The Boyle Lecture

  • Mark Harris (Invited speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesPublic Engagement – Public lecture/debate/seminar


Public lecture: "Apocalypses Now: Modern Science and Biblical Miracles"

‘I explore an intriguing area that has managed to creep under the radar of today’s science-and-theology conversation, namely scientific studies of the big miracle and catastrophe stories of the Bible (e.g. Noah’s flood, or the plagues of Egypt).

On the one hand, this area is nothing new, since notable scientists of the early modern period – even some Boyle lecturers – took an interest in applying their naturalistic wisdom to the mysteries of the Bible. But on the other hand, contemporary studies have brought the much-advanced empirical rigour of today’s sciences (especially earth science) to bear.

What is remarkable is that even the most spectacular and unlikely of the biblical miracles succumbs to this approach: quite simply, it seems there is almost nothing that the modern sciences cannot explain if sufficient ingenuity is brought to bear. This flies in the face of our usual understanding of a miracle as an ‘impossible’ event in natural terms, since these studies show that the seemingly impossible biblical stories are quite ‘possible’ in naturalistic terms, if unlikely.

So what is going on? Do these scientific accounts disprove the miraculous nature of the stories? Or do they
affirm it?

A clue to what is at stake here is a surprising disagreement between the relevant experts. While the scientists believe their naturalistic interpretations represent a major advance in understanding the stories, professional biblical scholars show little interest, or are openly disdainful, claiming that these explanations are implausible.

I point out the striking parallels between this disagreement and a long-lasting and foundational controversy in the ‘historical sciences’ (geology and evolutionary biology) known as the ‘catastrophism-uniformitarianism’ debate. Although this debate reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, many of the central questions have resurfaced in contemporary geological debate. Assessing it today (and how modern earth science has reached a resolution) takes us deep into philosophical questions about the meaning and method of science, including naturalism, the unity of science, and the possibility of a science of unique or rare events.

I suggest that it also takes us towards a novel kind of natural theology. Here, the spectacular scientific explanations of the biblical miracles do not deny their miraculous character so much as provide a uniquely modern purchase on the transcendent quality of the narratives. In that sense, the scientific interpretations are “apocalypses now”.’

The Boyle lecture is part of a series exploring the relationship between Christianity and the sciences which have been running since 1692. Previous Boyle lecturers have included Samuel Clarke, William Whiston, Josiah Woodward, and F. D. Maurice.
Period7 Feb 2018
Event typeOther
LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map


  • apocalypse
  • biblical studies
  • catastrophe
  • catastrophism
  • Exodus
  • hermeneutics
  • miracles
  • naturalistic explanation
  • Uniformitarianism