Wrestling with Miracles

As a scientist, I find reading Scripture can sometimes be difficult. I believe that the Bible is the living word of God, a text written for me, even if it is not written to me. But when I encounter stories about a man who walks on water, spit that gives sight to the blind or a crowd who walks through the Red Sea, I sometimes squirm with discomfort. I have the opportunity to teach the miracles of God’s creation every day to my biology students, but those mostly are the kind of miracles that we can try to explain. Learning to accept, and even appreciate, truly unexplainable miracles has been a more challenging task.

The world is filled with wonder and is miraculous enough without God intervening and disrupting creation.

Scientists are experts at finding natural explanations. At some level, we are trained to be naturalists. We are expected to look at the world in a way that assumes all events have an explanation that can be fully articulated without interference from a supernatural force. For example, DNA runs through a gel toward the red electrode because of the physical properties of DNA and the engineering of my apparatus, not because of the intervention of some priest or spiritual leader. As C.S. Lewis tells us, a “miracle is, from the point of view of the scientist, a form of doctoring, tampering (if you like) cheating. It introduces a new factor into the situation, namely supernatural force, which the scientists had not reckoned on” (Miracles: A Preliminary Study, MacMillan, 1947). Our training in naturalism makes scientists relentless in the lab. When no explanation for a set of results seems possible, we will work nights and weekends to find an answer anyway. No scientist would ever accept “because God made it that way” as the answer to the research question being pursued.

NATURAL MIRACLES

The same worldview that supports our inquiry can be a significant burden when reading about a miracle in Scripture. I know that “this Word of God was not sent nor delivered by human will, but that ‘men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God,’” and that “afterward our God – with special care for us and our salvation – commanded his servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit this revealed Word to writing” (Belgic Confession Article 3). But the most plausible natural explanation for a story about a man who walks on water is that the storyteller is making fiction. It can be difficult to accept that God intervenes supernaturally in the world, because God has already so miraculously constructed this world with such beautiful natural gifts. The world is filled with wonder and is miraculous enough without God intervening and disrupting creation.

I have the opportunity to teach my students about the miraculous works of creation with every lecture. Some aspects of biology are so incredible that I feel quite comfortable describing them as miracles. One of my favorite examples is RNA editing. The human genome contains more than 20,000 genes. The genetic instructions held in the genome are the same in every cell of the body. How the genome is deciphered and used gives rise to the diversity of cell types in the body, from skin cells to neurons. Most genes are used by being first read into another molecule called RNA and then translated into a protein that will do the cellular work in the body. For example, the protein Apolipoprotein B has functions in carrying cholesterol around the body. This gene is in the genome of all human cells, and in most tissues where it is used, it follows the process described above, being read into RNA, translated into protein, and then getting to work carrying cholesterol. However, in the small intestine, something miraculous happens. That same gene is read into the same RNA molecule, but then, before it can be translated, the code of the RNA molecule is carefully changed into something new. The edited version of the RNA will lead to a changed protein that is perfect for fat absorption in the small intestine. With 20,000 genes in the genome making perhaps hundreds of thousands of RNAs in a cell, somehow this single RNA molecule is identified and one single letter (out of some 15,000 letters in this RNA) is carefully switched from a “C” to a “U.” Without this tiny bit of editorial work, humans could not properly digest fats. I see this as God at work in the world – a miracle. Praise be to God.

RNA editing is my kind of miracle.

RNA editing is my kind of miracle. It is the sort of miracle that is perfect for scientists and all modern people, who are unconsciously naturalists. RNA editing is explainable through cellular and molecular biology but at the same time is awe-inducing and wonderful. It is fully part of this world but brings glory to God as creator. It reminds us of the goodness of God’s creation and of God’s power over planets and proteins without ever forcing us to say that it works “because God made it that way.”

REAL MIRACLES ARE UNEXPLAINABLE

Real miracles are not part of this world. Real miracles cannot be explained by molecular biology or any other field. Mark 8:22-25 tells us:

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”  Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

Blindness can sometimes be cured by surgeons, but it takes a lot more than spit. If the man Jesus helped simply needed to wash his eyes, surely his friends who cared enough for him to bring him to Jesus would have thought of it. The best natural explanation for this story is that it never happened. But in Luke 2:16-21 Jesus reads from the book of Isaiah and says that part of his ministry is to bring sight to the blind. Because I believe in the mission of Jesus and the authority of Scripture, I am forced to accept that this man was given his sight “because God made it that way.”

