Although naturally impossible, miracles do not need to be understood as opposing natural laws.
Glauber S. Araújo
“God is not dead.” This is the recent motto of an evangelical movie depicting the religious debate in modern society. It is not only a motto, but could be also understood as a response to the constant attacks of neo-atheists like Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Some expected that by the turn of the century, society would be free of religion, and God would be eclipsed as a mythological figure. However, to the surprise of many, God is not dead, nor is religion out of the picture.
Quite to the contrary, religion is alive and thriving. This can be easily confirmed by America’s growing megachurch phenomenon. Christian churches have now become hotspots in town, where people congregate to hear relevant messages, listen to golden-album gospel bands, and witness miracles happening before their very eyes. Religion has adapted to the cultural plurality characteristic of a globalized era. It has adapted itself to different political regimes and even used capitalism for its own benefit. It is not uncommon to hear political candidates using religious expressions to win a few more votes. Religious figures like Pope Francis attract millions of young people to revival and Eucharist celebrations. Books on religious life, spirituality, or the God debate are sold by the millions, and can now be found on the shelves of any small bookstore. Television has also played its part in the popularization of religion. It is not uncommon to find a TV channel broadcasting religious ceremonies from packed-full churches, filled with people expecting entertainment and an experience with the divine.
On the other hand, science has never been so explicit in daily life. There are constant reminders of a new scientific discovery, a new space launch that is about to take place, or a new multi-million-dollar project that is about to discover an unknown element of this vast universe. Computer screens are continually updated with the latest Hubble snapshot and smartphones periodically herald a better, faster, newer version soon to be launched. Renowned scientists like Richard Dawkins, Micho Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tysson, and Bryan Cox have become popular entertainers, sometimes even hosting their own TV programming.
These two realities constantly clash with each other, producing heated debate on science and religion. Is religion still allowed any space in the public sphere when it comes to discussions about what is reality? Has science debunked religion? Should science be the only source on what is ultimate reality? Are these two “nonoverlapping magisteria”?1 Or could they coexist and complement each other? If so, how to explain God in a scientific age? How to understand divine action in a universe controlled by natural laws? Are miracles credible when so much scientific progress seems to point the other way?
To the frustration of many atheists, popular surveys have shown that science has not threatened the presence of religion in popular circles. A 1990 Gallup poll pointed out that four in five Americans agreed with the proposition that “even today, miracles are still performed by the power of God.”2 Studies have also shown that religion has not lost its grip in the scientific community. In 1916, a group of scientists were asked if they believed “in a God to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer,” meaning “more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer.”3 Of the group surveyed, 41.8 percent said Yes. When the survey was repeated in 1996, 39.3 percent said Yes.4 A paradox seems to be occurring in the everyday life of postmodern society.
Is It Reasonable to Believe in Miracles?
This paradox raises a few interesting questions, one of them being: With the current scientific knowledge of nature, is it still reasonable to believe in miracles? Is it possible to think of miracles in such a way that it is rational and compatible with the current scientific understanding of the universe? Acceptance of miracles may depend on how miracles are defined. In a globalized, postmodern world, a definition of miracles can be quite the challenge. Some would attribute a miracle to a change in weather, while others would deny it even when faced with a resurrection.
In the more popular sense, miracles are understood as rare, improbable events that produce admiration and awe in observers or participants. Rare events such as surviving an airplane crash, winning the lottery, or getting into an Ivy League university are commonly said to be miracles. Yet a miracle, in its truest sense, implies a direct divine interference in the natural order of things. Events that could not be produced naturally are said to be miraculous, for they appear to imply a supernatural cause behind the event.
One of the most popular definitions of miracles is that of Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who defined miracles as “a violation of the laws of nature.”5 A more recent definition, which still closely resembles Hume’s “violation” theory, is Mackie’s: “A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it.”6
In both definitions, miracles can be understood as moments in history when the supernatural (God) violates, intrudes, or suspends the laws of nature to bring about a new reality. When Jesus walked on the water, for example, He had to “suspend” the law of gravitational force so that He would not sink into the Sea of Galilee. In His virginal conception, the genetic laws were “infringed,” since there was no male involvement in the fertilization of the egg. Hence, a miracle is understood as a pause of the natural continuum so that God may do as He pleases.
