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The Miracle of New Life

As most readers of the blog know, I do not believe in miracles.   At least in literal miracles as normally understood.  I suppose most people think of an actual or literal miracle as an event that cannot be explained through natural causes but requires some kind of supernatural intervention, an act of a divine being who is outside of this nexus of cause and effect, an act of God.

I should stress that this does not necessarily mean that we *do* know the natural causes of everything that we do not consider miraculous – only that in principle they are discoverable.  I stress that point because most of us have no clue how *most* of what happens happens.  I couldn’t explain how my toaster works if my life depended upon it, let alone anything (just about *anything*) having to do with biology, chemistry, or physics, let alone the wonders of the human brain, or the expansion of the universe, or, well, as I said, most things.   But that doesn’t mean that I need to appeal to a miraculous intervention of God every time I want to cook my breakfast or think about my brain.  It just means that there are in principle explicable things that I myself can’t explain.

A miracle would involve the violation of what we used to call “natural law.  There aren’t strictly speaking any laws, since, well, there is no cosmic congressional body to create them and no heavenly judicial branch to enforce them and, in any event, what we used to think of as laws often have exceptions that can be explained.  And so, instead of invoking “law” it is it’s probably better to talk about nature as acting in *highly* predictable ways when the constants are constant.   Some things apparently can’t happen.

It can’t happen that humans unaided can elevate into the air and fly across town; or that humans can walk on luke warm water in the middle of a lake; or come back to life after being dead for three years; to pick just three out of a billion examples.

I have gotten into long debates with conservative evangelicals over whether it is possible to *prove* whether a miracle has ever happened in the past.   Their view, boiled down to its essence, is (a) we should not disallow the possibility of miracle in principle, since that would be bringing an anti-supernaturalist bias into the discussion and one should never allow one’s biases to dictate their conclusions, and (b) there is often good evidence for miracles – for example, people we trust who claim they have seen them (e.g., walking on water, or healing the sick with a touch of the hand, or, well, rising from the dead).

When I have these debates I simply bypass point (a) by saying that I’m willing to admit for the purposes of argument that miracles are possible and not allow my bias against them to have any bearing on the argument I make and then point out that however well attested a miracle is, there are always natural explanations that on balance are necessarily *more* probable than the supernatural explanations.  (If your neighbor swears that she and ten others saw her pastor walking on the water, I can think of a dozen explanations for her being wrong about that, all of which are more probable than that her pastor was somehow able to suspend the “laws” of physics to make it happen.)

Even though I do not believe in miracles in a *literal* sense, I still think the world we live in is a fantastically, amazingly, unbelievably miraculous place, in a metaphorical sense.  I have been captured by the wonder of the world more and more as I grow older.   I can’t get my mind around how there can be 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and that there are two trillion galaxies in our universe, and that there may be an incalculable number of universes.  How does anyone realize this without becoming breathless in awe and marvel?

Or how can we understand that there are also 100 billion neurons in each of our brains?   The brain is an absolute wonder to behold and consider.  I have to admit every time I reflect on it the words of the Psalmist come to mind “Oh Lord, I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

I have experienced a vastly increased sense of wonder and awe about the world, and about my brain, and my body, and my life, and the existence of life, and lots of other things over the past four years as I’ve developed a meditation practice.  I spent three years simply meditating on my physical being, my body; now I’ve spent a year exploring my mind and the life principle that lies beneath/behind it all.   Truly awe-inspiring.  We are amazing beings.

The closest thing I’ve actually had to *witnessing* a “miracle,” though, was when I was present for the birth of my two children, Kelly in 1980 and Derek in 1982.  Absolutely mind-boggling.  The appearance of new life.  Out of non-life.  The coming of new life into the world is one of those things I can’t and never will understand.  It’s not that I think “God did it” – any more than I think that God made it rain yesterday (something else I don’t understand).  But I think new life is beyond my ability to comprehend and I marvel at it.

This has been brought very close to mind (and heart) this week.   Three days ago my grandson was born to my son Derek and his wonderful wife Amanda.   Elliot Benjamin Ehrman-Matson.  A new life in the world.   My third grandchild and first grandson.   Life goes on, and on, and on.  May it go on forever and may wonders never cease.


