Do God and Spirits Influence People and Things in the Physical Universe?

Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named AJ739:

Dear Lee,

Your website has massively helped me overcome my anxiety that was brought on by the New Age Movement and their beliefs, but I have two questions:

Can God/spirits cause things to happen to people? For example, can God/spirits cause a man to kill another or can God/spirits cause a warlord to start a war on various people at a time?

And finally, does God influence the universe? For example could God use outside forces to rearrange building structures or the Earth’s structure?

Many thanks.

Thanks for the great questions, AJ739! I think and hope this response will reduce your New-Age-induced anxiety level a couple more notches.

In previous eras, almost everyone believed that God and spirits, both good and evil, not only influenced but controlled everything from the weather to the fertility of crops, herds, and wives to victory and defeat in battle. And so they prayed and sacrificed to their gods, to the spirits of their ancestors, and to the demons and angels that populated the spiritual realms.

In today’s more rational and scientific age, talking about God doing miracles and spirits influencing events is enough to get a person grouped in with wild-haired men in the streets shouting about the end of the world.

angel and devil on the shoulders memeAnd yet, too many people have had too many experiences suggesting that God and the spiritual realms are indeed very close to us, intimately intertwined with our lives.

What are we to think? Do God and spirits influence people and things in the physical universe? Do they shift buildings and start wars?

Yes and no. Let’s take a closer look.

The testimony of scripture

The Bible, along with many other sacred books, is full of stories of God influencing people and human events, and of God rearranging physical structures and events. Just listing and summarizing them all could be a book in itself. Here are just two examples from the Bible:

The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.” (Exodus 7:1–6, italics added)

What follows is the famous story of the Ten Plagues, in which God is said to influence people, specifically by hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not listen to Moses and would not let the Israelites go, and also to do many miracles, bringing upon the Egyptians various plagues that involve the manipulation of nature.

And a less famous but more astronomically astounding example:

In Joshua 10, five kings band together to defeat the city of Gibeon, which has made a treaty with the invading Israelites. The Gibeonites appeal to Israel to come to their defense. Here is the account of the battle:

So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the fighting force with him, all the mighty warriors. The Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear them, for I have handed them over to you; not one of them shall stand before you.” So Joshua came upon them suddenly, having marched up all night from Gilgal. And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon, chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and struck them down as far as Azekah and Makkedah. As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword.

On the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Lord; and he said in the sight of Israel,

“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.

Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice; for the Lord fought for Israel.

Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal. (Joshua 10:7–15, italics added)

In this story, God first throws the enemy armies into a panic to make it easier for the Israelites to slaughter them. Then God gets directly involved, killing even more of the enemy soldiers than the Israelites by raining huge hailstones down upon them.

But the final act of God is the real kicker: God makes the sun stand still in the sky, giving the Israelites an extra day’s worth of daylight to pursue and utterly defeat their enemies.

Did the sun really stand still at Gibeon?

  • People falling into an irrational mass panic? Check. That happens.
  • Hailstones falling from the sky that are big enough to kill people? Check. That happens.
  • The sun and moon standing still in the sky? Umm . . . I don’t think so!

To the ancient Israelites, it would be no problem. They thought of the earth as flat disk, and the sun and moon as lights that traveled across the sky each day. If God wanted to stop those lights in their path to assist the Israelites in defeating their enemies, that was perfectly doable in their cosmology.

Today, however, we know that the sun and moon don’t really move across the sky every day. Rather, the earth rotates on its axis, making the sun and moon appear to move across the sky every day to a person standing on the surface of the earth. (The moon also orbits the earth, moving in the same direction the earth is rotating, so it appears to move across the sky slightly slower than the sun.)

The only way to make the sun stand still for an extra day’s worth of daylight would be to stop the rotation of the earth on its axis. Now consider this: At the earth’s equator, everything on the earth’s surface is moving at a speed of almost 1,000 miles per hour in the direction of the earth’s rotation. Can you imagine what would happen if God suddenly slammed on the brakes? The results would be catastrophic. No one on earth would survive the resulting destruction.

Besides, if such an event had happened, it would have been visible everywhere on earth (though on the other side of the earth it would have been experienced as a very long night). Court scribes and historians all around the world would have recorded this amazing event. However, though there are legends in other cultures of the sun standing still in the sky, or not rising for several days at a time, they don’t match the story in Joshua in timing or in exactly what took place. Despite unsubstantiated claims that have proliferated in fundamentalist Christian books, sermons, and websites, there is no corroborating historical evidence for such an event happening during Joshua’s time in the 13th century BC.

And no, NASA has not confirmed that there was a missing day back in Biblical times.

So we can safely say that God did not literally make the sun and the moon stand still one fine day in ancient Palestine so that Joshua could complete the defeat of his enemies.

Does this invalidate the Bible? No. It is simply one more example showing that the Bible is not meant to be read in a rigorously literal fashion. See: “Can We Really Believe the Bible?

Scripture is about human life, not about science and history

In the past few centuries, science and reason have come to the forefront of our understanding of the physical universe around us. Ironically, this has resulted in many Christians adopting and defending a very materialistic view of the Bible: that the Bible is meant to be read literally, and that it is an accurate description of historical and scientific events. Since science is ascendant in our culture, and carries great weight in people’s minds, these Christians are attempting to make the Bible into a textbook of science, thinking that this enhances its authority.

But that is completely missing the point of the Bible. If the Bible is God’s word, then its primary purpose is not to tell us about history and science, but to guide us to eternal life. In doing so, it uses many different styles, including myth, cultural history, poetry, and prophecy. These are intended, not to tell us about physical and historical events, but to reach our mind and heart in order to motivate and guide us toward living a life that leads to salvation and heaven.

In short, for the most part it simply doesn’t matter whether the events described in the Bible happened literally and historically exactly as they are described there. What matters is whether those stories inspire and lead us to follow God’s way in living a life of faith, love, and kindness toward our fellow human beings. See: “The Bible: Literal Inerrancy vs. Divine Depths of Meaning.”

Perhaps some of the less unbelievable miracles in the Bible—you know, the ones that wouldn’t tear apart the earth—did actually happen. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But for rational, thinking people who are also religious, it doesn’t really matter whether they did or didn’t. Nor does the Bible provide any scientific evidence that they did. These are stories meant to touch and change the human soul.

I believe the same is true of the many other sacred books of humanity that describe God rearranging the physical order of the universe. These are not literal stories about God changing the laws of physics. They are metaphorical stories about God changing the human heart.

Does God rearrange physical things?

But . . . does God influence the physical universe? Could God rearrange building structures or the earth’s structure?

Certainly in a theoretical sense, God could do these things. After all, God is omnipotent, and God is the one who created the physical universe. So what’s to stop God from tinkering with the engine?

Nothing, really. Except that God is not only omnipotent, but omniscient. Another way of saying this is that God can do anything God wants to, and God doesn’t make mistakes. So why would God create a universe that God has to be constantly fixing and adjusting? That would be an example of poor design on God’s part.

This is the main reason that although I believe God theoretically could rearrange physical structures, I don’t believe God actually does so. At least, not by violating the laws of the universe.

God is the one who established the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, structural mechanics, and so on. And God did so with a perfect knowledge and understanding of the purposes for which God established those laws.

