Science Ch.1 - God Works by Miracles, Not Magic

We tend to ascribe to God only the things we don’t yet understand, such as how life began – that is, the gaps in our knowledge. But there’s a different kind of gap that would allow him to do anything he wished without breaking any of the observable laws of physics.


In the Bible, God’s miracles aren’t like magic tricks – he doesn’t suddenly produce things out of thin air or make something disappear in a puff of smoke, though presumably he could. The way he does work tells us a lot about what he is like.

       Imagine you’re participating in a supermarket dash. With family, friends, and representatives from the supermarket’s headquarters looking on, the store manager gives you your instructions: “You have two and a half minutes to fill your cart with anything in the shop. Ready … steady … go!” Immediately you make for the checkouts and grab all the cash from the tills, then sprint to the manager’s office and snatch his wallet and car keys from his jacket pocket. You’re looking around for the key to the safe when he catches up with you to explain: “I meant anything that’s for sale in the shop!”

       Human language often implies things that we don’t actually state. We all know that “Say no to drugs” only refers to illegal drugs rather than drugs that are medically prescribed for us. Someone might boast that they “can draw anything you can describe,” but if we challenged them to draw an “inside-out circle” they’d be stumped. What they meant was, “I can draw anything that can be drawn.”

       So when the Bible says that nothing is impossible for God (Gen 18:14; Job 42:2; Jer 32:17; Matt 19:26 [= Mark 10:27 = Luke 18:27]; Luke 1:37; Mark 14:36), does it mean that God can do anything? Or does it mean that he can do anything that can be done? For instance, does it mean that God can make a mountain ride a horse? He can only do this if the mountain is no longer a mountain or the horse is no longer a horse. And does it mean that God can make me become Moses, who died before I was born? He can only do this if he overhauls the whole physics of space-time and overrides the concept of individuals and personhood.

       Would God change the way the whole universe works simply for one miracle? We can assert that he could, but the events recorded in the Bible suggest that he wouldn’t. He moved water to let his people walk to the other side of the sea – but he didn’t make them disappear and instantly rematerialize on the far shore. God raised some people from the dead – but he didn’t turn back time so that they hadn’t died. God revealed to prophets his plans for the future using visions, dreams, and words – but he didn’t download the information into their brains like fully formed “memories.” It’s helpful to think of the Bible as describing God working within the structures of the existing universe as a craftsman, a strategist, or a gardener.

5-minute summary

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Craftsman

In the Bible we read about God using the built-in facilities of his world like a craftsman uses the tools he has made; he doesn’t simply bypass the normal processes of nature as if he were a science-fiction alien or a fantasy wizard. So if we take the Bible seriously, we have to accept that this is how God chooses to act. Even in the creation narrative, God did not produce a working and populated planet with a snap of his fingers; he is described as taking time to carry out this process. Of course, the actual length of time is subject to interpretation, but the point of the text is to show that it wasn’t instantaneous.

       Augustine couldn’t understand why God would choose to take time to create things and decided that this wasn’t the way God worked. He assumed that, because God is omnipotent, all his actions occur instantaneously. So Augustine interpreted the six days of creation as six different descriptions of God performing a single instantaneous creation.1 In other words, he allowed his presuppositions to overrule the clear message of the Bible text.

Strategist

The creation narrative also describes God doing things in a systematic and logical order. He first makes light, then land, then plants, then seasons, then animals, then humans. One leads to the other, like a town planner who develops a new project by first laying out streets and sewers, then erecting buildings, and finally connecting water and electricity before inviting anyone to live there. We read that after creating matter, God built or “made” his creation instead of popping things into existence.2

       Miracles in the Bible imply a similar principle. When food was provided miraculously, it came from other food – albeit very quickly (1 Kgs 17:10-16; Matt 14:15-21).3 When plagues descended on Egypt, they occurred in a logical order: a plague of flies followed after all the frogs had died and left piles of corpses (Exod 8:13-16).4 It seems that miracles use natural processes when possible, albeit in a supernatural way. Healing miracles appear to be instantaneous, but perhaps they happen too quickly for humans to see the process. Occasionally they occurred more slowly, such as when Elijah stretched himself on a dead boy three times before the child came to life (1 Kgs 17:17-24), and when a blind man whose sight was restored by Jesus initially saw men like walking trees – that is, the healing wasn’t finished yet (Mark 8:22-25).

