The “Problem” of Miracles

[The] modern man acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are comprehensible within the framework of the rational order of the universe.  He does not acknowledge miracles because the do not fit into his lawful order.  When a strange or marvelous accident occurs, he does not rest until he has found a rational cause (Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, 37-8).

Since the Enlightenment, there has been a strong tendency on the part of intellectuals to deny the validity of miracles.  This belief that miracles are impossible becomes an assumption before approaching the text of scripture. If one does not believe in miracles, then one must explain the miracles of Jesus in a natural way (psychosomatic healings, for example), or to argue that the early church created miracles in order to build up the authority of Jesus.

Graham Twelftree traces this view to David Hume, whose argument against miracles has influenced modern thought on the possibility of miracles.  Hume argued that for an event to be believed as true, it must have sufficient witnesses.  Since a miracle is something that is outside of the laws of nature, the witness to a miracle must be especially strong.  In fact, there is no witness to a miracle that Hume would accept as reliable, therefore there are no accurate reports of miracles, therefore miracles never happen.

In a “scientific age” things that once were thought to be miraculous can be explained.  Honestly, I am extremely skeptical when someone tells me they have experienced something supernatural (a ghost, for example).  My modernist mind pretty much goes into Penn & Teller mode and I look for the logical explanation behind the experience.  There is simply no way I am going to believe a ghost appeared, no matter who was telling me the story.  This skepticism is a product of the modern age.  Arthur C. Clarke once said that technology in a primitive culture is indistinguishable from magic. Mark Twain makes a similar point in A Connecticut Yankee.  A miracle is just science or technology which has yet to be discovered in a particular culture.

Two observations are appropriate here.

First, my personal modern skepticism has no business trying to explain the miracles of Jesus. In the Second Temple Period, miracles happened. Or at least, people presumed that miracles could happen and frequently did. the Jewish especially expected that the coming messianic age would be accompanied by miracles, including healing and resurrection.

If Jesus had appeared in Galilee and announced he was the messiah and could not do miracles, he would have been dismissed as a pretender, a fraud.  The conflict Jesus has with the Pharisees is not if he did miracles, but rather the source of his power to do miracles. To put it another way, the only the most un-historical Jesus would not do miracles.

Second, anyone who dismisses Jesus’ miracles is imposing their modern worldview on a pre-modern worldview. We are expecting Jesus to act like a proper Evangelical Christian, or Lutheran, or Pentecostal, or what ever our theological assumptions are.  The fact is, Jesus does not fit the categories of modern theological talk very well and it is a serious mistake to make him out to be exactly what we expected him to be.

In fact, I think I would call that idolatry.

Bibliography:
Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 37-38.
Graham Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle-Worker, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1999), 38-53.

12 thoughts on “The “Problem” of Miracles

  1. “The fact is, Jesus does not fit the categories of modern theological talk very well and it is a serious mistake to make him out to be exactly what we expected him to be.”

    great post!

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  2. The validity of the supernatural miracles of Jesus is extremely important. Once again I’m going to use my experiences growing up in a different culture to expound on this post. In Kenya, spiritual beings and phenomena have a massive influence in the culture. People did not second guess stories of demon possession and spiritual activity. I understand that the post is not about the validity and existence of demons, but I believe supernatural beings and supernatural actions go hand in hand. It puzzles me why it is so difficult for Western people to believe in the supernatural, but it is understandable. Because of the lack of supernatural activity that is visual, many people discount it as superstitions and visions of people with inferior intellect. They believe that their mind was supplying these visions, based on their belief in them. In Kenya this is not doubted. I have heard many stories of people having experiences with the supernatural. A woman that works with my parent’s mission experienced an encounter with demons that is spine chilling to say the least. She was lying in bed at night, and was experiencing a sense of foreboding and discontentment. She heard feet on the roof walking around, her initial thought was that they were thieves, a common occurrence in Nairobi. She said that she heard ropes being thrown over her house and had the feeling that they were being tied down. The next day she discussed this with some of the locals, and they were not in the least surprised, and called the beings night stalkers. They stated that they roam the city at night and stir up trouble. The validity of these stories stands with the fact of many witnesses. Kenyans know that the supernatural occurs, how they interpret that activity with religion is another subject entirely. The existence of these spiritual forces and the common knowledge provides the people with and understanding of the opposite, miracles. The point of this story is to give another perspective on the supernatural within a different culture. No one in the New Testament denies that Jesus did miracles; in fact this is one of the reasons that he had so many followers. One of the problems with modernity is not only that it denies anything that cannot be explained with the rational mind, but that it believes it is above correction. Even though everyone wants to treat everyone equally, they deem animist and these stories as farces. They want to be able to explain how everything works, and the only being that can do that is God.