Hume’s Problematic Definition
Hume’s definition, although popular, poses a few problems for those interested in creating a dialogue between religion and science. Although it seems at first to define a real event, by the end of the definition, Hume concludes that divine action is actually impossible. He himself confessed that his definition was aimed at ending the debate on divine action.7 Some, to this day, think he did. Hume’s attack on religion, however, lies in the view that the laws of nature are prescriptive and deterministic, that they control a closed universe. If miracles are ever possible, they should be taken as violations of the laws of nature; laws which, by the way, cannot be broken.
Hume believed the universe should be treated as a closed system, a universe in which God cannot intervene. With a slight turn of the handle, Hume rejected a priori any possibility of divine intervention in the universe. By defining miracles as violations of the laws of nature, as Keith Ward put it, Hume “presents us with the picture of a clockwork universe, a closed physical system working in a wholly deterministic and regular way.”8 Hence, God’s only option for acting in such a system would be by “breaking some of its laws and interfering with it.”9 Any interference, however, would seem to those in that system as irrational and a violence against the established order.
In Hume’s day, the view that the world was a clocklike, structured creation was widely accepted, mostly influenced by discoveries in Newtonian physics. Through the influence of Isaac Newton, the world could now be studied as a machine with its wheels, cords, pulleys, springs, and weights. Reflecting on Hume’s Newtonian background, Craig confesses, “Given such a picture of the world, it is not surprising that miracles were characterized as violations of laws of nature.”10 These laws were understood as mathematical, immutable, eternal, and divine. Hence, if God were to do a miracle to fulfill His will for creation, it would be a contradiction of Himself.
It has been observed by many that Hume’s understanding of natural laws also entailed a commitment to determinism. Such a view promotes the concept that everything in the universe is determined by natural laws. It excludes any possibility of an “outside” influence on the system, leaving that system to be regulated and directed by its own laws (closed universe).
One of the most famous determinists was Pierre LaPlace (1749–1827). To him, the universe was so deterministic that if it were possible to know all of its laws, states, and conditions of the universe, one could actually predict what would happen next:
“We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence that could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it—an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis—it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes. The human mind offers, in the perfection which it has been able to give to astronomy, a feeble idea of this intelligence. Its discoveries in mechanics and geometry, added to that of universal gravity, have enabled it to comprehend in the same analytical expressions the past and future states of the system of the world. Applying the same method to some other objects of this knowledge, it has succeeded in referring to general laws observed phenomena and in foreseeing those which given circumstances ought to produce.”11
Many, however, have criticized this view. Though necessary for scientific research, methodological determinism seems to extrapolate when used as a metaphysical presupposition. Steven Horst, while discussing methodological determinism, affirms: “Treating a phenomenon as a closed (and perhaps deterministic) system is something we do for purposes of comprehension and calculation.”12 In other words, much of the understanding we have of nature has come through the presupposition that we live in a closed system. The second law of thermodynamics, for example, argues for a conservation of mass-energy. This conclusion could be obtained only if we assumed that we live in a closed, deterministic system. For scientists, it is a good methodology for testing theories and applying them to problems. Methodological presuppositions, however, “should not be mistaken for a kind of metaphysical principle.”13 Scientific success, therefore, does not imply “that these laws we are using are the only factors really at work, or even that the universe is a closed (or perhaps deterministic) system under some complete set of laws.”14
Many have seen the fallacy of determinism and written extensively on it. It has been noted that defending determinism (or materialism, for that matter), would, at the end, be an attack on our own rationality. “If all that exists is nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves. Our convictions are simply a fact about us—like the color of our hair. If naturalism is true, we have no reason to trust our conviction that nature is uniform.”15 Our objection to determinism, however, does not mean that there are no regularities. For such a thing as a miracle to exist, regularities need to exist. Such regularities, however, can exist only in a universe with a Creator able to create laws that establish these regularities.
