Some Thoughts on Miracles and God’s Presence in the World

Reasonable, intelligent people with impressive degrees, credentials and accomplishments exist on both sides of the God equation

NT Wright commented recently on the modern, western notion that God is largely absent and distant from the world He created. Every once in a while He “reaches in” and does something extraordinary, and we call that a miracle.

There are people in the west who still believe that God is active in the world, but western society is more characterized by a view that is God aloof, if He exists (and the western world is more or less aloof toward God). We tend to forget that much of the rest of the world does not share our view.

I believe this view of God and of miracles goes back to the Enlightenment and Deism that gained popularity in the last three centuries or so. Deism is the theology that grew out of the Enlightenment, applying Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, order and a reliance of scientific method. Deists believed that God exists, but He does not intervene and is not active or present in the world.

Deist thinkers conceived of the world like a watch that is wound up and left to run on its own. This thinking harmonized well with trends in scientific thought at the time. Darwin and others before him began to see no need of God to explain the laws of nature because scientific inquiry revealed those laws of nature to be true, dependable, and capable of explanation without reference to supernatural agency.

Many Enlightenment thinkers worked consciously and intentionally to shrug off any implication of the supernatural in the study of the natural world. Science, after all, is the study of the natural world. With the discovery of laws like the law of gravity, there was plenty for scientists to do without contemplating a Law Giver.

The definition of science now excludes inquiry of or appeal to anything other than “natural” explanations. Though “science” once meant knowledge, generally, it now means only knowledge of natural things and natural processes (which by definition excludes consideration of supernatural things).

Many modern scientists are materialists, meaning that they have come to believe that nothing exists but the natural world – space/time and matter. They believe nothing exists beyond the natural world, and, therefore, they say that science is the study of all reality – all there is.

In this worldview, they conflate the facts that science reveals with reality. On the Deist and Enlightenment view, miracles are an aberration. Indeed, the very definition of a miracle is something that is highly improbable or extraordinary, something unexpected and inexplicable on the basis of natural or scientific laws.

Deism is largely a theology of the past, but the Enlightenment lives on in the modern, materialist who makes no room whatsoever for a transcendent God or anything supernatural (beyond nature). God is excluded from the materialist worldview by definition. Any apparent aberration to natural laws and material things requires a natural explanation, even if one is presently unknown.

Miracles in a Deistic world are so rare as to be highly unlikely. Miracles in a modern, materialist worldview are impossible. They simply don’t happen. Every miracle claim is a puzzle waiting for a naturalistic explanation.

This is the faith of the modern materialist – that every phenomenon known to human experience has a natural explanation. We don’t look for God because we have already decided that He is aloof, that God is of no consequence, and it’s a short walk from there to the conclusion that God does not exist.

Wright makes the observation that the Bible has no word like miracle. The closest we get to it might be the phrase, “signs and wonders”. People in the Ancient Near East saw God (or gods) in everything. The Enlightenment posited that this was due to a lack of explanation for most things that we now observe in natural laws or, simply, random colocations of molecules.

Scripture reveals a God who is far from aloof, which is increasingly a foreign concept in the modern, western world. The God revealed in the Bible is known both by His “faithfulness” and His presence, investment and activity in the world.

The idea that God is faithful has been replaced with the understanding of natural laws. We believe our understanding of the way natural laws work has supplanted God. God was a construct we invented when we didn’t have explanations for natural phenomena, but now that we understand natural phenomena we have no need for the concept of God.

Even as a Christian, a person who believes in God, I have been influenced by the western world in which I grew up. NT Wright’s observation that the concept of a miracle is a western concept, not a biblical one, leads me to put my thoughts into print as I work out the tension between biblical revelation and my western mindset.

Continue reading “Some Thoughts on Miracles and God’s Presence in the World”

How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?

We have our gods, though we don’t give them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

My thoughts today are based on the story of Paul and Barnabas while they were in Lystra, a city in central Anatolia, part of present-day Turkey. While Paul was speaking, his gaze came to rest on a man listening to him speak who was “crippled at birth”.

