Posts Tagged ‘miracles’

In order to answer prayers in the future, God often begins in the past

July 28, 2015

In a fascinating two-part series of posts beginning with this one, Roger Olson, a historical theologian at Baylor, grappled with this question: “Does it make sense to pray that God would change something that’s already happened in the past?”

The answer seems obvious: No. But not so fast…

He gives an example of a time that his mother left her purse on top of her car and drove off. Naturally, at some point, the purse fell off. When she arrived at her destination, she realized what happened. She retraced her route, but the purse was gone. Someone had picked it up.

At this point, he said, she gathered some people from her church. They prayed that the purse would have been picked up by a Christian person who would return the purse to her without stealing anything. Even as a child, he said, this prayer made no sense to him: the purse was already picked up at that point—and whether that person was a Christian or not was already settled, even though his mother and her church friends were ignorant of the person’s faith or character. To pray that the person would be a Christian was potentially a prayer to change the past.

He gave an example that hits closer to home for most of us: Suppose someone is awaiting the results of a biopsy. Does it make sense, at that point, to pray that the person’s biopsy would be negative? After all, at that point the person already has or doesn’t have cancer. That we don’t know the results of the biopsy is beside the point. So this kind of petition is potentially asking God to change the past.

Then, in a bit of reductio ad Hitlerum, Olson says if God could change the past in this way, why not pray, for example, that the Holocaust would never have happened?

Many of his readers voiced a conviction that I share: In order for God to answer our prayer petitions in the future, God often has to begin answering them in the past—which requires that God, in his foreknowledge, already knows what we’re going to pray from eternity past. If God has foreknowledge, which he does, this isn’t a problem.

For example, suppose a friend is facing surgery next week. We begin praying today that our friend would have a successful operation. What does it take for that to happen? A skilled surgeon, for one thing. While our prayer is for a future event, in order for God to grant our petition, God would likely have had to begin “answering” it perhaps 20 years earlier—when the surgeon was in medical school sitting in a lecture hall. Or perhaps earlier than that, when a particular author of a medical textbook was writing something that pertained to our friend’s medical problem, which the surgeon, then a medical student, read and understood. Or earlier than that, when that author was himself grappling to understand the intricacies of the human body and this particular disease.

It boggles the mind to imagine how God, in his foreknowledge and omnipotence, can weave an intricate thread of cause-and-effect in the past that leads to a successful surgery next week. From my perspective, however, God would do this sort of thing all the time—unless God’s normal way of intervening in our world is to constantly suspend or override the laws of physics in a miraculous way.


Science can’t make miracles harder to believe in

June 28, 2013

My sermon this Sunday is based on Matthew 14:22-33.

I’m still working my way through C.S. Lewis’s Miracles. So far, he’s laying the philosophical groundwork for miracles. It’s a bit of a trudge, but it goes to show, in case anyone doubted it, that Richard Dawkins and those guys really aren’t saying anything new (although I’m sure Lewis would be disappointed that they’re not saying it better). In one chapter, entitled “A Chapter of Red Herrings,” he tackles the modern myth that the “march of science” has somehow made belief in miracles impossible. “Of course the ancients were gullible enough to believe them! After all, they believed that the sun revolved around the earth. We know better now.” But this, he says, is a red herring. Here’s why:

If the miracles were offered us as events that normally occurred, then the progress of science, whose business is to tell us what normally occurs, would render belief in them gradually harder and finally impossible. The progress of science has in just this way (and greatly to our benefit) made all sorts of things incredible which our ancestors believed; man-eating ants and gryphons in Scythia, men with one single gigantic foot, magnetic islands that draw all ships towards them, mermaids and fire-breathing dragons. But these things were never put forward as supernatural interruptions of the course of nature. They were put forward as items within her ordinary course—in fact, as ‘science’… If there were fire-breathing dragons our big-game hunters would find them: but no one ever pretended that the Virgin Birth or Christ’s walking on water could be reckoned to recur. When a thing professes from the outset to be a unique invasion of Nature by something from outside, increasing knowledge of Nature can never make it either more or less credible than it was at the beginning. In this sense it is mere confusion of thought to suppose that advancing science has made it harder for us to accept miracles. We always knew they were contrary to the natural course of events.[†]

It pays to keep this in mind this Sunday, when I’ll be preaching on Matthew 14:22-33, a passage in which both Jesus and Peter walk on water.

C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 75-6.

“House” and miracles

February 14, 2012

Dr. Chase misunderstands God's involvement in the world.

