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I asked a Christian today whether he believed that Jesus turning water into wine literally happened, or was just a metaphor. He said it literally happened, and also that other miracles literally happened, such as Jesus dying and coming back to life.

Some miracles described in the bible appear to violate the laws of physics. For example, in turning water into wine, I assume carbon atoms would have to appear where they did not exist before.

Do Christians have an opinion on what happened? Do they believe

  1. The laws of physics were obeyed, and that our understanding of them is merely insufficient to understand what happened.
  2. God does not break the laws of physics, but he changed the laws of physics temporarily such that those laws permitted certain miracles to occur.
  3. God is not only able, but is willing, to break the laws of physics that he created?

The latter two sound like God being inconsistent, and the first one raises the possibility that if humans can understand the science fully, it may (or may not) be possible to replicate what he had done.

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The latter two sound to me like a person who, having created a system of rules, knows when those rules should not apply. Remember, God is a passionate person, not faceless force or mindless machine. –  Affable Geek Mar 20 '12 at 11:35
    
Sorry, this question seems meaningless to me. –  Anixx Apr 17 '13 at 14:51
    
@AffableGeek God is Love, perhaps no more needs to be said. (A "passion" is usually a special term for something that "drives" someone; but God is driven "by" nothing.) –  Alypius Apr 18 '13 at 7:01
    
Any chance that there will soon be an accepted answer for this question? –  Narnian May 7 '13 at 18:37
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C.S. Lewis dealt with this question quite thoroughly in Miracles. –  Juann Strauss Jul 5 '13 at 7:13
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13 Answers

up vote 38 down vote accepted

The laws of physics are certainly quite different from moral laws. In fact, the Bible never refers to the laws of physics as "laws". We see them as laws, because we are bound by them and are unable to break them. We don't obey them based on our own volition.

Moral laws define what we ought to do, but we are under no compulsion to obey them. We have a choice.

We obey the laws of physics because they bind us to them. We obey moral laws because we bind ourselves to them.

So, the idea of God "obeying" what we describe as the laws of physics is really an absurdity. These laws govern the physical universe--not the Maker of the physical universe.

This is a very significant distinction, because I have heard someone make the claim that if God breaks His own laws (of physics), then He is guilty of sin for breaking the law. This is a completely false statement, though, because the laws of physics are distinct from moral law. Breaking a moral law is, by definition, immoral, but this is not true of the breaking of physical or natural laws. Breaking a natural law would simply be "unnatural", or, more appropriately, "supernatural".

The Maker of the physical universe certainly has the power to create new matter according to His own will, as in the case of the Feeding of the 5,000. He can change matter according to His will as well, as in the case of the Turning of the Water into Wine, the healing of the blind, the raising of the dead, etc.

Yet, His authority is not merely over the physical world, but over the spiritual realm as well, as demonstrated in Jesus casting out demons.

So, God is not confined by what we happen to refer to as the laws of physics. They are laws the govern the physical universe. They do not govern God Himself.

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Nice answer! I wish I'd thought of that angle. You're absolutely right,of course. –  David Stratton Mar 20 '12 at 12:38
    
There is one miracle concerning stopping the sun in the sky. I submit to you that breaking that law I physics would destroy the world. Stopping the earth spinning: really really bad idea. Cataclysmic. All so one group of his equally loved creations can slaughter another group? I don't think so. –  Marc Gravell Mar 20 '12 at 16:31
    
@Marcgravell are you referring to the momentum objects on earth have, and what would happen (under our understanding of physics) if they kept moving but the earth didn't? –  Andrew Grimm Mar 20 '12 at 21:21
    
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@MarcGravell - If you stop the sun in the sky, why not also alter the Earth's inertial reference frame while you're at it, match the centrifugal forces, do something sensible with the tides, etc. etc...if you created the entire universe, surely that wouldn't be too hard. –  Rex Kerr Mar 22 '12 at 9:24
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That would be one definition of miracles - that they are a suspension of the normal rules of physics and the universe. Otherwise they would be "coincidences" or " explainable anomolies"

Miracles are supernatural by nature, and by definition, not explainable by the normal laws of physics.

All three of the bullet points you listed are possible explanations, and all could be true for different miracles.