In short, I believe that in designing the universe God got it right in the first place, so that there is no need to rearrange things later in order to get them to work properly according to God’s plans. The engine of God’s car doesn’t need fixing.

Does God influence people?

But what about people? Can God or spirits cause one person to kill another? Or cause a warlord to start a war that kills many people?

The Bible certainly seems to say so.

In the story about Pharaoh and the plagues quoted from earlier, it says many times that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh and his officials (see Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8, 17). But it also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (see Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34). And for good measure, several times it simply says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, without saying who did the hardening (see Exodus 7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35). So who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? God or Pharaoh? The Bible says both!

God does only good things, not bad things

One of God’s “omnis” is that God is omnibenevelont.

Here is how this is expressed poetically in the Psalms:

The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
(Psalm 145:9)

Not good to some. Good to all. Not over some of what he has made. Over all that he has made.

In non-poetic language, God does good to all people, not only to the ones who do what God wants them to do. And yes, this includes enemies such as Pharaoh who are actively working against God’s plans. We know this from Jesus’ own words:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44–45)

Why, then, does the Bible say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, when doing so certainly would not be good or merciful to Pharaoh and his people? And why are there so many other places in the Bible where it says that God brings disaster on God’s enemies, and so on?

This is an example of the Bible speaking according to the way things appear to us rather than the way they actually are.

We talk about the sun rising and setting every day, when we know very well that what’s really happening is that the earth is turning on its axis making the sun appear to rise and set. Similarly, to people in the ancient world, it appeared as if God was raining death and destruction upon their enemies—or upon themselves when they sinned against God—when in fact both Israel’s enemies and Israel itself brought death and destruction upon themselves when they stubbornly refused to live according to God’s commandments.

The Bible speaks as if God does evil as well as good so that simple-minded people will think of God as being extremely powerful, able to both bless and curse them, and will therefore respect and listen to God. But the reality is, as the Psalm says, that the Lord is good to all, and never does anything evil or destructive.

This means that you don’t have to be afraid of God tripping you up and destroying you. If you are tripped up and destroyed, it is either by other people (including evil spirits), or most likely, by yourself because you’re stubbornly resisting going in the good direction that God wants you to go.

So please don’t worry about God cursing and killing you. Worry, rather, about your own bad habits that bring all sorts of pain and suffering upon yourself and the people around you. And then do the hard work of changing them. See: “What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?

In short, God’s influence on us is always for good, and never for evil.

Do evil spirits influence people?

If anyone causes people to kill one another or start wars, it is certainly not God. But evil spirits might be involved in it.

These days it’s generally considered irrational and unscientific to believe that there are good and evil spirits influencing our thoughts and feelings. However, science is mostly useful in telling us how the physical universe works. If spirits and angels exist, that is outside the purview of science. And reason by itself can’t tell us anything about the spiritual world either.

I do believe that the spiritual world is real, that there are angels, good spirits, and evil spirits around us all the time, and that they do influence our thoughts and feelings. About the reality of the spiritual world, see: “Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?” And about spirits and angels visiting us and influencing us, there are so many millions of people who have described encounters with angels and spirits, both in the Bible and other sacred literature and in stories of dreams, visions, and near-death experiences, that I firmly believe these spiritual beings are around us all the time, connecting with our thoughts and feelings, and influencing us in various directions.

However, I also believe that ultimately, the choice of what we will actually do is ours. There may be an angel and a devil figuratively standing on each shoulder and whispering good and evil things in our ears. But it remains our choice which of these voices we will listen to, and what we will do.

In other words, yes, I believe that not only God, but also good and evil spirits do influence our thoughts and feelings. But I also believe that God balances those influences on us so that we remain free to choose whether we will actually do good or evil.

In the case of murderers and warlords, this means that although there certainly are evil spirits whispering in their ears and encouraging them to kill people and start wars, that doesn’t cause them to kill people or start wars. We listen to the people—and spirits—that favor what we ourselves want to do. So if a murderer or warlord listens to those evil spirits, the murder and war still comes from the person’s own will, and the murderer or warlord is still responsible for his or her own actions.

God continually keeps us in freedom

We humans are subject to all sorts of influences, both in the world of human society here on earth and from the spiritual world where we all go after we die.

Growing up and going to school, there are some kids who are a good influence on us, and others who are a bad influence on us. Which ones do we listen to? Which ones do we hang out with? The choice is always ours. And whichever choice we make, that will allow those influences to guide our actions.

In the corporate world there are people saying we need to always be honest and fair in our dealings, and others saying that if lying or cheating helps the bottom line, that’s just how the company gets ahead and beats the competition. Which ones do we listen to? How do we ourselves act in the business world? The choice is ours. And whichever choice we make, the people we have listened to will guide our actions.

In every area of life there are voices influencing us for good and voices influencing us for evil. Adding angels and spirits from the spiritual world to the mix doesn’t really change anything. It simply means that we are embedded in an even larger and more complex human community, some of which is here on earth, and some of which is in the spiritual world.

It’s still our choice which voices to listen to, and what influences and advice to act upon.

That’s because no angel or evil spirit is in control of the universe. God is. And God arranges the universe so that the forces bearing on us from on either side are equally balanced. This leaves us in freedom to listen to the voices we want to listen to, and to live our life in the way we want to live it, whether that is good or evil.

Do God and Spirits Influence People and Things in the Physical Universe?

Let’s sum up the main points:

  • God has no need to physically rearrange things because God has already created the laws of the physical universe to accomplish God’s purposes.
  • Even though some people need to believe that God does evil and brings destruction so that they will respect and listen to God, the reality is that God only does what is good and constructive.
  • Both good and evil spirits are around us all the time, influencing our mind and heart. But we remain in freedom to decide which influences we will pay attention to and act upon.

The miracles of healing and rescue described in the Bible, not to mention many other miracles described in other books and memoirs, may or may not have happened as described. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure. Still, if miracles do happen, they don’t violate the laws of nature, but are accomplished through the laws of nature, which are also God’s laws.

However, the greatest influence of God and spirits is not on physical events, but on the human mind and heart. That is where God and the angels reach out to us from above, inviting us to live in the light of understanding and mutual love, while evil spirits and demons claw at us from below, attempting to drag us down into darkness, evil, and destruction.

And in the midst of all these influences, we remain free to choose what we will do, and which way we will go.

This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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27 comments on “Do God and Spirits Influence People and Things in the Physical Universe?
  1. Julia says:

    Thank you for the article, Lee. A question: is there truly no night in heaven?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Julia,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question. I presume you are thinking of passages such as these ones in the book of Revelation:

      The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. (Revelation 21:24–25)

      And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:5)

      However, the book of Revelation was never meant to be taken literally. See: “Is the World Coming to an End? What about the Second Coming?” The “day” and “light” in these passages refer to the light of truth shining into the minds and hearts of good people, and the “night” refers to the darkness in the minds and hearts of people who have chosen to reject God and live an evil and selfish life. There is “no night” in the New Jerusalem because only good people who walk in the light go there. And the Lord God is their light because God is the source of all wisdom, understanding, and truth.