Ellen G. White also critiqued those who hold a deterministic view of the universe where, “nature acts independently of God, having in and of itself its own limits and its own powers wherewith to work. . . . The natural is ascribed to ordinary causes, unconnected with the power of God. . . . It is supposed that matter is placed in certain relations and left to act from fixed laws with which God Himself cannot interfere; that nature is endowed with certain properties and placed subject to laws, and is then left to itself to obey these laws and perform the work originally commanded.”16
Hume’s view entails the presupposition that humanity lives in a closed universe—unaffected by any outside interference. While seemingly granting the possibility that miracles do occur, Hume quickly rejected that possibility by raising his violation theory. According to him, if the universe is governed by “unbreakable” laws, there is no space for outside interference, revelation, and input of energy—i.e., miracles. If God exists, deterministic laws would make it impossible for God to reveal Himself. Therefore, if Hume is right, it might just as well be said that God does not exist.
Keith Ward critiques this view by inverse thinking. If, he argues, there is a God, a Creator of the universe, it is plainly possible that He “might perform miracles, might bring about events that no created cause has the power of itself to bring about.”17 It would seem illogical for God to create a universe full of rational beings, capable of communicating, understanding, and maintaining relationships, and end up being left out of it. To Ward, “any argument that miracles are impossible simply begs the question by assuming that there is no God.”18 However, if God does exist, then “miracles could be reliably reported and justifiably believed. And if they were, they would constitute evidence that there is indeed a God.”19 As Ward sees it, David Hume, by defending an absolute impossibility of miraculous events, “makes an assumption of atheism to which he is not entitled.”20
Another point that should be emphasized is that Hume’s definition of miracles introduces a logical incoherence. How can miracles be a violation of things that cannot be violated? In other words, by introducing the idea of a “violation of a law of nature,”21 Hume is applying also a “hyperinflated sense of ‘law,’”22 forcing the idea that these laws of nature are unbreakable and “govern the occurrence of each and every possible event in the history of the universe.”23 Hence, Hume is introducing defects into an already perfect system. Hume’s miracles are, in reality, imperfections of a perfect world. Many will see here an incoherence.
In a step further, how are Christians supposed to accommodate this view when they consider God as the Creator of these laws? It would seem, then, as an imperfection in God’s work if He were to interfere in an already perfect system, which He Himself devised. In other words, how could God violate something that He made to be inviolable? This is, indeed, a logical incoherence.
Now, suppose that, for some unknown reason, God did actually create the universe with a set of prescriptive, deterministic laws. If it is assumed that miracles are violations of these laws, a question could be raised: Would God be able to “violate” a law that He Himself established? This question does not mean to ask whether God would actually have the power to do so, but whether He would be willing to do so. Take, for instance, God’s moral laws. Would He be willing to break His moral laws? Many would be quick to deny this possibility. God would not be able to commit adultery, lie, or covet. After all, Ellen G. White herself declared that these laws were a “reflection of His character.”24 If God broke one of the Ten Commandments, He would be going against His own character—another incoherence.
But when it comes to natural laws, established by the very same Legislator, it seems that many don’t have any difficulty affirming that God violated, interfered, intruded, or broke the laws of nature when He parted the Red Sea, multiplied bread, brought the dead back to life, or healed the blind. For these, violating a single law of nature, with the purpose of healing or bringing salvation, may not seem too problematic.
Nevertheless, consider a more complicated case, as in the story of Joshua at Gibeon (Joshua 10:7–15). In answer to Joshua’s request, God made the Sun stand still for almost a whole day (vs. 13). Although the Bible portrays this miracle quite simply from a human perspective, it is accepted now that it is not the Sun that circles the Earth, but the Earth that rotates around its axis, giving the illusion of a rotating Sun. Hence, God did not make the Sun stand still, but made the Earth stop its rotation for about 24 hours just so that Joshua could finish his battle against the five Canaanite kings.
