At one point I was watching a recording of a debate between an atheist and a Christian on the resurrection of Jesus. The Christian debater had what seemed to me a very strange argument. It went something like this: First he tried to prove that the “supernatural” is a thing by pointing to documented cases of near death experiences and other “paranormal” events. Then he goes to the resurrection of Jesus and says that the “undisputed” historical facts of the resurrection (e.g. Jesus’ crucifixion, the empty tomb, claims of resurrection appearances) lead one to say that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead, so long as one is open to the possibility of the supernatural.
Needless to say, his atheist opponent was unconvinced. He kept coming back to the Christian trying to get him to define what he meant by “supernatural.” He remarked that he always tries to get Christians to define what they mean by “supernatural” and they never seem to have a good answer.
Part of his point was about what the scientific process does with anomalies, i.e. phenomena/data points that don’t fit the model or trend. Anomalies don’t mean you appeal to some kind of “supernatural” force or explanation, whatever that would even mean. It means that the model you’re using to explain your observations is incomplete or needs to be revised, sometimes radically, depending on the nature of the anomaly.
Scientific models are nothing more than systems for explaining our data and observations. The models themselves are not the data neither does the data “point” to a particular model per se. Models are human constructions for rationalizing our observations. Models try to construct potential systems that would cause the data and observations we see. A good model is one that can explain as much of the available data as possible. If a model can be revised to account for a larger portion of the data, then all else equal, it should.
I actually found myself agreeing with the atheist in this debate with respect to the issue of the supernatural. However, I would not say that the things that are often called supernatural don’t or can’t happen. Rather, I don’t believe that “supernatural” is a meaningful category for talking about these sorts of things, at least not when coming from a Christian frame of reference.
At this point, I think it’s helpful to go through a few ways that people often try to define the supernatural or miracles and show how the definitions end up being incoherent.
The Supernatural as Something that Can’t Be Explained
Oftentimes people will define the supernatural as something that cannot be explained with our current models of science. But there are several reasons why this definition doesn’t work.
First of all, if there is a phenomenon that cannot currently be explained, that doesn’t mean that it has a “supernatural” cause. All it means is that our current models do not give us a way of explaining why/how this phenomenon happened. Furthermore it might not even be possible to explain the phenomenon at the moment no matter how much we analyze it. We may need more data, more instances of this phenomenon to be able to amend current models to explain this phenomenon. And it may even be possible that due to human limitations, we will never be able to explain a given phenomenon. But even then that doesn’t mean that such a phenomenon is “supernatural.” After all, such a phenomenon still has a cause and theoretically speaking, if we had all the data in the world, we would be able to explain the cause of the phenomenon.
Secondly, if the supernatural is merely something that we can’t explain, then a whole lot of things become supernatural that would not normally be considered to be supernatural. Anything that we can’t currently fully explain becomes supernatural. Things like black holes or dark matter are all of a sudden supernatural. However, this kind of thing isn’t normally what people have in mind when they want to talk about the supernatural.
The Supernatural as Something Non-Physical
I think a lot of what drives our understanding of the categories of natural and supernatural is a physical/non-physical dualism. We believe that there are physical things like rocks, dogs, water, Christmas trees, and atoms on the one hand and on the other hand there are non-physical or “spiritual” things like, ghosts, angels, souls, God, spirits, demons, etc.
However, there are a whole host of things that do not fit neatly into either of these simplistic categories, for example, the entirety of subjective human experience and all the things that go along with that: consciousness, language, feeling, meaning, social connections, culture, ideas, thoughts, information, etc. There are parts of these that are clearly rooted in physicality, for example, language is composed of distinct sounds (a physical phenomenon) that replicate in semi-predictable ways, emotion has demonstrable physiological components, and consciousness is clearly tied to the complexity of the neural network in the brain.
Yet, these phenomena, language, emotion, and consciousness are not exhausted by their physical or physiological components. Of course, there are those who would assert that there is nothing to these things other than their physical components. However, this assertion (for example with regard to consciousness) has yet to be proven, and there may even be good reason to believe that it could never be proven or demonstrated.