Paul saw the man had faith, so he loudly told the man to stand up. (Acts 14:8-10) The man sprang up, and the crowd was awed, saying, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11)

The people in Lystra were pagans. They worshiped Roman gods and, perhaps, other gods as well. They started calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes and began making preparations to worship them.

When Paul and Barnabas realized what was happening, they were appalled! They rushed into crowd, saying, “Don’t do that! We are just men like you!” (Acts 14:14-15 (paraphrasing)). Then, Paul addressed his pagan audience like this:

“[W]e bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things[i] to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Acts 14:15-18

This is, perhaps, the first sermon preached in the early church to people who are not Jews. The pagans did not believe one God. They didn’t understand Mosaic Law, the concept of sin or the prohibition against worshiping idols considered to be false gods.

Thus, Paul didn’t address them as he did his Jewish audiences. He didn’t appeal to Mosaic Law, or accuse them of sin, or call them to repent.

Just as the Gospel is good news to the Jews, it is good news to the pagan Gentiles. The message, however, is different. Paul urged them merely to “turn from vain things to a living God”!

By “vain things” Paul meant their gods, the idols that the pagans worshiped. Instead of calling them idols, as he would have done to a Jewish audience, he referred to them descriptively by their character – their worthlessness, emptiness and utter inability to accomplish anything.

We have a hard time relating to idol worship in the 21st Century. Idol worship is so Bronze Age! Our ancestors long ago stopped believing in gods and sacrificing to them, right?

Tim Keller, in his sermon, The Gospel for the Pagan, paints a different story. These pagans were not so different from us.

In a polytheistic society, of course, people worshiped and sacrificed to a variety of gods. There was no supreme god. People had to decide what gods to worship. Thus, people chose gods to worship based on how those gods could help them.


A a merchant might sacrifice to the god of commerce. A farmer might sacrifice to the god of agriculture. Other people might sacrifice to the god of art and music, or love and beauty, or a combination of gods, depending on what was most important to them.

Keller says that sacrificing to the god(s) of choice was, in effect, worshiping the things people valued most. By sacrificing to the gods of commerce, agriculture, art and music, love and beauty, etc., they were worshiping whatever it was the god represented.  Whatever a person sought help for was the thing from which they sought meaning in life, hope and fulfillment.

Thus, says Keller, “vain things” (idols) are things that “promise fulfillment, but leave you empty”.

We may think of ancient pagans as a brutish and unsophisticated lot, but we are no different than they in the sense that we sacrifice for the things we think will fulfill and satisfy us. The only difference is that we have dispensed with the representative gods.

The person who values career, or accomplishment or being respected by peers as a matter of first priority will sacrifice for those things. The person who thinks that love, romance and family are the highest forms of meaning will devout primary attention to those things. The person who loves art and music will sacrifice for those things and from them seek meaning and fulfillment.

We aren’t that different, really from our pagan ancestors, though we might scoff at the idea of gods, as in idols. We have our gods, though. We just don’t call them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

Paul’s message to the pagans in Lystra was, “These are worthless things!” They can’t fulfill you. Only the Living God can do that. His message has more application to us in the 21st Century than we might think at first glance.

Continue reading “How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?”

Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out

The exposure and expose of a wildly popular myth

I have written about Tom Holland before and the book he published called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. The story about the book has intrigued me since I heard him talk about it. I am taking my time reading through it.

We all have a perspective, right? We come to whatever we read or hear with certain assumptions that have developed in our thinking. Affirmations of those assumptions sit well, but challenges to those assumptions do not rest easy. You know what I am talking about.

Holland challenges assumptions from all sides, including his own. For that reason, it’s a challenging read, but all lasting growth of any kind comes through conflict and tension.