Ehrman & Licona: Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? Part 2
The Marvels of Media Attention

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    jbskq5  March 22, 2018

    Congratulations, Dr Ehrman!

  2. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  March 22, 2018

    Congratulations on the birth of your grandson!

    In evangelical circles I have heard many anecdotal accounts of miracles ranging from a woman having a baby after a hysterectomy to the literal raising of the dead. Color me skeptical but, like you, I don’t want to be biased against such miraculous events, but proving “God did it” is truly a God of the gaps argument. The truth is we don’t know what may have caused these events, if they did indeed happen, and by saying “God did it” we literally are filling in the gaps of our knowledge with appeals to a deity to answer such questions instead of just saying “we don’t know.” The history of science is filled with examples of when unexplained phenomena that were once attributed to a deity were later to have found a natural cause.

    The problem with God of the gaps arguments is that they seem to close the book on further investigation and explanation. Why look further if “God did it” settles the matter? So I agree both science and Historical Scholarship can not appeal to miracles as answers to causes of specific events and phenomena.

    Is that a bias? I guess it is, but I cannot find away around it. So my question to you Bart is, how can you, or any of us, remain unbiased on this issue while at the same time recognizing that miracles are not in the jurisdiction of natural sciences and historical scholarship?

  3. Avatar
    gwayersdds  March 22, 2018

    Congratulations on your new grandson. There is nothing more “wonderful”-ful than the birth of a baby. It may not be a true miracle in the strictest sense but I would call it miraculous and awe inspiring.

  4. Avatar
    carlchristoffer@me.com  March 22, 2018

    “The appearance of new life. Out of non-life.“. In a literal sense, the new life “proceeds” from old life—-you and and your wife and stretching back to your parents and the back billions of years to the first act of creation: which does not make it any less miraculous.

  5. Avatar
    11thStory  March 22, 2018

    I like the title of Dean Radin’s book, Super Normal. Why can’t sudden healing be part and a process of nature? I have witnessed drastically improved symptoms to pain via various hands-on physical techniques. One should experience Myofascial unwinding by a skilled Physical or Massage Therapist. People interpret this emotional and physically healing experience as “mystical” but there are neurobiologic processes involved. Sometimes the art or skill precedes the scientific explanation. Your right…. we know so little about the placebo effect, our brain, the universe and even the nature of consciousness. Discovery is a world without end. Congrats on continuing your seed!

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 22, 2018

    Congratulations on your having that new grandson! I’ve never had children, but I think I can imagine what you’re feeling. I do have a grandnephew (in his thirties now), and I remember how awed I was by the perfection of his baby self. Best baby ever!

    In the larger scheme of things… I have *hypotheses* (I wouldn’t call them “beliefs”) about the Cosmos we live in. That the Cosmos itself is a Being (the “Uncaused Cause”) – in a sense, alive – and we are *parts* of that Being, rather than inferior “creations.” (And to the extent I can “know” anything, I know reincarnation is a fact, because of the actual evidence for it. I don’t know how it fits into that “larger scheme of things,” but I’m sure it does.)

    A few days ago, I read that some scientists are now suggesting something they’re calling “panpsychism” – the idea that some kind of consciousness *permeates our universe*.

    And I’ve been thinking of an analogy: that just as there are a vast number of cells in my body, I may be one of a vast number of cells in the “body” of the Cosmos.

  7. Avatar
    flshrP  March 22, 2018

    Congrats on the new arrival. I’m fortunate to have seven healthy grandkids. If anyone is confused about the meaning of life or is wondering about a plan for life, the answer is (and always had been) family. Everything else is transient. Family endures.

    Miracles: David Hume arguably has had the final word on the possibility of miracles (his book “On Miracles”).

    Some argue in support of the existence of miracles that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But this is an error. Absence of evidence IS evidence of absence if that evidence should be there. If a supernatural entity is interacting with the natural world (the definition of miracle) and thereby causing changes to occur, there should be evidence of this. And nothing supporting the existence of miracles has ever been found. The science of particle physics (the most foundational of the sciences) has searched at distances as short as a billion times smaller than a proton and at time scales as small as a billionth of a billionth of a second without finding evidence of supernatural forces and/or particles. Similarly, there is no evidence of supernatural forces at work at cosmological distances and energies.

