Distinguishing the Miraculous from the Providential

Stephen J Pullum. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 

In October 2005, the unthinkable happened to Shana West. In what must be every skydiver’s worst nightmare, after she leaped from the plane, Shana’s tangled parachute only partially deployed, leaving her to fall toward the earth at an astounding fifty miles per hour. The resulting collision broke multiple bones in her face and body but did not kill her. To complicate matters, unknown to her, Shana was two weeks pregnant. Amazingly, she not only survived what was almost a total free fall, but in time gave birth to a healthy baby boy. In reporting the story in March 2007, Robin Roberts, coanchor for Good Morning America, called Shana’s survival miraculous. It is doubtful that many people, especially people of faith, would have disagreed with Roberts’s assessment.

A few days later, ABC News reported that Christa Lilly of Colorado Springs had slipped into a coma in October 2001. After six years, though, she suddenly and unexplainably woke up. Calling her ordeal mystical, Christa’s neurologist could not explain why. Family members, however, had a different take. They called it a miracle from God. It is doubtful that many people would have disagreed with their assessment either.

A few weeks afterwards, Good Morning America reported yet another story, in which a teenager by the name of Levi Draher survived after passing out for five minutes, during which time his brain was deprived of oxygen. Draher was participating in a fad known as the choking game, in which teenagers intentionally choke themselves in an attempt to get high. Fortunately, Draher was resuscitated in time to save his life. Despite the fact that he suffered a dramatic loss of speech and motor skills and would have to spend the next two years in rehabilitation in order to fully recover, reporter Chris Cuomo hailed Draher’s survival as “nothing short of a miracle.” In a speech to a group of high school students Draher himself recounted, “Do I consider myself a miracle? Yes, I do.” As in the above cases, few would probably disagree with Cuomo’s and Draher’s assessments either.

In early May 2007 a tornado that was about a mile and a half wide, with winds greater than two hundred miles per hour, ripped through the small town of Greensburg, Kansas. It destroyed about 85 percent of the town and caused the deaths of what was reported at the time to be eight people. ABC News titled their story “Miracle in Kansas.” Even though the town had been warned a few minutes earlier by the National Weather Service, the alleged miracle was the fact that more people were not killed from such a large and powerful storm.

These examples illustrate the fact that we are quick to label as miraculous things that we cannot explain. Is this correct procedure? Whenever an individual narrowly avoids what could have been a major automobile accident while traveling at a high rate of speed, or trapped coal miners are extracted alive from deep within the earth after several days without food and water, or individuals with terminal diseases who are given weeks to live suddenly go into remission, individuals of faith are quick to call these incidents miraculous. However, do any of the above examples actually qualify as miracles?

My purpose in this chapter is to address this issue from a biblical perspective. Specifically I want to examine how miracles are depicted in both the Old and New Testament narratives. Additionally, and equally important, I want to analyze what differences, if any, there may be between the miraculous and the providential. What role, if any, does God play in these two areas according to the Bible?

Before going further, a few preliminary issues may be addressed. Why should we analyze miracles as depicted in the Old and New Testaments? The answer is relatively simple. Many people, who are quick to call miraculous those seemingly unexplainable events that defy the odds, are usually people of faith, primarily Christians, who have read at least portions of the Bible. In many cases it is because they have read stories about the miraculous in the Bible that they believe in the possibilities of miracles today in the first place. But should they?

Because people are quick to label unexplainable, positive outcomes as miraculous with little thought to what they are saying, this topic is important. Furthermore, there are a number of televangelists and faith healers today, such as Benny Hinn, Gloria Copeland, and Pat Robertson, who make the claim to an unsuspecting public that they can and should receive some type of miracle in their life, be it financial, physical, social, or emotional, provided they have enough faith. However, if miracles do not exist today, what televangelists are teaching is problematic. For example, unsuspecting individuals may decide that they have indeed received a miraculous healing. This in turn may lead them to stop taking badly needed medicine or throw away essential medical apparatuses and die. Even if these individuals do not die but never improve when they think they should, simply because some preacher is telling them to believe in miracles, this is torturous. Boggs rightly points out that, “It is a very serious thing to raise the hopes of multitudes of sick people with assurances that God will always reward true faith by healing diseases, and then to lead the great majority of these people through disillusionment to despair.”

In analyzing the Old and New Testament narratives, my intention here is not to argue one way or the other regarding their veracity. I understand that there are a number of people who dismiss the biblical narratives as mere myth. By doing so, one does not have to grapple with the issue of miracles in the first place, at least as the Bible portrays them. They can be simply dismissed as impossible. However, there are thousands of people who accept the claims regarding the miraculous as revealed in the Bible. Moreover, as was suggested, in most cases it is because individuals read stories about the miraculous in the Bible that they believe they occur nowadays. My intention is to provide a better understanding of miracles as they are depicted in the Bible for people of faith today. I want to offer these individuals a clearer understanding of what constitutes the miraculous and what constitutes the providential from a biblical perspective without throwing God out of the picture.