Holland is a historian with a particular focus on ancient, classical history. He chose dinosaurs over the Bible as a young child. He was more taken y Pontius Pilate than Jesus Christ as a teenager. The ancient, classical world and likes of Julius Caesar captured his imagination. His passion became both avocation and vocation.

When Holland wrote a book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, that painted Islam in a candid and critical light, Holland was criticized and challenged to do a similar history of the assumptions that underlie his worldview. The criticism was fair, so he set out to do it.

His worldview? Holland is an atheist and modern humanist. His worldview is undergirded with ideas like human rights that are equal and unalienable, separation of church and state, the value of scientific endeavor and the social necessity of charity and good will.

When he set out to write a book tracing these values back to their sources, he was not predisposed to assume where he would find them, though he certainly had assumptions and presuppositions. Like the paleontologist sifting through layers of a dig site, though, Holland did his work.

Beginning with Darius and the great Persian Empire, he sought to uncover the roots of modern western thought from one empire to the next. Holland was looking for the roots of ideas that inform the modern western mind.

He did not focus on the usual events that historians often catalogue. He focused on thoughts as they developed and the people who championed them and events as they influenced those thoughts and ideas.

In the ancient world, as one might expect, many of those ideas were garbed in metaphysical dress. Holland’s focus, though, is always on the those thoughts and ideas that continue in our modern values today. The ones that died off, like the dinosaurs, are only interesting side notes to that history.

Much of the book explores the world of gods and beliefs, which seems like an odd thing coming from an atheist, but all the more intriguing. Those were the ideas that animated the ancient world. The beliefs of the ancients are the evolutionary precursors to our modern thought. In those layers of metaphysical sediment lie the traces of our modern values.

In sifting through the soils of history, Holland identifies the roots and beginnings of the ethics and values that ground his worldview as a humanist in the sedimentary layers in which they arose. As often is the case in such endeavors, Holland makes some startling discoveries.

What Holland carefully and methodically uncovers is one seismic development that sets and defines the course of the history of the western mind – a metaphysical Cambrian Explosion” our western thinking is founded on, permeated with and inextricably intertwined in Christian ideas.

Thus, when Holland gets into the Enlightenment Era, he exposes a disconnect that arises out of that soil – an incongruity that bears some candid analysis for its deviation from the origin and trajectory of historical developments to that stage. That the very essence of Enlightenment thinking is sourced from the root it seeks to dig out is both ironic and dangerous, like the man sawing the branch that supports him.

Continue reading “Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out”

Holding onto Truth with Humility

Today I read A Slice of Humble Pie, in the newsletter, Science for the Church, by Drew Rick-Miller. This piece is noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, it models a high regard for truth (and joy in discovering it), and second, it models the integrity that is required for humility.

Truth matters, because our Father is the progenitor of all truth, and through his Word all things seen and unseen were made. (John 1:1-3) His Word, of course, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14) – Jesus. Thus, Jesus was able to say accurately, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

The statement that all things were made through the Word/Jesus, particularly speaks to the truth of science, which is the truth that we can discover in the creation. Rather than fear scientific truth, we should embrace it, as God is the creator of all things.

I like the approach of Hugh Ross to the seemingly contradictory “truths” of the Bible and science. He says that we have the book of revelation (Scripture) and the book of nature (which science reveals); if we see contradictions between them, then our understanding of one, or the other, or both must be inaccurate.

We should not hold so tightly to our assumptions and understandings that we fail to recognize and acknowledge truth. We should not fear the need to adjust our understanding because God is not the author of confusion, but the author of truth.

We are finite beings. That means that we sometimes need to hold truths in tension with each other when we don’t know how to synthesize the truth as we understand it. We do this in the hope and expectation that we will grow in our knowledge of God and the truth. If we can’t harmonize those tensions that we see today, we hope to understand them better tomorrow.

