Many skeptics reject the Christian faith because they assume that miracles are impossible. Since the core of Christian belief is that Jesus was crucified, died and rose bodily from the dead, and since such resurrection events are miraculous, the skeptic concludes - before considering any evidence - that the resurrection did not occur.
When pressed as to what they mean, the skeptic will often say that resurrections are “physically impossible,” by which they mean that they violate the laws of nature or, more specifically, of physics. Dead bodies remain dead. They don’t transmute themselves into living bodies with super-human characteristics. This is an appeal to experience, and generally speaking, a valid way of “knowing” things. What is not valid thinking, however, is to insist that miracles cannot occur. Such reasoning is circular – the skeptic decides whether the claim that a particular miracle occurred is true by simply restating that it did not occur, because its occurrence was not possible.
Let’s take an example to get a closer look at what this presupposition of impossibility looks like. Imagine an elder from a primitive tribe on some remote island. Encountering Western civilization for the first time, he is brought to an airport and he personally witnesses an airplane taking off and landing. He is allowed to examine the plane. He probes the metal of the skin, the rubber of the tires, and smells the chemical odor of the jet fuel. He pushes against it, convincing himself that it is solid and real, and more importantly, that it is heavier than air. Yet he witnesses it flying. The laws of nature as he knows them – that inanimate things that are heavier than air cannot fly – have been violated.
He returns to his island and begins to describe what he has seen. The leading villagers, also well-grounded in the laws of nature, suspect that he is mistaken, or worse yet, delusional. No amount of argumentation – of witnessing - will satisfy them. The “laws” are clear: inanimate things that are heavier than air cannot fly. What the elder has described is a metal object that is heavier than air. Therefore, it did not fly. Nothing has ever flown that was not either living, or if not living, then lighter than air. What could be simpler?
From our perspective, of course, we see the flaw in the villagers’ thinking. They assume that the laws of nature are proscriptive, rather than descriptive. They think the laws actively prevent flying, as if keeping things on the ground was a goal the laws sought to enforce. We know that the laws are descriptive and we know that our ability to understand them is limited. More precisely, we know that our ability to accurately describe these laws – these limitations on the behavior of things – is incomplete. What would we tell the villagers? We would probably say, “You’re right, as far as it goes, but you lack understanding of other ‘laws.’’ What you need to make things fly are: 1) information and 2) power. Information includes other laws of physics, such as the law of lift, otherwise known as Bernoulli’s principle. And you need power; in this case, the chemical power of combustion that generates thrust in a jet engine. Properly harness that power, and filter it through the intelligence of information, and you will control flight.
We, of course, are not primitive tribesmen. Science has provided us tremendous knowledge and has unlocked many of the mysteries of power and its production. But our scientific knowledge is not unlimited. With time will come access to more information about how life works, about how bodies and brains and minds are united and infused with life. With more knowledge will come access to greater and greater amounts of power, perhaps allowing us to one day achieve things that would seem impossible to us today.
And perhaps not. We may never find the means to reverse aging, or to revive the dead. But if we can do certain things through the use of intelligence and power, then how much more can the Creator of this universe do? Does it not stand to reason that with infinite intelligence and infinite power, he could just as easily raise a man from the dead and give him a modified eternal body, as he could create and populate the Earth?
The skeptic who denies the possibility of a miracle is in an odd position. Thinking himself modern and enlightened, he actually more closely resembles the villagers. They insist that what they know is all that can be known; that what they think can occur is all that actually can occur. So, confronted with the first-person account of the elder, they will conclude that some other naturalistic explanation must be true. They will suspect that he is somehow mistaken, at best, or delusional or dishonest, at worst. They will insist that his testimony be disregarded, because the probability of “improbable” things is zero. And they will be wrong, of course; victims of their own limited imagination.
The modern skeptic need not fear - accepting that miracles are possible will not force him to embrace Christianity. Far from it. The case for Christ can only be made after the possibility of miracles is acknowledged. But insisting on presuppositions that limit our acquisition of knowledge is not a particularly effective way of getting to the truth. And in the end, isn’t that what we all are seeking?