Differentiating the miraculous from the providential is not merely a matter of semantics. Knowing what a miracle is, what providence is, and the differences in the two is very important in helping individuals to have realistic expectations. I will argue that, in spite of whether a person believes in God, miracles do not occur today because their original purpose has ceased. I will also suggest that what some claim to be miracles today, especially those related to physical healings, in no way resemble what one reads about in the biblical literature. However, despite the fact that it cannot be verified today, one may continue to believe in the providential, which is different from the miraculous. Let us turn our attention first to the miraculous.


Miracles Violated Natural Law

One of the first things that we should understand about miracles, as they are revealed to us in the Bible, is that they always violated the laws of nature. McCarron argues that it is one thing to pray on the way toward the ground that one’s tangled parachute open, and it does so, and another to stop in midair and untangle it before proceeding further. Stopping in midair would constitute a violation of the laws of gravity, making it miraculous.

In the Old Testament when God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt some fifteen hundred years before Christ, Moses was not confident he could do the job. Part of his problem was that he was not convinced that the Jewish elders would believe him when he would go to them with the message that God had called him to lead.

Exodus 4 records that God gave Moses three “signs,” that is, miracles, to demonstrate to the Jews that he had chosen him as their leader. God first told Moses to cast his rod on the ground. When he did, it turned into a snake. When Moses picked the snake up by the tail, it turned back into a rod. The second sign involved Moses putting his hand into his bosom and taking it out. At that point it turned leprous. God then instructed Moses to return his leprous hand to his bosom and to remove it a second time, at which point it was restored. The third sign God gave Moses was to pour water from the river onto the ground. When Moses did so, it turned into blood. All of these involved a violation of nature. Rods left alone do not morph into snakes. Hands do not naturally change instantaneously from healthy to leprous and back to healthy again. In nature, whenever skin diseases heal, they take time—weeks, months, or even years—but they certainly do not heal immediately. Water does not change into blood in nature if left on its own.

Another popular story from the Old Testament that illustrates that miracles were a violation of the laws of nature involved Elijah the prophet and his contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. 1 Kings 18 records how Elijah, in an attempt to persuade the Israelites to believe in God, suggested that they build two altars on which to offer a sacrifice, one for Baal and one for Elijah’s God. Elijah proposed that the God who “answereth by fire” would thereby demonstrate that he was the true God. He allowed the prophets of Baal to go first. After these prophets invoked their god from morning until noon, nothing happened. Then came Elijah’s turn. He commanded the people to douse his altar three times with water before he invoked his God to consume it. The narrative tells us that “the fire of Jehovah fell, and consumed the burnt-offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” What makes this miraculous is the fact that in nature fire does not rain down from heaven or burn up stones.

One of the best examples of nature being violated is the conception of Christ to the Virgin Mary as recorded in the New Testament. Christ’s conception is considered miraculous because the laws of nature tell us that women, especially virgins, do not conceive children without being inseminated by a man. Before we go further, let us be clear that conception and birth are two different things. Births in any species are in no way miraculous, even though they are often speciously referred to as miracles.11 The fact is, births occur every day in nature and have been occurring for millennia. As I argue elsewhere, they are as common in nature as thunderstorms. So, while babies being born are glorious events, they hardly qualify as miraculous. However, among some Christians, Mary’s conception of Christ is a different matter. It is miraculous.

At least once in the Bible a miraculous conception occurred even with normal sexual intercourse as in the case of Sarah, wife of Abraham. What makes this conception miraculous is that the laws of nature do not allow women who have gone through menopause to conceive babies even though they may engage in sexual intercourse. Sarah was 90 years old when she conceived Isaac. When she overheard messengers from God tell her husband that she would have a son, the Bible records how Sarah “laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’” Sarah was fully aware of the laws of nature regarding conception for women of her age. She knew that left on their own, she and Abraham were not going to have any children at that stage in their life together.

As stated earlier, while the conceptions of Christ and Isaac were miraculous, the physical births themselves were not. We assume that both Mary and Sarah, once they had conceived, carried their babies to full term and delivered them in the natural way that women give birth. The only way these births would have been miraculous is if Mary and Sarah had delivered them in some mode that would have violated the laws of human gestation and delivery. C. S. Lewis suggests, “If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take it over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born.”

Other examples of the laws of nature being violated or suspended can be found in the New Testament (NT). According to the narratives, Jesus, for example, walked on water and turned water into wine. On other occasions he stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee, restored the right ear of Malchus, which had been cut off by Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, and even raised a dead person. The above-mentioned miracles are just a few of the many types recorded for us in the Old and New Testaments that demonstrate a violation of natural law.

Miracles Were Unlimited in Scope

Throughout the Bible miracles dealt with a wide variety of phenomenon. Perhaps this is most easily seen, though not exclusively, in the ministry of Jesus in the NT. Cogdill points out that Jesus demonstrated authority over nature when he calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee. He also demonstrated authority over material things when he multiplied the loaves and fishes and fed five thousand people. In healing lepers as well as “all manner of disease and … sickness,” Jesus demonstrated power over physical ailments. He also demonstrated power over demons by casting them out. Ultimately he showed his authority over death when, for example, he raised Lazarus from the dead. In short, nothing was impossible for Jesus. After arguing that contemporary faith healers would not attempt to do what Jesus did but, nonetheless, would have people to believe that nothing is impossible with God and that Jesus heals today through them, Cogdill persuasively asks, “If Jesus is doing the healing now why doesn’t He heal now like He did then?”

