Can miracles happen? Do they break the laws of nature?
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.David Hume1
In his book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, author C. S. Lewis sends three children on an epic journey to the eastern end of his magical world of Narnia. Though two of the children have rich imaginations and revel in the wonders that they encounter, the other, Eustace Clarence Scrubb, is the product of a “modern” education that deals only in facts, figures, and experimentation.
Near the end of their voyage, the children meet a wizard named Ramandu who is not what he seems. Though he has the form of a man, Ramandu is actually a retired star. When the rational-minded Eustace learns this, he explains to Ramandu that, on earth, a star is nothing but a flaming ball of gas. “Even in your world, my son,” Ramandu replies, “that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”2
A Clockwork Universe
Science has mapped the heavens, unpacked the atom, and calculated the numerical values of the forces that hold our planet together. The uncovering of the invisible laws of nature must rank as one of the crowning achievements of mankind. And yet, have these discoveries—as great as they are—really delved into the mysteries that lie at the heart of our universe . . . and ourselves?
That is, we know what stars are made of, but do we really know what they are?
Most people believe we live in a clockwork universe, one that runs in accordance with iron laws of motion. For many modern people, there seems to be no room for a personal God in a universe so rigidly and mathematically organized.
In Orthodoxy, author G. K. Chesterton disagrees. Perhaps, he argues, God makes every daisy the same because he has never grown tired of making daisies. Perhaps God, with childlike enthusiasm, looks at the sun every morning and says, “Do it again!” Perhaps God’s eternal appetite exults in that beautiful repetition that we call monotony.
Where Babies Come From
Half a century later, C. S. Lewis approached the same conundrum from a different point of view in his book Miracles. The critics who claim that our clockwork universe is inconsistent with the idea of a personal God will often, in the same breath, claim that the only reason our ancestors believed in miracles was that they did not understand the laws of nature. For example, early Christians, they say, believed in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ because they lacked our modern knowledge of eggs and sperm.
But, Lewis argues, this is nonsense. Joseph knew where babies come from. That’s why he was prepared to divorce Mary when he learned that she was pregnant; he believed that meant she was no longer a virgin—as it generally did.
Indeed, we can only label something a miracle if we know the laws of nature—that is, if we know what the natural course of events should be. Apart from fixed laws, miracles have no meaning.
The argument is a powerful one, but it seems to throw Lewis into the arms of his critics. “If the laws of nature are fixed and can’t be broken,” they will say, “and if miracles by definition break the laws of nature, then miracles must be impossible.”
And that takes us to the crux of the matter.
The Laws of Nature Are a Process
The laws of nature, Lewis explains, do not define an outcome, but a process. They tell you not what must happen but what will happen in the natural course of events. If I lift a porcelain vase over my head and then let go of it, the law of gravity says that it will fall to the ground and shatter—but not that it must do these things.
If, one second before the vase hits the ground, my other hand swoops down and catches it, the vase will not shatter. Have I broken the law of gravity? Of course not. I have merely suspended it by adding a new, outside factor into the equation. If I let go of it again, it will fall and shatter.
Maybe miracles do not break the laws of nature. Maybe they record a moment when the divine hand of God reaches into our world and suspends the natural course of events—suspends, but not breaks.
Consider this: every person whom Christ miraculously healed in Palestine eventually died.
Not a Breach but a Restoration
Miracles, then, do not have to break the laws of nature—but are they necessary? Are miracles really consistent with the dignity of God? Why would God intervene directly when he could just as easily work through the hands of a doctor or a scientist?
In the Gospels, Jesus performs miracles as a way to prove that he was sent by God.3 But what about today? What can miracles reveal to us about the nature of God and our world?
All people, no matter their religious (or non-religious) beliefs, are plagued by the unshakable sense that this world should be better than it is. But why should we feel that way? Surely the world—with modern medicine and near-daily discoveries and progression—has never been better.
Unless, of course, we accept what the first three chapters of Genesis tell us: Namely, we and our world were created perfect. But because we disobeyed our creator, we and nature are now fallen and in a state of disrepair. “Subjected to frustration” is how the New Testament describes it.4
If the Bible is correct about this, it leaves open an intriguing possibility. Perhaps it is not the miracle, but our world—with all its death, decay, and disease—that is the strange and unnatural thing. Perhaps a miracle is not a violation of the laws of nature, but a sublime act during which the Creator, for a brief and glorious moment, restores the original order of his creation.
Miracles bring joy, not only because they bring healing, but because they give us a glimpse of what should have been . . . and what yet may be.