On Miracles and Science

When reading Scripture one is immediately struck by the plethora of miracles one finds.  From the relatively minor miracle of changing a staff into a snake to the creation of the whole universe and the resurrection of the dead, Scripture is full of miracles that defy logic, everyday experience, and scientific explanation.

It is this last category that is often troublesome in our modern world.  Science has rightly earned its place as the gold standard for what is true and false, what is possible and impossible.  We have seen it debunk faith healers, mystics, magicians, psychics, and other false miracle workers.  We’ve seen it explain even the most unlikely events with cold uncaring logic and statistical arguments.  We have seen it work wonders that to any earlier civilization would look like magic or miracles: electric lights, telecommunications, even travel to the stars.  Science is truly an amazing tool and should be rightly used to sniff out charlatans, false prophets, and false miracles.

However, science for all its vaunted power has limitations and true miracles pose challenges to science’s ability to analyze them.  Even worse sometimes Christians are tempted to use science and naturalistic explanations to explain away miracles in Scripture.  Thus it behooves us to take a look at to what extent science should be used to analyze the miracles of Scripture, which we Christians hold as not false miracles but true ones.  What can science know and not know about these events?

First, we should take to heart what Scripture declares about God’s power and our ability to know how He does what He does.  God in Isaiah 55 puts it succinctly:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
    and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

See also Job 38-41 as well as 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.  The Lord clearly states here and elsewhere that His power is unbounded and our powers of reason are limited.  We are limited creatures, we cannot know all the ways of the Lord.  Our reason can only take us so far.  The Lord, though, does not leave us just merely flabbergasted at His power but rather tells us that He accomplishes His work via His Word.  His Word creates and destroys.  Now how exactly that happens is beyond our knowledge but we can know that the Word of the Lord is how God exercises His power.

This Word is powerful, so powerful that it is called Almighty.  There is nothing that it cannot accomplish.  Thus there is nothing outside the power of God.  God can literally do the impossible.  Even the logic puzzles that we craftily devise to thwart God’s omnipotence such as, “Can God create a rock He can’t lift?” are nothing to Him.  This is because even logic itself is a created thing.  Logic does not transcend God, after all, He created it.  If we say that God is subject to logic or logic predates God we are confessing that something is greater than God, which would undermine His omnipotence.  Thus it is clear that when the Lord works He is unrestrained in doing so.  The only restraints on the Lord’s power are the ones He places on Himself.

For the case of miracles then this means that miracles can abridge the laws of nature and logic.  They are also unique one-time events that are not repeatable or involve things that transcend the physical realm, as in the case of the repeatable miracles of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  As such true miracles undermine the very foundations of science making them inaccessible to the scientific realm.  Thus it is proper to say that in the case of true miracles science has no access to them, and we should expect that science will give untrustworthy or confusing answers when it comes in contact with a miracle.

That said miracles can be worked in ways that are detectable by science and frankly, the Lord can make it such that a miracle looks perfectly natural.  Such is His power.  The question then is what can we know and test about miracles.  Generally, there are two categories of things we can know about miracles.

Ongoing Effects: Most miracles are not transient events but have enduring effects.  Such as the Resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15). We can test this by looking for evidence of this event, namely the lack of a body, eyewitness testimony of Him being alive, and other historical/archaeological methods.  This enduring evidence is completely within the realm of science to test and validate as it leaves signals that we can detect via our natural faculties.

Testimonial Evidence: For most miracles, you have observations of the miracle being worked by God even if by the end of it everything looks perfectly natural like nothing is out of place.  For instance, we have the episode of the Sun standing still in Joshua 10.  Clearly, we do not see ongoing effects of this amazing event, yet we do have testimonial historical evidence from Scripture that it did happen.  Thus science will have limited access to validate this event as it leaves no enduring signal other than what has passed into history via human testimony.  The proper discipline, in this case, is not science perse but the art of history.

Certainly, though there is no reason why a miracle needs to leave either ongoing effects or testimonial evidence.  The power of God is such that He could remake the whole universe from scratch in an instant and we would be none the wiser.  For instance, the Lord can certainly make the universe in six days as He clearly states in Genesis 1 but still make it look much older than it really is to scientific measurement.  In fact, it is not surprising that science would give untrustworthy or confusing answers with regards to miracles as all the fundamental rules of science are broken by the miracle itself.  Science really has no access to miracles other than what miracles permit science to see.

So as Christians we should be careful when we use science to explain or investigate miracles in Scripture.  Unlike the charlatans of our day, we know for a fact that the miracles of Scripture did happen.  Thus we should fully expect that science will have problems explaining or understanding them.  This isn’t a get out of jail free card though when it comes to a conflict between science and Scripture, rather it is a caution we should use when looking at the miracles of Scripture and then theorizing about what happened.  We cannot know all that the Lord did in these miracles other than what He has revealed in His Word.  Thus we should be careful not to eisegete into miracles and wedge in our pet theories about what happened.  Rather we should never underestimate the power of God to do what He desires.  We should marvel at the works and miracles we do observe and see the ongoing effects of, especially when we have evidence outside of Scripture as with the numerous testimonies of the Flood.

In addition miracles in our modern world, which do happen, must be tested against the Word of God.  The Lord has made promises that He certainly keeps.  Miracles do happen in response to prayer, but we are not to put our trust in them but rather in the Word.  Just because an apparent miraculous healing happens that confounds science or some other inexplicable event that defies logic occurs it does not mean that God was the worker. Satan does have real power to produce false miracles (Matthew 24:23-25, 2 Corinthians 11:12-15) and it may be a freak event that is perfectly within the realm of nature, though God can certainly use those to produce His desired end.  We can be fully confident that the miracles of heretics are false, and thus we should bring to bear science to unmask these false teachers for who they are.  However, the final adjudicator of what makes a miracle a true or false miracle is not science but rather the Word.  Thus we should always test miracles and those who perform them against the Word first and then against the arts and reason of man.

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