As for inconsistency, God is also Sovereign, and can do as He pleases if it suits His will. That's very clear in the Bible, and His miracles are always shown to have happened for a purpose. All of Jesus' miracles, if you look them up, are performed to demonstrate that He is more than just a normal man - that He is God. They all are accompanied by Him teaching or making a subtle (or not so subtle) claim to His authority.

Finally, being finite with limited (although incredible) mental capacity, we will never "understand science fully". That would mean omniscience, an attribute that is believed by Christians to be only applicable to God Himself.

It should be noted, however, that the subject of Miracles is not purely a Christian issue, nor is "supernatural" the only type of miracle possible. Miracles can, as alluded to in the first paragraph, be happy but unlikely coincidences. However, the miracles you're speaking of are clearly supernatural in nature.

Miracle From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A miracle often denotes an event attributed to divine intervention. Alternatively, it may be an event attributed to a miracle worker, saint, or religious leader. A miracle is sometimes thought of as a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature. Others suggest that God may work with the laws of nature to perform what people perceive as miracles.[1] Theologians say that, with divine providence, God regularly works through created nature yet is free to work without, above, or against it as well.[2]

In casual usage, "miracle" is seen as any event that is statistically unlikely but beneficial, (such as surviving a natural disaster), or simply a "wonderful" occurrence, regardless of likelihood, such as a birth. Other miracles might be: survival of a terminal illness, escaping a life threatening situation or 'beating the odds'. Some coincidences may be perceived to be miracles.[3]

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I don't think many individual denominations have come to a consensus on this question, much less is there a consensus that is representative of collective Christianity. But based on my experience as a scientist and as a life-long Christian, I would suggest that miracles do in fact obey laws of physics that we simply do not yet understand.

Consider this. Our understanding of various topics in science is not perfect and never has been. But despite having an incomplete picture, various models and theories have proven useful despite their imperfections. On the other side, our understanding of faith, of God, and of His nature is not perfect and never has been. But our limited understanding does not prevent us from accepting God, exercising faith in Him, and enjoying the blessings He has promised.

Many people today see conflicts between science and faith. We must remember that there is ultimately one truth. Science endeavors to describe this truth in physical terms, while faith and religion endeavor to describe the truth in terms of its spiritual, metaphysical, and eternal impact our our lives. When there are apparent conflicts between science and faith, it is generally because our understanding is limited in both areas. I'm confident that Christ's miracles have an explanation that fits squarely within the laws of physics, but not necessarily the laws of physics as we now understand them.

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That's a good point. Just this morning, I had a face-to-face discussion with a friend of mine who lives a few thousand miles away. Stuff like Skype and webcams may seem commonplace to us, but 1000 years ago, would that not be seen as a miracle? (Or an act of sorcery, depending on the observer.) –  Mason Wheeler Mar 21 '12 at 16:32
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From Tim Keller:

“We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order. The Bible tells us that God did not originally make the world to have disease, hunger, and death in it. Jesus has come to redeem where it is wrong and heal the world where it is broken. His miracles are not just proofs that he has power but also wonderful foretastes of what he is going to do with that power. Jesus' miracles are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we all want is coming.” ― Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

In other words, God's consistency in miracles was with the natural created order (and restoring it) rather than the laws of physics, though it is possible that in some cases, that he was consistent with both.

I have always claimed that his greatest miracles were not the physical ones, like changing water into wine, but the spiritual ones, like forgiving sins, saving souls, and changing lives. For example, healing the cripple lowered from the roof was done after forgiving him as proof that Jesus had the power to forgive sins. Similarly, Jesus told the disciples that it was impossible for a rich man to be saved without God, implying that it was impossible for anyone.

Jesus' miracles were always performed more to show God's love and mercy and change people's lives and were never exclusively a display of his power. Jesus was actually tempted to demonstrate his power without the redeeming purpose as one of the temptations in the desert, and he refused to do so as it would be a sin.

In turning the water to wine, Jesus ministered to the bridegroom even if he never knew the miracle took place, as running out of wine may have cost him dearly. In this case, He acted consistently with God's plan to redeem the world, which is a greater cause the the laws of physics.

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God created the Laws of Physics where before none existed. A God who can do that is surely able to bend them in both small and large ways at will.

