In defining the miracles of the Bible one must determine the characteristics that were manifested in their occurrence. Many times the term miracle is used today to apply to any unexplainable event. When a car rolls over ten times, is crushed into a small pile of rubble, and all passengers escape without a scratch, we are guilty of crying out that a miracle has occurred. The occupants of this car would certainly have been very lucky in escaping with their lives, but it would be an injustice to categorize this and similar events with the miracles of the Bible. This is especially true because all the occupants of the vehicle may have been atheists. Phenomenal events do not establish a basis upon which we would define the confirming miracles of the Bible.
We are also guilty of labeling every unexplainable natural phenomenon a miracle. Hamilton rightly stated,
“… many of the things which men are in the habit of calling miracles are not properly so called. Some people call a miracle any marvelous event which ordinary men cannot explain by the laws of nature to them, but which could be explained in accordance with those laws if they knew more about them…. A true miracle cannot be explained by natural laws, known or unknown.”5:102,103
A confirming miracle has basic characteristics that must be understood. There are three areas of definition in the Bible that help us in understanding the true nature of miracles. These areas of definition rule out the possibility of miracles today because such occurrences are not happening today after the manner by which they are defined in the Bible.
- A miracle is a sensed happening. A miracle is a happening that is recognized as such through one or all of the five senses. Those who experienced miracles in the Bible recognized the alteration of the ordinary occurrences of natural law. In Acts 3 Peter healed a lame beggar on the porch of the temple. Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin to answer for what they had done. When the Sanhedrin saw “the man who had been healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it” (At 4:14). They said, “What shall we do to these men? For, indeed, that a notable miracle has been done through them is evident to all who dwell in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it” (At 4:16). Unless this can be said by unbelievers in reference to a confirming miracle, then it is not a confirming miracle.
The miracle of Acts 3 was not performed in secret, but before all, even unbelievers. In Paul’s defense before Agrippa concerning the works of Jesus, he said, “For the king … knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner” (At 26:26). True miracles were never the result of the trickery of men. Many of those who rejected Jesus had seen and believed His works, though the hardness of hearts kept them from belief in the message of Jesus.
George Fisher correctly stated, “It should be added, to complete the idea of a miracle, that it is something manifest—something that can be known and apprehended by men.”2:9,10 With this understanding, it would be a mistake to link the definition of providence with the definition of the miracles found in the Bible. It must be affirmed that God works behind the scenes today to accomplish His purpose and to answer the prayers of the saints. This indeed is supernatural, as such, but not in the definition of those confirming miracles worked by Jesus, His apostles and the early Christians in the first century.
Miracles were empirically sensed by men. Providence is “sensed” by faith. Both are the supernatural work of Deity. But in the eyes of the beholders, there is a difference. We perceive miracles through sight. We perceive providence through faith. Both are interventions by God into our world, but only confirming intervention was used to confirm the word and messengers of God.
Providence is God working behind the curtain of natural law, whereas, a miracle is the direct manifestation of God’s working power visible to man. We may have faith that God works all things together for good (Rm 8:28), but we cannot affirm this on the basis of empirical experience. Providence is God working in a manner known through faith, whereas, a miracle is God working in a manner known through the senses. In a miracle God suspends natural laws; in providence He works through or uses natural laws. Thus, “we may define a miracle biblically as an observable phenomenon affected by the direct operation of God’s power, and arresting deviation from the ordinary sequences of nature, a deviation calculated to elicit faith-begetting awe, a Divine inbreaking which authenticates a revelational agent.”6:356
- A miracle is a supernatural manifestation of Deity. The presence of the supernatural must be clearly evident in a miracle. In accordance with the preceding point, it must also be stated that the happening of a miracle leaves no doubt in the minds of the beholders concerning who or what is working. Elijah prayed for a manifestation of God on Mount Carmel. God answered that prayer with a miracle which firmly evidenced His presence (1 Kg 18:17-46). When Lazarus came forth from the tomb at the command of Jesus, the people knew the presence of the supernatural (Jn 11:43-45). There was no question in the mind of Nicodemus as to whose power was manifested in the miracles of Jesus (Jn 3:2). These confirming miracles strongly evidenced the presence of the supernatural.
