Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings opens this week, and will apparently cast the parting of the Red Sea as less miraculous than when Chuck Heston's Moses parted the waters in 1956's The Ten Commandments. In Ridley Scott's telling, it wasn't God and Moses that parted the oceans so fleeing Jews could escape an Egyptian army. Instead, the miraculous parting was thanks to a conveniently timed tsunami.
"You can't just do a a giant parting, with walls of water trembling while people ride between them," says Scott, who remembers scoffing at biblical epics from his boyhood like 1956's The Ten Commandments. "I didn't believe it then, when I was just a kid sitting in the third row. I remember that feeling, and thought that I'd better come up with a more scientific or natural explanation." [Entertainment Weekly]
But here's the thing: For true believers, it doesn't really matter. Because even a tsunami could theoretically have God's hand behind it.
For a believer, the notion that God could use the physical laws He set in place to bring about His divine plans makes perfect sense. If anything, "it takes way more faith to believe that, 'oh it just so happened that there was an earthquake that caused the parting of the Red Sea, at just the moment they prayed that they needed to part the [sea],'" than to believe it was a pure coincidence, Eric Metaxas, author of the book Miracles, told me during a recent podcast discussion.
In his new book, Jesus on Trial, author David Limbaugh has a term for this phenomenon, which he attributes to his pastor Ron Watts. It's called a "God-incidence." This phrase has become part of the Christian lexicon in recent years, suggesting there was plenty of demand to justify the term's invention.
During his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace did a terrific job of encapsulating this retroactive rationalization, in the form of a parable. As Wallace told it,
There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp." [David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College]
Surely, many miracles can be retroactively rationalized. And I suspect that almost all miracles could be explained away as mere coincidence, even if doing so (as Metaxas argues) requires more faith — more tortured twists and turns, more laboring and cherry picking — than simply believing that something supernatural might have occurred.
An unbelievable hail storm plagues Ramses in the movie Exodus. | (Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Corp.)
For instance, once, many years ago, I went out late at night try to start my car and go somewhere (this was at a time in my life when my night didn't begin until, say, 11 pm). If my car had started, I would have backed onto Maryland's Route 17, as I always did when heading south, and I would have been hit by a speeding car. Now, I always backed onto the road, but this was not a problem since you could see for a long distance. Except, on this particular night, seconds after my car didn't start, another car flew by without its headlights on. There is no doubt that something was technically wrong with my car. Had I summoned a mechanic at that instant, he could probably have quantified the reason my ignition failed to start. There would have been a scientific or mechanical reason.
But why did it happen at this very moment when I was in danger? Perhaps it was only a coincidence. But I'd like to think it showed that God intervened, that he has a purpose for me.
Scoff if you will. But you must be able to at least see how a believer can see miracles taking many forms. And that even when an event has a perfectly rational scientific explanation, the devout might see God behind the science.
The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. But there's still room in there for God.