      In fact, Swedenborg says that people in heaven most commonly experience the Lord as the sun of heaven, shining down on them with its warmth and light. They feel the warmth as God’s love, and they perceive the light as God’s truth. So in heaven, Swedenborg says, it never gets fully dark, but the daylight only dims to a time of twilight before returning to full daylight. This is because the angels of heaven do go through regular cycles of more and less understanding and enlightenment.

      Full night, Swedenborg says, exists only in the lower parts of the spiritual world, especially in hell, where people go who reject the light of God’s truth and live in the darkness of falsity instead. However, to them it does not seem like darkness, but is more like the night vision of an owl or a cat.

      • Julia says:

        Thank you! This has really helped me as it’s a question I’ve been having for awhile. I deeply appreciate the explanation!

  2. Ian says:

    Some thoughts on evil spirits influencing us: Near death experiences sometimes include accounts of the experiencers seeing darkened spirits floating around the living. However, these spirits aren’t demons, but human spirits who haven’t crossed over due to being too attached to earthly things and not wanting to let them go. The spirit who was addicted to alcohol in life, for example, desperately tries to get drunk by attempting to make the living drink so he can try to leech off of them. The same goes for spirits who crave sex, violence, and the like. In fact, some channeled material says that executing murderers and the violent may end up being more harmful than good, as those spirits are now free to try and influence others to do the violence that they loved so much in life. For those who have weak wills, they may end up succumbing to this influence and commit violence of their own.

    Not all is bad, though: these experiencers are often told that these disembodied spirits won’t even try to influence those who are focused on living a good, helpful life that doesn’t feature the vices they crave. Prayer and asking God to send angels to escort these spirits to the light will work, too, as sometimes the spirits don’t go to the light because they’re too terrified of judgement instead of the grace that awaits them. If nothing else, it’s a good lesson for us to not become too attached to the things of this earth, and to not fear going to the light when we die.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Ian,

      Thanks for your thoughts. Swedenborg also encountered spirits who attached themselves to people on earth who indulged in the same low-level physical pleasures, as well as evil actions, that the spirits themselves did. These, he said, were mostly the spirits of people who had died fairly recently, and had not moved on to their final home, usually in hell, but sometimes in heaven if they had a good heart underneath their physical indulgences. And he said, similarly, that they usually don’t come near good, thoughtful, and loving people because they can’t stand the atmosphere of love and kindness that surrounds them.

      My main problem with the death penalty is that it cuts off any possibility that the person might think better of his (or her) actions and begin living a good life instead. It’s true that many do not, no matter how long they live. But others may come to their senses as they get older and begin to reflect upon their life.

      As far as the evil spirits influencing people who have weak wills, that does happen, as I mention in the above article. But it happens only if such people lean toward self-indulgent and bad behavior. God doesn’t allow the influence of evil spirits to become so strong that people on earth cannot resist it. We always have a choice to turn toward the light instead. Some people have to experience for themselves the pain and suffering that self-indulgent and wrong behavior leads to before they will make a decision not to live that way anymore.

  3. Todd says:

    I have a problem with your position about God “rearranging” physical things. You write, “In short, I believe that in designing the universe God got it right in the first place, so that there is no need to rearrange things later in order to get them to work properly according to God’s plans. The engine of God’s car doesn’t need fixing.” This, I believe, is called the “non-interventionist” conception of God’s action in the world. That is, God doesn’t intervene in the causal order he created because any and all natural effects he intended were “front-loaded” in the act of creation itself. Obviously, you’re not the only person to hold such a view. Here’s my problem:

    You concede that God *could* intervene in the causal order but you believe that he doesn’t do so, because, “God doesn’t make mistakes. So why would God create a universe that God has to be constantly fixing and adjusting? That would be an example of poor design on God’s part.”

    This entire argument rests on the unstated premise that the only reason God could have for intervening in the causal order is that he made a *mistake* in its creation that subsequently needs to be fixed. That premise is unstated and not argued for, and indeed it’s hard to see how it could be argued for. Why should anyone believe this premise? Why should anyone believe that the only plausible reason for intervention is that God made a mistake? Surely this premise demands an argument of its own, but what could it be?

    Moreover, this way of thinking seems to presuppose a kind of determinism that science no longer supports (i.e., Laplacean). It looks rather like God created the kind of universe in which he would have to intervene in order to bring about desired outcomes. If so, what of it? I see no reason to understand this as an imperfection or mistake of some kind. Maybe this kind of a universe is the best setting for creatures endowed with basic freedom.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Todd,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughtful comment.

      Taking the last first, I don’t think God created the universe in a deterministic, Newtonian / Laplacean fashion. See my article:
      God: Puppetmaster or Manager of the Universe?

      It’s not a matter of God setting initial conditions that then inexorably play themselves out like a vast machine. For one thing, God’s creation of the universe is not a temporal event, but one that takes place from within, above, and outside of time and space, and is therefore (from our perspective) a continual creation of the universe moment to moment.

      The “God doesn’t make mistakes” statement is just an informal way of saying that I believe God created—or more accurately, creates—the universe in such a way that it accomplishes God’s purposes without the need for special intervention. I say special intervention because in a sense, God is continually “intervening” in the universe by continually creating the universe. But God does so in accordance with physical and spiritual laws, which are, in turn, expressions and reflections of divine law. So my main point is that God has no need to violate physical laws and rearrange things in order to accomplish God’s purposes because those physical laws are already perfectly accomplishing God’s purposes.

      • Todd says:

        Thanks for the reply Lee. I enjoy the blog a great deal. I think my main problem is still there. You conclude, “So my main point is that God has no need to violate physical laws and rearrange things in order to accomplish God’s purposes because those physical laws are already perfectly accomplishing God’s purposes.” You don’t use the word “mistake” this time but you imply that if God were to do special intervention it would signal some imperfection in the established causal order. And again, I just don’t see why you’d come to that conclusion.

        One consequence of your position would be that no physical event exemplifies the agency of God more than any other. Is that correct?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Todd,

          Glad you’re enjoying the blog!

          Did you read the article I linked for you? These are complex questions because they relate to the interface between divine omnipotence and non-determinism in the created realms of reality, including human free will. I don’t think we’ve even been able to think about these issues with any real understanding until the last century or so, when the earlier scientific determinism began to give way to present, non-deterministic models of the universe. And we’re still figuring this stuff out to this day. If you had posed some of these issues to me a few decades ago, I probably would have just scratched my head and said, “I dunno.” A lot of this is new thinking for me.

          About your final question, I would say that every physical event expresses in some way the full agency of God. God is not different in one place than in another. God is fully present everywhere. So it would be hard to say “This physical event especially shows God’s presence and power, and that one not so much so.”

          What is more likely is that our perception of physical events varies according to whether or not we are attuned to God’s presence in them. People who aren’t looking for God won’t see God in any physical event, whether it is a rainbow or an earthquake. But people who are looking for God will see God in both.

          Further, we tend to see God in events that we think of as spectacular, but not so much in events that we see as ordinary. Yet if there’s one thing science has taught us, it’s that even “ordinary” daily events that we experience all the time are quite miraculous once we start studying them in detail. For example, we eat food every day, and rarely pay any attention to what happens to it next. But a study of the physiology of digestion and assimilation of food shows that it is indeed a highly complex and in some ways miraculous process.

