There are different definitions of miracles that I’d like to present in this section. Richard Dawkins acknowledges two definitions of ‘miracle’ in his book The God Delusion, although I don’t think he intended to do this. He said, “An atheist… is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world… no miracles - except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand.”1
In this quote he admits two possible definitions, for the word ‘miracle’ although he only really deals with one. His claim is much like most atheist who claim as David Hume did, that miracles are a violation of the laws of nature.
A miracle 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 an entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.2
It seems that most atheists argue that miracles are a violation of the physical laws. I believe this is because that definition is easier to defend as an atheist. However as Richard Dawkins accidentally admits, and many others have see, there is another possible explanation for miracles. The two possible definitions of miracle are these:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature,
A miracle is is a manipulation of natural laws which is, as of yet, unexplained by scientific understanding.
For the theist, and especially the Christian, either of these two definitions is workable, however the second is interesting because even Dawkins admits that it is permissible. Arthur C. Clarke, one of my favorite science fiction writers, had something to say about a related idea. He said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”3 Leigh Brackett said it this way, "Witchcraft to the ignorant, … simple science to the learned.”4 Even Earlier Charles Fort explained it thusly, “..a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known that it is what I mean by magic.”5
I would like to propose a Christian version of these Clarke’s law. Any sufficiently advanced ability to manipulate nature would be indistinguishable from miracles. I admit it’s not as poetic as Arthur Clarke’s but the point is simple. We don’t actually know if the laws of physics were broken, when Jesus performed miracles. Is it at least possible that he simply has complete control of all of the natural processes that are written into the foundation of the universe?
This could be demonstrated in this way. I was discussing Christianity with an atheist recently and the subject of miracles came up. He was repeating the party line that miracles are impossible because they violate the laws of physics. I asked him this, “Did there use to be diseases that were incurable, which are easily cured today?” He responded with a clear, “yes.” I followed it by asking, “Is it possible that science will eventually be able to extend life, possibly even make death a thing of the past?” He was comfortable with that.
I then presented the time traveler idea, “now imagine that you could go back in time with a case full of vaccines. You heal the world of all their deadly diseases. Would the people of the ancient world think that was a miracle?” The answer is obviously, ‘yes.’ In this case, the time traveler has performed a ‘miracle’ but not broken the laws of physics or science. Instead he’s done something rather ordinary in a time when it wasn’t ordinary.
So this leads us to think about Jesus. Jesus called his healing ‘works.’ To him it was his job to heal. He presented it like it was an ordinary occupation. In that time, the best medical progresses would look like superstition today. For Jesus, his actions were unexplained, but we don’t actually know if they were a violation of the physical laws.
Since scripture is unclear not his subject we are free to speculate. Either definition of miracles is workable, because couldn’t the creator of the universe operate in a manner contrary to his ordered system? Of course he could. In fact I see some possible reasons why he might.
One of the ways that a creator could revel himself is to set up a certain set of laws. These laws would need to be predictable. Once any individual is familiar enough with the laws that govern the creation, the creator might take a second step. He might act in a way that is contrary to those laws, so that what the laws predict does not actually happen. Or more commonly claimed, that what should not happen, does happen. It’s because of the incredibly specific ability of cosmic laws being so predictable that miracles have any reasonable chance of being discerned. If the laws of nature were unpredictable, then miracles would be impossible to identify.
If that’s how Jesus did his ‘work’ then I’m totally comfortable with that, but I lean toward the other definition of ‘miracle.’ Here are some reasons why.
The human brain is limited by the stimuli that it receives from physical sensing organs. Those physical sensing organs are very limited.
The human eye sees less than 1% of the electromagnetic spectrum. Of that 1% less than 1% of dynamic range is viewable before your retinas burn and detach or you see darkness. Of that 1% only a narrow range of view is allowed by the eye, about 85 degrees. Of that narrow range only a limited resolution is permitted, that doesn't allow us to peer into the molecular, or atomic levels. The human ear hears less than 1% of the acoustic frequency spectrum. Of that 1% only a small fraction of dynamic range is allowed before your ear drums bleed or you reach your noise floor.
Of that small dynamic range only a single or at most a few streams of coherent information can be comprehended at one time by your skull noodle. Of those few streams, the coherency is based on an outdated and inadequate mode of information ingestion called language. Everyone who has every spoken has found the extreme limitation of words to communicate anything with reasonable complexity.
Our view of the universe has allowed us to physically experience a tremendously small portion of the cosmos. Of that portion that we have experienced, we can only perceive an even smaller fraction of the available information. Even what we perceive, we are racing to decode and understand. However, we are centuries, or more from scratching the surface.
It is clear that whether the human race was created or evolved, we have inherent limitations. We are defined more by our limitations than we are by our strengths.
Astronomers have discovered a persistent radio background noise that permeates the entire universe, as far as we can tell. It took years of invention, innovation, and discovery to get to the point where we could even identify that it was present. Astronomers believe that this background noise is evidence of the big bang. However you look at it, the beginning of this big mess we call our existence was a bit of miracle. We now see that there is evidence of said miracle. This brings into question, which definition of ‘miracle’ should we use? Can a miracle have evidence? Is it supernatural if it came about by natural means?
