Now before you label me a “heretic” or accuse me of preaching something “antithetical to the gospel,” let me be clear up front: I believe in the historical resurrection of Jesus the Christ, meaning I believe that he literally died on a cross and on the third day (according to the Jewish calendar) literally rose from the dead into a newly resurrected body.
Yes, this is a matter of faith versus hard evidence, but I have come to that conclusion based on a combination of historical research and personal experience with the living, risen Savior.
For all my cynicism, deconstruction, and questioning of conventional religious narratives, that is a message I am willing to commit my life to.
I also believe that all the events surrounding Jesus’s life that we customarily label as “miracles” (e.g., the virgin birth, water into wine, feeding the 5000, healings, etc.) really did happen.
I must also confess up front that my title is a bit of a misnomer. What I’m really challenging in this article is the modern Western notion of “miracle.” I suppose a more accurate title might be Why the Resurrection Was Not a Modern Western Notion of a “Miracle,” but that, quite frankly, is just not as sexy – or as good of clickbait. ????
When people in the modern West use the term “miracle” what they typically mean is something happened that shouldn’t have happened according to the laws of nature. In Christianity it usually is portrayed as God, seated in the heavenly realms, temporarily inserting himself into our natural realm in order to break those laws of nature.
We often use “miracle” synonymously with “supernatural,” meaning outside natural law.
But as I have argued many times before, in using the term “supernatural” (a term not even found in the Bible) we have created a false line separating the spiritual world from the natural.
Why is it false? Because nothing is more natural to the universe than God, and the spiritual world is every bit as much a part of the laws of nature as the observable, “scientific” world itself.
Theologian N.T. Wright labels our false way of thinking as “Epicureanism,” because it results in the belief that God operates in one world (the spirit world) while the earth and all that’s in it (the material world) operates separately on its own, and God only occasionally steps in, when necessary, to intervene.
One of the reasons we slipped into this belief is because of our “split-brain” tendencies, with modern Western thinking becoming left-brain dominate. The result is that the analytic side of our brains no longer fully collaborates with the side of the brain that sees the divine, causing us to split the world into two different realities: the material and the spiritual. Thus, we have natural versus supernatural, secular versus religious, and science versus faith (I highly recommend you read my 3-part series on split-brain here where I’m able to explain all that a lot more fully than I am able to here).
In the ancient Near East way of thinking, however, there simply was no separation between the spirit world and the material world. All were completely intertwined.
This is a primary reason I have argued for returning to the early Christian teaching of God as “being,” (or “ground of being” as philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich more recently referenced it). As the ground of being, God is currently and actively at the root of all the laws of nature. There is no separation. If God were to stop existing today, so would the material world as the material world is not, and never was, something that is capable of operating and existing on its own.
So, is there a place for describing the resurrection as a “miracle?” Is there a place for miracles at all today?
Absolutely, but only if we understand it in the sense that people in the ancient Near East did.
While they may have used mythological type language to describe the unfathomable with pictures of “the heavenly realms,” for them the spirit world and the material world were intricately connected and always in continual interaction.
Thus, when the spirit world affected the events of the material world, it wasn’t breaking the laws of nature but, rather, fulfilling the laws of nature.
If anything was outside the “natural,” it was actually any of humankind’s attempts to separate itself from the spiritual.
It is no accident that the story of Adam and Eve involves humans trying to do their own thing, thus separating themselves from God, and the enormous natural consequences resulting from it.
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated as miracle (dunamis) implies power, ability, and might. The Old Testament uses different Hebrew words which translate to “miracle” with meanings ranging from “wondrous” to “surpassing” and “extraordinary.”
The Psalmist said of God, “You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples” (Psalm 77:14 NIV)
Job proclaimed, “He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted” (Job 9:10).
Consequently, rather than describing miracles as something that breaks the laws of nature, a better definition would be something like, “That which is beyond humankind’s natural comprehension and more powerful than their natural abilities, often seen as extraordinary and causing wonder.”
But not “supernatural.”
Why? Because God and God’s works were always meant to be a part of the natural order.
