Questions from an Atheist #6: Does God “Do” Miracles?

Questions from an Atheist #6: Does God “Do” Miracles?

Maya Bohnhoff

Here is the original wording of question #7 in Maynard’s list: Can god intervene in events whenever and wherever, to violate natural laws and change their course (i.e. perform miracles)?

Ian approached answering it this way:

Can God intervene in natural processes? Of course—He’s “the Omnipotent”—but He does not need to break natural laws to do so; He may act through them—as the Medievals already described in their concept of “secondary causes.” The idea that miracles necessarily require breaking natural laws was already dealt with by the 14th century! Hume, Hawking etc are lagging behind the Medievals in their thinking.

If you asked me if God does intervene in natural processes, I’d have to say: “I don’t know,” for the simple reason that I don’t know everything there is to know about natural laws and how they function and what constitutes “breaking” them as opposed to merely bending or tricking or using those laws in ways previously unimagined. But can He? Sure. But, personally, I think He intervenes through natural processes.

There was a time not that long ago that we would have called human flight a breakage of laws. People didn’t fly, birds did for the simple reason that people don’t have wings. Neither can human beings live in an vacuum, but we’ve done that too, by cocooning the humans in an environment that mimics what we breathe on earth. What both of these miracles require is a sufficiently advanced technological understanding (which, as fellow SF writer, Arthur C. Clark once pointed out, is indistinguishable from magic). If we can do such things with the little bit of subjective knowledge that we have, what might the Being who has a creator’s knowledge of the system and its potential be able to do?

This brings us back to the question of God and the unliftable rock. Ian commented that this was “one of those old medieval philosophy questions” that have seen a recent resurgence. He makes the point that the question “Can God make a rock too heavy for Himself to lift?” is meaningless with respect to God because God is not a physical being and shares no physical attributes with the rock.

Put another way, it would be like me asking “How heavy is love?” or “What color is three hours?” The things being compared are not even as alike as apples and oranges. Apples and oranges are at least the same type of object.

So perhaps the question is: Can God create objects too heavy for any physical entity to lift? The answer might be “yes” and the evidence of that might be that it takes complex gravitational fields to move those objects.

A second aspect to this is the rationality of such an exercise on God’s part as trying to make something He could not lift. My observation about God’s activities is that they are rational—there is a purpose behind them. What I find puzzling about some of the alleged miracles I have heard claimed (bleeding statues and the like) is what purpose they would serve. Are they proof of something? If so, what? Bahá’u’lláh makes the observation that a miracle is, ultimately, only proof to the person who witnesses it and that even in that case, the witness may later come to question their own experience.

Many physical miracles that seem to break nature’s laws are attributed to Christ, but perhaps they are not breakages of natural laws at all, but rather the manipulation of those laws by a Being who understands them far better than we do. In any event, to me by far the biggest miracle is that a poor carpenter’s son from the backside of the Roman Empire 2000 years later has millions of souls who treasure His words and identify themselves with His name. Men who had both wealth and power from that same period are mere historical footnotes when they are remembered at all; Jehoshuah ben Joseph, meanwhile, has transformed lives for the past two millenia.

This is not unique to Christ, of course, but it is a miracle that is limited to a handful of individuals in history.  And while the transformation of human lives and societies over such a period of time does not require the breaking of nature’s laws (though some would argue that it does), I would definitely consider it miraculous. This, according to Bahá’u’lláh is the chief way that God “intervenes” in history—by sending beings like Christ to guide through word and deed such that some of us adjust our attitudes.

There’s a passage in the Biblical book of Isaiah that I think makes this point eloquently. I think all would agree that a unified world and global peace would be a miracle. The prophetic text about this eventuality reads:

“And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and the nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us his ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their swords into pruning hooks:  nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.”— Isaiah 2:2-5

The key points I appreciate about this text are that it demonstrates the way God intervenes—His “house” is established (He has a presence on earth) and people will willingly “visit” it. His law will go out and, as a result, mankind will “beat their swords into plowshares”—that is, turn destructive implements into productive ones. The critical point? What the verse does NOT say. It does not say that God will do these things for us. It says that we will do these things in response to God’s presence and law.

Next time, the soul/spirit and life after death.

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2 thoughts on “Questions from an Atheist #6: Does God “Do” Miracles?

  1. American Revolutionary War patriot and hero Ethan Allen wrote “In those parts of the world where learning and science have prevailed, miracles have ceased; but in those parts of it as are barbarous and ignorant, miracles are still in vogue.”

    John Adams, second President of the United States, wrote, “The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles?”

    Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, edited a version of the Bible in which he removed sections of the New Testament containing supernatural aspects as well as perceived misinterpretations he believed had been added by the Four Evangelists. Jefferson wrote, “The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, [footnote: e.g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc. —T.J.] invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning.”

    (From Wikipedia)

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