This is the fifth in a 5 week series exploring the relationship between miracles and science. See this Science Corner post for a prelude, this post for part 1, this post for part 2, this post for part 3, and this post for part 4.
Four weeks ago, we started our exploration of miracles by looking at how human monarchs influence our perception of God as king. Then, we considered the metaphor of the law as it relates to our understanding of the natural world, and explored how the ideas of will and of grace might be used to frame a different understanding. Last week we looked at how those ideas related to the triumphal entry. And now we finally come to my proposal for how to think about miracles.
If anything qualifies as a miracle, surely Jesus’ resurrection warrants that name. I’m less sure that everyone would call Jesus’ death a miracle, although there is something singular and profound about God breaking the fellowship of the Trinity on our behalf. And salvation for the entire human race is nothing to treat lightly either. Still, let’s take one step further back. What if the miracle of Easter began when Jesus prayed “Yet not my will but yours be done” in Gethsemane?
What if we think of a miracle as an act that realizes God’s will on Earth? First, we have to suppose that God’s will is not always realized. This is difficult for me to imagine if the world is governed by natural laws, and God is their legislator. Either everything proceeds according to those laws, or people are somehow unique in their ability to violate those laws. The latter scenario implies that if people do nothing, God’s will prevails, leading to a fairly inert notion of righteous living. If will is the organizing principle of nature instead of law, then it is easier to imagine that God’s will is not always realized, since that possibility is baked right in.
If God’s will is not always realized on Earth, then the times when it is realized are noteworthy in some sense. Presumably all of Biblical events traditionally understood as miracles fit into this category. Many of them are initiated by God himself, and the others are the result of God’s people inviting God to act. It seems reasonable to assume that if the requested action was counter to God’s will, he would not respond in the affirmative. Thus, we are not eliminating any Biblical miracles with this new understanding.
Defining miracles in terms of God’s will also provides a significant advantage by making our definition stable. If we think of miracles as being supernatural, that makes them at least partially contingent on our understanding of how the natural world works. It invites the kind of discussion we saw, for example, around the parting of the Red Sea; once a material explanation arises, questions are raised about the status of a miracle. And if you think of our collective knowledge of the natural world as ever-increasing, it seems possible to imagine that one day there will be no more miracles left.
Likewise, understanding miracles as a realization of God’s will is more robust than a definition based around probability. Our understanding of a particular outcome’s likelihood can be changed as we learn more information. And while rare events like winning the lottery are individually unlikely, representatives of all rare events occur every day. Some miracles may seem immune to this kind of reevaluation (resurrection will probably be considered unlikely by any analysis), but as long as probability is integral to how we define miracles, at least some of them will always be candidates for reconsideration.
The idea of will also highlights the significance of a miracle as a sign. Let’s go back to the game of pool, which I brought up as a classic illustration when thinking about natural law. The object of pool is to get your balls into the pockets. The game is interesting because this doesn’t happen automatically, yet a successful shot is not a contravention of what we call the laws of motion. And while knocking balls around at random isn’t a great strategy, having a ball inadvertently wind up in a pocket is not uncommon. Thus the rules require the player to make their intentions clear in advance, so that success can be judged on whether a shot is a realization of the player’s will.
This concept of miracles also helps me make sense of John 14:12 when Jesus makes reference to his disciples performing greater deeds than his miracles. It is hard to imagine a miracle more supernatural than anything Jesus did, and it would seem as if it doesn’t get much more unlikely than returning from the dead. If a miracle is a realization of God’s will, though, then it is natural to think of a greater deed as a more widespread realization of God’s will. That might mean covering a larger geographic area, lasting longer, or involving more people; any and all are plausible relative to Jesus’ ministry and could be applied to both the subsequent actions of the disciples or the whole church.
Are we losing anything by defining miracles in this way? That probably depends on how central the idea of present-day miracles are to one’s theology. For example, I know that identifying particular events as miracles is central to the Catholic church’s definition of sainthood. My notion of a miracle is almost certainly more inclusive, which might be problematic in that application. From my perspective, one could simply add additional criteria (namely, whatever is applied currently) that would define a subset of miracles which make one eligible for sainthood, but I’ll admit there may be further nuances involved that I’m failing to appreciate.
Is my proposed idea of a miracle too broad? The usual definitions of miracles are pretty exclusive, making them special. Whereas I’d like to think that God’s will is realized on Earth frequently, in ways great and small. How do we preserve a sense of specialness? For that I look to another prayer by Jesus. “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That suggests to me that heaven is a place where God’s will is realized everywhere at all times. And thus whenever God’s will is done here and now, that’s a little glimpse of what heaven is like, which is special enough for me.