One of my favorite TV shows, House M.D., is on life support, ratings-wise, and last night’s episode shows why. They’re running out of ideas. How many times, after all, have they recycled last night’s storyline: a patient has a religious experience, and a doctor (usually House himself, but this time Chase) tries his best to explain it away using science.

Well… the story isn’t new, but it’s still a good one. I appreciate the way last night’s episode put in sharp relief the faulty premise of scientism: if science can explain why something happens, then that squeezes God out of the equation. If science then not-God.

For example, in last night’s episode, Dr. Chase falls in love with a patient who is a nun-in-training—technically a postulant. She’s struggling with doubts about her vocation, which provides a convenient opening for Chase. After all, if she decides not to become a nun, then Chase can pursue a relationship with her.

So Chase goes to work on her. But he’s too late. She’s now convinced that God encountered her during a life-saving medical procedure. Upon learning this, Chase is prepared to convince her that her divine encounter was nothing more than a symptom of her disease. Nevertheless, seeing her newfound conviction—she’s praying the rosary as he approaches her hospital room—he doesn’t have the heart to go through with it.

In fact, he may even have second thoughts about his own convictions. The show, as always, leaves the question ambiguous.

But do you see problem with Chase’s point of view? He believes that if there were a “natural” explanation for her religious experience, then there could not also be a supernatural explanation. But why?

Couldn’t God have graciously used this woman’s medical condition and resulting hospital experience to convince her to pursue her calling? God gave her a sign, in other words, using perfectly natural and explainable processes.

My firm belief is that God does this all the time. To be a theist and believe otherwise is to be a Deist—to believe that God has a hands-off policy when it comes to Creation; that God winds up the universe, governed by well-ordered physical laws, and lets it run its course.

Needless to say, I hope, Christians are not Deists. We believe in a hands-on God who is always and everywhere at work in our world. And he can be this way without resorting to what we usually call the “miraculous.”

But that’s our problem. From my perspective, miracles happen all the time.

Miracles and modernity’s strange bedfellows

July 7, 2011

How do we understand the authority of scripture in a world in which its authority is constantly questioned or attacked? This post doesn’t answer the question, but it talks about a couple of wrong answers that some Christians have come up with over the past 200 years—and they have a lot in common. The following is an excerpt of something I wrote in the comment section of Tuesday’s post.

But I actually do strongly agree with you that if you believe that God created the world in the first place, and God raised Jesus from the dead, how much harder is it to believe in the other miracles of scripture? I made that point in a sermon last Advent regarding the virgin birth. I’ve also said that about angels and demons, too: If we believe that God created the world and human beings, how much more difficult is it to believe that God also created these invisible, spiritual creatures, some of whom, like human beings, disobeyed God and experienced a Fall?

It’s mostly difficult because of our modern bias. We may tell ourselves, “It’s very hard to believe in things that I can’t see—or at least that a scientist can’t see in a microscope, telescope, or supercollider, or infer from theories and equations. If I want to be a Christian, however, I have to believe in at least one ‘thing’ that I can’t see—God. And in that regard, Christianity is a bit tougher than the other Abrahamic faiths because God is also Trinity!

“And I also have to believe in one hard-to-believe event—the resurrection. Or maybe I don’t… Maybe I can interpret it in a strictly spiritual way—that the apostles just had an inward spiritual experience. Because lots of people have those, and those aren’t nearly so hard to believe.”

Regardless, in a well-inentioned effort to make our faith more palatable to a modern sensibility, we may try to minimize the number of hard-to-believe things that we Christians have to believe in. This was exactly the impulse behind the birth of liberal Christianity in the 19th century—to make Christianity respectable in the modern world. It was a well-intentioned but terribly misguided effort to accommodate modernity.

The conservative side of the spectrum made an equal and opposite mistake in regards to inerrancy. Inerrancy was a well-intentioned effort to defend Christianity against modernist assaults on the authority of scripture. It did so, however, by accepting the premises of modernity: that if every jot and tittle doesn’t make sense from a strictly modern historical and scientific point of view, then we can throw the whole thing out.

Inerrancy accommodates modernity by subjecting the authority of scripture to the modern playbook: in order for the Bible to be true as we understand truth today, it must conform to these standards of modern scientific and historical methodology. I reject that. An “error” as we define it today wasn’t necessarily an error when the Bible was written. These categories of thought didn’t necessarily exist back then. So inerrancy is hopelessly beholden to modernity—and modernity has mostly been a sum-negative for humanity.