    Probably the most common claims for the occurrence of miracles involve holy shrines and sainthood. Lourdes is most prominent. In the more than 150 years since the initial “miracle” occurred there, tens of millions of pilgrims have journeyed to the shrine seeking cures for physical ailments. The Roman Catholic church has certified less than 100 of these events as miracles. The NT “Ask and you shall receive” advice does not seem to be very effective. And the entire issue of how to distinguish without error a miraculous healing claim from an entirely spontaneous, but rare, natural response of the human body has never been convincingly established.

    A friend of Oscar Wilde was showing the playwright around Lourdes, pointing out the wheelchairs, the leg braces, neck braces, back braces, crutches left by petitioners who believed themselves miraculously cured. Wilde said that’s all well and good, but now show me the wooden legs and the glass eyeballs.

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  8. Avatar
    doug  March 22, 2018

    Congratulations on your new grandson! May the miracles in his life all be good and never bad.

  9. Avatar
    Boltonian  March 22, 2018

    I suppose we have a need to ‘Know’ which served us well for most of our evolutionary history: ‘That is food; that is a predator.’ And, as we cannot, individually, know very much about the world, we simplify things to a level that we can understand: ‘God did it.’

    For anybody who has not read it, I recommend Leonard E. Read’s famous essay, ‘I,Pencil.’

  10. Avatar
    Pattylt  March 22, 2018

    Congratulations! I got to watch my granddaughter being born (way to early, she was a micropreemie) and it really does seem to be “miraculous”. I was knocked out, against my wishes, for the birth of my son but was able to watch my daughter being born. Painful as birth is, watching it happen helps the pain tremendously and I cherish the experience! Enjoy the new “peanut” added to the gallery of the Ehrman clan and may health and happiness follow you and yours.

  11. epicurus
    epicurus  March 22, 2018

    It’s interesting to see an anti supernatural bias appear in some of those evangelicals who accuse others of it, when one brings up some Catholic sightings of Mary. No matter how well attested and reliable, a conservative evangelical protestant is just not going to buy it, or any miracle that doesn’t jibe with what they think the bible teaches. Or they blame it on the devil.

  12. Telling
    Telling  March 22, 2018

    Would anyone say growing a new set of teeth would not be a miracle? Yet every one of us does grow a second set of teeth onetime in his lifetime. If you cut your hand, it miraculously heals. Lose a toenail, a new one mysteriously grows back. Miracles amount to natural events that we don’t expect can happen. You know this of course.

    There are plenty documented examples of miracles happening; there have been movies made based on true events. I personally experienced what I can only call a miracle back in 1975, so I just laugh when someone says miracles are not possible, having myself experienced one such. There are people who see auras, can read peoples thoughts, can see non-physical beings. None of these are miracles, just something that is experienced that for most of us doesn’t happen.

    Metaphysics explains the natural phenomenon. Our thoughts create our reality. Collectively we have an agreed upon understanding of what can happen and what cannot. Medical doctors learn that keeping a patient positive will help him overcome his problem, a small measure of our thoughts creating our reality.

    People in some less developed countries are more likely to experience what we call miracles, because collectively more in that society believe such things are possible. Eating habits are a factor too, tying us more to the earth.

  13. Avatar
    fishician  March 22, 2018

    As the saying goes, if I had known grandchildren were so much fun, I’d have had them first! Congratulations! Personally I find the world a more amazing place when I explore the natural wonders and the science behind them, rather than throwing my hands up and blindly saying, God did it somehow. It is curious that Jesus did not leave behind a single “permanent” miracle that can be verified. I can think of any number of things, including tossing a mountain into the sea, as he suggested was possible.

  14. Avatar
    Eric  March 22, 2018

    Congratulations, and I couldn’t agree more.

    We had twins, by c-section. No matter how intellectually prepared I was, within a span of about 90 seconds there were two new lives right there in front of me (a boy and a girl, to boot!) and I was totally unprepared for the psychic wave of that experience. Absolute miracle.

  15. Avatar
    Apocryphile  March 22, 2018

    Great post. I think it’s worth knowing a little science, if only to experience the wonder and awe of what we don’t yet understand, and the excitement that the unknown can in theory one day be explained. I don’t believe in miracles either, but as you say, a lot depends on how you define that term. More than anything else, science is a tool that forces us to think clearly and to accept nothing as given or preordained.

