Dialogue between science and miracle

Q. Although it seems intellectually satisfying to isolate religion and science into separate domains, that doesn’t seem to fully fit the picture. Though religion typically answers questions of who and why, any time the Bible maintains that miracles occurred, it steps into the realm of science. For example, Jesus either physically died and rotted somewhere or he was brought to heaven. If the spiritual world is real, there should be empirical consequences and “facts” that science can never explain. Is it accurate to maintain that the two domains of science and religion really are so separate, or is that more of an ideological goal to strive for to achieve clarity in thinking?

This is the essence of the first part of a long and thoughtful question that was recently posed to this blog.  (You can read the full text of the question here.)  In response to this part, I would say that there is indeed some overlap between the otherwise separate domains of religion and science, in that science (the discipline of drawing reasoned conclusions from empirical observations) can disprove the claim of a miracle by providing contradictory evidence.

Gustave Dore, “Elijah Ascends to Heaven”

In fact, we see this process of dialogue between miracle and science within the Bible itself.  When Elisha comes back from across the Jordan to report that Elijah has been taken up alive into heaven by a whirlwind, the company of prophets in Jericho isn’t so sure. “Look,” they tell Elisha, “we your servants have fifty able men. Let them go and look for your master. Perhaps the Spirit of the Lord has picked him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley.”

In other words, “Maybe that whirlwind wasn’t a miraculous transport to heaven after all.  Maybe it was an ordinary whirlwind that has left Elijah stranded somewhere out in the desert, where he needs our help!”  Elisha is sure of the miracle and tells the prophets not to go.  They go out anyway and search in the desert for three days, but find nothing.

So did this empirical search that turned up no body prove that Elijah was taken up alive into heaven?  Not quite.  It just didn’t prove that he wasn’t.

In other words, when science investigates a miracle, the most that can be said on the side of the miracle is that there is no scientific proof that it didn’t happen.  But by definition (since science properly limits itself to the non-miraculous), there is also no scientific proof that a miracle did happen.

The same applies to the resurrection of Jesus.  If his body had ever turned up, that would have disproved the resurrection.  We know that his body never turned up because of what historians call the “criterion of embarrassment,” in which a hostile source needs to offer some explanation for an embarrassing detail. The gospels record how opponents claimed that Jesus’ early followers had stolen his body–an admission that it was missing.

A strong historical case can be made that it was not just unlikely, but virtually impossible, for Jesus’ body to have been stolen. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, if we do not rule out the miraculous, the most likely explanation of the events of that first Easter morning is that Jesus actually rose from the dead.  That is not a scientific conclusion, because it allows for miraculous possibilities.  But I do consider it a reasonable conclusion.

So the respective fields of investigation of science and religion do overlap in that science can falsify certain religious claims that should (or should not) leave real-world evidence.  But science does not validate religious claims when it cannot falsify them.  That is still the role of faith.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Dialogue between science and miracle”

  1. I like how the word “dialogue” and not “debate” or “divide” is used in the title. I would add that even if some biblical miracles may have scientific/mechanistic explanations, that does not prove that God was not involved in it. This relates to the “God of the gaps” tendency we have to invoke God’s action only for things we don’t understand scientifically.

    I would also suggest that the historical/forensic science-type explanations given above for Jesus’ resurrection and Elijah’s ascension are qualitatively different than biological/chemical/physical-type explanations.

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