This post is part of my series on Miracles. For the index, see here.
I am currently working my way through an article by John Beaudoin entitled “The Devil’s Lying Wonders”. The article considers the problems that the existence of the Devil might pose for those who wish to reliably identify God’s miracles.
The problem was introduced the last time out. In this post, we will consider three criteria that are sometimes proposed to help us distinguish God’s miracles from those of the Devil. The three criteria are:
- (1) God’s miracles display greater power than the Devil’s;
- (2) God’s miracles have beneficent, rather than harmful, effects.
- (3) Where the miracle is done to attest the authority of some messenger, God’s miracles would be consistent with both scripture and his moral perfection.
We'll look at each of these criteria in turn. Before we do so note that, for the purposes of this discussion, there are two ways in which a miracle can be performed by a supernatural agent: (i) the supernatural agent could directly cause the miraculous event; or (ii) the supernatural agent could temporarily give a natural agent (i.e. human being) the power to cause a miraculous event.
1. The Power Criterion
According to this criterion, God’s miracles will carry the mark of his greater power when compared to the devil. John Locke was a fan of this criterion and he felt it could be successfully deployed when trying to tell whether an alleged prophet was acting with assistance of God or the Devil.
Several scriptural passages are cited in support of this criterion. The first comes from the contest between Moses and Aaron (acting with the support of God), and the Pharaoh’s sorcerers (presumably acting with the support of the devil or other fallen angels) in the book of Exodus. If the report is to be believed (and no one is saying that it should), then the sorcerers were able to reproduce some but not all of the miracles produced by God. Thus it was God’s superior power that separated the two sides in the end.
Similar contests take place between Elijah and the worshippers of Baal in 1 Kings 18, and between Paul and Elymas in Acts 13. In both cases, God’s superior power makes itself known.
There are several things to be said about this criterion.
First, outside of the competitive context, the criterion is likely to be useless because we will have nothing with which to compare the putative miracle in order to determine whether it emanates from a being of lesser power. This is exacerbated by the fact that we have no knowledge of the upper limit of the Devil’s power, and that God, if the bible is to be believed, frequently performs miracles that are relatively unspectacular in form.
Second, even within the competitive context, its not clear that this criterion works. Why not? Well, in the scriptural passages cited in its support we already know which side is representing God and which side is representing the Devil (or other demons). But what if we don’t know this? What if both sides are actually demonic? Isn’t a fake contest something that the devil might rustle up for the sake of deception?
Taking these two problems on board, it seems that the power criterion is a failure.
2. The Other Two Criteria
Beaudoin says that criteria (2) and (3) can be treated jointly because they suffer from a common flaw. The flaw is that they assume the Devil can only perpetrate harm and blasphemy in the short-run, and that God’s actions are always manifestly beneficent in the short-run.
Both elements of this assumption can be disputed.
First, as discussed in part one, the devil can actively try to deceive us by performing actions or miracles that appear to be beneficent in the short-run. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of thing he would do if he wanted to deceive us. (This idea is explored with some mirth by Stephen Law in his article “The Evil God Challenge").
Second, if skeptical theists are to be believed, then God may have beyond our ken reasons for allowing short-run evils. The skeptical theist argument is usually applied to natural evils, but there is no reason why it couldn’t be applied to apparently evil miracles as well. Furthermore, even if we are not enamoured with skeptical theism, the same objection could hold for certain forms of theodicy, e.g. soul-building theodicies.
In conclusion then, none of the three criteria outlined above offer good prospects for reliably distinguishing between the miracles of God and the miracles of the devil. Are there any other criteria that could work? We’ll consider this possibility in the next entry.