Tuesday, November 13, 2007

In January 1996, my parents and I were involved in a major car accident. My grandmother, my dad’s mom, had passed away a few days before and we were headed up to Washington to attend her funeral. We were in my parents’ minivan driving on I-84, a couple of hours east of Portland and two miles outside of Biggs Junction. It was a snowy, wintry day, but the weather had let up and the snow began to melt.
My Dad was behind the wheel. He began to pick up speed and started to pass the car in front of us. As he did, the back end jack-knifed to the left and hit the center median. The front end skidded to the right, and instead of turning into the direction of the skid, my Dad turned against it, causing the back end to spin back to the right and across the two-lane road. The back end bounced off of the guard rail.
Up to this point, I had been asleep in the back seat. I awoke after the car hit the rail. The car then skidded forward and turned so that it was facing oncoming traffic. I remember sitting in the back seat at that moment, as my Mom turned to me from the front passenger’s seat and said something like, “Kris, hang on!” A moment later, we were hit almost full on by a semi-tractor trailer truck.
I remember the sound of metal impacting on metal, sounding like a giant gong and the seeing the windshield turn white, probably when the airbags exploded from their plastic cocoons or from the front end of the semi filling almost all the width of windshield.
Our car was quickly pushed aside and the semi began to pass, but we were not out of danger yet. The truck was carrying a full load of steel, including two 11,000-pound steel ingots. Had one of those broken loose of its chains as the truck passed, we might’ve been crushed.
And behind that truck was another semi carrying a load of lumber. When the driver of the first truck put on his brakes, the second truck slammed into the back end of it, causing the second driver to apply his brakes. But, the second driver swerved, sending his load of lumber off the truck and over the median. Had that happened a few seconds earlier, myself, my parents, and the car might’ve sustained even more serious damage and injuries.
The driver of the first truck completely lost control of his vehicle, plowed right through the guard rail, taking out 150 feet of it, and rolled down an embankment toward a creek at the bottom. The driver saw the creek and remembered that he couldn’t swim, so he decided to jump out of the truck. Then, when he opened his door, he saw one of those 11,000-pound steel ingots break loose of its chains and roll off the truck and down the embankment. When he saw this, he thought something like, “Okay . . . maybe not,” and and shut the door. The truck stopped moving about halfway down the embankment.
Behind the second semi was a pickup truck and when the driver of the second semi put on his brakes, she had to put on hers. She had trouble controlling her vehicle as, apparently, she was at one point headed right toward our stopped car, but ended up missing us by several feet. Then she managed to pull over.
That was the end of the incident.
In the course of it, three of the four vehicles involved were totalled, including the minivan and the two semis (the semis’ engines were destroyed).
And of the eight people who were involved—me and my parents, two truckers in each semi and the woman in the pickup—beyond a few cuts and scratches, no one was injured.

Over the years, I have looked upon the positive outcome of this event as possibly being an honest-to-goodness miracle, though I certainly wouldn’t have bet my life on it. Now, I may have found a way to scientifically test that notion.
It is a mistaken notion that the defining aspect of miracles is that they violate the laws of physics. Though there are instances in the Bible where this seems to be so, such as God’s stopping of the sun from moving across the sky in the Book of Joshua, there are other instances where God works through natural processes to work his miracles, such as in the Book of Exodus, where God parts the Red Sea. He did not part it immediately, all in one fell swoop, as in The Ten Commandments. Instead, he parted it by blowing an east wind across the waters for a few hours overnight. He may have messed with the weather to cause the winds to blow as they did, but that wouldn’t seem to me to involve any suspension of the laws of physics.
It seems to me that miracles are defined primarily not by any breaking of the physical laws, but by the sheer unlikeliness of such events happening by chance.
In physics, there is a concept called the universal probability bound. It is a number determined by combining estimates of things like the number of atoms in universe, the number of possible calculations that can take place over the history of the universe, etc. This boundary puts a limit on the allowed improbability of an event that happens by chance. If I understand the concept correctly, it suggests that any event that happens that has a higher improbability of occurring by chance than the probability bound allows is not only improbable, but quite literally, impossible. Any event which exceeds this boundary must occur by design. Even if the chance occurrence of a particular event is not impossible, it is at least theoretically possible that the odds in favor of design could exceed the odds in favor of chance. Or it is possible that the odds in favor of chance may be so small that design, though also extremely unlikely, begins to seem more possible.
The parting of the Red Sea was a miracle because of the unlikeliness of the event itself and the unlikeliness of the timing of the event. Remember that it presented exactly the right solution to the problem of the Israelites being cornered by the Egyptian army and it came at exactly the time when the Israelites needed it most.