The Problem of Miracles

More often than not the modern mind finds abhorrent the occurrence – or even the possibility – of miracles. Miracles would disrupt our simplistic (and impersonalistic) views of the predictability and uniformity of the world around us. Miracles would indicate that there is a realm of inscrutable mystery for the (pretended) autonomy of man’s mind. Miracles would testify to a transcendent and self-conscious Power in the universe which unbelievers find unnerving. So rather than examine whether miracles have in fact occurred or take seriously their reports and significance, it is better, thinks the unbeliever, to dismiss their possibility in advance.

So we will hear critics of Christianity say things like: “How can anybody with even a smattering of high school science believe that a virgin can conceive a child, a man can walk on water, a storm can be calmed upon command, the blind or lame can be instantly healed, or a dead corpse can resuscitate? The modern world knows better! The miracle-claims of Christianity are evidence of its irrationality and superstitious character.” In the face of such ridicule and challenge, Christians sometimes cower in silence, when in fact it should be the critic who is intellectually ashamed – put to shame by his historical ignorance, as well as the logical defects in his thinking.

Slandering The Past

You will notice in the hypothetical challenge to Christianity’s credibility which is expressed above (meant to be representative of the actual negative mindset and comments of unbelievers which we encounter), there is an unquestioned and arrogant assumption that a critical mindset about miracles is the exclusive property of “the modern world.” The philosopher David Hume snidely remarked that it forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors….[1]

Over and over again you will find non-Christians who simply take it for granted that people in the ancient world believed miracles took place, to be blunt, because: (a) they were too scientifically stupid to know better, (b) they were gullible and naive, and/or (c) they were fascinated and eager to find anywhere they could traces of magic in their experience.

Of course, on those three scores we should wonder if the enlightened modern world has any reason for pride, really. It is not the least bit difficult today to locate scientifically stupid people, even college graduates. Watch them try to “fix” things with a hammer, deal with an unwanted cockroach or rationalize their smoking; listen to their home-cures for a hangover. And as for gullibility and magic! In our oh-so-smart “modern” world have you ever heard about get-rich-quick investment schemes, diet fads, lottery fever, or the wonder of crystals (or pyramids, etc.)?

Or listen to all those respected entertainers on TV talk-shows telling large, attentive audiences about their “former lives,” or about the healing power of meditation, or about “social karma” and “mother earth,” or about the “human face” of communist tyranny in our century, etc. These are hardly evidences of a critical mind or superior rationality.

Believe It Or Not, Skepticism Has Been Around

Clear-thinking people should beware of sloppy and self-serving generalizations about, or comparisons between, one age (or culture) and another.

Even more, they should refrain from manifesting the kind of historical ignorance which imagines that people who lived before our enlightened, modern age were, in general, never critically minded or were readily fooled (or more easily than we would be) into accepting tales of miracles. After all, what is the source of the expression occasionally still used in our day “he’s just a doubting Thomas”? Remember Thomas, called Didymus (the “Twin”), from the gospel of John’s account of Christ’s resurrection (John 20:24-29)? Down through subsequent history he has come to be called “Doubting Thomas” just because of his skeptical mindset regarding one of the greatest miracles in the Bible. Thomas would not readily accept the testimony of the other apostles that they had seen the resurrected Savior.

And he was not alone in that spirit of disbelief. Even those who personally encountered Christ after He rose from the dead were not excitedly awaiting or jumping with eagerness at the opportunity to believe that a wonder had taken place. Two disciples on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-31) as well as Mary Magdalene (John 20:1, 11-16) were so disinclined to believe such a miracle that they did not even recognize Jesus when they saw him. (Gestalt psychology helps us understand that kind of experience, which all of us have had when “seeing” somebody we know, but not recognizing him “out of normal context” or in an unexpected setting.) Matthew relates that even in the presence of the resurrected Lord and knowing who He was supposed to be, “some doubted” (Matt. 28:17).

When the gospel of the resurrected Savior was taken out into the ancient world, there was then – even as now – a general antagonism to the credibility of such claims. Paul proclaimed the resurrection of Christ before the Council of Areopagus in Athens, but the Greek poet Aeschylus many years before had related, in the story of the very founding of the Areopagus, that it was there declared that once a man has died “there is no resurrection.” The ancient world knew its share of skepticism and denunciation of miracles. Luke writes that when Paul’s address to the Areopagus brought him to the claim about Christ’s resurrection, his audience could hardly be characterized by general gullibility and a predisposed willingness to affirm the miracle! Instead: “now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked,” and others more politely put Paul off to another time (Acts 17:32). Ridicule of miracles did not begin in the modern world of enlightened science.