    One thing to also keep in mind, however, is that even though there may be no “laws” of physics decreed by some divine court, the fundamental numbers, or constants, underlying all of physics and chemistry, are, as far as we have been able to determine, just that – constant (at least in our universe). In theory, our universe’s beginning can be explained through a quantum fluctuation out of nothing, but even if this was the case, the ‘laws’ of quantum mechanics and statistics had to have somehow preexisted the universe.

    So, even though we as scientists are far beyond the point of invoking a deity to explain everything we don’t understand (a ‘god of the gaps’), we still run smack into an ontological wall with the ultimate question: what is the primordial existential ‘stuff’ from which everything else came? Hint: whatever it was, it almost certainly wasn’t ‘physical’ in nature.

    A great little book I would recommend everyone with an interest in ‘ultimate’ questions read is philosopher Jim Holt’s – ‘Why Does the World Exist?’ A lot of big ideas packed into a small paperback format.

  16. Avatar
    Apocryphile  March 22, 2018

    btw – Congrats on the new grandchild! 🙂

  17. Avatar
    thenerdpaul  March 22, 2018

    Congratulations!

  18. Avatar
    Odin  March 22, 2018

    Congratulations and well said!

  19. Avatar
    jhanna2  March 22, 2018

    Thank you for the post Dr. Ehrman.

    On a side note, do most modern translations get John 1:1 right? From Westcott and Hort, what is the right translation of the passage? Do the modern translations have a major theological axe to grind?

    ΕΝ ΑΡΧΗ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

    Source:
    Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek (Logos Bible Software, 2009), Jn 1:1.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2018

      My view is the standard one. It should read “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 24, 2018

        I’ve always wondered about this one, Dr. Ehrman. The composer of this verse is obviously borrowing language from the LXX. They both begin with ᾿Εν ἀρχῇ and they both use the verb ἦν. In the case of Genesis, ἦν is used in the phrase ἡ δὲ γῆ ἦν ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος, and in John it is used in the phrase καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

        So what I’m wondering is, shouldn’t the meaning of ἦν in John match the meaning of ἦν in Genesis? And if that’s the case, doesn’t the fact that its use in Genesis, as a link between noun and attribute (“the earth” was “unformed and void”) be similar to its use in John as, possibly, a link between noun and attribute? Namely, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν means “and the Word was a part of God,” and καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος means “and God was the Word”?

        I mean, if read that way, it makes a lot more sense, to my eyes at least. It’s saying the Word is a part of God that God used to do the things that he did, such as create “heaven and earth”. The Word is literally God in the sense that it’s a part of God, but the Word itself isn’t literally God. God was the Word, but the Word, itself, wasn’t God. In logical terms, we might distinguish between the universal and the particular. That is, we might say that all the Word is God, but not all God is the Word. We may imagine a Venn Diagram with a large circle that includes all “God” and within that large circle is a smaller circle that includes all “Word”.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 25, 2018

          My view is that intertexts can illuminate a author’s text but can’t be seen as determinative of his meaning. For that one has to pay more attention to his own context.

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

        That can be considered an accurate translation, but it’s misleading in the extreme. A better translation would be, “In the beginning was the Logos …” At least then the reader would realize that he couldn’t understand the text until he learned what Logos meant. It’s a one-word representation of a major body of thought in Greek philosophy.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2018

          Fair enough. But in that case, why not simply translate the verse without *any* English words, as “En arche ēn ho logos”?

          • Avatar
            HistoricalChristianity  April 27, 2018

            Because people generally understand what ‘in the beginning’ means.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 29, 2018

            Exactly. That’s why we translate in the first place.

          • Avatar
            HistoricalChristianity  April 29, 2018

            My point was that translating logos does not convey its meaning. Not the meaning it had then. For logos, translation is misleading, a disservice. Most Christians today think they know what John 1:1 means. But few know that logos was just the name of a well-established Greek philosophy.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 30, 2018

            Something is lost in translation for virtually every word. Or rhema. Or logos. 🙂 (I would argue that most readers don’t understand the significance of “in the beginning” either.) (And the word “was” is extremely important here) (I’m serious) (It really *does* matter what the meaning of the word is is.)

  20. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  March 22, 2018

    Amen

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