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Assume you are a Christian and you believe that the descriptions of the life of Jesus are facts.

Things like turning water into wine magically, walking on water and other miracles seem to be inconsistent with the laws of science.

As a scientist, I am curious if you can have a consistent belief system with the two.

  • I made an edit which you may roll back or further edit. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link. However, I didn't understand what you meant by the phrase "with the two"? What are these two beliefs that are inconsistent? – Frank Hubeny Jul 27 '18 at 3:24
  • "miracles seem to be inconsistent with the laws of science." - not necessarily, there are scientific explanations how could these things be tricked. – rus9384 Jul 27 '18 at 9:55
  • The problem largely goes away when you consider that Christians do not agree on the nature of God. To make the question answerable I think you'd have to define what notion of God you are assuming. My form of Christianity, for instance, would deny that God can break the laws of physics or would ever have need to do so. The idea seems to make no sense. – PeterJ Jul 27 '18 at 14:09
  • +1. Good question - one seldom put but certainly in need of an answer. – Geoffrey Thomas Jul 27 '18 at 15:51
  • @Jonesn11. Comments can go on for ever about what Christianity covers and includes and what concept(s) of God it runs on. I assume that you are thinking of the Christian God in fairly standard terms, post-Aquinas, as omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent (all-loving). My answer is based on this. If this is not your concept of the Christian God, it would naturally be helpful to know so that I can review my answer. – Geoffrey Thomas Jul 27 '18 at 17:49
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If you believe that all things recorded about Jesus in the New Testament is historical fact, that logically implies believing in miracles. That falls out of a basic syllogism, because some things recorded about Jesus in the New Testament are expressly miraculous in nature.

The more interesting question here philosophically is about the philosophy of science, and working out what we mean by "the laws of science." Ignoring all the extreme scepticism about whether induction is valid or whether we could be brains in a vat, there are two things we have to understand about scientific results.

The first is that they are descriptive rather than prescriptive. The second is that they are restricted in scope. That is, when we say about a stone sitting on a hill "An object remains at rest or in uniform motion" we're not telling it to stay still, we're describing what it will probably do based on seeing what other stones do. That prediction is only good until something shakes it up a bit, which is why the full law is "An object remains at rest or in uniform motion unless acted on by an external force." Further, that prediction is only reasonable as long as this stone is like the other stones we studied. (For an informal illustration, if what we identified a stone is actually a sheep, it is possible that it won't behave like most stones!)

This is where we come back to miracles. A miracle doesn't deny the normal descriptions that we call "the laws of science." (In fact that's almost the definition. If it turned out people could normally walk on water but just didn't know it, that wouldn't be a miracle!) It is a situation different enough from the ones we're usually studying that we can still say "In usual situations, this happens" while accepting that in very unusual situations, who knows?

If there's a man on the mountain kicking stones, they may just start moving.

  • "If you believe that all things recorded about Jesus in the New Testament is historical fact" - this is not enough for "believing in miracles". Apostles themselves could misunderstand what Jesus did and he was not willing to explain to them. For example, I believe Lazarus was in coma, he was not dead and that's what even Jesus said at first. – rus9384 Jul 27 '18 at 10:07
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    It is of course possible to add a layer of skepticism to the weirder passages, while holding to the more straightforwardly believable ones and even to some specifically Christian beliefs. However, that didn't seem relevant to the original question, which is asking within the assumptions of someone who believes walking on water and such actually occured. – Josiah Jul 27 '18 at 17:49
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No, I don't think so. Believing what the Bible says, word-for-word, is not a prerequisite or requirement for believing in the basic existence of the Christian God. Believing in his existence does not imply that he is onmipotent/has the power to perform miracles such as those shown in the Bible- you are simply acknowledging that he exists, not specifying what he's able or willing to do. Think of a cat. You see the cat, acknowledge its existence, but your recognition of this fact does not imply that the cat possesses some sort of ability or power, such as being able to jump very high in the air. The cat could have some sort of disability, but this does not lessen the fact that you believe in its existence as a cat, specifically the one in front of you.

(Sorry for the bad analogy.)

However, if you believed every word of the Bible was truth, thereby going beyond the scope of the simply recognition of the existence of the christian God, then yes, it would logically imply that you believed in miracles.

But then there's also the fact that the Bible's words put the "Christian" in "Christian God", and not Allah or Brahman or another similar god..... Perhaps I may be wrong after all......

