The real truth about miracles
Regular Network Ipswich columnist James Knight looks at miracles in the context of logic and probability and explains why salvation is the greatest miracle of all.
Before we approach the subject of miracles, whether they are true, and how they fit into the picture of creation, we must first ask - are miracles contained within the interworkings of nature or are they an invasion from outside? Many theologians have thought carefully about this, and the majority (including most notably C.S Lewis) have postulated a view that miracles are an invasion from outside of nature. This is not a view with which I concur – I think science intimates greater and deeper mysteries contained within the cosmic blueprint for creation (particularly with the arcane and esoteric nature of quantum physics) – to say that God is ‘interfering’ in creation is probably as misjudged as saying that a writer interferes in his own novel.
It is, of course, true that you will not find the origins of reason within nature, but you will not find the miraculous by examining natural law either, for natural law only tells us what is being suspended for the miracle to take place. In the case of, say, the virgin birth or the raising of Lazarus, normal physiological activity is being suspended; in the case of, say, God using Moses to part the sea, normal gravitational laws are being suspended. But given that creation and Divine revelation seem to be one seamless entirety, and that God’s plans are manifested through the whole of creation, it is important not to speak of miraculous events as ‘normal activity being suspended’ unless we draw up some core semantic demarcation lines.
We must be careful to make an important distinction between what is ordinarily perceived as miraculous and what is ordinarily perceived as non-miraculous. Now of course everything that is not God is created and (in the technical sense) a miracle, but in making the distinction, we are following what Christ did and demarcating boundary lines between what should be seen as ordinary or uniform (such as laws of physiology) and what should be seen as ‘contextually’ miraculous - or if you prefer - miracles within the grand miracle (such as when anomalous events happen in physiology - ‘the virgin birth’ and ‘the raising of Lazarus’ - as per above). As Jesus Himself clearly intended to show that there are subset miracles with the grand miracle of creation itself, clearly there is an important category distinction to make, solely for descriptive purposes and sense-making communication within creation.
The purpose of these category distinctions are, I would say, as follows; the mind needs the concept of ‘uniform’ or ‘ordinary’ to show that ‘out of the ordinary’ things can happen, otherwise we would have less reason to suspect that there exists anything outside of the interlocking system of nature. It is because ‘out of the ordinary’ things happen that we have any reason to believe in God, and the prime example of this is, of course, the miracle of salvation – the point at which we realise that Jesus is Lord. Even though the whole of creation is a miracle, the ‘out of the ordinary’ things happen for epistemological reasons, for sense-making purposes such as when the (what are to our minds) ordinary laws of physiology are broken or suspended for some ‘out of the ordinary’ event. These are the category distinctions that we refer to as ‘miracles’.
So, in my view, the idea that when a miracle happens God is ‘interfering’ with creation, and the idea that creation is one big miracle with no anomalous acts are both wrong. I suppose with concepts such as ‘time’ we could say that God has already written the book but He is turning a page at a time - but nature is being sustained by God (although quite ‘how’ He is doing it is beyond the comprehension of men, other than with metaphorical conjecture). But what we know from the concept of mind is that there are important communicative distinctions that need to be made within nature, and I think these distinctions are important steps to our seeing God’s plan for creation - after all, if things like virgin births and resurrections were commonplace, no one would question their context in a wider framework. It is because they are so anomalous that we question the bigger picture and What, or Who, might lurk behind it.
How do we know if miracles are true?
Given that miracles are rather rare and that ‘out of the ordinary’ events are spread thinly over time and almost always impossible to predict, we must really go straight for the big miracle of salvation if we want to affirm the truth about the miraculous. That is to say, given that we cannot know for certain that the claims of the miraculous found in the Bible actually happened (much less prove they did) we are going to have to take a more direct route through prayer and supplication. In other words, given the intractability of history we are going to have to bypass the epistemological difficulties and ask God to reveal Himself to us. That is why I must insist that we will not find God by ordinary methods; it is only when we see nature as an extraordinary creation that we can step outside of her (figuratively, of course) and find God operating within her. Every bit of knowledge we have of God - every part of the Divine that rests deep in the inner-self is in its own essence partially transcendent of nature; therefore to know Him is to unmistakably know Him. Just as the beauty of Venice as a whole can only be experienced from above, nature is no different - one must see her for what she really is, a creation, before we can see her whole quintessence. It is then that we will start to see signs of God operating within her.
What about the improbability factor regarding miracles?
