When you hear of a miracle, whether in the First Century or in the Twenty-First, do you rejoice and feel uplifted, or do you wince and think of all sorts of problems? Even if you find them believable, do you worry that they create an obstacle to faith rather than a pathway to it for many other people? Does it mean that the Church can only attract people of an extremely credulous or unscientific mind? To make things worse, if people cannot believe one thing we tell them, why should they believe anything else we say?
Let me set out the five main reasons why this is a problem.
1. The God of the Gaps. A lot of people have used God as an explanation for gaps in our scientific knowledge. This God has, of course, shrunk a lot during the 20th and 21st Centuries. Miracles have been used to strengthen belief in this God. However, what was an inexplicable miracle in the past can now be easily understood as a scientific phenomenon.
2. Obscurantism. The Church, or parts of it at least, has been guilty at times of trying to suppress inconvenient information of various kinds, causing people to suspect that knowledge was the opposite of faith. Stories about miracles could be seen as inventions devised to confuse or confound the Church’s critics.
3. Psychology. We now have a better understanding of how the human mind works than our ancestors had. We can understand that people might have genuinely believed they had witnessed a miracle when they had not. Perhaps they were merely trying to make sense of something they did not understand, or they could have been suffering from some kind of mental breakdown.
4. Coincidences. Some events have been described as miracles even when they were obviously explicable even at the time, but were apparently very unlikely coincidences, especially if they seemed to have been answers to prayer and/or have been regarded as fulfilling God’s purposes on Earth, according to believers.
5. Terminology. Apart from unlikely coincidences in answer to prayer, many events are described as miracles quite inappropriately. Nowadays the word “miracle”, like many others, has been devalued by overuse by the press, e.g. “miracle cure”, “miracle escape” or “miracle baby”, when all they mean is that the event was desirable but unexpected.
Now let us consider three fundamental questions.
A. What is Science? Science is the rational study of the World as it is. It proceeds by examining evidence, applying reason to what it sees, and drawing conclusions. Science should not reject inconvenient facts, such as miracles, just because they do not fit in with the current theories about how the World operates. Of course evidence for a miracle should be tested, just like any other evidence. But it is bad science to begin with your conclusions and write off anything that challenges them. Is that not the same error the Church has all too often made, as mentioned above under “obscurantism”?
B. Does an Explanation Negate a Miracle? Knowing how things work should not prevent us experiencing the wonder of them. I know what a rainbow is and yet I find it uplifting every time I see one. I love the story in the Bible where God uses the rainbow as a sign he will not flood the Earth again. Genesis Chapter 9 Verses 13 to 17. I see every rainbow as a reminder of God’s presence in the World. Science explains how he does it. Sometime people say “Nothing But” as if those words remove all value from a thing. Well, a five pound note is nothing but paper with ink on it. But we know it has meaning beyond the paper and ink. The works of Shakespeare are also nothing but paper and ink. So are the books I have written, but most people value the one set more than the other. A miracle occurs when God puts a special meaning on an event, usually an unexpected and unlikely one, but always one which will have a real significance for those affected by it.
C. Is God Inconsistent? If he created the World and established the laws on which it would run, such as Gravity, why would he do things which break those very laws? He does not! He is consistent because only he really understands his laws. We understand only a part of God’s World. “Now we see puzzling reflections in a mirror: then we shall see face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known.” I Corinthians Chapter 13 Verse 12.
Finally, How Can a Sceptic Believe? Question everything. Including apparently scientific explanations of miracles. God is Truth. He can stand scrutiny.