God, Miracles, and the Laws of Nature

By Beth Hyduke

When we use terminology like "the laws of nature," it implies, to a certain extent, that nature and science operate autonomously and function independently, and that they exist as impersonal forces or laws that are immutably binding on all cosmic matter. You hear this particular dogma preached a lot, especially from the pulpits of the scientific community where Jesus' changing of water into wine or walking on water or being raised from the dead are all disallowed as each account violates multiple scientific and natural principles, including the laws of physics, hydrostatics, and biogenesis. Essentially, the modern-day scientific platform is that perceptible scientific data and the principles or "natural laws" they substantiate are inviolable to the point that everything else becomes subject to them. That which is supernatural has no place in a construct where science/nature is crowned as the supreme ruling cosmic force, so as a result, God and the miracles He claims to author are viewed with skepticism and ultimately rejected.

This concept is so universally accepted that it's even found in the trusty old Merriam-Webster dictionary. Under "Nature" this definition is given: "the natural forces that control what happens in the world." Wow, I wonder how Merriam-Webster defines "God." Like this, apparently: "a spirit or being that is worshiped as the one who created and rules the universe, has great power, strength, knowledge, etc. and that can affect nature and the lives of people." So according to the dictionary, while nature controls what happens in our world, God's scope of power and authority is limited to a merely influential role.

This concept in which nature, not God, is the sovereign force is so prevalent and pervasive in our culture that even many theists start out presupposing that the premise is valid. To reconcile this belief in nature with belief in God, theists usually end up adopting some version of the hybrid belief that God, like a Cosmic Tinker, started the universe, wound it up, and set it in motion, having created rules and laws for it by which it could govern itself and operate and function on its own. Once nature governs itself by means of its own intrinsic laws, there's no further need for an extrinsic Law-Giver so God steps out of the picture to let nature run its course, and only steps back in when some divine influence is seriously necessary.

Let's just assume for a moment that this premise is valid, and that the "laws of nature" are a major, if not ultimate, authority that governs and rules the natural universe. All atheists adopt this viewpoint. However, if we happen to be theists who make a similar basic assumption, we run smack into the immediate problem of what to do with a supernatural God who operates outside, and sometimes directly against, these perceived natural laws. To reasonably explain the supernatural from our working hypothesis that nature controls what happens in the world, we are limited to three options, and all three are problematic. The first explanation is that God breaks His own rules by going against the natural laws He created, established, and inaugurated to govern the world independently of Him. The second option is a little more polite, but roughly the same as the first: God doesn't break any of His laws, He merely bends them by somehow altering the fabric of science/nature itself to make special allowance for the miraculous. The third option is where it gets really desperate. This explanation postulates that miracles aren't miracles at all, but just God doing perfect science that is so advanced beyond our understanding that we can't recognize the natural processes God is harnessing behind the parlor trick. So because we don't understand it, we mistakenly attribute it to the supernatural rather than supreme, immutable forces of nature to which even God must submit and confine all His operations. (People bend over backwards trying to make this one fit. I read something on an internet forum once where a guy hypothesized that Jesus' turning water into wine was nothing more than an advanced science experiment Jesus successfully pulled off by tapping into complex, as-yet-unknown formulas to effect the formation of carbon molecules, and that by generating them in the water substrate, it resulted in a chemical compound that passed for wine. He concluded that as our knowledge of chemistry and physics grows, we will one day be able to reproduce this same result in a test tube.) Now, obviously, this third explanation is problematic for anyone who takes the Bible seriously. The miracles in the Bible are not presented as science experiments or magic tricks but as legitimate supernatural occurrences. As such, they are of a divine origin and are therefore indicative of God's supremacy over nature and the created realm, not His advanced knowledge and mastery of the machine of science which He claims to have created but to which He is also ludicrously subordinate. Throughout the Bible, miracles are always done in order to reveal God's divine identity and His supernatural authority. The first two explanations are also problematic though because they necessarily assume that God is inconsistent in His essential being and character. If God created nature and its laws, then in order for Him to work a miracle that, by popular definition, defies natural law, He must therefore be guilty of breaking or subverting the very laws which He established, and which proceeded from His own character. This is obviously a significant problem as it would mean that God has violated His own character and providence in self-contradiction by overturning laws He formerly authored and ordained.

