Just like other Christian jargon, the word miracle has different meanings to different groups of people.
To many, miracles are the intervention of God in the human world and always involve the suspension of laws of nature. While this type of definition may fit some narratives in the Bible, I don’t feel it applies to every single instance.
As pointed out by many Bible scholars, God’s purpose of employing miracles in the human world is not to show off his omnipotence. There’s a message behind each event and whether or not it violated the laws of nature is simply not of concern to him. More importantly, whether an event conformed to the laws of nature will vary with our knowledge of those laws.
History shows that our understanding of the laws of nature is evolving. Just 1,000 years ago, most people believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Now, most of us regard this theory as nonsense. Newton’s laws, once believed to be infallible, have now been supplemented by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Similarly, the idea that matter cannot be created or destroyed is obsolete, as we’ve found that matter-antimatter can be created and annihilated in pairs. Something once regarded as supernatural may not be seen as such today.
Taking a natural explanation of those events doesn’t jeopardize God’s transcendent ability. I believe that God has the power to change the natural laws of order; however, God’s intervention doesn’t always come in a supernatural way. Many times we read how he intervened using natural means. Although these interventions don’t involve suspension of the laws of nature, they should be considered on equal footing – miraculous – as those that do.
Can science explain all biblical events?
We must understand that writers of the Bible gave us only a phenomenal description of events. They obviously didn’t have training in modern science. They weren’t compiling a scientific report, so their writings shouldn’t be taken as such.
Let’s take the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as an example. According to the narrative in Genesis, we classify this event as something supernatural: sulphur and fire being thrown down from heaven (Genesis 19:24). This is something we’ve never seen before. It seems that God performed an astonishing miracle to punish two wicked cities.
On the other hand, the phenomenon could suggest an earth crust movement that destroyed the cities with hot lava. Taking the latter approach means the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah doesn’t seem quite as remarkable.
But, whichever way we choose to explain the event isn’t important. The major purpose of the event is to tell us about the punishment of the wicked and the salvation extended to Lot and his family.
The victories against Jericho and Ai in Joshua are other examples. The destruction of Jericho was undoubtedly more dramatic than that of Ai (Joshua 6, 8). The falling of the walls of Jericho seems supernatural to us, so we usually regard it as a miracle. The victory over Ai happened by ingenious human strategy, and isn’t regarded as a miracle in the strictest sense.
Both these events, however, were described in the Bible as God’s intervention. In my opinion, the victory over Ai was a miracle. If God wasn’t behind the scenes, the army of Ai might not have fallen into the trap set by Joshua’s army. On the other hand, the Jericho victory might have been due to a natural cause, such as an earthquake or resonance. Whether the cause was natural or supernatural is simply not important. The message of these narratives is that we can win if God is on our side.
The victory of David over Goliath is another interesting event (1 Samuel 17). While we all admire David’s faith, bravery, and wisdom, the event is seldom seen as a miracle in its classical sense. The victory simply lacks the supernatural elements of a miracle. However, this is a perfect example of God’s intervention. For the Israelites in 1000 BC, a young teenager without much war experience winning over a giant warrior by using his sling was inconceivable.
But imagine if David had a gun in his hand, no one in the 21st century would doubt he’d be the winner. Any high school physics student can easily tell you that the weapon David used works on the same principle of a gun, viz. the law of momentum. So the victory of David might have been pretty amazing or supernatural to the Israelites, but much less so for us.
Many of the so-called miracles in the Bible may some day find a scientific explanation. The miracle of the five loaves and two fish, for example, isn’t very astonishing if Jesus knew the trick of genetic engineering. Walking on the sea is definitely not difficult if we can manufacture some device to help us float on water.
Recognizing God’s miraculous intervention
I’m not saying that Jesus was actually using tricks to perform miracles. As the son of God, he could choose any appropriate means to accomplish his purposes, whether or not they can now be described by the laws of science. Whether an event can be explained scientifically shouldn’t be a major concern for interpreting a miracle. A miracle can come by natural or supernatural means.
I recall a short story I read some time ago:
A flood threatens a town, forcing everyone to evacuate. But Joe thinks, “I’m a devout man; God will save me,” and stays put. As the waters rise, Joe’s neighbour comes by and says, “Joe, come with me. We’ve got to go.” Joe declines, “I’m a devout man, God will save me.”
The waters keep rising. Joe scrambles to his second floor. A firefighter in a rowboat comes by. “Get in the boat or you’ll drown,” he says. Joe again declines, saying, “God will save me.”
Finally, the flood waters force Joe to his roof. A police helicopter comes by and throws down a rope. “Climb up or you’ll drown,” the policeman yells. “No, I’m a devout man, God will save me,” Joe replies.
Soon, Joe drowns. He arrives in heaven and challenges God. “Why didn’t you send an angel to help me?”
“I did,” God says. “I sent a neighbour, a firefighter, and a helicopter.”
Just as Joe shouldn’t look for a supernatural being to be his angel, we shouldn’t look for only supernatural events to be miracles. God will use any appropriate means to intervene and help us, either supernatural or natural. And, the so-called “supernatural” means may someday be revealed as a natural one in disguise.