When discussing the probability of miracles, we tend to forget one thing. There are, as any good mathematician will tell you, many improbable events that we do not see as improbable because we know them to have happened. Let me offer an example; on the 4th August In 1961 baby Barak Obama was born in Hawaii. Now if one had calculated on that day the odds that he would be President of the United States at the beginning of 2009, the odds would be profusely slim, given the enormous amounts of preceding events and activities that were necessary for such an event to be true. But we did not find it absurd that he was sworn in as President on that memorable day a few months ago – after all, someone had to be President, and why not him as opposed to anyone else? We do not of course view probability in that way; that is, we do not look back retrospectively, just as we do not look at our own birth date and ascertain probability by considering the enormous number of stellar activities necessary to create our own galaxy, our solar system, our planet, the vast amount of cumulative evolution preceding the vast number of meetings and fertile male/female unions between ancestors that were necessary in order that our birth date should produce you or me on that day, because it is easy to see that the whole of nature consisted of heavy odds that neither you (the reader) nor me (the author) would ever be alive at this moment to have this discussion.
Given that each single event was never probable at all, we can see that the same sort of logic must be applied to our view of the miraculous – but with one key difference – compared with all the ‘ordinary’ events within nature, we find miracles hugely improbable even after they have happened, in fact most objectors would rather believe any improbable natural event rather than a miracle. When we try to tell sceptics about a miraculous healing we have experienced or a miraculous prayer that God has answered, notice that they go straight for any other alternative (however absurd or irrational) instead of considering the miraculous option, and for understandable reasons.
Our view of nature as a consistent reality that is amenable to varying degrees of inductive predictability means that as we sit with the ability to think and analyse the retrospective trajectory of all the activity which led to almost any ‘ordinary’ fact in nature, we have no reason to be baffled by the huge odds which militated against this fact ever taking place. The same is true of our assessment of miracles – if we believe in an all-loving, all-powerful God working behind the scenes in nature, we have no reason to view miracles any differently, in fact, it would be a strange existence if there were no miracles.
If a man fails to realise this he will always get himself in a mess regarding history, miracles and probability, and this is evidenced by the significant errors made by Hume in his famous essay on miracles. He posits an insistence that a consistent nature and any possible occurrence of the miraculous in that consistent body would be contradictory. He is, in my view, quite wrong - the diagnostic essence of nature is the frame in which miracles occur – they were always going to be included in the created order. Nothing in the frame itself can provide us with a good estimation of the likelihood of a miracle occurring, just as, say, a 50mph speed limit on the A47 will not tell you the likelihood that someone will break it.
Or perhaps even better, think of the whole interlocking system of nature as represented by 1000 pennies laid out side by side on a table. Mathematical studies will reveal to us all the possible configurations of sums and values we can observe with the 1000 pennies, providing there are no higher valued coins added to the collection of pennies. For when that happens there are new sums and values to observe, but they do not change our original estimations when we had only 1000 pennies. The naturalist’s perception of a lack of any miraculous events nature are equivalent to him viewing nature as 1000 pennies – failing to realise that God has put in higher valued coins to supplement nature. In this illustration the laws of arithmetic are synonymous with the laws of nature - they tell us what will happen provided there is no Divine activity supplementing nature; that is, they tell us all the possible configurations with 1000 pennies provided no more pennies of higher valued coins are added. But one thing is certain; the laws of nature do not tell us the probability of supplementation from the outside.
Consider this, the Bible claims that Christ turned water into wine. Now even without the need for God to intervene with a miracle, it is technically possible that water could turn into wine all by itself. Here, of course, probability would be a huge factor. If the particle movements occurred in the precise way necessary, the water in a glass could suddenly change its properties; that is, changes in the structure of atomic nuclei and in the numbers of orbiting electrons could conceivably bring about the vast changes needed to turn water instantly into wine. But of course the laws of probability say that it is highly unlikely - in fact, the odds are probably so great that if you had the entire 14 billion year history of the universe to write them out, you couldn’t write a number big enough. So here, you see, we would not expect it to happen by assessment of probability alone. But as I said a moment ago, we are not assessing its likelihood with probability estimates; we are claming that it was always written in the script by the Divine hand – that the cosmic blueprint contained every part of His plan necessary for creation.
