November 20, 2017

Ask Chaplain Mike: Considering Miracles

By Chaplain Mike

Today we return to our “Ask Chaplain Mike” posts.

This afternoon’s inquiry comes from a friend who sets forth a question many are asking in our day. He wants to know how people in this scientific age can continue to believe in miracles. By and large, we have become people for whom the very idea of the miraculous seems strange. Why?

It is not simply that we have been brainwashed by the promoters of evil ideas or false “worldviews” to suspect miracles. Sorry, Ken Ham, but it is not just because evolution is being taught in the schools. It is not just the insidious influence of “secular humanist” philosophies or the doctrine of scientific naturalism undergirding the new atheism that has led people to distrust the miraculous. On the popular level at least, as some have argued, secularization may have more to do with this than secularism.

That is, the simple fact of living in an ever more sophisticated technological world subconsciously secularizes the way we view life. It shrinks and “flattens” the universe and makes anything seem possible under heaven. It puts our focus on what we can do and on overcoming what remains to be done. At the same time, it encourages us to think we need no longer rely upon a transcendent “god” to intervene for us. When you combine our tech know-how with affluence like the world has never known, what need do we have for miracles?

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby, don’t cry, don’t cry

• Paul Simon, “The Boy in the Bubble”

Of course, this also affects the way we read the Bible. We are tempted to interpret its miracle accounts as remnants of a bygone age, before people had our sophisticated scientific sense. Either that, or we suspect that the authors had an agenda to advance that led them to make up or at least exaggerate their claims. Their accounts of miracles were either naive or strictly for recruiting purposes. When you add to this the fact that we can now explain so much more about nature and its processes than folks in those days understood, it all adds up to a general suspicion of the “miraculous.”

With this general background in mind, let’s look at our friend’s question now.

Hi Mike,

Here’s my question: How do we maintain our beliefs in the miraculous (such as the virgin birth, Christ’s resurrection, even water-to-wine) while maintaining an intellectuality open, scientific approach to understanding the world?

To expand on this, consider Christ’s resurrection:  There is not one stitch of scientific evidence that would support the idea of a human being brought back to life after being dead for more than 24 hours and yet it is core to our faith.  Is this the line we dare not cross, or is this belief destined to go the way of many of the older, now discredited beliefs such as a literal reading of the Genesis creation?

Thanks for your question, friend.

I think the key to its answer lies in understanding what we mean by “miracle.” More commonly known as “signs” (i.e. they are designed to point to God and demonstrate something about him) and “wonders” (highlighting the human reaction to these extraordinary events), miracles have usually been described as “events which run counter to what is known of nature” (Augustine, cited in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Elwell). Elwell goes on to make the following observation:

Biblical miracles have a clear objective: they are intended to bring the glory and love of God into bold relief. They are intended, among other things, to draw man’s attention away from the mundane events of everyday life and direct it toward the mighty acts of God. EDT, 723)

These descriptions do not go far enough. And by highlighting how miracles “run counter to the observed processes of nature,” they set us up for today’s intellectual struggle. If you pit the miraculous against nature, then you have concocted a dilemma. I think there is a better, fuller way to think about this.

I want to direct your attention to a helpful article by Matt Rossano over at BioLogos called, “Does Resurrection Contradict Science?” In this essay, Rossano asks us to consider what Pope Benedict VI says in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection. The Pope argues that “resurrection” is a category wholly outside of nature. It is not something counter to nature, but something that has broken into nature from an entirely different dimension. It does not violate nature, it transcends it.

Naturally there can be no contradiction of clear scientific data. The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented — a new dimension of reality that is revealed. What already exists is not called into question. Rather we are told that there is a further dimension, beyond what was previously known. Does that contradict science? Can there really only ever be what there has always been? Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new? If there really is a God, is he not able to create a new dimension of human existence, a new dimension of reality altogether? (p. 246-7)

The point is that resurrection (and I would argue all “miracles,” especially those witnessed in the NT through Jesus and the apostles) is not something to be explained or conceived of in terms of this creation and its laws and processes. Miracles represent the in-breaking of the New Creation, the “physics” of which we are (yet) not privy to.

The Disputation over the Holy Sacrament, Raphael

Rossano puts it this way: “Resurrection (as with all true miracles) is not contrary to science, but an indicator that science does not (yet?) describe the full expanse of reality.”

