Friday, February 11, 2011

The Devil's Lying Wonders (Part 1)

This post is part of my series on miracles. For an index see here.

One of the major components of this series on miracles will be its coverage of some of the contemporary debate about Hume’s argument and the various Bayesian interpretations thereof. However, before I get to that, I want to cover some of the lesser-discussed problems with arguments to and from miracles. I do so because it is important to realise that the problems with these arguments do not begin and end with Hume.

With this in mind, over the next few posts I will be covering John Beaudoin’s article “The Devil’s Lying Wonders”. The article looks at the problems that the alleged existence of the devil creates for those who wish to reliably identify God’s miracles.

1. Introduction: The Problem of the Devil
Beaudoin begins his article by noting that many Christians take the existence of the devil seriously. This creates a problem for them because it could be that miraculous events they have attributed to God are actually attributable to the devil. He cites the example of St. Theresa of Avila as someone who was so worried about this problem that she developed a set of criteria for distinguishing the devil’s acts from God’s.

Is there really a problem here? Could we not argue that God and the Devil have diametrically opposed characteristics and that these characteristics would be reflected in their deeds? There are three things that count against this conclusion:

  • (a) Although not omnipotent, the Devil is usually assumed to have supernatural powers that allow him to work remarkable wonders that might appear to a finite intellect to have a divine origin.

  • (b) The Devil is assumed to be vastly more intelligent than ordinary human beings and so could have designs and methods that are inscrutable to us.

  • (c) The tradition maintains that the Devil uses his powers for the purposes of deception and imposture, occasionally even going so far as to disguise himself as a benign.

Of these three, it is (c) that creates the most serious problem for the believer. Assuming God always works good miracles, but assuming that the Devil will try to deceive us by performing similar miracles, we will genuinely struggle to distinguish between miracles that are attributable to God and miracles that are attributable to the devil.

What’s more, the idea that the Devil could engage in such deceptive miracles is one that has considerable Biblical support. Beaudoin cites two main passages in support of this:

“For there shall arise false Christs, and false Prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the elect (Matthew 24:24, KJV).”
“And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth ... and he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. And he deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast (Rev. 13:11-14, KJV).”

No wonder St. Theresa of Avila was worried.

2. Lying Wonders and Counterfeit Miracles
Beaudoin suggests that one initial response to this type of problem is to claim that the Devil does not have the power to perform genuine miracles; instead, he only has the power to perform “lying wonders” or “counterfeit miracles”. The support for this idea comes from Second Thessalonians 2:9.

Presumably, the idea here is that the Devil’s “miracles” are little more than conjuring tricks or illusions that do not have a genuinely supernatural origin or cause. Thus, distinguishing them from true miracles would be akin to distinguishing a genuine magic trick from something involving trickery or deception. Think about how James Randi debunked Peter Popoff and you have the general picture.

Beaudoin thinks there are some problems with this response.

First, the only scriptural support for the idea that the Devil cannot perform genuine miracles -- i.e. ones with genuine supernatural causes -- comes from Second Thessalonians. Elsewhere in the New Testament the language describing the Devil’s miracles (semeia kai terata) is the same as that used to describe Jesus’s miracles.

Second, the Devil is supposed to be a fallen angel with supernatural powers. Why would his ability to work signs and wonders be limited to signs and wonders of the non-supernatural kind? There seems to be no conceptual justification for this limitation.

Third, modern definitions of “miracle” tend to say that a miracle is simply any event for which operating natural causes are insufficient and thus are in need of a supernatural force for their explanation. Since the devil is a supernatural being, there no reason why he couldn’t supply such a force.

Although we haven’t covered much of the article to this point, this is a natural place to break off. Next time out, we’ll cover three proposed criteria for distinguishing the work of the devil from a miracle of God.

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