- A miracle is an unordinary occurrence. A miracle is an event that is different from the ordinary occurrence of natural law. In determining the actual meaning of a miracle, one must fully understand its relation to natural law. One common misunderstanding is that a miracle is a “contradiction” of natural law. David Hume, in his Essay on Miracles, contended, as others, that a miracle was a contradiction of natural law. This is not a correct understanding of miracles. A miracle is not a contradiction of natural law, but a laying aside of natural law in order to reveal the higher laws of the supernatural.
Law refers to the ordinary occurrence of things. Natural law is the ordinary occurrence of the principles that govern the material universe. It would not be logical to affirm that natural law existed before nature. God created all things. Natural laws were created in order to govern that which was created. God did not leave His creation to operate on its own as the deist contends. He transcends His natural laws by upholding all things by the word of His power. He makes known His presence by manifesting His “higher laws.” The Hebrew writer affirmed that He holds together “all things by the word of His power” (Hb 1:3). Jesus said, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” (Jn 5:17). Natural laws were created, and are thus sustained by God in order to control the creation.
Would it not be reasonable to believe that one reason why God instituted natural laws in the first place was for the purpose of revealing Himself to man by the use of higher laws, commonly referred to as miracles? If the higher laws of God were commonly in force in the history of the world, then there could be no way for God to reveal Himself through miracles, for the higher laws are the miracles. Therefore, there would be no such thing as miracle in a world that was openly controlled by the supernatural.
It was necessary for God to create the lower natural laws in order that He might be able to reveal Himself through miracles. It was necessary for the creation of a world of natural laws in order that we have an environment in which we could exercise free-moral agency. For any individual to be a true free-moral person, we must live in an environment that would produce true moral characters. Such an environment could not exist without the second laws. It will only be when we put on the immortal, the incorruptible, that we will live in an environment of the first laws. In fact, we will be immortal and incorruptible because we will dwell in an evironment that will not allow death and decay.
We must not identify a miracle to be a contradiction of natural law. It is a setting aside of the second laws in order to allow the higher first laws to appear. Trench was right when he stated,
“An extraordinary Divine causality, and not that ordinary which we acknowledge everywhere and in everything, belongs then, to the essence of the miracle. The unresting activity of God, which at other times hides and conceals itself behind the veil of what we term natural laws, does in the miracle unveil itself; it steps out from its concealment, and the hand which works is laid bare.”1:10,11
A miracle is the temporary suspension of the natural to reveal the supernatural. Several authors on the subject agree with this statement: “A miracle, where there is an interposition of the Divine will, is not anti-natural, but supernatural.”2:13 “But while the miracle is not thus nature, so neither is it against nature. Beyond nature, beyond and above the nature which we know, they are, but not contrary to it. The miracle is not unnatural”2:12 It must be understood that “miracles exceed the laws of our nature, but it does not here follow that they exceed the laws of all nature.”2:13 It is as Hamilton said, “A miracle, as we will use the term, is a departure from the ordinary method of God’s activity.”5:102
The higher laws are miracles to man. These are the laws of the heavenly environment of Deity. This present world is inflicted with pain and sickness. When Jesus unveiled the powers above natural law, He was giving man a small taste of heaven. We must look forward to the day when the second laws are cleared away with the destruction of this material world. It will be then that God will allow us to live in an environment that is controlled by the first laws. That environment will be a new heavens and new earth (2 Pt 3:13).
We must always be careful about allowing deceived individuals with their experiences to define the miracles of the Bible. Misguided individuals make definitions according to their own experiences. This is behind the definition that is given in Webster’s Dictionary. A miracle is subsequently defined as “an event or effect that apparently contradicts known scientific laws and is hence thought to be due to supernatural causes, especially to an act of God.”7:1147 This definition was illustrated by what Alfred Walton who attempted several years ago in his book, This I Can Believe, to define miracles. Walton, who would represent many today, claimed that the miracles of the Bible “have reasonably clear explanations” according to the laws which we know today, but were unknown during the periods in which the miracles were performed.8:151-154 Albert Wells also attempted to explain miracles by what we might call the “unknown-natural-law” theory. He wrote, “Study of the healing miracles of Jesus will disclose that his works of healing were wrought through the application of as-yet-unknown laws and methods of healing, laws and methods which have been in part independently discovered by modern science.”9:80
Walton and Wells represent those who contend that the supernatural events of the Bible were called miracles by those who experienced them because they did not know the natural laws that were used to work such wonders. They say that we know these laws today and can thus explain the miracles. They try to give a naturalistic explanation of the Bible miracles in their books. Such naturalistic theology has invaded the religious world with amazing speed. Concerning this naturalism, R. Hooykass stated,
“Deification of nature is still alive, and the fact that this deity has no special cult does not prove anything to the contrary. There was no special cult of Nature in Antiquity, and no temples were erected to it, yet it was adored under the names of other gods.”10:19
Such “deification” of nature is witnessed today in the fanaticism of some environmentalists. Environmentalism has become a religion to many who profess no allegiance to the supernatural of the Bible. It is this religion that prevails in the West because the West is predominately atheistic. The only answer for that which exists is the ordinary occurrence of natural laws over a period of billions of years. In the absence of a true miracle-based belief, the religiosity of those who have lost contact with God is fulfilled in the atheists allegiance to nature.