          All of this is why I hesitate to say that God is involved in some special way in one physical event, and not so much in another. Perhaps the ancient Israelites did experience earthquakes and lightning and thunder and the earth opening up under their feet. But is that really more a “special intervention” than their eating food and their body processing it and taking what it can use while eliminating what it can’t?

  4. Todd says:

    Lee, I’ve had a chance to reflect on your “Puppetmaster” essay, and as I see it, you’re defending a kind of panentheism, according to which God takes advantage of the nondeterministic “slack” in microphysical processes to direct them according to his plan. Thus, divine providence is continuous at the quantum level without having been “front-loaded” in a deistic sense. Before I say anything else, is what I’ve just said a fair representation of your view, which also seems to be an updated version of what Swedenborg was doing? Thanks for walking through this with me.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Todd,

      Yes on panentheism. Swedenborg denied that God is everything (pantheism). But he affirmed that God is present in everything (panentheism), with the proviso that God is received in created beings variously according to their exact type and level of receptivity. What flows in from God is the same everywhere; it’s not a variation in God. Rather, when the love, wisdom, and power of God reach a recipient vessel (a created being), it is turned into a form that matches the nature of the recipient. An equivalent phenomenon in nature is that when the sun strikes a fruit tree, the tree turns the sunlight into branches, leaves, and fruit. But when the sun strikes the carcass of a dead animal, the heat breeds maggots and causes decomposition. The sunlight is the same in either case. But it is turned into very different things by the recipients.

      I would say no on God directing events by taking advantage of nondeterministic slack in microphysical processes. This would seem to be a variation on the “God of the gaps” theory, only instead of God working through scientific unknowns, God works through scientific unknowables. Perhaps God does work in this fashion in the occasional believable miracles (i.e., ones that don’t require the earth’s rotation to come to a screeching halt), such as Jesus’ miracles of healing and modern unexplained and seemingly miraculous recoveries from severe illnesses. The jury is still out on that in my mind. But I don’t think that is how God ordinarily operates. Rather, I think that the nondeterminism of quantum processes is part of God giving a certain level of freedom to the universe, and with that freedom, an identity of its own distinct from God’s identity. So God, I believe, allows the quantum processes, and the resulting macro processes, to unfold in a self-directed way in carrying out God’s plans for the universe. Another way of saying this is that God gives the created universe the ability to carry out God’s plan, but the created universe actually does carry out God’s plan on its own initiative rather than being micromanaged by God to do so. That’s the “manager” vs. “puppetmaster” idea of the article.

      And yes, the theory outlined in the Puppetmaster article is my stab at an updated version of what Swedenborg was doing. Relativity, quantum mechanics, and related ideas didn’t exist as scientific theories in Swedenborg’s day. He worked from Newton, Descartes, and other scientists and philosophers who lived up to his day. But I think his theology broke their theories in that it really didn’t support a mechanistic and deterministic view of the universe. Some of what he taught just doesn’t fit in comfortably with the science he had access to. So I have been working in my mind on following the arc of where Swedenborg was headed as far as I am able to based on today’s science—recognizing that I am not a scientist myself, but only an amateur student of science. I expect and hope future thinkers who are more deeply versed in science than I am will do a better job of this than I have. But I can at least plant some seeds that may grow into more robust understandings over time.

      • Todd says:

        Thanks again for your thoughtful reply. Can you explain exactly what your objection to “God of the gaps” arguments is? I recognize that this label is often used as a summary dismissal of certain teleological arguments (as the Wikipedia entry points out) but it’s less clear to me what the real objection is.

        Second, your comment “the created universe actually does carry out God’s plan on its own initiative rather than being micromanaged by God to do so” suggests some sort of panpsychism, in addition to panentheism, right? For the universe to have “initiative” it must have some kind of mental states.

        The upshot seems to be that God doesn’t have to “act” in an interventionist sense because he created a universe capable of acting, in an agent-like way as opposed to a “blind force” kind of way. Is that a reasonable way of understanding your view?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Todd,

          Practically speaking, God of the gaps arguments tend to fail over time as science explains (in a physical sense) things that were previously unknowns, so that the “gaps” become smaller and smaller.

          Of course, there are always gaps in our knowledge. But pinning our belief in God on unknowns is a shaky foundation for faith. Swedenborg rejected the traditional definition of faith as believing something we can’t know for sure, and replaced it with a definition of faith as an attitude of seeking out and accepting the truth simply because it is true (not for ulterior motives), and being faithful to the truth—i.e., living by it. (See: “Faith Alone Is Not Faith.”) God of the gaps arguments fit well into the traditional definition of faith as believing things we can’t know for sure, but they don’t fit well into the biblical definition of faith as a devotion to and willingness to live by the truth.

          About panpsychism, I don’t believe the physical universe itself is conscious. That belief, I suspect, comes from the reality that there is a consciousness behind the universe: God’s consciousness, and also the consciousness of the overall human community in the spiritual world. That divine and spiritual consciousness flows into the physical universe, giving it an appearance of consciousness that it itself does not possess.

          On the mind-brain problem, I believe that consciousness resides in the human spirit rather than the human body and brain, and that the consciousness of animals similarly is in the animal’s spirit rather than in its body and brain. Everything in nature is an expression of some spiritual entity or reality, which, in turn, is an expression of some aspect of God. So if there is consciousness in nature, it is not nature’s own consciousness, but the consciousness of the spiritual and divine realms that flow into it.

          When I speak of the created universe acting on its own initiative, I mean that more or less metaphorically, depending on the level of what’s acting. Human beings do consciously act on our own initiative. Even animals, especially higher animals, seem to have some level of choice and initiative in what they do. Instinct explains much, but not all of it. Some scientists believe that plants have a type of consciousness also.

          However, inanimate things, such as rocks, water, and quantum processes do not, I believe, have consciousness. When they “take initiative” it is to act according to their nature as created things. But we now know that that isn’t entirely deterministic, especially on the quantum level. There seems to be a certain randomness built into the nature of nature, even if that randomness also acts within the framework of various physical laws. Acting in a partially random manner within the laws of nature is what I’m referring to as the inanimate portion of the created universe acting on its own initiative. I don’t think God decides the outcome of each random process. I believe that happens internally as part of the nature of created physical entities.

          I would agree that the created universe acts in an agent-like way. But the inanimate part of nature does also act blindly, in that it is not aware of or consciously directing its own actions. God, I believe, created the entire universe with a certain level of freedom. But that level varies according to the level of the created entity. It is highest and most conscious and free in human beings, less so in the animal kingdom, even less so in the vegetable kingdom, and least so in the mineral kingdom, which includes the various processes of physics and cosmology. On that lowest level, the freedom created into the universe is not conscious, but does partake of freedom in that the processes are not entirely determined, but have some indeterminacy and randomness built right into them, which isn’t reducible to deterministic processes.

          Another related article that you might want to read is:
          If God Already Knows What We’re Going to Do, How Can We Have Free Will?
          See especially the example of a car given in that article. The car acts “on its own initiative” in the sense that it drives down the road based on its own (created) capabilities, rather than being pushed along by God or the driver. (A car, however, is a mechanical entity, so its level of freedom is even lower than that of quantum processes.)

