By Amanda Alexander
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recalls his conversion: “I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” When I was 21, I had a similar experience: I sat down under an umbrella in the middle of a spring thunderstorm to think about whether I really believed in the resurrection of Christ. When I first sat down, I did not believe that the resurrection had happened, but by the time storm had passed, it seemed to me that the entire world was twinkling with the promise and possibility of the resurrected life.
For me, the Resurrection was difficult to believe in because it is an altogether different sort of miracle than we are used to hearing about. For example, I find it easy to believe in the healing miracles in the Gospels because we know from our own experience that sometimes people who are gravely ill do get better, even after all medical treatments have been exhausted. We may even know somebody who was technically dead but was brought back to life through medical means. However, nobody apart from Jesus has ever been resurrected. It is a miracle completely outside of our experience.
Several centuries ago, the philosopher David Hume defined a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature. Most of us have probably come to think of miracles this way: we believe that miracles somehow go against the ordinary workings of nature.
There is a problem, however, both with this way of thinking about miracles and with this way of thinking about nature. The very idea that nature has laws is a product of Christian belief. Christianity teaches that God is rational: it therefore follows that what God creates will also be rational and orderly. Medieval theologians studied the natural world, paying special attention to its orderliness and regularity in order to learn something more about the nature of God. They called this approach to theology “natural philosophy.” When Newton first described the laws of physics, he did so as a “natural philosopher” – as one who sought to learn more about God by understanding the world God had created.
What we think of as “laws of nature” are thus fundamentally connected to God’s own nature. Given that, it does not make a lot of sense to call a miracle a violation of these natural laws. If miracles were a violation of the laws of nature, it would mean that any time God performed a miracle, that God was actually working against divine nature. Such a thought is absurd.
So, what is a miracle? In order to understand the relationship of the miraculous to the laws of nature, we must first remember that “nature” is not all that there is. God did not create the world and step aside. Rather, God created the universe and still continues to guide it and sustain it as it unfolds in time.
C.S. Lewis develops this point and argues that a miracle is caused by an action of God at a particular moment in time, the effects of which unfold going forward in time according to the laws of nature. In other words, what we call a miracle is essentially an event that does not have a prior cause in time. Its cause is God. Nonetheless, the effects of God’s action at that particular moment play out in time just like everything else, following the patterns of regularity we have observed in reality.
We can see this in the wedding feast at Cana: given enough time, it is possible that the water in those cisterns could have been drawn up through the roots of a grapevine, eventually becoming grape juice and then finally wine. Jesus bypassed that long process and became the instantaneous cause by which water was turned into wine. Even though Jesus’s action was the cause, the wine that resulted was just as delicious and intoxicating as the best of wines could ever be.
Now, if we are willing to acknowledge that nature is not all that there is, we must also be humble enough to acknowledge that there are patterns in nature which still seem to defy our scientific and mathematical expectations. Scientists will tell you that matter tends toward entropy, or disorder. For example, when we drop an egg and it shatters, we have no way of making it whole again. But in nature, there is also a different kind of tumble or descent that does not result in brokenness but rather in a transformed, new existence. We have only to look at the seed which falls to the ground. Even as it breaks open, a new and different kind of existing thing rises. The chaotic explosion of energy that we call the big bang did not result in more chaos but rather in a universe whose orderliness and regularity we delight in. That pattern of descent and transformed reascent is thus inscribed in the deepest structure of our universe.
What then does all of this mean for how we think about the Resurrection of Christ? First, we must remember that God does not work against nature. God works in and through nature, acting at particular moments such that nature can realize the fullness of its created potential. Insofar as it is a miracle, the Resurrection is an act of God through which God revealed to us our own potential future. This suggests that the Resurrection is mysteriously and wonderfully written into the potentiality of creation. It is woven into the very fabric of our life and being. A resurrected life is what God desires for us. The Resurrection of Christ is therefore not a violation of the laws of nature, but rather reveals to us the fulfillment of nature itself.
Amanda Alexander has a Ph.D. in systematic theology, has taught at numerous Catholic universities and for the Ministry Formation Institute, currently teaches English at Notre Dame High School in Riverside, and is a member of St. Adelaide parish in Highland.