A miracle closer to the core of Christianity is the virgin birth. The story seemed unexplainable even to Mary when she first heard the news from the angel. Luke 1:34-35 tells us, “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’”

I don’t think the answer is any clearer for modern readers than it was for Mary. For me it is fraught with difficulties because, as Thomas Torrance reminds us in “The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth,” “If you ask biological questions of the Virgin Birth you will only get biological answers” (Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology). Conception is one of those nice, explainable miracles. Every new baby is a miracle from God, but each one of these miracles needs two parents. Mom and dad each provide a set of 23 chromosomes that make the unique genetic complement of 46 chromosomes with which each healthy human is born. For Jesus, I ask the text, where did his chromosomes come from? Maybe I can rationalize that somehow Jesus was just made from his mother’s DNA, that he inherited her full set of chromosomes. But the question that can shake a Christian trained in genetics is this: Whence did Jesus get his Y-chromosome?

All humans share a common set of 44 chromosomes, but the last pair of chromosomes are the sex chromosomes. Females have two X-chromosomes, and males have one X and one Y-chromosome. The Y-chromosomes mostly code for genes involved in development of the testes. Jesus must have been fine in that area, or he would not have been permitted in the temple. But the Y-chromosome is inherited from the father. Jesus had no earthly father from whom he could receive his Y-chromosome. The most obvious natural explanation for Jesus being male is that he had an earthly father. When I ask the text how could Jesus have a Y-chromosome, Torrance says it answers that the “transcendent ‘How?’ is described as an act of the Spirit, as a creative act from above which breaks into our humanity and into our nature” (“The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth”). I believe God’s work can break into nature and must accept that Jesus had a Y-chromosome because “God made it that way.”

DEALING WITH MIRACLES

There are at least three ways of dealing with stories of miracles in Scripture. The first and I suspect most common approach is to ignore them. For many modern readers and most of us trained to think naturalistically, the easiest way to cope with miracles is to think about them as little as possible. We can ignore miracles and still praise God for his good works, repent for the fallenness in the world and join Jesus in the redemptive work we see around us. It is possible to gloss over miracles and read on toward spiritual truths that are easier to apply to our lives. But, clearly, ignoring parts of Scripture is not ideal.

Another approach to miracle stories is to doubt them. Most doubters do their work quietly from the end of the pew. Doubters construct a mode of church involvement that avoids teaching Sunday school, and then they are free to doubt the veracity of supernatural stories in Scripture, and no one else has to know about their lack of belief. Other doubters are very public in their disbelief. Public doubters include the Jesus Seminar and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth; both reject most of the supernatural events in the gospels. There is certainly a middle ground where some miracles are tolerated and others are doubted, but the basic solution to the problem of miracles for this group is the same.

A third technique for addressing miracles in Scripture is to try to explain them. This is an understandable approach for the faithful who are trained in science. Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado at Boulder attempted to explain the key miracle of the Exodus event this way:

The computer simulations show that a strong east wind, blowing overnight, could have pushed water back at a bend where an ancient river is believed to have merged with a coastal lagoon along the Mediterranean Sea. With the water pushed back into both waterways, a land bridge would have opened at the bend, enabling people to walk across exposed mud flats to safety. As soon as the wind died down, the waters would have rushed back in. (University Corporation for Atmospheric Research website)

This approach tries to explain the unexplainable. Even if the rationalizing approach works for a few miracles, eventually it will encounter something truly difficult like wet stones bursting into flame in 1 Kings 18 or the sun standing still in Joshua 10. Removing God’s work from God’s story cannot be the best approach.

NOT A NATURAL WORLD

Each of these techniques misses out on the important message that the stories about miracles reveal: This is not a natural world. We live in a world made and sustained by the Creator God. Our world is saturated with the supernatural. It is dripping with the divine. As Christians we have no choice but to accept that sometimes God chooses to work in this world in unexplainable ways. The most important example is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Romans were exceedingly good at killing their enemies, and the cross was their guillotine. They knew their business and were quite certain that Jesus hanged on the cross until he was dead. But the foundation of Christianity is that Jesus came back from the dead against all reason “because God made it that way.” As the apostle Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (I Corinthians 15:17-19). Our entire faith rests on the truth that God works miraculously in the world.

While the reality that God sometimes acts in unexplainable ways right here on our planet can be disconcerting, it is also very good news. God’s miracles are difficult to accept and awkward to explain, but they are also our only hope. Our God does things that are impossible. Our broken world is filled with seemingly insurmountable problems such as climate change, global poverty and systematic injustice. We cannot think of any natural solution for these problems, but God is currently using the people of Christ to overcome each of them. The problems in the world are so entrenched, so intractable and so overwhelming, but our God does the impossible. God has chosen to redeem every corner of creation. Miracles happen because, as C.S. Lewis says, “they are the very thing this universal story is about” (Miracles: A Preliminary Study). I have no natural explanation for how this can happen, but I have faith that it will – because God has made it that way.

Clay Carlson teaches biology at Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, Illinois.

Image: Marriage at Cana, Jacopo Tintoretto, 1561; public domain via Wikimedia Commons.