The Miracle of Jesus

The Miracle of Jesus November 22, 2018

I enjoyed talking with students in my historical Jesus class about miracles. I think there is a lot that distracts from having meaningful engagement on the subject – ideas about “natural laws” and what rational people can or cannot believe. More often than not, even the very effort to define what is meant by a miracle helps to bring about more substantive and deeper conversation. Does it require divine action? Does it have to be unusual? Does it have to involve matter behaving in ways that it would not have if it were simply following along the course of natural processes and physical forces? Does it have to be beneficial to humans? Does it have to be rare? Does it have to be several of the above in order to count?

The fact that the student who presented that day didn’t only discuss David Hume and Mike Licona, but also showed the Friends clip in which Rosita gets healed, made it a particularly great way to start the class.

Let me share some words from Christian Chiakulas that I think are particularly helpful and thought-provoking. They follow a discussion of what the options are when it comes to miracles, and so I recommend reading the whole post. But for those who’ve already considered what the options are, feel free to read on:

Is this truly the foundation of our faith? That once upon a time, (literally) incredible things happened?

I see your water-into-wine and raise you a story. A man was born into one of the most violent and unjust periods in human history. He was born into a world where slavery and oppression were omnipresent, where violence was the primary means of conflict resolution, where most people lived lives of utter misery.

This man fought the systems of oppression, injustice, and violence with a quixotic and short-lived ministry based on a radical set of principles: equality for all, including women; an equitable distribution of God’s earth; an alternative to violence. This mission would end predictably: with the brutal suppression of the movement by means of the public and macabre execution of its founder.

But somehow, against all logic, the movement endured. Spurred by the memory of the man they followed, Jesus’s supporters continued to fight for his vision throughout the Roman empire. The vision persists even today, buried under layers of doctrine and dogma, for anyone with ears to hear or eyes to see. Two thousand years later, the mission of Jesus is still being fought for around the world.

Paul wrote “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.” It is time for us all to do as Paul did and put away the childish belief in magical miracles for the much more powerful and enduring miracle of Jesus Christ.

No fairy tales man’s imagination can create will ever come close to the very real miracle that a man born into the most inhumane of worlds presented to us a vision of humanity at its very peak.

I’ve spoken with plenty of atheists who think there could be ghosts or ESP, among other things. What’s your view, and why do you hold it? In my experience, the view that someone holds about miracles (in whatever sense) is ultimately about philosophy and worldview, influenced in turn by experience and the evidence presented by it.

But whatever your view of “miracles” and the “supernatural,” I wonder whether it might not be possible to agree (as Jesus himself seems to have emphasized on occasion) that focusing on signs and wonders actually distracts from the most significant aspects of what was going on in his life and his interactions with other people.

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  • Nick G

    The quote from Christian Chiakulas implies that Jesus invented his ideas out of whole cloth, in a cultural context which was wholly inimical to them. But of course this is not true, as you must be well aware. We know similar ideas were present among other Jewish groups, among Greek thinkers, such as some of the Cynics, and further afield among Buddhists, Jains and Zoroastrians, all of whom lived in or near the Hellenistic culture-area (perhaps multiculture-area would be more accurate) into which Jesus was born, and in which early Christianity spread (for several centuries, it was far more prevalent in the Greek-speaking part of the Empire than the Latin-speaking west). Universalist and syncretic doctrines, such as those of early Christianity, are surely most likely to arise and take hold in religiously pluralist contexts where multiple cultures interact.

    the most significant aspects of what was going on in his life and his interactions with other people

    As you know, I’m no mythicist, but really, we have very little secure knowledge of Jesus’s life and interactions with other people – only the heavily mythologised accounts of the New Testament, which put considerable emphasis on miracles.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      And what’s to say that the so-called “mythologization” & miracles aren’t somehow true?

      • Nick G

        What does “somehow true” mean? And do you say the same about miracles in the sacred texts of religions such as Islam and Hinduism?

  • John MacDonald

    James wrote:

    But whatever your view of “miracles” and the “supernatural,” I wonder whether it might not be possible to agree (as Jesus himself seems to have emphasized on occasion) that focusing on signs and wonders actually distracts from the most significant aspects of what was going on in his life and his interactions with other people.

    Price has an interesting comment about this. He writes:

    Gospel of John: Water into Wine (2:1-11)

    Though the central feature of this miracle story, the transformation of one liquid into another, no doubt comes from the lore of Dionysus, the basic outline of the story owes much to the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:8-24 LXX (Helms, p. 86). The widow of Zarephath, whose son has just died, upbraids the prophet: “What have I to do with you, O man of God?” (Ti emoi kai soi, 17:18). John has transferred this brusque address to the mouth of Jesus, rebuking his mother (2:4, Ti emoi kai soi, gunai). Jesus and Elijah both tell people in need of provisions to take empty pitchers (udria in 1 Kings 17:12, udriai in John 2:6-7), from which sustenance miraculously emerges. And just as this feat causes the woman to declare her faith in Elijah (“I know that you are a man of God,” v. 24), so does Jesus’ wine miracle cause his disciples to put their faith in him (v. 11).

    My view is that miracle stories are often innocent enough legendary material, but are also often an initial step leading toward deeper understanding. For instance, sometimes in Shamanism the neophyte is taken in with ‘magic’ to attract their attention and then is taken to the Truth, and the understanding that what they initially through was magic was simply deception, and the recognition of how early they were deceived.

    We also see with Joseph Smith the noble lie about finding Golden Plates from heaven and the corroboration of “witnesses” to lend authority to his teaching.

    Similarly, Regarding Numa Pompilius, Livy wrote

    “And fearing lest relief from anxiety on the score of foreign perils might lead men who had hitherto been held back by fear of their enemies and by military discipline into extravagance and idleness, he (Numa) thought the very first thing to do, as being the most efficacious with a populace which was ignorant and, in those early days, uncivilized, was to imbue them with the fear of Heaven. As he could not instil this into their hearts without inventing some marvellous story, he PRETENDED to have nocturnal meetings with the goddess Egeria, and that hers was the advice which guided him in the establishment of rites most approved by the gods, and in the appointment of special priests for the service of each.” (Livy 1 19).

    Plutarch also suggests that Numa played on superstition to give himself an aura of awe and divine allure, in order to cultivate more gentle behaviours among the warlike early Romans, such as honoring the gods, abiding by law, behaving humanely to enemies, and living proper, respectable lives. (The reference to Plutarch is Plutarch, “The parallel lives, Numa Pompilius, §VIII”)

    • The Mouse Avenger

      But what if you legitimately, truly believe that magic, miracles, & other supernatural phenomena are real (in this universe)? What does all that mean for you?

      • John MacDonald

        I think that most of what people consider as miracle and magic are just coincidences. For instance, consider the “evidence” for the resurrection: If you were walking by a graveyard one day and saw an empty, open casket on top of a newly empty grave, you wouldn’t conclude the corpse had been resurrected. I would certainly go a long way to being persuaded there a miracles if I saw, in person, a known amputee regrow a limb.

  • You wrote, “In my experience, the view that someone holds about miracles…is ultimately about philosophy and worldview, influenced in turn by experience and the evidence presented by it.”

    That hasn’t been my own limited experience. During most of over 50 years, I defended belief in miracles because I thought that to be a Christian one must believe in miracles.

    However, in all of those 50 years, every single claimed miracle turned out to be untrue. Keep in mind that as a dedicated Christian, I wanted there to be miracles, BUT when I read the serious research of scholars and did my own informal research, I found that all of the miracles that I read about, heard about, etc. were found to be unsubstantiated, to be hearsay or placebo or confirmation bias rhetorical exaggeration, or falsehood, even fraud.

    Examples:
    1. The famous miracles at the start of the Vineyard Movement. Eventually one of the key leaders, Tom Stipe, contradicted his former statements and claimed the alleged miracles had never happened. Etc.

    2. Many leading figures of the Jesus Movement and Calvary Chapel, allegedly miraculously saved, later rejected their earlier testimonies by word and deed.

