When the Natural Meets the Supernatural

By Robin Schumacher

Many years ago I was present at a home where two young boys—ages 6 and 4—were playing with a Ouija board [1] that the woman of the home had carelessly supplied to keep the kids occupied. In addition to the homeowner and me being there, my brother and sister were also present.

It wasn't long before the children began to declare that they were not moving the pointer across the board. The adults laughed and encouraged the boys to tell the truth that they were the ones behind the pointer's movements. But the children maintained that they were not controlling the actions on the board.

My sister, a skeptic and fresh out of Michigan State, decided to put the boy's claims to the test. She asked the boys to spell out extremely complicated words with the Ouija board—words that were clearly beyond the capabilities of such young children.

Using the Ouija board, the kids spelled them correctly. Every time.

One alternative way to describe or label an atheist is that they are a naturalist or materialist, meaning they do not believe there is anything beyond the natural, physical world. Another way of saying it is they do not believe in the supernatural; they are anti-supernaturalists.

But what happens when a naturalist—like my sister—meets the supernatural in a way they didn't expect and can't refute? You would think that their naturalistic worldview would instantly collapse into ruin and they would be forced into the uncomfortable position of acknowledging that there is indeed something beyond the physical.

But as we'll see, such a thing is extremely tough, if not impossible, for many naturalists to do.

The Real Bone of Contention with the Bible

Critics of Christianity consistently voice their distrust of the Bible and tirelessly assert that the statements made in the pages of Scripture are untrue. But what parts of the Bible are they really contending?

Is it the historicity of the peoples, places, and events such as various conflicts, travels, human interactions, etc.? No, these types of things rarely, if ever, come up except from those on the extreme fringe of skepticism. Moreover, they are quite difficult to disprove given the findings of archaeology and other forensic science that historians use to determine the validity of all historical writings, not just Scripture.

Rather, the bone of contention skeptics have of with the Bible nearly always concerns Scripture's statements of miracles, which are acts that supersede the natural world. Because the naturalist's worldview disallows the existence of miracles, they then, in an a priori fashion, discard the Bible into their Just-Can't-Be bin.

This being the case, it's not surprising that prominent disbelievers down through history have aimed their big guns at disproving the concept of the miraculous. For example, the Scottish skeptic David Hume formulated an argument against supernatural events that can be summarized as follows: [2]
  • A miracle is a rare occurrence.
  • The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare.
  • Wise men gravitate toward things with the most evidence.
  • Therefore, wise men do not believe in miracles.
Benjamin Spinoza, a Jewish critic of Christianity, objected to miracles in the following way: [3]
  • Miracles are violations of natural laws.
  • Natural laws are immutable.
  • It is impossible to violate immutable laws.
  • Therefore, miracles are impossible.
Do Hume's and Spinoza's arguments against the supernatural hold water? No, not at all. Where Hume is concerned, his second premise is flawed. Events such as the big bang, the initial generation of life, and every historical event occurred only once (and are therefore "rare"), but we don't doubt them.

Regarding Spinoza, it should be understood that no one can prove natural laws are immutable. Natural laws only describe what happens and are not prescriptive. Further, natural laws describe regular events; they cannot rule out anomalies. Lastly, Spinoza assumes a closed system. As C. S. Lewis observed, if I put $200 in a safe, and then later add another $200 to it, but this morning discover only $50 left, have the laws of mathematics been broken? No, only the laws of my state. Someone from the outside has obviously injected themselves into the situation. [4]

Hume and Spinoza aside, critics of the Bible may disregard the supernatural claims contained within its pages, but they can't argue convincingly against their possibility. But what happens when a supernatural act happens right in front of a skeptic? Surely, such a thing would cause them to do a 180 where their position is concerned.

Not always.

Seeing Isn't Always Believing

In Acts 3, Peter heals a 40-year old man born lame; the man instantly begins to walk and literally leap around. The miracle is done in the open and in clear view of many witnesses.

Immediately afterwards, Peter and John are descended upon by the Sadducee priests, who historians tell us comprised most of the Sanhedrin (the central judicial authority of the Jews), and who wielded considerable political power with the Romans. Some scholars say that the Sadducees were fully anti-supernaturalists, but others contend such thinking goes too far. Scripture does tell us that they believed "there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit" (Acts 23:8), and since Peter was preaching the resurrection of Jesus, this landed him in hot water with the priests.

But the Sadducees had a problem. An undeniable supernatural event had occurred at the hands of the apostles. The Bible says, "Seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, [the Sadducees] had nothing to say in reply" (Acts 4:14). The writer of Acts even goes so far as to record the Sadducees' own admission of the event: "What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it" (Acts 4:16).

Surely, the Sadducees would admit their error, join the apostles, and follow Jesus, right? Wrong. Instead, they continue clinging to their worldview and command the apostles to stop their teaching.

It would seem that seeing isn't always believing. While many atheists claim they need to see a miracle to believe in God, in Truth, such a thing may not produce the kind of belief to move them to break with the belief system they deeply want to be true.

That is the Bargain

C. S. Lewis said this about the supernatural: "But if we admit God, must we admit Miracle? Indeed, indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain" [5]. Or, reversing the claim, we could say that admitting the occurrence of supernatural events permits the acknowledgement of a deity like God. But again, this is too much for hard-core naturalists to allow—even if they were to see it for themselves.

All naturalists aren't as honest as evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin who, commenting on his materialistic worldview, said:
"We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." [6]
Some naturalists will be like Lewontin and declare God will never enter their world, but some who get a glimpse of the supernatural in action may in time change their tune.

For example, today, my former skeptical sister now believes in God. How Satan must hate it that a demon expressing itself through a Ouija board played a part in helping make that happen.

[1] I want to make it crystal clear that I am not advocating that any person dabble with a Ouija board or any other occultic device. God's Word contains numerous warnings about utilizing such things and/or visiting spiritists and condemns such activities. No person should engage the occult (i.e. Satan) in this manner.
[2] Norman Geisler, "Miracles, Arguments Against" in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 458.
[3] Norman Geisler, "Benedict Spinoza" in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 710.
[4] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Harper Collins, 1974), pg. 92.
[5] Lewis, pg. 169.
[6] Richard Lewontin, "Billions and Billions of Demons" in The New York Review of Books No. 1, January 9, 1997, pg. 44. (Emphasis mine)

Image Credit: Matt; "Mystifying Oracle"; Creative Commons

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Published 2-4-13