Does modern science repudiate miracles?

One common area of contention in the science-religion arena is the question of miracles. Creationist and intelligent design writers, among others, often define miracles as contraventions of scientific law and quickly conclude modern science is at war with Bible-based religion. Kevin Anderson of Answers in Genesis (which operates the Creation Museum near Cincinnati, Ohio), expresses this position in these terms [Anderson2009]:

Scripture records the occurrence of numerous miracles performed by God. By definition, a miracle is an event not explainable by natural processes. Otherwise, it would hardly constitute a miracle. Are these miracles going to be accepted as “scientific?” What do these [non-creationist] theologians propose we do with biblical miracles?

There are several difficulties with defining miracles as transgressions of law. On one hand, it is curious that creationists and others insist that modern science is at odds with the notion of a miracle, because if a “miracle” is said to be utterly beyond the realm of natural law as discoverable via the process of empirical investigation, then science, properly speaking, cannot comment one way or the other on such phenomena. But there are serious theological difficulties with the miracle-as-transgression-of-law viewpoint. As Anglican theologian Keith Ward explains, “Why should God make a set of beautiful and elegant laws, only to break them when the Divine Being felt like it? Does this not make God some sort of mathematical criminal?” [Ward2008, pg. 87].

However, the vast majority of present-day theologians do not regard miracles as utterly beyond the realm of natural processes. For example, prominent scientist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne argues that miracles, particularly as presented in the New Testament, are “not divine tours de force in which God shows off divine power, but windows into a deeper view of reality than would otherwise be visible [Polkinghorne2000, pg. 59]. There are many other examples from the writings of contemporary theologians and religious authorities, so let us examine an example from one of the oldest and most traditional sources available: Smith’s Bible Dictionary, which was compiled in the 19th century long before the rise of modern “higher criticism” of the Bible, and which has been used by readers of virtually all major Christian denominations. In this dictionary, William Smith defines a miracle to be a “plain and manifest exercise by a man, or by God at the call of man, of those powers which belong only to the Creator and Lord of nature.” Smith cautions, however, that “A miracle is not a violation of the laws of nature. It is God’s acting upon nature in a degree far beyond our powers, but the same kind of act as our wills are continually exerting upon nature.” [Smith 1884].

Thus, whether we examine contemporary writings or very traditional sources, the consensus view is that the notion of a “miracle” in Judeo-Christian religion is much more subtle and nuanced than merely a contravention of the laws of nature. Some additional historical background on the notion of miracles through the years may be found in a recent book by Anglican theologian Keith Ward [Ward2008, pg. 83-106].

Many of the miracles recorded in the Bible, if examined carefully, have somewhat more prosaic explanations, explanations that would have been completely beyond the understanding of people in biblical times, and, in most cases, even in modern times until very recently. Here is a very brief sampling:

