Should we stop using the word 'supernatural'?

(RiderOnTheClouds) #1

Christians (though interestingly not Jews) often refer to God, miracles, spirits, etc as being ‘supernatural’, meaning ‘beyond the natural’, but is anything really beyond the natural? Assuming these entities really did exist (I’m sure one of them at least does), would they be any less natural than rain falling from the sky? Or grass being green? For this reason I believe the word ‘supernatural’ is meaningless.

(Mark D.) #2

Exactly my sentiments. I’m okay with “mystery” as a place holder, at least it is epistemically honest. But we’re just in no position to know where natural leaves off and we-know-not-what begins.

(Christy Hemphill) #3

I think it has to do with the doctrine of transcendence

Most Christians don’t believe that the natural world is all of reality. If you do away with the concept of God being beyond the natural world, you do away with an aspect of traditional theology and God is confined to his creation. Many Christians would find this unacceptable, myself included.

(Shawn T Murphy) #4

It would be much better to clearly define the terms used for the realms of God, Heaven and Hell. I stay away from the term supernatural because it has a directional component that I do not agree with and it is insufficient. I rather use a three dimensional description. Nature is material, mortal and fallible and God is ethereal, immortal and divine.

In addition, supernatural implies it is outside of nature, whereas the soul and spirit are concurrent with nature, woking hand-in-hand. To say a human has a physical, mortal body with an ethereal, immortal soul is a precise definition.

(Mark D.) #5

Whatever the nature of God may be I think Christians credit him with the natural world being as we find it. If the cosmos was a blank slate before God created the natural world, then surely there is something about God which necessitated those choices in the same sense that there is something about who an artist or writer is which determines the work they produce. Radical free will, in which no choice has any more significance than any other, makes no more sense for God than it does for us. If that is so then the natural world is an expression of the supernatural. Insisting on this clear separation between natural and supernatural may be doctrinally correct but it doesn’t seem entirely coherent to me.


I believe it was John Walton, but I could be mistaken, who pointed out that in the ANE the concept of natural and supernatural wouldn’t have made any sense. The thought that God wasn’t somehow involved in everything would have been a foreign concept.

I’ve thought a lot about that lately. I think it’s an important insight for us 21st century folks to consider. Have we, perhaps, become unintentional deists? We only see God at work in supernatural moments?


And, from my Lutheran perspective, this then raises the issue of the Reformation teaching of vocation. The teaching of vocation, how God works through the everyday things of life, is an often neglected focus of the Reformation. Some have argued that it, more than justification, was the root of the Reformation. I don’t agree, but that it was essential to the Reformation, is clear to me.

(Mitchell W McKain) #8

So if you even believe God exists, do you believe God lives on another planet? Is God a creature bound to the laws of nature?

Christians believe this is not the case. They believe God created the laws of nature along with the physical universe. And thus any “god” living on another planet or bound to the laws of nature would be just an alien.

You seem to be confusing the word “supernatural” with “unnatural.” Is that intentional? Why? People believe in the supernatural because they don’t believe the laws of nature and the scientific world view define the limits of reality itself. If anything, God and spirit is more natural. And that is the reason for the prefix “super.” It doesn’t mean less natural but more so. It is the physical universe which is the artificial construct.

That would make you a naturalist, wouldn’t it?

But even so, words are not meaningless just because they refer to things you do not believe exist.

(Quinn) #9

We should still use the term supernatural cause there are some events and things that are beyond what modern science can detect or notice beyond the natural and thus the term supernatural is needed.


Its a great question that really cuts to the core of the Biologos forum.
To my understanding, evolution theory (evolutionism) is dominated by the naturalism view. I.e. life and the universe came about by purely natural means. All life on earth emerged from a single organic cell…
From a Christian perspective, i argue that everything is in fact ‘supernatural’. The one and that only God, created it, and created us in His image, so that we can be part of His family.

(Mitchell W McKain) #11

If “fairy-ism” is the belief that all things fly. Then this comment is like saying that airplanes or aviation are or is dominated by fairy-ism. This is clearly nonsense. “fairy-ism” has nothing to do with airplanes or aviation, and naturalism has nothing to do with evolution theory.