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Miracles and Providence in Christian theism

As you are asking about Christianity, I think the first place to start is by noting that Christianity is explicitly opposed to Deism, the belief that God exists and created the world, but does not intervene or even really interact with it now. The god of Deism is unknown and unknowable, but the Christian God, right from the beginning of humanity, has communicated, related with, and intervened in the lives of people and the world he created. Though he is not part of the created universe, he has never been far from it, and it exists only because he sustains it.

So there is a sense in which God's interventions in this world are natural: natural to how God is in himself, a relational being who loves his creation, and natural from our perspective, as the whole history of humanity has been one in which God is active.

Second, though we often think of there being a strong dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, Christian theology does not accept that. Instead Christianity teaches the doctrine of Providence: God's continuous sustaining of the universe. Providence is ultimately one act of God, even though it takes different forms at different times. So see the Westminster Confession of Faith on providence:

5.1: God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

5.2: Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

5.3: God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.

In paragraph 2 we read that God is the first cause, by which all things come to pass, but that God ordains that what happens happens through secondary causes, according to their nature. As it is the nature for fire to be hot, ice to be cold, and heavy masses to pull light masses towards them, so these secondary causes are used to work out the providence of God. By itself this might seem to prohibit miracles which go against the nature of things, but paragraph three says that God is free to use these means, or to work without, above, or against them as he wishes. The miracles of God are the times when he decided to use unusual secondary causes, but even then they were not times when every law of nature was suspended. For example, in the miracle of Jesus calming the storm, however it came to pass, gravity still remained in place, and the waters and atmosphere still followed their currents and convections. So rather than thinking of natural and supernatural (or unnatural), it's probably more helpful to think of ordinary and extraordinary.

In this Christian view of God I would say it does imply believing in miracles, because miracles are ultimately only distinguished from the ordinary by the free pleasure of God to act as he wills. For the Providence of God to not have capacity for extraordinary secondary causes would mean that God is beholden to a will more powerful than his own.

The limits of science and the necessity of extraordinary creation

Christians believe God has created a consistent and ordered universe, one in which the enterprise of science can be productive. Although every single physical phenomena is direct result of God's providence, his ordinary providence is so reliable that we can study the universe and construct models of the physical world with incredible detail. So in the rare times when he deems to use non-ordinary means, our scientific enterprise is not able to account for what he does.

Consider the simplest possible miracle, the creation of something from nothing, even as simple as a single photon. If God decided to do this, it would be impossible for science to account for it, because of the law of the conservation of mass/energy. Indeed, it wouldn't even be possible for us to observe it happening, at that scale we can't even compare observation to scientific model. And were we to detect the existence of the photon, all we could say is that it had been travelling in a straight line at constant speed. If we traced its path we might identify a supposed source, or we might have to conclude that its source is beyond our observational reach. But there's no capacity in our observational abilities or our models for it to simply come into existence.

For a similar but larger scale miracle, consider the water turning into wine. At that scale natural human observation can contradict scientific modelling. But scientific study could not be reconciled with naive sort of observation of the wedding attendants. We could analyse the wine and determine what type of grapes it was made from, how old the wine is, perhaps where it was made. We wouldn't detect that it had come into existence just minutes before. The miracle is not that Jesus turned water into minutes old wine, but into quality wine that had been aged for years in barrels in a cellar somewhere. Science could tell us how old the wine was, and that would in a very real sense be the truth.

Christian theology teaches that only God is eternal and self-existent, everything else that is, exists and is contingent on him. We can produce wonderful models with science, but we can't ultimately account for existence. Christians believe God created the universe, and this necessitates a miracle, one which is beyond science. Whether God created through the big bang, or in six days out of nothing, the world that he created is one in which there is matter and energy and laws in how they interact. In an expanding universe the only stable configuration is a singularity, so however God created the universe, when we looked back to model the past, we couldn't see the creation of everything, but only expansion from a singularity. But as I said, we can't account for existence, and science doesn't try. So when there is a fundamental distinction between creator and creation, as Christianity teaches, I believe this does imply believing in miracles, at least the original miracle of the universe.