  1. The crossing of the Red Sea (Exod. 14). The story of the crossing of the Red Sea, as recounted in Exodus 14, has for many years been a source of historical and scientific analysis. For example, in a 2010 scientific study Carl Drews and Weiqing Han of the University of Colorado propose that “wind setdown,” namely the drop in water level caused by wind stress acting on the surface of a body of water for an extended period of time, may have been the cause of the drying up of the sea where the ancient Hebrews crossed. Drews and Han argue that the most likely spot of the crossing was a small protusion of land between the Pelusiac branch of the Nile and the Lake of Tanis (near the modern Lake Manzala). This location would fit the description of a “Reed Sea,” which is often taken to be a more accurate rendition of the biblical sources than “Red Sea.” Assuming a sandbar existed at the time, which is a reasonable assumption, their computer simulations affirm that an easterly 100-km/hr wind for eight hours would have driven the water in the Lake of Tanis westward up the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, parting the waters around the peninsula from which Drews and Han assume the crossing may have started [McAlpine2010].
  2. Cleansing lepers (Mark 1:40-45; Matt. 8:1-4; Luke 5:12-16; Luke 17:11-19). Although leprosy was widespread in the ancient world, it was not then and is not now highly communicable. Workers have ministered with persons who have contracted leprosy for long periods of time without contracting it themselves. For these and other reasons, biblical scholars believe the term “leprosy” (or at least its Greek equivalent) was used in the Bible to cover a large array of skin conditions, including eczema, a family of skin conditions that causes the skin to become swollen, irritated and itchy. In any event, both leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease) and most types of eczema are now treatable.
  3. Healing a woman’s hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34; Matt. 9:19-22; Luke 8:43-48). In these passages, Jesus heals a woman who had been afflicted with “an issue of blood” for 12 years. Because women undergoing menstruation were considered “unclean” and thus barred from the public, this woman had been effectively shut out from social contact. Nowadays, this is a medical condition known as menorrhagia and can be treated by a combination of drugs and, if necessary, surgery.
  4. Resurrection and immortality. Many regard Jesus’ resurrection as the ultimate in miraculous. There is no space here to thoroughly analyze this topic, either scripturally or otherwise, but it is intriguing to note that emerging futuristic technology may make this possible without any resort to the supernatural. As Ray Kurzweil has noted, when computer technology is powerful enough, not only will we be able to capture the complete details of a living person’s brain, but we will also be able to “resurrect” this person after death in the form of a faithful copy of his/her mind [Kurzweil2007]. Physicist Frank Tipler describes analogous scenarios to “resurrect” everyone who has ever lived [Tipler2000]. Along this line, Marc Geddes has observed that the quest for immortality is one of the most enduring dreams of humanity and the very foundation of morality: “Rational people understand that actions have consequences. A life of crime may help a person in the short term, but in the long run it may get you killed or imprisoned. … People are more likely to be moral when they understand they will have to face the consequences of their actions in the future. It follows that the further into the future one plans for, the more moral one’s behavior should become.” [Geddes2004].

The above examples are not presented to assert that all biblical miracles are nothing more than the conventional operation of known natural law, nor are they presented to argue that this is definitely the way they actually transpired in biblical times (which, of course, depends on how we should interpret the biblical accounts, which is not always clear). Instead, they are presented to emphasize that what appears to be a “miracle” at one point in time might not as “miraculous” at a later time, as scientific knowledge advances.

In summary, because of the nature of scientific research, science cannot comment one way or the other on phenomena outside the realm of what can be studied by reproducible experimental methods. But the issue is moot in any event, because virtually all biblical scholars and theologians have long moved away from the notion that miracles are strictly contraventions of natural law.

A more fundamental question in this arena is why so many people of religious belief are keen on identifying and defending miracles. Miracles cannot serve as “proofs” for God, and the common experience of many religious believers is that miracles are not sufficient to instill or maintain faith. This was even recognized in biblical times. In Matt. 16:4 (KJV), Jesus declared that “a wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign,” and he himself on numerous occasions declined opportunities to provide a “sign” solely to prove his divinity or authority (Luke 11:29). Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews (Heb. 11:1) describes faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” not miracles, as the bedrock of Christian religion.

Additional details and references are given in the article Miracles.

References

  1. [Anderson2009] Kevin Anderson, “The Wonderful Unscientific Teachings of Christianity,” Answers in Genesis, 26 Feb 2009, available at Online article.
  2. [Geddes2004] Marc Geddes, “An Introduction to Immortality Morality,” in Immortality Institute, The Scientific Conquest of Death, Libros en Red Publishers, Buenos Aires, 2004, pg. 239-256.
  3. [Kurzweil 2007] Ray Kurzweil, “The Near-Term Inevitability of Radical Life Extension and Expansion,” in John Brockman, ed., What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today‚Äôs Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable, Harper Perennial, New York, 2007. also available at Online article
  4. [McAlpine2010] Kate McAlpine, “How wind may have parted the sea for Moses,” New Scientist, 22 Sep 2010, available at Online article.
  5. [Polkinghorne2000] John Polkinghorne, Faith, Science and Understanding, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2000.
  6. [Smith1884] William Smith, A Dictionary of the Bible, W. Smith, Boston, 1884.
  7. [Tipler1994] Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead, Doubleday, New York, 1994.

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