We must be environmentally sensitive and protective. However, the environment in the eyes of the religious atheist is often more important than the moral decay of humanity. To the religious atheist, his or her reverence for the environment is the new religion that appeals to the natural senses. The minds of too many people have condescended to the natural things of the world to the exclusion of the Creator of all things. When people give up God in their thinking, they start worshiping the creation instead of the Creator (See Rm 1:18-28)
The problem with the reasoning of the atheistic naturalist is that we have the recorded facts about miracles, and yet, miracles still cannot be explained by any natural laws that are known today. The healing of a blind man by placing spittle and clay on his eyes cannot be explained by natural laws (Jn 9:6,7). “A miracle is a work out of the usual sequence of secondary causes and effects, which cannot be accounted for by ordinary action of these causes.”11:123
The confirming miracles of the Bible cannot be explained by the ordinary causes and effects of known natural laws that we experience today. Fisher correctly wrote, “In the case of a miracle, the effect is different because the causes are not the same. The variation in the effect is what must take place, supporting such an alteration of the antecedents. If a new cause comes in, it is irrational to look for the same effect as before.”2:11
Any effort to explain the confirming miracles of the Bible by occurrences of unknown natural laws is an attack against the supernatural character of the Bible. It is a direct denial of the Son of God, and thus, the gospel. Many years before modern religious atheists showed up for this discussion, F. Bettex answered those today who would deny the confirming miracles of the Bible.
“The very essence of a miracle is its intangibility by proofs and reasoning, its incomprehensibility and its incapability of being proved. He who tries to understand and to explain a miracle, to comprehend or to fix such a flash of illimitable, Divine power, shows that he does not know what a miracle is, and in his attempt to explain it only succeeds in making a fool of himself, both from the scientific and the Christian point of view. A miracle scientifically proved and explained would be a logical contradiction.”12:143
A scientifically defined miracle would be no miracle at all. Science deals with an investigation of the physical world. Therefore, if there is a scientifically defined reason for the occurrence of any miracle, then the “miracle” was only the occurrence of some natural law. There was thus no supernatural at work. This is the attack of the naturalist who affirms that all Bible events that were affirmed to be miracles in Bible times were only the happening of undefined natural laws of the time.
Our definition of a confirming miracle does not infer that God cannot use natural laws to bring about His purpose. Some of the plagues of Egypt were not unknown occurrences in the land of Egypt. Their intensity and their happening at the voice of Moses, however, was a miracle (See Ex 7-11). The dividing of the Red Sea by a strong east wind to free Israel from the Egyptians was an example of God using the natural law of strong winds (Ex 14). It was a miracle and manifested the presence of the supernatural in that the strong wind happened at the precise time commanded by Moses and with the force necessary to do the job. Of course, the water turning to blood and darkness were not known in Egypt. Evidently, God used no natural laws in these miracles. However, the point is that God has used natural laws to manifest Himself. The natural laws, however, were used in an unusual and unnatural way in order to manifest the presence of the One who has control over natural law.
A confirming miracle, therefore, is not a contradiction of natural laws. It is a setting aside of those laws in order to allow the eternal power of God to be released in this world. The situation may also have been that God used a natural law in an intense or unnatural way in order to bring about a marvelous wonder. The miracles in the Bible cannot be explained by the ordinary occurrence of natural laws known or unknown to us today. James Boswell concluded that “a miracle is (1) an extraordinary event, inexplicable in terms of ordinary natural forces; (2) an event which causes the observers to postulate a super-human personal cause; (3) an event which constitutes evidence (a “sign”) of implications much wider than the event itself.”13:544
[Next in series: July 21]