  5. Todd says:

    Hello again.
    Concerning “God of the gaps,” you write, “God of the gaps arguments tend to fail over time as science explains (in a physical sense) things that were previously unknowns, so that the “gaps” become smaller and smaller.” I don’t see why this is a problem, unless you are convinced a priori that science will close all gaps. But why believe that?

    Is it *possible* that God acts directly in the natural order, intervening in causal processes? You’ve already stated that it is possible, and I can’t see any reason at all why anyone other than an atheist would think it impossible (and even an atheist might concede that God’s existence is possible). So if it’s possible that God intervenes, what would that look like? What would count as evidence for such a thing? It seems to me that it would look like gaps: things that defy normal causal explanation, aka miracles. I’d point out that in the Bible such things are often referred to as “signs” and are specifically cited as reasons to believe that God has acted in the world.

    I agree that pinning one’s belief on miracles alone is a shaky foundation for faith, but who has ever suggested doing that? Miracles are just one part of the picture. Plenty of people who witnessed the miracles of Jesus didn’t come to faith. It hardly follows that all apparent miracles should be set aside as things science just hasn’t explained yet.

    I’d also point out that some of Swedenborg’s own experiences qualify as miraculous, if we understand miracles to be interventions in the natural order caused by God to convey some message. The well-known Stockholm fire incident has no natural explanation, but it resulted in Swedenborg losing his anonymity and more public attention being drawn to his work. His precognitive awareness of the day of his own death is another example, unless you are convinced that he unconsciously caused himself to die in order to fulfill the prediction to Wesley.

    “Acting in a partially random manner within the laws of nature is what I’m referring to as the inanimate portion of the created universe acting on its own initiative. I don’t think God decides the outcome of each random process. I believe that happens internally as part of the nature of created physical entities.” Thanks, I think I understand what you’re saying a bit better now.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Todd,

      After Jesus’ resurrection, in response to Thomas requiring physical evidence (touching the wounds from crucifixion in Jesus’ resurrected body), Jesus said to him:

      Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. (John 20:29)

      This is commonly interpreted as meaning that it’s blessed to believe without any certainty, and is quoted as support for the traditional idea of faith as believing something we’re not really sure of. But in the context of Thomas’s requirement of physical evidence, I think it means something quite different. It means, rather, that those who believe for internal reasons rather than external reasons have a stronger faith.

      Believing based on physical evidence, such as miracles, simply isn’t a very strong basis for faith. As you say, many people saw Jesus’ miracles, yet they didn’t believe in him.

      For people who don’t have an internal basis for their faith, miracles will actually have the opposite effect that they’re intended to. They will initially induce a superficial belief, but when such people return to their inner state and attitudes, they’ll find ways to explain the miracles away, and it will harden them in their unbelief. Atheists do this constantly as they “debunk” various religious and spiritual claims. And every time they “debunk” some miracle or experience, they harden themselves in disbelief even more. They operate on a principle of “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me even one more #$%^ time, and I’m a @&$% idiot, so you’re never gonna fool me again.” Every miracle they encounter becomes one more reason to reject God and spirit.

      I don’t doubt that Jesus was able to do miracles of healing and such. However, I disagree with those who think that the miracles ceased over time because people fell away from the faith of the early church. People did fall away from the faith of the early church, and eventually “Christianity” became something that would have been unrecognizable to Jesus Christ and his disciples. However, the cessation of the miracles was not part of that falling away. Rather, the miracles were intended to appeal to an entirely physical-minded populace and get them to pay attention enough to hear the message. Once the message had started to percolate through the minds of the people, miracles were no longer necessary because now people could start to believe for internal rather than external reasons. That, once again, is what I believe Jesus was saying to Thomas: miracles are a shallow basis for belief; belief must come from within.

      So yes, I do believe God can intervene in the physical universe. I just think it’s generally not the most effective way for God to operate. Miracles are mostly attention-getters for physical-minded people. The people of Bible times were mostly very physical-minded, so God did miracles—though some of the more spectacular miracles in the Bible were probably cultural myths rather than actual, historical occurrences. The incidence of miracles generally denotes a non-spiritual mindset in the people among whom they happen. People who have a spiritual mindset neither seek nor require miracles.

      • Todd says:

        Hello again. I think we’ve drifted a bit. The question, to my mind, is not whether physical miracles (i.e., actions in which God or his appointed agents override physical causal laws) are the best basis for faith. I think the answer to that question depends a great deal on the contextual details, the personalities involved, and no doubt much more. What originally caught my attention was your original statement, “This is the main reason that although I believe God theoretically could rearrange physical structures, I don’t believe God actually does so. At least, not by violating the laws of the universe.” I take this to mean that you believe God simply doesn’t do physical miracles, since physical miracles involve rearranging physical structures in one way or another.

        Now I’m not so sure if that’s what you meant, since you wrote, “God did miracles.” It’s a separate question whether he still does them. I think a case could be made that contemporary people are at least as “physical-minded” as those of ancient Judea. At any rate, if God *ever* does miracles, then at least some “God of the gaps” explanations are sound.

        I also disagree that Swedenborg’s clairvoyance doesn’t count as a physical miracle. As you say, clairvoyance involves perception not mediated by physical channels, i.e., light impinging on retinas, sound waves on eardrums, and so on. Perception, as we know it, involves physical causal chains. To perceive distant events without the involvement of those physical causal chains, is as much a physical miracle as water to wine. The very idea of “spiritual senses” violates physical principles. This is why Skeptics are so insistent that such things never happen. They would claim that to call Swedenborg’s experience clairvoyance is to invoke another “gap” explanation.

        In the Bible, as well as in some other religious traditions, physical miracles are indeed understood as signs, pointing to a reality beyond the physical. And indeed the danger is that we might become so infatuated with the signs that we forget about what they point to.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Todd,

          It may seem like drifting, but my purpose is to put in place an essential element for understanding the whole picture in which miracles do or don’t take place.

          Unlike events in (non-human) nature, God’s actions are always driven by purposes. And God’s purposes are all eternal, spiritual purposes. More specifically, God always acts to provide for the eternal life and happiness of the human beings whom God has created. This means that providing a sound basis for faith is integral to why God does or doesn’t do miracles in any given situation. Without understanding God’s purposes, and their relationship to our faith and our eternal life, we cannot understand why God would or wouldn’t do miracles.

          Theoretically, God could do anything whatever. God could cause the entire physical universe to blink in and out of existence every other second. However, there would be no purpose for God to do so, which means God won’t do that. If the purpose of miracles is to serve as signs leading to faith, then God will do miracles only if they serve as signs pointing to faith.

          I would add, though, that in times and cultures where people are so physical-minded that they’re not capable of real faith—which is an internal thing—God might also do miracles to induce and external semblance of faith, which is all people in such cultures are capable of. This, according to Swedenborg, was the case with the ancient Israelites.

          About the statement of mine you quote, it was made in the context of this question in the original spiritual conundrum quoted at the beginning of the article: “For example could God use outside forces to rearrange building structures or the Earth’s structure?” In other words, could (and does) God make major changes in major physical structures (buildings, the earth) by miraculous means. And though my response was not meant to be taken as an absolute—hence the hedging about “not by violating the laws of the universe,” in general I don’t think God does engage in major rearranging of the physical structures of the universe through miraculous means. And though, as I said in the article, I wasn’t there, and don’t know for sure, I strongly suspect that most or all of the miracles recounted in the Bible that involve such major structural change were more mythical history than actual history. They were stories that grew up in the culture and became touchstones for its religious and cultural life. Whether they actually, physically happened is not that important.

