Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Devil's Lying Wonders (Part 2)

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.


  1. Excellent series so far. The link to "Evil God Challenge" seems to be broken.

    I'm not convinced by your dismissal of #3. #3 seems to be the standard Christian view, and I think it essentially implies cessationism, which would make the discussion moot. What am I missing?

  2. I'll fix the link. Thanks for pointing it out.

    As for cessationism and the third criterion, I'm not sure that the problem goes away if you believe that there are no miracles in the present day. Unless one is taking scripture to be an unassailable edifice in one's web of beliefs, could it not be that miracles and messages that are attributed to God in scripture are in fact the product of the devil? Does that sound ridiculous to you (as a believer)?

    I actually think there is a more interesting argument to be made here concerning the problems that common knowledge of the devil's deceptiveness poses for both devil and for religious believers. One could employ a game theoretic analysis of this. I was tempted to do so in this entry but I decided not to in the end. I'm going to work on the idea a little bit more and put something up in a couple of months...

  3. Thanks, the Law paper is good. That was one of my favorite arguments when I was an atheist. When confronted with the "prime mover" argument for God, I would typically quote Marquis de Sade, "Explaining away one absurdity with another is no explanation" (and maybe bringing in B-theory of time). Then I would follow up with, "Even if you accept the absurdity of a big guy in the sky named Jehova, why is it any less absurd to accept that he might be tricking us all?"

    I even argued that their own scriptures revealed their God as a trickster who most probably was not on their side. Or that God was a demi-God to an evil God, and so on.

    However, specifically on the topic of cessationism and miracles, I think your response #2 doesn't work, and Law merely glosses over it in his section titled "history". I say this because cessationism implies very long witnesses of history and doesn't suffer from the problem of "assuming 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."

    I think of it like my previous wife. About three times in our short but passionate marriage, she told me a story about a man who loved his wife SO MUCH that he donated a kidney to his wife. Talk aout game theory! I started wondering if she needed a kidney, and wondering whether or not this marriage would really last long enough to justify blowing my only spare kidney. Was the marriage just a sham, perpetrated by her to make a play for my kidney?

    How reasonable is it for a man to seriously entertain the possibility that his wife married him for his kidney? It oculd be perfectly reasonable, depending on the circumstance. But it certainly becomes less reasonble as trust accumulates over long periods of time, and maybe it eventually becomes a moot point. Also, I made sure to learn my current wife's feelings about organ donation before getting married this time.

    It's like Shakespeare's Othello. Iago will be able to infinitely raise new doubts; maybe Desdemona has been faking it all along. How can one ever know? But at some point, through trust accrued over time (not tested via doubt) it becomes unreasonable to seriously entertain those doubts, and maybe it becomes a moot point. I mean if Othello hasn't bee cuckolded by the time Desdemona is 70, it's safe to say it won't happen.

    There is obviously no way to ever refute the evil God hypothesis, and there is no way to be certain that my ex-wife never wanted my kidneys. But the cessationist position shifts the argument to one where you can talk about how reasonable it is to trust someone based on your accumulated experiences with that person.

  4. Well, if nothing else you've inspired me to rewatch the version of Othello with Ian McKellan playing Iago. I have it on DVD .... somewhere.

    I understand your point: it would be silly to believe somebody was evil or tricking you if your accumulated experience with that person suggested otherwise (or, at least, gave no hint an ulterior motive).

    However, I feel we don't have that weight of accumulated evidence. I think the evidence is a mixed bag. There are plenty of good things in this world, but there are also plenty of bad things. The mixed message makes me favour the hypothesis of indifference over the hypothesis of intelligent creator (be they good or evil).

    That, incidentally, is why I don't really like Stephen Law's argument. At least, not in the form he presents it. He seems to argue that "well, the evil god hypothesis is clearly ridiculous, nobody believes it. But since it's a mirror image of the good god hypothesis, that must be ridiculous too."

    I don't see it that way. I think the evidence for the good god hypothesis and the evil god hypothesis is (roughly) equal, and so, to use Hume's phrase, there is a mutual destruction of the evidence and you end up with indifference.