Most readers will consider this volume a departure from my previous oeuvre, and from my recent biographies it is certainly a departure. In fact, the subjects of those books, William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, do not seem to have had any experiences that could be described as miraculous, at least not in the sense of that word as it is used in this book. Their deeply inspiring lives—their extraordinary actions and accomplishments—were manifestly fueled by their passionate faith in the God of the Bible, yet we have no record of that God speaking to them or revealing himself to them in any ways that would qualify for mention in a book like this. So perhaps we should let their exemplary lives stand as evidence that one can have a world-changing and even saintly life of faith without miraculous experiences. This is a helpful counterpoint to the thinking that these experiences are the ne plus ultra of the Christian faith. On the other hand, let this book and the accounts herein stand as a helpful counterpoint to those who believe such stories impossible.
In considering what form this book should take, I felt a large part of it should be miracle stories themselves, since they are perhaps the best evidence we can have for miracles. (Some readers may wish to skip directly to those stories and read the first part of this book second, a choice I would cheerfully countenance.) I decided to limit the book only to the stories of people I knew personally. This naturally limits the scope of what stories I could include, but the advantage is that I wouldn’t have to wonder about the character and credibility of the people telling these stories. It also underscores how tremendously prevalent such stories are. I did not scour the known world for these tales but only asked people I knew well enough to trust their accounts. There are many friends and acquaintances I did not ask because it became clear to me that had I asked every friend for stories like these, I would have had far too much material for this book and might never have finished it. But the wealth of the miracle stories I was able to find within a fairly close circle of friends makes one wonder how many other stories are out there among my friends, and yours.
I vetted these stories and all their details as carefully as possible. It was vital to me to get as much specificity as I could, and anything that did not seem clearly to be a miracle, I simply did not include. I often asked questions to get clarification on things. Many times the person telling the story was assuming something that—unless I teased it out and made it explicit—would have felt like a hole, whether in the logic of the story or in the artistic shape of it, or both. I asked questions I thought the reader would ask and tried to answer them in the course of telling the story.
I heard some stories that very likely were miracles but that might have been natural coincidences. The slightest question in my mind whether something was genuinely miraculous eliminated it from consideration. But all in all, listening to people tell these stories of God’s direct intervention in their lives was tremendously affecting. It is humbling and exhilarating and it can be simultaneously enlightening and stupefying, because the idea that the God of the universe would humble himself to touch the lives of any of us is, in the end, far beyond our full comprehension.
To those who might think these stories merely subjective accounts and not objective evidence, it must be said that history comprises the subjective accounts of human beings; and from these subjective accounts we arrive at an “objective” truth—which is itself still somehow and to some extent subjective. There can never be a question whether such things are subjective; the only real question can be whether those subjective accounts are reliable. Answers to that question are themselves subjective, depending on the point of view and presumptions of the person making that judgment. This is not to say that there is no such thing as objective truth, or to lead us into a swamp of relativism. On the contrary, it is to say that we must do the hard work of sifting what information we have, of carefully considering the witnesses, as it were. This is what every jury must do when it decides a case in law, and it is what every person must do in deciding what to make of any story. Here we stand. We can do no other. To shrink from that task is to shrink from life itself.
THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES
BELIEVING IN MIRACLES
If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.
—C. S. LEWIS
In a 2013 article in The New Yorker about faith and belief, Adam Gopnik wrote the following: “We know that . . . in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession [sic] with the laws of nature.”
I thought this was an extraordinary statement. To anyone who has experienced the miraculous or who knows people who have experienced it, or who is familiar with the literature of miraculous accounts, it’s difficult to imagine being so confidently dismissive of something that seems at the very least to be entirely possible, and at best to be entirely certain. As someone who lives in Manhattan and who is familiar with the world in which such writers live, I’m afraid I’m not all that surprised. Nonetheless, it’s extraordinary. In the article, Gopnik continues: “We need not imagine that there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none, and we will search for angels forever in vain.”
Of course, the reason the writer makes these statements has to do with his presupposition that this world is all there is. That way of seeing the world dismisses outright any possibility of anything beyond the material world of time and space. It can be summed up in the words of the late Carl Sagan, who glumly intoned, “The Cosmos is all there is and all there ever will be.” He tried to put some hopeful English on this bleak equation by observing that we were made “of the same material as the stars,” as if being composed of the same elements as distant balls of burning gas could be a poetic consolation to us. Of course the word “stars” carries with it the connotation of magic and wish-fulfillment, but why trade on that when one is saying that there is nothing beyond the material world, and therefore such things as magic and miracles and wishes do not exist and should be abandoned? And if we are not more than aggregates of the elements on the periodic table, why should we want that poetic consolation? Isn’t playing to that desire a contradiction of the main point? Is Dr. Sagan trying to have it both ways and therefore hedging his bet? Or is he simply catering to a television audience by fudging the paralyzing bleakness of what he is saying?
If someone insisting on that strictly materialistic worldview encounters a miracle, or something purporting to be such a thing, he must, by definition, deny that it can be a true miracle. If he insists that the only “evidence” of a miracle he could ever accept must be “naturalistic” evidence, then there obviously can never be any such evidence. It is a tautology, a self-defeating koan, along the lines of “Could God make a rock so big that even he couldn’t move it?” Can one take it seriously?
The second part of this book contains a host of stories that are, if not some kind of evidence for miracles, then what? What does the reader make of them? Are they honestly believed hallucinations? Mere coincidences? Are they lies? Or might they really be miracles?
