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What about Miracles?

I recently had to answer an unexpected question (in the context of the biblical exodus) regarding whether I believe there are such things as miracles that are actually supernatural and not just 'naturalistic'. I am thankful that I first thought to ask if the interviewer meant ‘spectacular supernatural’... because ‘unspectacular supernatural’ events are probably far more common. Miracles are not necessarily divine interventions that break natural laws; many ‘ordinary’ events can also be acts of God designed to bring about a result in our lives and the state of the world.

These days, I tend to naturalistic explanations for most of the miracles of the exodus story, which include the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud and fire, bitter water made sweet (i.e. drinkable), daily provision of manna, water from striking a rock, a terrifying ‘sound and light show’ at Mount Sinai, the earth opening up to swallow part of the camp, and finally the parting of the Jordan River. Several of these explanations probably involve earthquake activity while others are consistent with the natural resources and hazards of the region. Miracles for which I have not read plausible explanations are the death of the Egyptian firstborn (the tenth plague) and the mass healing from bites of deadly snakes. 

I am not much concerned whether natural explanations also exist for these, but one point strikes me: the Israelites could not have taken for granted their deliverance if the plagues were of species unknown in Egypt (tigers?), the walls of water towered above them in defiance of gravity (Pharaoh's army would not have followed!), the fiery pillar of cloud had no apparent cause (scary!), the bitter water turned into wine (hmm), bread literally fell from heaven every morning (why heaven?), water came out of pebbles (not karstic limestone walls), and the mountain (just say) completely relocated. These would clearly be ‘spectacular supernatural' events (akin to ‘magic’) and the people could hardly have doubted that God was acting for them.

Taking that idea further, it was necessary that the miracles assisting their salvation could be explained away as natural, coincidental, and even inadequate (they got sick of the manna). Faith would not be faith if they were left in no doubt of divine intervention and thus had no sensible choice other than to believe and obey. Our faith in God’s existence and assistance is not usually based on 'spectacular supernatural' events, but rather on the ‘weight of evidence’ arising from many factors: experiences, observations, influences, testimonies, explanations, and a ‘natural’ human yearning for meaning, goodness, and love. Faith is also a gift of the Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:9; Gal 5:22).

Then, as now, naturalistic explanations for miracles do not negate the miracle of God's perfect planning and timing (tip: the Red Sea miracle was largely in the timing). In our lives this may occur in the orchestration of signal events, the provision of crucial information, painful stirrings of our conscience, the kindness (and cruelty) of others, and the loneliness that forces us to seek God… all for the sake of our spiritual development which is all that matters in this limited mortal existence. Jesus saves and perfects us by scores of daily miracles, most of which we never notice or only perceive in hindsight. Let’s learn to see the 'unspectacular supernatural' and rely upon the Spirit's infallible work.

Deb Hurn

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