       When God punished people, he also employed the nature he had created, albeit in a supernatural way: a flood in Noah’s day, the geological destruction of Sodom, and a drought to punish Baal worship in Ahab’s day. Sometimes God used humans: the Assyrians who took Israel into exile, and the Persian king Cyrus who allowed them to return, were both sent by God to do his will (Isa 10:5-6; 44:28). Actually, God appears to prefer doing his work through humans (like us!) because we are the special part of his creation who can act as his representatives.

Gardener

Finally, we can understand why God wants to work through his creation by imagining him as a gardener. When gardeners know that visitors will be coming at a certain time, they will plant bulbs so that they will be in full bloom when visitors arrive, and will trim the bushes a few weeks before so that the outer leaves recover before people see them. But when film directors need to create a garden scene in a film, they’ll arrange for topiary to be brought in from a garden center and for cut flowers to be pegged into the ground, and perhaps will even use artificial plants. The director’s method for producing a garden is totally different from that of the gardener, who has taken time to carefully create each vista that visitors will admire.

       When master gardeners or groundskeepers want a fence, they plant something like a blackthorn hedge, then pleach the stems – that is, interlace them to grow into an impenetrable barrier. Gardeners could, instead, buy chain link and hammer metal posts into the ground, but they prefer to use nature. They are also likely to make seating from fallen trees and create areas of shade by growing vine bowers. God, in a similar way, uses the materials of the world he has created in order to carry out his purposes.

       Sometimes this involves considerable planning and manipulation – such as setting up the geology around Sodom ready for the day when it will be destroyed. This might seem like a lot of extra work – why didn’t God simply materialize the fiery brimstone in midair so that it would fall on Sodom and Gomorrah? If he had, it would have meant the angels wouldn’t have had to tell Lot to hurry – the text implies there was only a limited leeway available in timing his escape (Gen 19:15-16).

       If God did work independently of his creation, he would be like a gardener who buys fertilizer every year instead of planning ahead by putting aside compost. The results are the same, but the Bible describes God using nature, often with great foresight and preparation.

       God, like our imaginary gardener, loves his creation, which he declared to be “very good” (Gen 1:31), so he uses it to carry out all that he wants to do. Perhaps he has to intervene rather more often than he wants to because sin has made so many unwanted changes, but instead of starting again, he guides people and processes to produce the right results. Like a gardener who introduces ladybirds to kill aphids instead of spraying them with insecticide, God is always looking for a more “natural” way to perform his purposes. Why? Because he created nature and loves to use it.

Summary


• Miracles in the Bible don’t involve materialization.
• Creation isn’t described as instantaneous.
• Augustine imposed his own conclusion that God acts instantaneously.
• Proposal: God creates and tends his creation by encouraging natural progression and growth.

1^ Augustine writes in his Unfinished Literal Meaning of Genesis: “How can … God need a length of time in order to complete something? … But in [Genesis] the account of the things that God made is broken down most conveniently as if in periods of time so that the very arrangement which weaker souls could not look upon with a firm gaze could be discerned” (1.7.28; see tinyurl.com/AugustineGen1-7.). He writes elsewhere in The Literal Meaning of Genesis: “Creation, therefore, did not take place slowly. … There was no passage of time” (4.33.52; see tinyurl.com/AugustineGenIV.).
2^ The verb asah, “to make,” is used in Gen 1:7, 11, 12, 16, 25, 26, and 31. See more in chap. 9, “Everyone Believes in Evolution.”
3^ See chap. 27, “Miracles That Employ Nature.”
4^ See chap. 29, “Explaining the Exodus Miracles.”

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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