The stories in this book represent the tiniest fraction of all such stories. For a more academic treatment of the topic of miracles, and for many more accounts than we have here, one should look through Craig S. Keener’s magisterial, authoritative, and extremely thorough two-volume work, Miracles. Anyone wanting a scholarly 1,200-page and definitive rebuttal of Mr. Sagan’s aphorism could start there.
So imagine that there was compelling evidence—some might even say proof—that a supreme being was trying to communicate with humans. Imagine that such evidence was abundant but essentially ignored or dismissed by the news media and by the academic institutions of the Western world. Would that constitute a conspiracy? Some would say that it would. The author of this book would not. But wouldn’t it be scandalous nonetheless? If you’re wondering where that evidence is, this book means to present some of it for the reader’s consideration.
Whether one believes in miracles or the miraculous has mostly to do with the presuppositions one brings to the subject. What presuppositions do we have in asking whether there might be something beyond the natural world? All of us have presuppositions about the nature of things, about whether something can be beyond what we experience with our five senses. Sometimes our presuppositions are the result of our education, but they are just as often determined by, or at least partly the result of, our upbringing and the culture in which we were raised.
When I was growing up, no one I knew talked about miracles much, if at all. The church we went to every Sunday in New York City—in Corona, Queens—was not a place where priests discussed miracles. Miracles were something that happened a long time ago, if they ever had really happened. But if they had happened back then, why they didn’t still happen was not something anyone ever questioned or spoke about either. It was just a sort of sad truth that everyone acknowledged in how they behaved, in how they didn’t talk about the possibilities of miracles. Our not talking about it was part of the larger sadness, but that sadness was just part of the way things were, as far as we all knew.
I remember being in Sunday school class at age five or six and coloring a scene from the Bible. I don’t remember the specifics of it, but I think it pictured a bearded patriarch and an angel. I do remember longing for what people had in those remote, long-ago days: a real connection with God and angels, with the world of miracles and magic. What was keeping us from having that too? I had no idea, but I felt that something inside me was made for that connection with the world beyond this one, for a connection with something more real and more true and more alive than anything I was experiencing or being told about in church. I knew that if I so longed for that world, there must be a reason I longed for it. Why would I long for something that didn’t exist? Where did that longing come from? It was such a deep and innate longing that it seemed to come from a place more real and true and alive than the place I was currently living in, as though my longing was part of my true nature, before it had become broken off, as though it was a vestige of who I really was and would be again someday. It was as though I was a prince exiled from another kingdom and whenever I saw hints of that other kingdom, I hoped to find the way back.
Some people would say that this longing is just a vestige of childhood and nothing else. It is what makes us long for Santa Claus, but then we grow up and move into the world of reality and see those things for what they are. We face the grim reality of being alone in the universe, a universe with no meaning, and we must finally grow up and bravely face that universe and that lack of meaning. We must face the fact that this world of matter—of atoms and molecules and things we could detect with our five senses—is all there is and all there ever was or ever will be. We must come to terms with the idea that our lives only have the meaning that we give them, that our desire for meaning itself is meaningless. But who can bear such thoughts? Unless they are true. And if they are true, what is truth? Can there be such a thing as truth if the world is devoid of meaning?
What is it in us that rebels against this lie of life without meaning—and not only a lie but a monstrous lie that stands against everything we somehow know to be true and good and beautiful? Why do we sometimes feel that we are exiles from someplace glorious? What is this innate feeling that we have shared across cultures, centuries, and continents? We can spend our lives denying it, but our very bones and atoms cry out that this denial of meaning is a lie, that everything in us not only longs for that other world and for meaning, but also needs that other world and needs meaning more than food or water or air. It is what we were made for and we will not rest until we find it again.
Until I was an adult who had found faith and this world of meaning, I knew very little about C. S. Lewis. He was the Oxford don who turned from atheism to belief in God because late one night in 1930 he was walking along a wooded path behind Magdalen College with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien. This was years before Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings and long before Lewis wrote his famous Chronicles of Narnia. They were just young men who had survived the grim horrors of World War I, who had seen the ghastly hell and death of the trenches and the gas warfare, and who were now brilliant young professors at Oxford University. But as they walked and talked along that path, long past midnight, Tolkien had the grounding of a deep belief in something else, and Lewis did not. Tolkien felt that this world was not all there is, but Lewis felt that it was, that the sad horrors of the war they had both survived told them this, that this ugly world was all there is and ever would be and we must face this, although it made us sad to think of it. But surely Lewis—or Jack, as his friends called him—sometimes also wondered why, if it were true, it would make us sad. If it were true, why would something in us want it not to be true? What was that something in us, and how did it get there? What was the meaning of the fact that we should desire something else? What was the meaning of our desire for meaning?
Lewis and Tolkien both knew and loved mythology and the myths of ancient cultures. They knew the old stories of the Greeks and the Romans, and they knew and loved the stories of the Norse gods. In his autobiographical memoir, Surprised by Joy, Lewis recalled how his heart had been pierced when he had read those lines from the Norse Ballads of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “I heard a voice cry, ‘Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!’” Why had this so pierced his heart? Why should this nineteenth-century poem about a fictional character move him so? What was the meaning of that? But after the death of his mother and the pains of life and the horrors of the war he had at least halfway pushed aside such feelings and had come to embrace the sad belief that we could not go back, and all of these stories were just stories. Beautiful stories, but just stories.
