Miracles, Science and the Modern World

(On these September 2008 Sunday mornings we are looking at the life and times of Elisha. Among other things this sermon series raises questions about miracles. Are they believable? What can be said about them in the 21st century? The following is from my book on the truth and meaning of the Resurrection, Where did Jesus go? To help our thinking, here is a slightly edited extract from the first chapter.)

The Miraculous

Many people believe that the real problems about the resurrection of Jesus all have to do with ‘miracles’ and ‘science’. “How is it possible for someone to rise from the dead? Some people can believe anything,” they say.

Has science proved that ‘miracles’ can’t happen? There are still a lot of people who believe it has.

“Nature is entirely predictable,” they say. “What happens in nature can be discovered by able men and women in universities and research establishments. If certain things baffle us at the moment, it is only a matter of time before all will be made clear. But what is now clear is that miracles don’t happen and people certainly don’t rise from the dead.”

A playboy socialite from Edinburgh held this view a couple of hundred years ago. His name was David Hume. It was just when modern science was beginning to develop. Although he was equally as happy with the high life of those days as with writing essays and books, he managed to give time to writing extensively on philosophical subjects. These essays and books have been of lasting influence. In one of them he gave ‘classic’ expression to the belief in science and disbelief in miracles. “A miracle,” he wrote,

“… is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, X Of Miracles i.90).

Much, however, has changed in the last two hundred or so years, with much changing recently. The bubble of scientific confidence, it has been said, burst at the end of the twentieth century. The scientific dream is now no longer with us – the dream that through scientific discovery and invention all the ‘secrets of the universe’ can be unlocked, the dream that in time all of us will be able to live lives of unfettered comfort and ease. It has been said that at the end of the twentieth century we passed beyond …

“… a profoundly significant moment … in the history of mankind – the moment when it became apparent that, even on their own terms, science and technology were no longer necessarily making life better, easier, more efficient for us all.”

We needn’t bother with the reasons for this. Perhaps an uncontrolled desire for material things has caused it – a desire that leads to economic stress on a universal scale, with problems for rich and poor alike. Perhaps the abuse of science is a cause. One of the first secretaries of the Royal Society when it was founded as a scientific institution was a bishop. He would have been horrified at the use of science for mass destruction and environmental pollution!

Whatever the cause, there does seem to be shift of mood and belief and, indeed, there are quite radical developments in some quarters in this new ‘post modern’ world. People are no longer confident about the physical universe in the way Hume used to be. Perhaps the world is more strange than we thought. However bizarre it may seem, some have tried fusing mysticism with science. They believe that the world of ‘spirit’ can affect the world of ‘matter’. In the book Mysticism and the New Physics Michael Talbot claimed that the old certainties have now gone. “Slowly,” he says,

“… the tremendous mass of the scientific establishment begins to feel the first tremors of a radical and awesome new age … Perhaps the change will be felt like a roll of thunder as old constructions fall and new ones take their place. Perhaps the change will be so subtle and gradual that we will have no more sense of it than the anti-Copernicans during the lifetime of Galileo, who did not feel the earth move. Whatever the case, the message of the new physics is that we are participators in a universe of ever-increasing wonder.”

None of this solves the problems of miracles. It just makes people all the more bewildered. What does any ‘new physics’ have to say about the Resurrection? Very little. But it means that at last people are prepared to give the resurrection of Jesus a fairer hearing, or some are! In the past there has often been what James Martin calls a “deep-rooted prejudice against belief in the Resurrection.” This has affected many people.

“Dominated by the modern mind, they find it well-nigh impossible to think of the Resurrection as a real possibility. Miracles, they are sure, do not happen, cannot happen, never did happen. Therefore the Resurrection cannot be true.”

But a wind of change is blowing.

The limits of science

What can science tell us? Natural Science – physics, chemistry, biology etc. – has been very important for all of us in the modern world. True, the world today may be confused. Time magazine once described Britain, the place where modern science grew up, as “adrift in a deepening crisis of faith.” But no one would want to lose all the real advantages won by science and technology over the last centuries and during the twentieth century in particular. Indeed, we could now be faced with a reaction.

Today there is a danger of going to the other extreme, as there is a fascination for many, with the irrational and the uncanny. That is leading to “a revolt of the soul against the intellect” – to use W.B.Yeat’s phrase.

