Recently I attended the annual conference of Christians in Science, which took place in Oxford. The theme of the conference was miracles. There were several presentations, all of high quality, and discussion times. Since then I have been turning this subject over in my mind.
The most memorable lesson of the conference was that when one looks into accounts of miraculous healing in modern times, in all the cases where there is carefully gathered evidence, it turns out that the evidence is also consistent with the healing having taken place through natural, i.e. non-miraculous, processes. Healing from a difficult and worrying condition will always be welcome, of course, and may carry special meaning for the person or people concerned. It may be providential. But this is not the same thing as miraculous in the sense that the healings reported in the gospels are miraculous. Often the medical evidence is consistent with the sort of remission that cancer sometimes shows, or with an illness such as Myalgic encephalomyelitis which is little understood and may remit for reasons that are not understood but not necessarily miraculous. In view of this, it is highly misleading to suggest to people that they may expect miraculous healing, or to imply that there is some failure on their part when miraculous healing does not take place.
On the other hand, Christian faith has a good correlation with positive health outcomes within the range of what may be called natural. The supportive and hopeful attitudes that a good Christian community fosters tend to have positive effects on both mental and physical health. The words in the letter of James, “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” are helpfully vague. They express quite well the sort of encouragement and sense of being cared about that people get when others pray for them, but they do not guarantee healing. They only suggest some sort of general positive effect. James was, I think, being careful to avoid over-stating the situation. He wanted to offer some helpful guidance without being misleading and untruthful.
The miracles described in the Bible take place mostly in groups, the main groups being associated with the liberation from Egypt, with Elijah, and of course with the life of Jesus. It is not possible to count them accurately, because the count will depend on questions of interpretation, such as whether the story of Jonah is historical or parabolic. Also, sometimes an event might take place owing to natural causes such as an earthquake, but with a timing that proves significant for the people concerned. The crossing of the Jordan may be of this kind (see note at the end). However, even if one includes events of significant timing under the title ‘miracles’, then the total number of miracles described in the Old Testament is some tens or perhaps around one hundred, and they take place in groups. It follows that, in a typical year in the life of ancient Israel, almost certainly no miracles at all took place. This is because we are dealing with a period of well over a thousand years, and most of the marvellous events take place in a few of those years. It follows that, even allowing that the record is far from complete, miracles in ancient Israel were not just rare but extremely rare. Most people could expect not to encounter one or even hear of one happening elsewhere in their whole lifetime.
In the apostolic period described in Acts of the Apostles, there are beautiful and remarkable events, but nevertheless, most people experienced the same amount of illness or calamity and death as is normal in human life. Paul had some sort of difficult physical ailment, and others had equally serious illness and setbacks. All died.
We call ‘miraculous’ events that don’t fall into the normal patterns of the world—the patterns that science elucidates—but the only miracles that actually happened (as opposed to mistaken reports or misunderstandings of natural phenomena) are themselves pointers to or signs of what the larger patterns of reality actually are. Such events are not a breakdown of a given law, but a breaking-in of a higher law. This is like the use of dissonance in the hands of an expert composer, or the use of a deliberate missed beat in the flow of a poem. Without the normal flow the missed beat would not be possible, but when introduced at the right moment, such a re-set or sudden silence is where a larger meaning may be at work.
The role of miracles in the life of Christ is centred on their significance in indicating the unique importance and role of the person at the heart of them. The beautiful events that took place were telling pointers, but they did not address general healthcare. The rate of cancer, leprosy, haemophilia, blindness and so on in the general population did not change. To address those issues, the crucial factors have been hygiene, fairer distribution of wealth, scientific understanding of causes and cures, and simply the recognition that every individual is equally valuable. These are the things that Jesus made possible, in the long term, by his teaching and demonstration of what our general attitudes should be. Through modern day infrastructure in developed countries, women can have every reason to hope for safe child delivery, and many illnesses which were widely experienced only a couple of generations ago (tuberculosis, diphtheria, polio) are all but eradicated. Even some forms of blindness can be healed by laser eye surgery. We are indeed doing the “greater works than these” which Jesus spoke of (I think his statement in John chapter 14 is a general insight about human potential when we live out the sort of partnership with God which he made possible).
What does partnership with God look like in practice? It does not take the form of individual people getting super-powers. It takes the form of communities of people coming together with greater levels of wisdom, generosity, trust, and mutual forgiveness. This in turn leads to the decision to offer education (including literacy and numeracy) as a universal freely available start for all, and it should lead to empowerment of women equally with men, and to culture with good governance, which in turn makes possible the long-term stability that liberates some to study science as well as other creative endeavours. The theme of partnership also motivates passion for truth and intellectual integrity, and an interest in the wider world and how it functions.
Jesus spoke strongly against the craving for miraculous signs and wonders, which appears to have been a common fault in first century Israel, and I would say it is equally common today. It seems to involve a combination of arrogance on the one hand and faithlessness on the other. Arrogance, because it tries to get our teacher to play tricks for us before we will commit ourselves to learning from Him. Faithlessness, because it is a desperate search for reassurance. Having said that, I think that when people have courageously committed themselves to loving others in God’s name, with or without signs and wonders, then some marvellous things have happened. Jackie Pullinger springs to mind.
Added note regarding the crossing of the Jordan (Joshua chapter 3).
Colin Humphreys has given a carefully researched account which gives good evidence that an earthquake upstream, in the vicinity of Damia, may have caused a mud slide there, temporarily blocking the flow of the river. For more information, see