But Tolkien had another idea, although for him it was no longer just an idea. He knew that all of these ancient and beautiful stories were echoes of something larger and truer. They were signs that the human race knew of another world that had once existed and would exist again and even now existed in another realm, outside time. He knew the myths of the gods who died in a sacrificial way but who would rise again and live, but he did not know them as unconnected to the world of reality and history. For him they were echoes of a larger reality that had at one time burst through into history, but only once. So that night on the dark wooded path with his friend Jack he asked the question that would change Jack’s life. He asked Jack to consider whether it was possible that one time this myth had coincided with history—whether one time eternity might have broken through into time. Tolkien suggested that it had, that the myth of the god who had died and come to life was an echo of a greater story—of perhaps the greatest story that ever was told—and that one time in history this eternal story had bloomed into reality, had broken through into history and time as a crocus breaks through the snow. And it had changed everything forever and ever, had brought spring into winter, had brought eternity itself into time. Lewis had never considered that. But Tolkien pressed him to consider it and so now he would consider it, and it would haunt him. What if this were true and had happened? And if it had happened, how could we know?
What if all the myths and fairy tales were pointing to something that was not only true but also truer than anything we knew in this world, to a realm that was truer and more real? What if this world of materiality and corporeality were only the “shadowlands,” and what if we were meant for another place that was more real and more true? What if our hearts’ longing for that other place was what led mankind over the years to make a place in our world for myths and religions and fairy tales—and what if the God who had created us and loved us had found a way to break through into our world and to offer us his hand, to say, If you take my hand I can take you back to where you once lived and to where you really belong, because your heart knows that you do? Would you take his hand and let him take you there? Would you believe the miracle of his breaking through into this world? Might you believe in the possibility of miracles just enough to believe that that one miracle had happened, once? Because if you believe in just that one miracle it will open up the world of miracles itself, will lead you back into a world where those miracles themselves point to the larger truth, point to the place where they came from and are signposts to that place, signs for us here to know that there is a place there—and the signs do not just point to that place and tell us that it’s true, but somehow they show us how to get back there, if we can see them for what they are, if we can see the signs and read the signs and dare to follow them.
We must think about these things. We must wonder about them and about our lives and about life in general. It is healthy to wonder. We have a deep need for wondering. “Wonder” is of course the root of the word “wonderful,” so we must wonder generally and we must wonder specifically. What if we could accept that our childhood love of Santa Claus was indeed fantasy but not merely fantasy? What if we could accept that although Santa Claus didn’t really exist as Socrates existed, our desire for him to exist pointed to something that did exist, pointed to something that Socrates himself had longed for? What if those who simply believed in anything were only half-wrong, because their desire to believe pointed to something that was true, not just in the world itself but inside them?
And what if those who knew Santa Claus didn’t really exist were themselves only half-wrong, because their rejection of that kind of sloppy, childish belief pointed to a desire to only believe in what was real, what was really real and not just a myth or a childhood story, a desire to believe in things that are as true as the facts in history books and as real as the atoms and molecules we learned about in science books? What if the half-truth of the desire for something beyond us could meet up with the half-truth of the desire for only what is really real and true, which we can know and see and touch in this world too? What if those two halves could touch and become the one true truth we were both looking for?
This is a book about that.
WHAT IS A MIRACLE?
There is no standard definition for miracle to which we may all turn. In fact, what is and isn’t a miracle is extremely subjective. Nonetheless a discussion of what miracles are—and are not—is well worth having.*
Webster’s dictionary defines a miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” More colorfully and memorably, C. S. Lewis once explained that a miracle is something unique that breaks a pattern so expected and established we hardly consider the possibility that it could be broken. “If for thousands of years,” he said, “a woman can become pregnant only by sexual intercourse with a man, then if she were to become pregnant without a man, it would be a miracle.”
Though we probably weren’t expecting ribaldry from Lewis, his observation gets our attention. The skeptic and philosopher David Hume spoke famously against miracles but defined them as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”
We may essentially concur with Hume on this definition, which is probably as close to a standard definition as we will be able to settle on. But I would further simply say that it is when something outside time and space enters time and space, whether just to wink at us or poke at us briefly, or to come in and dwell among us for three decades.
CAN A RATIONAL PERSON BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?
No sooner does the subject of miracles arise than someone must ask whether anyone can today really believe in such things. But consider the following. Science today teaches that the universe came into being via the Big Bang, approximately fourteen billion years ago. According to this generally accepted theory, all matter in the known universe—more than one hundred billion galaxies, each of which contains hundreds of billions of stars and many more planets—exploded out of something smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
But who was behind all of that? Many people would say that God was, although people’s definitions of God and how he created the universe will certainly vary. That a creator was behind it all might be shocking to say in some circles, but for most people on the planet, it is essentially taken for granted. But if we believe that God created the universe out of nothing—ex nihilo, to use the famous Latin phrase—how can we possibly quibble over smaller miracles like turning water into wine or giving sight to a man born blind? Believing that God could create the universe but could not perform any infinitely smaller miracle is illogical. It is very much like saying, “Oh, yes, I certainly believe that Tolstoy could write War and Peace, and did, but I could never believe he’d be able to move a comma in the manuscript. That would be too much.” If God actually created this universe—somehow—can we not believe he would be able to do almost anything else? It seems we would have to.
So if, like most people, we can agree with the first words of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” why wouldn’t we agree with the innumerable instances in the Bible that follow of his miraculous intervention? If God could speak the universe into existence, could he not afterward speak into that existence?