  • Welcome to Stack Exchange! In order to avoid bias, this answer could be improved if 1) it were explicitly specified that the arguments here do not apply to Christian theology per se, but are based on a Reformed interpretation of Christianity, and as such is a priori incompatible with papal dogma, which is the primary interpretation of Christianity (as regards the number of adherents); and 2) its last section were supported by references to an established school of thought. – Carl Masens Oct 17 '18 at 2:35
  • @CarlMasens No need to welcome me, I've been here two years longer than you. Your criticism is off-the-mark: I quoted the WCF not because only Reformed Christianity believes in it, but because it is the clearest explanation I am familiar with. On this topic Catholicism would not teach anything fundamentally incompatible. Indeed the Wikipedia page I linked to clearly shows that Providence is widely taught across Christian denominations, even including non-Trinitarian ones such as Swedenborgism and LDS. – curiousdannii Oct 17 '18 at 2:39
  • Furthermore, with regard to the Wikipedia page, just because different denominations have the same names for concepts does not imply that they understand these concepts in the same way; that's an example of a strawman argument. – Carl Masens Oct 17 '18 at 2:46
  • @CarlMasens The claim that Reformed theology is a priori incompatible with papal dogma is far more contentious. Feel free to explain how the Reformed and Catholic views of providence are incompatible and I will happily amend my answer. – curiousdannii Oct 17 '18 at 2:49
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Yes they can

This goes not only for Christians but for all religious believers that subscribe to lore involving miracles... say for instance Muslims that believe that Mohammad's horse spread wings for his night flight to Mecca.

The question becomes: how do religious believers reconcile a belief in the temporary suspension of the natural order, while still believing that the natural order is consistent in every other instance?

The simple answer is that they consider the deity to be in full control of the natural order and can choose to suspend it at its leisure.

Which then brings us to The Problem of Evil but that is outside the scope of this question.

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    -1 This answer does not even attempt to answer the questions clearly stated in the title, and in stead imposes it's own agenda regarding omnipotence upon the OP and the forum. Also, mere links to wikipedia and youtube do not constitute an adequate, knowledge-based answer. – Mr. Kennedy Jul 27 '18 at 14:20
  • @Mr.Kennedy The headline question and the question in the body do not match. The question in the body is: "I am curious if you can have a consistent belief system with the two", and that is what I am answering. The question in the headline is answered trivially by the body of the post itself because the body postulates that the believer believes in miracles. So your down-vote is unfair. – MichaelK Jul 27 '18 at 14:23
  • My downvote is fair. "I am curious if you can have a consistent belief system with the two" is not a question - it is an expression of curiosity. If you think the question could be improved, you should leave a comment for the OP – Mr. Kennedy Jul 27 '18 at 20:43
  • @Mr.Kennedy Well you are the one objecting to the statement so... have fun leaving that comment. – MichaelK Jul 27 '18 at 21:34
  • Not quite, I have not objected to anything. I voted on your answer because it does not meet the community standards. – Mr. Kennedy Jul 27 '18 at 23:13
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No. Belief requires neither coherency, logical consistency, nor anything other than believing. Such is the psychological power and scope of faith.

If you want to believe that 2 + 2 = 5, you have that capacity. If, however, you stand 2 + 2 feet from a train track and as a train rolls by you jump the distance believing you've a foot to spare, you will quickly be rendered unable to ever set foot in either a logic class or a Sunday sermon.

Identifying as a christian, certainly, people might expect that you are willing to suspend your disbelief of such fictions as transubstantiation, but that is another matter altogether.

You might enjoy the Thomas Jefferson Bible, it is the story of Jesus from Nazareth sans the miraculous.

  • This does not actually answer the question of how they reconcile the belief in the miraculous with trust that the natural laws are consistent. Down-vote for that reason. – MichaelK Jul 27 '18 at 11:51
  • @MichaelK and yet that question was not asked, this one was: Does believing in a Christian God logically imply believing in miracles? Note the question mark. – Mr. Kennedy Jul 27 '18 at 14:15
  • Your post does not answer the headline question. The headline question is "Do they have to believe in miracles?". You answer: "Beliefs do not have to be consistent with naturals laws or logic". It is a non sequiteur. – MichaelK Jul 27 '18 at 14:32
  • @MichaelK not quite. The question is "Does believing in a Christian God logically imply believing in miracles?" to which the answer is simply, "no." "Do they have to believe in miracles?" is a very different question. If you want that question answered, I suggest you post it. – Mr. Kennedy Jul 27 '18 at 20:45

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