The Jewish people walked on dry land in the middle of the water, not in the Red Sea, but somewhere in the Nile Delta. This conclusion by researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado (USA) made headlines on Reuters and the BBC in September 2010.

Computer simulations led the experts to conclude that there may have been a favourable combination of winds and underwater currents that could have created a sand bridge for the Jews to cross the water for about four hours. The researchers attribute the phenomenon to natural factors, but the Bible says that “the Lord drove the sea back” (Exodus 14:21).

The work of these researchers is reminiscent of a similar endeavour by the German author Werner Keller, who in 1955 published The Bible as History. The book, which was translated into 25 languages and sold millions of copies, sought to make the case for the Bible. In fact, Keller collected a series of historical, geographical, and archaeological details to show that certain natural phenomena could have occurred that people attributed to divine intervention because they could not explain them otherwise. Faithful to this way of interpreting biblical miracles, some have suggested that Jesus did not walk on the water (Matthew 14:22-32), but by the water; that is, on the shore. Such explanations have filled thousands of pages and made many headlines.

Demythologising—the Bible’s new clothes

Miraculous situations and events occur in the traditions of many religions, and the comparative study of these religions may well reveal situations that raise doubts. For example, in the past some tribes believed that volcanoes were the dwelling place of the gods. Whenever the volcano shook the earth or spewed ash and flames “out of its nostrils”, these primitive people imagined that the god was angry, so they sacrificed animals or even people to him. Today, scientists know the causes of volcanic eruptions and the explanations have nothing to do with gods. Should a similar interpretative pattern be applied to the Bible, assuming that the biblical miracles were natural events, capable of frightening a primitive population, but scientifically explainable? Can the instantaneous healing of diseases, walking on water or the resurrection of the dead be explained by known mechanisms and laws of nature?

It is often assumed that science has overthrown belief, proving it to be the fruit of legend and myth. Then, with Olympian benevolence, scientists stoop down to lend a helping hand to dusty faith with scientific explanations to show the believer in God and the still-struggling believer “how things really happened.” Scientists have even been joined by some theologians. Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884-1976), the German theologian who set out to demythologise the Bible, to purge it of everything that contradicted human reason, is worthy of mention. The same desire animated the representatives of the Jesus Seminary, founded in 1985, who declared that “the Christ of creed and dogma, who had been firmly in place in the Middle Ages, can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope.”[1]

No one denies the existence of similarities between certain events described in the Bible and similar events described in ancient literature. The Flood, which Noah survived, is alluded to in the mythical poem “Epic of Gilgamesh”. It seems, however, that in an age dominated by reason and naturalistic theories, it is more convenient to assume that the biblical writers were inspired by the legends and myths of the time than to accept that details and records of real events may have been preserved, in forms more or less faithful to historical reality, in the traditions and cultural creations of various tribes and peoples. After all, what are the chances of unrelated tribes and peoples in different parts of the world coming up with the same story of the Flood that devastated the world and was survived by a single family?

Sceptics and counter-sceptics

The denial of miracles, like the denial of the existence of God, has its roots in the philosophical thought of the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment of the following century, when the thinkers of the time tried to understand the order of objective reality rationally. In rational discourse, religion was at best recognised as a support for morality. Miracles were defined by sceptics as the product of human imagination and nothing more. Among the most ardent opponents of miracles was the philosopher Benedictus Spinoza (1632-1677), author of the Theologico-Political Treatise published in 1670. Spinoza believed in an unchanging order of nature derived from divine perfection. Miracles, as unexpected and inexplicable interventions in the natural order of things, would have meant that God was acting contrary to His will. Therefore, Spinoza assumed that “miracles” were  events based on natural laws not yet known to humans.

Criticism of the Bible and claims against miracles were met with opposition by the theologians, philosophers, and even scientists of the time. The Swiss theologian Jean Le Clerc (1657-1736) argued that if miracles were events based on natural laws, they would have to be repeated. The waters of the Red Sea should have parted again at another time, even if there had been no war on its shores. How could we explain the fact that when Jesus told a sick person—a paralytic, a leper or a deaf-mute—that he was healthy, the laws of nature became active at that very moment? Le Clerc noted that biblical miracles were linked to situations, people, groups, and crises, as well as the will of God, who sometimes intervened in such a way as to make it clear that salvation was His doing. The English philosopher Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) argued that for an omnipotent God, miracles were no more difficult to perform than “natural” things.