In taking a closer look at this miracle, considering what is now known of natural laws and phenomena, it would be easy to recognize that God was not just suspending one law to make this miracle happen. To start with, God would have to stop the Earth’s rotation. An observer standing at the Equator, although still, is actually traveling at 1,674.4 km/h, following the Earth’s rotation. If the Earth suddenly stopped to rotate, at that speed, major crust displacements would be produced. The shock between tectonic plates would create massive earthquakes around the globe, followed by tsunamis greater in intensity and height than the ones that probably occurred during Noah’s flood. Once the rotation resumed, the same effect would be created, but this time, in the opposite direction. God’s miracle most certainly violated natural laws, for it completely canceled the principle of conservation of angular momentum of rotating bodies—a fundamental law. In addition, the kinetic energy of a rotating body like the Earth could not just disappear. Where did it go? It should not be forgotten that the Earth’s atmosphere also has momentum, and if the its rotation suddenly stopped, winds of hundreds of kilometers per hour would cause devastation around the globe. This miracle would affect every single atom on the planet.
Another important aspect of this story that should not be left out is that the Moon’s rotation around the Earth was also affected. Just like the Sun, the Moon also stood still (Joshua 10:13). The distance between the Earth and the Moon is sustained because of the combination of the Earth’s gravitational pull and the centrifugal force of the Moon’s orbit. If the Moon interrupted its orbital motion, this would leave only Earth’s gravitational force to pull on the Moon. A sure disaster! Yet, the Bible simply describes this miracle by saying “and the sun stood still, and the moon stayed” (vs. 13).25
If a miracle is to be defined as a “violation of the laws of nature,” think of how many laws God would have had to violate to answer Joshua’s prayer. To many, this view is absurd and furnishes a distorted view of God. To them, only “petty and capricious tyrants break their own laws: good and wise kings obey them.”26 And they are right to believe so.
John Polkinghorne also sees in this a theological problem, for it touches on the topic of divine consistency, presenting God as an inconsistent being—one moment building something, while the other, tearing it apart. “The real problem is theological. It is theologically inconceivable that God acts as a capricious magician or conjurer, doing something today that God did not think of doing yesterday and will not be bothered to do again tomorrow.”27 To Polkinghorne, what makes this problem more pressing is that what is being dealt with is the consistency of a divine Being—a moral, rational, and divine Creator—and “not the unrelenting regularity of a force, such as the force of gravity.”28
An Alternative Understanding
Hume’s problem presses us to look for other ways of understanding the cosmos—different forms of understanding the interconnections and interactions between the natural and the supernatural. New ways of understanding the laws of nature, divine action, and miracles need to be presented. Society has an increasing need of experiencing the divine, and it is increasingly aware of the underlying fundamental laws that govern the universe. Do these two realities need to be in contradiction? The answer seems to be No.
Many have struggled to find ways of presenting possible ways of seeing the world so both realms can coexist. Miracles do not need to be seen as violations of the natural realm by a supernatural one. Actually, Steven Horst is not the only one to have noticed that Hume’s definition of a miracle demands a different definition of miracles: “Such a definition—or indeed any definition that does not define miracles as exceptions to exceptionless laws—would be sufficient to avoid Hume’s argument against miracles.”29 Therefore, rather than maintaining a view of distinctiveness, in which natural laws are in opposition to divine action, a view of cooperation between the natural and supernatural could be proposed. Ellen G. White wrote of examples when “the natural cooperates with the supernatural.”30 Since God is the Creator of the universe, it is quite reasonable that He created the universe in such a way that He could interact with it. A closed universe, as Hume and LaPlace proposed, would leave no space for such interaction.
Therefore, treating the universe as an open system renders Hume’s violation theory unnecessary, for it makes divine action possible and even welcome. A good way to understand the differences between a closed and an open system is an analogy to computer software. Software programs can be divided into two categories: proprietary and open-source. Proprietary software programs are those that, once they finalize the programming, the owners “seal” them and sell them to their clients. This is done to avoid unauthorized manipulation of the program codes. A client who buys proprietary software will be allowed to do only what the program was designed to do.
On the other hand, open-source software are programs designed to do specific tasks, but their creators leave them unsealed—their source code is accessible—so that clients can change the codes and improve the program by adding features or fixing parts that do not work correctly. An open universe can be compared to open-source software in the sense that it is open to outside causes or influences. New laws, or “codes,” do not violate the already established set of laws; they only adapt and contribute to what is already there.
