A “miracle” in the fullest sense is an event of God’s providence, in which the outcome goes beyond what the natural properties of the created things involved could have produced.
This essay gives a summary of the traditional Christian way of describing nature and miracle and shows how understanding these helps in reading the Bible, living faithfully, and meeting the challenges of skeptics appealing to science.
Most Christians are aware that “miracles” play a big role in the Biblical story — from the creation, to the rescue of Israel from Egypt, to the incarnation, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus, not to mention his final return to bring us all to judgment. We also wonder whether the miracles in the Bible are the only ones God has done — are there any going on today? You can easily do an internet search on the terms “miracles all around us” and find plenty of people who talk about miracles today. The excesses of such talk can make us shy of the subject altogether in response; and that shyness is even more enhanced by the skepticism that comes with the so-called “modern scientific outlook.”
Can we understand what miracles are? And do we have to drop all pretense to intellectual integrity if we believe that any of them have happened (even if it’s just those in the Bible)?
Almost every word in every human language has more than one meaning, and we have to be sure we’re talking about the same thing: hence, definitions are crucial for good thinking. Otherwise, we’ll have to face the disapproval of Inigo Montoya (in The Princess Bride): “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
We use the word “miracle” in a variety of ways. We can speak of the miracle of modern technology, meaning, say, that we are impressed with the power of surgery and medication to heal diseases that would have killed our ancestors. We can call a sudden healing from cancer a “miracle,” meaning we don’t know how it happened. In the 1980 Winter Olympics, the US Ice Hockey team defeated the superior Soviet team, which led Al Michaels (who called the game for ABC television) to ask the viewers, “Do you believe in miracles?”
In The Princess Bride, Inigo and his friend Fezzik go to a man called Miracle Max, because Westley, the Man in Black, is (mostly) dead and they need him resuscitated. They want Max to provide them with a “miracle.” What he does give them is a chocolate-coated pill that will revive Westley; but its working is more in the category of mysterious medical technology. This is clear when Inigo and Fezzik carry the Man in Black away to give him the pill, and Max and his wife Valerie wish them luck storming the castle. Valerie says, “Think it’ll work?” Max replies, “It would take a miracle” — meaning what we might call a miracle in the fullest sense, that goes beyond his technology.
Some philosophers and theologians have proposed that a “miracle” is anything that impresses its audience with God’s presence and power. Some of them have suggested that we are wrong to suppose that created things have any causal power of their own; everything happens by God’s direct action. This has been called “occasionalism,” since what we call “events” are really just the “occasions” for God to exert his power. Others suggest that the natural effects of created things are the whole story in God’s world, even if we do not know how everything has worked; for example, the crossing of the Red Sea was the fortuitous result of various forces such as wind, just at the right time for Israel. This view may be called “providentialism,” since it asserts that everything happens as a result of God’s providential ordering of natural processes. Both of these perspectives would then say that what makes an event “special” is the way it makes God’s presence known; but effectively, they are saying that everything (at least in principle) is a special event — which, as Dash (from The Incredibles) muttered, is just another way of saying that nothing is.
However, if we follow what Christian (and Jewish) theologians have offered, we will have a sturdier way of thinking about these things.
Natural and Supernatural
We will first summarize the traditional Christian (and Jewish) understanding of how God works in his creation, and then show how it captures well what the Biblical texts do.
Traditional theologians have described things this way:
- creation, by which God made all things from nothing, and imparted natural properties to the things he has made;
- preservation and concurrence, by which God keeps his creatures in being and confirms the interaction of their properties;
- government, by which God orders all things in his world according to his purposes; and
- supernatural occurrences, in which the outcome goes beyond the natural properties of the components involved; these are “miracles” in the proper sense.
The Biblical presentation builds on ordinary perceptions of the world, such as the way that plants and animals reproduce after their own kinds; no one in Israel would have sown barley with a hope of harvesting wheat (see also Matt. 13:24–30), or tried to breed camels from his goats! The Bible affirms this perception of natural properties and their causal powers and traces it to the reliability and goodness of the world God made (Genesis 1).
