Sunday, September 17, 2006

Miracles and the Laws of Nature

This is the second in a series on miracles - the first can be found here. It's mostly stuff I wrote a while ago, but haven't put on the Web until now.

Do Miracles Break the Laws of Nature?

It is a common belief today that a miracle is something that does not fit in with the laws of nature. Does the Bible support this? Let's look once again at the events surrounding the Exodus, in this case, the parting of the Red Sea, one of the many miracles performed by God to rescue the Israelites from Egypt.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
Exodus 14:21-22, NIV

First, let us be clear that this was God's action. I showed last time that the purpose was to teach the Egyptians and the Israelites that God was powerful. The passage above says clearly that it was God who drove the water back.

Why then was there a wind, and why did it take all night? It certainly seems that here God uses normal "scientific" means to drive the water back, just as he uses normal "scientific" means (gravity) to cause it to crash back down on the Egyptians.

This should not surprise us. After all, if scientific laws are only a description of the way that God acts in the universe, then why should he not follow them when demonstrating his power? If God brings the rain through the normal physical processes at work in the universe, why should he not deliver his people using those same processes?

The crossing of the Red Sea can be "explained" in terms of physics. So what makes it a miracle?

The parting of the Red Sea is a miracle because it displays God's power. Moses could not have parted the sea on his own. Neither could Pharaoh, and neither could we. But God could.

I have heard it said that occasionally strong winds do come, and do cause the sea in that area to part. Even so, people cannot make it part on demand.

If we could build a machine to do it, then that would still not make this occurrence any less of a miracle, because God did not use such a machine. It was a miracle because it showed that the wind and water obeyed God in a way that they do not obey people.

We see the same thing in Mark 4:35-41. Jesus commands a storm to stop, and it stops. It was not a miracle because the storm stopped –storms stop all the time. It was a miracle because, as the disciples noted:

"Even the wind and the waves obey him."

So, in the Bible, miracles do not have to break the laws of nature in order to be miracles.

Can Miracles Break The Laws Of Nature?

There is a real danger of saying that God does not work through the normal operation of science. But there is also a danger of domesticating him and saying that he can only work through the normal operation of science.

In some miracles, such as the parting of the Red Sea, God works in accordance with the laws of science. But that is not true of all miracles.

The clearest example is the resurrection of Jesus. All the evidence points to Jesus being dead on the Friday evening. Yet on the Sunday morning, Jesus was able to convince people that he had conquered death rather than merely surviving it. This was not just a resuscitation where Jesus came back from death but was still near it. This was a resurrection where Jesus conquered death and came out the other side.

Now this does not fit in with the normally observed way that the universe works. In general, people do not come back from the dead. Occasionally, people are wrongly thought to be dead and later revive. But when they do, they are nowhere near as clearly dead as Jesus was, nor able to give the impression that have conquered death so soon afterwards.

So Jesus' resurrection was not in accordance with the laws of science.

That does not make it in some way more God's action than parting the Red Sea. Both are miracles; both are things which God did and we could not, and both point to God's power and rescue of his people. One is done through the way the universe usually works, and one is not.

How Can God Break His Own Laws?

All of this raises an important question about God's faithfulness. After all, in Jeremiah, God said that he had "established the fixed laws of heaven and Earth", and he used it to show his faithfulness.

So if God established those laws as fixed, how can he break them?

I think the best answer to this is that there is one fundamental law of the universe, which is that everything does what God tells it to do. This is actually necessary if we are to explain how the universe works at all.

Now if the fundamental law of the universe is that it does what God tells it to do, he can sometimes tell it to do things a bit differently.

Why would he do this? To show clearly that he is God, and that he has total power over the whole universe. To show that he is not domesticated – that he is not always limited by what we think he should be like. To show that he is not limited by the way that the universe works, but that he can do anything he wants to do. Scientific agnostics can cling on in the face of miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea by saying that it is just a very unlikely coincidence. But they can do nothing in the face of the resurrection of Jesus.

As Don Carson writes:

A miracle is not God doing something for a change, it is God doing something out of the ordinary. That God normally operates the universe consistently makes science possible; that he does not always do so should keep science humble.
Don Carson, How Long, O Lord?

So why then does God sometimes do miracles which fit in with the way that the universe works? To show that he is God over science as well. God is accomplishing his purpose through the normal way that the universe works, just as he is also accomplishing it when he does things a bit differently. It is to show us that the universe does not just carry on regardless except for the odd moment when God steps in and decides to act. God is continually at work in the universe.

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