30 October 2023

Miracles and the laws of nature.

Lemme start by pointing out the “laws of nature,” as scientists call them, aren’t actually laws. That’s just what we call them. Because, all things being equal, they’re how nature works.

  • Newton’s first law of motion is that a body remains at rest, or at a constant speed in a straight line, unless acted upon by some force.
  • The second law of thermodynamics is that heat spontaneously flows from hotter to colder regions of matter.
  • The law of conservation of energy, is that matter can neither be created nor destroyed; only turned into a different form, like energy.

There are dozens more. They describe how scientists observe the universe working; they’re how it’s always worked, and there’s no reason to assume they’ll stop working this way in future. They don’t work this way because they must, but because they just do. Laws of nature are very important to the way our daily life functions. Imagine how chaotic things would be if the gravity switched off!

Thing is, in the bible we have miracles which appear to ignore these laws. God creates something out of nothing. God makes things which shouldn’t float, float. God stops the earth from turning and moon from orbiting. Stuff which, by the laws of nature, doesn’t happen. Can’t happen.

Theologians simply have to ask the question: How attached is God to these laws? Since he created the universe—and the laws of nature appear to be the rules he’s built into his universe—are they there because they’re how he insists things must be? When he performs a miracle, does he respect the laws of nature, because they’re his laws? Or does he violate them because he only created them for our convenience?

Since God’s almighty, just how obligated is he to follow the laws of nature? Or does his almightiness mean he just plows right through them?

The usual popular guesses.

For the most part, it seems to me, people’s answers depend on how devoted they are to science.

If you’re a science geek, or a full-on got-a-degree-’n-everything scientist, your answer is frequently gonna be that God would never. They’re not just science’s laws of nature; they’re God’s laws too. He designed the universe to rather intricately work together. It stands to reason since he created the system, he’d use the system. Otherwise why bother to make it that way?

Conversely if you’re one of those anti-science skeptics, like a young-earth creationist who’s entirely sure the earth is only 6,026 years old because “bible says so” (and no, it really doesn’t) you’re gonna have no trouble with the idea that God is magic, and nature isn’t predictable at all because he can make it do whatever he pleases. Scientists might say starlight took billions of years to reach our world, but anti-scientists insist they gotta be wrong, ’cause God only created the stars 6,026 years ago, and he must’ve created their billion-light-years-long light beams at the same time. Which deceptively makes them look billions of years old, but just as God ignores natural laws as he pleases, he apparently also ignores moral laws too.

A third possibility (probably a likelihood) is there are natural laws we’ve not yet discovered. And when God performs a miracle, it only looks like he violates the laws of nature, but really he’s only violating the laws we know of; he’s not violating the ones he knows of. Theologians who make this claim, tend to bring up quantum mechanics—a field of physics which explains how extremely small objects work, and because so few people really understand it, and because it appears to break the natural laws we know of, people treat it like magic. Superhero movies and New Agers make all sorts of bizarre claims about quantum laws, and even Christians start to speculate maybe God’s miracles have to do with quantum stuff. Or stuff beyond quantum stuff, which we can’t even fathom.

Meh. They’re fun speculations (although the anti-science guys tend to unwittingly turn God into a moral monster, so that’s a problem). The scriptures don’t say how God does miracles which appear to break natural laws. Really, the authors of the scriptures don’t care how he does it; they figured God is almighty and unlimited enough to be able to do anything, and here are some examples of him doing anything.

I prefer Occam’s Razor—the simplest explanation is probably correct. So let’s not assume more than we ought to. I respect science, and don’t see how God needs to violate the laws of nature in order to perform most miracles. I figure he uses his might to apply a force greater than the usual forces we see in nature.

Making something out of nothing is really just converting energy into matter. Making nothing out of something is the reverse. We don’t yet know how to do that. God can do it easily. Thus God can make a virus disappear, or make manna appear; Jesus can feed 5,000 people with a small amount of food Mk 6.35-44) and cure lepers. Mk 1.40-42

How do you make a person look like he’s walking on water? Hold him up by suspending him from wires. How do you make Jesus walk on water? Hold him up… however God held him up, Mt 14.26-27 and however God held up Simon Peter likewise. Mt 14.28-29 Or held up an axhead. 2Ki 6.6 Or how he’s gonna rapture every Christian into the clouds to meet Jesus. 1Th 4.17 Does God need to defy gravity to do this? Nah; he just needs to apply a force greater than gravity.

What about stretching out a day? Js 10.12-14 Or turning back a sundial? Is 38.8 It’s hard to imagine God messing with the earth’s rotation without causing a worldwide catastrophe, so I suspect he manipulated time. But here I admit I’m out of my depth. I don’t know how God could pull this off. I think most scientists would currently argue it can’t be done. And maybe it can’t—maybe here’s where my theory falls apart, and God does break the laws of nature. Or perhaps we just don’t know enough about nature.

In any event, it would be foolish of me—or you, or any Christian—to insist upon a particular “scientific” theory (or, more likely, a junk-science theory) as an explanation. We don’t want to become the same fools as the young-earth creationists, who violate the scriptures and God’s character, yet insist they’re the only ones upholding both, and can’t see why they aren’t.

When we simply don’t know—and we don’t!—it’s wrong to make a rule out of our best guesses. It’s insisting that God behave the way we’re comfortable with—and forgetting God has free will, and can do whatever he wants. We have no business turning the laws of nature into laws over God. Nor should we dismiss them because we haven’t yet mastered them. None of this is wise.