The vast and complex event called nature, and the new particular event interpolated and introduced into it by the miracle, are related by their common origin in God, and therefore intricately related in His purpose and design. In that way, the miracles and the continuity of nature are as well interlocked as any other two realities, but one must go straight to the source - the Creator of nature - to find the interlocking, as you will not find it wholly in nature. The Bible tells us how to do this – if we want to know God we have to recognise the greatest of all miracles – the incarnation; that is, we must come to know Him through His Son Jesus Christ, for in Christ we have the radiance of His being and the exact representation of His glory (Hebrews 1:3).
If the Bible is true and God really did become a man, it is the most prominent event in all of creation. Since the incarnation holds the central position, one must try to see how it fits in with the rest of creation. Evolution itself is a long story which has, thus far, begun with a very simple living organism with the properties of self-replication and eventuated (thus far) in humankind. Now if the incarnation is true and such a stupendous event really did happen - if the Creator Himself became a man - we should expect to find, firstly, that this event shows itself to be an essential part of the story, fitting in with all that surrounds it in the rest of creation, and, secondly, that it supplements and explains much about the psychology of the creatures for which creation itself occurred. Our analysis of the situation may be shown by the following analogy.
Let us suppose that we use a similar method to the one we use in scientific experimentation. Let us say that a scientist proffered a contention that he had discovered a new type of analysis which needed to be incorporated into the experiment in order to ascertain the validity of the overall experiment. On this evidence, he claims, the whole experiment turns - the new part supplements all the other parts, bringing elucidation to each constituent part of the scientific whole. We should expect that this new part would elicit significance at every further stage of the examination, and eradicate the mystery of why the other parts did not integrate together in the first place. The scientist’s aim in deciding whether to accept or reject this new part would be very much the same as what we are called to do in our analysis of the Christian faith. Here, instead of a scientific experiment, we have the aggregate totality of our knowledge, our psychology, and the history of the world in which we live. Now the incarnation, if it shows itself to be true, should affect this totality at every step along the way. Far from being a trivial event in the annals of history, we should find that real blessedness in the psychology of each individual who comes to know God would be spiritually conjoined with the experience of every other individual who comes to know God, so that the unique understanding of a relationship with Him can be attested to by all who know Him. Those who have the Spirit can say Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3)
We should find that His claims for our ‘full life’ were easily receivable and recognisable - and easily distinguishable from the time when we did not know Him. We should find that all the things in life which were, before we knew Him, mere parts of daily experience are now, through knowledge of Him, opportunities for rich blessings and glorious fulfilment. We should find that through knowledge of Him we inevitably grow in spiritual wisdom, and that our inner-hunger was all the time a longing to be reunited with our Creator. On the other hand, if the whole Christian story was mythology, we should expect to find incongruity around every corner. We should expect that nothing really fits (as we see with the other religions) - that the essence of this new belief brought nothing but false hopes and faded dreams. It is easy to argue the same case for all the other religions, but it won’t take long before the true essence of each false religion shows itself to be a mix of lies, delusion and falsehood. In Christianity we see the real glorious nature of God. We see that if God so descends into a human soul, and if that renewed soul becomes part of our nature - our true understanding of God comes from deep within the true essence of the self – we were made or no other reason. Both the natural and the supernatural can be seen to be present, dialectically present, in all of our understanding and in our strongest hopes and dreams.
At this point it may be advisable to remind ourselves how the incarnation is already supplementing everything in the same way that the new part of the scientific experiment would, if it were correct, supplement and explain all the other parts of the experiment. We have already observed its interrelation with the four central principles of our existence; the complex nature of the psychology of man, the way in which it recovers our lost dreams; the way in which it satisfies our curiosity and feeds our inner-hunger; and the way that real knowledge of the Divine can be attained from the spiritual wisdom we acquire in Christ.
Here at last we find (as we do not find in any other religion or belief system) a real, tangible relationship with God. The incarnation works through our whole psychology, it illuminates all of our deepest philosophies into a real understanding of the world, of others, and of the self. The doctrine of the incarnation has little to say to the man who thinks that all religions have an equal claim to the truth; or to the man who thinks that we can have no human knowledge of God; or to the man who thinks that God is everything; or to the man who puts all his faith in mankind; or to any who deny that Christ is Lord. The true realisation very often comes when we have knocked down all the barriers which impede our understanding of Him. If Christ is accepted as the way, the truth and the life, through the realisation that He wants nothing more than to bless each and every one of us abundantly, we will begin to leave behind that which will remain both a mystery and an affliction if His grace is rejected. And that is why, as far as we are concerned, our salvation is the most important miracle of all.
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at firstname.lastname@example.org
James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich.
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk