Is it rational to believe in miracles?
Although miracles are extraordinary, there are good reasons to take the miracles of Jesus seriously and consider what they might tell us about his identity and mission.
The miracles of Jesus
Craig Keener discusses whether miracles can be taken seriously, and what purpose the miracle stories have in the gospels.
SIMON SMART: I’m speaking with Professor Craig Keener, an author and New Testament scholar. Craig, I wanted to ask you about miracles. Don’t the miracle aspects of the Jesus story bring the whole thing into question?
CRAIG KEENER: That’s what people a lot of times used to argue. The majority of scholars today actually acknowledge that Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. Now, they may not believe that people were actually supernaturally healed, but they believe that people experienced Jesus in that way.
SIMON SMART: That people believed that he was a healer, is that right?
CRAIG KEENER: Right, that’s how people approached him, and some of the people must have gotten better obviously or they wouldn’t have continued approaching him that way. And Josephus, even, in the very little clip that he has about Jesus, Geza Vermes a Jewish scholar at Oxford points out that Josephus is best interpreted as not only speaking of Jesus as a teacher, but a worker of paradoxa, of miracles. And again, it’s in every stratum of gospel tradition, every stratum of early Christian tradition, it was acknowledged by Jesus’ opponents – it’s not something that’s very easy to doubt by historical means. Now the question is, what do those things mean? Historically, people have said, “Well, we don’t believe these things happened, because we just know from modern experience that these things don’t happen.” David Hume formulated that argument, but it’s actually kind of a circular argument, even when David Hume formulated it, because what Hume said was, “We can discount witnesses if they claim to have seen miracles, because we know from uniform human experience that true eyewitnesses would not claim the experience of miracles.” In his own essay on miracles, he actually dismissed some pretty good evidence that already existed in his day. Pascal’s niece was healed, at a Jansenist monastery, from a running sore in her eye. It was clearly organic, people could smell the sore, and the results were so dramatic and so instantaneous that the Queen Mother of France sent her own physician to investigate and he came back with a report that this was a miracle. Hume acknowledged all this, and then simply dismissed it by saying it’s against uniform human experience to believe in miracles.
Now, after Hume, this was developed into a principle that has often been used by New Testament scholars – the principle of analogy, saying that we know from analogy, from modern times that miracles don’t happen, therefore they couldn’t have happened back then. The problem with that argument today is many scholars are arguing that the argument from analogy is better stood on its head, because today we have multiple eyewitness claims that miracles took place. Now you can explain them however you want to, but you can’t deny that eyewitnesses claim to have seen miracles. And this is not a few eyewitnesses. According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey of just 10 countries, somewhere around 300 or 400 million people claimed to have witnessed or experienced divine healing. Now that’s a lot of people. However we explain those things, we can’t deny that credible eyewitnesses claim these things, something that Hume said should not have happened.
SIMON SMART: Hume’s idea comes from a worldview, doesn’t it, that’s already ruled out the possibility of miracles. If you believe in the possibility of a god, then I guess these thoughts of miracles are actually kind of small things, really, easily achieved. Nonetheless, we’re right to critique these claims, both the modern claims and the more ancient ones, aren’t we?
CRAIG KEENER: That’s true, because not every claim is an accurate claim. One thing you have to look at is how reliable the witnesses are. And another thing you have to look at is, well, if you’re asking whether it’s a miracle or not, because that’s a separate question from whether people experienced these things or not, if you’re asking whether it’s a miracle or not you need to look at whether this is something that could just naturally happen on its own.
SIMON SMART: What purpose do the miracle stories play in the gospels?
CRAIG KEENER: The most important is the Christological purpose, emphasising the greatness of Jesus. Another purpose of the miracles I think is to encourage people to have faith in the God who did these miracles – both when we approach him for our own needs and, whether or not God does a miracle for us, we can approach him with faith because He’s the God who can, and who cares, He’s not some distant God who doesn’t act in history. And I think that also the miracle stories sometimes teach us about things, for instance the word ‘save’ that appears in the gospels, the world that’s translated ‘save’ most often, it can mean physical restoration, but of course it can also mean spiritual restoration. And I think the gospel writers are also teaching us that the Lord who has the power to restore people physically is also the Lord who has the power to bind up the brokenhearted and to transform people and make them new.close
Darrell Bock discusses the purpose of Jesus’ miracles and why people find them hard to believe.
SIMON SMART: I’m speaking with Darrell Bock, Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. Darrell, I want to ask you about miracles. Why is it hard for modern people to accept the miracles of the Jesus story?
DARRELL BOCK: Well, I think it’s because, particularly in the West, there’s a difficulty with the idea of things that you can’t see and explain, we like to be able to experiment, test, repeat, see. We’re very materially oriented. And so I think there’s come into our tradition a hesitation to know how to explain things that we can’t actually see and measure. And that would be the basic reason. I think it’s important to remember though that even in our world today, there are huge swaths of the world that have no trouble with miracles at all. Craig Keener has just written a major two-volume work on miracles, and it’s worth looking at because in the first part he deals with miracles in the ancient world but the rest of it deals with documenting the kinds of miraculous claims that exist around the world particularly in situations where there doesn’t seem to be another explanation for what took place. And what he’s showing, the point that he’s trying to make is that there are huge swaths of our world even today that are open to the idea of miracles.
SIMON SMART: It comes down to worldview doesn’t it – if you believe in a closed universe, any of these stories are going to be hard to take.
DARRELL BOCK: If you believe in a closed universe, that the universe kind of operates on its own natural tick and there is no outside Creator or element or personality that’s involved in it, then everything that you read in the Bible where it says God does something – and that happens to be a lot of the pages – you’re going to have another explanation for what’s going on. And so the idea that people would say that there’s myth associated with the Bible isn’t surprising if they’re closed to the idea of the possibility of God acting.
SIMON SMART: Now as you go through as an historian going through these documents, what gives you confidence in the way that a story’s been reported, in terms of Jesus’ miracles?
DARRELL BOCK: Well there are certain aspects of the historical documentation that are really fascinating. For example, Josephus, who’s a Jewish historian writing in the 90s and there’s a little debate about this but you all did a wonderful interview with Chris Forbes explaining the citation out of Josephus from Antiquities 1863 and 64 where he speaks about how Jesus was the doer of ‘wonderful works’, well that’s one way you can translate it, the Greek word is paradoxa where we get our English word ‘paradox’ from, it’s something unusual, so Jesus was the doer of unusual works. This actually fits other texts in the Jewish tradition that say that Jesus was a sorcerer or a magician or he cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub. These texts run for the first to the fifth century and they’re consistent. And so what’s interesting about the idea in Judaism that Jesus did something that needs an explanation – we don’t think it’s a positive power we think it’s a negative power that did it, but the thing that’s not on the table is it didn’t happen.
SIMON SMART: Right, so something happened?
DARRELL BOCK: Something happened that you have to explain, something unusual happened that you have to explain, something unusual happened that you have to explain that even the people who opposed Jesus recognised that you had to explain.
SIMON SMART: What was the purpose of the miracles?
DARRELL BOCK: Well the miracles really are a way of trying to substantiate claims that otherwise you can’t see. The story of the paralytic is a wonderful example of this. The paralytic comes in and he’s lame and he comes before Jesus and Jesus says to him “Your sins are forgiven.” And I like to tell students when I’m telling this account, “Now you’re the paralytic, you’ve come to Jesus so that you’ll be able to walk, and what he says to you is ‘your sins are forgiven’, what are you thinking?
SIMON SMART: Thanks a lot.
DARRELL BOCK: Yeah exactly, “Gee, that isn’t why I crashed this party.” But what Jesus does is he turns around and says, “In order that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you ‘Get up and walk’”. And what’s interesting about that of course is that he’s tying something you can’t see to something unusual you can see. I mean I tell people, “Have you ever see how sins are forgiven? Like “bye sin, please stay away, for a very, very long time.” No, you can’t see forgiveness of sins, but you can see a lame person who is made able to walk, so when Jesus says “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you get up and walk”, the walk talks, and the walk says “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So the miracles are – and I’m being cute here – power points. They are points about Jesus’ power and authority to accomplish certain things, they’re audio-visuals of things that you can’t see by doing unusual things that you can see. This is why the Scripture calls them signs.
SIMON SMART: They’re also acts of compassion, too.
DARRELL BOCK: The certainly are, and they show Jesus dealing with a variety of conditions: health, in terms of sickness; death; disease; exorcisms; all kinds of things that Jesus does. He raises from the dead an only daughter, he raises from the dead an only son, all these things are acts of compassion showing God’s care for people.
SIMON SMART: Are these in a way signposts of a future redemptive act of God in the world?
DARRELL BOCK: Absolutely, in fact a picture that God can cleanse, God can make the person who can’t walk able to walk, God can make the dead alive, God can make the person who can’t see able to see, God can make the person who can’t hear able to hear, and it isn’t just the physicality of that, it’s what it pictures about spiritual truth that’s also part of the point.close
Behind the Life of Jesus: Can it be rational to believe in miracles?
John Dickson and Greg Clarke discuss why people are so sceptical about miracles.
JOHN DICKSON: Greg, we’re here in Capernaum, the site of many of Jesus reported so-called “miracles”. Now historians, interestingly, all agree that Jesus enjoyed a reputation as a healer – I mean the historical evidence for that is overwhelming. But I know the scientists chime in at this point and say, “Hang on, it doesn’t matter how good the historical evidence is, miracles don’t happen.” Plenty of people think that, don’t they?