Miracles Caused Astonishment

Vine suggests that the word miracle in the New Testament comes from two Greek words: dunamis and semeion. Dunamis carries the idea of power or inherent ability and “is used of works of a supernatural origin and character, such as could not be produced by natural agents and means.” Semeion “is used of miracles and wonders as signs of Divine authority.” Another word that is frequently found in the same context with signs and/or mighty works is the wordwonder. Vine points out that wonder, from the Greek teras, causes the beholder to marvel. He suggests that while “A sign is intended to appeal to the understanding,” and “power (dunamis) indicates its source as supernatural … a wonder appeals to the imagination.” Miracles, in other words, caused astonishment on the part of those who witnessed them.

There was a “wow” factor involved in beholding miracles as they are revealed to us in the Bible. For instance, when Jesus healed the man with palsy in Mark 2, the narrative tells us that those who looked on “were all amazed and glorified God.” When he healed Jairus’ daughter, witnesses “were amazed … with a great amazement.” When many saw a man possessed with a demon be healed, the narrative says that “amazement came upon all.” When Peter healed the lame man who was laid daily at the gate of the temple in Acts 3, Luke records how the people who witnessed it “were filled with wonder and amazement at that which had happened unto him.”

This particular incident caused many problems for Peter and John. When the authorities heard of the healing, they arrested them. In deciding what to do with Peter and John, the authorities huddled together. Their conversation is telltale: “What shall we do to these men? for that indeed a notable miracle hath been wrought through them, is manifest to all that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it.” The point to be understood here is that even the very enemies of Peter and John could not, nor did they try to, deny that a miracle had occurred. The New Testament also suggests that when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead that the religious leaders asked, “What do we do? For this man doeth many signs.” They could not, nor did they try to, deny the miraculous event. A similar situation occurred in Matthew 12 where Jesus reportedly cast a demon out of a man. The narrative says, “the multitudes were amazed.” Rather than try to deny the miracle, which they honestly could not, the enemies of Christ put the worst possible slant on it by saying that Jesus was able to do what he did only because he was in allegiance with the devil himself.

What I am trying to illustrate in this section is that whenever a miracle occurred, people did not question it. Biblical miracles did not cause skepticism like many so-called “miracles” today do. Miracles in the biblical narratives caused astonishment, even to the point that hardened critics could not deny what had occurred. While they may have been inconvenient for various religious leaders, miracles were nonetheless astounding. Moreover, these miracles never occurred in an emotionally charged atmosphere where people had been whipped into a frenzy to believe.

Miracles Were Immediate

A fourth characteristic of miracles, particularly as they related to healings, is that, with one exception, which I will discuss momentarily, they were always immediate. In other words, there was no waiting period. A person who was healed miraculously, for example, did not have to go home, lie around the house for a few days or weeks, and experience ups and downs before gradually being cured. The healing occurred instantaneously. In the story of a man cured of leprosy, for instance, the New Testament records how he was healed “straightway.” In fact, “straightway” is often used to describe individuals’ healings. The scriptures say that when Jesus healed a paralytic man who had been let down through the ceiling “he arose, and straightway took up the bed.” The woman with “an issue of blood” was healed “straightway.” The narrative records how Peter’s mother-in-law was healed of a fever and “immediately … rose up.” This implies that there was no waiting period for her healing. Returning to the lame man of Acts 3 who had been laid daily at the gate of the temple, the scriptures suggest that when Peter healed him, “immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength” and he leaped up and ran around.

In his book Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle, medical doctor William Nolen analyzed over 80 cases of individuals who had supposedly received a miraculous healing during one of the crusades in Minneapolis of the world-renowned faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman. After following up these cases, Nolan concluded that not only had many of these people never received a healing, let alone an instantaneous cure, but many had died from their life-threatening ailments. One case specifically that Nolen cites of an individual who claimed to have received a miraculous healing but did not truly receive one was 23-year-old Rita Swanson. Rita “had blemishes all over her face … that is a common consequence of severe adolescent acne,” reports Nolen. He reveals how Kuhlman said, “In three days that skin problem will be cured.” Even Nolen himself, upon future examination, agreed that Swanson’s face “was very much improved.” However, Nolen points out that “skin is highly subjective. You look in the mirror, and unless things are too shockingly obvious, you will see, at least in part, what you want.” Even though Rita’s skin may have been improved, one can hardly call this miraculous. Nolen concludes that “none of the patients who had returned to Minneapolis to reaffirm the cures they had claimed at the miracle service had, in fact, been miraculously cured of anything.”

Popular contemporary faith healer Ernest Angley, like other faith healers, occasionally tells individuals who come through his healing lines to “Go and get well.” This is ironic due to the fact that, ostensibly, a person is in the healing line in the first place to immediately get well, not to have to wait a period of time afterward. Where is the miracle in having to wait? What contemporary faith healers claim does not square with the biblical narratives, wherein miraculous cures were always instantaneous.