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  3. “A miracle is just science or technology which has yet to be discovered in a particular culture.” P Long this was a brilliant quote, way to find this! However I think that your Mark Twain quote makes skeptical people be more on the non-believing side of miracles. I do believe that miracles still happen today and that they will continue, I do not believe they were a thing of the past, or a thing of that culture because God reaches those who do not believe in the weirdest and sometimes the most wonderful ways; sometimes miracles do happen. Though I am along the same lines as you when it comes to magic and whatnot, I want to see fact and logic, though I am more prone to be convinced because I am still naïve and I like to believe that there can be magic and miracles. I believe miracles are along the same lines in my brain as God being omnipotent or omnipresent; it is just something I do not understand. I think miracles can happen and I believe that they still do, God is so present in everything that it makes believing in miracles easy yet hard at the same time.
    If I did not believe in miracles, and if I did not believe that God still did miracles then there would be no point to Jesus’s life story and how he reached those who needed proof. P Long you mentioned in your last paragraph something along these lines, and I believe that this is the most accurate according to what I believe, though I am open to new ideas if offered and new ways to learn about God.
    Scott thank you for sharing about Kenya, I believe in supernatural beings and demons and demon possession, it is something I have had firsthand experience with… it is scary and not something to be messed with even if you are just an onlooker.

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  4. In the Bible, it is not only Jesus, and the prophets who did miracles. We also have examples of those who did not follow God doing miracles. Take for example Pharaoh’s wise men and sorcerers. When Moses executed a miracle, which he was given the power to do through God, the wise men came along and duplicated the miracle. Today, as Christians we can look at this in two ways. One is that they received their power from Satan, or demonic forces. We know God to be the one and only God. Therefore we can deduce that it is not Ra or any other Egyptian god or goddess that is giving these wise men their power. Or we can look at these wise men and sorcerers through the lens of our modern skepticism, and deduce that they were using some kind of science or trick to duplicate Moses’ miracles. This is the viewpoint I would take when it comes to this particular example. So the problem is that we have here an issue of faith. As a Christian it is not hard for me to believe that Jesus preformed the miracles that the Bible tells us about. He didn’t need tricks or science to preform them. He was able to do so because he is God incarnate, and God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscience. And if you don’t believe that Jesus himself had these 3 traits while he was in human form, God the Father did, and Jesus’ power was given to by Him. So the problem we have here is the issue that if you are not a Christian, if you are someone who does not see Jesus as the Son of God, as part of the trinity, or as a Prophet who receives power from God, then his miracles hold significantly less weight. We can look at Pharaoh’s wise men and say it was all smoke and mirrors easily. Why? Because we don’t believe that they had authority, or power. If you are someone who believes the same for Jesus, it is easy to dismiss his miracles, and place them in the same “smoke and mirrors” context.

    I think that paired together, faith and modern skepticism can be a good thing. As someone who leans pretty heavily on the belief that cessation has occurred, my modern skepticism comes into play every time I hear of Christians speaking in tongues, a Christian healing someone, or people prophesying that the rapture will occur on such and such a date. I believe that direct miracles most defiantly happen, but I am very cautious about indirect ones. I still remain open, and try and listen with an open mind, but I remain very skeptical of such things. And when it comes down to it, the Bible is the highest authority in such matters.

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  5. By definition miracles are, “an effect or extra-ordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause” (Webster’s Dictionary). David Hume’s non-convincing argument belongs to the trash heap of modern thought. According to Hume, a miracle must have “sufficient witness”. I do not think that the author’s of the gospels would have anything to gain by fabricating or outright lying about the miracles of Jesus. The Pharisees would have enjoyed nothing more than to dis-credit an account of the miraculous, in fact they tried to do just that with the resurrection by paying off the guard who was there when Christ was raised from the dead! The enemies of Christ stood to gain much if they could have disproved what Christ had done- miraculously. Hume says, “since a miracle is something that is outside of the laws of nature (presupposition on his part) the witness to a miracle must be especially strong”. As P. Long states, “In fact, there is no witness to a miracle that Hume would accept as reliable, therefore there are no accurate reports of miracles, therefore miracles never happen”. Luke himself says, “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past…” (Luke 1:3). Would the disciples have staked their credibility on lies regarding miracles? Many of them gave their lives because of who Christ was! Multitudes of people witnessed Christs miracles including those who wanted him dead. 500 people saw Christ in his post-resurrection appearances! Yes, there are also extra-biblical sources also that ascribe to Jesus having done “magic” acts and the like but, I don’t think someone like Hume would have believed in miracles even he himself witnessed one or was a part of one himself. Do miracles still happen today? Yes. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a “miraculous” event. Why one might ask? Because it is an extraordinary event the surpasses known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.

