Can we believe in miracles?
As I read the Bible, I find many stories of miracles—events that seem to be caused by factors beyond the scope of human power. Being a Christian, I accept the authenticity of those stories but, as a science student, I find them contrary to the observable laws of nature. How can I integrate my faith in God, my trust in the Bible, and my growing knowledge of science? —An Inquisitive Reader
There are a number of assumptions and questions rolled into this one statement. Let’s deal with them in order. First, the fact of miraculous phenomena mentioned in the Bible. Theologians from David Strauss to Rudolf Bultmann have tried to interpret Christianity without miracles, but the questioner is correct—the biblical record contains many events that are inexplicable by our common experience. Hence, one cannot deny the miracles and read Scripture with integrity. This is especially true of the Gospel accounts about Jesus.
For example, there are 20 miracle stories and various summaries of healings found in Mark that make up approximately one-third of its content. So the Bible reader is soon confronted with the phenomenon of miracle. Some of these, like the stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41), might be classified as a miraculous “coincidence,” and thus not “contrary to the observable laws of nature.” However, many of them, such as the spontaneous cleansing of a leper, or walking across a storm-tossed lake (Mark 1:40-45; 6:45-52) are events outside of our normal experience. And there is little doubt that these accounts go back to acts of Jesus; they are not later mythological inventions of the early church. As Graham Twelftree has demonstrated, a Jesus without miracles is not the Jesus of the Gospels, nor the Jesus of history (see Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999]).
Second, how do we describe a miracle? The questioner suggests “events that seem to be caused by factors beyond the scope of human power” and events “contrary to the observable laws of nature.” The word “law” in this definition can be misleading. A law of nature is really a shorthand way of describing what the great bulk of people have observed under the same conditions most if not all of the time. If we ask where these observable consistencies of nature—its “laws”—came from, we are confronted with one alternative: they either just are, or they come from a supreme intelligence. The questioner accepts the latter. But once one accepts the reality of God, the possibility of miracle shifts to another plane.
Once the wisdom of God is considered the indispensable ingredient to provide the universe with meaning and rationality, and to give us minds with which to discern the laws of nature, then extraordinary activity by God in the world cannot be debarred on logical or even empirical grounds.
I say “extraordinary” rather than “supernatural” for I believe that God is not only present in the miraculous events of the Gospels, but also in the common affairs of life. He is as much present when we bury our dead as He was when Jesus raised Lazarus from the tomb. In the case of a miracle, it’s the mode not the fact of God’s activity that is different.
Third, how do we integrate faith with science? Miracles must be consistent with the character and purposes of God. They are not just wonders to be screened on some “That’s Incredible” TV show. Why does God on occasion reveal His presence by temporarily making an exception to the usual rhythm of nature? It must be because the event is consistent and purposeful within the divine pattern of action. Miracles for the Christian are never arbitrary, trivial, or capricious events. Miracles are anchored in faith.
In the Gospels, faith is both the preparation for and the product of Jesus’ miracles. The resurrection of Jesus is, of course, the supreme miracle of the gospel and is indeed the basis of Christianity. The grounds for believing in it are cogent, but no amount of evidence can convince those who at the outset assume the impossibility of such an event. Science at its best engenders a spirit of humility as well as inquiry. Humility in both faith and science is the best attitude for harmonizing the two spheres of understanding.
Norman H. Young (Ph.D., Manchester University) teaches theology at Avondale College in Australia. This article is an abridged version of his essay The Question of Miracles, volume I in the Christian Spirituality and Science series published by the Avondale Academic Press. For subscriptions, contact the editor, Dr. Kevin de Berg, at P.O. Box 19; Cooranbong, N.S.W.; Australia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org