EXAMINING MIRACLES CRITICALLY
If believing in the possibility of miracles is logical, or at least certainly not illogical, that does not mean we should believe in anything claiming to be a miracle. On the contrary, we should examine miracles with the greatest critical rigor possible.
Mark Twain said that if you dissect a joke, you kill it, just as you must kill a frog before dissecting it. Of course there’s some truth to this. As a sometime humorist, I well know how this can work with jokes. If you must explain why something is funny, you will almost certainly kill the humor. There are many who say the same thing about faith and miracles. They are in love with the idea of believing, with the ineffable magic of it, and don’t think any of it should be examined too closely. For these people, exactly what one believes in matters less than belief itself, and they don’t want to get too close to the details of it, lest they eff the ineffable and the fairy dust be blown away. But true belief is really not like frogs and jokes at all. We must examine what we believe. We must blow away the fairy dust. Though there is great mystery involved, it’s not all mystery. Exactly what we believe is vitally important. Do we believe in something that’s really true? Or are we afraid to find out? We have to separate the fake miracles from the real ones, or we do the real ones a grave injustice and do the truth itself an injustice too.
It is vital that we not have a “Disney” theology that only says “Believe!”—one that is merely about childlike wonder—because if we aren’t careful with what we believe in, we will end up believing in anything. To believe in anything is to potentially believe in nonsense, some of it downright harmful. It’s one thing for children to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, but at some point we need to grow up and be able to deal with the fact that some things are actually not real. If an adult really believes in Santa Claus or in the Tooth Fairy, we know that something is wrong. We wouldn’t humor such a person, but we might consider having him committed. At some juncture, we must gird our loins and make these distinctions between what is real and what is imaginary. It’s vitally important.
So when we talk about miracles, we talk about things that, to some extent, must be criticized and understood, otherwise we are merely being so open-minded that we are simply gullible. It’s one thing to be innocent and another thing to be naive or willfully ignorant. By critically examining things like the phenomenon of life on Earth (see chapter 4) or the existence of the universe (see chapter 5) or the resurrection of Jesus (see chapter 8) or the healing of my friend Paul’s marriage (see chapter 11), we help determine if these things really are miraculous, or aren’t. If it turns out that through our critical examination we discover that they are actually not miraculous, that’s all to the good. We don’t want to get excited about nothing, and we don’t want to believe in anything. We want to know what is actually miraculous and what is not actually miraculous. True faith is not a leap in the dark; it’s a leap into the light.* We shouldn’t be afraid of the facts. If God is God, he is the God of reality and facts and science and history.
So the facts matter. They aren’t beside the point. If something turns out to seem genuinely miraculous, then we are free to enjoy it, to rejoice in it, and to celebrate the true wonder of it. We don’t need to hedge our bets. When we finally know something to be true and real, we can really leap and shout with abandon, because we’ve determined that the thing we are leaping and shouting about is worth leaping and shouting about. If it turns out that the thing we believed in or wanted to believe in is not true and real, we may experience a momentary letdown, but in the end we will be in a far better place than if we had blindly clung to something that was really just wish-fulfillment or a feel-good invention or a flight of fancy.
We are therefore not talking about the mushy idea that lurks behind such pop-cultural clichés as “Miracles happen!” or “Believe!” Those sloppy and vague concepts only add to the confusion about miracles. They add to the thoughtless and uncritical view of these things, so that everything wonderful is thought to be a miracle, when everything wonderful is actually not a miracle, in the sense that we mean. We need to be brave enough to dissect a frog now and then, to see what’s inside. In the case of real miracles, they are never in danger of disappearing just because we look at them. If they are real miracles and are from God, they can stand being poked at and examined. So soapy bromides like “Miracles happen!” and “Believe!” which we see carved on artificial rocks sold in places like SkyMall catalogs, are the sworn enemies of a rigorous examination of miracles. Serious questions are to be tolerated and encouraged, but thoughtless gullibility on the one hand, and flippant, dismissive cynicism on the other, are not.
WHAT IS THE MEANING BEHIND MIRACLES?
When I was nine, my class at Beaver Brook Elementary School in Danbury, Connecticut, visited what we called the “Nature Center,” which was really just a small piece of riverbank on the Still River. One day as we studied plants, our teacher explained to us that there was no hard-and-fast definition or category of “weeds.” One person’s weed is another person’s nonweed. If there is a dandelion in your lawn, you’d probably call it a weed, but if you eat dandelion greens in your salad, you might not. He explained that the whole idea of weeds was essentially subjective. I was shocked when I learned this. Surely everyone could agree on what was a weed and what was not. But I was wrong.
One man’s miracle is another man’s eye-rolling What’s the big deal? weird coincidence. So when we are talking about miracles, one thing we can say objectively is that context matters—and who is experiencing the miracle matters. If God is behind a miracle, and we can agree that that is ultimately what makes a miracle a miracle, then a large part of his performing the miracle has to do with communicating with the people who are observing or experiencing the miracle. So we can ask, if a miracle happens in the woods and there’s no one around to see it, is it a miracle? To put it yet another way, why would God perform a miracle if no one realized he had done it? How can we ever conceive of a miracle apart from it being a communication from God to one or more people, at the very least to let them know he exists and cares about them? If a miracle happens in the woods and there’s no one around to see it, it’s actually not a miracle.