Jean Alphonse Turretin (1671-1737) and Jacob Vernet (1698-1789), professors of theology in Geneva, published the ten-volume Traité de la vérité de la religion chrétienne (Treatise on the Truth of the Christian Religion), in which they defined a miracle as a “striking work which is outside the ordinary course of Nature and which is done by God’s all-mighty will, such that witnesses thereof regard it as extraordinary and supernatural.”[2] Vernet ruled out the possibility that miracles were the result of unknown laws of nature, since the Bible records numerous and diverse miracles, sometimes grouped within a certain period (for example, the ten plagues that struck Egypt— Exodus 7 to 12) or around a particular person (the prophet Elisha, Jesus, the apostle Paul, and so on). The laws of nature cannot be assumed to manifest themselves in a way that is so…unnatural.

John Polkinghorne, professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, used to say that scientists often reject religion because it demands total obedience to an authority that cannot be challenged. The Bible and its miracles are rejected for fear of a supreme and authoritative being, a book of binding laws, and an ecclesiastical organisation that demands unconditional obedience. “These scientists fear that religious belief would demand of them an act of intellectual suicide.”[3]

The debate has often centred on the relationship between miracles and natural laws, with three main ideas emerging from the discussions. First, there is the view that miracles are ordinary events based on natural laws that we do not know. Jesus, who knew these laws, knew where the fish would gather in the waters of the sea and sent the fishermen there. This is how, according to the theory, the “miraculous catch of fish” took place. Based on what we don’t know rather than what we do know, the theory has some weaknesses and cannot explain all the miracles in the Bible (for example, the healing of the man born blind—John 9).

The second view sees miracles as violations of the laws of nature. In the case of the axe head floating on the water (2 Kings 6:6), the law of gravity must have been temporarily suspended. Some object that God does not act contrary to the laws He has established. Nevertheless, natural laws are not to be confused with moral laws.

Finally, the third theory advances the idea of supernatural forces that counteract the laws of nature. The laws of nature are at work, but according to God’s will, they are overridden by more powerful forces set in motion by God. Each of the above concepts has its own shortcomings, and the explanations of miracles refer to nature rather than its Creator. We must not forget that miracles such as the two multiplications of the loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:13-21; 15:29-39) involved the power of creation. Natural laws are “merely statistical reports of what has happened,”[4] notes theologian M. J. Erickson. Miracles, on the other hand, defy statistics, because they are unique events defined by the historical, social, and moral context in which they occur.

Black and white in a grey area

Although modernity prefers relative truths and nuanced statements, the question of the Bible’s miracles demands a radical answer. The Bible contains not just two or three unusual events that could easily be overlooked, but numerous supernatural occurrences attributed to the spectacular intervention of the transcendent God. While the sudden healing of a sick person can be attributed to unknown natural causes, the resurrection of a dead man four days after his death, when witnesses declared that there was “a bad odour” (John 11:39), has no naturalistic explanation. Conversely, for a Christian who believes in God and the fact that He created the world, it should be no problem to accept that the same God could make a virgin give birth or could raise the dead. “If God really exists, then in what sense is it improbable that He would raise Jesus from the dead? I can’t think of any,”[5] says apologist William Lane Craig. If God is not credited with the power to perform these miracles that witnesses have written about, then religion becomes a meaningless subject.

The limits of science and the miracles of the Bible

Not every mysterious event—and one could write a vast history of unexplained events!—is a miracle of God. 

An unexplained escape or successful medical treatments are not miracles. Recognising the miracles of God therefore depends on knowing and understanding the context in which it occurred. W. L. Craig points out that the miracles of the Bible occur in a religious context, in exceptional situations, and are attributed to God’s intervention. He does not act impersonally, like the law of gravity, but has the freedom and power to act in particular ways, in particular cases, according to His omniscience and plans. In accordance with His own principles, God does not intervene in human life according to fixed patterns. His interventions arise at the intersection of His will and choice with the will and choice of every intelligent being endowed with the capacity to think.

“The real problem of belief in miracle is properly a theological issue, not a scientific one, since claims of unique historical occurrences lie outside science’s competence to adjudicate,”[6] writes Polkinghorne. At best, science can tell us that events such as rising from the dead or walking on water do not occur naturally.

