The Question of Miracles and the Problem of Suffering

We are faced with the claim that God is prepared to work knock-down physical miracles in order to let a select number of people into the secret of his Incarnation, Resurrection and salvation, but that he is not prepared to use such methods in order to deliver from Auschwitz, prevent Hiroshima, overcome famine or bring about a bloodless transformation of apartheid. Such a God, surely, is a cultic idol….If such a God is not a cultic idol produced by mistaken and confused worshippers, but actually exists, then he is the very devil for he prefers a few select worshippers to all the sufferers in our world. Such a God is certainly not worth believing in.”  So said a previous Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, in a speech in General Synod on July 6th 1986.

The fact is that God did perform the miracles of the Incarnation and Resurrection yet didn’t intervene to prevent Auschwitz or Hiroshima. So the bishop was indeed calling the God of the Bible “a cultic idol” and even “the very devil”!  Yet many members of the General Synod gave his speech a standing ovation.
The idea of God intervening in the world has been unpopular for many years. Ever since we entered the scientific age God has, in the minds of many who still believe in him, been relegated to some remote position where he has no influence on the world. 

This theory is called Deism. It teaches that God began the Universe, rather like winding up a clockwork toy, then left it to run on its own. The idea of divine intervention in the way of miracle became very unpopular.

So Professor Stephen Hawking in his book A Brief History of Time writes of laws discovered by science which “may have been originally decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it.”

But the Bible teaches that “in God, we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).  Christ sustains all things by his powerful word (Heb.1:3). “In him all things hold together” (Col.1:17).

God is fully present everywhere and he is perpetually active in creation. Nevertheless he has established “laws” which appear to act in a relatively independent way.

A popular way of regarding the laws of nature is that they are fixed and unbreakable. Therefore God can’t break them. So miracles are impossible.
But a more accurate way of regarding these laws is that they are God’s normal way of sustaining and running the universe. Let me illustrate. Suppose that over many months I email my articles to a magazine I write for at exactly 1.00pm every Tuesday. The editor takes to sitting by the computer at 12.59 pm ready to receive the latest contribution. And at 1.01pm he goes off happily to his lunch.

This happens for such a long period of time that the editor comes to rely on it. It seems to be a rule, even a law, that at 1.00pm the computer delivers my column.

But one fateful Tuesday I decide to have a lie-in  rather than on my normal day off. At 12.59 the editor takes up his position and at 1.00pm….nothing happens. 1.01pm…1.05pm …1.10pm, still nothing. The “law” has been broken and the disappointed editor is quite put off his lunch.

The “law” was merely the way I normally acted. But I am free to act differently if I so choose. Similarly the “laws” of nature are the way God normally acts. But he can act differently if he wishes. And that we call miracle. It doesn’t break the laws because they aren’t absolutely fixed. 

If there is no problem about God changing his normal pattern of behaviour (performing a miracle), why didn’t he intervene to prevent Auschwitz or Hiroshima. This is a tragic and traumatic subject about which I feel very deeply. 

However, despite my feelings, it remains true that God normally allows human beings to behave as they will sometimes with terrible consequences. If he intervened fully in the world (as he one day will) he would judge everyone. Instead he allows time for repentance.  

But, in the end, we don’t have all the answers. We don’t understand why God doesn’t always intervene. We have to live with the pain. We don’t know the reason, but we do know him. Jesus made him known, especially on the cross. And that helps with the questions, and with the pain.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction