The conversation on miracles continues with a question from David:
“I recognize the weakness you [that is, Randal] pointed out in that God does not have to operate outside of the natural laws he created to cause a miracle. On the other hand, I’m thinking it may be difficult to convince people that God acted if the event is something that would frequently occur naturally. If I pray “God, when I drop this ball, make it hit the floor.” I then drop the ball, and it hits the floor. I don’t really know if God acted other than his general sustaining of the laws of physics. So wouldn’t the definition of a miracle have to include some sense of “This does not normally happen”?”
Notice what is tacitly assumed in David’s comment, namely that a definition of “miracle” is to be considered successful only if it describes the kind of events that would persuade a skeptic.
So let’s try this idea out. Let’s say “miracle” is to be defined as follows:
“an event in which God acts in such a way that any skeptic who observed the event would be persuaded by the evidence that God had, in fact, acted.”
Is this a good definition of miracle? I think we can answer that question by turning to Acts 2:
4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Note what happens here. We start off with an excellent candidate for a miracle: several Aramaic speakers receive the gift of xenoglossia — the ability to speak in languages they had not learned — and this ability is described as a direct result of God’s intervention. Two responses are then described in the crowd. Note first the skeptical group that remains unconvinced and mocks the speakers as being drunk. The tone sounds positively gnu atheist! The fact that this group remains unpersuaded means that Pentecost does not constitute a miracle by the stated definition. This, it seems to me, is a good reason to reject the definition. The problem is that the definition is far too strong. It would be like defining “good argument” like this:
“an argument in which any skeptic who grasped the premises would be persuaded by the conclusion.”
This too is absurdly strong since no argument convinces everybody, so to define a good argument as one which convinces everybody would ensure there are no good arguments. Defining miracle as an instance of divine action which convinces everybody faces a similar fate.
So much for the skeptics of verse 13. I’d like to turn now to those who were “amazed and perplexed”. This group is clearly intrigued by the event and presumably much more open to interpreting it as an instance of God’s action. But note that this group is not defined as those who attribute the event to God’s action. Rather, they are defined by a question: “What does this mean?” It is a question which starts them on the road to many possible conclusions among which are “Yeah, too much wine” and “I just don’t know” and “I think God acted” and “God is doing something new!”
The event of Pentecost is an excellent candidate for being a miracle, for it is an instance of divine action with “sign-significance” (rather than merely an inexplicable anomaly). But its identity as a miracle is not ultimately contingent upon whether all (or even any) of those who witnessed the event conclude that it was, in fact, a miracle.