          My main thrust in these statements is that we don’t have to worry about God suddenly destroying the building we’re living in or opening up the earth under our feet so that it swallows us up, because that’s not the way God operates. Perhaps there have been some extraordinary circumstances in which God did such things. If so, they would be extremely rare, and not something we have to worry about as part of our daily lives any more than we have to go about our days worrying about whether a piano will fall out of the sky and squash us. God does not operate in this way:

          God at His computer

          By “physical miracles” I mean miracles that rearrange physical things. Knowledge of physical events obtained by non-physical means is not, by this definition, a physical miracle, even though it is rejected by atheists and skeptics just as much as physical miracles.

          In general, “miracles” are things accomplished by non-physical means, or using non-physical capabilities and forces, in a way that influences things in the physical realm. And the more physical and relatively inert are the things acted on, the more miraculous it is, or seems.

          From a point of view that accepts the reality of God and spirit, “miracles” that involve people having sudden insight or inspiration or visions that change their lives are the least “miraculous,” because that is simply the human spirit interacting with God and the spiritual realms and gaining a new outlook on life, resulting in living a different life.

          Miracles of healing are more miraculous because they involve changing physical structures in the body. And yet, these sorts of things are observed even by non-religious physicians to happen from time to time. A person gets well from a life-threatening illness, and the doctor has no explanation for it.

          Miracles that involve changing meteorological events, such as Jesus calming the storm, or God causing an east wind to bring flocks of quails into the camp, are more miraculous because there is no life or consciousness in the subject of the miracle, so spiritual forces wouldn’t ordinarily act in this way. (This is based on the idea that life is actually a spiritual phenomenon, not a physical one.) But the weather does change, and these things could have just happened to happen at just the right time.

          Then there are miracles such as Jesus changing water to wine, that really can’t happen that way in ordinary nature, but that also don’t cause any real problems with the physical laws of nature. There are no wider ramifications in physics and cosmology of several stone jars full of water suddenly turning into wine. Miraculous, yes, but not catastrophic.

          Cracks suddenly opening up in the ground also does sometimes happen in the normal course of events, as does major, destructive and even deadly hail. (Just a few days ago we had hailstorms in the area that totaled cars and caused major damage to buildings.)

          All of these things could happen without causing a major disturbance in the operations of nature. Causing the sun to stand still, however, would throw the entire earth into chaos. That sort of miracle that would violate the laws of nature in a wholesale way I just don’t think God ever does. And that was the main thrust of the statement of mine that you quoted from the article.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Todd,

          To take up a few more points in your latest:

          I would say that people today are commonly materialistic, in that they seek after material possessions and satisfactions, just as the ancient Israelites were. But I don’t think people today are as physical-minded as the ancient Israelites and the other cultures of that era. By that I mean that people today are generally more capable of thinking abstractly, formulating ideas and concepts about the nature of life, and living according to some principle rather than simply obeying and adhering to the external laws and influences of their society. Perhaps “physical-minded” is not quite the right term for that. Maybe “externally influenced” or something like that would be better.

          Today, even people who are motivated primarily by profit and pleasure tend to do it based on some idea or principle rather than simply being driven by external forces and physical desires. The desires and forces are there, certainly. But people follow them because they think that’s what life is all about, and you have to “go for the gusto,” or “we’re just animals like any other animal,” or some such slogan. It’s a subtle difference, but I do think there’s a difference.

          And about “gap” explanations and Swedenborg, I don’t think of Swedenborg’s experience as a “gap.” I think of it as part of a long and broad category of human experience that has been going on for thousands of years, and that has been the primary basis for humans having religious, theological, and spiritual beliefs. They are a different category of experience than experience of physical phenomena.

          “God of the gaps” is generally about attributing physical phenomena we can’t explain to God’s intervention. When we had no physical explanation for lightning, we thought of it as God’s weaponry wielded against those with whom God was angry. When we had no explanation of the sun traveling across the sky every day, we thought of it as one of the gods driving a brilliant chariot across the sky once a day. Now we have physical explanations for these phenomena, so we no longer think of them as supernatural beings throwing their weight around.

          The common denominator here is that these are all physical phenomenon.

          Materialists have also attempted to reduce psychological phenomena to physical phenomena through, for example, tying thought patterns to brain waves and neurological activities in various parts of the brain. But our experience of these things is of their existing in a realm entirely distinct from the physical. Rather than being a “gaps” explanation, attributing these to a distinct realm (the spiritual realm) is simply accepting our mental and emotional processes as existing in the way that we actually experience them: as non-physical realities. That, to me, is not a “gaps” explanation. It is accepting our experiences as valid realities rather than attempting to reduce them all to physical phenomena as materialists attempt to do.

          Materialists generally say that physical senses are necessary for any perception to occur, and for us to receive any kind of information. But we have a long and extensive record of people receiving information that didn’t come via the physical senses. Accepting that experience as valid is, to me, simply broadening the types of experience we are willing to “accept into evidence.” For more on this, see my article:
          Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?

          I suppose miracles could be considered “God of the gaps” phenomena. However, they are experienced only by the people who are present for them, and they are not reproducible by others. Atheists and materialists generally don’t feel the need to explain miracles because their standard response is to say that the miracle never actually happened: that it was either fabricated or misperceived by those who reported it. “God of the gaps” is more about ongoing phenomena that all people (or many people) experience that currently have no scientific explanation.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Todd,

      The “miracles” associated with Swedenborg were not physical ones. They were, rather, miracles that would fall under the category of “clairvoyance”: seeing and knowing things that would not be possible to see and know by ordinary, physical means. Swedenborg himself attributed them all to his spiritual senses being opened and to receiving information via the spiritual world. Swedenborg did have some narrow escapes during his youth that he attributed to divine providence looking over him. But I’m not aware of any physical miracles associated with Swedenborg.

      Swedenborg generally didn’t put much stock in miracles. He didn’t deny the miracles of the Bible. But he considered their spiritual meaning to be far more important than the physical event of the miracle. And the idea I outlined in my previous comment that miracles are for physical-minded people, and can fall away as people become more spiritual-minded, is straight out of Swedenborg.

  6. larryzb says:

    One of the early Church fathers (in the first few centuries of the Christian era) advised thus: “Believe so that you will understand.”

    We may not be able to interpret it all correctly or deduce everything so tidily, but God’s ways are far above ours. We flatter ourselves that we will be able to understand it all. The more important thing is to live out one’s Christian faith and not confine it to some mental game. Do not let your mind become an impediment to working on loving God and loving your neighbor. That is just my 2 cents for what it may be worth.

    • Lee says:

      Hi larryzb,

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      I agree that living our faith is the most important thing. Still, the better we understand our faith, the better we are able to live it. Jesus spent his days teaching, preaching, and healing (Matthew 4:23; 9:35). And his followers were called “disciples,” which means “learners.” Clearly, teaching and learning are an essential part of being a Christian.