Just like our own culture today, the ancient world was an intellectually mixed-bag. Like us, it had its share of superstitious and mystically minded people; as we do, it had people whose thinking was ignorant, misinformed, lazy, stupid, illogical and silly. But also like our own age, the ancient world had plenty of people who were skeptical and cynical. (Indeed, those were even the names for two prominent schools of ancient Greek philosophy in the period of the New Testament!) Plenty of people in the ancient world were critically minded about reports of natural wonders and magical powers. Many not only doubted claims to miracles and found them incredible, but even precluded the very possibility that such things could occur.

The Truth Claims Of Christianity

This was so much the case that you will notice the apostle Peter felt it necessary to make this declaration in his second general epistle: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). Peter knew that it would be easy for people to “write off” the claims of Christians as just so much more idle chatter and story-telling; he knew that people in his own generation had dismissed the church’s proclamation about Jesus because they would not believe such claims regarding miracles. Far from being stupid and gullible, Peter’s contemporaries had to be assured that apostolic accounts of Jesus were not cunningly devised fables, but the eyewitness truth.

It was important for the Christian testimony in the midst of an unbelieving culture that followers of Jesus have a reputation for not “giving heed to fables” (1 Tim. 1:4) or entertaining “old wives’ tales” (1 Tim. 4:7) – that is, fictitious accounts which are the very opposite of “the truth” of Christianity (2 Tim. 4:4). The hostile world of unregenerate men would only too gladly dismiss the claims of the gospel narrative as being of the same mythical nature – fabulous, unreliable, exaggerated.

The point here, very simply, is that contemporary critics of the Christian faith who automatically dismiss and ridicule the miracle-claims of the Bible because of the alleged widespread ignorance and gullibility of the ancient world only bring shame to themselves for their own ignorant prejudices and unwarranted generalizations. Like today, defenders of the faith in the ancient world encountered significant opposition and negativity about the alleged occurrence of miracles – hostility ranging from sophisticated philosophical repudiations to gut-level mockery. If people living in those days came to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, healed the sick and was raised from the dead, it was not because they categorically were weak-minded and ignorant fools, ready to believe any and every fable that came their way.

Begging The Question

The unbeliever who dismisses in advance the Biblical account of miracles should not only be ashamed of his arrogant slander against the ancient world’s alleged ignorance and gullibility, he should also be embarrassed by the logically fallacious character of his “reasoning.” Consider again our earlier statement from a hypothetical unbeliever, summarizing the actual comments which we hear from non-Christians: “How can anybody with even a smattering of high school science believe that a virgin can conceive a child, a man can walk on water, a storm can be calmed upon command, the blind or lame can be instantly healed, or a dead corpse can resuscitate? The modern world knows better! The miracle-claims of Christianity are evidence of its irrationality and superstitious character.”

Unbelievers who speak this way are usually quite unaware of the fatuous and fallacious character of what they are saying and suggesting. They often think that they are treating the miracle-claims of the Bible as independent evidence that the Christian worldview is rationally unacceptable. Their reasoning is something like this: we already know miracles do not occur (“How could anybody believe…”), and since Christianity claims that such impossible things did occur (e.g., virgin birth, resurrection), we can draw the conclusion that Christianity must be false. But that conclusion is not so much “drawn” as it is taken for granted from the very outset. The denial of the very possibility of miracles is not a piece of evidence for rejecting the Christian worldview, but simply a specific manifestation of that very rejection.

Only if the Christian worldview happens to be false could the possibility of miracles be cogently precluded. According to Scripture’s account, God is the transcendent and almighty Creator of heaven and earth. Everything owes its very existence and character to His creative power and definition (Gen. 1; Neh. 9:6; Col. 1:16-17). He makes things the way they are and determines that they function as they do. “His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:5). Moreover, God sovereignly governs every event that transpires, determining what, when, where, and how anything takes place – from the movement of the planets to the decrees of kings to the very hairs of our heads (Eph. 1:11). According to the Bible, He is omnipotent and in total control of the universe. Isaiah 40 celebrates in famous phraseology the creation, delineating, direction, providence, and power of Jehovah (vv. 12, 22-28). He has the freedom and control over the created order that the potter has over the clay (Rom. 9:21). As the Psalmist affirms, “Our God is in the heavens; He has done whatsoever He pleased” (115:3).

Faith vs. Faith

Very simply, according to the Biblical witness: “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Rev. 19:6). Therefore, in terms of the Christian worldview, there is nothing “too hard” for God to do according to His own holy will (Gen. 18:14). Because of who He is, “with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26; cf. Mark 14:36). Nothing can stay His hand or prevent Him from accomplishing what He wishes.

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Source: Dr. Greg Bahnsen