He then points to science itself as a witness to this possibility. “Indeed, some may argue that science itself contains similar ‘indicators.’ The 11 (or so) dimensional universe required by some versions of string theory, the multiverse theory of the universe where ours is but one of an infinite array of universes with variable physical laws, quantum entanglements, “spooky” action at a distance, the mysterious emergence of consciousness from inorganic matter—all push the limits of human reason and imagination, suggesting to some that reality may be far more complex than the human mind can grasp.”

If resurrection and miracles do not violate science, then “maintaining an intellectually open, scientific approach to understanding the world,” as you put it, should provide no barrier to accepting them. No conflict exists.

What will, however, prevent one from accepting the possibility of “signs and wonders” is a commitment to the philosophy of naturalism—that this material universe is all there is and no reality exists outside of it. In the end, I consider that a “faith” position.

Jesus came proclaiming the dawning of the Messianic Age, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, the time when, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (Isa 35:5-6, NRSV) To demonstrate the truth of his words, he exhibited God’s power and love by enabling people to experience the New Creation right there and then. Heaven broke in upon earth. Through Jesus, those bound by sin and its consequences in this age “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” (Hebrews 6:5) And ultimately, in anticipation of the Day of Resurrection yet future, when “those who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth” (John 5:28-29), Jesus himself rose from the dead and manifested in his own risen Person a glorious foretaste of the new heavens and new earth.

These were no mere violations of the laws of nature. They represented something wholly new, pointing to realities beyond our wildest thoughts and imaginations.

Comments

  1. I tend to agree that our technology seems to suppress our view of miracles. It was common in the days of the early church to say “this person is demon possessed”. Today, they just haven’t taken their medication ! Seems we are medicating spiritual problems and few Christians walk in the Spirit enough to even recognize the need for spiritual deliverance. I heard a local church advertise the medical industry as being part of the gifts of the Spirit !

    • Donalbain says:

      Which works better? If someone has depression, would they be better off casting out demons, or taking anti-depressants?

      • Anti-depressants is simply putting a band-aid on the root of the problem, whether it be spritual or physical. Imagine giving anti-depressants to the guy in Mark 5 that lived in the cemetary cutting himself with stones and breaking chains when they tried to contain him. They could have possibly calmed him down with drugs, but the root of the problem would have still been present.

        • Johnnie, I think you are missing the point of the post and misapplying what I am saying. First, I’m primarily talking about how we view the signs and wonders we read about it the Bible. Second, there is a place for recognizing that some of the things people in Bible days might have attributed to “spiritual” causes were actually maladies that we understand better now because of our advances in understanding. Third, if someone has a legitimate medical problem, such as clinical depression, it would be cruel and unloving to deny that person help through means such as anti-depressant drugs that we know provide relief. Fourth, I don’t believe such things are “putting a band-aid on the root of the problem.” That is an unwarranted generalization. Fifth, I don’t think we should be looking for “spiritual deliverance” routinely. That is a misreading of the New Testament, what Jesus came to do, and what it means to “walk in the Spirit.”

          Sorry, I don’t find the pentecostal viewpoint you are advocating persuasive, and I haven’t for many years.

          • But Mike, is there any room for the idea that it’s not always an either/or matter? To understand the root problem, can we consider both schizophrenia AND demon possession? (Carefully, of course; that question could get laughed at.)

        • Ted, of course. I’m concerned at this point with answering those who would never accept that schizophrenia might be involved.

  2. There is one other implicit assumption in the question that needs to be addressed and that is the arrogance of modernity. Not mentioned in the question is the notion that miracles are somehow less believable today than they were in the past when they happened. Many secularists like to think that we are less naive today than in the past. Yet common sense helps us realize that miracles like the virgin birth, resurrection and water into wine were just as inexplicable when they happened as they are today.

  3. Chap,

    Your take on something new “breaking in” seems very similar to what N.T. Wright says in several places. Good thoughts.

  4. Damaris says:

    Excellent, Mike. This is very clear and helpful.

  5. Nelson Ames says:

    Typical religious double-speak. A miracle, by definition, is something that is impossible. If I were to suggest some scientific explanation for Christ’s Resurrection (perhaps he wasn’t really dead) or the Virginal Conception (perhaps there was ejaculation without penetration), Christians would reject these.

