A view on how to understand miracles in the Holy Scriptures.
The presence of “miracles” in the Bible has been a source of difficulty to both Christians and non-Christians alike since the Renaissance (14th to 17 centuries) and the Enlightenment (17th to 18th centuries), when some would say that medieval superstition gave way to a new birth of learning and culture and the age of reason. Science and technology grew with breathtaking speed in the past several centuries and the explanations of reality provided by science seemed to discredit the beliefs of earlier years. In our day, many have rejected belief in miracles and even the resurrection of Jesus Christ altogether. Some hold that religion and science are mutually contradictory and in permanent enmity, or at least that they have nothing to do with one another.
What is a miracle? Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition defines a miracle as “an event or action that apparently contradicts known scientific laws and hence is thought to be due to supernatural causes, i.e. an act of God.
Christians understand that God is the Supreme Being in the universe. He created all things, including everything in the universe. The creation is the direct outgrowth of God’s person just as a man’s work, whether Shakespeare’s plays or Stalin’s purges, is a direct outgrowth of the man. The Creator’s knowledge is displayed in the immeasurable complexity of the human body, His power is manifest in the might of the sea and the storm, His beauty is evident in the loveliness of the flower and the sunrise, and His goodness shines forth in the fact that He made it all and gave it to us to enjoy. The God who gave us the universe is the same God who gave us the Bible. All truth is God’s truth, and science is no more opposed to Christianity than a man’s right hand is opposed to his left.
There are two main types of laws. One type indicates what a moral agent, such as a man or a woman, should or should not do. This law can be disobeyed, but disobedience will have consequences imposed by the lawgiver. “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) can be disobeyed, but God as the Lawgiver will impose consequences. Speed limits can be disobeyed, but society as the lawgiver will impose consequences. The results of violating moral laws are as sure as the results of violating a physical law, but often delayed.
The second type of law does not describe what a moral agent should do but what a physical agent, whether a man or a rock, must do. The law of gravity states that every object in the universe attracts every other object in the universe, and neither man nor rock have any more chance of disobeying this law than they do of turning into a centipede. A man can try to defy gravity by jumping off a cliff, but will only smash himself to pieces in the process.
There are many natural laws and more are being discovered all the time. To Luke, the first century physician, modern medicine, aviation and much of the modern world would seem miraculous. According to our definition above, they would seem to him to contradict natural laws. Modern physicians, pilots, and others, however, understand that none of these things disobey natural laws; they obey laws which were unknown in the first century. While God provides the very breath we breathe and therefore our acts can be considered His, modern medical “miracles” and space flight are not an act of God in the sense described in the definition above. Miracles, therefore, are in the eye of the beholder. If we had all of the details or what actually happened, many things that seemed a miracle to a Biblical writer may not seem a miracle at all to a modern scientist.
Some examples are in order. Sennacherib, King of Assyria, conquered all of Judea and was besieging Jerusalem in 701 BC. His army was encamped around the city when “the angel of the Lord went out and put to death 185,000 of the Assyrians (Isaiah 37:36).” There is not enough detail in the account to determine exactly how the angel did this but it is reasonable to speculate that some rapidly fatal infectious disease such as pneumonic plague or pulmonary anthrax was the cause. Such outbreaks are common in the annals of military history both in besieged and besieging forces. In 1489 a Spanish army besieging Granada lost 14,000 of 25,000 troops. The Black Death (1348-1350) was spread to Europe after it broke out in a Tartar army besieging Genoese Kaffa in the Crimea.
Hezekiah, King of Judea during the siege, had shortly before developed a serious infection (a boil, abscess) that was likely to be fatal (Isaiah 38:1). He prayed to the Lord for deliverance and the Lord told the prophet Isaiah to apply a poultice of figs to the boil and Hezekiah recovered (Isaiah 38:21, 39:1). This was probably a case of a fungus growing on the figs which produced an antibiotic, thus killing the bacteria and eliminating the infection.
In another example, Samuel and the light infantry predominant Israelite army were facing the charioteers of Philistia. In open country and good weather, armored chariots would slice enemy armies into ribbons, and the Israelites faced destruction. They prayed to the Lord and He sent a great thunder (1 Samuel 7:10). The thunder confused the Philistines and they were defeated. It may seem hard to believe that something as simple as thunder could defeat an army, but if that thunder presaged a storm, the Philistines would need to rethink their battle plan. If rain followed the thunder, the light and mobile Israelites would butcher the chariot heavy and now immobilized Philistines.
There are many other examples of events that were attributed to God’s miraculous or near miraculous deliverance in the Bible that moderns would explain as natural phenomena. They may have been natural phenomena, but that does not mean that they were not miracles.
Biblical writers did not have the same definition of miracles that we have. The Gospel writers refer to “mighty works”, which were works intended to confirm the words of Jesus. His mighty works were not performed to impress His audience but to convince them of the truth. Lacking the same post-Enlightenment concept of natural laws that we have, and knowing that all of creation is an outgrowth of God, the concept that the mighty works of the Father, performed through the Person of the Son, would have violated His own actions in nature would have been preposterous.
There is another factor to be considered. Natural phenomena may account for the parting of the Red Sea and even the many healings in the Bible, but how could they account for the Resurrection of Jesus? This is more difficult, because the thing that animates the human body is unlikely to be a part of the physical world. Rather, the “life force” that separates a living man from a corpse is likely to belong to the spirit world, inaccessible to science, which is constrained to studying the physical universe. Perhaps such miracles will elude the understanding of science forever.
Therefore, the argument that the Bible should be rejected because it contains “supernatural” events is as illogical as the arguments used to convince Orville and Wilbur Wright that they would never fly. All truth is God’s truth, and in His perfect wisdom He uses His creation to accomplish His purposes, whether we understand and accept the explanation or not.