Granting the assertion that at least some of the sorts of things I’ve listed are not entirely physical, does that mean that they are then supernatural? That seems like a strange assertion to make. There are lots of things that are not physical (at least not entirely) that we would never call supernatural. Thus, it seems strange to try and define the supernatural as merely things that are non-physical or spiritual.
Or to come at from a different angle, what is the difference between a ghost knocking a book off of a shelf and a person knocking a book off of a shelf? Why would the first be considered supernatural and the second not? One need not grant that there are even such things as ghosts to say that such a distinction doesn’t make much sense. The phenomenon of the book getting knocked off the shelf is necessarily caused by something. And if our current understanding of how books get knocked off shelves is incapable of explaining a particular instance of a book getting knocked off a shelf, then our current models need to be amended to be able to explain as many instances of books getting knocked off of shelves as possible. If there were sufficient instances and data to suggest that one of the potential causes of books getting knocked off shelves was book-knocking ghosts, then the activity of such ghosts would need to become part of the fuller model, that is if the model seeks to be comprehensive in any sense. The fact that the ghost is non-physical makes absolutely no difference from the standpoint of causality and there would be no reason to separate such a cause into a separate category of cause called “supernatural.”
The Christian View of the World
I understand that for many Christians the idea that there is no such thing as the supernatural is uncomfortable. This is why I want to make it clear that I am not saying that things often categorized as “supernatural” are not real, e.g. miracles, angels, God. What I am saying is that there is no good reason philosophically to separate these things into a separate category called “supernatural.” I am saying that the separation into another category is unhelpful and inconsistent with Christian view of the world.
An illustration commonly used by Charles Arand is helpful here.
Take the following assorted list of things: dogs, demons, rocks, candles, angels, people, ants, yeast, clouds, heaven, God, books, electrons.
Normally, if you ask people to separate this list into two categories, they’ll do something like this:
|Demons, angels, heaven, God||Dogs, rocks, candles, people, ants, yeast, clouds, books, electrons|
This is a separation between what we would often call the supernatural and the natural. It’s essentially a separation between what seems to be spiritual or non-physical and what seems to be physical.
But this is not a Christian way of separating the world instead, if we are to be consistently Christian, we will separate the list like this:
|God||Dogs, demons, rocks, candles, angels, people, ants, yeast, clouds, heaven, books, electrons|
This is because God is the creator of all things. There is more in common between yeast and angels than there is between angels and God. God is the creator of both angels and yeast. This distinction is the most important kind of distinction from a Christian perspective. The distinction between natural and supernatural is not a meaningful distinction from a Christian perspective.
This means that Christians are not in the camp of needing to defend the category of “supernatural,” whatever that means. We don’t need to defend what are often silly stories of books getting knocked off shelves or odd anecdotes of near death experiences. The fundamental assertion of Christianity is not there is this spiritual world beyond our senses that we ought to believe in. Rather, the fundamental assertion of Christianity is a story, a story with a past and a future. We claim that God created everything and this creation was ruined by human sin. We claim that Jesus of Nazareth, a historical person, claimed to be the Messiah of the Jewish people and he vindicated that claim by dying and rising from the dead. We also believe that this Jesus will one day return in glory and God, the creator, will finally recreate his creation and rule over his rebellious creation once again. The good news is that rebellious human beings get to be included in this new creation, both as objects of this new creation (forgiveness of sins, resurrected body, etc.) as well as participants in this new creation (see for example, 1 Cor 15:58 and Eph 2:10).
Now, of course, this fundamental assertion presupposes that the secular materialists of our day are in fact wrong, in other words, there is more to the world we live in than matter and energy. However, we cannot articulate the faith according to their categories and under their terms, e.g. the distinction between natural and supernatural. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t respond to the legitimate objections of those in our own day. We do. But when we do, we need to do so from a thoroughly Christian view of the world.