The Greek word for miracle is “simaios,” which means “sign.” Miracles are signs, and like all signs, they are never about themselves; they’re about whatever they are pointing toward. Miracles point to something beyond themselves. But to what? To God himself. That’s the point of miracles—to point us beyond our world to another world. They are clues that that other world is not in our imaginations but is actually out there, wherever “out there” actually is. Peggy Noonan once wrote that she thought miracles existed “in part as gifts and in part as clues that there is something beyond the flat world we see.” If miracles exist at all, they exist not for their own sake but for us, to point us toward something beyond. To someone beyond.
As far as this goes, we could say that everything that exists is a miracle, albeit a miracle of creation and not a miracle of overt divine intervention in the sense that the parting of the Red Sea is a miracle (I will explain this difference in chapters 4 and 5). In fact, everything that exists is not just a miracle of God’s creation but also a miracle of God’s sustaining, because things could appear and then vanish. But they don’t. They are here and they remain here, in one form or another, either as energy or matter. So we can ask why something was created, but we can and should also ask, Why does it keep on existing?
It is a curious fact that human beings are rarely satisfied that things just are. The very existence of the universe prompts us to ask why. Why does the universe exist? And why do we want to know why it exists? For some reason, human beings long to see the meaning behind things. So just as what we call miracles point to something outside themselves—which is to say God—the miracle of the very existence of things does precisely the same. Things point beyond themselves. For example, a lion isn’t just a lion; it is an image of royalty and courage and ferocity. Human beings, who are created in the image of God, cannot be satisfied with just the thing itself. We somehow long to know what things mean. Once human beings come into the picture, the question of meaning enters the picture. We cannot help it. It’s in our nature, which is a nature that mirrors God’s own nature.
Therefore not just those things we would clearly recognize as miracles but every single thing in creation ultimately points beyond itself to the creator, who is by definition outside temporal and material existence and outside his own creation. Everything has meaning! It’s in the nature of things. De Rerum Natura.* This is the absolute opposite of the nihilistic view of the universe that there is no such thing as actual meaning, because meaning is just something that humans artificially impose on other things. According to this nihilistic and materialistic worldview, nothing means anything. Everything just is.
The essential meaning of miracles, then, is to point us to the God behind the miracles. In the New Testament we see that Jesus performed miracles precisely to prove that he was who he said he was. And in the Old Testament, God performed signs and wonders to attest to who he was. People have their faith strengthened and deepened by miracles, and many people actually come to faith through miracles. My own conversion to faith is an example of this, as I relate later in this book, and my faith has been dramatically strengthened by miracles that I have experienced personally, as well as by miracles that have happened to people I’ve known and whose judgment I’ve trusted.
DO MIRACLES STILL HAPPEN?
There is a popular idea in our culture that even if miracles might have happened at some point in the past, in our modern, scientific world, they are simply no longer possible. But if miracles cannot happen now, how exactly is it that they could have happened in some distant past? Has the fundamental reality of the universe somehow changed, and when did that happen? If we believe miracles cannot happen today but happened to our distant ancestors, what we really seem to be saying is not that miracles happened back then but, rather, that all those people back then were naive enough to believe they happened. It is to say that miracles never happened, but gullible people thought they did. Perhaps we find the idea charming and think ourselves generous for having it. But that is a tremendously patronizing view of other human beings. Shouldn’t we give the people in the past the same respect and dignity we would like people to give us? Can we not admit that if miracles ever really did happen in the past, they can still happen today? And if they cannot happen today, can’t we be honest and admit that they never happened in the past either? We cannot logically have it both ways.
But this leads to another important question: Why do we sometimes have such a patronizing attitude toward people of previous eras? Do we really think they didn’t have the sense to know the difference between what normally happens and what normally does not happen? Do we think that just because they didn’t have telescopes and microscopes that they wouldn’t have the human sense to know whether something really happened or didn’t? Shouldn’t wise people of any era want to know the difference between an unhinged hallucination and an actual vision, strange and inexplicable as the latter might be? We are wrong to have the idea that we from our superior position can pat these distant naifs on the head and allow them to cling to their fantasies, just as we allow our five-year-old to believe in the Easter Bunny.
We should be clear that whenever we talk about actual miracles occurring—whether today or in the biblical past—we are talking about things that are very, very far out of the ordinary in any era of history and are therefore attention-getting in any era. That’s because it seems to be precisely God’s intention to get our attention when he does something miraculous. He doesn’t want to manipulate us in our ignorance into believing something that actually did not happen. If he is the God of reality, he wants to do just the opposite, to startle us.
Certainly one of the most dramatic examples of this is in the resurrection of Jesus, which we shall treat at length in a subsequent chapter. But for our purposes here, let’s simply state that two thousand years ago, Jesus’s rising from the dead was considered as impossible and staggering as such a thing would be considered today. People in the first century did not rise from the grave any more than they do now, in the twenty-first century. If someone is restored to warm, breathing life from literal, stone-cold death, it is equally outrageous and unbelievable in any century. On the other hand, if someone rises from the dead in a fairy-tale world where unicorns fly and horses talk, it has no meaning and no impact and is no “miracle” at all. But what happened when Jesus rose from the dead in Jerusalem twenty centuries ago was about as meaningful and impactful as anything could be. It was so shocking and incomprehensible that no one would have believed it unless there had been literally hundreds of eyewitnesses, not to his actual resurrection, of course, but to his having been resurrected. But even with hundreds of eyewitnesses, there were many who simply could not believe it and refused to believe it, which is perfectly understandable. But the point of it, as we see when we read the New Testament Gospel accounts was precisely to end discussion of who Jesus was, to be a thing so extremely and frighteningly out of the ordinary that many who were skeptics would at last believe.
The parting of the Red Sea is another example of how atypical and staggering such things were at the time they occurred. God very much meant it to be so. If the Red Sea parted every few years it would have meant nothing when it parted 3,500 years ago so that the Israelites could escape the approaching Egyptian soldiers. We could then regard its parting just in time for the Israelites to escape Pharaoh’s army as a happy coincidence of timing. But since the Red Sea never parts of its own accord—it is many hundreds of feet deep where the Israelites would have crossed—we may conclude that God was intentionally doing something inexplicably and toweringly attention-getting. That was plainly the point of it. It is not in any way presented in the pages of Exodus as something that might be taken for granted. It was meant to be taken—and was taken—as epochal, as a hinge in the history of the world.
The point of this, and most other miracles, is that no one would ever forget it. So how can something have not been dramatically out of the ordinary when we see that it was meant to forever change the way the Israelites perceived God and themselves? In fact, it was the ultimate mnemonic device. Whenever the Israelites would doubt God after that event, whenever they doubted that he had chosen them and made them his own people in an unprecedented way, whenever they doubted that he had a plan for them and a path for them and a future for them, they only needed to remember what he had done back there when the army of Pharaoh was bearing down upon them to annihilate them forever. They would remember that it had really happened, that God is not just real but that he is that real, so real that he sometimes intervenes in dramatic ways.
Though it’s less remembered by Gentiles, God similarly parted the waters of the Jordan River just before the Israelites went into the Promised Land. Immediately after it happened, they built a memorial of stones precisely so that they would not forget that this outrageous event actually happened. It hasn’t happened since and isn’t expected to happen again. To mark them forever, the Jewish people have put these events into their calendars, and, of course, they mark the parting of the Red Sea and the Exodus with annual celebrations of Passover.
But since logic dictates that God could have saved the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army in an infinity of ways, and in ways infinitely subtler than parting the Red Sea, it is obvious that he didn’t part the Red Sea to save the Israelites as much as he parted the Red Sea to communicate himself to the Israelites. This itself tells us much about the God behind miracles. If he could do what needs doing in other ways, why does he do what he does the way he does it? It is to speak to us about himself.
It’s therefore appropriate to conclude that a miracle is something that really only happens in context. The parting of the Red Sea is a miracle precisely because the Israelites perceived it as a miracle—as an outrageous and otherwise inexplicable event that God made happen, which was precisely God’s intention. If it was merely a freak of nature, something that happened to happen, it would not be a miracle. If it happened forty thousand years before the Israelites existed, it wouldn’t be a miracle. What makes it a miracle is that God performed it specifically to make himself known, to communicate with human beings. When God pokes into our world through the miraculous, he is communicating with us, otherwise we cannot appropriately use the term “miraculous” to describe an event.
MIRACLES AND SCIENCE
To force a naturalistic paradigm on everything has the effect of closing down science, rather than opening it up.
Before we delve into the personal evidence for miracles and miracle stories themselves, I thought we should first address the big picture—and the big questions that surround this subject. So in the next three chapters we will be talking about the compatibility of science and the miraculous, and about how science is more and more giving us evidence for the very miraculousness of our own existence. These are heady but supremely fascinating subjects.
The idea that science is somehow at odds with faith and miracles is false. It’s actually not only false but also demonstrably illogical. Still, it’s a resilient old canard, one that peskily refuses to crawl off and expire. So let’s do our part in trying to dispatch it from this world as we are able.*
There are many leading scientists who unapologetically believe in God and miracles, who see no conflict between a life simultaneously dedicated both to faith and scientific inquiry. This alone should be dispositive. For example, Francis Collins, who appeared on the cover of Time for his work heading the Human Genome Project, and who is now the director of the National Institutes of Health—and who for his fame as a scientist was on President Obama’s 2008 transition team—is a Christian who has been quite public about his faith. Indeed, in his book The Science of God, he explains how it was science itself that led him to embrace his Christian faith. Another top scientist, Cambridge’s Sir John Polkinghorne, after being recognized as one of the top quantum physicists of the twentieth century—and being elected to the Royal Society—was ordained as an Anglican priest and now regularly writes and speaks on the compatibility of science and faith.* And, finally, Dr. William D. Phillips, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997, has spoken widely about how his dedication to science and God are not merely compatible but conjoined and logically inextricable from one another. The list of contemporary men and women of science who believe in the God of the Bible and in miracles is virtually endless.
We are only surprised by this—if we are—because our culture has so forcefully promoted the idea that faith and science are at odds, but the ironic and virtually unknown reality is that modern science itself was essentially invented by people of Christian faith.* That’s because they believed in a God who had created a universe of staggeringly magnificent order, one that could be understood rationally, and one that it was therefore worth trying to understand. Many of them believed their scientific work was a way of glorifying God, because it revealed the spectacular order and manifold genius of God’s creation. Isaac Newton himself was a serious Christian, and Galileo, who because of his battles with the Catholic Church is often thought of as a scientist at odds with Christian faith, was in fact a committed Christian. To add just two from the many others we might name, John Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday were both men of deep Christian faith, whose breadth of scientific genius can hardly be overstated, and whose faith explicitly underpinned their zeal to understand the laws governing the universe.
