Miracles are Impossible, Part 1

| By Robert John Russell

Note: Today’s post comes to BioLogos as an excerpt from Jeffrey Burton Russell’s book,Exposing Myths About Christianity: A Guide to Answering 145 Viral Lies and Legends. Russell is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and in this text, he critically examines numerous “viral lies and legends” about Christianity that have spread through popular culture in recent years. The idea that miracles are preposterous lies is a favorite attack against faith by the likes of the New Atheists, among others. Russell effectively dismantles these attacks by explaining various ways in which, “The statement that nothing can exist that can’t be explained by science is not a scientific statement.”

122. “Miracles are explained away by science.”

The essence of Christianity is based on belief in two overwhelming miracles: the creation of the cosmos and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Neither of these can be explained away by science. A miracle is a supernatural event, which in its very nature is inaccessible to science, and any scientist honestly open to inquiry into natural phenomena—which is her vocation—will admit as much. The statement that nothing can exist that can’t be explained by science is not a scientific statement. “What is the philosophical argument or scientific experiment that conclusively assigns to miracles this supreme degree of unlikelihood?”[1]There isn’t one. Some atheists claim that miracles would make science impossible on the grounds that if there is a God who can intervene in natural events there can be no regularity in natural events.[2] But the rare suspension of natural regularities does not mean that natural regularities cannot exist. Some say that God should submit himself to the scientific tests of people in the twenty-first century. Aside from the obvious fact that God cannot be scientifically tested, this idea of twenty-first century intellectual elitists is chronological ethnocentricity, the arrogant assumption that “we” know better about everything than other people at other times. The idea of the regularities of God’s ordered universe is compatible with science; and the Christian idea of such regularities is one of the most important sources of science. People who believe in miracles usually don’t think of them as God’s “breaking” the laws of nature but as God’s being constantly attentive to his cosmos.

Antitheists argue that a universe made by God would be different from one made by only natural occurrences. To them, the universe appears to have no signs of being made by a planner. But there are such signs, in the order of the universe, in the direction of time, and the existence of miracles. The antitheists simply exclude the evidence without examining it.[3]

Statistics show that most Americans believe in miracles. Elitist atheists reply that most Americans are dolts. Of people 45 years of age and over, 80% believe in miracles, 41% believe that they occur every day, and 37% claim to have witnessed at least one. 85% of women believe, and 73% of men (males being more inclined to the materially practical). 86% of people with high school diplomas believe, and 71% with college degrees. As with other religious indicators, the big division is financial: 86% of people making less than $25,000 a year believe, as contrasted with 78% of those making $75,000 or more.[4] The more comfortably off one is, the less one is likely to believe in miracles—or anything supernatural. But it may be that folks working hard to support their families are more connected with actual reality than people patting one another on the back in expensive restaurants for being so much better than the folks serving them.

The atheist Michael Shermer tried to reconcile science and miracles through “the Law of Large Numbers,” which says that “an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials…. Events with a-million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America.”[5] This view mistakes marvels or wonders for miracles. Strange marvels have occurred, such as rains of frogs, but these eventually have a scientific explanation. Small wonders are scientifically possible, but a gigantic wonder such as the resurrection of a really dead person is outside the boundaries of science. Shermer’s view relies upon statistics about wonders, but miracles are immune to statistics. There are no odds on miracles. Scientifically the odds against a resurrection are ∞:1, but religiously the chance of a miraculous resurrection is 0:0 or x:x. There is no way of predicting any odds of its occurring. It either occurs—or not. Therefore when one prays for a miracle one is not playing against the odds. Whether a miracle happens or not is entirely out of the realm of prediction. Christians, by the way, are usually cautious in reporting a miracle because reported miracles are usually mere marvels, hallucinations, or frauds.