    No amount of dictionary definitions can make possible what is impossible. And sure, the universe is full of strange, interesting things. But to try to drag in 11-dimensional space as a justification for believing in biblical miracles is absurd, like something from a comic book. Far more honest to use the limitations on human knowledge as grounds for doubting all “received” wisdom, including religious doctrine.

    Really, the “doubts” which you express (perhaps the miracle accounts were the products of superstitious thinking, or calculated lies) offer much simpler explanations for these stories, than the assumption that the metaphysical equivalent of Cthulhu has broken through to the earth plane and reanimated a corpse. The real “miracle” is that religious people can be so self-delusional.

    • Nelson, insults do not become you nor help you make your case. Mere dismissal is the polar opposite of intelligent conversation.

      • Nelson Ames says:

        I fail to see how I have insulted you, by pointing out the poverty of your reasoning.

        If the claimed “miracle” belonged to some other religion–Sai Baba producing watches out of the ether, for instance–then you would be the first to react with “mere dismissal.” I am just a little more consistent about it than you, that’s all.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          I fail to see how I have insulted you, by pointing out the poverty of your reasoning.

          “You obviously do Not have a Rational Mind. If you had a Rational Mind, you would Agree Completely With Me.” — attr to Ayn Rand or one of her worshippers

    • “perhaps the miracle accounts were the products of superstitious thinking, or calculated lies”

      These theories don’t explain all the evidence as well as the Resurrection does. The Resurrection is the simplest explanation that accounts for all the evidence.

      “A miracle, by definition, is something that is impossible.”

      Isn’t this part of circular reasoning? You’re assuming what is at issue: whether the Resurrection happened. A miracle is something that can’t be fully explained without reference to the supernatural. Isn’t that a fairer definition?

    • Your definition of a miracle is wrong. No Christian would say a miracle is “something that is by definition impossible.” A miracle is God directly intervening and acting in his creation. Someone coming back to life without any external cause is impossible. Someone coming back to life because God raised him is not – especially if we have reasonable good cause to believe that God does or could exist. There are a variety of good positive philosophical arguments (Teleological, Cosmological) among many other evidences you have not addressed.

      If this is too hard for you to understand (I wouldn’t be surprised considering your straw man-bashing), consider this illustration: A man in a primitive society without modern medicine has an infectious disease that will kill him. However, a missionary doctor gives him a vaccine that saves his life. The man, who has never heard of modern medicine, exclaims that the doctor has performed a miracle! However, in fact, the doctor simply acted to intervene and save the man’s life with means beyond his understanding. The doctor is not “breaking the laws of nature” or any such nonsense by intervening and healing him.

      God raising Jesus from the dead works the same way. If people had the same level of power as God, they could regenerate dead body tissue, re-start the brain and heart, and bring someone back to life. For now, at least, this capability is beyond our means. But God, as a being of infinite power, has no problem performing these tasks.

      Bottom line, you are ignorant of what constitutes a miracle in Christianity and have done nothing to suggest God acting in his creation is “impossible.” Instead, you engage in wanton straw man abuse.

  6. cermak_rd says:

    Maybe the wrong entity is being blamed here. After all, Thomas also had some questions and wanted proof. And he received proof. Why doesn’t the modern age rate that kind of treatment?

    • Thomas received proof because he was an apostle, chosen to witness to a world that would never receive that proof. The story itself indicates that: Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who do not see, and yet believe.” (John 20:29)

      • cermak_rd says:

        It says those who haven’t seen are blessed, that indicates above and beyond normally being human to me.

        Seriously, if the Almighty wants folks to believe in him, he could show up now and again. Or at least send a good prophet (e.g. Not Harold Camping or Benny Hinn) now and again…

        • No good, cermak. Won’t work.

          “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” (1Corinthians 1:22-23)

          and

          “He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'” (Luke 16:31)

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Before being told the Official Interpretation (TM) of Luke 16:31, I figured it was Christ making a sarcastic in-joke. After the Post-Evangelical Wilderness, I’ve returned to that conclusion.

          • I think he was making an in-joke, but I gotta know. What’s the Official Interpretation (TM)?

        • There certainly have been others claiming to be prophets of god after Jesus. One of them has a billion followers, but christans don’t find him convincing.

