Physical Laws and Miracles

By Dr. Christopher Plumberg

Someone recently asked me the following question: Can God break the laws of physics? At first glance, it seems like a simple question. However, a moment's reflection shows that things are somewhat more complicated than they first appear. On the one hand, if God cannot break the laws of physics, then how should we understand the stories of miracles recorded in Scripture, which appear to describe situations in which God did just that? And on the other hand, if God can break the laws of physics, why don't we see miracles happening all the time today? This line of questioning suggests that at least some tension exists between the laws of physics and the biblical records of God's miraculous deeds throughout history.

In fact, the subject of the connection between biblical miracles and the laws of physics is particularly important in modern-day Western culture, where any claims about non-physical entities (like a God who causes miracles) are often either received with extreme skepticism or rejected entirely. Additionally, holding to the Christian teaching about miracles like Jesus' resurrection or walking on water seems to conflict with what we are expected to believe on the basis of the rise and success of modern-day science. The question of whether God can break the laws of physics is therefore one which any thoughtful believer must be willing to face, and one which is highly relevant to those living in present-day Western society.

Let me tackle these questions in the order that I've asked them. Can God break the laws of nature and physics? He certainly can. After all, He created the entire universe by merely speaking it into existence, along with all of its natural laws. This means that when God created light (Genesis 1:3), He created the laws of electromagnetism along with it. In the same way, in the process of creation, God created the law of gravity, the "law" of day and night, and a host of other natural laws which we have since discovered in describing the behavior of creation. These laws are simply how God designed His creation to work, not "rules" which can never be "broken."

Let me clarify a bit more what I mean by "law." On the one hand, a law — say, the law of gravity — is not some kind of inviolable principle of logic or morality which requires heavy objects to always fall down to the ground when they are dropped. If a law were really like this, it would certainly seem like God were breaking His own rules. Fortunately, it is better to think of physical laws as simple descriptions of how things tend to behave when left to themselves; with this view, the law of gravity is simply a statement of the fact that heavy objects tend to fall when they are dropped, assuming that there is no outside interference.

Let me illustrate all of this with an example. Let's say you are trying to experiment with the law of gravity by dropping some object, say, a baseball. You perform the experiment several times, dropping the baseball from different heights, each time noting how long it takes for the baseball to hit the ground. Now imagine that I come up behind you during one trial of your experiment, and catch the ball before it hits the ground. Have I just violated the law of gravity? Of course not. All I've done is to mess up your experiment by interfering with it before it was completed. It's not that the law of gravity has been violated; it's just that it's not relevant if someone (like me) prevents it from pulling the baseball all the way to the ground.

God's relationship to physical laws is very similar to this example. The laws we use in describing creation assume that God is not doing something special at just that moment; if He is, then our "law" just doesn't apply in that particular situation. Think of Jesus walking on water: the law of gravity should certainly have caused Him to fall into the water, so why didn't it? Was it because the law of gravity was "violated"? Not really. It's just that the law of gravity wasn't even relevant to Jesus' situation, because His divine power enabled Him not to fall as a normal object would have.

So God can certainly "break" the laws of nature and physics, just as I can "break" the law of gravity by catching a baseball before it hits the ground. The only difference is that there are no limitations to God's ability to suspend or interfere with the law of gravity in this way, even if there are such limitations to my own ability. Consequently, there's no real difficulty in accepting the miracle stories recorded in Scripture as completely and literally true, historically speaking, while still acknowledging that science can (and does) provide us with extremely accurate and successful descriptions of the nature of physical laws.

However — and this returns us to the final question I posed at the beginning — if God can act in ways which counteract the normal laws of nature, why doesn't He do it more often? Why don't we see miracles happening every day?

There are many possible answers to this question. One possibility is that miracles do happen all the time, and we just miss them. Although this is a logical possibility, this is not a very likely option, since miracles in Scripture are almost always intended to be "signs" that God is at work. Another possibility is that miracles always accompany new revelation; i.e., when God reveals new teaching through a prophet or apostle (or His Son), miracles routinely accompany it to confirm that it is truly from God. Since this is not regularly happening today, one might expect that miracles should not typically be happening, either. One more possibility is that miracles do not happen because of our lack of faith (cf. Matthew 13:58). My purpose here is not to go into these various possibilities in any depth or detail; I only mention them to show that the apparent absence of miracles today doesn't necessarily imply that God is unable to break the laws of nature. As we have already seen, He certainly can, because He is the Creator, and is completely sovereign over His creation. Just because God has the ability to interact with His creation according to His own will does not mean that the frequency or nature of His interactions must always coincide with our expectations.

Image Credit: falco; untitled; Creative Commons
Image Credit: Capri23auto; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | God-Father  | Science-Creation

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Published 6-5-17