The story of Jesus healing a blind man in Mark 8 is sometimes offered as evidence that not all miraculous healings had to occur instantaneously. The narrative suggests that, after Jesus “spit on his eyes, and laid his hands upon him,” he asked the man if he could see. The man responded that he could see men but he saw them “as trees, walking,” which suggests that he was not fully healed. Seconds later, Jesus again laid his hands upon the man’s eyes, at which point the man “saw all things clearly.” For reasons which we can only surmise, the blind man was not able to see clearly the first time.

Foster argues, “We cannot tell why the miracle was gradual: whether by the purpose of Jesus or because of the slow-moving faith of the man.” Christians would probably not concede that it was because Jesus did not have the ability to “get it right” the first time. Regardless of whatever reason the man was not able to see clearly the first time, the point that should be understood is that Jesus did not tell him to go home and gradually improve over time. The man was healed before he left the presence of Jesus, therefore, nonetheless, immediately. In no way should this example be used to justify the fact that miracles were not instantaneous. Foster argues, “it is absurd” to take this example “as the necessary model for all [miraculous healings] when the peculiarities are” an exception to the other examples “in the life of Christ.”

Miracles Were Always Complete

Closely related to the idea of immediacy is the notion that miraculous healings in the Bible were always complete. In other words, individuals’ ailments were always made whole, the above example from Mark 8 notwithstanding. Never was an individual just a little healed and then sent on his way to get better, perhaps never to fully recover. The man in the gospel of Matthew who had a withered hand, for example, was “restored whole.” The lame man in Acts 3 did not need crutches or a cane after he was healed. There were no recurring side effects to anyone who received a healing in the biblical narratives. Moreover, individuals never lost their miracle once they received it.

Perhaps one of the best examples of individuals in our time who claimed to have received miraculous cures but clearly was not wholly healed is that of a young woman in one of Kathryn Kuhlman’s crusades. This woman, who had no knee cap, came to the stage claiming that, until she was just healed, she could not walk without her brace. In what was a noble attempt to demonstrate her “miracle” to the thousands of people in attendance, she had taken the brace off of her leg and hobbled badly, yet courageously, across the stage to thunderous applause. Moreover, she hobbled off the stage as badly as she had hobbled onto the stage, without any obvious improvement because she was still missing her knee cap. This could hardly be called a miracle.

In one of contemporary faith healer Benny Hinn’s crusades, a young woman came to the stage, claiming she had been healed of deafness. However, she could not speak. One of Hinn’s assistants reminded Hinn and the entire auditorium that because the young lady had not been able to hear since birth, she would have to learn how to speak. Ironically, in other words, the young lady was not whole. Why is it that she could receive a miracle involving hearing but not speaking? This makes no sense.

Miracles Were Empirically Verifiable

One very important characteristic of biblical miracles, especially those involving physical healings, was the fact that they could be seen by everyone present. This principle seems to be lost on many people today. In the biblical narratives one could see, for example, Malchus’s ear put back on the side of his head, withered hands restored whole, totally blind men receive their sight, lame individuals leap for joy, lepers’ skins completely made whole, or even dead people brought back to life after having been dead for days. There were other types of miracles that were visually verifiable as well, such as water instantaneously turning to wine, a man walking on water, or a storm suddenly being calmed, to name a few.

So-called “miracles” today, especially “miraculous healings” cannot always be verified with one’s eyes. We are forced to take people’s word for the fact that they were once infirm but now are healed. For example, the types of miracles that one witnesses in faith healing services today involve poor blood circulation, weak eyes, backaches, deteriorated disks, internal cancers, depression, and other emotional problems, heart conditions, bursitis, arthritis, rheumatism, inability to smell, and even cigarette and drug addiction. Body parts are never regenerated like those cases in the Bible, which is one reason an individual will never see glass eyes or other prostheses in the trophy cases of faith healers.

In short, none of the types of “miracles” one supposedly sees are visually verifiable on the spot like those recorded in the Bible. Therefore, they are non-falsifiable. In other words, witnesses cannot say, “No, you were not really healed.” Audiences are simply asked to take the word of the person being healed. They cannot see for themselves like audiences in the Bible could. Biblical audiences were never merely asked to take the word of anyone. They could see the healing with their own eyes. Even when people occasionally stand up from wheelchairs today during some healing service as proof of the miraculous, audiences still do not know to what extent the individual could or could not walk prior to coming there.

Miracles Preceded Faith

We are told today that faith is necessary to experience a miracle, especially a miraculous healing. The fact is, in the Bible, miracles almost always occurred prior to belief. In other words, most of the time, faith was not a prerequisite to receive a miracle. In fact, quite often, it was because of the miracle that audiences developed faith. This is not to say that in every case where a miracle occurred faith always followed. Rather, what I am suggesting is that miracles were designed to produce faith, not vice versa. For instance, in the case of God giving Moses three signs, these miracles were given “that they may believe.” After Moses performed these miracles to the Israelites “the people believed: and … bowed their heads and worshipped.”

In Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, he invoked his God to rain fire from heaven to consume the altar that he had built “that this people may know that thou, Yahweh, art God.” The narrative suggests that “when all the people” witnessed the altar consumed with fire from heaven, “they fell on their faces: and they said, Yahweh, he is God; Yahweh, he is God.” Shortly before Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, the Old Testament tells us that he raised the dead son of the widow of Zarephath. Afterward, the woman said to Elijah, “[N]ow I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of Yahweh in thy mouth is truth.” Faith followed both of these miracles in the biblical narratives. It did not precede them.