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In scenarios 2 and 3, I discussed God being capable of bending the laws of physics, but asked in the subsequent paragraph as to whether it'd be against God's nature. –  Andrew Grimm Mar 20 '12 at 21:48
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I don't claim to speak for the entire Christian community, but as a Christian I can tell you what I feel to be true. You offer 3 explanations for the various miracles that occurred in the New Testament, however, I would choose:

4. None of the above

Human beings are so wrapped up in searching inside this little box that we live in for all of the answers to how the universe works that our truly limited understanding of what is possible casts a veil over our willingness to believe that there are things yet to be understood or discovered when it comes to the laws of physics.

I can tell you this, God is never inconsistent, He is Truth, and there is only one Truth. Just because we don't understand every nook-and-cranny of the entire Truth doesn't render it impossible (or even implausible).

The scientific community has recently been thrown into a tizzy over the observation that a group of neutrinos out-ran a group of photons in a race to Italy, which should be impossible according to our limited understanding of physics as photons travel at the speed of light and theoretically nothing can travel faster than c. Many members of the scientific community are scrambling to blame this observation on calibration errors in their instruments but they haven't been able to confirm such errors.

As an amateur quantum physics enthusiast I'm fascinated by the concepts of String Theory, time travel, wave-particle duality, quantum computing and parallel universes. Moreover, the existence of these forces don't compromise my faith in our Creator or His Son. Quite the contrary, they reinforce that God is truly capable of anything and I'm excited to one day unite with Him and become enlightened to His amazing ways.

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I've read your answer twice, and it sounds like you are actually describing option 1...? Re the neutrino thing; they have identified what they believe is the cause, and are taken steps to re-run things. That is what science does; it carefully evaluates, and re-tests things. –  Marc Gravell Mar 20 '12 at 6:07
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Actually Marc, I was implying that we are best served to throw out the notion of the laws of physics entirely when attempting to understand our Creator. Additionally, my answer acknowledged that they had an idea of what might have gone wrong with the experiment. I simply stated that those errors hadn't been confirmed yet, which you actually reinforced in your comment in saying "what they believe is the cause." I get what science is and I'm all for it, what gets me is that mainstream science will acknowledge any possibile scientific explanation UNLESS that explanation points to our Creator. –  KodeKreachor Mar 20 '12 at 10:31
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you misjudge science, then. It isn't that things will be discarded IF it points to some creator, but rather: all the credible science DOES NOT point in any way to a creator, and much points away from the need for a creator. What is rejected is bad science; with poor (or deliberately misleading) methods, invalid logic, and unqualified assertions. THAT is what disqualifies creationism. –  Marc Gravell Mar 20 '12 at 10:40
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All credible science points directly to our Creator, Marc. It takes a willing and humble heart to make the connection. Take care brother, all of God's blessings upon you. –  KodeKreachor Mar 20 '12 at 11:53
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I thought this was an good article on trad. scientific evidence for the need for an supreme architect and, thusly, the need to alleviate that need through a radically different scientific paradigm (multiverse vs. anthropic universe). This was from a non-believer, but the irony of it is that he somewhat begrudgingly admits that the alternate view ends up undermining traditional scientific values and methodology ("no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence") which, interestingly, requires a good bit of faith. harpers.org/archive/2011/12/0083720 –  Steven Mar 20 '12 at 17:22
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Miracles are generally divided into two types, called (unoriginally) Type 1 and Type 2 miracles. It's an old distinction. The definitions are:

  1. Type 1 miracles are those where nothing occurs that is unexplicable in itself, but the timing or other circucumstances make for particular meaning or significance. To give an example, if you are lost in the wilderness and pray for rescue, and a guide shows up immediately, that's a type 1 miracle.
  2. In a Type 2 miracle there is no sequence of cause and effect that could have brought about what occurs. Turning water into wine is an example, so is recovery from a terminal disease.

Type 2 miracles do, by definition, violate the laws of nature.

To be clear, in case 1, you don't have a miracle at all. But it's very unlikely that a future improved understanding of the laws of nature are going to reveal a case when water might spontaneously change into wine (and even if we did, it would still be a type 1 miracle since it just happened to occur at exactly the right time). Case 2 and Case 3 are essentially the same.