Even current debates about Genesis, evolution, and Creation accept the premises of modernity: If science can explain something, then there’s no need for God. It’s either/or. It’s either evolution or God, but not both. I reject that kind of binary thinking. First, because it limits God’s role in the universe mostly to a one-time intervention at the beginning. It’s a Deistic god who winds it up (or doesn’t) and sets it in motion. Once it’s in motion, the universe is on its own. Maybe there are occasional, miraculous interventions here and there, but mostly God is absent.

The Christian understanding of Creation, by contrast, is that God is currently, at this moment, actively sustaining it into existence. We wouldn’t be here now if God’s Spirit weren’t enabling us to be so. Therefore every moment of life is an ongoing gift.

And, let me add, every moment of life is an ongoing miracle, because it’s made possible only by God’s direct involvement.

We get letters (part 2)

February 9, 2011

The following is an excerpt from my lengthy response to someone in the comment section of this post. It’s about the difference between the resurrection of Jesus and some other miracles in the Bible.

It’s not going to shatter my faith if I’m wrong about whether someone named Jonah lived inside a fish for three days. I really have nothing at stake in the question. The Book of Jonah is at least great literature, employing humor and irony, which makes a powerful point about God’s grace and mercy, and God’s love for the outsider and enemy—the main reason it was written.

By contrast, I have a great deal at stake in the question of Jesus’ resurrection, because if Christ conquered death that means, among other things, that I get to share in his victory over sin, evil, and death. If Christ didn’t, I’m with Paul: I’m still in my sins.

Jonah and Noah have nothing to do with that, so I don’t get worked up about it.

Advent Blog Tour, Day 21: “Do you see what I see?”

December 21, 2010

Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337), "Adoration of the Magi"

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.” Matthew 2:1-6 (CEB)

A couple of years ago, I visited a parishioner who was convalescing at home after a debilitating illness. He was a former NASA scientist—with a Ph.D. from Harvard—who was also an amateur astronomer. (“Amateur” in the truest sense of the word—he didn’t need compensation to pursue his love for the stars.) To pass the time and keep his sanity during his long recovery, he engaged in some astronomical research.

“I’ve made a discovery,” he told me with excitement as he greeted me at the door. “I know the date on which Jesus was born!” Read the rest of this entry »

More on miracles…

December 9, 2010

I forgot to make this point in the preceding entry…

Notice this: Jesus’ enemies don’t dispute the fact of his miracle-working (as we moderns would if Jesus were walking on earth today), only in whose name and by what authority Jesus works the miracles. Even John the Baptist’s doubts about Jesus (“Are you one, or should we expect another?”) aren’t because Jesus is failing to work miracles (which would likely be the basis for our doubts today). In fact, Jesus reassures John by recounting the miracles, not simply to prove that he has the power to work them (which isn’t disputed), but in order to point to their deeper meaning: they reveal something about Jesus’ identity and God’s kingdom.

Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Luke 7:22).

From our modern point of view, it’s hard to imagine that the fact of Jesus’ miracles was uncontroversial, but it seems to be. Given the hundreds of eyewitnesses who purportedly saw or experienced these miracles throughout Galilee or Judea, it would be risky for the evangelists to say Jesus performed them publicly, when so many people could have easily contradicted them. “I remember Jesus’ teaching and preaching, but healing the sick—whoever heard of such a thing?”

This lends credence to Malina and Rohrbaugh’s view discussed earlier: We don’t and can’t experience reality the way people living in the first century did.

Some thoughts on miracles

December 9, 2010

My friend Paul’s recent post, plus my own sermon last week on Mary and the virgin birth, got me thinking about miracles. In my own journey of faith, I have become somewhat more credulous and less skeptical of miracles over time. Before I started seminary at the Candler School of Theology (not exactly Dallas Theological, after all), I feared that whatever belief I had in the miraculous—especially the historicity of the resurrection—would be assaulted and possibly overwhelmed. I feared that I would learn to view miracles in scripture as merely symbols of an unseen spiritual reality, versus actual physical events.

That didn’t happen. In fact, I was encouraged and inspired on my very first day of Systematic Theology class. My professor argued that we Christian leaders need to be able defend the faith, including the historicity of the resurrection and the primacy of God’s revelation in Christ, and frame our arguments in ways that an increasingly secular world can understand. In other words, saying, “the Bible tells me so,” may carry weight in the pews (we’re mostly already convinced, after all), but not in the world outside. Read the rest of this entry »