  7. textjunkie says:

    I had some thoughts something similar to this this morning, as we were reading parts of Psalm 104 praising God for creating and feeding all the animals, and being the source of peace, etc. I was thinking that literally, there is a sense in which I don’t believe that; I know how animals are conceived, I know how rain and soil grow stuff, I know that economic prosperity leads to more peace, and all this stuff happens whether you believe in God or not. I do not believe in a providential universe, where God rewards the right believers with peace and prosperity and punishes the nonbelievers with disaster.

    But there is a deeper sense in which it is true, in which God opens his hand and the animals are fed; I couldn’t put my finger on it, just sense that there’s an angle, a substrate of it which captures truth, even with all the mechanistic explanations for how it happens. I will have to keep chomping on it. There are ways and ways of thinking about things.

    Vis a vis the resurrection–You have to really stretch things to come up with someone Rising From the Dead *not* being a violation of physics as it is currently understood. No, people don’t DO that. Thousands of years, and we don’t have any evidence that anyone, once they are dead, becomes alive again, no matter what our understanding of physics and biology are. It’s a sign and wonder as you noted, a violation of how nature works that points us to a restored relationship with God.

    So why don’t miracles happen now, to call us to a restored relationship with God? Some folks claim they do–I grew up with the “testimonies” and “witnesses”, people telling stories of wild things that happened to them or their friends which were highly unlikely and unexpected, never to a large crowd or in a documentable situation. My attitude toward miracles these days is, to quote The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” I can hear the mermaids singing, each to each; I do not think that they will sing to me.” It *could* happen; it probably does happen, to someone else in a different mindset and a different situation. They don’t happen to me. It’s not my story.

    • I don’t think that was ever really the purpose for miracles, textjunkie. And I have an idea that most if not all of them were explained away by many the same day they occurred. We live in this creation. Miracles testify to a new and different creation. They go beyond the bounds and that has never been easy to accept.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Blatant miracles don’t happen to me, either. These days, I classify miracles as a sub-type of paranormal phenomena, and like most paranormal phenomena are by definition rare and often ambiguous.

  8. dumb ox says:

    “It shrinks and ‘flattens’ the universe and makes anything seem possible under heaven. It puts our focus on what we can do and on overcoming what remains to be done. At the same time, it encourages us to think we need no longer rely upon a transcendent “god” to intervene for us.”

    Well said.

    I wonder if our post-modern world, as it faces crises that have no easy solutions, will be more open to the miraculous. As far back as the Renaissance, the promise of scientific and technological advancement showed no end in site. Every disease, every jungle, every sea monster, every mystery – even outer space – seemed easily conquered. That’s not as true in an age of terrorism, anti-biotic resistant infections, AIDS, climatic change, and collapsing governments. Modernism learned to sail every kind of sea against unfavorable winds. Now, its sails are torn, the boat is listing, and the sharks are circling. Can its never-ending optimism and enthusiasm carry it forward, or will it seek something outside itself, something greater than itself, to be the source of courage to press on in spite of the challenges it faces?

    For some reason, Terry Gilliam’s movie, “Brasil” comes to mind. Gilliam seems to poke fun at the aspirations for future utopias, and in this sham of a ideal society, the main character struggles for meaning, love, and something greater. The movie ends with a typical Gilliam dark twist. That is how I view modernism and how the Christian struggles to find his or place within it.

    • dumb ox says:

      A church sunk in the mire of pragmatism, focused on legalism and moralism, and sold out to the same culture which oppresses, abuses, and minimizes will have little to contribute to the subject of the miraculous.

    • cermak_rd says:

      and yet science has seriously undermined HIV/AIDS if not detoothed it. MRSA are being studied and it’s quite possible that a cure, vaccine or treatment will be found for them, but think of the 1918 Flu Pandemic, did it dim the prospects for Modernism? Climate change will happen–there will be winners and losers and governments have never stopped falling.

      • There have been some recent advancements in the battle against AIDS. I heard a recent story about a patient who shows no signs of the virus after undergoing a new treatment.

        The other aspect of AIDS is actually how science was crippled from confronting the disease due to misconceptions about it. Early on, it was viewed as a preventable disease associated with specific behaviors. AIDS was a divine judgement on those who engaged in those behaviors. Then patients started contracting AIDS from blood transfusions, and perceptions began to change; by then, much valuable time was lost. Perhaps divine judgement is the dark side of the subject of miracles. The inexplicable cannot be written off as miraculous (good?) or wrath (bad?).