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What type of miracle is a vision, like Fatima or Lourdes? (before the physical manifestations of the miracles) –  Peter Turner Mar 20 '12 at 16:12
    
Type 1 suffers "post hoc ergo propter hoc" and also exhibits statistical selection bias. We hear very few stories from the people who prayed, didn't get help, and perished. Likewise the ones where they didn't pray but still got saved, or prayed and escaped without anything unlikely; don't make the front page of Church Times. Recovery from a normally terminal disease is called "remission" and is not uncommon. "Terminal" is a statistical classification, not an absolute thing, when applied to illness. Anyone who finds someone surviving a 1M:1 illness amazing: doesn't understand statistics. –  Marc Gravell Mar 20 '12 at 19:10
    
@MarcGravell I wasn't aiming to start a general discussion of miracles. –  DJClayworth Mar 20 '12 at 21:02
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First, note that the "laws of nature" are not actually laws; they do not cause anything and they are not binding on anything. They are descriptions of the normal order. The "Law of Gravity" has never caused anything to happen -- it merely describes what we observe.

We always describe laws in terms of a closed system. If you add a new input, our expected results change. To use C.S. Lewis's argument, let's say I put $10 in a drawer this morning and another $10 in tonight. Tomorrow, if I open the drawer and find $5 I don't claim the laws of arithmetic have been broken; I say somebody has stuck his hand in the drawer.

In the same way, if God chooses to add a new input into our physical universe (sticks His hand into the drawer), the observed events will differ from our expectations (provided we do not know of this input). The virgin birth is not the miracle; the miracle is in the conception, then the normal order takes over.

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I am a physicist with a faculty position as well as being a Christian. From a physical point of view I would say option 1 is definitely a possibility - atomic nuclei do indeed combine (fusion) and split (fission) to form new elements, as in stars, nuclear reactors and bombs. Quantum mechanics gives us ways of calculating the probability of this happening. Under extreme conditions this can be quite probable, but under normal conditions, the probability of hydrogen and oxygen combining to form carbon etc is smaller than 10^(-10^23) [Ask on SE.Physics if you want a more precise estimate], ie similar to rolling a fair die for each atom in the water and getting a 6 each time. The resulting energy could be released in the form of undetectable particles (neutrinos, gravitons, something we don't know about yet because it's undetectable...). God (or you or I) are quite capable of rolling a die in such a way as making sure it comes up a 6, so it is quite possible for Him to do this miracle without breaking any known laws of physics. Whether most Christians agree (or have thought about this enough to form an opinion) I don't know. Of course this, and the other miracles in the Bible, are there for theological reasons - here the text is clear it is as a sign of who Jesus is. This adds to, not contradicts, our attempts to understand the physics.

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Welcome to the site! This is certainly a reasonable perspective. I look forward to seeing more from you! In the meantime, I recommend all new visitors read How we are different than other sites? and the help page to learn how this site works, and dispel any misconceptions about the purpose. –  David Stratton Jul 4 '13 at 15:56
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This reminds me of the questions the Pharisees would ask of Jesus, intending to trap Him no matter what answer He gave. (I'm not saying that was his intent here) Either it is not really a miracle (bad) or God violated His own laws (also bad). I think the question has been well answered from the standpoint of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I would like to look ar whether a miracle requires some "supernatural" event to take place. I was taught in college that a miracle was God working on behalf of His people at the time and in the manner required, whether that was in nature or out of nature. Example 1: Joshua 3 tells the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan into Canaan. Verses 15-16 say that as soon as the feet of the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant touched the water, the river flow stopped far away at Adam, and the people crossed on dry ground. The Jordan passes through cliffs in the region of Adam, and occasionally a landslide will block the flow until the waters are able to overcome the blockage. Is this a miracle? Yes, because the priests did not have to stand there a day, or a week, or a year, waiting for something to happen, but God stopped the water immediately. Example 2: In 1 Samuel 12:16-18 God shows His displeasure with the Israelites rejecting Him as their king and asking for an earthly king by sending thunder and rain in the dry season. I live in Alabama, and there are storms approaching my location right now. To me this is no miracle, but to the Israelites it might as well have been snowing in July. We can explain the phenomenon, but it was still a miracle.