  7. Todd says:

    Hello again. You wrote, “Rather than being a “gaps” explanation, attributing these to a distinct realm (the spiritual realm) is simply accepting our mental and emotional processes as existing in the way that we actually experience them: as non-physical realities. That, to me, is not a “gaps” explanation. It is accepting our experiences as valid realities rather than attempting to reduce them all to physical phenomena as materialists attempt to do.”

    I’m basically in agreement with what you are saying here, although I’d point out that from a materialistic viewpoint the appeal to an entire realm distinct from the physical is very much a “gap” move.

    Concerning the alleged miracle of the sun at Gibeon, that may not have been what you’re calling a physical miracle at all. Thousands of people are said to have witnessed the “sun miracle” at Fatima in 1917. If the miracle had been produced by causing the earth to “wobble” violently, the result would have been catastrophic, just as in the Gibeon case. If you are prepared to accept that the Fatima sun miracle happened at all, it would have to be classified as a mass vision. The Gibeon miracle could be explained similarly. Since mass visions are not known to happen normally, the events would still be miraculous.

    Miracles may be intended for physical-minded people, but that doesn’t imply that they are inconsistent with God’s nature or that they imply some error or shortcoming in his normal creative and providential activity.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Todd,

      Yes, materialists will consider anything other than the material level of reality to be unreal and an illusion. They will search for physical explanations for everything, even phenomena that are not well-explained by physical processes, such as consciousness. They have faith that we’ll be able to explain consciousness through a more thorough understanding of the brain. But so far there is no scientific explanation for consciousness. Just some correlations with brain activity. And mere correlation does not establish any definite cause and effect relationship—such as neural activity causing consciousness. It could just as easily be consciousness causing neural activity.

      And yes, materialists will consider positing a distinct, spiritual realm a “gaps” explanation. But from my perspective, that is distinct from traditional “gaps” explanations such as, “We don’t know what causes lighting, so it must be the gods engaging in battle with each other or expressing their anger at us.” Or in present-day times, “Quantum processes have some inherent randomness in them, so God must be using that randomness to direct and control nature according to God’s plan.” The common denominator here is that these are inherently physical processes, which are being explained as acts of God rather than as the unfolding of physical processes according to the laws of physics.

      Consciousness, spiritual experiences, visions, dreams, emotions, thoughts, and so on are not obviously and inherently physical processes. We don’t experience them as physical, and no scientific instruments can record them, even if we can record some of their effects upon human physiology and behavior. But that, once again, is merely correlation. It doesn’t tell us anything about the cause or locus of mental states. In fact, though we tend to focus on the brain, mental and emotional states have an effect on the entire body. So the very idea that our thoughts and emotions exist in our brain is somewhat suspect, and not something we can really nail down scientifically. Yes, we believe that the rest of the body is responding to nerve impulses originating in the brain. But the more we study, the less clear cut that is. There is actually a two-way street of sensory inputs from the body influencing the brain and neuronal activity in the brain influencing the body. Can we really say that the brain is directing everything when the brain is continually responding to inputs from the body? Can we really say that thoughts and emotions exist in the brain, and not in the entire body?

      In short, while from a materialist perspective, positing a spiritual realm is a “gaps” explanation, from a non-materialist perspective, positing that all mental and emotional processes can be explained by physical processes is also a “gaps” explanation. Physical science hasn’t actually filled in those gaps, but materialists have faith that in time, it will. That, to me, is “gaps” thinking. And it is an example of faith in science.

      About the sun standing still at Gibeon, a mass vision is certainly a possibility. The only thing I’m prepared to state categorically is that the sun did not physically stand still in the sky. Beyond that, it could have been a mass vision, as is likely with the Fatima sun miracle, or it could simply have been a legend that grew in that culture, just as similar legends have grown in other cultures.

      Not being a literalist, I do not feel the need to “explain” how everything in the Bible happened literally. For example, I do not believe the story of Jonah ever happened historically at all. I think it was a story composed at some point in Israelite history as a commentary on certain social and spiritual issues—a moral novella, if you will. Similarly, I suspect many of the miraculous events contained in the historical-style books of the Bible never happened historically, but were origin myths that said something about the character of the Israelite nation and its relationship with God.

      The common error of literalists is thinking that if these things didn’t literally, historically happen, it would mean that the Bible, and by extension God, is lying to us. But the Bible as the Word of God isn’t about physical truth. It’s about spiritual truth. And the deeper, spiritual truth contained within the miracles of the Bible are their real message. That’s why I don’t think that the question of whether or how the miracles happened is all that interesting or important. Seeing their spiritual message, and taking that message to heart and putting it into practice in our lives, is what’s important.

      Having said that, I don’t deny that God can do physical miracles if God wants to. However, I believe they will be localized, not general, and that they will not involve wholesale violations of the laws of physics and biology. They will also not be repeatable, meaning that they cannot be studied by scientific means.

      If miracles do occur, then they depend upon the spiritual state of the people who experience them. The Gospels clue us in to this when they say things like:

      And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. (Matthew 13:58)

      Traditionally this would be interpreted as Jesus withholding miracles from those who lack faith. But I think a better understanding is that in the absence of faith, there are not the right conditions for miracles to occur. People who lack faith do not believe miracles can happen. Therefore they will not experience miracles, because miracles are at root the expression of spiritual power, and people who lack faith are not receptive to the expression of spiritual power in their lives and experience. That is the general explanation of why religious people fairly commonly report experiencing miracles, whereas secular people do not.

      I’m aware that some people who were formerly skeptical are converted by experiencing something their skepticism could not explain, such as a near-death experience. But I suspect that even in those cases the person was at a point of life in which their former skeptical and atheistic beliefs or leanings were wearing thin, and they were ready to move beyond that skeptical stance even if they were still resistant to it mentally.

      The general point here is that if miracles do occur, they occur based on the spiritual atmosphere or conditions within and among the people who experience them. The receptivity of the person or group of people to the possibility that something miraculous might happen is a necessary condition for a miraculous event to occur.

      In this way, even if miracles seem to violate the laws of physics and biology, they actually are law-abiding occurrences. They are simply obeying a fuller set of laws that includes spiritual laws in addition to physical ones. And the “violation” of physical laws is not really a violation under these circumstances, because physical laws, and indeed, the entire material universe, is held in existence by spiritual forces flowing into them moment-by-moment, and maintaining them in their physical integrity in accordance with physical laws, which are derivations of spiritual laws. Miracles, if they do occur, involve a change in the flow of spiritual power into localized pockets of the physical universe where the spiritual state of the people allows for them, and where these events will accomplish God’s purposes among those people.

      However, once again, they never happen in such a way that they would throw the laws of the physical universe into chaos. That would indeed be a matter of God having made an error in the design of the universe, and stepping in to “fix” or “correct” that error. My belief is that the normal unfolding of the physical and biological laws of the universe carries out God’s will in an ongoing fashion, such that God has no need to “adjust” them along the way by, for example, having the sun stand still at Gibeon.

  8. Todd says:

    Thanks again for your extended replies. I’ve been meaning to get back to this.

