does, in fact, do miracles, but this seems to only complicate things. Why does God only perform miracles in certain cases (if He really does do miracles) and not others?
The proponent of the problem of miracles makes four critical assumptions that are largely unjustified.
- God’s selectively choosing the instances in which he intervenes is completely arbitrary.
- The instances in which God enacts miracles are trivial in comparison to other horrible instances that have played out in history (Auschwitz, Nanking, etc.)
- God has no morally sufficient reason(s) for refraining from performing miracles in other instances.
- 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 God has no morally sufficient reasons for not performing miracles in certain situations. As was the case with the first two 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.
4. The fourth 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 third 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.
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? 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 of these presuppositions unjustified, 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.