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 (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.

Twelftree traces this 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 modern skepticism has no business trying to explain the miracles of Jesus.  In the Second Temple Period, miracles happened.  In fact, people expected that the 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.  In fact, the conflict Jesus has with the Pharisees is not if he did miracles, but rather the source of his power to 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.

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.