Jet in Carina WFC3 IR [Courtesy NASA] Stone pseudo-magic square on exterior of La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]

Does modern science repudiate miracles?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

Introduction

One common area of contention in the science-religion arena is the question of miracles. Creationist and intelligent design writers, among others, typically define miracles as contraventions of natural law and thus conclude that modern science is fundamentally 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?

Perhaps one should not blame creationists and religious fundamentalists for this mistaken notion, since it has been taught by some prominent philosophers and theologians, particularly in past centuries. For example, 18th century philosopher David Hume defined a miracle as "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent" [Hume1955, pg. 128]. In the context of Hume's writings, Hume may have defined miracles in this way only as a pretext for criticism, but nonetheless many subsequent writers have adopted this same general viewpoint.

Miracles as violations of natural law

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, most present-day theologians do not regard miracles as utterly beyond the realm of natural processes. For example, contemporary 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]. And 20th century LDS theologian James Talmage wrote, "Miracles are commonly regarded as occurrences in opposition to the laws of nature. Such a conception is plainly erroneous, for the laws of nature are inviolable." [Talmage1966, pg. 220].

There are many other examples from the writings of contemporary and 20th century 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 more 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].

Scientific explanations of biblical miracles

If is worth pointing out that many of the miracles recorded in the Bible may have somewhat more prosaic explanations:
  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; Drews2010].

    Alone this line, many have questioned whether 600,000 men, plus women and children (i.e., roughly three million total persons), as claimed in Exod. 12:37, could have joined the exodus from Egypt without leaving extensive historical and archaeological evidence along their journey. But there is evidence within the Bible itself that the actual number was much smaller -- see Exod. 1:5, 1:15-17, 18:21, Num. 3:40-43, 20:17-19 and 21:22. For example, Exod. 1:15-17 says that there were just two midwives for the Israelite nation, which places an upper limit of roughly 10,000 on the total population. Similarly, Num. 20:17-19 describes Moses' attempt to negotiate a safe passage for the Israelites through Edom. He proposed to the Edomite king that they would walk strictly on the king's highway (a one-lane road by modern standards): "we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left." If the Hebrews numbered in the millions, this procession would have taken many months to complete, and Moses' offer would have been completely unreasonable.

  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 afflictions, 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 [PubMed2011a; Leprosy2016].

  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 long been 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 [Mayo2011].

  4. Restoring vision to the blind (Matt. 9:27-30, 20:30-34; Mark 8:22-25, 10:46-51; Luke 18:35-43; John 9:1-25). Restoring vision to the blind has long been considered a quintessential biblical miracle, utterly beyond the capability of medical science. Yet even now many people are wearing glasses and/or contact lenses, or have undergone laser corrective eye surgery, who otherwise would be "blind" by any reasonable definition of the term. What's more, numerous research projects are in the works to restore sight to some blind persons, such as those suffering from retinitis pigmentosa or age-related macular degeneration, wherein photoreceptors are damaged. For example, in 2011 a team of researchers at the Institute of Genetic Medicine at UCLA succeeded in transferring a gene that makes a photosensitive protein into mice. The treated mouse were able to navigate through a maze 2.5 times faster than untreated blind mice. Ten months later, the treated mice were still showing improvements. Human tests could begin in two years [Hooper2011a].

  5. 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 recourse to supernatural effects. 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 [Tipler1994]. 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, or 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 be as "miraculous" at a later time, as scientific knowledge advances.

Conclusions

By definition, science cannot comment one way or the other on miracles or other phenomena outside the realm of what can be studied by reproducible experimental methods. But the issue is moot in any event, because most biblical scholars and theologians have moved away from the notion that miracles are necessarily contraventions of natural law. Along this line, it should be kept in mind that placing one's belief in God in the recesses of present-day scientific ignorance is a well-known theological fallacy, namely the "God of the gaps." For additional discussion, see God of the gaps.

With regards to faith and miracles, it should be noted that the Bible does not advocate blind faith. Paul urged readers to "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (1 Thess. 5:21). In a similar vein, Jesus taught that faith by itself is not sufficient: "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." (Matt. 7:20-27). Similarly, the Epistle of James instructs readers that "faith without works is dead" (Jam. 2:17-26). For additional discussion, see Bible-science.

In any event, the common experience of many religious believers is that miracles cannot serve as "proofs" for God or as a basis for lasting faith. Recall that Jesus characterized those who seek after a "sign" as a "wicked and adulterous generation" (Matt. 16:4; Luke 11:29). On numerous occasions he declined opportunities to advertise his acts as proof of divinity or authority (Matt. 8:4; Mark 7:36; Luke 5:14, 8:56, 11:29).

Similar advice could be offered at the present day. An obsession with miracles, no matter what their actual nature, is not likely even to lead to real spirituality, much less to useful insight into how science and religion might be harmonized. As Anglican theologian Keith Ward has explained [Ward2008, pg. 223]:

The basis of biblical faith is not inferential reason. It is personal encounter. God is the one who liberates us from evil (from slavery in Egypt) and who fills the heart with joy. To have faith is to entrust your life to God. But neither faith nor abstract argument establishes that God exists. Reason tries, often rather feebly, to make belief in God rational -- self-consistent, coherent with other knowledge, and fruitful for understanding. Faith tries, equally feebly, to make the religious way of life a positive, personally and morally fulfilling relationship to God. But belief in the actuality of God, like belief in the actuality of anything real and vital, is rooted in encounter with a personal, moral, liberating, and transforming power and presence.

For additional discussion, see Bible-science, Bible-inerrant and Natural law.

References

[See Bibliography].