Today we take the idea that the universe can be understood rationally for granted, as though it were a given. But the idea ought to startle us. Though we hardly consider it, the comprehensibility of the universe through scientific inquiry is a radical notion, one that points directly to God as the creator. No less than Albert Einstein acknowledged it and declared it for the ages:
Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration towards truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot imagine a scientist without that profound faith.
He also said the following: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”
Though Einstein did not believe in the personal God of the Bible, this greatest of modern scientists clearly beheld with awe the towering surprise at the heart of all scientific inquiry—that it is at all possible. That somehow the universe can be rationally understood. The glorious gift of this was not lost on him. In another place, Einstein said this:
Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE
Another reason science is not at odds with faith—or with the miraculous—is that the realm of the miraculous is by definition beyond the scope of science. Science is limited to describing the universe of matter and energy that came into being via the Big Bang. To speculate beyond that is to go beyond the realm of science, strictly speaking. But many atheistic scientists insist there is never any reason to speculate beyond the universe of matter and energy, because there is nothing beyond that. They insist that the universe is all that is. The problem is that they cannot by any means prove this scientifically, so for them to make this claim at all is itself “unscientific.” Ironically, in doing so, such scientists are themselves reaching beyond the world of science.
As John Lennox has said, “Rationality is bigger than science.” The world of scientific inquiry does not encompass all rational inquiry. This is a tremendously important point. So yes, science has limits. It can describe the universe of matter and energy, but it cannot account for that universe. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The great delusion of modernity is that the laws of science explain the universe for us. The laws of nature describe the universe . . . but they explain nothing.”*
So on the larger issue of how the universe came to explode into being in the Big Bang, and on the issue of where all of that matter and energy suddenly came from, science must remain silent. It can go all the way back, fourteen billion years, to the Big Bang, but there it must stop. It can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us why it is or where “what is” came from. Science cannot speak to these “bigger” questions. Einstein himself said, “You can speak of the ethical foundations of science, but you cannot speak of the scientific foundations of ethics.” For example, science can tell us what is possible for us to do in terms of scientific research on stem cells or on cloning, but it cannot tell us if that research would be ethical or unethical. For such questions we must venture beyond the borders of science.
The name for that border, actually, is what is called a “singularity.” As we will explain in chapter 5, the fundamental laws governing all the matter in the universe were set in place a fraction of a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Science simply cannot look into a realm “before” such laws existed. It cannot tell us why those laws were put in place at that precise time, nor whether those laws were predetermined in some way or by someone. But here is what science can tell us: that fourteen billion years ago all matter and energy in our universe came into existence. But there is a problem with this. The First Law of Thermodynamics says that energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed. If this is true, how is it possible that all the energy and matter in our universe were created in the Big Bang? According to all that we know from science, that is impossible. Yet science knows that it happened.
There is no disagreement that energy and matter from outside a “closed system” can be put into that closed system. But isn’t that precisely what a miracle is—the injection of something from outside this world of time and space into this world of time and space? Why can that not happen again? And again and again and again? If it happened once, in the Big Bang, how can we possibly insist that it can never happen again? On what basis can science make such a claim?
Of course, once the energy and matter have come into the closed system of this universe, that energy and matter are subject to the laws of this universe. C. S. Lewis grappled with this in his typically brilliant way:
If God annihilates or deflects or creates a unit of matter, He has created a new situation at that point. Immediately nature domiciles this new situation, makes it at home in her realm, adapts all other events to it. It finds itself conforming to all the laws. If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born.
So just as in the creation of the universe, here too in the miracle of the virgin birth, something came from “outside the system.” Once that matter and/or energy entered, it was bound by the rules within the system—it had to follow the laws of our universe. But how did it come in? And why did it come in? And where is the world “outside” this world of matter and time? Science cannot tell us. But surely we can ask and can use reason to try and answer these questions. Surely rational human beings should ask such questions and do their rational best to find what answers they can.
Isn’t the miracle of the virgin birth like the creation of the universe in the Big Bang? If God could insert the entire universe from “outside” the system, why couldn’t he insert a sperm cell into the otherwise “closed system”? The head of a sperm cell is approximately five millionths of a meter by three millionths of a meter. If the entire universe erupted into being through a rent in the fabric between being and nonbeing, why couldn’t something as small as a sperm cell do the same? If we can accept a single singularity of the Big Bang, on what basis can we reasonably claim no other such singularities are possible? If God is “outside the system” and can reach “inside the system” to create the universe, can’t he reach inside the system at other times, to do what we would call miracles?
John Lennox reiterates this idea, that miracles signal a transfer from outside our closed system into our closed system, and once the transfer has been made, the “inside” laws take over. “What Christians are claiming about the Resurrection of Jesus,” he says, “is not that he rose by some natural processes; that would violate the laws of nature. No. Christians claim that Jesus rose because God injected enormous power and energy from outside the system. Now, unless you have evidence that the system is totally closed, you cannot argue against the possibility of miracles.”
There is the rub. How can scientists argue against the possibility of miracles unless they have real scientific evidence proving that the system is totally closed? Doesn’t all that we are coming to know from the new world of quantum physics make the case that it is totally closed less and less plausible?
WHAT IF SCIENCE ITSELF POINTS BEYOND SCIENCE?
So what if everything we learn from science points us toward the idea that information came in from outside the system, from a world beyond the realm of science? What if science points us beyond science?
