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Miracles and the Peculiarities of Human Psychology

“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 as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined” (David Hume).

That quote, taken from David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and historian, would summarize what the average person believes about miracles. Miracles are impossible because they violate laws of nature, and the very nature of these laws dictates that they are inviolable. Certainly in discussing the Christian faith with unbelievers the Christian evangelist often encounters this roadblock where a person is willing to believe in God and in the person of Jesus Christ, but he is unwilling to believe in miracles. But it is not only philosophers and unbelievers (two terms that I assure you are not entirely synonymous!) that struggle with this concept of miracles. Many Christians have an improper understanding of God’s providence which in turn leads them to misunderstand what exactly a miracle is. Many Christians believe that miracles are an intervention of God whereby He violates one or more of the laws of nature. The Christian might state his belief that since God created the laws of nature he is able to violate them when and if he sees fit. In this way we see that what Christians and nonChristians believe about miracles may be remarkably similar.

Here are a few definitions of miracle:

  • According to many religions, a miracle is an intervention by God in the universe.
  • An event in the natural world, but out of its established order, possible only by the intervention of divine power.
  • An event that cannot be explained by the known laws of nature and is therefore attributed to a supernatural or divine power.
  • A marvellous event manifesting a supernatural act of God.
  • An event in the external world brought about by the immediate agency or the simple volition of God, operating without the use of means capable of being…It shows the intervention of a power that is not limited by the laws either of matter or of mind, a power interrupting the fixed laws which govern their movements, a supernatural power.
  • Miracle is a 2004 concept album credited to singer Celine Dion and photographer Anne Geddes.

Consistent in all of these definitions (or five of six of them, at least) is the understanding, either implicit or explicit, that a miracle requires an intervention of God in which he interrupts the fixed laws of nature to accomplish His will. I would like to show today, however briefly, that this understanding is not entirely correct for it presupposes fixed, inviolable, laws of nature.

A biblical understanding of God’s providence requires us to understand that God upholds the world from moment-to-moment. God’s creative activity did not end His involvement with the world; rather, God has been sustaining the world since the very moment He called it into existence. God is as fully involved in the world today as He was during the initial act of Creation. Said otherwise, God’s act of creation continues even today. Conservation and creation are near synonymous terms when we examine God’s involvement with our world.

God tends to govern the world in a way that is predictable. We often refer to the predictability of nature by discussing “laws of nature.” We saw this clearly in the definitions of the world “miracle.” But is it right for Christians to understand that there are laws of nature? I believe that there is a sense in which we can, for nature is clearly governed in predictable ways. If I were to reach my arm out and drop my can of Diet Coke from the window beside me it would fall and land on the head of my dog, two floors below. If I were to repeat this experiment tomorrow, I have every reason to believe that gravity will play the same role and will once again pull the can of Coke towards my dog’s head. There is a consistency in our world. But is this consistency based on laws?

It seems to me that Christians would do better to understand the laws of nature in terms of regularities rather than laws. When we speak of laws, we understand something that is inviolable. We might even think that God Himself cannot violate these laws, once again, because they are by their very nature inviolable. With this understanding a miracle is a violation of a law - a violation of the inviolable. When Moses, through the power of God, parted the Red Sea, he must have violated any number of laws. God intervened with the law of gravity and violated it, holding back water and piling it in a great wall.

The danger of this view is that we may come to believe (in practice if not in theory) that God’s involvement in the world and in our lives is sporadic rather than consistent; exceptional rather than normative. We may feel that it is the laws of nature that keep the world running while God watches over it all, allowing the world to work like a machine. And we may feel that a miracle is an activity of God’s intervention in our lives, after which he retreats once more into being a bystander or member of a cosmic, divine audience.

The alternative, I believe, is to understand “the laws of nature” as regularities rather than laws. In this way a miracle is no longer a violation of the laws of nature but an exception or an anomaly. A miracle is merely a break from or exception to divine routine. In this sense God did not violate laws of nature when He used Moses to hold back the waters of the Red Sea. Instead, God governed that part of His Creation just a little bit differently for just a little while. As an exception to the routine, God allowed waters to part and allowed water to defy gravity by rising into a wall on either side of a channel.

There is a very real sense, then, in which a miracle differs from what we consider normal only because it is an exception to the routine. In either way God is upholding and governing. We would do well not to see miracles as a greater display of God’s power or involvement than the routine, for doing something exceptional is no more difficult to the Creator and Sustainer of the universe than maintaining regularity. In fact, we may do well to see divine routine as being more impressive than the performance of miracles, if for no other reason than the fact that while a miracle benefits only a small number of people, the consistency of God’s providence benefits all men all the time.

Of course, as flawed human beings, we are more easily impressed by the exception than the rule. It is here that I would like to quote James Spiegel from his book The Benefits of Divine Providence. “Ironically, because the majority of people take for granted God’s faithful governance, his occasional deviations from cosmic routine are necessary to shake them out of their doldrums. Miracles, then, are uniquely impressive to us more because of the peculiarities of human psychology than because of any additional divine power they display (which is objectively no greater than when things run as usual). We are wowed by the miraculous only because we have been spoiled by God’s awesome regular providence (which, I should add, is our fault, not his).”

What difference does it make when we have a proper view of God’s providence? Spiegel answers as follows. “God is always working directly in the world in the most fundamental metaphysical sense, actively sustaining it, in the sense of constant creation, from moment to moment. Therefore, a miracle claim does not disturb belief about the underlying cause of nature’s uniformity. God is no more or less at work in the world when turning water into wine than when grapes ferment during the normal process of making wine. What makes the former sorts of events special and deserving the term miracle is, of course, the absence of certain secondary causes. But the supernatural cause behind it all remains constant…and consequently the strain to believe is significantly less than in [a low view of providence].”

So what we come to understand is that concepts like “miracle” and “laws of nature” are really just means we use to describe the metaphysics of the actual phenomenology of God’s providence, which is to say, the difference between how it appears that God works to us and how He actually works. A biblical understanding in this matter can have a profound impact on both life and faith.