The Hand of God: Miracles

In the previous “Threads” (The Hand of God) I discussed the idea of the supernatural, and concluded that everything is natural, and yet everything is an act of God.

Does this leave any room for divine intervention? Is everything simply the result of general laws, or is there anything personal about the universe at all.

However we define God’s actions, if God acts in a special way, apart from generalized laws that always work in the same way, we raise the same sort of problems. There are a number of objections to the notion of miracles. Let’s look at a few of these briefly.

  1. They are impossible. This is true by any standards available to our study. We would hardly be referring to an event as a miracle if it did not in some way contravene the way in which we expected things to happen. But this is hardly, in and of itself, an objection to the possibility of miraculous events. If there is a God who acts, and desires to act at times in an unpredictable ways, it seems unlikely that he would be unable to do so.
  2. They are unfair. This problem goes right back to the beginning of my previous essay. Why would God preserve a church, but not the homes of the church members? Why would God permit the death of a pastor’s four year old daughter during the course of a church service? Why would God heal one person and not another? These are “why questions” that those of us who believe that God is active in the world often don’t want to face.
  3. They are infrequent and difficult if not impossible to prove. If they were frequent we would likely not call them miracles. They would become susceptible to study and definition and would simply become natural laws. That they are difficult to prove is simply of a function of their being unusual and frequent. And even if the event itself is provable, how can one possibly prove intervention of God? Wouldn’t simple action of some process or law of which we are unaware be more likely?

I will suggest here that miracles are, by nature, impossible to prove. This is a subject that would require not just another essay but perhaps a book. But briefly, I believe there are two reasons that combine to make proof impossible. First, all history—all events in the past—are known only to a degree of probability. Many events are known to such a high degree of probability that we can consider them certain for practical purposes. But miracles are by nature unlikely (or impossible) events, and thus certainty is difficult to attain. Consider this: If you were presented with evidence showing that someone had been buried, and then that the tomb had been found empty, would your first supposition be that someone had been raised from the dead, or that someone had removed the body. Yet every Easter morning I proclaim the more improbable event! Second, we do not know all natural laws. There is no reason to assume that we are aware of all natural processes in the universe. Thus, when something unexpected happens, we cannot be rationally certain that it is not the result of some cause of which we are as yet unaware. This is especially true in the case of healing claims. My father, a missionary, was diagnosed with particular intestinal disease following a surgery. The lab report on a biopsy following surgery confirmed the diagnosis. More than 10 years later, another surgery was needed, and though they found some other work to do, there was no sign that he had ever had the previously diagnosed syndrome. The surgeon said that if he didn’t have it now, he never had it. Which is quite possible. We don’t even have the documentation of the first lab work. The surgeons then were quite convinced. I would add to the second surgeon’s statement the words “spontaneous remission”—he got over it and we don’t know why! There is a process of healing for this disease of which we were previously unaware, and yes, a miracle. But proof? I don’t see how!

But now back to our central topic. None of these items really answer our central question. They just temporarily set aside some related issues.

If God likes to operate the universe according to general and reliable laws (and we observe that this is how the universe operates) is there any room for divine intervention?

In order to suggest an answer to this question I would first like to discuss miracle claims. I do not differentiate between the miracle claims of various religions for this purpose. If all the claims of all the religions of the world were to be allowed as historical, there would actually be very, very little impact on the general course of events in the world. In fact, one remarkable thing about miracles as claimed by any religion is that they seem generally to have very little broad impact on the operation of the physical universe. (Note here that I speak in the physical sense, not in the realm of ideas. The resurrection of Jesus, if historical, had little physical impact, but it has had great ideological impact, no matter how one rates it historically.) But one person being raised from the dead was not enough to make it appear “normal.”

A good literary example of this understanding of miracles is found in “The Iliad” in which Homer provides constant examples of divine intervention which always seem to keep the war going more or less the way it would go through human effort.

But there are different varieties of miracle claims. Let me divide these into three major categories:

  1. Communication. This variety of miracle simply claims divine communication, that God (or any divine being) has communicated with some person or other. This does not conflict with any natural law, though it goes beyond such law. If it is a process open to all, and not just to certain favored ones, it also is not necessarily unfair. There may simply be certain circumstances under which someone can receive communications from God. I include in this any sort of communication which is received only by the one person. A physical voice which could be heard by anyone in the room would be, in my view, a physical miracle.
  2. Arrangements of circumstances. In this case a series of events which are in themselves unremarkable occur in some very remarkable coincidence. We often refer to these as “providential.” The preservation of the Bible in so many copies is often called providential because no single event of copying falls outside of natural laws, but nonetheless total number of copies, and the survival of some copies under very negative conditions (such as the Maccabean period) appears quite extraordinary.
  3. Actual physical interventions. The resurrection of Jesus would fall into this category. Many healings can be seen in this or in the second category.

When miracles are divided this way, very few of them fall into the third category—the category that causes most of the trouble. I do not know about all religious traditions, but in my own Christian tradition, even most miracles in the second and third category are intended to communicate rather than to tinker with the natural processes of nature; in fact, one is generally said to miss the point of the miracle if one doesn’t understand the spiritual meaning.

So everything is an act of God, and everything is natural.

For example, to believe in the resurrection is to believe that God accomplished certain things for humanity and intended us to understand certain things because of this event. It is not merely a matter of believing that the body of a certain person came back to life. I know of people who believe in the resurrection solely as a spiritual event and yet see the same spiritual meaning as I do. Jesus indicates in John chapter 6 (esp. verse 26) that some people ate miraculously provided food (the physical event), yet did not see the sign (what Jesus intended to teach). It is in the sign that the important content resides, at least in the Christian tradition.

More importantly, I see no difficulty with either of the first two categories of miracles in connection with my arguments about the hand of God in my first essay. In fact, one might say that the miracle resides in how one looks at the events and not in the events themselves. The eye of faith lets us see the miracle. And these two categories cover the vast majority of miracle claims.

In my third and final (for now) essay in this series, I will discuss prayer and its relationship to God and to miracles.

The Hand of God – Miracles is the second in my series of essays on how God interacts with the world. To read the other essays, visit the following pages:

The Hand of God
This is the first of this series, which lays the foundation for my later discussion of God’s actions. Does God have priority lists? Does one act of God prevent another?

The Hand of God – Prayer
The third and final essay in my series on how God interacts with the world. This essay focusses on prayer and whether we can change God’s actions or will through our prayers. Do we move God by means of our prayers?

(Originally published May 13, 2003.)