Once this point is understood, “a commitment to any set of [natural] laws is quite compatible with a commitment to miracles,”31 if one assumes that this is an open universe. However, as was pointed out earlier, just as determinism (or closed universe) is a metaphysical assumption, so is the idea being proposed. There is no proof, only a philosophical presupposition.
If this open-universe proposition is to be maintained, then natural laws lose their predictive power. As Steven Horst has convincingly argued, an open-universe perspective fits better with an understanding of nature, for natural laws do not have a predictive or explicative capacity, only a descriptive one. To Horst, natural laws cannot prescribe what will happen, but only describe the forces and factors involved in a process that led to a certain event. This seems to concur with Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.”32 According to him, natural laws deal only with regularities—they say nothing about irregularities. Hence, when new forces or causes are added, the outcomes could most certainly be different. In a certain sense, it could be said that causes interact with one another to produce new results. The outcome may depend on how each force contributed to reach the event in question. To create different events, one needs to add new causes.
If God is understood as a supernatural causal agent (not to be confused with natural causes), His interaction with the universe could quite well change the outcome of natural events. This new outcome, therefore, should be understood as the adaptation of natural causes and forces to the new supernatural cause. Thus, there is no violation of laws, only adaptation. Adaptation does not mean that laws are changed or distorted to accommodate a new agent. Rather, the result is understood to be the accommodation between all the forces and causes in play.
This idea was proposed by C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, when he affirmed: “If God annihilates or creates or deflects a unit of matter, He has created a new situation at that point. Immediately all nature domiciles this new situation, makes it at home in her realm, adapts all other events to it. It finds itself conforming to all the laws. If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take it over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born.”33
In a universe in which nature cooperates with the supernatural, nature does not need to feel disturbed by the supernatural. “Be sure she will rush to the point where she is invaded, as the defensive forces rush to a cut in our finger, and there hasten to accommodate the newcomer.”34 God may produce new events in nature, but the moment it is incorporated into the space-time fabric of the universe, it follows the course of nature. “Miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary processes of textual corruption, miraculous bread will be digested. The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but a feeding new events into that pattern. It does not violate the laws proviso, ‘If A, then B’: it says, ‘But this time instead of A, A2,’ and nature, speaking through all her laws, replies, ‘Then B2’ and naturalizes the immigrant, as she well knows how.”35 “Nature,” Lewis defends, “is an accomplished hostess.”36
Ellen G. White on Nature and the Divine
At this point, it is important to focus on how Ellen G. White proposed this interaction between the natural world and divine action. In contradiction to what Hume presumed, she lamented: “Many teach that matter possesses vital power,—that certain properties are imparted to matter, and it is then left to act through its own inherent energy; and that the operations of nature are conducted in harmony with fixed laws, with which God himself cannot interfere. This is false science, and is not sustained by the word of God. Nature is the servant of her Creator. God does not annul his laws, or work contrary to them; but he is continually using them as his instruments. Nature testifies of an intelligence, a presence, an active energy, that works in and through her laws. There is in nature the continual working of the Father and the Son. Christ says, ‘My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.’ (John 5:17).”37
To her, God was not in opposition to natural laws, but was, through His energy, “upholding the objects of His creation.”38 She understood God as the “foundation of everything.”39 Although He should not be seen as the direct Causer of every natural phenomena, He is deeply involved, through the mechanisms He set in motion, with everything that happens in the universe.
“The hand of God guides the planets, and keeps them in position in their orderly march through the heavens. . . . It is through his power that vegetation flourishes, that the leaves appear, and the flowers bloom. He ‘maketh grass to grow upon the mountains,’ and by him the valleys are made fruitful. All the beasts of the field seek their meat from God (Psalm 147:8; 104:20, 21.) and every living creature, from the smallest insect up to man, is daily dependent upon his providential care. . . . His word controls the elements, he covers the heavens with clouds, and prepares rain for the earth.”40
Hence, natural laws do not have an autonomy of themselves. “God has laws that He has instituted, but they are only the servants through which He effects results. It is through the immediate agency of God that every tiny seed breaks through the earth and springs into life. Every leaf grows, every flower blooms, by the power of God.