But the Christian isn’t over impressed with that reaction. The Christian believes in a rational, orderly universe that science can investigate. He or she finds no problem in its stability. In one sense it is only against such a background that miracles can occur. A miracle can be contrasted with the apparently normal only because there is a normal, orderly pattern to the universe’s working. In the words of God as reported in Genesis:

“As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease” (Gen 8.22).

The problems over science arise only when our thinking about the material universe colours our thinking about the whole of the life of man. Why, for example, should man and society be likened either to the planets or to the machines of human invention? Over the centuries this has happened. The scientific mind elated with its successes in the non-human world has often, unwittingly, treated man as non-human. Man has gradually been seen as a miniature universe – a mass of interconnected laws of cause and effect, or as a sophisticated machine. But, of course, men are not miniature universes or machines. They are very different.

The reason why the natural sciences were so successful was because ‘nature’ or the universe of physical laws has been easier to understand and control than human nature. Human nature is very different and much harder to understand and control. It is easier to send a space craft to the moon and beyond than it is to solve the problems of Arab and Jew, Iraq and Afghanistan, rich and poor, or the violence on the streets of any major big city! That is why science has evolved the way it has with a huge success-rate in its investigation of the physical world.

But we need to remember the story of the man in the street at night looking down at the pavement under a lamp-post. “What are you doing?” he was asked. “I’ve lost my front door key,” he replied. “Are you sure you’ve lost it under the lamp-post?” “No, but this is the only place where I can see!”

We must be careful, therefore, before we look for the key to human life with the lamp of science; perhaps we need another lamp. In his Gifford Lectures the German physicist and philosopher C.F.von Wiezäcker put it like this:

“Science cannot select the order in which it wants to treat its subjects according to their importance for human life. The motion of the planets is not relevant to human happiness or salvation. But it turned out to be a comparatively simple problem for mathematical treatment, and thus through the efforts of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton its theory became the keystone of modern science. Human nature is less simple.”

Man has a free will. That is what makes the difference. Although subject to environmental and hereditary factors, man can act creatively on his own. He is not totally determined, nor is he a robot.

But it has to be admitted some disagree. “Can we really determine,” they say, “even a small part of the universe? Even when we think we are acting freely, how can we be sure?”

Part of the answer comes from the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. If the tomb was empty, if he really rose from the dead, if God is ‘there’, man is certainly not just a ‘throw-up’ of the physical universe. God is ultimate. His is the last word, not the laws of an impersonal universe. Man is then in his image and thus a free creative being.

How important, then, that we discover the truth about the resurrection of Jesus! To do that we need to look at facts, not theories.

Miracles in the New Testament

We face a paradox in the New Testament over the miracles of Jesus. On the one hand, just to take Mark’s gospel alone, we find a great deal about miracles. Thirty-one per cent of the Gospel, 209 out of 666 verses, is taken up with miracle stories. In the early chapters it is forty-seven per cent. “St Mark without miracle is indeed Hamlet without the Prince.”

On the other hand, for all that is said about the miracles of Jesus, there is a desire to play them down. For example, when Jesus once healed a leper, he said to the man, “See that you don’t tell this to anyone” (Mark 1.44).

Jesus was aware that his miracles, or ‘signs’ as John prefers to call them, would be misunderstood. They were not so much for ‘evidential’ value; rather they were the result of his love in the face of suffering. By themselves apart from his total teaching they could mislead people. As a result of a miracle on one occasion the Jews tried to make Jesus a king.

There had just been a miraculous feeding of five thousand people and the conclusion drawn was:

“Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6.14)

. But the miracle misled them. They had wrong ideas about the sort of person he was and the sort of role that ‘the prophet’ was to fulfil. ‘Miracle’ was only part of the story.

The miracles of the New Testament can only be viewed in the light of the Old Testament and its understanding of God and the universe. Here the important thing to remember is that the Hebrews were so different to many of the Greeks and many of us today!

Basically the Greeks (and their successors) tried first of all to make sure of ‘nature’; and when that was done, they fitted God in. The Hebrews, as we can see from the Old Testament, went about it the other way round. They first tried to make sure of God, and then saw where ‘nature’ fitted in. They did not think of a closed, self-sufficient universe or system of ‘nature’. In fact they hardly thought in terms of ‘nature’ at all. God’s word and his will were what they were concerned with. For example, spring follows winter and summer follows spring in response to God’s command, not in obedience to ‘natural laws’.