    3. Famous Evangelical leader Josh McDowell, in a famous speech to us at youth meeting, claimed that a mountain had been moved miraculously like Jesus claimed could happen for those with enough faith!
    How utterly disappointed we were at the end of his talk–and feeling we had been conned–when he stated that what had happened is that a leader had been moved to hire bulldozers to remove the mountain!
    That rhetorical deception still grates on my sense that all humans, but especially leaders, should be meticulously honest.

    4. According to Christian reports in the news, some individuals in the Philippines and in Africa had been resurrected from the dead!
    Wow! BUT later the reports were shown to be untrue.

    5. A famous Christian writer for Charisma Magazine stated he had been healed from cancer. But a few months later he died from cancer. Even his remission turned out to be a case of medical technology, not a miracle.

    6. A famous church in Canada claimed that miracles had happened in their services. Even a noted anthropologist wrote a book arguing that such miracles were occurring.
    Later, it was shown that in some cases at least, the leaders had used outright deception, lying, and illusion to fake the miracles!!

    That’s just a few of the ones. There are probably many thousands of cases of false claims every year.

    Finally, despite my strong desire to hope there are miracles, I had to face the fact that as far as evidence goes, there are no miraculous events in life.

    • John MacDonald

      Daniel said

      Finally, despite my strong desire to hope there are miracles, I had to face the fact that as far as evidence goes, there are no miraculous events in life.

      Attempting to provide a defense of the miracle of the resurrection amounts to little more than wanting a solid foundation for one’s superstitions. The resurrection is logically possible, but there is no actual evidence in favor of it that would justify invoking the existence of the supernatural.

      • The Mouse Avenger

        Personally, I would disagree with those last two points (except for the part about the resurrection being logically possible).

    • This doesn’t sound as though you disagree with me. You hold a worldview based on your own experience and evidence.

      • John MacDonald

        Carrier explains the claims of the miracle of the resurrection are probably just mystical inner visions/hallucinations, although it could have been a hoax. Carrier comments that:

        It’s one thing to ask how likely it is the resurrection appearance claims were a hoax. It’s altogether another to ask how likely it is they were like every other divine appearance experience in the whole history of all religions since the dawn of time: a mystical inner vision. Just as Paul tells us. Our only eyewitness source. Of course, a case can be made for the apostles dying even for a hoax: all they needed was to believe that the teachings attached to their fabricated claim would make the world a better place, and that making the world a better place was worth dying for.

        If you were secular, what would you conclude about the historicity and explanation of the resurrection?

      • Hmm…James, it appears that I misunderstood your point. Sorry. I will re-read and think about it.
        My first comment was based upon:
        I thought you were saying that if one has a non-miraculous worldview, then the individual will reject miracles, while if one has a miraculous worldview, then one will accept miracles. I did have a miraculous worldview for many years, BUT the countless factual evidence against it became overwhelming, so that (to misquote C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite writers), I was dragged kicking and yelling out of the Christian worldview…
        For many years I was a liberal Christian, first a very liberal Baptist, then a liberal Anabaptist and Quaker.
        It seems that my worldview was similar to yours.

        Why do so many millions of intellectually smart Christians–including everyone in my extended family, a number much smarter than me– continue to hold a miraculous worldview despite the overwhelming evidence against the existence of actual miracles?

        I am baffled by that.

        And consider some of the brilliant Christian thinkers such as the blogger, Randall Rouser. He has a degree from Oxford, as I recall, and knows far more than I do, yet he still sincerely thinks that actual miracles take place. It seems that individuals such as him reinterpret any evidence against miracles so that the evidence is discounted. For instance, despite overwhelming evidence that the Bible isn’t inerrant, Randall, claims that it is!

        • In view of how some (Ken Ham springs immediately to mind) say that everyone is looking at the same evidence and just interpreting it differently because of their assumptions and worldview, I suppose I can see how my mention of worldviews making a difference could have been understood in the way you took it. But I did explicitly mention evidence. My point was rather that the experience of a disenchanted world changes things for most who inhabit it. And in my Pentecostal days, I very much inhabited a world that I perceived to be full of spiritual forces waging a war for the souls of human beings. I no longer hold that view. I think that there is always an interplay between assumptions and sensory inputs, and not everyone allows their worldview’s core tenets to be challenged (while others give up on cherished beliefs when they shouldn’t, in at least some instances). And so maybe my language was ambiguous because the situation is itself a bit muddy.