GREG CLARKE: Well they do, and science has done a great job of describing to us how the universe operates, but it really hasn’t contributed to the discussion of whether miracles are in fact possible. Your beliefs on the matter of God are really significant here: if you believe there is a personal God who is involved in the universe, well of course miracles are possible – the universe itself is God’s first miracle, so of course they’re possible. If you don’t believe there’s that kind of personal God, well, miracles are a much bigger ask. So your base beliefs really do play a role here in how you answer this question.
But it’s also important I think that we define miracles fairly. Many thinkers have defined miracles as violations of the laws of nature, which isn’t so much a definition as a way of ruling miracles out from the offset rather than probing whether they’re possible. I think a fairer definition is something like: miracles are unusual events that display unexpected power, often to make a kind of teaching point about God.
JOHN DICKSON: Actually, that’s how the gospels describe them, it uses the word “powers” for these things, and also the word “signs”. But I’m still curious to know why people are so darn sceptical about this stuff.
GREG CLARKE: Yeah, it goes back to the arch-sceptic, the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume. So Hume decided he was only going to believe in things that happened regularly and repeatedly, and he kind of defined miracles out of the question by doing that. He looked at the miracles of history and said no reasonable person would believe these things took place. In fact, Hume said that even if a miracle took place in front of him, if he witnessed something like a resurrection from the dead, he’d be disinclined to believe it because he’d already made up his mind that these kinds of things can’t take place.
JOHN DICKSON: That sounds so dogmatic to me.
GREG CLARKE: Oh, it is, he’s totally decided his view already, and I just think Hume was too sceptical. I mean, it’s good to be sceptical of claims about the miraculous, I mean I’m very sceptical myself about all sorts of claims people make, there are lots of bogus claims out there, but he just took it too far, because if you believe there is a God and miracles are possible, then the historical testimony that you mentioned has weight to it and needs to be considered. And I don’t expect everyone to come to the same conclusions about Jesus when they look at the testimony, but I just hope people will start from an attitude of open inquiry rather than sarcastic dismissal.close
- In pairs, discuss whether anything strange or unusual has ever happened in your life (or the life of a friend or family member) that you find hard to explain.
- In small groups, brainstorm all the things that come into your heads when you hear the word “miracle”. Then, come up with a short definition of what you think a “miracle” is.
- If you could ask God for a miracle, what would it be?
Understand & Evaluate
Watch the videos and read the article.
- In small groups, discuss the following questions about the videos and the article:
- Richard Shumack writes that instead of being an event that defies the laws of nature, “a Biblical definition of what we call a miracle would be something more like ‘amazing works of power that act as signposts to God’. This means that miracles are not acts that are impossible in our reality, but rather they are acts within our reality that only God has the power to do.” Similarly, Greg Clarke defines miracles as “unusual events that display unexpected power, often to make a kind of teaching point about God.” What do you think of these definitions?
- The videos and the article talk about how modern, Western people often have great difficulties with believing in miracles. Why do you think this is? Do you identify with this?
- What do you think about David Hume’s argument that we know that miracles just don’t happen, so we can discount witnesses who claim to have seen miracles? Are there problems with this argument?
- What is some of the historical evidence that the videos and article give for Jesus’ miracles? Is this persuasive for you? Do you think we can rely on testimony from eyewitnesses and their contemporaries to believe in Jesus’ miracles, or do they have to be personally seen to be believed?
- Richard Shumack concludes his article by saying, “It does not require anyone to suspend their critical faculties to accept that a) miracles are possible, b) if real, Jesus’ miracles point to his divinity, c) the testimonies we have to the reality of Jesus’ miracles cannot be dismissed out of hand.” What points does he make throughout the article to support these conclusions? Do you agree or disagree with him?
- Both Craig Keener and Darrell Bock talk about the purpose of Jesus’ miracles. Find one example of Jesus’ miracles in the Bible, and list the ways in which this miracle might show:
- Jesus’ greatness – his power and authority to accomplish certain things
- Jesus’ compassion
- A glimpse into what Jesus’ kingdom is all about
Some examples of Bible passages are listed here:
- Jesus calms the storm (Mark 4:35-41)
- Jesus restores a demon-possessed man (Mark 5:1-20)
- Jesus heals a sick woman and raises a dead girl (Mark 5:21-43)
- Jesus feeds the 5000 (Mark 6:30-44)
- Jesus walks on water (Mark 6:45-52)
- Jesus causes a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11)
- Jesus changes water to wine (John 2:1-11)
- Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44)
- Write a short journal entry answering the question “Can rational people believe in miracles”? Use arguments from the videos and the article, as well as offering your own opinion.