It’s just that humankind has always done its best to try to separate God out of it.
Okay, so this all seems a bit academic. But why is this distinction so important and relevant for our lives today? And where does the resurrection play into this?
1) Having a better understanding of the naturalness of miracles emphasizes the importance of continual connection with God.
We were not made to be totally material beings, operating on our own apart from relationship with the God who created us. I would argue that continual connection with God is as essential to life as breathing.
And what I mean by relationship with God is not just regular prayer (though that is essential) but also remaining in alignment with God’s spirit and character. Thus, loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself, as well as displaying the fruits of that spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
To not remain in this kind of connection has devastating consequences. I have often heard Christians describe sin as giving into our “natural appetites,” but I think that is a mistake. Separating ourselves from God and giving into sin is the most unnatural thing we could possibly do.
Yes, we have natural freewill, but living in contradiction to God has wholly unnatural consequences. If God is the “ground of being” and essential to the operation of the universe, that means every act apart from God is a violation of the laws of nature.
And to clarify, I’m not talking about a sort of legalistic relationship with God that’s dependent upon following a list of pre-given rules, bur rather a dynamic, day to day, intimate relationship with a God who calls us both “children” and “friends.”
The one person that we know of historically that remained in continual relationship with God and never sinned was Jesus. Consequently, in contradiction to the usual portrayal of Jesus as supernatural, he was the only one who ever lived a truly natural human life. Instead of “supernatural,” Jesus was “super natural.”
The reason that “miracles” seemed to follow Jesus wherever he went, is not because his human flesh possessed some kind of magic, natural-lawbreaking powers, but because of his intimate relationship (and identity) with the ground of being who is capable of doing the unfathomable. People who saw his miracles didn’t witness unnatural law, but rather natural law fully realized.
Okay, so why then don’t we see the same kind of miracles happening all the time today?
First, because rare is the person who lives out this kind of fully natural life. Second, because one of the definitions of miracle is still “extraordinary,” meaning those specific kinds of occurrences, while fully within the capable laws of nature, are not part of the world’s ordinary operations. And third, because too often we take the already miraculous around us for granted, leading us to point #2.
2) With a better understanding of miracles, we can begin to see the miraculous all around us.
As I quoted Job earlier, God “performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.” There are continually powerful and unfathomable things all around us that happen in the natural realm.
In a previous article, I shared how scientists acknowledge we only understand about 4% of the observable universe (and that’s not counting all that is yet unobservable beyond that). Of the earth alone, we have so far only been able to explore 0.4% of its total mass. And we only understand 10% of just the human brain.
Scientists still grapple today with how life began or how sentience is even a thing.
And think about it, all it takes is for two people to get together in a physical way, and a whole new human being can be formed. And that person can grow up, get together with someone else, and another new human is formed. That’s amazing!
I still get amazed when I ponder the fact that all I have to do is think about something in my brain, and that in turn sends a signal to another part of my body (a finger, my toes, etc.), which then causes that part to move.
Add to that, there are parts of my body that move continually (my heart, my lungs, etc.) whether I consciously think about it or not.
The earth rotates, gravity keeps everything in place, the sun creates energy and warmth, plants photosynthesize, and the atmosphere continually recycles water essential for life. Miraculous things happen all around us all the time – not because they are unnatural, but because they are powerful and often incomprehensible.
Sure, science has explained much and will likely continue to explain more and more the things we currently don’t understand. But it is unlikely that it will ever be able to explain everything, nor will it ever be able to fully match the powerful abilities of the natural realm. Science is good, but there will likely always be the unfathomable.
The ground of being is continuously at work, making the beautiful natural world around us do its thing.
3) A clearer understanding of miracles helps us understand just how miraculous the cross itself was.
If Jesus was the only one to ever live a fully natural human life, in constant relationship with God, that makes what happened at the cross that much more significant. While the physical suffering he endured leading up to and on the cross was brutal, it was what happened toward the end that is the most heartbreaking.
In Matthew 27:46 we are told, “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (ESV).