Christian theology doesn’t say that “God can do anything,” but “God can do anything that isn’t self contradictory.” An old question is whether God can create a stone heavier than he can lift. The answer is of course not, and this answer is no limitation on God’s power but a statement of the internal logic of God. William of Ockham (1285-1347), the inventor of “Occam’s Razor,” made an important distinction between God’s absolute power and his power expressed in the order of the universe he creates.[6] God has the absolute power to suddenly change the relation between the sun and the Earth, or to turn a senator into a duck. But God’s “ordered power” prevents him from doing either. God’s absolute power is absolutely unlimited, but he limits his own ordered power. Ockham’s idea was, by the way, an essential step toward science as well as an essential basis of theology. People often pray for rain. It is within God’s absolute power to bring rain to their locality without changing the weather patterns of the whole Earth, but it is not within his ordered power. If God suddenly drenched one field or town with rain, that would have an effect on the weather throughout the world.[7]

How, then, do Christians evaluate miracles, how do they separate miracles from marvels, delusions, frauds, and mistakes? On the basis of the reasonableness of the testimony. Before the 1700s, or at least the 1600s, the truth of events was weighed according to testimony, a method still used in some fields such as the legal system. The reasonableness of testimony arose from the reliability of the witnesses. One of the greatest English historians of all time, Bede (673-735) poses a problem for historians. On the one hand, his history of the English people up to his own time has been confirmed in most details by modern history and archeology; on the other hand, it contains numerous accounts of miracles that Bede carefully examines and some of which he declares to be valid. How, modern historians fret, can Bede be so reliable in one way and so unreliable in another? Contemporary historians usually evade the question by patronizing Bede, saying that he was influenced by his culture, as if contemporary historians aren’t influenced by theirs. Bede evaluated reported miracles on the basis of whether they were reasonably reported by reliable witnesses.[8]

In the 1700s rationality shouldered reasonableness aside and replaced it with narrower “rationality.” Events were to be judged true or false, not on the basis of testimony, but on the basis of repeatable experimentation. Rationality works well in the natural sciences, but not well in history, for historians still judge events by the reliability of witnesses. Still, most contemporary historians now simply assume that a witness reporting a miracle (or even a wonder) is unreliable. Humans still observe miracles, but unlike other events, miracles are not allowed as evidence. Yet “it can’t happen” is true only if nothing can happen except things explained by physicalism, and physicalism isn’t a demonstration or even an argument, it’s the axiom (the unsupported assumption) that everything real is physical, followed by the corollary that nothing that isn’t physical is real.[9]  No miracles are allowed because no miracles are possible. This undemonstrated assertion does not explain miracles away at all.


[1] Thomas Crean, God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), 53.
[2] Crean, 52-53.
[3] Gregory E. Ganssle, “Dawkins’ Best Argument against God’s Existence,” in Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, eds., Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2009), 74-86.
[4] AARP: The Magazine (January/February 2009): 50-64.
[5] Ibid. 52.
[6] Potestas absoluta and potestas ordinata.
[7] Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), 78-83, on contingency and continuous creation. Since new things appear every moment, creation is obviously developing, so God must be developing it. But this does not mean that God is himself developing, as Process Theology (which began with Alfred North Whitehead in 1928-1929) states. Everything past, present, and future is contingent on God, who is continuously creating. One might say he foresees every development in nature—or better, he acts with every development in nature.
[8] Rick Kennedy, History of Reasonableness (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2004).
[9] A mathematician suggests that “ideas from information theory need to be taken more seriously by the physicists and cosmologists. The physical universe and the objects in it could be a manifestation of some other reality in which physical objects are structured the way software is…..None of the mathematics used by physicists has its truth predicated on its reducibility to statements about matter and energy.”  Communication to the author by Professor  S. Gill Williamson.



About the Author

Robert John Russell

Robert John Russell is the Founder and Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), and the Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science in Residence at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), Berkeley. He holds a Ph.D. in experimental physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, an M.Div. and an M. A. in theology and science from the Pacific School of Religion (one of nine seminaries in the GTU consortium), an M. S. in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and he triple-majored in physics, religion and music at Stanford University. He is ordained in the United Church of Christ and is a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists. Russell is also the author of Cosmology from Alpha to Omega: Towards the Mutual Creative Interaction of Theology and Science (Fortress Press, 2008). He has co-edited a multi-volume series of books focused on scientific perspectives on divine action through an international research conference program co-sponsored by CTNS and the Vatican Observatory, including such topics as quantum mechanics, chaos theory, evolutionary and molecular biology, the neurosciences, and quantum cosmology.


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