BY SARAH HONG
The Bible contains a story in which the prophet Elijah performs a miracle in front of the Israelites. As part of a challenge to determine the true God, Elijah pours water on an altar and prays that God will answer him. Sure enough, God sends a fire that consumes the drenched altar. Upon seeing this miracle, the once disbelieving Israelites worship God1. This causes the modern reader to wonder why God does not perform similar miracles in the modern age to blatantly prove his existence to our increasingly disbelieving generation. To the agnostic, one powerful miracle would be the missing evidence that could lead them to trust that God exists. But is the assumption that a miracle would be as effective in the modern age as it was in Elijah’s day a valid assumption? Would any such miracles hold meaning for our current generation?
It’s important to understand what we mean when we say, “miracle” and the definition of “miracle” I’m working with is an add-on to Lewis’s definition in “Miracles: A Preliminary Study”2: “a rare and temporary interference of natural law meant to display some intent of God.” A miracle is, therefore, necessarily rare because it is to excite wonder in its witnesses, and necessarily temporary because it is to be separate from permanent scientific phenomena. For example, light slowing down time would be close to a miracle if it were a singular, temporary phenomenon. Due to its being a permanent observation, though, the phenomena has become the general theory of relativity. Thus, a miracle is also an interference of natural law because only God has the authoritative power to interfere with natural law without fully violating it, just as an ambulance has the authority to interfere with common traffic laws. A miracle must be rare, temporary, and an interference of natural law, thus ensuring that it will not be confused with other mundane phenomena.
The most important aspect of the definition of a miracle, though, is that it is meant to display some intention of God. Only if the intention behind the miracle is understood will it have lasting effect. The miracle that Elijah conjured was intended to show that the God of Israel was the true God, and this was understood by the Israelites who immediately began to worship Him. Without God’s intention, the miracle would not be a significant event and would fade into obscurity. For example, suppose that I had a donkey that unexpectedly said “hello,” but never spoke English again after that incident. I would reason that I had momentarily hallucinated or that the donkey coincidentally produced a noise that sounded like the greeting. Ultimately I would only be confused about the whole ordeal because of the action’s lack of intention. However, if the donkey started rebuking me about my sins, as Balaam’s donkey did in Numbers chapter 22, then I would understand that God might be at work in the background, and I might take the phenomenon more seriously.
In modern society (by which I mean those living in the digital age who are assimilated into the universality of the internet), we respond to any unfamiliar testimony with instinctive skepticism, and may refuse to recognize its validity until we see convincing proof. Familiar testimony, or testimony that does not challenge established facts within current knowledge, like, “Her birthday is on October 11th,” “I had toast for breakfast,” and “He is feeling triumphant” are readily accepted because it is within our framework of known knowledge. Unfamiliar testimony or testimony that challenges established facts within current knowledge, like, “I saw a unicorn,” “Scientists found mermaid skeletons,” or “I saw the miracle of the burning bush outside my house” is distrusted due to the fact that it challenges that framework. However, modern society has developed distrust toward most forms of human testimony, to the point that even news reports testifying to things within our knowledge framework are not to be trusted until multiple sources confirm the same story. I’d argue that this is due to the fact that one of our primary sources of knowledge, the Internet, is utterly indifferent to the truth of all information that is gathered there. Consequently, the realm of available knowledge on the Internet has become overrun with false information, from U.F.O sightings to miracle weight loss pills. Most people in the wired age tend to discover the Internet’s deceptiveness quickly through trial-and-error, and approach new information with distrust. We can call this instinctive skepticism a sort of modern evolutionary trait from being a technology-saturated generation, meant to safeguard our knowledge against any potentially false information.
The only information that easily passes our skeptical radar is academic information, particularly information obtained through the scientific method. This is due to an innate trust that all knowledge within the realm of academia has been vigorously examined and proved. Students are practiced at testing and challenging claims found on-line, but readily accept academic information in the classroom without question. Any unfamiliar testimony without scientific backing demands reliable evidence before full acceptance, but academic information promptly backed by scientific proof is more readily accepted, no matter how much it challenges the contemporary framework of knowledge. If string theory was proven to be a new scientific dogma, I would be more willing to trust that string theory is the ultimate foundation of the universe rather than trusting that the miracle weight loss pill from the Internet can actually do its job. Although a weight loss pill sounds more plausible than the idea that the universe is made of a bunch of strings, scientific evidence is considered to be the ultimate authority in deciding what information we trust. Therefore, all new information needs to pass through scientific examination and verification before the majority of modern society can readily accept it.