In that moment, the one person in history who had ever experienced complete and continual relationship with God experienced the feelings of separation and abandonment from that very God.
But this goes even beyond Jesus’s life on earth. As fully God and fully man, we are told at the beginning of John’s gospel that Jesus (as the Word) was God himself and had been in close relationship with God the Father from the very beginning – before all of creation. They were one.
Thus, for all time eternal, Jesus had never experienced separation from God until now.
Matthew describes Jesus’s death immediately following by stating that he “yielded up his spirit” (Matt 27:50 ESV). The one human who was fully realized body (material) and spirit together, willingly gave up the spirit.
It is for that reason I contend that, if ever there was an occurrence that could be described as “outside the laws of nature,” Jesus’s sense of separation from God followed by the yielding of his spirit was the single most unnatural event to ever happen in the history of the universe.
The gospels also tell us that darkness was over the whole land leading up to this event (Mark 15:33), and that following his death the earth quaked and the rocks were split (Matt 27:51). The material world itself was shook by the significance of this moment.
It should never have happened. And yet it did.
This brings me to the second reason I consider the cross to be such a miracle. The most natural man who ever lived did this as a means of atoning for the unnatural behaviors of humankind.
The fact that God and Jesus love us, love me, this much that they were willing to submit to such an unnatural event in order to bring about reconciliation and restore us to natural relationship is simply unfathomable to me – more unfathomable than the parting of the red sea, more incomprehensible than turning water into wine – it’s simply miraculous.
4) A correct understanding of miracles helps us understand how resurrection is a natural part of creation.
When one looks at the beauty of nature, one can see that resurrection was not just a one-time event but seems to be built into the fabric of creation itself.
It’s in the seasons, as vegetation dies and is then reborn every spring.
You can witness it in the marvel of a chrysalis as a worm-like organism transforms into a beautiful creature with wings.
Throughout the universe, stars regularly die while new ones continually are born.
It’s also in the stories we tell as our heroes, both real and fictional, meet up against incredible obstacles and seem to get knocked down, only to rise triumphantly – often better people than they were before.
The universe was made for resurrection, a reflection of its own creator.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that the ground of being would become part of the resurrection story.
The apostle Paul announced that God’s “grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (1 Tim 1:9 NIV). That means God’s plan for humankind’s restoration through Christ’s death and resurrection was there before all of creation.
Resurrection isn’t the exception to the rule, but rather the norm. Jesus’s resurrection didn’t break the laws of nature; it was the nature of things fully revealed.
Powerful? Yes. Incomprehensible? Yes. Extraordinary and wondrous? Absolutely.
But a departure from the universe? No.
Instead, it was its return – the most natural man, united again in body and spirit and then ascended to be one with God.
It was the restoration of what always was – Father and Son together again, forever interconnected.
Amazingly, it was the beginning of our own resurrection story as well – an opportunity for humankind to no longer experience the deadly destruction caused by its unnatural behaviors.
And it was an opportunity for body and spirit to be unified, as Christ sent God’s spirit to be in his followers’ hearts, enabling them to return toward their God-designed natural state.
But here’s the other amazing news. Because resurrection is built into the fabric of the universe, we all have the hope of a resurrected life. There are new beginnings and there is restoration.
This doesn’t mean there won’t be struggles. In fact, that’s guaranteed. Because for every resurrection Sunday there’s always the suffering that takes place on the Friday before.
Many reading this now may be going through a Friday right now. It may be caused by your own doing. It may have been afflicted upon you. You may feel the burdens are too hard to carry. You may feel abandoned by others or by God. It may seem that there is no spirit left in you to go on.
But there is hope.
Hope might just be a day away or it might be in the distant future. For some of you, just like the heroes of the faith listed in Hebrews 11, that hope may not see its fulfillment in your lifetime, but rather in the eternal life to come. But there is always hope, nonetheless.
Because the universe was made for it…restoration, renewal, resurrection.
The resurrected life is a hope we all can have – it’s only natural.
“Seven Stanzas of Easter”
by John Updike
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.