“The physical organism of man is under the supervision of God, but it is not like a clock, which is set in operation, and must go of itself.”41 Hence, nature does not work in opposition to the supernatural. Ellen G. White maintained that nature works in cooperation with the divine.
When the rational possibility of miracles has been established, one must attempt to define how they occur in the universe. What would be the best way to make miracles understandable to today’s society, considering the possibility of an open universe? This is an area in which caution is necessary, because many, in trying to make miracles acceptable to the modern, scientific mind, have perpetrated great injustice. One of the great disservices done to religion by religious people is the attempt to make miracles more acceptable to the scientific mind by explaining them through—or comparing them to—extraordinary natural events. This has been done, for example, in the case of Jonah. Some have asked whether Jonah could have been swallowed by a fish and survived for three days. As an attempt to make Jonah’s story more probable, some have cited the example of two men who were swallowed by whales and survived. Other examples could be given, such as the Flood, the parting of the Red Sea or the Jordan, the quail incident in the desert, and even Jesus’s resurrection. Many, with the intention of making miracles more believable have actually undermined the credibility of these extraordinary events.
Francis Collins also warns of a second problem that arises in the religion/science debate. Claiming miracle status for everyday events for which natural explanations are readily at hand, he argues, can “kill the possibility of miracles more quickly than a committed materialism.”42 Hence, “it is crucial that a healthy skepticism be applied when interpreting potentially miraculous events, lest the integrity and rationality of the religious perspective be brought into question.”43
On the other hand, one should not be so skeptical as to define “miracles” as extremely rare events. Despite how often a miracle may occur (e.g., the daily portion of manna), many deem as miraculous only extremely rare, difficult-to-explain, and highly improbable events. It must be emphasized, though, that in these cases, an event’s apparent miraculous nature is due, not to the spiritual significance of the event, but only to a lack of information on natural phenomena. Once enough information is acquired, that event ceases to be defined as miraculous and becomes simply a rare event. Eclipses could be a good example of this. In this sense, miracles should not be explained by using a God-of-the-gaps mechanism; that is, where an unknown law of nature or cause is regarded as God’s action in the world. Understanding miracles should not become a substitute for lack of knowledge and inability to explain natural phenomena. Truly, a theology that relies on humanity’s lack of knowledge of the natural world will find itself constricted as science progresses. That, admittedly, has happened too often in past centuries.
Miracles are better defined as phenomena that cannot not be explained by natural laws. They should be understood as events that are naturally impossible, for they cannot be produced by natural causes. Keith Ward suggests that a miracle should be characterized as “an event beyond the possibility of physical law-like explanation.”44 To him, “the notion of an event beyond the natural powers of objects is more satisfactory than Hume’s idea of the violation of a law, since it does not carry the connotation of arbitrary interference, but rather of a temporary elevation of powers beyond the natural.”45 Its cause, therefore, should be seen as a supernatural one―that is, from outside of the natural realm. To believe that miracles can be produced by natural means, no matter how intricate they may be, is, actually, to go against all that Christianity has taught so far. As Polkinghorne suggested, “No one supposes that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, never to die again, by some clever exploitation of quantum theory or of chaos theory.”46
Rather than viewing miracles as violations or freaks of nature, a proposition that fits better with the religious and scientific knowledge acquired so far would be that of a singularity endowed with spiritual meaning that wouldn’t be able to come about through natural laws, whether they be known or not. Although not belonging to creation, God, as Creator, can interact with creation in such a way as to produce natural effects. In other words, since He can create matter and molecules, He can also interact with them, creating processes that are natural in their operation but supernatural in their origin.
In this sense, God should not be confused as another natural causer, such as an unknown law, or, as proposed by Alvin Platinga, an event at the quantum level47—but wholly other, supernatural. For, if God is to be understood as working through unknown natural methods, we fall back into the God-of-the-gaps fallacy. Using unknown natural laws, Alexandru Anghel warns, “amounts to no explanation and can make a miracle out of any event, which defies the whole idea of a miracle—its uniqueness.”48
Miracles and Religious Significance
Another important aspect of miraculous events that should be considered is its “religious significance,” as Richard Swinburne puts it.49 In other words, it “should be closely connected with revelation.”50 When identifying a miracle, one should ask: “Does it contribute to the realization of a good and intelligible purpose that points to a transcending of physical conditions as their fulfilling destiny? Or is it just an odd event that seems to have no particular spiritual point?”51 Here scientific knowledge can prove to be quite useful, for it is the appropriate element to determine whether a given event transcends the normal operations of the laws of nature.