This perspective also shows how God is directly active in every event, whether the natural or supernatural. Genesis 30 can speak of God giving and withholding children and also of Jacob and his wives spending the night together. Even in passages that stress God’s pervasive activity, such as Psalm 104, God causes the grass to grow so that it feeds the livestock (v. 14); we can say that God feeds the animals. God’s action and creaturely action are not an either-or, or a zero-sum game.
The idea that God orders all events to fulfill his purposes runs throughout the Bible — but not in such a way as to abolish creaturely responsibility (see Isa. 10:5–7, 15–16). Biblical authors do not try to resolve this tension; instead they invite us to embrace it, and to trust that they are not genuinely contradictory.
Further, this Biblical picture allows us to see the world as having a network of cause and effect, without falling into the trap of thinking that the network is closed. That is, God is free to do with his creation whatever he wants; and God wants to pursue relationships with human beings. Should God — the benevolent Maker and Ruler — choose to infuse new energies into his world in pursuit of these relationships, why should that surprise anyone? This is exactly what such events as prophetic inspiration, the virgin conception and resurrection of Jesus, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the conversion of so many diverse peoples, are — and the return of Jesus and general judgment will be a further exercise of God’s freedom to rule his world, unlimited by the properties he made it to have.
Finally, this perspective shines light on the practice of prayer. When Christians pray for something, they properly focus on the outcome, and leave it to God to decide what mix of “ordinary providence” and “miracle” to use. A healing is no less God’s gift for having come through a physician’s skill (1Tim. 5:23)!
In this framework, all providences are “special,” because they reflect God’s particular interest in each of his creatures; but some make God’s governance especially clear, and some of these are recognizably supernatural (such as the resurrection of Jesus). It is true that many of the Biblical depictions of God’s “great works” do not distinguish between visible expressions of God’s presence and power that employ “ordinary providence,” and those that include a “supernatural” component. However, some of these depictions do. Many think that the plagues in Egypt made use of natural phenomena associated with the Nile River. The text of Exodus allows that and also allows a more “miraculous” scenario; at the very least, God made sure the timing was just right for Israel! Further, the death of so many firstborn must have involved more than natural factors. In the same way, the strong east wind that parted the Red Sea was just right (Exod. 14:21).
It is natural and right to ask God for reassurance by way of visible special providences, when the world seems dark; this is just what the lament psalms do. At the same time, these psalms prepare the faithful for the possibility that God may choose to withhold such visible signs of his government and equip them to hold on to their faith even so.
Miracles as Signs
While these special events in the Bible often address crises of human need, they primarily play two roles: first, they authenticate divinely-approved messengers (prophets and apostles: Deut. 18:21–22; 2Cor. 12:12), and second, they make God’s interest in the corporate well-being of his people — Israel and the church — especially clear (Exod. 14:30–31). An additional role is that of testifying about God’s interest, to those outside his own people, with a view toward leading them to faith (e.g., Exod. 15:14–16).
The miracles of Jesus in the Gospels certainly display his kindness toward human need and suffering (e.g., Mark 1:41), building the readers’ trust in the Savior they love and follow. They also accredit Jesus as a divinely authorized spokesman for God, to whom all people should listen (Acts 2:22). They also reveal his unique person, with divine power over all the creation (Mark 4:41) and even over the demons (Mark 1:27), building the readers’ confidence in the ultimate victory of the Lord’s purposes in the world. The resurrection serves as the vindication of Jesus before the world (1Tim. 3:16). Hence the miracles of Jesus are inseparable from his work.
Christians disagree on whether we should be expecting miracles today. Where they should agree, however, is that miracles, say, of healing, cannot be the measure of our spirituality: after all, everyone eventually dies, even the most faithful, and therefore at least one healing miracle is denied to everyone! Further, we do not expect any canonical revelation to add to the Bible and apply to all Christians everywhere, and therefore we do not look to miracles as authenticating apostolic messengers.
