September 2, 2022

The Metaphysics of Miracles 

Can these bones live?

Clifford Goldstein

And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.  And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. (Exodus 3:1-3).

One could speculate on the physics and chemistry behind this miracle. (The Lord turned the bush into asbestos, and funneled in unseen fuel, perhaps?) But behind the next one? 

And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it. And the LORD said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand” (Exodus 4:3-5).

No human notions could explain this phenomenon any more than cash thrown at a mortician could revive a corpse.  To instantly turn a rod, a stick of dead wood, into a live snake and then, instantly, back? This act transcends the most elaborate theories about the creation of life, which go in the wrong direction anyway: slow, tedious and fortuitous trial and error until some “simple” proto-life emerged, yet still billions of years away from the creature that God, at the throw of a stick, brought into existence here. However miraculous this sign must have appeared to Moses—who knew little about reptilian spleens, hearts, livers, lungs, genetics or cellular metabolism—how much more miraculous it should appear to us, who do know about them.

And the next miracle?

And the LORD said furthermore unto him, Put now thine hand into thy bosom. And he put his hand into his bosom: and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous as snow. And he said, Put thine hand into thy bosom again. And he put his hand into his bosom again; and plucked it out of his bosom, and, behold, it was turned again as his other flesh. (Exodus 4:6-8).

Compared to the previous deed, this one must’ve been daises for the Lord--regardless of how clueless we and Moses are as to how God could have done it.

From Eve’s creation out of Adam (Genesis 2: 21-23), to the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:15-21); from the animal pairs entering the ark (Genesis 7:9), to the fire from heaven on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:19-38); from Daniel recounting to Nebuchadnezzar a dream that Nebuchadnezzar himself had forgotten (Daniel 2), to Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:29-44)—the Scriptures reveal a physical existence nowhere near as limited and shallow as what naturalism,1 the logical result of materialism,2 presents. 

Of course, natural laws exist, but to set the boundaries of all physical phenomena to what these laws describe would be like limiting love to bursts of dopamine and norepinephrine alone; or, even worse, to limit the reality of, say, World War II, to only the words on paper that describe it. If the burning bush reveals the paucity of naturalism (after all, even if God did turn the bush into asbestos and did supply the fuel, how He did so in that immediate context defies human understanding)—what does the raising of Lazarus do to it? These miracles, and perhaps every other one in Scripture, uncover a reality that science, locking itself into ontological naturalism, can no more explain than a flashlight under a pillow can bring dreams to light.  

The Scriptures reveal a physical existence nowhere near as limited and shallow as what naturalism, the logical result of materialism, presents. 

Nevertheless, the post-Enlightenment lure of secularism has echoed through Christianity, which pushes some Christians to deny the miracles outright, or to seek naturalist explanations for them. From the Genesis 1-2 creation to the conversion of Saul, and every miracle in between, the accounts are either denied or secularized. William Lane Craig relegates, for example, the six-day creation (Genesis 1-2) to “mytho-history,” untrue stories that nevertheless teach important truths. Eve taken from Adam’s side (Genesis 2: 20-24) is a useful tale because of the spiritual lessons that can be derived from it, but the biblical account itself—God putting Adam to sleep, and then creating a woman out of his body—was “mytho-history” only.

Noah’s flood is demoted to a local deluge, and in accord with natural law, too. Those ancients—unable to differentiate between the natural and supernatural (though Moses, in the three miracles above, certainly understood that distinction)—not only turned it into a worldwide and supernatural catastrophe but did such a convincing job that Jesus (Matthew 24:38), Paul (Hebrews 11:7), and Peter (1 Peter 3:20) believed them.

And what about that story in Numbers 11, where the people cried out, “Give us meat, that we may eat” (Numbers 11:13), and then the faced “the wrath of the Lord” (Numbers 11:33)? Having eating in Greece berries toxic to humans, migrating quails just happened to land near the Hebrews the day after Moses, fed up with their kvetching, said, “Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat” (Numbers 11:18).  And those who ate the meat given them, the poisoned quails—died.  The Israelites, however, attributed the deaths to divine judgment, when it was really just a natural event, even though those must have been some pretty mean berries because, even before the people started to munch on the poisoned meat, much less consume it—they died: “But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was aroused against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague” (Numbers 11:33).

Some professed Seventh-day Adventists, besides denying the Genesis account, also promote the local deluge interpretation of Noah’s flood.

Paul’s Damascus Road experience was (one theory goes) either epilepsy, or him being traumatized by a meteorite (“suddenly a light shone around him from heaven” [Acts 9:3]) or both. The meteorite, crashing into the earth, so shocked Paul that he had a seizure which made him imagine that Jesus, though dead, had appeared to him on the way to Damascus.  This meteorite-seizure event, not the resurrected Christ, explains Saul’s conversion and subsequent ministry as the apostle Paul. 

One expects secularists, New Atheists, et. al., to strip out the transcendent, the supernatural, from these accounts. Like gutting a fish. But these above interpretations were by Christians, those who claim faith, but a more “rational” version, one closer in sync with science and, as such, reinterprets these biblical stories in light of post-Enlightenment “enlightenment.” Some professed Seventh-day Adventists, besides denying the Genesis account, also promote the local deluge interpretation of Noah’s flood, and also the poisoned-Greek-berries theory for Numbers 11 (which these Adventists might have originated).

All of which is strangely irrational. Seventh-day Adventists are about the only Christian body not tainted by immortal soulism. However popular this doctrine among the baptized masses, many biblical scholars of different faiths--though somewhat ambivalent about the precise state of the “soul” after death—know that the New Testament emphasis, and hope, is not on an immediate ascent to heaven but on the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.  

The mind-boggling awesomeness of the creation doesn’t prove that God must raise the dead, but it sure implies that He could.

The resurrection of the dead at the end of time? In contrast to turning a rod into a serpent, or deriving a woman out of the side of a man—this miracle, though not logically impossible is, definitely, empirically implausible. Millions of bodies, some incinerated by medieval Rome, or disemboweled on a battlefield outside Verdun, or snacked on by squids and angel fish after Salamis (480 B.C.)—these, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52), will be raised not only to life but to immortal life?  Even the Genesis six-day creation, when God created only two humans, can’t top that. What biblical miracle can? The Christians hope rests upon a defiance of natural law so much more extreme than anything else the Bible teaches, that anything else the Bible teaches—i.e., the Genesis creation, Noah’s flood, the deadly quails—seem pedestrian in comparison. And yet without this, that is, without millions of human beings (many for millennia having been only scattered molecules) being uprooted out of the earth or dredged up from the sea and instantaneously reconstituted into immortality—without that miracle, by far the most extreme in Scripture, the Christian faith means nothing. 

 And yet--what? From every one of the two trillion galaxies, one hundred billion stars each, to the (last estimated) 3.28 x 1080 subatomic particles that make up those galaxies and everything in them (us included), the God who created and sustains them all, from galaxies to particles to heartbeats (ours and dogs’)—He certainly possess the power to raise the dead. The mind-boggling awesomeness of the creation doesn’t prove that God must raise the dead, but it sure implies that He could, and He promises that He will. And if He will raise the dead, and to immortality too, then to question the other miracles—from the animal pairs in the ark, to the burning bush—seems irrational, especially for those whose rationality questions these other miracles to begin with. 

Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guides at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a longtime columnist for Adventist Review.

1 Loosely defined as the belief that all phenomena can be expanded by natural laws alone.
2 Loosely defined as the belief that all reality is, ultimately, made only of material things.