Of metal detectors and miracles

 
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It had finally arrived—the family’s beach vacation that I’d been looking forward to for months. As we set up our tent in the park, the cool blue water and gentle crashes of the waves just a few metres away beckoned invitingly. After lathering up with sunscreen, our family waded out into the idyllic bliss that had only been in my dreams just the night before. I grabbed the waist of my beautiful little girl, giving her the boost from her daddy that she needed to jump high over each of the incoming waves that raced toward us. This truly was the family vacation of a decade!

When tiredness started to set in and we felt in need of a change of activity, my daughter and I began to walk out of the water. As we emerged, I immediately sensed that something was wrong. What could it be? Suddenly I realised what had happened—I had lost my wedding ring! Between the oily sunscreen on my hands and the cool water, in lifting my daughter, my gold wedding ring had slipped off my finger and descended through the bubbles and surf to the golden, sandy sea floor.

Optimistically, over the day we made numerous search-and-rescue sweeps along the beach. However, with the ebb and flow of the mighty Pacific Ocean, that precious golden ring could have easily been transported out to sea or buried underneath the sand. I finally had to give up and let that ring go free.

A metal detector would have been an incredibly useful tool—provided the ocean had brought the ring back onto the beach.

Imagine, though, that instead of my gold wedding ring, I’d lost the plastic lid from my wife’s favourite picnic container. If it had become buried under the ruins of a sand castle, even if I had owned the most sensitive metal detector in the world, I would never have found that lid. In fact, if someone with a metal detector had combed the entire waterfront and emphatically told me that there were no plastic lids buried anywhere along that beach, that would not mean that my wife’s container lid was not buried deep within the sand. The issue would be that the person using the metal detector would be using the wrong tool to find our plastic lid.

Attempting to use a metal detector to try and find plastic lids is not the only situation where wrong tools can be used to attempt to discover what is true about the world. 

Science is the search for natural laws that describe how the natural world works. It intentionally does not include supernatural explanations and miracles, and understandably so. This approach is called methodological naturalism. It would not make sense for a scientist who walked into his lab one morning to find that all of the bacteria had died in his petri dish, to then sit down and write a scientific paper on how fiendish evil spirits had randomly zapped the bacteria in his laboratory!

However, that doesn’t mean that evil spirits can’t be directly responsible for killing biological organisms! Just like the fact that plastic lids can actually be buried in the sand on a beach even though the most sensitive metal detector in the world can’t detect them, the fact that science isn’t able to detect miracles doesn’t mean that supernatural miracles haven’t actually occurred.

Now suppose that you and I are spiritual seekers and that we’ve decided to read through the Gospel of John together to learn more about the life of Jesus. In the second chapter we read that Jesus supernaturally changed water into wine. Being a little sceptical, we wonder whether this could have actually happened or whether it’s a bit of Christian mythology. How would we determine whether John’s story is true?
 

Well, since we’re committed to science, an obvious approach would be to visit an eminent enologist (a scientist who studies the process of wine making) at our local university. Our question for her would be, “Can you tell us whether Jesus actually changed water miraculously into wine?”

Now our expert enologist could definitely explain how water can be transformed into wine, from grape vines growing in the Napa Valley soil through to squeezing the succulent grapes into grape juice. However, if she really understands the limits of science, she would candidly state that she could not tell us whether Jesus supernaturally changed water into fresh grape juice nor, if He did, how He did it.

As we leave the professor’s office, she may still feel some intellectual indignation that we raised the issue of the supernatural accounts in the Bible, and so she may be compelled to throw in a few comments as her office door closes behind us: “Don’t forget that the church has a tendency to be anti-intellectual and to obstinately ignore the findings of science. It would be unwise to repeat the mistakes of the past. Remember the Galileo affair!”

The problem with this historical appeal to Galileo is that there’s a fundamental difference between the situation where Jesus turned water into wine and Galileo’s discovery in astronomy. Using a telescope, Galileo made repeatable physical observations that there were moons orbiting the planet Jupiter, and this provided scientific confirmation that everything in the universe did not in fact revolve around Earth. This is a phenomenon that occurs regularly in nature and is something that science is well equipped to study.

However, when Jesus turned water into wine, He performed a one-time supernatural miracle, which is not the way grapes normally are transformed by human beings into wine. Enology, the science of wine making, is the wrong tool to determine whether Jesus miraculously turned water into wine. If we really want to determine whether Jesus actually performed a miracle, it takes the study of the Bible and listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit to confirm this fact, not science.

There are many other accounts of supernatural miracles in the Bible, and science is the wrong place to turn if we want to determine whether any of them happened. Other miracles in the New Testament include the miraculous conception of Jesus in His mother Mary’s womb, the healing of an invalid lying by the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus, and His own resurrection from the dead.

Other biblical miracles include when God supernaturally created all life on Earth in a series of supernatural miracles over a period of six literal days and made Adam and Eve in His own image through two special creation events on day six.

Now it’s important to note that we can look out at the universe and observe the design and power of God in nature. King David wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1), and the apostle Paul observed that God’s “invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

However, when science intentionally excludes supernatural miracles as an explanation, it becomes the wrong tool to confirm or deny any of the miraculous events that are recorded in the Bible. It’s like trying to use the most sensitive metal detector in the world to find a plastic container lid buried in the golden sand of a beach.