          • James, no, it was my fault. I re-read and see that I misread your point because of my own struggles from my own loss of my faith, that still deeply troubles me. I had jumped in to say that I very much wanted my miraculous worldview to be true, even had some personal experiences which, if I weren’t so factually-minded, I could have believed were miraculous…

            I see now that your last point–“evidence”–was central to what you were saying.

            Thanks for your many articles, especially the relationship between religion and science fiction.

          • I can relate very much to where you are coming from. I do also wonder whether, in light of what you wrote, your faith was belief in a particular supernatural worldview, rather than trust in and/or seeking after God as ultimate reality. To put it another way, I’m curious why losing a belief in the supernatural should mean a loss of faith, as opposed to a step on a journey of learning in which revising one’s views as one grows, learns, and matures is appropriate.

          • I didn’t lose hope in God in a general philosophical sense (as like the philosopher Charles Hartshorne or the mathetician Alfred Lord Whitehead). In fact, in order to keep hoping in moral realism theism, I thought I needed to abandon the Christian religion because it was promoting so much immorality and injustice and horror.

            Thanks for the dialogue.

          • The Mouse Avenger

            But what if you still hold onto a miraculous/supernatural worldview, like me? Does that mean you’re crazy, or foolish, or childish, or something like that? Do you even HAVE to be crazy or foolish or childish or whatever to believe in magic, miracles, superstitions, supernatural phenomena, & all that stuff?

          • Nick G

            Welll since you insist on asking the question, yes.

          • The Mouse Avenger

            Thank you for that. 🙂

        • The Mouse Avenger

          Why do so many millions of intellectually smart Christians–including everyone in my extended family, a number much smarter than me– continue to hold a miraculous worldview despite the overwhelming evidence against the existence of actual miracles?

          “Overwhelming evidence against actual miracles”? I’m afraid I cannot agree with you on that, good sir–& not just because I happen to have a miraculous worldview myself. In fact, I can show you plenty of evidence showing or stating otherwise. 🙂 Would you like me to provide you some examples?

          • Nick G

            I very much doubt they would be either new, or rationally convincing. In the past, such promises have never been backed up by anything solid.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      Finally, despite my strong desire to hope there are miracles, I had to face the fact that as far as evidence goes, there are no miraculous events in life.

      Well, I can assure you that that assumption is just plain wrong, & I can give you whole Google searches of reasons why. 🙂 There are more things in Heaven & Earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. And, besides, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!

      Besides, from what sources did you hear that these miracles were allegedly faked? And what about the miracles regarded in the canonization of Catholic saints–do you think those were fake, as well?

      • Nick G

        Either faked or misinterpreted. Most of them involve supposedly miraculous cures. Get back to me when you have good evidence of an amputated arm or leg growing back.

  • I’ve spoken with plenty of atheists who think there could be ghosts or ESP, among other things.

    I cannot rule it out. However, there have been plenty of claims that have been tested, and the tests never come up with clear conclusions.

    If there are ghosts, they are hiding themselves so thoroughly that we might just as well assume that they don’t exist.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      Now, that’s a very interesting–& open-minded–way of thinking about it. 😉

  • Tom

    As a child, I thought as a child and the miracles were wildly fascinating, but as time went on I grew more interested in the rest of Jesus as well as the Bible. I grew to believe that the miracles were the “light show”, intended to grab one’s attention and convince one that the message was worth listening to. Then I discovered the miracle of metaphor and the miracles became part of the story again.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      As a child, I thought as a child and the miracles were wildly fascinating, but as time went on I grew more interested in the rest of Jesus as well as the Bible. I grew to believe that the miracles were the “light show”, intended to grab one’s attention and convince one that the message was worth listening to.

      Fascinating, indeed! ^_^ I never quite thought of them like that before…

  • The Mouse Avenger

    Well, as someone who is not only open-minded towards miracles & magic & supernatural phenomena in general, I’m not quite sure how I should respond or react to all of this. 😕 I mean, what does this all mean for metaphysically-minded folks like myself?