Jesus performed miracles to produce belief in those around him as well. When he told a palsied man that his sins were forgiven, after realizing that there were some who were skeptical of who he claimed to be, Jesus told his onlookers, “But that ye many know that the Son of man hath authority on earth to forgive sins (then saith he to the sick of the palsy), Arise, and take up thy bed, and go unto thy house.” When “the multitudes” witnessed the healing, “they were afraid, and glorified God.” When John the baptizer was put into prison, he sent his disciples to inquire about Jesus. “Ask him,” John instructed, “art thou he that cometh, or look we for another?” Jesus responded to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up.” Jesus was saying, in other words, “Go offer John the evidence. Tell him what you see for yourselves. Then he’ll know who I am.”

Nicodemus understood this idea when he said to Jesus, “We know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him.” The apostle Peter articulated a similar notion when in his inaugural address of Christianity on the day of Pentecost he described Jesus as “a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you, even as ye yourselves know.”

The apostles of Christ also performed miracles to produce faith. For instance, when the Apostle Paul smote Elymus blind, Sergius Paulus “believed, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” Acts records that the people became believers after having seen the “signs and wonders” performed by Peter and other apostles. Hebrews explains how the apostles were validated as messengers of God “by signs and wonders, and by manifold powers, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit.” In fact the Apostle Paul himself reminded the Corinthian church that the “signs of an apostle” were performed among them “by signs and wonders and mighty works.”

Roberts argues that a miracle was not “just any divine intervention…. It was a very special type of divine intervention that could serve as a sign that the person performing the miracle had the power of God behind him.” Roberts contends that miracles “were a very special class of supernatural interventions of particularly astounding nature that were especially designed by God to serve as signs in the hands of certain men that he selected to be his messengers.”

To reiterate, miracles were designed to produce faith. Faith was not designed to produce miracles. It is true that on one occasion Jesus demanded faith on the part of two blind men before he healed them. This was the exception to the rule, though. In the majority of cases, faith was not a prerequisite. This was the rule. In his text, Modern Divine Healing,Miller points out that there were 31 cases of miraculous healings performed by Christ in the synoptic Gospels. Of these cases, only once did Jesus require faith on the part of recipients before he healed them. Miller points out that there were other cases where faith was present but not required. It seems, then, that while Jesus may have rewarded faith, it was not necessarily a condition for one to receive a miraculous cure. Most cases of healing involved no faith whatsoever.

In the biblical narratives, sometimes those who were healed knew absolutely nothing about the healer. Hence, there could be no faith. Sometimes those healed were not even present with the healer when they were healed. Sometimes those healed were not even alive. How could they have faith? Sometimes people were healed because of the faith of other people. If a miraculous healing failed, it was due to the faithlessness of the healer, not the person being healed. What faith healer today would admit to being the cause of someone not receiving a miraculous cure?

Before closing this section, permit me to deal with a narrative that is sometimes cited to prove that faith is necessary for miracles to occur. Mark 6:5-6 suggests of Jesus, “And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” The argument is that because the people did not believe (i.e., had no faith), Jesus could not perform miracles at that location. Two observations are in order here: (1) the phrase “mighty work” is much broader than just performing miracles. It probably has reference to Jesus’ general teachings and attempts to persuade people to accept him; (2) the phrase “mighty work” obviously does not include miraculous healings because the very next phrase says that he laid hands on a few sick people and healed them. He apparently did this regardless of the lack of faith on the part of the people. So, the phrase “could there do no mighty work … because of their unbelief” does not suggest that faith is necessary for miraculous healings to occur. However, this passage does seem to suggest that one cannot be successful in a ministry if that person is rejected by the faithless. Jesus’ point about a prophet not being without honor except in his own country emphasizes that the folks in his hometown rejected him. They knew him. They grew up with him. Apparently, for whatever reason, they were not impressed with him. Hence, he could do no “mighty work” there.

The Providential

Having discussed the miraculous as depicted in the Old and New Testament narratives, let us now turn our attention to the providential to see what differences there are between the two. If miracles do not occur today, does this mean that we should not believe in God or that we should not believe in his providential care? The answer to these questions, I believe, is no.

The word providence, per se, is used only one time in the entire Bible, in Acts 24:2. Here the orator Tertullus explains to Felix, the governor of Palestine, that it was by Felix’s providence that “evils are corrected for this nation.” The termprovidence, comes from the Greek pronoia, which means forethought. It is derived from pro, meaning before, and noeo,to think. Corroborating Vine, Strong suggests that pro and noeo carry with them the idea “to consider in advance, i.e., look out for beforehand,” to “provide (for).” Citing McClintock and Strong, Jackson (1988) points out that providence comes from the Latin providentia, which suggests foresight. Jackson argues, “The word is used to denote the biblical idea of the wisdom and power which God continually exercises in the preservation and government of the world, for the ends which he proposes to accomplish.”