The ancient Israelite believed in regularity just as much as his Greek counterpart. But for him it is regularity in the character of God, not a purely physical regularity; he knew the character of God to be consistent and true to his word.

For this reason in the Bible miracles are not seen as bizarre, irrational interventions from outside. That was more of a pagan view, not a Christian one. Rather they are seen to be consistent with the justice and love of God, and so as we would expect there is a restraint about the reporting of them. This immediately separates them off from many other reported miracles, ancient and modern.

A God-centred universe

Plutarch was a priest of the Greek god, Apollo, and an exact contemporary of Mark; but the miracles they write about are so different.

In one of his works Plutarch tells about the Greek general Pyrrhus (of ‘Pyrrhic victory’ fame). He mentions how once the general was involved in a sacrifice, when suddenly the severed heads of the oxen that had been killed stuck out their tongues. They then began to like up their own blood! Plutarch describes this as “a remarkable portent” or (literally) “a great sign”. It is inconceivable that that sort of thing could have been one of the ‘signs’ of Jesus.

It cannot be too often said: the biblical miracles are not to be seen as ‘suspensions of natural laws’. For some have seen God as the great ‘clockmaker’, who puts the world together, winds it up and then lets it tick. From time to time he presses the ‘stop’ button and ‘does a miracle’. No! The Bible’s view is that God created and still sustains the world. There is a permanent, continuing relationship between God and what we call the material universe. In fact it is Jesus Christ himself, according to the New Testament, who is the ‘agent’ in this process.

“In him all things hold together” (Col 1.17)

That was Paul’s staggering assertion. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews said that he is

“sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1.3).

Jesus Christ is at the heart of the universe – or so those early Christians believed and taught. If that is true, the Resurrection far from being odd is what you might expect!

So to recap, in the Bible the material universe within which the ‘miraculous’ takes place is all part of God’s realm and in part it reflects his character.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps 19.1).

That is why the ultimate principle of order and regularity is to be seen not in the physical universe, but in the God who is the creator of that universe.

“The only ultimate regularity,” wrote C.F.D.Moule,

“… is to be looked for not within the material realm by itself but in the character of a personal God. It is of his character that the material realm is a manifestation: and what is possible and probable in it, is better measured by what is known of the character of God than by what is observed on the much narrower scale of the purely mechanical.”

When we look at Jesus, we see, says the Christian, the character of God.

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” said Jesus (John 14.9).

And what we find to be true of Jesus may have to make us revise our ideas of ‘the possible’.

A miracle therefore is not so much an intervention or a suspension of natural law; rather it is what happens when the love and goodness of God is directed in an intense way at imperfections of nature and history. God’s activity in nature and history is “focused to burning-point” in miracle.

And that is why the miracle stories of the Apocryphal literature have to be rejected. They are often so out of keeping with the character of Jesus. But the resurrection of Jesus is a very different matter.

We shall never be able to get away from the ‘miraculous’ in Christianity. In fact it is a distinguishing mark of the Christian faith as compared with some other main religions. Yes, in some popular forms of other religions there is a belief in miracles. But Confucius was not a miraculous figure. The Buddha allowed only “the miracles of the revelation of man’s inner self”; for him it is in knowledge that the miraculous is to be found. Muhammed also disclaimed the power to work miracles; the Qur’ān alone was miraculous.

And remember: the strongest evidence for the miracles of Jesus comes from his enemies. They objected to his works of power. But in the New Testament there is no indication that they generally denied them. True, when Jesus healed a man born blind, the Jews at first were reluctant to believe that this had really happened. John tells us:

“The Jews still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. ‘Is this your son?’ they asked. ‘Is this the one you say was born blind?’” (John 9.18-19).

They were then forced to accept the facts. In the end they had to admit the healing and the power of Jesus.

So we mustn’t be prejudiced by some assumptions people easily can have about science and miracles. We need, instead, to see how the Bible understands the ‘miraculous’. In the light of that we need to think about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and other claims to the miraculous in the Bible.

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