Nov 14 2012

Ordinary Miracles

According to Bill Gates, we need a miracle to fight global warming. Specifically, we need an energy miracle.  Gates quickly explains: “When I use the term ‘miracle,’ I don’t mean something impossible. The microprocessor is a miracle. The personal computer is a miracle.”[1]

Like any good speaker, Gates knows what his audience is thinking when he uses the term ‘miracle.’ They will naturally think that the Nerd-in-Charge has thrown up his hands in defeat. A technological solution would require a miracle and, as everyone knows, miracles are impossible. But not to fear: if we think of “miracles” as solutions to difficult problems then, all of a sudden, the impossible becomes possible.

Clean energy is a long way from Moses parting the Red Sea or Jesus turning water into wine. Apparently, if we want to borrow quaint religious words from the Bible then we have to lower our sights, a lot. We have to start thinking in terms of perfectly ordinary miracles.

The modern attack on miracles can be traced to an obscure Jewish philosopher by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1688). According to Spinoza, all of nature is God, and so the laws of nature are as fixed and unchangeable as God himself. As Spinoza put it, “nature cannot be contravened.”[2] If anything, claims of miracles distract us from our faith because they point beyond nature, and hence, beyond God.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish skeptic, gave us the version that most college students are forced to read and adopt today: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.”[3] Hume had no time for Spinoza’s pantheism, but the line of reasoning was the same: the laws of nature cannot be broken; miracles, if they happen, would have to break the laws of nature; therefore, miracles cannot happen.

We know we are in trouble when apologists buy into the same underlying premise. Sure, an unbreakable law of nature cannot be broken, these guys will concede, but God is the great lawgiver. He “can make or break it” as He sees fit.[4]

This takes us into a dangerous rhetorical minefield. Do we really want to insist that the great lawmaker is also the great law breaker?

And then there is the whole problem of God decreeing the laws of nature. Unlike Spinoza and Hume, we no longer view the laws of science as fixed and unchangeable, and we no longer view the universe as a mechanical clock. Newtonian gravity and other laws have been replaced or modified over the years. With some humility we have come to realize that the laws of science are our best attempts at describing the observed regularities of God’s amazingly complex and often surprising creation.[5] Miracles are exceptions to these regularities, not violations of immutable natural laws. Every law of nature includes the possibility of God’s intervention, but intervention is not the same as contravention.

Besides all of that, the Spinoza-Hume approach begs the question. One way to beg the question is to restate in your conclusion what you already stated in your premises. In this case, by claiming that miracles break the unbreakable the skeptics already have their conclusion, namely, that miracles are impossible.

Before the skeptics came along and told us what our own words should mean, theists had a pretty good understanding of miracles. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) offered the following definition: “Those things must properly be called miraculous which are done by divine power apart from the order generally followed in things.”[6] The keyword is ‘generally.’  A law of nature is a generality, and no more.

So let us not speak of the miraculous when we really mean to speak of the pleasantly wonderful: of spontaneous cancer remissions, of lone survivors and, of all things, microprocessors. The miracles of the Bible were neither ordinary nor quaint. They communicated a clear message, were consistent with God’s character, and always had a sound theological footing.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, November 2012, p. 7.]


[1] “Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!,” TED video, February 2010, 7:10-7:28. [Online]  http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

[2] Baruch Spinoza, “Of Miracles,” Theological-Political Treatise, 6:5.

[3] David Hume, “Of Miracles,” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10:1:90.

[4] Paul Little, Know Why You Believe, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, p. 139.

[5] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008, p. 262.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, “Of Miracles,” Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.101.


Nov 14 2011

Selling Heaven

Thomas Nelson – the world’s biggest publisher of religious books — now belongs to the secular publishing house, HarperCollins.[1] If you look at the spine of your Bible, you will likely see the Nelson name.

One of Nelson’s titles, Heaven is for Real, is on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. On amazon.com, Real is the top seller in their “Christian Theology” section.

In fact, as of writing, 9 out of 20 books are about heaven.[2] One is a straight ahead attempt at saying what heaven is like. Two (from Rob Bell) suggest that everybody is going to heaven. The six remaining titles represent three allegedly true stories (in various formats) of people who went to heaven and came back again.

In some respects, these stories resemble the Near Death Experiences that people used to talk about in the heyday of the New Age movement. But these go beyond the typical NDE story: it’s not just a case of seeing the light, or Jesus opening His arms, but of spending time in heaven.

Trust Me, I Was There?

