Does modern science make miracles impossible?
At BioLogos, we accept both mainstream science, which points to God’s working through regular patterns to sustain his creation, as well as miracles, which testify to his character and Kingdom.
Crossing of the Red Sea (Matte Painting) – E. Sadık Erkut
What is a miracle? In the Bible, events variously described as miracles, signs, and wonders are performed by prophets and apostles, by Jesus, and in answer to the prayers of God’s people. Biblical miracles do not occur merely for the amazement of onlookers, but serve God’s kingdom purposes. They always occur within a theological context.
Some atheists view science itself as rescuing society from irrational ideas and harmful superstitions like miracles. They believe miracles are violations of natural law, and are by definition impossible. 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
These ideas are not unique to atheists; even some modern theists have believed that science disproves miracles. For example, Rudolph Bultmann, a theologian famous for his attempts to “de-mythologize” the New Testament, wrote in 1961 that, “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.”2 By getting rid of the miracle stories in the Bible, Bultmann and his followers hoped to make Christianity more palatable to modern society.
Are Hume and Bultmann 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 God’s action as described in the Bible.
Nature is what God does
Miracles happen against the backdrop of the regular day-to-day functioning of natural phenomena. The Bible describes God acting directly and routinely in the natural world. For example in Psalm 104:10 we read, “He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains.” 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. Throughout the Psalm 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 Old Testament.
The New Testament continues this pattern and makes explicit that all of creation is actively sustained by God through Christ: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3), and “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.
When describing nature, then, the Bible easily switches perspectives depending on whether it is emphasizing the regular behavior of natural phenomena, or God’s providential sustenance. The authors do not make a distinction between natural and supernatural events. These are modern categories. As St. Augustine might say, “Nature is what God does.”3
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.” Scientists 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.4
In addition to God working through regular patterns, the Bible also describes miracles that defy description in terms of current science. At the heart of Christian belief is a stunning miracle: the resurrection of Jesus from the 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 without, above, or against his ordinary providential working.
Miracles and evolutionary creation
Like all Christians, Evolutionary Creationists believe that the biblical miracles happened and that God can do miracles today. The Cambridge evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris notes:
I am not surprised at those [New Testament miracles] reported, I am surprised that they are so few. What else would you expect when the Creator visits his Creation?5
However, Evolutionary Creationists differ with other Christian positions on origins about the extent to which God performed miracles in natural history. Young Earth Creationists see God creating the Earth and life in six calendar days through a series of miracles. Old Earth creationists accept the much longer time-scales of mainstream science, but argue that God intervened miraculously at certain points in this long history to create certain features of the natural world. Supporters of Intelligent Design believe that natural laws are not enough to explain the development of life, and appeal to interventions into nature by an outside intelligence such as the God of the Bible.
Evolutionary Creationists, on the other hand, emphasize that God has created throughout natural history using regular patterns that can be described scientifically. This is not because we are opposed in principle to the concept of miracles, but because science has proved extraordinarily capable of filling in the gaps in our knowledge. Because scientific explanations do not replace God, but simply describe his regular activity, we are in no danger of “explaining away” God. Also, Evolutionary Creationists generally argue that the context of natural history is not fitting for a miracle: since there were no people living millions of years ago, the theological purpose of signs and wonders would be lost. Together, the biblical and scientific evidence points to a God who chose to use regular chains of cause and effect to bring about the world we see today.
In summary, 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 supersede those laws when he wishes. Miracles are simply cases where God chooses to work outside his usual patterns. In the Bible, miracles always point to something: they are not done simply for amazement or to demonstrate God’s existence, but to testify to the Kingdom of God. At BioLogos, we accept both mainstream science, which points to God’s working through regular patterns to sustain his creation, as well as miracles, which testify to his character and Kingdom.
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