For example, many scientists in examining the staggering order of the universe have come to the conclusion that it did not come into being randomly but instead must have been designed by some kind of intelligence—by a designer. What if the scientific evidence for “design” is overwhelming? Hard-line scientific naturalists and atheists say we must never be open to this possibility and must dismiss it out of hand. But why?
It is perfectly logical to consider the idea that the appearance of intelligence must signal actual intelligence. If we find the ten-foot-tall letters H-E-L-P dug into the sand on a deserted island, who among us could believe those marks perhaps had been formed by the natural, nonrational forces of water and wind? Something inside us recognizes that it is not random, that there is an intelligence behind it, and we must rationally be open to this possibility.
John Lennox agrees. “I want to be free to follow the evidence where it leads,” he says. “That is, to my mind, the true Socratic spirit of science. To force a naturalistic paradigm on everything has the effect of closing down science, rather than opening it up.” But fear of provoking the ire of hard-line scientistic ideologues has kept many more open-minded scientists from speaking their minds, much less publishing on the subject. But there have been encouraging signs.
Just ten years ago, probably the most prominent atheist of the twentieth century, Antony Flew, concluded that a God must have designed the universe. It was shocking news and made international headlines. Flew came to believe that the extraordinarily complex genetic code in DNA simply could not be accounted for naturalistically. It didn’t make logical sense to him that it had happened merely by chance, via random mutations. It is a remarkable thing that Flew had the humility and intellectual honesty to do a public about-face on all he had stood for and taught for five decades.
If someone says that it is “antiscience” to speculate as Antony Flew and John Lennox and more and more are doing, it is like a baker insisting that everything in the world outside his bakery is “antibaking.” He may feel that way, but it’s a bizarre claim. Rational thought that extends beyond the strict confines of science is not “antiscience” at all. One must wonder why some scientists would try to exclude all rational inquiry that is not strictly scientific. That act of exclusion is, of course, itself unscientific. With no scientific evidence that the system of this universe is completely closed, they nonetheless insist that it is. The only honest thing to say from the point of view of science is that we cannot know, that that extremely important question is simply beyond the scope of science to answer.
There are many important things beyond the scope of science. Asking why the universe exists or asking what is the meaning of life—or simply loving our children—are beyond that scope, but profoundly worthy activities nonetheless. When did scientists come to play the sour role of sneering at anything beyond the sphere of their chosen field?
Certainly many of the scientists who insist there is nothing beyond science and nothing beyond the universe of matter and energy—and who further insist that speculation that there might be something is “antiscience” and “irrational” must know there is no scientific or rational basis for such claims. We must assume that they are simply ideologically uncomfortable with such speculations and wish to do all they can to put an end to them. But we must call this tactic what it is: a bluff. And let us call this bluff. Let us say that ironically this is not science and let us say that very ironically it is itself “antiscience.”
We must assume that if one devotes one’s life to discovering what can be known, one may be naturally uncomfortable with the humbling idea of saying We don’t know or We cannot know. One may be not only uncomfortable but even somehow fearful of Mystery and threatened by her. But it is a kind of secular fundamentalism and Pharisaism that gives in to these feelings, that bristles and bridles and blushes at anything that threatens the sacrosanct inviolability of their closed system. So in their harrumphing declarations they would banish Mystery herself, with mud and rocks sealing her in a cave and hoping she never escapes. But Mystery, though hidden, is part of all truth, and the truth, of course, will out.
CAN WE PROVE THAT A MIRACLE HAPPENED?
Convincing reasonable people that something happened and “proving” that something happened are not the same thing. If we are talking about a miracle like the resurrection of Jesus, we cannot “prove” that it happened any more than a prosecutor can “prove” that someone committed a crime. The prosecutor can convince a jury and that jury might even agree unanimously on a verdict, but that’s not quite “proof” in the purest sense of the word. Ultimately, whether something can be “proved” or not is a little bit besides the point. In a court of law we talk about things like “reasonable doubt.” We condemn people to death or set them free based on conclusions that are not, strictly speaking, “proved,” but for which we nevertheless have enough evidence to make firm conclusions and to deliver final verdicts. Examining miracles is usually something like that.
With regard to medical “miracles,” it’s certainly possible to prove that something “happened.” One can show before and after X-rays and/or photographs; one can get testimony from doctors. But we cannot prove that what happened was necessarily a miracle. Just because something happened (e.g., a tumor vanished overnight or perhaps even before someone’s eyes) does not mean that we can prove what happened was miraculous, that God was behind it. These are separate issues. So just because something miraculous-seeming happened does not necessarily make it miraculous. It’s more honest to say that we don’t know how something happened. Many doctors have attested to extraordinary events but cannot make the leap to say that God was behind what occurred.
In a Veritas Forum held at Harvard University in 2012, John Lennox said the following:
[N]ormally, when we think of science, we think of inductive methods. We do an experiment 100 times. We get the same result and we expect that to happen the 101st time. Well, you can’t repeat a resurrection to see if it happened or not and what we therefore have to employ are the methods of forensic science.
Setting up a classic scientific experiment with falsifiable results is simply not always possible every time we wish to decide whether a miracle happened. But we can certainly decide whether one happened with the evidence obtained from other methods, just as we would do in a court of law.
THE GOD OF THE GAPS
In the nineteenth century, the evangelist and scientist Henry Drummond coined the term “God of the gaps.” It is the idea that whatever one cannot explain or understand, one attributes to “God.” But this is essentially a negative definition of God, and of course as science progresses, our need for this “God of the gaps” diminishes. In his famous Letters and Papers from Prison, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
. . . how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.