Citing the biblical scholar Merrill Tenny, Jackson (1988) also reports, “Providence concerns God’s support care and supervision of all creation, from the moment of the first creation to all the future into eternity.” According to Jackson, providence is the opposite of chance or fate, which suggests that events are “uncontrollable and without any element of benevolent purpose.” Bowman argues that the concept of providence, “whether in Greek, Latin, or English has to do with getting something ready, preparing something ahead of time, with equipping or furnishing what is needed.”

Although the word providence appears only once in the Bible, the concept of God looking out for or providing for his people can be found throughout the Bible. In Genesis chapters 37 through 46, for instance, we read about how Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egyptian bondage but how Joseph eventually rose to second in command of Egypt and saved his family from a famine, including the very brothers who sold him. Ostensibly, at least, it appears that God was operating behind the scenes providentially to care for both Joseph and the Israelites. In Exodus 2: 1-10 we read about the Egyptian Pharoah’s daughter finding baby Moses floating in a basket in the crocodile-teeming Nile river and giving the baby back to his Hebrew mother to nurse him.

This may have been the irony of ironies. The mother who had to give up her son in order to save him was now nursing him. Was this by coincidence or by the providence of God? People of faith would suggest that God was probably behind this action, too. In the book of Esther, we read about the Persian King Ahasuerus (i.e., Xerxes) granting permission to his servant Haman to issue a decree to kill all of the Jews in his kingdom. When Mordecai, Queen Esther’s cousin, found out about Haman’s plot, he asked Esther (a Jewish woman herself) to risk her life and appear before her husband’s throne to intercede for the Jewish people, which she reluctantly did. Haman was ultimately hanged on the very gallows that he had built for Mordecai, and the Jews were allowed to resist their attackers, thus saving them from annihilation.

In Esther 4:14, Mordecai persuaded Esther with these words, which suggest, on their face, possible providential intervention by God for His people: “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father’s house will perish; and who knoweth whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” Mordecai is saying, in other words, “Esther, God will take care of us Jews. But how do you know that it was not God’s providence that made you queen and put you here for a reason?” The idea behind the above examples is that God dwelt in the affairs of humans. In the New Testament we are reminded that God continues to be active in the lives of people. But how, miraculously or providentially?

Prayer and Providence are Bound Together

People of faith pray today because they believe that God will respond in some way to their prayers. Bowman suggests, “If I didn’t believe in providence, I would not take the trouble to pray.” The apostle John taught that “if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us.” The apostle Peter suggests that “the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears unto their supplication.” James suggests that “The supplication [i.e., prayer] of a righteous man availeth much.” Jesus himself taught, “Ask, and it shall be given you.” He also reminded his disciples, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” The whole idea behind prayer is that there is a supernatural being behind the universe who hears the requests and groanings of his people. However, when God grants the requests of an individual, does this mean that he has to do so miraculously? In other words, is everything that God brings about in the lives of individuals who pray a violation of natural law? Stated differently. should we call these events miraculous? I think not, for reasons that follow.

The Providential Involves God Working through Nature

Jackson (1988) rightly points out that whereas A miracle is God’s working on a plain [sic] that is above that of natural law; providence is his utilization of natural law.” In the miraculous, God operates directly.” “[I]n providence, He operates indirectly, employing means to accomplish the end.” Let us be careful here to understand that both the miraculous and the providential involve supernatural intervention. However, supernatural intervention can come through nature, not necessarily through a violation of nature. Let us look at some examples from the biblical narratives to illustrate these points.

Jackson (1988) argues that while Mary’s conception of Christ was miraculous, Hannah’s conception of her son Samuel was providential. First Samuel 1:6 narrates that “Jehovah had shut up her [Hannah] womb.” However, she prayed to God to give her a son. The scriptures say that her husband “Elkanah knew Hannah, his wife; and Yahweh remembered her.” The idea behind “knew” is that they had sexual relations. Later, “Hannah conceived, and bore a son; and she called his name Samuel, saying, ‘Because I have asked him of Jehovah.’” Hannah’s prayer had been answered. Jackson suggests, “Here by means of the law of procreation, God intervened and sent a child into the world.” One child (i.e., Jesus) came into the world through a miracle. Another child (i.e., Samuel) came into the world providentially. Nonetheless, God was behind both events.

One might ask, “How is it that Hannah’s conception was providential, but Mary’s (and Sarah’s) were miraculous?” Mary’s and Sarah’s conceptions were miraculous because both clearly violated natural law in their own way, as stated earlier. However, there is no indication that any natural law was violated with Hannah. Occasionally in nature, even when God is not involved, women can go for years thinking that they cannot have any children, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, they become pregnant with the help of their male mate. This is certainly not miraculous. We do not really know why Hannah could not conceive other than the fact that the narrative tells us that God had closed her womb. What God had closed, God could open through natural means. The point to be understood here is that providence still involves supernatural intervention. However, supernatural intervention does not necessarily come miraculously.