We don’t only find tensions between science and faith. We find tensions within Scripture, itself. Free will is implied in Proverbs (“In their hearts humans plan their course….” (16:9) and in the words of Jesus (“Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God….” (John 7:17)) Predestination is implied by Paul (“He predestined us for adoption as son…” (Eph. 1:5) and in the words of Jesus (“You did not choose me, but I chose you….” (John 15:16)

As finite beings, we have to recognize that our efforts to harmonize everything will likely never reach the point of comprehensive understanding and synthesis of all truth with certainty and without gaps in our understanding. If we were able to achieve such a synthesis, we would be like God… and we aren’t.

(And that was the original temptation, wasn’t it!)

Even if we highly value truth, we are going to get it wrong sometimes, and we need to be ever open and willing to acknowledge when we are wrong. This humility is also a recognition of the truth – the truth that we are finite creatures

There is freedom in valuing truth and in being humble. We don’t need to hold on stubbornly to assumptions and dogmas when we value truth and humility.

This is not to say that we should allow ourselves to be tossed about by every wind that blows. God is a rock whose foundation is secure and does not change. We can rest in that.

Sometimes, though, we build onto that foundation structures that we mistake for the very foundation, itself. We invest much of ourselves in those structures and are, therefore, tempted to cling to them when we should be letting go and embracing with humility truth as it becomes known to us that might suggest some remodeling is needed in those structures we have built.

We will never need to restructure the foundations, which are of God, but we may need wisdom to know what is foundational and what is structural. Fortunately, if anyone lacks wisdom, we simply need to ask God, who provides wisdom generously to all who ask. (James 1:5)

It’s interesting to me that, when James talks about asking God for wisdom, affirming that God will give wisdom to all who ask, he goes on to talk about humility. (James 1:9-10) We need humility (and faith) to receive anything God offers to us. James affirms this later in his letter, quoting Proverbs 3:4:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

James 4:6

What Near Death Experiences Prove, and What They Do Not Prove

What if reality consists of more than the natural, physical world?


I am interested in peoples’ stories. I can trace my interest in personal stories to my own experience of becoming a Christian and my own spiritual journey. I have found much common ground with other people who have had similar experiences. The story of spiritual journey (a “testimony”) is part of the fabric of the evangelical Christian tradition. The testimony is a test of sorts of the authenticity of the journey, of a real encounter with God that we call being “born again”.

A testimony is the most personal evidence for the existence of God for the person who claims to be a Christian, but it isn’t evidence in a scientific sense. It’s evidence that is easily discounted by the naturalist who relies only on science and empirical, measurable and falsifiable evidence.

It can also be problematic for the Christian community. There is a certain social, group pressure – unintended, or not – for every Christian to have “a testimony”. The more dramatic the better. The person who was “always a Christian” may feel a tinge of self doubt. The person whose story does not line up with more “typical” testimonies may feel out of step.

Personal stories are subjective, and the subjective nature of them engenders some natural and warranted skepticism.

Don’t get me wrong. The intimate and private nature of a personal experience with God is exactly the most compelling thing about it. Like the woman at the well who told everyone of her encounter with Jesus – “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:4-30) – the intimate and highly personal nature of the experience is what makes it so meaningful and convincing.

But personal encounter, ultimately, is meaningful and convincing mainly to the one who experiences it. It can’t be empirically verified, and it doesn’t carry the same weight with other people who don’t have the same intimate connection to the personal details.

Personal experiences are not bound by logical, rational or empirical factors. If we rely on personal experiences, especially to the exclusion of more “scientific” analyses, the highly subjective and personal nature of personal experiences can led a person down some questionable rabbit holes. We probably all know people who have been so influenced by their own personal experiences which, unchecked by some objective analysis, have led them onto some strange and questionable paths.

For the Christian, that objective analysis is Scripture, doctrine and tradition. For each religion, that objective analysis is some combination of that religion’s scripture, doctrinal corpus and tradition, and for the naturalist, that objective analysis is empirical evidence, proven theory and scientific analysis.

This is where NDEs get interesting. Continue reading “What Near Death Experiences Prove, and What They Do Not Prove”