Was It a Miracle That Saved Our Lives?

At 2:52pm on October 21st, 1971, a gas explosion destroyed Clarkston shops in Scotland, killing 22 people and injuring 100.[1] Eighty-two minutes prior to this event, at 1:30pm, my mother May Gray strapped my sister and I into our new car. She didn’t realise it, but that day she intended to visit the dress shop at the epicentre of the looming explosion. Unexpectedly, our car refused to start. For 30 minutes, May made multiple failed attempts to start the car. Finally, she gave up and abandoned her shopping trip.

Later that day, my Dad returned home from work. He checked the car, and it started first time. The following day, May started the car without any trouble. Prior to October 21st, and at all times until we sold the car three years later, it never failed to start that way again. The only known exception to its reliability record occurred between 1:30pm and 2:00pm on the day of the Clarkston explosion. If the car had started during that period of time, we would have probably died at the shopping centre. I attached a picture of me and my Dad with the car to this blog. It was a light blue, 1970 Vauxhall Viva.

Miracles and Natural Law

Was the car’s temporary failure a curious coincidence, or can I reasonably claim that God miraculously saved our lives that day? I will use Richard L. Purtill’s definition of “miracle”. Miracles are events caused by God’s power that are temporary exceptions to the ordinary course of nature to show God has acted in nature.[2] Did a miracle occur for us on 21st October 1971? Scottish philosopher David Hume would resist this conclusion, viewing miracles as violations of unalterably uniform natural laws.[3] Hume, and contemporary skeptics with him, may suppose the car’s failure to start prior to the explosion was merely a coincidence.

However, Hume’s skepticism is problematic. Hume had an empiricist approach to epistemology. He thought people only experience sense impressions, “a constancy in certain impressions [and so] … perception of the sun … returns … as at its first appearance.”[4] Natural laws don’t exist to Hume. Rather, human custom leads us to identify sense impressions as objects. He is therefore skeptical of inductive inference. Scott Smith summarises Hume’s position; we may see three black ravens, but to infer therefore all ravens are black, is knowledge we cannot justifiably hold on Hume’s empiricism.[5] Consequently, because he only experiences discrete sensory input, and rejects induction, he cannot know natural laws exist. Hume is therefore inconsistent to observe inviolable natural law when arguing against miracles.

Today, natural laws are believed to describe what nature does, they do not prescribe what nature must do. Craig Keener observes that, when I drop a pen with one hand and catch it with the other, I am not breaking the law of gravity. Rather, I am intervening in its operation.[6] Purtill defined a miracle as a temporary, divine exception to the normal flow of natural law. It seems reasonable to assume that, if God created nature, he could choose to intervene if necessary. C S Lewis builds on this idea noting that if God fed new information into a natural system, the system would simply react in predictable natural ways.[7] Perhaps our car’s failure to start was a natural response to an intentional exception to natural law.

Anti-Supernatural Bias

Hume’s second problem is that his argument against miracles appears to be circular. Because he defines natural law as inviolable, and miracles as violations of natural law, he rules out the possibility of miracles axiomatically. Consequently, no amount of evidence is sufficient to prove a miracle occurred; Keener says Hume rejects any evidence contradicting his thesis or his anti-supernatural bias.[8] He therefore assumes what he intends to prove; there are no miracles. Arguments like this are logically fallacious by begging the question. Also, Hume may disagree that eyewitness testimony from 1971 supports a miracle claim. He might also suggest my family are ignorant or false witnesses for positing the miraculous.[9] Hume possibly never experienced a miracle himself, but it does not follow my family are therefore ignorant fabricators for supposing occurrence of a divine miracle.

Scientific Proof of Miracles

Contemporary skeptics may follow Hume and challenge me to prove scientifically the miraculous nature of the events from 1971. If I cannot prove a miracle, I cannot claim a miracle; “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”[10] But their challenge fails to meet my definition of miracle. How can one scientifically prove a one off, temporary exception to the normal flow of events? Miracles are non-repeatable, so I cannot use scientific methods to investigate them. Miracles are also exceptions. Michael G. Strauss imagines aliens studying traffic lights to understand how humans control traffic, and they figure out what red, amber, and green mean. Suddenly, an ambulance appears blaring its siren as it zooms through the junction, breaking all the rules. This doesn’t make the traffic law void, rather it shows that rules can sometimes be broken in urgent circumstances, like when people’s lives are at stake.[11] Consequently, if I remain open to the possible occurrence of one-off exceptional events, and I do not trap myself in Hume’s circular anti-supernatural argument, then I can employ scientific tools to explore the evidence from 1971. Having gathered all the data about the motor car’s history, the people involved, and the timing of the events, one can use this data to draw an abductive inference. It is possible that an exceptional event overruled the normal operation of the car.

Is there a God Anyway?

Skeptics may claim we experienced a coincidence of events because no God exists to do miracles.  But it is not clear how the skeptic can prove God’s non-existence. I would suggest the Bible argues convincingly when it says God’s invisible qualities are not primarily seen through miracles, but through nature;[12] the heavens declare the glory of God.[13] If the natural universe we inhabit makes God likely, it seems possible that in certain circumstances, God could make exceptions to nature for his own reasons. Given the powerful, creative, and generous God revealed by nature, it seems reasonable to suppose that as our lives hung in the balance in October 1971, God was able and willing to influence the natural function of the car at the right time to save us.

I am Warranted to Claim God Miraculously Saved Our Lives

I think I am warranted to claim knowledge of God’s miraculous intervention on October 21st, 1971. I am rational, and there are good natural arguments for God’s existence. I cannot, however, prove the events were not a coincidence. This remains a possibility. Yet James L. Garlow and Keith Wall observe two helpful points. First, God’s intervention can occur through natural or supernatural events that fulfil his purpose. If the event is also improbable, and is spiritually significant, this suggests God’s possible involvement.[14] Our car’s behaviour seemed highly improbable, and our lives were at stake. Second, Garlow and Wall observe miracles show God’s involvement in nature, and demonstrate his character, resulting in increased faith in God.[15] Following the event in question, my family has experienced this increased faith. Consequently, given the improbability of the event, its spiritual significance, and the increase in faith that has resulted, this suggests our survival that day may have been a divine miracle.


[1] Magdalene Dalziel, Remembering the Clarkston Toll disaster of 1971 – a day Glasgow will never forget, Glasgow Live, 21st October, 2020, https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/history/remembering-clarkston-toll-disaster-1971-19143705.

[2] Lee Strobel, The Case for Miracles A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural, (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 2018), 27.

[3] David Hume, “Of Miracles,” in R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R Habermas, In Defence of Miracles A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, (Leicester:Apollos, 1997), 33.

[4] David Hume, “A Treatise of Human Nature,” in R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 85.

[5] Smith, 87.

[6] Strobel, 88.

[7] C S Lewis, Miracles Do They Really Happen?, (London:William Collins, 1947), 93 – 95, summarized.

[8] Strobel, 88.

[9] Geivett and Habermas, 36.

[10] Geivett and Habermas, 30.

[11] Strobel, 167.

[12] Romans 1:20.

[13] Psalm 19:1.

[14] James L. Garlow and Keith Wall, Miracles are for Real What Happens When Heaven Touches Earth, (Grand Rapids:Bethany House Publishers, 2011), 119-121.

[15] Ibid., 64-65.

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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