Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Miracles and Natural Law

Recently I heard someone say something all too common: "I cannot believe in the miracles of the Bible, because I cannot accept things that violate natural law." Many Christians define miracles exactly this same way - a violation of laws of nature. But is that the proper definition? What is a miracle, does it violate laws of nature, and what are the implications for spiritual life?

First, to understand if a miracle is a violation of physical law, we must know what a law of nature is and what it isn't. The point where a "scientific theory" becomes a "scientific law" is a bit of a gray area. For me, the easiest distinction is to state it in this way: a scientific theory is a description of the universe that explains evidence we have discovered so far; a scientific law is a description of the universe that we believe explains all evidence that could ever be discovered.

Really there aren't very many scientific laws. Good examples include Newton's laws of motion, conservation of mass/energy, Boyle's law, thermodynamics laws, etc. These are the fundamental descriptions of how the universe works. For the Christian, we would say that these are the rules that make the entire universe tick. They have never been violated, and it seems unlikely that they ever would be.

So--do miracles violate the laws of nature? Of course God can violate the laws of nature (just as, if I program a game on my computer, I can reprogram it to allow me to cheat against the rules I originally wrote). I question, though, why would He ever have to do so? If God knew the future when He made the laws of nature, then God would know that He would be intervening at such-and-such a time in order to change His laws. So why would He make the rules in such a way that they would later require His intervention to change them? Wouldn't it just seem more natural to make the Laws in such a way that He could interact without going against the thing that He created?

What are we really saying if we, as Christians, say that miracles are when
our God is actively involved in going against the rules He created? Are we saying God did not fully see the future (and thus it requires tweaking on the fly, like in The Adjustment Bureau)? Or are we saying that God's "hands were tied" when He made the Laws, so He could only make them in a certain way which would require later overruling? Or are we saying that He was sloppy in making them? Or are we saying that His power is limited and He "did the best He could"? Or are we saying that He sees laws as more "rules of thumb"?

Maybe so. None of these things would mean that God wasn't God, or that the Bible was untrue. So maybe that is the way things are. But let me offer another solution: we are defining miracle incorrectly.

Most people, when they talk about miracles, do not actually mean, "This event violated a natural law." What they mean instead is, "This event seems so improbable to have happened by chance, that I conclude it required divine intervention to occur." So miracles are not a violation of natural law, but are something which would not have happened on its own.

Consider Jesus turning water in wine, for example. Water spontaneously changing into wine just does not happen; if it occurred, it can only be because a higher power was involved. Thus, it is a miracle. But does the changing of water to wine cause a violation of natural law? I can't see how it does. The law of conservation of matter is not broken, for matter was neither created nor destroyed in the event.

Or look at the Ten Plagues of Egypt. There is nothing in the laws of nature that prohibits swarms of insects or eclipses or unexplained deaths in the third world (such things are relatively common). What makes it miraculous is not that the individual events violated some law of nature; it is that they occurred, as prophesied by Moses, in a sequence which cannot be seen as just a run of 'bad luck' by a reasonable person.

Or consider Elijah calling down fire from heaven. Lightning strikes, meteor crashes, and the like cause similar results; or, for that matter, the hydrogen in the air could be isolated into a column and easily ignited. It is certainly no violation of natural law (we can do it in a lab, so certainly a Creator could do it!). But for it to occur at precisely the moment that Elijah desired, and to hit only his altar, and to burn off all the water and still have fuel to ignite the source--that is why it is miraculous.

Is the Virgin Birth a violation of natural law? Of course not - heck, we can build test-tube babies today. Artifical insemination is not at all mysterious and is well understood. There is no violation of natural law. Female hammerhead sharks have given birth without sexual intercourse. Pythons and komodo dragons have been observed to do the same. It is a process called parthenogenesis (which has been reproduced in a laboratory in mice). If this occurred, and Mary had a known disorder called testicular feminisation, then we see that the virgin birth is not at all against the laws of nature. Improbable? Yes, certainly - in the extreme. In the entire history of humanity it could almost certainly never occur. But with divine intervention it could - and without violating the laws of nature.

When everyone hears speech in their own languages in Peter's speech in Acts, is this a violation of some law of science? Of course not - we all are capable of learning new languages. No law of nature is violated if God allows their brains to translate his words for a few minutes.

We see it in our modern miracles, as well as in Scripture. Women who are told that they are barren suddenly find themselves having children. People who doctors believe will certainly not live, find themselves fully and mysteriously cured. Are these miraculous? Yes--if you define miracles as an occurrence which is so improbable that we conclude God intervened to "tip the scales" of probability.

You see as you look through miracle after miracle that the Bible never tells us (so far as I can see) that we must accept a God who makes a set of laws one day and randomly changes them later, as though He did not know such a day would come. Instead, I see a God who actively and consistently defies probability and creates situations which help support His mission here on earth.

So please stop accepting atheists putting an unfair burden on us - that we must somehow throw out all miracles as a violation of the laws of science. Far from denying miracles, science seems instead to be telling us how God went about making them happen!

God works through His laws and around them, to bring about things which help bring about His will. That, my friends, is what a miracle really is.


  1. This is one of the more helpful posts on the subject I've seen. Nobody would say that you're 'violating the law of gravity' if you pick up a rock from the ground, for example. Miracles properly understood are simply God acting as an agent in his own creation much as we can interact with the physical world as well - except that God is obviously far more powerful than us, and doesn't need a physical body to do so.

  2. Kyle, thanks! Great analogy too, and well stated.