The problem here is with that first erroneous assumption we made — that the origin of law is found in nature rather than in the God who created nature. When we adopt the premise that nature is absolute and its laws are inviolably binding, God becomes a relative afterthought forced to defer to His own creation, and we end up with a weird dualistic model in which the now-deified "Laws of Nature" monster is more powerful than God. Naturally, this raises all kinds of questions about God's sovereignty.

From a Scriptural standpoint, the premise is hopelessly backwards. In the picture the Bible presents of the relationship that exists between Creator and creation, God is absolute and nature is relative. God is not subject to or dependent upon nature in any way but rather nature depends on Him in every way. Colossians 1:16-17 says:
For in Him, all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him, all things hold together.
In addition, there seems to be a great deal of confusion regarding what scientific and natural laws intrinsically are. People tend to think of physical or scientific or natural laws as being a technical term describing actual, binding, causative laws that govern nature, when in fact they are not really laws at all. What they are instead is a set of human observations that describe and predict the normal order of natural phenomena. In Foundations of Modern Physical Science, Holton and Roller write, "Although laws of nature are usually called inexorable and inescapable, probably because the word erroneously suggests analogies with divine and judicial law, they actually are human formulated generalizations that are neither eternally true nor unchangeable." The so-called "laws of nature" are more fluid than solid; they can be refuted or amended, and they frequently are by fresh data and discoveries. So, for instance, when we talk about the "law of gravity," we are referencing a highly repeatable, observable pattern (as well as a personal experience-based expectation) that when we drop a quarter off the side of the bed we can reasonably anticipate that it will fall to the ground and not float to the ceiling. Our expectation that it will fall simply stems from the routine pattern we have observed. We should underscore that the quarter falls not because it's compelled by law to do so, but because, whether you hold to Newtonian or Einsteinian theory, some invisible intrinsic or extrinsic energy or force is acting to draw the mass of the quarter and the mass of the earth together.

When we put all this together, a clearer picture emerges of what's going on in the case of supernatural or miraculous activity. When miracles occur within the construct of nature, it's not that God is tricking us with an advanced branch of science we haven't discovered yet, and it's not that He's breaking or bending laws He formerly instituted, it's simply that He is operating in a new way that is markedly different than the usual, routine way in which He governs all matter. If the quarter drops to the floor, as it always has in my experience, it is God who sovereignly ordains, authorizes, empowers, directs, and governs its fall. But if God was to determine that the quarter better served His purposes by floating to the ceiling, it would be nothing for Him to sovereignly ordain, authorize, empower, direct, and govern its supernatural ascent instead, because He is God. God effects and is responsible for every usual outcome we have ever scientifically anticipated just as much as He effects the unexpected, unusual outcomes that defy our intellect, preconceptions, and even our most established scientific formulations. When we look at it from this perspective, we realize that a miracle does not defy nature itself, it simply defies our conceptions of what nature is or should be.

Whether the quarter drops at 9.8 meters per second-squared or floats supernaturally, it's important to note that God isn't breaking or bending laws or changing any rules to accomplish either outcome because quite simply, He is the Law and He is the Rule. He is, as He claims in Colossians 1, controlling and sustaining all things at all times in His creation — the normal, mundane, everyday things we think nothing of, as well as the special, supernatural things that confound us with their extraordinary unexpectedness. In either case, God is supremely sovereign, both over a typical pattern we call gravity and over any aberration from or noncompliance to that typical pattern, because constantly, within Himself, God creates and upholds and controls every single factor that collectively, we call gravity.

Likewise, when Jesus walked on water in Mark 6:46-52, He was not challenged by this in the least nor was He engaging in a struggle against laws of physics or hydrostatics that were at work against Him. In fact, the Bible tells us that all of nature becomes cooperative when face to face with its Creator-God. So, "even the wind and the waves obey Him" (Mark 4:41). Nature does as God tells it to do because all nature is subject to God, not the other way around. God gives the command, and His universe, all of creation, falls obediently in step. Same for the water-turned-wine (John 2), the sun that moved backwards (2 Kings 20 & Isaiah 38), the many sick that were healed (i.e., Matthew 9, Mark 1, Luke 14, John 9), our hearts of dead-stone-turned-living-flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), and every other miracle God works.

We Christians accept that God supernaturally spoke the water and the sun into existence out of the void, and brought life out of nothingness, why do we find it so hard to accept that that same God remains actively and personally involved and in complete and total control of every aspect, from the atomic to the cosmic, of the universe which He made?

Published 4-12-16