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Is there room in evolutionary creation to believe in miracles?

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In a Nutshell

God acts in more than one way in the natural world.  God sustains the regular patterns of the physical world, but sometimes chooses to act outside of those patterns.  God’s regular patterns are what scientists describe as natural laws (like gravity or photosynthesis).  God’s actions outside those patterns are usually called supernatural actions or miracles (like raising someone from the dead).  Evolutionary creationists believe in the miracles of the Bible and that God can do miracles today.  Evolutionary creationists also believe that God is just as involved in the regular patterns of the universe as in miracles.

(Updated on March 10, 2012)

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In Detail

Introduction

What is a miracle? In the Bible, miracles, signs, and wonders are performed by prophets and apostles, by Jesus, and in answer to the prayers of God’s people. Biblical miracles are not merely for the amazement of onlookers, but serve God’s kingdom purposes. They always occur within a theological context.

Many atheists see science as explaining away or ruling out miracles. This idea goes back to the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who wrote:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.1

Is Hume right? Do the “laws of nature” prove that miracles simply can’t happen? And if Christians accept mainstream science, must they also reject the miracles of the Bible? To address these questions, let’s first take a closer look at Biblical miracles.

This answer draws heavily from Ard Louis’ scholarly essay Science and Miracles, including several quoted paragraphs.

Two sorts of miracles

Miracles can be split into two types: those that are examples of providential timing (type 1 miracles) and those that can only be viewed as directly violating physical cause-effect relationships (type 2 miracles).

An example of a possible type 1 miracle would be the crossing of the river Jordan by the people of Israel:

Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water's edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. - Joshua 3:15,16

Colin Humphreys, Cambridge professor of material science, has studied this miracle in great detail2 and notes that the text supplies a number of unusual clues, including the fact that the water was blocked up a great distance away at a particular town. He has identified this with a location where the Jordan has been known to temporarily dam up when strong earthquakes cause mudslides (most recently in 1927). For many scientists, the fact that God is working through natural processes makes the miracle more palatable. R. Hooykaas writes

The scientist, even when he is a believer, is bound to try as far as possible to reduce miracles to regularities: the believer, even when he is a scientist, discovers miracles in the most familiar things.3

Of course this doesn’t take away from the fact that there was remarkable timing involved. Perhaps the attraction of this description comes in part because there is a direct corollary with the very common experience of “providential timing” of events, which believers attribute to God’s working.

There are also miracles in the Bible that defy description in terms of current science. Perhaps the most significant of these is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If anything, science has strengthened the case for this not being a type 1 miracle. For example, in John 19:34 we read “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” Modern medicine suggests that this is clear evidence that the pericardium, a membrane around the heart, was pierced, confirming that he was in fact dead. The more we know about the processes of decay that set in after death, the less likely it appears that Jesus could have risen from the dead by any natural means. Rather, science strengthens the case that if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, the event must have occurred through a direct injection of supernatural power into the web of cause and effect that undergirds our physical world – it was a type 2 miracle. Of course the resurrection is central to Christian teaching. “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (I Corinthians 15:14).

Nature is what God does

Miracles happen against the backdrop of the regular day-to-day functioning of natural phenomena. The Bible describes not only miracles, but God’s routine action in the natural world. For example in Psalm 104, that great poem about nature, we read, “He makes springs pour water into the ravines, it flows between the mountains" (Psalm 104:10). The first part of this verse refers to God’s direct action while the second part suggests that water flows through its own natural properties. Read the Psalm for yourself and notice how the point of view changes fluidly back and forth between what we might call the laws of nature and the direct action of God. Such dual descriptions can be found throughout the Bible.

The New Testament is even more explicit. “The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3). “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). In other words, if God were to stop sustaining all things by his powerful word, the world would stop existing. That is why, when describing nature, the Bible so easily switches perspectives depending on whether it is emphasizing the regular behavior of natural phenomena, or their origin in God’s providential sustenance. So, as St. Augustine might say, “Nature is what God does.”4

As Christian thinkers throughout the Middle Ages wrestled with the questions of miracles and God’s action in the world, the following ideas emerged: if the regularities of nature are a manifestation of the sustenance of God then one would expect them to be trustworthy and consistent, rather than capricious. The regular behavior of nature could be viewed as the “customs of the Creator” as it were. Christians glorify God by studying these “laws of nature.” A strong case can be made that such theological realizations helped pave the way for the rise of modern science.5

By the time the Royal Society of London, the world’s first scientific society, was founded in 1660, Christian thinkers like the metaphysical poet John Donne, then dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, could write “the ordinary things in Nature, would be greater miracles than the extraordinary, which we admire most, if they were done but once... only the daily doing takes off the admiration.”6

Miracles and Science

So, do natural laws prevent miracles? No. From a Christian perspective, natural laws do not, and cannot, limit God. Natural laws are merely human descriptions of God’s regular activity in nature. Since God is the creator and sustainer of all physical laws, he clearly has the freedom and ability to suspend those laws when he wishes. Miracles are simply cases where God chooses to work outside his usual patterns.

