Just saying the word can elicit misty eyed stargazing from the pietistic and furrows of exasperation from the skeptical. There is hardly a more divisive concept faced by contemporary humanity. Miracles lay at the very crux of theism and atheism.
But is there a middle road? What is the truth about miracles? Does it have to be either/or everything/nothing?
A belief in miracles is directly tied to belief in the supernatural and for Christians belief in the resurrection of Christ. The very definition of being a Christian is to believe in at least one astounding miracle. To take the bible at anything near face value is to accept many more. There is no avoiding it. So, what are modern day Christians to make of the bible’s miraculous accounts? If we’re honest, they seem very far away, completely detached from our world today of smart phones, car pool lines and W2’s.
My friend Nate raises this question from a skeptical viewpoint. He rightly says miracles were not just for healing and mushy feelings. They were done so that people might believe and follow Jesus. So why doesn’t that happen anymore? Why doesn’t every person in the world get to see one miracle and then they could freely decide if they believed it or not?
It’s a good question.
Here are a few of my thoughts (and that’s all they are).
- First, it’s important to note that while miracles are sometimes done in order to encourage belief, they are not to be the foundation of belief. Throughout the history of revelation, it is the word of God whether preached or written that ultimately guides people to belief and sustains that trust. Indeed, as Abraham says to the rich man in Jesus’ parable, “If they were not convinced by Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Stated differently, miracles are used mostly to encourage those who already believe or are predisposed to belief. Those already hardened against the supernatural will not accept the supernatural just because they see something unexplainable (Matthew 16:1-4). Therefore, one reason I believe we do not see many overt miracles in the western world is that our society is pervaded by the written word of scripture, the lived word of the church and the tangible benefits of being blessed by Christianity for over a millennia (value of human life, literacy, social welfare programs, hospitals, overall generosity, etc.). We shouldn’t need anything else. Additionally, we see miracles I think not in all places for all believers, but only a key movements in salvation history – the exodus and advent at Sinai, the prophets Elijah and Elisha, and the arrival of the Messiah culminating in the ultimate miracle, the resurrection. This trend continues in the New Testament and I think even today. Thus, whenever we see the Gospel spreading into new and unfamiliar areas where people are operating under a totally different paradigm. it seems to be accompanied by signs and miracles.
- Secondly, there seem to be a lot of miracles today. Craig Keener, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Seminary recently wrote on the credibility of the NT’s miracle accounts which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject. He notes that in a survey of charismatic Christians (Keener is charismatic) in just 10 countries, roughly 200 million people claim to have experienced or witnessed a miraculous healing. Are some of these phony. Sure. Are some wishful thinking? Yep. Are some coincidence? Absolutely. But what are the odds that all of these people are deluded? What if only a small percentage are anything close to real. That’s still a lot. Keener additionally points out something much closer to home: 73% of U.S. physicians believe in miraculous healing and 55% claim to have at least witnessed a healing or recovery with no apparent explanation. Again, that’s a very high number and a high number of not only our “best and brightest” but those who have the most contact with the sick in our society. Some skeptics are quick to point out most of such stories involve internal issues that cannot be independently verified. This is somewhat true, but not completely so. Numerous reports indicate eyesight, hearing and even death. Again, are many or most exaggerated? Maybe. But can one really and honestly posit that they all are? I don’t think so. Furthermore, there is ample evidence of wide ranging miraculous events investigated and certified by none other than the arch conservative Roman Catholic Church. One event especially is quite intriguing. In 1916-17, a small group of Portuguese peasant children were visited subsequently by angels and finally by Mary. Mary eventually told the children she would do one final sign to vindicate their story and so that many might believe. On the ascribed day, October 13, 1917, over 70,000 gathered in the area to see what would happen. What did they see? One of the children called for the crowd to look skyward and suddenly the sun began rotating, changing colors wildly and did not hurt people’s eyes as the looked. The three children later reported during the sun’s movements, they saw Jesus, Mary and Joseph blessing the onlookers. Nor is this a one time occasion. A similar event happened in Lourdes, France in 1858. What are we to make of this? As fanciful as it may seem to our scientific ears can we so readily dismiss the eyewitness testimony of thousands? Is it possible this was some mass hallucination brought on by all the expectation of the moment? I guess, but is that really any more feasible than an actual miracle occurring?
In conclusion, the assertion that miracles do not occur today is not so cut and dry a statement as it might first appear. There are many unusual and unique circumstances that merit no logical explanation and seem to fit the definition of miracle quite nicely. Does this prove there is a God or that Christianity is more true than other faiths? Proof, I think, is in the eye of the beholder. Remember, not all in Moses’ or Jesus’ day believed either.
I realize this is not a thorough treatment of the matter, especially the biblical data. I’m simply attempting to show that we may not be so cut off from the world of the bible as we might sometimes imagine.