It’s important for Christians to have a realistic view of miracles. Of course, atheists regard a realistic miracle as oxymoronic. A contradiction in terms.
What do I mean by “realistic” in this context? Well, I’m not defining “realistic” the way W. V. Quine would define realistic. I mean “realistic” according to a Christian worldview.
Let’s begin with some comparisons. Is Narnia realistic? Is Middle-earth realistic? Is Poictesme realistic? They aren’t realistic compared to the actual world.
These are magical worlds. Magic is real in Narnia and Middle-earth. Magic is natural in Narnia and Middle-earth.
Narnia has its own rules. Magic is realistic given the narrative viewpoint which C. S. Lewis assumes in writing his stories.
That doesn’t mean anything goes in Narnia. Sometimes a creative writer resorts to a deus ex machina. Even in the fantasy genre, that’s an artistic flaw. It’s precisely because a creative writer is free to make the rules that he shouldn’t get one of his characters into a bind that only a deus ex machina can get him out of. A creative writer should have the foresight and consistency to make everything happen according to the rules of his imaginary world. Since he’s making up all the rules which govern his imagery world, he shouldn’t put himself in the position of having to make an exception to his own rules. Rather, his rules should cover every contingency.
Let’s take another comparison. The French film Donkeyskin (Peau d’Âne) is based on a 17C fairy tale. The film has a loosely medieval setting, viz. period attire, the Château de Chambord.
In the story, Catherine Deneuve has a fairy godmother. Her fairy godmother has magical powers. That’s realistic within the fairy tale framework.
However, at the end of the film, her father and fairy godmother arrive by helicopter. That’s a deliberate anachronism, for comic effect. In the world of Donkeyskin, fairy godmothers are realistic, but helicopters are unrealistic.
Likewise, when Peter Jackson filmed the battle of Helm’s Deep, he could have introduced predator drones, cruise missiles, and stealth bombers to help the good guys defeat the bad guys, but that would be out of place in the world of Middle-earth. In Middle-earth, wizards are realistic, but stealth bombers are unrealistic. That would mix up two different worlds. That violates the rules of Middle-earth.
Take another example: although I haven’t seen it, to judge by reviews, Cowboys and Aliens is a comedy of the absurd. It trades on the incongruity of science fiction and the Wild West, the 19C and advanced alien technology.
Let’s take a different example. It’s possible to write coherent time-travel stories that avoid the grandfather paradox and other antinomies. It’s possible to write a time-travel story in which everything happens just once.
Likewise, there are scientific models of time travel (or the equivalent), like stories set in an Everett universe (i.e. multiverse) or a Gödelian universe (i.e. rotating, non-Minkowski spacetime). However, SF novelists, directors, and screenwriters are usually too lazy to attempt coherent time-travel plots. That’s an artistic flaw. Time-travel may or may not be feasible in the actual world, but if you’re going to do a time-travel plot, try to make it realistic according to the physical laws you invent for the fictitious world you put it in.
Atheists like to attack miracles by concocting intentionally preposterous scenarios like Russell’s celestial teapot. But even a supernatural worldview has rules. It’s not a free for all.
Conversely, this is why it’s fallacious for atheists to define a miracle as a violation of natural laws. A world in which miracles occur is not a lawless universe. It’s still a rule-bound world, but it has its own set of rules.
That doesn’t mean God is bound by the rules. Rather, God made the rules in the first place. He doesn’t have to break his own rules, for the rules allow him to do whatever he wants. If he wanted to do something contrary to the rules, he’d put different rules in place from the get-go. God plays by the rules because the rules reflect his intentions. The rules don’t make him do anything or inhibit divine action. God isn’t a shortsighted creative writer who has to rewrite his own rules halfway through the story to extricate himself from an unforeseen dilemma.
There are theological systems that play into the atheistic stereotype. Take the hagiographic tradition of cephalophoric saints: decapitated Christians with talking heads. That’s supernaturally possible, but it’s not realistic.
Take Christians whose sacramentology requires the body of Christ to be physically present in a wafer. Indeed, simultaneously present in multiple wafers. Or take Christians who convert the risen Christ into a Marvel Comic Book superhero.
This is justified by a promiscuous appeal to divine omnipotence. But that’s unsound.
For instance, why was the tomb empty on Easter morning? How did Jesus escape?
Well, it’s possible that God changed his corpse into a butterfly that flew out the tomb through a crack in the stone. That would also account for the burial strips he left behind. Once he turned into a butterfly, the strips collapsed.
But although that’s possible, it’s not realistic–much less orthodox.
Imagine a Christian angrily denouncing my repudiation of the lepidopteran theory. “How dare you be so sceptical about God changing Jesus into a butterfly! There’s so much we don’t know about the Resurrection. And God is omnipotent. Who are you to dictate what God can do!”
No doubt God can do many things that surpass human imagination. But that doesn’t mean every supernatural explanation is equally plausible. What God can do and what God would do are two very different things.
Because miracles really happen, we need to take seriously the kind of world in which that happens. That’s not Alice in Wonderland.