Are Miracles and Science Compatible?
One of the secular claims against Christianity is that the modern world’s increasing knowledge of the natural world through science (principally chemistry, biology, and physics) has made belief in miracles unjustified at best and positively irrational at worst. Recently, biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins has led this charge, especially in his best-selling book, The God Delusion (2007).But before responding to this challenge, we need to define our two basic terms: miracle and science.
Biblically understood, a miracle is God’s supernatural intervention into creation, which produces an effect otherwise not possible given the operation of natural laws. Therefore, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in space-time history is a miracle, and the grand miracle of the entire Bible (see 1 Corinthians 15). These divine actions, wrought by a personal and perfect Being, break no natural laws. Rather, natural laws, such as gravity, only cover natural events. When God raised Christ from the dead, no natural laws were violated. Rather, God’s supernatural action did what natural events could not produce: brought Jesus back to life. Further, biblical miracles have a purpose; they are not arbitrary or impenetrable (though not all who behold or read of them may understand their meaning). They work as signs of God’s character as he establishes his Kingdom throughout history.
This description of a miracle already answers one of the complaints of those who claim that science has displaced or replaced miracles with merely natural events and natural laws. Since miracles do not violate natural laws, none need worry that believing in miracles will destroy explanations that trade on predictable regularities in nature. Apples still fall from trees even though Jesus once walked on water.
But why, then, do secularists think that science is incompatible with a rational belief in miracles? There are three main reasons.
First, if one believes there is no God, then there is no divine agent (or conscience actor) to produce a miracle in the biblical sense. However, there is ample evidence from science and philosophy that a personal Creator and Designer exists. Cosmology tells us that the universe began to exist from nothing a finite time ago at the Big Bang. If so, this event requires a cause outside the universe. The best explanation is God. In a sense, the creation of the universe from nothing (creation ex nihilo) is God’s first supernatural action. Physics also reveals that the laws and proportions of the universe are finely-tuned on a razor’s edge for human life. Chance and mindless natural law cannot explain this adequately. God, again, is the best explanation. No irrational leap of faith is required. If so, then one can discover sufficient reasons to believe in a God who could intervene in creation. Whether or not he did intervene after creation is a question of historical investigation. Science itself does not preclude finding evidence for God’s miraculous actions in human history, such as the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
Second, many secular people define science in such a way to exclude miracles (or any divine design in nature). That is, science is seen as giving only natural explanations for natural events, and scientific endeavor is the only legitimate source for knowledge. No supernatural explanations are allowed in principle. So, even if the universe began from nothing, science cannot even suggest that a Creator is involved. Neither can science speak to the existence of a Designer to explain fine-tuning. And, of course, no one can be intellectually justified in believing in miracles. Such are the conditions for science as materialism: all that exists (or is knowable) is the material world.
But this definition of science is neither historically-grounded in the history of science (many leaders of the scientific revolution were theists) nor philosophically credible. This is because science becomes a knowledge-stopper if God has left recognizable signs of his existence in the cosmos and history. Whether we can find evidence for God—through science or history—should be an open question worthy of rigorous investigation. Further, when science is understood as being the only source of rational knowledge (religious faith has no such credential), it logically refutes itself. This approach, called scientism, claims the following:
Science is limited to giving natural explanations for natural events based on logical reasoning.
Science is the sole conduit for knowledge (or credible true beliefs).
However, these two statements yield the following:
Science, as defined in (1) is not justified by any natural event or logical reasoning to be the only source of knowledge. Scientism is, rather, a philosophical claim.
Therefore, since this materialistic view of science is not supported by its understanding of science itself, scientism is false.
The argument above does nothing to undermine science as one source of knowledge about reality; however it destroys an account of science which assumes only matter exists and, therefore, that a materialistic understanding of science (scientism) is the only manner to acquire genuine knowledge.
Third, some affirm that the development of technology, especially in the twentieth century, is incompatible with belief in miracles. It was a biblical scholar, and not a scientist, who put this starkly. Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) said that no one who uses a transistor radio can believe in the miraculous world presented in the New Testament. But the development of technology is not incompatible with miracles, since these technologies depend on scientific discoveries and methods which themselves to not refute miracles, as argued above. This claim is a classic and egregious non sequiter—however often we hear it thoughtlessly uttered.
I said earlier that detecting a miracle in human affairs (as opposed to the original miracles of creation and design) is a matter of historical inquiry. No hard science (such as chemistry, biology, or physics) speaks directly to events that occur once or repeatedly through human actions. That is, we cannot know that Caesar crossed the Rubicon through the methods of science. However, that does not (scientism aside) mean that we can have no knowledge of historical matters such as social change within societies, the rise and fall of empires, or biography. One’s method of knowing must fit the subject of study. History consults written and unwritten items from the past to discern what has happened. While many historians (like many scientists) simply dismiss God and the supernatural from knowable history, there is no good reason to do so. If God can be known to exist, then miracles are possible. If they are possible, we can investigate miraculous claims to see if there are any actual miracles.
While many religions make miracle claims, none are as well-substantiated or as important to the religion as New Testament miracles, particularly those of Jesus, and especially concerning his resurrection. In fact, Christianity is the only religion that attributes miracles to its founder in its earliest and foundational documents, e.g., the New Testament. For example, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in real history is affirmed in all four Gospels and directly or indirectly in the rest of the New Testament, which itself was written by eyewitness (John 19:35) or those who consulted eye-witnesses (Luke 1:1-4). Further, these original documents have been accurately transmitted through a wealth of reliable manuscripts, more so than any other piece of ancient history.
Lastly, there is sufficient evidence that miracles have not ceased to occur after the time of the New Testament. While they are not as plentiful as in the days of Jesus and the early church, many miracles done in the name of Jesus can be documented. For a thorough scholarly study of New Testament miracles and those since, see Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, two vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011). If miracles are happening today and science is going about its business today, they are certainly not incompatible!
Christian need not fear that the advancement of science somehow undermines the rationality of their belief in miracles. Science and miracles are not incompatible. Only a wrong concept of both science and miracle generates this false impression. Both science and history, rather, corroborate the biblical teaching that God is a wonder-working God of space-time history—and eternity.