Heaven is for Real (2010)

  • This is meant to be the true-life story of a 4 year old boy who went into surgery for an appendectomy and then, after surgery, had all sorts of amazing tales to tell about heaven.
  • His accounts are compelling, so we are led to believe, because they reveal all sorts of information about heaven that a 4 year old couldn’t possibly know unless he had actually been there.

The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (2010)

  • This is a story of a 6 year old boy who went into a coma following a car accident.
  • When he woke up two months later, he told his parents that the angels had taken him to the gates of heaven, and he talked to Jesus.
  • He related events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was in a coma – events, allegedly, that he could know nothing about unless he saw them in heaven.

90 Minutes in Heaven (2004)

  • A Baptist preacher was in a serious car accident, declared dead at the scene, and allegedly spent 90 minutes in heaven.
  • Another Baptist preacher was passing by, stopped to pray, and the guy miraculously came back to life.

Quick Response

1.    Is it possible to die, experience something of the afterlife, and return to tell the tale?

  • Absolutely. This is exactly what happened during the New Testament times. We know that Paradise is the next step for those who are found righteous in God’s sight (Luke 23:43). In addition, John the Apostle paints a highly symbolic picture of the spiritual world that awaits us. In one scene, we are shown the souls of martyred saints under the altar (Rev. 6:9-11). They are clearly conscious, so we know that souls can experience the afterlife (i.e., they are not soul sleeping).
  • Second, Jesus brought Lazarus (John 11) and the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7) back to life, and the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate example of life after death (1 Cor. 15). So we know that it is possible to be dead, and live again. And yet, nothing is said about their experiences in Paradise. The message of Jesus’ miracles and His resurrection are much more important than sensationalist stories of afterlife experiences.
  • Paul in 2 Cor. 12:2 talks about a man who “was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words” (vs. 4). In the context of this passage, Paul is talking about the significance of prophetic visions (vs. 1). Again, it is significant that neither this man nor Paul dwelt on their experiences. In fact, the man heard things he was not permitted to speak about (vs. 4).
  • The bottom line: Yes, we find people dying and coming back to life in Scripture. We can infer that they experienced the afterlife but, in contrast to the above books, their stories of the afterlife are notably absent.

2.    That was back in the days of miracles. What about today?

  • Even if the stories in these bestselling books were true, what more can they tell us that we do not already know? We know already that there is a heaven to gain and a hell to lose. Jesus told His disciples in John 14:2 that He was going to prepare many mansions. That promise is backed up by His life, teaching, works, and resurrection. Why do we need the testimony of a preacher or a young boy, when we already have the testimony of Christ and His apostles?
  • If these stories are trying to tell us something new, then they are vulnerable to the warning issued in Gal. 1:8 – “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” In fact, there are claims in these books that are simply unbiblical, which brings the accounts into question.

3.   There is no independent corroboration for the claims in these books.

4.   Here is something else that we already know: “it is appointed for men to die once, and after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). This is the sobering truth that we need to hang our hats on.

Update: Interesting little post from Hunter Baker at Touchstone/Mere Comments.



[1] http://www.christianpost.com/news/harper-collins-buys-thomas-nelson-corners-religious-book-market-60057/

[2] As of Nov. 1, 2011: Heaven is for Real (1 Kindle, 2 Paperback, 3 Hardcover) – NYT Nonfiction list: #2, 39 weeks on list; The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (6 Kindle); Love Wins (8 Hardcover), Love Wins Companion (10 Paperback); Heaven (14 Hardcover); 90 Minutes in Heaven (13 Paperback, 17 Kindle).


Jan 5 2009

Doubting Thomas

In my favorite version of The King and I (the one with the shiny-headed Yul Brynner), the courtly children respond in disbelief to the very idea of frozen precipitation. The blustery king is disappointed. He has seen a picture of the Swiss Alps; of course there is such a thing as snow! Anna, the British teacher, is a little more forgiving. The children live in tropical Bangkok; they’ve never seen snow for themselves. “Never seen!” the king retorts, “If they believe only what they see, why do they have schoolroom?”
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Dec 7 2001

Following Yonder Star

“We three kings of Orient are…” Or were they? Now I hate to be a Grinch, but like a lot of our traditions, this song mixes fact with fiction. For a start, the three “kings” weren’t kings. And really, we don’t even know if there were three of them! At the same time, we can count on newspapers running the standard holiday story about some astronomer who’s identified the so-called “Star of Bethlehem” as a comet, supernova, alignment of the planets, or whatever fanciful theory is popular this year. But none of these natural explanations fits the Bible’s description of what really happened. Let’s see if we can sort some of this out. For background information, I recommend that you read the second chapter of Matthew.

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Jan 8 1997

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.

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