Materialist ‘defence’ of Bible fails
3 December 2001
‘Nothing more than a secretion exuded by tamarisk trees and bushes’, says would-be Bible apologist Mike Fillon of the Biblical manna which sustained the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness. Jonah’s three days in a whale, the collapse of the walls of Jericho, the regression of the shadow of Ahaz’s sundial, and the net-bursting catch of fish by Jesus’ disciples all endure strained ‘natural’ explanations by Fillon in his article ‘Science solves more mysteries of the Bible’ in the December 2001 issue of Popular Mechanics. But before critiquing Fillon’s explanations, let’s first consider his approach.
Why do many people feel compelled to try to find materialistic ‘scientific’ explanations for the many miracles recorded in the Bible? Do they want to believe, but find accounts like that of Jonah and the whale ‘hard to swallow’?
‘Common sense’ tells them these things can’t happen, but the Bible says they did, so they try to find a ‘natural’ explanation. Since the Biblical passages involved usually make it clear that the event in question was supernatural, they are being inconsistent in picking and choosing which parts to believe and which not. The out-and-out atheist, who rejects the whole account as fictitious, and thus sees no need to try to ‘explain it away’, is at least being more consistent.
Can ‘supernatural’ events occur, or not? Doesn’t science rule out the supernatural? Well, no, it doesn’t. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. Laws of science merely describe things that happen, and those things would happen whether scientists have formulated a law about it or not. It is not our scientific laws that cause things to happen the way they do. Similarly, scientific laws cannot prescribe what cannot happen. Our laws of science can no more cause or prevent something than a map can affect the shape of a coastline.1
Science is limited. It deals with things that can be repeatedly observed and measured. But a miracle, by definition, is a ‘one-off’ sort of event not subject to repetition at will. There are many things, for example historical events, such as Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, which are beyond the scope of science to either prove or disprove. We cannot directly observe or measure things that occurred in the past, so they cannot be scientifically proven. There are other standards of proof—courts of law have various standards of legal proof, and historians have various standards of historical proof, and in these standards eyewitness accounts from credible witnesses carry enormous weight.
The most crucial miracle of all
If Fillon could give a plausible naturalistic explanation for every miracle in the Bible (and there are hundreds) would that help us? Not at all. In fact it would destroy our faith. The most crucial miracle in the whole of the Bible is the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and as Paul wrote:
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain, and your faith is also vain. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom he did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. (1 Corinthians 15:13–19)
But praise God, Jesus did rise from the dead, as we know by faith, and from the testimony of the many eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:4–8), witnesses whose willingness to suffer martyrdom for their faith powerfully attests to their credibility.
Grasping explanations of the sort Fillon offers are indicative of a presupposition (i.e. a starting belief which is itself unprovable, thus based on faith) that there is no supernatural. Whether there is a realm of the supernatural or not, science cannot say. Science concerns itself only with the natural realm. If there is a supernatural, it comprises, by definition, phenomena beyond the readily observable and testable things of the natural realm. We at Creation Ministries International presuppose the Bible to be true, and so we certainly believe that there is a supernatural realm.
We need to be aware of the false materialistic (i.e. no supernatural, no God) presuppositions that many people labour under, ideas which are inculcated through the materialist indoctrination which forms a pervasive part of the media and education systems of the modern world.
So, on to Fillon’s explanations.
Jonah and the whale
Fillon explains how some whales are big enough to swallow a man whole and discusses the factors necessary to ensure survival of a swallowed man. He also mentions two examples from modern history of claims of men surviving such an ordeal, and though these tales are intriguing, we agree with Fillon that they are not substantiated beyond doubt.2
Fillon mentions the danger of digestive juices. In fact some sea creatures, sharks for example, are known to regulate their digestive juices, and may retain food undigested for days, even up to a week.3
The Hebrew word translated ‘fish’ in Jonah 1:17 and 2:10 is ‘dag’. Scholars understand this word to include the whales, marine reptiles, and other sea creatures, many of which were (and some still are!) large enough to swallow a man whole.
Suppose someone today were to be swallowed by a great fish and later regurgitated alive. Some might consider it a ‘miracle’, though many might attribute it merely to fortuitous coincidence. But what if the sea changed from tempestuous to calm immediately upon the man going overboard (Jonah 1:15)? And what if he was in the fish for days (Jonah 1:17b)? And what if the fish went right up to the shore before vomiting him out (Jonah 2:10b)? Factors like these show that Jonah’s experience was no mere chance coincidence of natural events. In fact the Scriptures explicitly record God’s supernatural intervention in this sequence of events (Jonah 1:17a, 2:10a). There is no real need to make the account ‘fit’ the capabilities of any of today’s sea creatures, since the Bible tells us that God specially prepared this creature (Jonah 1:17a).
Manna from Heaven
Fillon brings up the idea that the manna was seeds or secretions from bushes. But this explanation is irreconcilable with the many distinctive aspects of manna recorded in the Bible:
- It appeared on a particular God-ordained day (Exodus 16:12–15) and it ceased on a particular day (Joshua 5:12), forty years later (Exodus 16:35).
- It didn’t appear on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:25–27).