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  6. I agree with what Scott about our American culture being socked by anything supernatural, and yet supernatural is not uncommon in the African culture. I think that a main reason that that is, is because the African culture fears those things. They have a belief in the supernatural and therefore those things are very real to them. I know the devil is at work in the American culture as well. He is simply at work in a much different way. He tempts the word into sinning in other ways depending on the culture. In Africa fear can often drive them. In America, the devil works to tempt us with media or technology or anything else that might get us to stumble. In saying that, miracles are very believable in the African culture, I myself would be more likely to believe something physically miraculous to occur there then in America. Simply because of the culture I am in. I do not doubt that God can still do miracles in today’s world “Anyone who dismisses Jesus’ miracles is imposing their modern worldview on a pre-modern worldview,” (P. Long). I think that we often get direct and indirect miracles mixed up. I do not believe God had given me the power to heal anyone (indirect miracle). However, I do believe that God is a powerful God and he is working miracles in our lives all around us, through his power and his doing (direct).

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  7. Alright so I have two points to make. The first is that the that miracles performed are important to the truth of Jesus. If he wasn’t doing true miracles then he was either purposefully deceiving people or the early church made them up in order to add more proof to their case. So in order to believe in Jesus and his gospel I would say that you need to also have faith that he did all that the Bible says he did. The next thing I want to say is that I think as a nation we have grown away from spiritual things. We explain everything with science and have very little faith in anything we can’t explain. I’ve heard many stories from some of my friends who are in missions of miracles and other spiritual encounters such as demon dispossession. The missionaries who I’ve heard these stories from work in much less developed countries as compared to the United States, they also have highly spiritual cultures and believe in miracles. I would argue that this lack of faith in the supernatural is a large reason why we don’t see God working through miracles here in America.

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  8. The historical reliability of miracles is not something that I had given much thought to prior to reading Strauss’ chapter on the miracles of Jesus. Obviously, I had previously observed that miracles are not logically explainable when considering the laws of nature and do require a measure of faith in order to accept. However, when considering the historical significance that goes along with the miracles, it gives the argument in favor of miracles much more weight. “While the study of miracles is outside the realm of strict scientific investigation, it is not outside the realm of historical research, which depends on the written and oral reports of those who witnessed such events” (Strauss, 457). David Hume, an extremely influential philosopher of the eighteenth century, denied the historical reliability of miracles based on four core arguments. When taking into account the non-biblical historical writers of the time in addition to the eye witnesses of the Bible, two of Hume’s four supporting claims prove extremely weak. While he argues that not enough educated or rational witnesses were eye witnesses of any of Jesus’ miracles as well as that most miracles are in the presence of “ignorant and barbarous” people, all four of the gospels tell us otherwise. Taking for example the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 which is recorded in all four gospels, it is foolish to think that none of these people were educated or rational people sufficient enough to qualify as reliable eye witnesses. P. Long, I enjoyed your approach of worldview in the context of Jesus’ miracles. Those in denial of Jesus’ miracles are more than likely imposing the ideas drawn from their own experiences. Since the ministry of Jesus is no longer physically here with us on the earth, things are different than they were in Biblical times. We do not experience miracles in the same visible and tangible way that the people of the Bible did. As so many people are opposed to the idea of changing their mentality or having faith in something, it becomes difficult to break through the confines of their limited mentality of how things work. Hume argues that we have a human tendency to believe in something spectacular that gives us elements of wonder as well as surprise, but one could just as similarly argue that we have a human tendency to be skeptical about things until they are proven to us. While some are so opposed to the idea of not being able to completely understand something and to incorporate an element of faith, many people do not realize how many everyday tasks require faith. Something as simple as sitting in a chair requires faith that one will not fall. While we do base this off experience, I believe that a big reason I believe in miracles is due to the ways that I have experienced God’s power in my life. Even for a philosopher or deep thinker, it is clear how widespread the Bible is, the number of generations that is has been passed down from, as well as the pervasive impact that it has had on people all over the world. That fact alone should give the Bible and its claims more weight than I believe many philosophers give and should prove as some sort of experience of the power and reliability of the Bible and its claims. Reading this chapter has really shown me how much of my worldview is based solely on faith through experience. Faith is most definitely not a bad thing, but it is equally as important to have the ability to back up our faith with history as well as logic. While I do not believe that history and logic can necessarily account for everything, they give the argument much more weight and significance when presenting it to an unbeliever or generally skeptical person. After reading Strauss’ chapter on the miracles of Jesus and discovering more of the historical reliability, I find myself being more confident than ever before about the miracles of Jesus.