Naturalism is basically the belief that science and the laws of nature describe all things. But evolution doesn’t require that the laws of nature describe all things. It is only that ALL scientific theories explain things by the laws of nature. Yes, evolution is a scientific theory.

What you say is proof of my frequent observation that creationist simply do not want science to tackle certain questions such as the origin of the species because they want to dictate the answer to that question to everyone.

But here at this website we have all these people, like myself, who like science and like the theory of evolution and are not naturalists because we believe there are aspects of reality beyond/outside what science describes. We know that science is very good at answering some types of questions and we not only see no conflict with Christianity, but some of us, like myself, believe that evolution is more compatible with Christianity than creationism. It requires less distortions of the Bible and provides better solutions to the philosophical/theological problems of evil and suffering. Furthermore, many like myself, are evolutionary creationists, which means that just because evolution explains the process by which the species became as they are does not mean that God had no hand in the process. It is frankly not much different from the everyday Christian life, where most things are well described by the laws of nature, but that doesn’t mean that God plays no role in our lives.


Hi Mitchell,
I would put evolutionary creationists (theists) as a minority group, that as yet, do not dominate the published content of evolutionary science. I stand by my view that evolutionary science overall, as is science itself, dominated by a naturalism philsophy (naturally).

In relation to the question of this thread, i found this article to be relevant:

(Mitchell W McKain) #13

I SHOULD HOPE NOT! Evolutionary creationism is not science but theology!!! It has no place in science whatsoever! I would fight against such a return to the filthy disgusting middle ages with my life!

Yes and in your fantasy world airplanes are dominated by fairy-ism.


Okay, moving on.
Where ive arrived at, as the title of the BioLogos forum represents, is that all of creation was formed through the spoken word (heb=damar, or greek=logos) of God - a supernatural process.
John:1, and 1John:1 both outline that, Jesus Christ became this Word of Life in human form (the BioLogos).
This is a familar concept, for we as humans are creative beings, the only creatures with a creative language and cognitive ability - as we are made in His likeness. We go about our lives in this way.
Its due to these, and the vast intellectual supremecy of humans compared to any other creature, that i find evolutionism falls apart.

To some degree, i am open to the idea that God re-shaped, re-formed, adapted, matured, treaked, honed and sculpted creation (and perhaps ourselves/humanity), which i think is close to your views? But, i dont find the possibility of all this life coming about over billions of years through ‘natural’ events at all - plausible.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #15

I find it useful to distinguish between a larger religious philosophy that I might call “Evolutionism” and the mere science of “evolution”. The former is what comes with the materialist’s added philosophical baggage including “life has no meaning beyond what we ourselves invent for it … we are only animals … we (and all reality) are nothing but atoms and molecules, etc.” Simple evolution is the much more modest claim about the physical history and development of life from simpler early forms to today, and it has massive evidential support. “Evolutionism,” on the other hand, includes lots of stuff that is not remotely scientific, and sounds to me like you are describing and objecting to, thinking that all acceptance of evolution must necessarily include all this metaphysical baggage. But many of us here are living, breathing testimony that it need not include all that.

Properly construed, “evolution” has nothing at all to say about relative value judgments (much less “supremacy”) of humans / animals. So there is nothing there to have “fallen apart.” But you are right that a larger materialist philosophy that likes to wave “Evolutionism” as its flag has stumbled mightily in this regard. I join with you in rejecting that approach to life.

[with clarifying edits]

(Wayne Dawson) #16

I am largely a specialist in RNA structure prediction with extensions to proteins and more recently chromatin – yes, the DNA (wrapped in histones, etc.) has a certain amount of (meta) structure that is used by the cell to determine what proteins are expressed and what ones are not and it is all governed by thermodynamics [and natural selection for certain rates and probabilities of expression combined with the constant signaling from internal and external influence from the environment that are operating on the cell]. To some extent, it even looks like some of these mechanisms might get closer to being understood quantitatively as well as conceptually.

At any rate, what I have generally found with RNA is that optimal structures we see published are actually the most thermodynamically stable structures and that biologically relevant RNA structure is inherently the most stable kind of structure and it is generally quite robust to mutations – though obviously there are some mutations that can ruin it. So it is not particularly difficult for me to see that a fair amount of molecular evolution (including things like neutral mutations) has a solid basis in physics.