“More than anything, I know that God cannot be separated from the miracles that He performs any more than wetness can be separated from water.”[7]

The Bible does not emphasise miracles alone. It is not filled only with the parting of the sea or the raising of the dead. The biblical authors also write of famine, poverty, bondage, sickness, disease, death, and the lack of answers from God. “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” the psalmist asked (Psalm 10:1).

But a theology that excludes the possibility of miracles is a theology that takes away God’s power. And it is a theology without a future. If Christ had not risen, no one will ever rise (1 Corinthians 15:14), and the grave becomes our only horizon. It is true that theology lacks the possibility of experiment. People who believe in miracles cannot test them in the laboratory. Miracles have always occurred in the context of human needs, and their Source has not been and cannot be controlled by human will. Instead, the biblical context of miracles has placed the beneficiaries or mere witnesses before acts of faith. Miracles involved the acceptance by faith of statements or commands that seemed irrational. For Abraham, the command to sacrifice his own son (Genesis 22:2) made no sense. But he was determined to do it, and the outcome was not what human reason indicated.

The capricious magician?

The famous American geneticist Francis Collins recounts the unfortunate case of his daughter, who was raped by a stranger. The perpetrator was not identified, and Collins confesses that he wished God had somehow intervened to stop the man who had humiliated his child. But no thunderbolts fell vengefully from the sky. There was no invisible shield around his daughter. Despite the heartbreak of the unjust event, Collins writes: “Perhaps on rare occasions God does perform miracles. But for the most part, the existence of free will and of order in the physical universe are inexorable facts. While we might wish for such miraculous deliverance to occur more frequently, the consequence of interrupting these two sets of forces would be utter chaos.”[8] And, Collins adds, miracles have a clearly defined purpose; there is a teleology to miracles. They are not done at random by a capricious magician. They are not God’s tour de force to impress inferior beings.

Arrested and handed over to the judges, Jesus appeared before King Herod. The king “was greatly pleased…he hoped to see Him perform a sign of some sort” (Luke 23:8). According to Luke, Jesus did not play this game. Miracles drew attention to the divine origin of His message, glorified God (John 9:3), and responded to acute human needs, but they were never methods of spiritual entertainment.

The mechanisms of natural phenomena can be studied by scientists. But explaining them does not prove that the supernatural does not exist. The fact that specialists in various sciences are unable to bring people back to life does not mean that a Power beyond science is equally powerless. With possible reality under the microscope, science cannot categorically state what is not observable through the lens. Theories formulated on the basis of repeatable experiments cannot become arguments against unique phenomena in history, and the biblical Flood is one such example. Ultimately, the discussion of miracles is a discussion of the existence of the Almighty God. The Bible affirms His existence and His ability to work miracles, saying simply that “all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).

Science can tell us what a mustard seed is, how it is born and how it grows, but it is only when faith enters the picture—yes, even if it is as tiny as a mustard seed—that God will move mountains.

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[1]“C. John Collins, ‘Science and Faith. Friends or Foes?’, Crossway Books, 2003.”
[2]“Quoted in William Lane Craig, ‘Reasonable Faith’, Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway Books, 2008, p. 253.”
[3]“John Polkinghorne, ‘Theology in the Context of Science’, Yale University Press, 2009, p. 124.”
[4]“Millard J. Erickson, ‘Christian Theology’, Baker Academic, 2013, p. 358.”
[5]“Lee Strobel, ‘The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity’, Zondervan, 2014.”
[6]“Polkinghorne, op. cit., p. 136.”
[7]“Wayne T. Jackson, ‘Miracles Do Happen. The Power and Place of Miracles as a Sign to the World’, Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., 2005, pp. 31, 32.”
[8]“Francis S. Collins, ‘The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief’,  Free Press, 2007, p. 51.”

“C. John Collins, ‘Science and Faith. Friends or Foes?’, Crossway Books, 2003.”
“Quoted in William Lane Craig, ‘Reasonable Faith’, Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway Books, 2008, p. 253.”
“John Polkinghorne, ‘Theology in the Context of Science’, Yale University Press, 2009, p. 124.”
“Millard J. Erickson, ‘Christian Theology’, Baker Academic, 2013, p. 358.”
“Lee Strobel, ‘The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity’, Zondervan, 2014.”
“Polkinghorne, op. cit., p. 136.”
“Wayne T. Jackson, ‘Miracles Do Happen. The Power and Place of Miracles as a Sign to the World’, Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., 2005, pp. 31, 32.”
“Francis S. Collins, ‘The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief’,  Free Press, 2007, p. 51.”