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  9. This post brought to mind the reading from Simply Jesus for this week. In the section on battling with Satan, Wright summarizes a point that C.S. Lewis makes in the book Screwtape letters on supernatural issues. He says “the modern world divides into those who are obsessed with demonic powers and those who mock them as outdated rubbish” (Wright 121). As Scott and Naomi have alluded to, some cultures approach supernatural events from a completely different angle than other cultures. I would agree with Naomi in her statement that the prevalence of supernatural activity in the African context probably has something to do with the widespread fear of such events. Spending some time there myself I would definitely say that this culture is ‘obsessed’ with the supernatural. Witchcraft and superstition play a huge role in many African cultures. On the complete other end of the spectrum we have the western worldview of supernatural activity. Our modernist culture adamantly denies the existence of any miraculous or supernatural events in the name of science and reason. Both of these cultural views are problematic. Obsessing of demonic powers (for this example) to the point of being crippled with fear only gives the enemy more power. On the other hand, denying their existence all together creates a collective ignorance of the enemies power and also compromises our ability to believe in the supernatural miracles recorded in the Bible.

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  10. It is interesting to me to see the differences in cultures and who they perceive the supernatural and spiritual world. Many people do not believe in these types of things, in America, because there is so much “knowledge” and science that can ‘explain things away’ just enough to convince people that it is not real…or that the person was just crazy or something. But to me, and I guess this is just my biblical worldview coming through, when crazy things happen that cannot be explained or have to be described with some crazy theory, the only answer that I can see is that it had to be of God, or in other instances, Satan. I think many of us, me included, have allowed our culture to affect us so much in this way that we have become so insensitive to the spiritual side of things. Plus, for me, it is hard to question it if it is in the Bible; and miracles, healings, demons and other things are very real in the Scriptures. Strauss makes a good point when he says, “For Jesus, miracles are not showy demonstrations of power or even proof of His identity. They are rather manifestations of the in-breaking power of the kingdom of God, a foretaste and preview of the restoration of creation promised by God through the prophets of old, now coming to fulfillment through Jesus the Messiah” (466). And like Scott Spooner mentioned, the knowledge of the spiritual realm also gives way for the belief in the opposite, which is miracles. And going along with what Strauss said, if we find ourselves sensitive to the spiritual side of things that is happening all around us, we can more easily see that it points to the restoration that God is one day going to bring.

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  11. I don’t think I agree with the claim that anyone dismissing Jesus’ miracles is imposing their modern worldview. You can easily believe whatever you want. Just because a disbelief if miracles is part of what most modernists believe, does not mean that everyone believes that. Not to mention, that you could fully believe that miracles to exist and just believe that Jesus is a fraud and that his miracles were all made up. It rather easy to do so actually. I would say that a lot of modern day people believe that Jesus was just a good guy that did good things, but also believe that they have a “guardian angel” looking over them and protecting them. This guardian angel also provides miracles, or things that can’t be explained.

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  12. “The fact is, Jesus does not fit the categories of modern theological talk very well and it is a serious mistake to make him out to be exactly what we expected him to be.

    In fact, I think I would call that idolatry.”

    I found the connection you make to idolatry to be interesting. It is almost an unexpected way of seeing it as idolatry, but I think you are right. Making Jesus to be what we want him to be as opposed to what he is, is idolatry. If we dismiss Jesus’ miracles and place him into our nice and neat modern worldview is to make him into someone he never intended to be. It is an idol of Jesus that fits perfectly into our worldview. The modern worldview Jesus is much different than the Biblical Jesus.

    Just as many others have pointed out, the modern worldview is very much lacking a perspective on almost all things spiritual. It denies things ranging from demons to miracles. Just as many have said, it relies on science and rationality to explain the world. If it does not fit into science and rationality, then it does not exist. To truly understand Jesus, and the Bible altogether for that matter, we need to get away from this modern worldview and understand the world in which it happened. Denying your worldview has proven to be difficult to do as evidenced by the many people and scholars alike that dismiss Jesus’ miracles as science or non-existent. It takes humility to realize that our worldview is not the best and does not define the world. Putting Jesus into the understandings of the modern worldview causes all kinds of problems because as PLong said, “…Jesus does not fit the categories of modern theological talk very well…”

    This is all to say that the miracles of Jesus are not a problem of science or rationality. The issue we face today is worldview and faith. Trying to make Jesus fit into another worldview by altering his actions is “a serious mistake” but even more it is idolatry.

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