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      As far back as the Renaissance, the promise of scientific and technological advancement showed no end in site. Every disease, every jungle, every sea monster, every mystery – even outer space – seemed easily conquered.

      “The Victorians thought that history ended well — because it ended with the Victorians.”
      — Chesterton

      “But by the time of Star Trek, We’ll Have Evolved Beyond That!”
      — Trekkie tag line, tragically embodied by the aging Eugene Wesley Roddenberry

      • dumb ox says:

        I like your Star Trek reference. I heard that movies like “Blade Runner” and even “Star Wars” are examples of post-modern sci fi, and are less optimistic about the future. Space ships are not pristine, glistening vessels but rusty and worn.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          But the problem with PoMo SF is it can swing too far in the other direction, to Crapsack World after Grimdark World after Crapsack World. “We’re All Gonna Die, It’s All Over But The Screaming, Insert Ironic Quip Here.” From Bright Future to Dark Future to Darker Future to No Future — exactly the same progression you get in the Dispy End Time Prophecy checklist. Maybe the Crapsack Future is the secular version of “It’s All Gonna Burn.”

  9. Many people, Christians included, have a poor understanding of miracles and confuse something impossible happening inexplicably with God acting to do something beyond our capabilities. If, say, a person were to suddenly come back to life for no apparent reason, that would be trule remarkable! But Jesus’ resurrection only requires the foundation that God exist and is capable of acting in his creation, just as humans can interact with the world.

    The Bible says that God performs these miracles. You aren’t “breaking the law of gravity” when you pick something up off the ground! Miracles performed by God are better viewed as actions performed by an agent with greater power than we possess.

  10. Sunstone says:

    God reserves hellfire for those who are too much “in their heads.” The soul is not rational, like a computer. Those who cannot or will not believe in what the world calls “foolishness” (the absurd) with all their heart, are condemned to die the second death.

    • I can’t tell if you sound pleased about that.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I can’t either.

        But there’s a way to go just as out-of-balance in the opposite direction, to get so far out of your head into Faith Faith Faith that you DO become foolish. Like Communism begetting Objectivism.

  11. I want to mention 2 books that speak far more elegantly than I can.

    The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel is the story of a former unbelieving journalist who decided to investigate and repudiate Christianity. I felt his best arguements for the Resurrection was his contention that no one will willingly die for something that they know to be untrue. The disciples after the Crucifixtion well all discouraged and despondent. Somehow and in some way they were transformed into people that lived(and died) for Christ. Today we have no first hand knowledge about this. Many people will die for what they have been told. Strobel makes a convincing case that the Disciples knew what had happenned and the Resurrection was the trasforming agent for them.

    My 2nd reccomendation is a book 90 minutes in Heaven, where a man (minister actually) was a in a car wreck, legally dead(the police could not detect vital signs) and was left on the scene for 90 minutes. Another man felt compelled to pray and prayed over the body.

    Lastly on Godvine.com they have a section for miracles on their website. Alot of the videos appear to be well checked out and verified.

  12. Charles Fines says:

    Chaplain, I can understand those who don’t believe in what we like to call miracles, but I regard them as short-sighted and deficient. Is the ability to accept “miracles” a gift? I dunno. The raising from the dead of the son of the widow from Nain was a miracle and it gives me no problem. The raising from the dead of Lazarus was even more of a miracle because he had been dead long enough to stink. No problem. The raising of Jesus from the dead was a miracle of an entirely different order. The widow’s son and Lazarus both would eventually have their body die again. Jesus never would have his body die again. It was gone, poof. Well, not gone, transformed. No problem.

    I don’t even know how to interact with people who regard what we call miracles as impossible. I can call them materialists but that doesn’t help. Maybe this is where a Philadelphia lawyer would be helpful, but I don’t regard Philadelphia lawyers as convincing except to people who don’t believe in miracles.

    I guess in the end I just have to say, hey, if you don’t believe in miracles, that’s okay. God bless you, maybe some day. It just doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing that rational logic can help with. I look at all the many tens of thousands of people who watched astounding miracles at the hand of Jesus and he ended up murdered.

    You just have to shrug your shoulders. That’s how people are. You can’t change them. You can plant seeds and you can water but you can’t make people change. Even Jesus couldn’t make people change except as the few responded. Free will is most highly respected in the Kingdom of God.

    Kudos to you for even trying to shine a light!