Dictionary definitions change over time in response to how people actually use words. But they also serve as a standard for how we ought to use words now. So I have dictionary.com on my bookmarks bar and go to it several times per week to see if I’m using a word correctly.
One of this week’s sessions was to look up “miracle” and see whether we can appropriately say that the COVID vaccines are a miracle. Here are the first three definitions given:
- an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.
- such an effect or event manifesting or considered as a work of God.
- a wonder; marvel.
I think lots of people look at #3 and think, “OK, maybe in a loose sense we can say ‘It was a miracle that I passed that test’ or talk about the Miracle on Ice when the US hockey team improbably beat the Russians in the 1980 Olympics. But those aren’t really miracles.” And even #2 looks suspicious when it says “considered as a work of God.” That sounds like saying the birth of a baby is a miracle and we may be grateful to God for it. But we know that biology explains that process pretty well. In the more precise sense, it’s not really a miracle.
It’s #1 that most people take to be the real definition of a miracle: it is beyond the capacity of nature, and we must invoke supernatural forces to explain it. In that sense, the incredibly effective and rapid development of the COVID vaccines are not miracles. They were developed by scientists in laboratories and adhere to perfectly explainable laws of nature.
A Biblical View of Miracles
But I’d suggest that our thinking and our language about miracles has been corrupted, and maybe we should oppose definition #1 as an act of linguistic resistance. It was David Hume, the 18th century skeptical philosopher, who popularized this understanding of miracles. In his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he said, “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature” (p. 76). That fits with definition #1 and the more precise meaning of “miracle” lots of people use today. But it doesn’t fit so well with Scripture.
Biblical authors didn’t really have the concept “law of nature.” That’s a much later development in the European West. So they would never have described miracles as exceptions or violations to that modern idea. But even in their pre-scientific way of looking at the world, they knew that axe heads don’t usually float (2 Kings 6), a few loaves and fish don’t normally feed thousands of people (Mark 6), and dead people almost always stay dead! When these kinds of things happen in Scripture, the authors typically describe them as “signs and wonders.”
But even if we impose our modern understanding of a law of nature back onto events described in Scripture, we see that miraculous events do not perfectly match up with “violations of natural law.” Of course some do: water turning into wine, and bodies resurrecting from the dead go against the laws of nature we’ve discovered. But other miraculous events in Scripture don’t: the great catch of fish in Luke 5 may be a remarkable coincidence, but it doesn’t violate any laws of nature. Neither does the calming of the storm (Matt. 8), nor my favorite, when Isaiah walked around naked and barefoot for three years—which the Lᴏʀᴅ himself described as a sign and wonder against Egypt and Ethiopia (Isaiah 20).
On the other side, not everything in Scripture that seems to violate our laws of nature would be miraculous on their view of things. Passages in both the Old (Deut 13:2) and New (Matt. 24:24) Testaments warn against false miracles and false prophets—people doing amazing things that may have “violated natural laws” but don’t count as true miracles in the biblical way of understanding such things.
Miracles in the Bible were rare or extraordinary events, to be sure. But more than that, they were “signs and wonders” that pointed to the reality of the Kingdom of God. They showed people something important about God and God’s plans for the world.
COVID Vaccines and the Kingdom of God
So is the COVID vaccine a rare or extraordinary event that points to the reality of the Kingdom of God?
I don’t think many would argue with the first criterion there: all the people involved in the process have talked about how extraordinary it has been to develop these vaccines so much quicker than we believed possible, and that they are so much more effective at preventing COVID than they had dreamed. It has truly been a rare and extraordinary event.
But does the vaccine point to the reality of the Kingdom of God? I say yes!
In Luke 4 Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah about what the Kingdom of God will ultimately look like: release of the captives, setting the oppressed free, and… healing the sick. And the rest of his earthly ministry bears witness to the value of physical wholeness—that this is what God desires for everyone.
And when we take the vaccine, we too are pointing to the Kingdom of God by protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.
But Jesus didn’t heal all the sick people. Jesus came into a fallen world where people get sick and die before they should, and we all suffer in other ways because of the prevalence of sin. He started the mission of healing our world, but that will only be completed when God brings about the fullness of the Kingdom in the New Heaven and New Earth. We live in the between time—in the “already, but not yet” where the Kingdom of God has broken into our world, but is not yet completely realized.
It is one of those paradoxes we might not be able to fully explain that on the one hand it is only God who can bring about the fullness of the Kingdom, but on the other hand we are called to work toward the goals of the Kingdom—to bring as much of heaven to earth as possible by working for the release of captives, freedom for the oppressed, and healing for the sick.
And just like the Scriptural view of signs and wonders, I see no good reason to distinguish between healing acts that violate laws of nature and those that don’t. So Francis Collins, Kizzmekia Corbett, Tony Fauci, and many others are giving us glimpses into the Kingdom of God through their scientific work that prevents millions of people from getting sick and dying. And when we take the vaccine, we too are pointing to the Kingdom of God by protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.
This extraordinary vaccine is a sign and wonder that shows something important about God and God’s plans for the world. That means in the biblical way of thinking, it is a miracle.
Thanks be to God!
Do you believe the COVID-19 vaccine is a miracle?
At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.