- Twice as much was available on the day before the Sabbath (Ex 16:22,29).
- It rotted if kept overnight (Exodus 16:20), except on the night before the Sabbath (Exodus 16:24).
- It came down from heaven (Exodus 16:4, John 6:32), not from bushes.
- Its appearance was associated with dew (Exodus 16:13b–14, Numbers 11:9), not with bushes.
The description of manna given in the Bible does not match any known natural phenomenon, and its failure to appear on the Sabbath testifies to its miraculous quality. Manna is described as tasting like honey and wafers (Exodus 16:31) or deep-fried pastry (Numbers 11:8b). In some way it was like coriander seed (Exodus 16:31) and in some other way like bdellium, a fragrant resin (Numbers 11:7). Fillon seems to suggest that manna was actual coriander seed, or some other seed, but coriander seed has a strong spicy taste, like mild licorice to some, and not like honey. Also, the Israelites were quite intelligent enough to recognise if the manna was a seed coming from bushes.
The Sundial of Ahaz
Clouds can cause shadows to change. Fillon offers this explanation, and we see nothing wrong with it. However the fact that some ordinary mechanism may have been involved does not mean this incident with Ahaz’s sundial4 was not miraculous. Isaiah told Hezekiah that God would provide a sign that He would heal him from his disease, and asked Hezekiah whether he wanted the sundial shadow to go forward 10 degrees or backwards 10 degrees. Hezekiah said backwards. Isaiah cried aloud to God, and the shadow went backwards 10 degrees. Now clouds changing shadows may be natural, but miraculous intervention is necessary to change the shadow by a predeclared amount in immediate response to a human request, i.e. even if the shadow movement was from a cloud, the miracle was in the timing.5
The fall of the wall of Jericho
Fillon explains how common earthquakes are in the eastern Mediterranean, and suggests that the walls of Jericho were destroyed by an earthquake.
Well, an earthquake may well have been involved, but that hardly removes the miraculous aspect of the event, that the walls fell at a pre-announced time immediately after specific actions by the Israelites.6 Regardless of the immediate physical mechanism of the collapse of the walls of Jericho, the timing of the collapse with the shout of the Israelites is unavoidably miraculous.
The net full of fish
Fillon says research shows that fish cluster around hot water outflows, and that there are warm water springs in the Sea of Galilee. He suggests that Jesus knew of spots where fish congregated and directed the disciples to one such spot.
Fillon’s explanation doesn’t reconcile well with the Biblical account of this miracle. The group of disciples present included Peter and James and John (John 21:2) who had been professional fishermen on the Sea of Galilee all their working lives, while Jesus was (from a materialist’s point of view) merely a carpenter. Surely if there were spots where large schools of fish gathered, these fishermen would have known of them.
Secondly, Jesus did not direct the disciples to the spot, as Fillon says. He just told them to throw their net out on the right side of their boat. The disciples had not known who it was that called out to them from the shore (John 21:4). But when the net filled so full with fish that they couldn’t pull it into the boat, Peter realised that it was Jesus. Why? Catching this large a quantity of fish was so unusual that Peter immediately realised that it was miraculous and that Jesus was involved. If this event had been within the normal experience of a professional fisherman, Peter would not have jumped to such a conclusion.
From beginning to end, the Bible is a book of miracles, and many of those miracles (the Creation, the Resurrection, etc.) are foundational to the Christian faith. God doesn’t provide exhaustive detail on the physical means by which all his miracles were accomplished, but He does indicate that his direct supernatural intervention was involved in many of those events that we regard as miracles. By definition, miracles are not amenable to scientific testing, and so we rely on eyewitness testimony for verification, and at Creation Ministries International we regard the eyewitness accounts of which the Bible is composed to be of the highest integrity.
Attempts to explain the miracles of the Bible while retaining materialist assumptions will necessarily fail.7 If one starts with the materialist assumptions that there is no Creator God and no supernatural, one can never come to an understanding of the truth.
But if there is a Creator God, who had the capacity to create this universe replete with its physical laws and its kaleidoscope of living forms, then surely such a being would be quite capable of occasional ‘tweakings’ or ‘adjustments’. Such actions would be quite ‘ordinary’ to Him, who is not restricted by the physical laws He created, but they seem miraculous to us, who have lived all our lives ‘bound’ by those same laws.
- Sarfati, J., section 1.2) ‘Miracles and science’; in ‘Spong’s World View’ and ‘Miracles’; in ‘The Virginal Conception of Christ’. Return to text.
- For more information, see Grigg, R., Jonah and the great fish, Creation 17(2):34–36, March–May 1995. Return to text.
- Richards, W., Jonah Believable, Creation 17(3):5, June–August 1995. Return to text.
- Note that Saftranslations have ‘steps on a stairway’, rather than ‘degrees on a sundial’. Return to text.
- For more information, see Grigg, R., Joshua’s Long Day: Did it really happen—and how?, Creation 19(3):35–37, June–August 1997. Return to text.
- For more information, see Wood, B., The walls of Jericho, Creation 21(2):36–40, March–May 1999. Return to text.
- For more information, see Manthei, D., Two world-views in conflict, Creation 20(4):26–27, September–November 1998. Return to text.