    I find myself agreeing with much that you say. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “literalists” when you write, “Not being a literalist, I do not feel the need to “explain” how everything in the Bible happened literally.” I take it that you mean that some Biblical narratives that sound like they are describing actual physical events really aren’t, whereas some readers may insist that all such narratives do describe actual events. I’m again inclined to agree with you, although I have to confess that I have no principled way to say which narratives to take literally and which not to.

    It’s certainly true that if we are not prepared to accept the possibility of a miracle, nothing will ever count as one.

    “In this way, even if miracles seem to violate the laws of physics and biology, they actually are law-abiding occurrences. They are simply obeying a fuller set of laws that includes spiritual laws in addition to physical ones. And the “violation” of physical laws is not really a violation under these circumstances, because physical laws, and indeed, the entire material universe, is held in existence by spiritual forces flowing into them moment-by-moment, and maintaining them in their physical integrity in accordance with physical laws, which are derivations of spiritual laws. Miracles, if they do occur, involve a change in the flow of spiritual power into localized pockets of the physical universe where the spiritual state of the people allows for them, and where these events will accomplish God’s purposes among those people.”

    I find this to be a very good way to think about it. I still think it’s fair to talk about “violation” of physical laws, even if the word “violation” is tendentious. I take a descriptivist view of physical laws, i.e., the laws are descriptions of observed causal uniformities in nature. As you note, this picture is incomplete because it only includes certain kinds of observations–the kind we call “measurements.” When miracles happen, those measured uniformities break down, and since we don’t “measure” spiritual power, we see something supernatural happening. And indeed, if the “natural” is limited to the measurable, the word “supernatural” fits.

    “However, once again, they never happen in such a way that they would throw the laws of the physical universe into chaos.” I don’t know what this means. If it means that God doesn’t do things that permanently change or abolish laws of nature, then I suppose that’s true. I have no idea what that would look like. If it’s about the Gibeon sun miracle again, and the notion that God would have to stop the rotation of the Earth, causing mass destruction, then I agree, but I’d add that I really have no idea as to how such a miracle might be accomplished. I mentioned mass vision, as in the Fatima case, but for all I know there could be other ways.

    To take another example, consider the events of Matthew 27:52-53. Tombs are opened and the bodies of the dead saints rise up and appear to many. I have a hard time believing this as an historical event, not because I think God’s not up to the miracle involved, but because if this did happen if would be one of the most incredible events in the history of the world. Yet not only is it not mentioned by extra-Biblical sources, it’s not even mentioned in the other gospels. This mass resurrection event supposedly happened before the resurrection of Jesus himself, yet nobody else has a word to say about it. The point that they “appeared to many” does sound like Matthew making an evidential point, that we don’t have to take his word for it, but I remain unpersuaded. If the idea is that many who were spiritually dead were regenerated, it’s also puzzling. If they were spiritually dead, why call them saints? And why would they be spiritually regenerated by the death of Jesus on Good Friday? Maybe Swedenborg had something helpful to say about this alleged miracle.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Todd,

      Yes, by “literalist” I mean, among other things, people who believe that all of the narratives of the Bible occurred historically just as they are described in the Bible.

      As for what actually did happen historically, I’m happy to leave that to the historians and archaeologists. For the most part, beyond Jesus Christ being an actual, historical figure who came out of Jewish society about 2,000 years ago, it doesn’t really matter to my faith whether the various stories in the Bible happened the way they are described there, or even happened at all. While I’m not disposed to consider the Bible to be an entirely fictional account, from my perspective the importance of the Bible is not in providing some historical narrative, but in the moral and spiritual message that it contains. That, and not the literal, historical accuracy, is what’s important about the Bible as a spiritual book.

      And yes, I would say that science deals in measurable events and phenomena, whereas miracles are inherently non-measurable. I suppose they could cause physical changes that would theoretically be measurable, such as changing water into wine. But first, it’s unlikely that any scientific instruments would be present to record those changes, and second, science depends upon consistently replicable events that can be reproduced by other scientists and observers to confirm them—and miracles are by nature non-replicable. They are unique to the particular spiritual and human circumstances in which they occur.

      And no, I don’t think God will ever intervene in nature in a way that suspends or abolishes the laws of nature. For example, there will never be a time when there is a literal “new sky and new earth” because the old ones have passed away, and resurrected people live forever on an eternally resplendent earth. We know that stars have a life cycle. And even if our particular star will have a long life cycle, measured in billions of years, eventually it will run out of fuel, rendering life impossible on the planets that orbit it. I do not believe God will suspend that order of nature in order to miraculously bring about an eternal, physical earth on which people live eternal, physical lives.

      Gibeon would be another example if, as literalists believe, the sun literally stood still in the sky, and it was not some psychological time dilation phenomenon or some group spiritual experience.

      About Matthew 27:52–53, Swedenborg generally says that such things are seen with people’s spiritual eyes rather than their physical eyes. People’s spirits do not remain with their bodies in their physical graves, but are resurrected immediately after death into the spiritual world. So it would not be possible for people’s spirits to still be in their graves, and be resurrected right after the Lord’s death.

      According to Swedenborg what was going on, rather, was that there were a certain (large) number of people who were already in the spiritual world but had not yet been raised up to heaven. They lived instead in places low in the world of spirits called “the lower earth” or in the Bible’s metaphorical language, “the pit.” These people could not be lifted from there into heaven until the Lord (Jesus) had completed his work of gaining full victory over the Devil and the power of evil, which he completed on the Cross. Once that work was complete—i.e., right after his death—he was then able to lift those people who had been waiting so long in the “lower earth” up into heaven.

      This is the event, Swedenborg says, that people in and around Jerusalem who were aware of Jesus’ death saw, not with their physical eyes, but with their spiritual eyes. The “graves” that these people were resurrected from were not the physical graves where their physical bodies had been laid, but the metaphorical “graves” or “pits” of their confinement in a low place outside of heaven until Jesus Christ gained the victory over the Devil that made it possible for them to finally be raised up into heaven.

      And it is heaven, not the physical Jerusalem, that is the “holy city” that they entered after thus being raised out of their “graves.”

      This also accounts for the fact that there is no contemporary secular record of such an amazing event ever having occurred. The general populace of Jerusalem did not see dead people brought to life and entering Jerusalem because this event took place, not in the physical world, but the spiritual world, and was seen by those who did witness it, not with their physical eyes, but with their spiritual eyes.

  9. Magnolia says:

    I too have been asking myself for years the question about what is a miracle from a scientific perspective, and especially about how God performs miracles, and now that I have read your discussion I found the answers. This discussion virtually disperses the very thick fog that has been accumulating for centuries around the meaning of the word miracle, which turns out to be so incredibly complex. I should of course go back and read the whole thing much more carefully once again as I need to allow all the details to sink in. But it reminds me of the days of the ancient Greek symposia and the genuine quest for truth, when the philosophers could afford the time to sit for days on end devoting their whole attention to one single topic no matter how long the discussiont would take.So this old tradition of the West is still alive!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Magnolia,

      Glad you enjoyed the article and ensuing discussion! Yes, for me it was very much like those ancient Greek symposia, in which we mutually seek out the truth. I am continually learning as well. The above discussion helped me to suss out various strands of thought and meaning, and understand things better even as we were discussing them. We are all in process. We are all traveling toward the light, if we choose to do so.

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