Because of their supernatural origin, miracles should not be seen as merely physically inexplicable events, but astonishing and spiritually transforming signs of divine presence, purpose, and power. Keith Ward believes that God brings such miracles about by a special intention to “enable creatures to come to a more conscious and dynamic relation with Him.”52 Miracles, contrary to what Hume proposed, are “intended to be disclosures of the Divine presence and foreshadowings of the Divine purpose for creation.”53
Because miracles are phenomena with a deeply religious significance, products of non-natural causes, they may come in various formats and meanings. This can be seen by the way the Bible identifies miracles. The New Testament, for instance, uses different words to refer to miracles: “signs,” “wonders,” “mighty works,” or sometimes just “works.” As Harrison explains, “The absence of a distinct terminology for the miraculous suggests that the authors of the Gospels were not working with a formal conception of ‘miracle’—at least not in that Humean sense of a ‘violation of the laws of nature,’ familiar to modern readers.”54 Therefore, as a way of understanding the place of miracles in the universe, it is important to keep in mind the plurality of ways through which God may interact with creation in order to bring salvation and the end of suffering.
However, if God’s intention is to bring salvation and end suffering, why don’t His miracles occur more often? Or even constantly? As Brian Hebblethwaite suggested, “If it really is God’s way to intervene miraculously to bring about His purpose . . . then why does He not do so more often and to greater effect?”55 Such a conclusion, however, lies in the false assumption that miracles occur solely for that purpose. While it is true that God intends to end human suffering, the methods He chooses to employ are not always fully understood. Miracles, while playing a significant part in God’s intent to bring creation back to Him, are not the full picture. They do, however, reveal and effect God’s purpose in history. And their scarcity, for that purpose, should lead to considering not only how God wills to make His purpose for the world known, but also how to effect it without “compromising the relative autonomy of rational creatures.”56
Nevertheless, wouldn’t more miracles help autonomous rational creatures believe in God and in His plan? After all, aren’t atheists begging for some sort of divine manifestation to prove God’s existence? Wouldn’t more spectacular signs and miracles make God’s existence undeniable? Jake O’Connell, argues to the contrary. To him, even if God would perform miracles on a more frequent basis, miracles would not make people believe in God’s existence or, if they actually accepted the evidence, accept and follow God.57 Many do believe that a God exists, but do not necessarily feel the need to obey or follow His commands. This concept echoes the biblical teaching of Luke 16:31: “‘If they hear not, . . . neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.’”
Atheists have long argued that ever since science has discovered the laws of nature, the belief in miracles is no longer plausible. David Hume asserted that miracles “abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.”58 Though it is true that the advancements in scientific knowledge have demystified many of the phenomena previously thought to be miraculous, science does not rule out the possibility of miracles, nor does it need to be in opposition to religious belief.
Many have seen the incoherence in Hume’s violation theory and have proposed a different view of the universe, in which the natural and the supernatural cooperate with each other, maintaining the possibility of miracles. By avoiding Hume’s proposition, they have been able to present a worldview of a universe open to divine action, turning the belief in miracles into a reasonable option.
Miracles, although naturally impossible, do not need to be understood as opposing natural laws, but can be interpreted as events in nature produced by a supernatural cause, having a spiritual significance that transcends the cause/effect realm of nature. Miracles do not need to be taken as gaps in human understanding of the natural world, but as phenomena originated in a supernatural cause. They can be taken as evidence of the openness of creation to its Creator.
Living in a scientific age does not entail the abandonment of religious beliefs about reality. In actuality, interpreting the world as a reality created by God, open to divine action, can offer a better explanation of reality than the one proposed by Hume.
Glauber S. Araújo, M.A., is Editor at the Brazilian Publishing House and former Professor of religion at the Adventist University of São Paulo, Brazil.
NOTES AND REFERENCES