Due to the instinctive skepticism of modern society, modern miracles lose all meaning and will only be treated as either a fabricated hoax or an undiscovered scientific dogma. Imagine that an article came up online claiming that a person witnessed a miracle of God writing his name in the sky, and even had pictures to support his claim. If that miracle was indeed a true miracle, it must have been with God’s intention to prove his existence to the entire world. However, this intention will never be understood by modern society; in fact, they will not even consider the possibility. This is due to modern society’s instinctive skepticism and hostility toward anything that challenged currently held beliefs, such as “Only an airplane can write a message in the sky.” The mere possibility that God could have written his name in the sky and interfered with natural laws sets modern society in a panic, and they dismiss the entire incident as a hoax until further evidence that it was not a plane that wrote those words is presented.
If an individual directly sees the clouds reformulating to spell “God” in the sky, he might initially be confused and frightened, but ultimately he is more likely to dismiss the incident as an extremely clever hoax than he is to believe that it is an actual miracle. This is due to the individual’s instinctive skepticism, but also due to the fear of going against the realm of knowledge generally accepted by modern society. Even if he does believe the miracle and tries to share his perception of God’s intention with others, he will be viewed as a fantastic prankster, or a histrionic liar no better than Sylvia Browne.
If the miracle cannot be considered to be a hoax, modern society will view it as a new and unexplained scientific dogma, which likewise makes the miracle meaningless. Suppose that the miracle of the clouds spelling “God” in the sky occurred again, but in a different location with multiple witnesses ensuring that it was not a hoax. Perhaps there might be a minority of people now willing to accept the possibility of a supernatural agent behind the phenomenon, but a majority of the people will be more willing the amend the phenomenon into a more acceptable form of information. The belief would be that the phenomenon could be explained through a new undiscovered realm of scientific knowledge, similarly to how the phenomena of the speed of light being independent of the reference frame were eventually explained through the theory of special relativity. However, from the moment the phenomenon is viewed to be a part of science, the phenomenon is no longer defined as a miracle. A miracle by definition is an event that interferes with scientific laws, and if it succumbs to modern society’s demands to become an exact science, it would be directly contradicting itself. Scientists study scientific phenomena to answer how it occurs, not to answer what intentions caused the phenomena to occur. In trying to incorporate the miracle into some scientific law, modern society dismisses the notion that there is an intention behind the phenomenon.
A worry that arises from this argument is that skepticism was existent before modern society, but miracles were not considered to be meaningless. Therefore, it is still possible for modern society to find meaning in miracles. It may be true that skepticism has always been a part of the human condition, but this worry neglects the impact that the recent growth in knowledge accessibility had on the intensifying skepticism. People before the information revolution had no existing way to have knowledge readily available to them at any time, and therefore had no choice but to be more willing to accept some knowledge without complete proof. Therefore, skepticism in the past was more lenient than the skepticism in the present. Almost the entire population in modern society has access to knowledge at any given time and place, and therefore is more inclined to be skeptical about some new information until there has been further investigation about its validity. Therefore, although people in the past were skeptical about knowledge, modern society’s skepticism was amplified in intensity due to the resent universality of knowledge.
Miracles are meaningless in modern society, due to its inability to relay God’s intentions to the proper audience and to be accepted as anything beyond either a fabricated hoax or an undiscovered scientific dogma. Due to the established circumstances, even if God once again sent a fire to burn a drenched offering altar, that miracle’s intentions would be unable to penetrate through skepticism. Perhaps this might be devastating news for both the theist and the agnostic, but I do not think that this is a negative conclusion. A momentous and life-changing decision such as believing that God exists does not come from such a quick and easy determinant like miracles, no matter how long we wait for our drenched altar to light on fire.