When the Jewish King Hezekiah prayed to God to deliver him from the Assyrian King Sennacherib, who had besieged Jerusalem, the narrative tells us that “an angel of Jehovah” smote 185,000 Assyrian troops. Sennacherib was then forced to withdraw to his capital Nineveh. This was miraculous because an angel—a supernatural being—was responsible for single-handedly slaying thousands of enemy soldiers—something impossible to do naturally. Earlier, God had told Hezekiah that He “will cause him [Sennacherib] to fall by the sword in his own land.” But how would God accomplish this? When Sennacherib returned from Jerusalem, two of his sons slew him in the temple as he was praying at the altar. Sennacherib’s death came about through natural means. God was behind his death, though, making it providential.

In the New Testament, when King Herod jailed Peter, the narrative tells us that Peter had been “bound with two chains” and was asleep between two guards. Two other soldiers were guarding the doors of the prison. However, “an angel of the Lord stood by him [Peter] and a light shined in the cell: and he smote Peter … and awoke him … and his chains fell off from his hands.” The angel proceeded to miraculously lead Peter out of the prison, past all of the guards and the locked door. Eventually he came to “the iron gate that leadeth into the city.” This gate “opened … of its own accord” allowing Peter to flee from his captors. This all occurred miraculously. In the natural realm, chains and locked doors do not automatically fall off or unlock themselves.

There was another escape that one could argue occurred providentially. In Acts 19, the Apostle Paul had gone to Ephesus to preach. Demetrius, a silversmith who made shrines of the goddess Diana, took offense at Paul’s preaching and stirred up an insurrection against him and his traveling companions Gaius and Aristarchus, who had been “seized.” Eventually a man named Alexander quieted the mob and persuaded them to take up their cause peacefully in the courts, thus allowing Paul, Gaius, and Aristarchus to leave. One could make an argument that it was God who allowed Paul and his companions to escape. However, no laws of nature were violated as in the above case with Peter.

In the biblical narratives we read where God destroyed two cities, one miraculously and one providentially. The scriptures say that “Jehovah rained upon Sodom and … Gomorrah brimstone and fire from out of heaven.” This occurred miraculously for roughly the same reason that Elijah’s altar caught fire, because fire and brimstone do not fall from heaven according to any laws of nature. On the other hand, Matthew 24 reveals how God would come in judgment against the city of Jerusalem. This was accomplished in 70 CE by the Romans. One can argue that God was behind this act. However, the destruction of Jerusalem was not miraculous. God operated through the realm of nature, in this case, using a foreign army to destroy the city, making the event providential.

One last example of the providential and the miraculous should suffice. It is one thing to miraculously rebuke “the winds and the sea” and bring about “a great calm,” thus showing power over nature, but another thing to pray to God to send rain. This is exactly what Elijah did after Israel had endured a three-and-one-half-year drought. The scriptures say that “the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain.” There was nothing miraculous about rain clouds even though God had answered Elijah’s prayer and brought about the change. God had operated providentially through nature.

This discussion about the miraculous versus the providential means, practically speaking, that God has not performed a miracle even though he may have supernaturally intervened in the lives of people. This is a point that many people today fail to understand, especially when it comes to praying for the sick and afflicted. If a sick or ailing individual recovers, it might be because God effected a change through natural law. In other words, God may have operated providentially. However, we should not make the mistake of calling it a miracle. Nevertheless, we have not thrown God out of the picture simply because we deny that a miracle occurred.

But what role, if any, does faith play in all of this? It is true that God could, at any time, make something happen providentially without anyone invoking him. In other words, no prayer or faith on the part of anyone whatsoever need be involved. Oftentimes, though, individuals beseech God through prayer. It is during these times that faith is required. In fact it would not make sense for a person to pray unless he or she had faith in the first place. The author of Hebrews suggests that “without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him.”

Even though faith may be necessary to bring about change under the providential, one must understand that realistically there are limitations here. Individuals who have lost a limb or some other bodily member, for example, may pray with all the faith they can muster that their body parts will grow back, but they will never regenerate themselves because this never occurs in nature. Furthermore, some individuals have gone through multiple surgeries and have such ailing bodies that nothing will ever change organically no matter how full of faith their prayers are. Like the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” whatever that might have been, the best that they can hope for is what Paul could hope for—strength to endure it. At the beginning of this chapter, I pointed out that the difference between the miraculous and the providential is not merely a matter of semantics but has everything to do with expectations. Knowing the differences between the two allows us to understand that some things we may be inclined to pray for will never occur. Therefore, we should not expect them to. The fact is, we can pray until we’re blue in the face with all the faith in the world but still not see any organic change in our defective bodies. Instead, what individuals ought to be praying for is strength to overcome. This is realistic.

Providence Cannot Be Proven Factually

Often events happen in our day and age that appear on the surface to be the workings of God. The fact is, though, we cannot be so sure. Bowman (1992) argues, “We strongly suspect that in certain instances, God has altered circumstances, changed situations so that our best interests were served, perhaps even in what seems to be the answer to our prayers. But we cannot know for sure; we can be certain only if God has revealed [them].” Similarly Hagewood (1990) warns against being “dogmatic about our interpretation“ of God’s providence. “Accept the fact that God has simply not made us privy to His providence,” he concludess. Likewise, Jackson (1988) contends that “no person can point to particular circumstances of his or her life and confidently assert, ‘I know that this was the providential intervention of God at work!’” Jackson concedes that an event may very well be the result of the providence of God at work but our “subjective assertions” can “prove nothing.” He goes on to point out that, “while it is true that God does work in the lives of men, they are frequently unaware of it. We may suspect it, believe it, hope it to be the case, and even act in such a way as to accommodate it; but, in the final analysis, we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).”