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It is important to distinguish between the violation of physical laws and the violation of moral laws. The violation of a moral law is, by definition, immortal, but this is not so with the violation of physical laws. –  Narnian Dec 30 '13 at 20:19
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Just as within the moral realm, God's law outweighs and supplants but does not negate the Natural Law. In the super natural realm, wherein even an atheist would say God exists, God's ways outweigh and supplant, but do not negate natural realities like entropy.

God has promised to man through scripture that He will not change. And this means He will not violate logic by squaring circles. But it does not mean that He won't use His infinite power to bring about our infinite good. Which, I personally think is a good case for miracles. They really exist to bolster faith, not just to heal the body. It shows what God really wants is for us to be happy with him forever, not only for a short time.

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I don't think an atheist would say that God exists in the supernatural. It would rather go against the "a" in atheist. –  Wikis Mar 20 '12 at 11:45
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@PeterTurner This atheist would suggest that it's jumping the gun to ask what exists in the supernatural since the supernatural has not yet been demonstrated to exist itself (in fact, any coherent definition of supernatural tends towards "that which doesn't exist" anyway). –  Kaz Dragon Mar 20 '12 at 15:27
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But before even that, the entire argument is circular, upon some undefined, unevidenced "supernatural realm". Since such has never been observed empirically, there is no basis upon which I draw any conclusion (even existence). The default position, as with teapots in space, is "it doesn't exist". Or as twitter would say "pics or it didn't happen" –  Marc Gravell Mar 20 '12 at 16:21
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Maybe that paragraph works if ou replace "atheist" with "deist" –  Marc Gravell Mar 20 '12 at 16:23
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@PeterTurner This is exactly my point. What does it mean for something do be perceptible by a means other than reason? It doesn't. If something supernatural were to interact with the natural in any way, it would be perceptible, hence not supernatural. Therefore, the set of supernatural things overlaps identically with the set of things that do not exist. With sufficiently advanced technology, memories are certainly perceptible. In any case, the claim that atheists would say God exists is fractally wrong and should be removed. –  Kaz Dragon Mar 20 '12 at 17:55
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What about Quantum Mechanics?

Quantum Mechanics opens the door for miracles. There is a concept of quantum fluctuations where particles can appear out of nowhere temporarily or the amount of energy can change in a point in space. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_fluctuation

We do not understand this process but indeed on the quantum level the particles can appear and disappear with given probability.

I like @Daniel's answer that Jesus follows the rules of physical world and acts on the mattern according to Quantum Mechanics. In the physical sense it means he is able to manipulate the energy which in turn is possible only for the Creator of the matter and energy.

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As I found out recently, quantum fluctuations produce particles that last for very short amounts of time, nowhere near enough time to make it appear as if a miracle had happened. So, in fact, this is not a possible explanation. –  El'endia Starman Apr 17 '13 at 7:04
    
As I mentioned we do not understand Quantum Mechanics fully. I can imagine that with the addition of 'uknown factor' these fluctuations can last longer. Quantum Mechanics always existed but we discovered it only about 100 years ago. –  luksmir Apr 17 '13 at 7:09
    
@luksmir So ... option 1 from the question? –  svidgen Apr 17 '13 at 14:28
    
I vote for option No.1. I like the @Peter Turner's remark that God promised not to change the Law and that the implication of this is that His laws pertaining to physics will not be changed too. We still know too little about the universe. –  luksmir Apr 18 '13 at 8:42
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Miracles are only miracles until you understand them God does not have to break physical laws...he just has to understand them and know how to use them. A lot of the time instead of a physical miracle he can apply a "spiritual" miracle. Take the place where he fed a large crowd with a few fish. I always believed that the fish was there, but the people that had it were too selfish to share...leaving a lot of people with no food. By having someone give what he had it evolved into the selfish people coming out of their shells and helping out. I love those parts of the New Testament, because to me the miracle is not Christ showing what he can do for us, but what we can do for each other.

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Welcome to C.SE. When you get the chance, please check out our about[ page and find out how we are [different than other sites. As it stands, we are normally looking for answers that support their claims, either through a doctrinal, theological, or biblical basis. –  Affable Geek Oct 5 '13 at 15:31
    
I would like to second what Affable Geek said and also encourage you to continue participating on the site. Read a few upvoted questions and answer and get a feel for the preferred format. –  fredsbend Oct 5 '13 at 21:09
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