I am reluctant to extrapolate way out there to things I don’t know, but I don’t see evolution being thwarted or deterred by our arguments (which are often from our ignorance and prejudice rather than from knowledge) and evolution has had a long history of humiliating its opposition. I would be very surprised if anything could actually oppose it anymore. It seems, like it or not, that God made us this way and we – if we love God – will have to submit and reconcile it with our faith.

I’m inclined to see it from the view of sovereignty. Where we religious folk differ in general with Evolutionism and naturalism is that we believe that somehow God is behind what is and we are accountable to God – what we do in this life does matter. He who made the eyes and the ears (metaphorically speaking but also in an abstract way real) can demand us to give an account for what we have done. In this way, coming to know and follow Jesus is something we should daily seek and cling to. For any of this to be true, God must be far far far (to the N!) bigger than anything that is, be that the universe, multiverse or whatever we can imagine or possibly discern. This is what I might see as the supernatural. How is it that we should be so presumptuous to think that the only things that exist are stuff we can see? God reaches down to us, not the other way.

Contrast this with the notion of naturalism where we would have to say that the molecules and quarks decide the rules – perhaps via some epiphenomena. At some level, because God created what is, “the rocks cry out”. We underrate the rationality of an ordered universe that may even have the capacity to evolve life from simple patterns of nature. For empiricists, discernability and predictability are argued to be something that proves there is no God, but a discernable universe can also be put there because God wanted us to be able to understand it. That would make “tending the garden” something we can do. The creation was supposed to be “good”. What could be more “good” than a fully, rationally understandable world?

Maybe, in fact, the tendency of believers to reject the findings of science is as much of a rebellion against God (It’s my vision of God or it’s highway) as those who use the rational, methodological power of science to pretend that there is no God that will call us to account.

by Grace we proceed


Hi Wayne, bery much appreciate your post.
Further to this point:

I’m inclined to see it from the view of sovereignty. Where we religious folk differ in general with Evolutionism and naturalism is that we believe that somehow God is behind what is and we are accountable to God – what we do in this life does matter.

What im trying to reconcile, is whether the somehow of Gods involvement is in fact supernatural? While the evolutionism narrative is that all this incredible life and diversity is ‘inevitable’, given enough time, food, environmental factors, lucky RNA activity, etc. All that is for a single species, all driven at the molecular level, competing with others to find their own ‘niche’, many with co-depedance. What are the odds this could happen by accident?

Option 1: God inbuilt the evolution ability to our ‘dust’ genetics, wound it up let then things go hoping it would be good. But i cant accept, that He then just stood back and watched, as that is not ‘loving’.

Option 2: He has intimately guided the development of life and speciation, through the process we have uncovered and given the title -evolution, just as one might lovingly tend a garden. (He does have both the creative capacity and time to play with).

As always, it seems to be a choice of whether one has faith in the billions of years as sufficient explanation for life to have occured ’ unguided’.

As a potential correlation of Gods ways, Christian’ are on a process described as becoming more ‘like’ Christ (sanctification through disciplship). Paul describes Christians as ‘new’ creations as we begin this transformation. I see this fitting with Option 2.

Only faith, hope and love remain, love being the greatest and original.

(Shawn T Murphy) #18

Dear @NTassie and @wkdawson,
I think that trying to prove which is true, option 1 or 2 is impossible, and also futile. Since God created the Laws of this Universe, how can you separate Him from His Laws?

The place that I think we can prove God’s involvement is in statistics. Statistics is a fine mathematical tool, but eventually ineffective in describing the human condition of each person. By investigating the statistically deviant is where the discovery really happens.

  • Look at the people who should have, but did not die in - the plane crash, 9/11, in a suicide attempt, etc.

  • Study those where proven medical treatments fail or the terminally ill survive.

As long we use statistics to dehumanize the results, we cannot start to see the patterns that exist with various people, those who habitually outliers - defying probability.

(Oliver van der Togt) #19

Then the idea to replace God with Mystery should pose no problem then. To use God as placeholder might infer IT is to a degree a known quantity: We can say something about IT.

(Christy Hemphill) #20

I don’t really understand. I have no intention of replacing God with Mystery. Doing so poses numerous theological problems, because I believe God is a personal being who directly reveals himself.