Are Miracles “Violations” of Natural Laws?

People who deny miracles frequently begin by defining them as transgressions or violations of natural laws. David Hume took this approach in the 18th century, and Antony Flew continued this approach in the 20th century.

A common response from Christians is to allow that God can violate His own laws if He so desires. Unfortunately, we tend to take words like “transgression” or “violation” to mean a wrongful act. It would seem to promote a double standard by implying that lawmakers are immune from their own laws. Most importantly, it would seem to imply that God has no regard for law.

A better approach, I believe, is to point out that no one, not even God, can violate the laws of nature in the same sense that we can violate moral or legal codes. A man driving 100 mph on the highway may be breaking the speed limit, but he is not breaking any laws of nature. The law of gravity is still in effect as he loses control and drives off the edge of a cliff.

The difference here is one of moral or legal prescriptions versus scientific descriptions. When we encounter digressions from the law, we may see retribution from the judicial system; when we encounter anomalies in nature, we may see scientists having to explain exceptions. A miracle is an exception or anomaly in nature that has to be explained; it does not a violate moral or legal codes.

Exceptions typically mean one of two things: either scientists made a hasty generalization about the way nature is supposed to work, or they stated the laws imperfectly. Too many exceptions may reveal a breakdown in what we thought was a regularity of nature. Or it could be that the law is fine, but the exception suggests the presence of some heretofore unrecognized or unknown factor. We know, for instance, that Newton’s trusty laws of motion breakdown as objects approach the speed of light, but Einstein’s theories do not.

William Lane Craig suggests another source of exceptions: the supernatural. The laws of nature are incomplete if they fail to allow for the intervention of God in His creation. In other words, miracles are not the problem.

Contrary to Hume’s definition, then, miracles need not entail a transgression of natural laws. How then do we distinguish between natural and supernatural exceptions? Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks define a miracle as a “divine intervention into, or interruption of, the regular course of the world that produces a purposeful but unusual event that would not have occurred otherwise.” Further, we would expect the actions of an all-knowing Being to be clear, deliberate, obvious, and thereby distinct from either the regular operation of nature or mere exceptions to natural laws.

Sadly, many scientists have committed themselves to the doctrine of naturalism because, like Hume, they think God would spoil their efforts to understand nature. However, miracles do not come out of nowhere for no good reason. A scientist need not give up on a naturalistic explanation for a given event unless the event is:

  1. Purposeful – it communicates meaning; there is a clear message; God is trying to tell us something (John 5:36; Acts 2:22).
  2. Consistent with God’s rational nature; it is not random or arbitrary. As C.S. Lewis wrote: “God does not shake miracles in Nature at random as if from a pepper-caster.” A miracle is something we would expect from God given what we know about Him, e.g., some miracles were prophesied (Isaiah 35:5; 42:7), and healings show His goodness (Luke 7:22). And,
  3. Of a religious nature or in a theological context – it cannot be just any wondrous occurrence; it should fit God’s grand redemptive scheme (e.g., Cornelius, Acts 11:18).

The last condition is very important but often overlooked. For instance, when Paul arrives in a city and performs miracles, this accompanies his preaching of the Gospel. In the case of the first Gentile convert, Cornelius receives a vision first, and the context is provided later (Acts 10). The context included further miracles: the revelation of a vision to Peter, instructions by the Holy Spirit to visit Cornelius, and the falling of the Holy Spirit on those who heard his sermon.

Similarly, it is difficult to understand how a modern miracle (e.g., the claim that the laying on of hands cured a woman of cancer) could satisfy the preceding criteria. Someone could argue that the miracle was of a religious nature because the participants believed in God. It remains to be shown, however, that the miracle communicates some meaning (other than that given by the people themselves), that it is consistent with God’s nature (that this miracle would be performed at this time, on this person, in this place), and that the event fits the greater context of Christian theology. And of course, as we see in Scripture, miracles were not always performed on those who had a deep and abiding faith in Jesus (e.g., because they were dead or demon-possessed).

Hume mentions some alleged miracles close to his time, but he does not apply tests like these to see if they could qualify as genuine miracles. Instead, he stacks the deck against miracles by defining the term as a violation of the laws of nature. But miracles are not anti-natural (against nature), they are supernatural (above or beyond nature).

[A version of this article appeared in World Evangelist, 1997.]

© 1997 – 2012, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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