Turner (n.d.), too, warns about “thinking a certain event or set of circumstances definitely means that God has done this or that or wants this or that to happen.” He rightly points out that “an event can happen because God wants it to happen and causes it to happen or it may happen for various other reasons,” neither of which we can really know for sure. Citing Mordecai’s words to Queen Esther (i.e., “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such as this?”) Turner argues that Mordecai was not demonstrating a lack of faith. Instead, he was merely being careful not to assume something he should not be assuming. The fact is, people of faith should be careful about what events, whether good or bad, they attribute to God. It just might be that God had absolutely nothing to do with them.


In this chapter, I have tried to demonstrate that there are significant differences between the miraculous and the providential as they are portrayed in the biblical narratives. Miracles involved a suspension of the laws of nature, were unlimited in scope, caused astonishment on the part of onlookers, were always immediate, were always complete, were always empirically verifiable, and almost always occurred without faith on the part of onlookers or recipients. Providence, on the other hand, is linked to faith and prayer, involves God working through nature, but cannot be proven factually. While both involve supernatural intervention into the lives of people, they are not the same things and, therefore, should not be confused.

Having a proper understanding of each has everything to do with what a person can realistically expect to receive when he or she prays to God, or even what he or she should be praying for in the first place. While God is “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” there is a limitation to what we can and should expect him to do. This is not a lack of faith, however. This is the reality that is presented for us in the biblical narratives. Specifically with regard to miraculous healings, Miller points out that “the issue” is not “whether we believe God capable of healing the sick today. He most certainly is able to heal the sick today, and possesses abundant power to do so miraculously now, if this were his will…. The issue is not what God is able to do, but what he wills to do today.”

In the infant Christian church miracles were designed to produce faith and guide it in the will of the Lord during a particular period in history, not to serve as God’s way of leading people to him forever and certainly not to benefit society as a whole. In other words, miracles were not intended for all people of all ages for all purposes, Hebrews 13:8 notwithstanding. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul argues that we would no longer need the miraculous after “that which is perfect is come.” Perfect, in this verse, does not mean sinless. Nor is it referring to Christ’s second coming. Instead, perfect means complete, fully grown, or mature (from the Greek teleios). The perfect refers to the completed revelation of God’s will (i.e., the canon of scripture). The apostle James argues that “he that looks into the perfect (teleios) law, the law of liberty, and so continueth … shall be blessed in his doing.”

In the context of 1 Corinthians 13, “that which is in part” (i.e., miraculous gifts) is contrasted to that which is “perfect” (i.e., something to be completed). “Childish things” are juxtaposed to the mature. The dim is contrasted to the clear. There would come a time when spiritual gifts and other miracles (i.e., things done “in part,” “childish things,” or dim things) would give way to the “perfect” (i.e., the complete or mature). Moorhead (2004) argues that the “gist of 1 Corinthians 13:10 is that gifts [miracles] would cease in relation to the universal attainment, or coming of the canon.” This has been accomplished today. “The community of faith gathered for edification via the scripture is God’s plan for the edification of the church today,” not through signs, miracles, or spiritual gifts.

Moorhead (2004) also argues that the miracles mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13 “enabled the Christian to minister beyond human capacity during transition from [the] old covenant to the new covenant program.” Their purposes “were to glorify God by equipping and edifying the body of saints in sound doctrine toward maturation and to serve as a sign to unbelievers.” Moorhead freely admits that the “exact time of the cessation of spiritual gifts is up for debate” but that there are at least four “prevailing views” of when this occurred: (1) after the book of Revelation was complete; (2) “after the last Apostle died; (3) after the last gifted person died following the close of the canon; and (4) upon the dissemination of the canon throughout the region.” All of these probably occurred at or near the end of the first century.

While the miraculous has ceased, this should in no way alarm people of faith because the providential continues. Nothing in the biblical narratives suggests that God has stopped providing for his people. So, while we should be careful about what we label a miracle, even be so bold as to say that miracles no longer exist, this is not to suggest that God does not exist nor that he does not intervene in the lives of humans. But supernatural intervention does not necessarily equate with the miraculous.

Although Shana West’s story, like that of Christa Lilly’s and Levi Draher’s, may be amazing, they hardly qualify as miracles. Certainly they do not violate any laws of nature. The truth is, many people before them have had similar experiences. And just because we may not fully understand them from a scientific point of view, this does not give us the liberty of labeling them miraculous. Whenever an individual escapes a tornado, a car wreck, a mine cave-in, or a life-threatening illness, although they may be wonderful outcomes, they do not qualify as miracles in the biblical sense of the word. Was God looking out for all of these people? Perhaps he was. Perhaps he was not. It could be that sometimes God simply allows nature to run its course without intervening whatsoever, in other words, to allow “time and chance” to occur “to them all.” This is quite possible even though some may not want to admit it. We can never know about every situation with absolute certainty. Even though we may not always know when God is at work, we can still believe in a God that dwells in the lives of people today. We do not have to throw the baby out with the bath water.