Can a scientific explanation of a miracle explain it away? No. As we saw above, some miracles (type 1) already have scientific explanations; they are rare but possible events that occur with significant timing. Consider 1 Kings 18, where Elijah prays for rain after a long drought. As he prays, his servant sees a small cloud form over the Mediterranean, which soon grows into a heavy rainstorm. Even in pre-scientific times, rainstorms were considered a normal part of the world, not a miracle. Yet the timing of this rainstorm after a long drought was a clear response to Elijah’s prayer; the precise timing and the theological context make it a miracle. Since type 1 miracles can already be explained scientifically, it is not distressing when a scientist finds an explanation that moves a type 2 miracle to type 1. This does not reduce the mircale’s spiritual significance to the original audience, or imply that God was less active in the miracle.

Miracles and evolutionary creation

Is there room in evolutionary creation to believe in miracles? Yes. Evolutionary creationists, like all Christians, accept the miraculous incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They believe that the Biblical miracles happened and that God can do miracles today. Like other Christians, they may debate whether certain Biblical miracles were type 1 or type 2, but this is not an attempt to explain away God’s involvement in the miracle.

This acceptance of miracles can be shocking to non-believing scientists, many of whom view miracles as superstitious or primitive beliefs. Some atheists view science itself as a savoir, the hero who rescues society from irrational ideas and harmful superstitions like miracles. Rudolph Bultmann, a man famous for his attempts to de-mythologize the New Testament, wrote in 1961 “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”7 By getting rid of the miracle stories in the Bible, Bultmann and his followers hoped to make the Christian story more palatable to modern society. This attitude, however, puts natural law above God, rather than accepting that the Creator can choose to suspend the natural laws he made. Moreover, demythologizing the Bible is inconsistent with the heart of Christianity. The central Christian belief is a stunning type 2 miracle: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If one grants the basic Christian premises that God governs the natural world and that Jesus rose from the dead, then miracles are not surprising at all. The Cambridge evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris notes: “I am not surprised at those [NT miracles] reported, I am surprised that they are so few. What else would you expect when the Creator visits his Creation?”8

Evolutionary creationists differ with other Christians on the question of whether God performed miracles in natural history. Christians agree that God did miracles in human history, but natural history is different. Young Earth Creationists see God creating the earth and life in 6 days through a string of type 2 miracles. Supporters of Intelligent Design see evidence that natural laws are not enough to explain the development of life today. Evolutionary creationists, however, see God creating using regular patterns that can be described scientifically. This is not from a distrust of miracles. Some evolutionary creationists argue that the context of natural history is simply not appropriate for a miracle: since there were no people living millions of years ago, much of the theological purpose of signs and wonders is lost. Other evolutionary creationists are comfortable in principle with God creating species through type 2 miracles, but they simply don’t see scientific evidence for it. The evidence points to a God who chose to use regular chains of cause and effect to bring about life.

Are miracles in natural history necessary to display God’s glory? No. God’s glory is abundantly displayed through processes we understand scientifically, from the intricacy of a cell to the beauty of a star cluster. Our wonder is not diminished by scientific explanations; instead, science gives us a glimpse of how God works. In fact, the very regularity of the natural world is a testimony to God’s faithfulness. In Jeremiah 33, God specifically invites us to look at the regular patterns of nature, “the fixed laws of heaven and earth” (Jer 33:25), as an example of how he will be faithful in his promises. God’s glory does not just appear in miracles. Evolutionary creationists encourage all Christians to celebrate God’s actions through natural law as full displays of his “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20).

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Further Reading

More from BioLogos

  • Louis, Ard. “Miracles and Science: The Long Shadow of David Hume” white paper for BioLogos, June 2010 (PDF). Louis’ essay is quoted extensively in the answer above.

Recommended External Resources

  • Haarsma, Loren. “Does Science Exclude God? Natural Law, Chance, Miracles, and Scientific Practice,” Perspective on an Evolving Creation, Keith B. Miller, ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003. (Book info)
  • Humphreys, Colin. The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories. London: Continuum, 2003.
  • Humphreys, Colin. “Can Scientists Believe in Miracles?” Lecture sponsored by Christians in Science, 2004. (PDF, mp3).

Notes

  1. David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, (1748).
  2. Colin Humphreys The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories, (Harper Collins, San Francisco, 2003).
  3. R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids,1972)
  4. Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis, c AD 391
  5. See e.g. R. Hooykaas, op cit
  6. John Donne, Eighty Sermons, #22, 1640
  7. R. Bultmann in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. H. W. Bartsch, trans. R. H. Fuller (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 5.
  8. Simon Conway Morris, “Hulsean Sermon,” Great St. Mary’s, Cambridge 26 Feb, (2006).