The reason why Richard Dawkins' definition of miracles and the supernatural is convenient for him is because it makes it easy to blow away. If the supernatural is a violation of the natural laws, then there will be no natural evidence that a miracle or a supernatural occurrence ever occurred. If you define a miracle like Dawkins does then it leaves no tracks in the sand. It has no tracers that follow it's flight. A miracle by that definition is basically as elusive as Bigfoot.
Just like Richard Dawkins, I resist the existence of the supernatural if his is the only possible defintion. If a miracle is something out of thin air, then I am as uncomfortable with that as Rich is. I hope he doesn't mind me calling him Rich.
Everything that a previous generation would have called supernatural, should actually be reclassified as undiscovered-natural. I believe that if there are angels, and I think there are, they are not supernatural beings, they are natural beings who live or operate at different areas of the spectra than we are able to perceive. What I mean is that we are not able to perceive them yet. I understand dimensional science about as well as I understand women, which is to say, non at all. For all I know, however, maybe angels are our dimensional neighbors and live only one mathematically-perpendicular-dimensional plot over.
Let's say Jesus came to Earth and did miracles. I don't believe that miracles were supernatural by Dawkins definition, I believe they were as-of-yet unexplained manipulation of natural laws. Very few of the things that Jesus did are able be explained even by modern science. That doesn't mean they will never be. It also doesn't mean they are any less miraculous because we might someday understand how they were performed.
Think back to Author Clarke’s statement, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Now I'm not saying that Jesus was using technology, but I am saying that whatever method he used would appear like magic to the people of the time because it was sufficiently advanced in comparison to their frame of reference. That doesn't mean that it was magic, of course. All it means is that the people of the time didn't understand.
I’m convinced that Jesus lived, did miracles, died and raised from the dead. I am convinced that there was some type of methodology to the way he did these things. There are a number of stories where he healed people on the spot. Jesus is called the author of life, what if the author of life is able to rewrite DNA on the fly, by emitting radiant energy signals from the nucleus of his own cells? Why couldn't he? Would that be a miracle, or would it be science? You see how the lines of ‘miracle’ and ‘science’ begin to blur.
Wouldn't that be a type of explanation for what was previously known as a miracle. I'm not saying I know how he did his work of healing. I'm just saying that we don't have to define it as an event that defied the laws of physics and biology. My guess, and I admit it is a guess, is that he didn't defy the natural laws, he used them. I think that miracles are natural. The method used to produce them is not discovered yet, but that doesn't make them any less valuable.
There are stories of Jesus passing through walls and appearing in places that he wasn't present previously. We know that atoms are mostly empty space. What if Jesus, who I believe invented matter in the first place, could control the charge of the electrostatic repulsion of the electrons in his body? This would give him the ability to be invisible and pass through otherwise solid objects. We don’t currently have a method to control electrostatic repulsion, but it’s not technically impossible, it’s just beyond our ability to use these basic universal forces to our advantage. That makes it sound less like miracles and more like science. I have no idea how Jesus actually did this, but it doesn't mean it's impossible.
My point is not to try to explain how miracles happen. My point is that we are far enough along in our science to know that we don't know much. There are explanations for things that we are starting to coax out of the data, but we are on the front end.
So for me at least, the word supernatural is misleading. I'm convinced that miracles are just something that we don't have the ability to explain yet. Our respect for Jesus comes from the fact that he could do things no one else was able to do. He proved his credibility by actions that no one could explain. Just because no one could explain away his actions, doesn't mean there is no explanation. Just because he did unexplainable things doesn’t mean he broke the laws of physics. If he felt like breaking them, I’m sure he could, but why would he?
I know that for some people, to say Jesus wasn't supernatural is uncomfortable. As I said, I think the word supernatural has been hijacked and a lot of ideas have been attached to it that may not have originally been intended to be aboard. So here's what it comes down to for me. This is the big question.
Why would God go to such great lengths to write a really complex set of natural laws and then just violate them?
Doesn't it show as much power and majestic form, if everything he does, within this universe at least, is done within in the confines of the natural order that he set up? In my mind, it shows him to be the creator-God even more when we consider, he is using the natural order for his purposes, rather than breaking it.
This transforms miracles from a jagged intrusion of violence against nature into an elegant demonstration of the original design of nature. You could think of Jesus like an engineer who sees that his designed machine is not working properly. Is it a miracle for him to pull a few levers and twist some valves in order to get the machine back on track? Obviously it’s not. Instead it’s simply an engineer doing something that is completely natural, fixing what’s broken.
In this sense, miracles are perfectly natural. They are either natural in the sense that they are expected if God exists, or they are natural in the sense that they are not a violation of the natural order. Either way, excluding miracles from our understanding eliminates a huge source of potential information.
1 Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. 1st Mariner Books ed. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008. p. 35
2 Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Chicago: The Open court publishing co.; [etc., etc.], 1900. Section X.
3 Clarke, AC. “Hazards of Prophecy.” NEW SCIENTIST PUBL … (1979):
4 Brackett, L. “The Sorcerer of Rhiannon.” Astounding (1942): p. 39
5 Fort, C. “Wild Talents. 1932.” New York: Ace (nd):