A more important kind of supernatural event is in the way the Holy Spirit changes people’s hearts to heed the Biblical message, strengthening them to live faithfully (Ezek. 36:25–27). This will go on and will be open to all kinds of people!
Miracles, Science, and God-of-the-Gaps
Further, this conventional approach points the way to criteria by which we may discern some events as actually supernatural. An example of this discernment would be the resurrection of Jesus: Bodies that are “all dead” (to use Miracle Max’s taxonomy) do not rise, unless some great power is infused into the ordinary natural processes. For that, it would take a miracle in the fullest sense. To be sure, the event itself does not answer the question of who supplied that power; but it certainly sets a lower limit on the level of power needed. Most of us think that it must be the Power that created life to begin with!
We are sometimes told that science has made the notion of miracle obsolete; that it has shown that the web of cause and effect is closed. But it has done no such thing, nor can it. That strong kind of denial is a worldview perspective and not a result of empirical study.
Nevertheless, the advance of science can help us to frame our understanding of miracle so that we do not commit what is called the “god of the gaps fallacy”: that is, we had called something a miracle when we did not understand how it happened, and now a scientific explanation has shown a natural path. We had simply used the words “God did it” to fill in a gap in our understanding. A natural event is no less God’s providence, since all natural processes are God’s processes; but if our faith in God had depended on the event being genuinely miraculous, our confidence is now undone.
With most events in our lives, we take it by faith that they express God’s wise and benevolent purposes — because we cannot see how all things are working together for good. At times, however, the Lord makes his purposes more visible. Most events could have turned out otherwise than they did (Israel might have remained in Egyptian servitude). In some cases we had a right to expect the event to have been otherwise (Egypt was a strong military power, and Israel were brickfield slaves). It is here that we begin to find reassurance, if we already believe in God. Further, some of those remarkable events should have turned out otherwise, in view of what we know about the things involved. These are the “miracles” in the proper sense; and our discernment of them depends, not on our ignorance, but on our knowledge. As C. S. Lewis put it so well, “No doubt a modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St. Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point — that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St. Joseph obviously knew that” (Lewis, Miracles, ch. 7). On the other hand, an astounding recovery from a deadly disease is surely a welcome provision from God; we do not call it a proper miracle, however, when all we mean is that we do not know how it happened. We must not confuse the miraculous with the mysterious, nor despise either of them!
Christians disagree on whether the miracles serve in our evangelism. The Biblical writers do, at times, present them as having a role to play in alerting people to the presence of great power (e.g., Exod. 8:19; 14:22; Josh. 2:10–11; John 10:25, 37–38; 14:11; 20:29). Certainly Jesus’ resurrection is offered as a public event, with a virtual dare to anyone to disprove it (1Cor. 15:6). Events on their own are not self-explanatory; but these events do fit with and support the Biblical explanations and should be commended to all for their belief.
Of course the classical Christian position is defended in C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1960 [2nd edition]; see book summary here). An effort to offer more exegetical foundation, as well as fuller response to challenges, is C. John Collins, The God of Miracles: An Exegetical Examination of God’s Action in the World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000; see an author interview here and a book summary here); see also Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1–11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), ch. 10. A highly regarded philosophical treatment is Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, religion, and naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Traditional systematic theologies will expound this position; see, for example, Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), ch. 11. For summaries see Heinrich Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Charles Hay and Henry Jacobs, trans. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961 ), 170-194; Heinrich Heppe (1820–1879), Reformed Dogmatics, G.T. Thomson, trans. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978 ), 251-280; J. I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1993), 54–58. For the perspective on the inscrutability of divine providence, see J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1973), ch. 10 (based on Ecclesiastes).
Two scholars who support this understanding and also advocate the importance of miracles today are the exegete Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011) and the philosopher Robert Larmer, The Legitimacy of Miracle (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington, 2014). For a helpful approach to critical doubts about the miracle stories in the Bible, and especially in the Gospels, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1960); and C. S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” in Lewis, Christian Reflections, Walter Hooper, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 152–66.
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.