Can we take Mark’s supernatural stories seriously?

Mark’s Gospel is full of miracles! A massive 40 percent of his narrative involves miracles. In his very first chapter Mark describes how Jesus not only healed a man ‘who was possessed by an impure spirit’ (Mark 1:23), he also cured a person with a physical illness: leprosy. In his last chapter Mark records that the crucified Jesus had been raised from the dead. In between, Mark has Jesus healing a man who couldn’t walk, raising a dead girl to life, walking on water, healing a deaf and dumb boy, and giving sight to a blind man.

Can it be true that Jesus really performed these miracles? 2,000 years ago, people knew much less science that we know today. The problem with miracles is that many of them appear to violate well-established scientific laws.

But if Jesus really did all these incredible things, wouldn’t this be the most important story in human history? So stay with me as we explore whether we can believe in miracles in our scientific age.

Breaking the laws of science?

The case against miracles is eloquently stated by the well-known scientist Professor Richard Dawkins (sometimes called the ‘Archbishop of Atheism’). He writes:

The Resurrection…even the Old Testament miracles, are all freely used for religious propaganda and they are very effective with an audience of unsophisticates and children. Every one of these miracles amounts to a violation of the normal running of the natural world.[1]

Dawkins goes on to say that the ‘normal running of the natural world’ cannot be violated and that miracles therefore cannot exist.

Richard Dawkins is a Fellow of the Royal Society, which includes many of the world’s most eminent scientists, so his views have to be taken seriously. I am also a Fellow of the Royal Society and I have debated science and Christianity with Richard on the BBC World Service. His statement above implies that intelligent adults don’t believe in miracles. This is easily shown to be wrong. I know many top scientists who believe the miracles recorded in the Bible really happened. So how do they reconcile their belief in miracles with their belief in science?

To understand miracles, we must first understand what Dawkins calls ‘the normal running of the natural world’. Scientists describe the rhythms and patterns of our world by theories and laws. Laws are well established theories which have survived many repeated tests. Laws therefore describe the past: they do not prescribe the future (i.e. predict what must happen in the future) but they do raise our expectations to a very high degree. For example, we would be astonished if a predicted solar eclipse didn’t occur. Importantly, scientific laws are based on repeated events.

It seems that the healing miracles of Jesus, and his resurrection, do break scientific laws (at least with our present understanding of science). So how do I as a scientist reconcile my belief in these miracles with my belief in science?

The master composer at work

Imagine standing behind a pianist as she plays a piano from memory (with no music). If her fingers normally land on the white keys, but every time she goes to play an F she plays the black F sharp key instead, one can deduce the key signature (G major) of the composition. The key signature is at the start of the musical score and it is the rule given by the composer for playing the music (play F sharp instead of F). In the same way, we might say that God, the master composer of the universe, has established its key signature. We do not have the score of the universe, but by careful observation scientists can establish the rules by which it operates. We call these rules the laws of nature, or scientific laws. As the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler said: ‘I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him’.

Let us continue to watch the pianist. Very occasionally we may observe that she doesn’t play the black F sharp key but plays the white F instead. Or she may sometimes play the black A flat or C sharp keys. What is going on? A musical composer is not bound by his own key signature (his own rules). He is free to decide that at a particular place in the music he wants an additional sharp or flat; these local deviations from the key signature rules are called accidentals. With a great composer these accidentals are never capricious; they are always carefully placed and consistent with what the composer is trying to achieve. They make sweeter music (try playing a Beethoven sonata as written and then without the accidentals: it sounds so much better with the accidentals).

Similarly, God is not bound by the rules he has established for the normal running of the Universe. He is free to uphold it moment by moment in any way he chooses. However, he is a consistent God, and therefore any ‘local accidental’, any change in his method of upholding, must be consistent with what he wants to achieve. It cannot be capricious, it must make sweeter music, it must be consistent with his overall purpose. For instance, the Bible consistently speaks of God as ‘abounding in love’ (e.g. Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:5, 15). So if Jesus is the Son of God it makes more sense, not less, for him to heal the sick; it is totally consistent with his loving character. Similarly, the apostle Peter said that ‘God raised [Jesus] from the dead…because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him’ (Acts 2: 24). Peter sees the resurrection as being inevitable, not incredible. If Jesus really was the Son of God, then death could not hold him. Jesus’ miracles are not random or arbitrary, they reveal who he is. So as we read Mark’s Gospel, we should ask what each miracle tells us about him.

Coming back to the objections of Richard Dawkins to miracles, I agree with him that many biblical miracles amount to a violation of the normal running of the natural world. But just as a musical composer is free to insert accidentals in the music he creates, so God is free to intervene in the normal running of the natural world he created and upholds. So is it possible for scientists (and non-scientists) to believe in the miracles Mark describes? The answer is yes!

Professor Sir Colin Humphreys CBE, FRS, FREng is Professor of Materials Science, Queen Mary University of London and Distinguished Research Fellow, and Fellow of Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.


[1] Forbes, ‘Snake Oil and Holy Water’, October 4, 1999.