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Academic Papers

Do Miracles Occur?

John-Erik Stig Hansen, M.D., D.Sc.

Reprinted with permission of the author

Having heard that "Miracles" by C. S. Lewis contained the ultimate answer to the old questions of whether and how miracles occur, I eventually located a copy in a small parish-library in Copenhagen, and I must say that I found it extremely interesting.

The major part of the book is dedicated to a very intelligent and coherent exposition of why miracles are not impossible. This defensive angle of attack seems a bit awkward but I suspect that the time (1947) may have motivated such an apologetic stance. Lewis seems to respond to an implied controversy between materialistic science and religion, and he is rather suspicious of science and perhaps even nature itself, "Those who like myself have had a philosophical rather than a scientific education find it almost impossible to believe that the scientists really mean what they seem to be saying".

Lewis defines a miracle thus: "I use the word Miracle to mean an interference with Nature by supernatural power." He describes the integration of miraculous intervention and the natural world in this way: "It is therefore inaccurate to define a miracle as something that breaks the laws of Nature. It doesn't. ... 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 it over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born. ... The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern. ... And they are sure that all reality must be interrelated and consistent. I agree with them. But I think they have mistaken a partial system within reality, namely Nature, for the whole. That being so, the miracle and the previous history of Nature may be interlocked after all but not in the way the Naturalists expected: rather in a much more roundabout fashion. The great complex event called Nature, and the new particular event introduced into it by the miracle, are related by their common origin in God, and doubtless, if we knew enough, most intricately related in his purpose and design, so that a Nature which had had a different history, and therefore been a different Nature, would have been invaded by different miracles or by none at all. In that way the miracles and the previous course of Nature are as well interlocked as any other two realities, but you must go back as far as their common Creator to find the interlocking. You will not find it within Nature. ... The rightful demand that all reality should be consistent and systematic does not therefore exclude miracles: but it has a very valuable contribution to make to our conception of them. It reminds us that miracles, if they occur, must, like all events, be revelations of that total harmony of all that exists. Nothing arbitrary, nothing simply "stuck on" and left unreconciled with the texture of total reality, can be admitted. By definition, miracles must of course interrupt the usual course of Nature; but if they are real they must, in the very act of so doing, assert all the more the unity and self-consistency of total reality at some deeper level. ... In calling them miracles we do not mean that they are contradictions or outrages; we mean that, left to her [Nature] own resources, she could never produce them."

Lewis rejects that supernatural intervention disrupts God's creation: "In other words, there are rules behind the rules, and a unity which is deeper than uniformity. ... I do not say that the normalities of Nature are unreal. ... But to think that a disturbance of them would constitute a breach of the living rule and organic unity whereby God, from his own point of view, works, is a mistake."

While I tend to agree with Lewis on almost every single detail of his argument and also that miracles are not impossible, I disagree with his overall conclusion that miracles are fairly common realities.

Miracles are only a possibility if one believes in an almighty God. In looking for miracles one must first look for apparent anomalies in the web of known cause-effect relations. Second, it is necessary to demonstrate that a given phenomenon is not an element of established creation. A miracle thus requires a voluntary intervention by God into the existing flow of natural processes effecting a change in the network of causes and effects.

One big miracle immediately springs into mind: the event of creation. The unexplained beginning of time, space and matter is in a way the first miracle. Even more clearly a miracle, however, is the establishment of order, of distinct physical laws. There is no inherent reason why everything is not a chaotic soup or why the laws of nature are not entirely different from what they are. The very first moment of delimiting initial conditions - from which all subsequent natural phenomena are derived - is therefore the most fundamental miracle. The question is whether this basic miracle of creation has been followed by other miracles.

A good candidate for a miracle is the emergence of man. Shaped by an evolution lasting billions of years one is astounded by the apparent jump in quality. Man's intellectual, spiritual and emotional capacities are so completely different from what evolution has otherwise produced through natural selection. What selection pressure has produced the ability to think up a theory of special relativity, or the ability to compose an orchestral symphony?

However, while these and lots of similar phenomena are clearly wonders and signs of God they may not necessarily be miracles in the sense that they required a special intervention from God in addition to his primary creative act. In fact it would be rather peculiar if an almighty God had to patch up his work even before free-willed man entered the stage and started messing things up.

What it does indicate is that we do not (yet) have full insight into the natural mechanisms possible within the existing creation. We must not, however, forget that we do know more and more about these mechanisms. This knowledge both empowers us to shape the course of natural events and it also tells us more about the basic miracle of creation. In this way many wonders are signs because they reveal a facet of the basic miracle of creation, its indication of God's will and possibly also of the destiny of redeemed creation.

In a way creation is not done. It is a process that is still running. The starting conditions are still evolving into new phenomena, some of which we have discovered and some of which we still lack to discover or fit in with the rest of our knowledge. Therefore unexplained phenomena or even phenomena that seem to conflict with existing knowledge are not per se indicative of new miraculous intervention by God. They are new ways for his creative will to manifest itself, and thus in a sense one may say that the basic miracle of creation is happening continuously. This is revealed to everybody on a daily basis when one experiences God's creation in the wonders of science, nature, art or fellow man.

These considerations seem to exclude the possibility of establishing 'de novo' miracles as fact since almost any conceivable phenomenon might be yet another manifestation of the initial miracle of creation. Such manifestations could wait around for certain long-term and contingent conditions to arise before being realised.

The healing phenomena characteristic of the life of Jesus Christ could well be such manifestations of God's initial creative purpose waiting for a special condition, e.g. Jesus Christ, to be realised. Even the resurrection of Christ could be such a manifestation, showing the intent of God and the destiny of man in his uncorrupted or redeemed nature. The laws of nature may accommodate, and for completeness could even require, a phenomenon of transition like that of the resurrected Christ.

Perhaps the only phenomenon where miraculous intervention may have been necessary is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. It is uncertain because the possibility cannot be excluded that the incarnation may be an integrated part of God's intent when he initiated his miracle of creation. Certainly the incarnation is not an anomaly but a perfect fit with every other clue to his nature of which solidarity and mercy seem to be essential aspects. The incarnation is not, however, contingent on any other natural process or phenomenon, - at least as far as we can tell, and while this would make the incarnation a miracle in the true sense, the limited extent of our insight makes it impossible to exclude the possibility that the incarnation is contingent to a previous decision of God, i.e. his primary creative miracle.

In conclusion, I suspect that the philosopher C. S. Lewis has a dualistic perception of creation. This leads him to regard the natural world, creation as such, with suspicion if not fear and without significance per se. Although he recognizes nature as created by God he also believes it requires miracles for God to become visible. This is completely contrary to my own perception. I think that creation as such is in every detail full of signs, and that every little bit is a reflection of God's initial and perpetual creative miracle.

The importance of this issue thus becomes apparent. Belief in miraculous intervention as a requirement or even a main utility for God's will to be revealed detracts from the signifying power of his creative act. This significance is not revealed by any apparent anomalies but rather by the purposeful cohesiveness of nature and the perfection attained with Jesus Christ.