I’m often asked, “can a scientist believe in miracles?” I meet people telling me stories of answers to prayer that defy science, hoping that these will convince scientists to believe in God. Miracles are of course part of the package for a Christian – we all believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. During one of our recent events on science and faith, the scientists in the congregation were prayed for, and I was delighted when one of those people (who had been feeling distinctly grotty) reported feeling much better. On the other hand, questions like this reveal some worries or ideas about science that need some unpacking.
Humanly speaking, we are bound by scientific laws. I cannot leap off a cliff unaided and soar with the birds, for example. But for God the force of gravity, the properties of matter and the biological processes that we know and read about in text books are simply the usual ways he works. In his generosity he has provided a world where we can expect the sun to rise tomorrow and the milk to pour out of the bottle when you tilt it over your cereal (unless it’s off or frozen). This means we can get on with our lives, and also do science. But – and this is my definition of a miracle – if God chooses to do something unexpected to demonstrate something about his character, his relationship with us and his purposes, then he will.
Scientists are supposedly sceptical about miracles, but there are many who break the mould. Professor Christine Done is an Astrophysicist at the University of Durham, and a member of Emmanuel Church in that city. In the book ‘True Scientists, True Faith’ (Monarch, 2014) she writes “Even when I was an atheist I used to get cross at discussions…on how all Jesus’s miracles could be physically explained. To me, once you have believed in a God, a supernatural being, then it’s obvious that supernatural stuff could happen, since any God who can make the physical universe and its laws can presumably suspend those laws in any time and way he chooses.”
On the same note, a group of fourteen UK-based science Professors wrote to the Times in 1984 saying that “We gladly accept the virgin birth, the gospel miracles, and the resurrection of Christ as historical events. We know that we are representative of many other scientists who are also Christians standing in the historical tradition of the churches.” For the non-believer, I would suggest a thought experiment. If God exists, why should he be bound by the same laws of physics as we are?
There are people who examine claims of miracles and discount anything that can be explained scientifically. There is a place for being careful in order to prevent fraudulent stories going round, but I don’t agree with this very narrow definition of a miracle. Yes, the resurrection of Jesus or his turning water into wine were utterly extraordinary. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that dead people don’t normally come back to life. On the other hand, there are miracles which appear to be a case of wonderful timing. The wind blew all night and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea on dry land, for example. The Biblical writers don’t seem especially interested in distinguishing between these two kinds of event.
Unless they encounter Jesus for themselves, the most spectacular miracle is unlikely to convince a scientifically-minded person that God is real – it’s more likely to freak them out (though I’m willing to be proved wrong!) Miracles of timing can always be dismissed, and even miracles that seem to break the physical laws can often be explained away or ignored. That doesn’t mean nothing is happening – just that it can be hard to see God at work if you close your eyes.
Even many in Jesus’ audiences were not won over by his wonders. Yes, there were key events that helped some people to realise that he was someone special. The calming of the storm seemed a key stage in the disciples realising Jesus was who he said he was. On the other hand, most of the crowds who ate the food Jesus produced out of nowhere were quite happy to turn on him when the religious authorities decided he was dangerous. We can’t expect anything different today.
People can only make sense of something unexpected, such as an answer to prayer for healing, in the context of a growing relationship with God. The hard work for a Christian is to explain what genuine interaction with him looks like, and to do the ultimate experiment, demonstrating what happens when ‘your kingdom come’ begins to happen in our communities, spilling over into society around us. God works, through us, in words, works and wonders.
First published on the Relational Mission website, and reproduced here with permission of the editor.
For further exploration
Thinking About Miracles: Has science made miracles unbelievable?, by Mike Poole, Christians in Science (pdf)
Faraday paper no. 20, Miracles and Science, by Denis Alexander
Science and Miracles, talk by Colin Humphreys