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Theological Publications







A Mess of Miracles


In my opinion, miracles are much more trouble than they’re worth. Often used as a line of defense on behalf of religion, they are actually just giving your enemy more targets to shoot at.

Even if a miracle actually happened, if a contemporary could have videotaped it, still, without benefit of time travel, today’s historian could never render the judgment that it “probably” happened (the best verdict the historian can ever render). The rarity of such an event (reported or actual) means there will be no historical analogies at hand with which to compare it and render it likely. What sort of mark does a freak phenomenon leave behind? How do you verify such a thing? What signs do you look for? If we read that Samson slaughtered 1, 000 men single-handedly (Judges 15:15), we cannot consider it “probably authentic” because, while there may be fictional or legendary parallels to it, there are no known historical examples. If there were, it might look different. Say, if we had other cases that showed us how it had been done or might be done.

Then there is the nagging fact that the miracles of the gospels were “done in a corner,” unlike the Technicolor wonders of Exodus and Elijah. The more spectacular gospel miracles are set in private. The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-4) was seen by only three people who were told to keep it under their turbans (Mark 9:9). No one but the twelve disciples knew about the multiplication of loaves and fish (Mark 6:35-44; 8:1-9), not the crowd. Only the twelve were on the scene when Jesus stilled the storm (Mark 4:35-41) and walked on the water (Mark 6:45-52). Only the steward at the Cana wedding feast understood what had happened, besides the disciples (John 2:1-11). The risen Jesus appeared to a grand total of two people on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-35), to disciples on lonely beaches (John 21:1-14) and behind locked doors (John 20:19-29). (The 500 brethren appear only in 1 Corinthians 15:6, a sure sign the story did not yet exist when the gospels were written.) We have to ask reasonably whether all this is clever excuse-making for why no one knew about it at the time. (The question of exorcisms and healings, performed before many crowds, is different. Such scenes are common today and were in the ancient world; no one would have denied that such things happened. They don’t prove anything today, and they didn’t then.)

Theologians tell us that the miracles function as signs to create faith, but this is a vicious circle. If we are just supposed to believe something for its own sake, why are proofs offered? Is it supposed to be faith, or not? And if miracles are deemed needful, why are they ambiguous and indefinite, in need of proof themselves? Since they become the object of their own apologetics, they become objects of faith in their own right, obstacles rendering the original object of faith secondary. Tillich calls this “idolatrous faith.” The resurrection is supposed to aid and abet faith in Jesus, but then we need evidence for the resurrection, so we must believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and not just in Jesus himself. An irony. It’s like bringing in the Shroud of Turin as proof, then having to defend it! So now it’s Jesus, the resurrection, and the shroud! The line of defense just keeps growing!

Also, the very idea of historically verifying miracles is utterly ironic because an event that can be comprehended by the criteria used to verify it cannot transcend those criteria. They will explain it adequately. If they don’t, if there is an inexplicable element left over that science cannot explain, to that extent the miracle has not after all been verified. By contrast, K.A. Kitchen, in his book Ancient Orient and Old Testament (as James Barr points out in his great book Fundamentalism), defends the historical nature of the Egyptian plagues in Exodus by showing that most of them occur naturally in the wake of the periodic flooding of the Nile. So why should the historian have any trouble accepting them? (Or, more to the point, why not accept the unity of the Exodus narrative, chapters 7-12, which contains the whole series, instead of divvying them up between J and E, each of which mentioned only a few plagues?). The Plagues have been rendered historically likely precisely to the extent that we need no longer consider them miraculous! Same with Mathew’s star: if it really turned out to be a nova or a planetary conjunction, then is Matthew right? If so, it was no miracle after all. Apologists do not see that they are playing the old game of the eighteenth-century rationalist theologians. Where did the Swoon Theory of the crucifixion come from? It is a piece of apologetics! You see, the historian can see his way to accept the Easter stories if he decides there was no silly miracle connecting one gospel scene (the cross) with the other (the appearances of Jesus). Both scenes can be accepted if we simply omit the supernatural causation! Voila! The resurrection narratives are true, even though the resurrection itself isn’t! That’s where they’re headed and they don‘t see it.

And the silliest apologetics arguments are those pointing to archaeological verification of the Bible (e.g., Sodom did exist) as if it confirmed a miracle story involving the place (fire and brimstone rained down on it--though this one is often explained on purely scientific grounds and rendered no longer miraculous, too!). If a village called Nain existed, does this mean Jesus raised a dead person there? We know Oral Roberts University exists. What we don‘t know is whether an 800 feet high Jesus appeared to Oral there.

Another common approach to defending the miracle stories of the Bible is to blur the line between the supernatural and the natural. What seemed miraculous might turn out to be then-unknown science. The biblical authors just didn’t know how to explain what was going on in terms that would satisfy modern science. Suppose we knew that Jesus was virginally conceived by means of advanced science. What are we saying? If it wasn’t supernaturalism, was it space aliens? If Jesus did things that seemed miraculous to his contemporaries but it was actually scientific, how’d he know how to do it? Was he a time-traveler from the future? Like Dr. McCoy in the barbaric 20th-century hospital in Star Trek IV?

Philosopher D.Z. Phillips has pointed out something else relevant to this point. He asks just how mind-blowing a dining hall would have to be for a Viking to conclude it was Valhalla. Old Thorlief, knocked out (or killed?) on the battlefield, awakens surrounded by tall, buxom redheads treating his wounds. They head him into a banqueting hall, lined with shields and filled with warriors quaffing jacks of mead, munching joints of beef. Where should he conclude he is? Valhalla? It’s pretty impressive all right, but can it live up to his lifelong fantasies of the posthumous Hall of Heroes? No matter what he saw, couldn’t it always be imagined as just a bit snazzier?

I think, too, of an old Penthouse cartoon: two guys are sitting on a splitting Naugahide couch in a shabby room with cracked plaster and a single naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. They are wearing starchy sheets with wire haloes over their heads. On the wall, a tilted plaque reads “Heaven.” One guy says to the other, “Somehow I always thought it would be classier than this.” Suppose, as he once tried to do, Pat Robertson managed to videotape the descent of Christ to the Mount of Olives and televised it. Wouldn’t even the most pious believer have to wonder whether he were the victim of an elaborate joke? “Wait a minute... how can I be sure that’s really the Second Coming?” What would it take?

Phillips says all this implies people are not really believing in literal realities even when they imagine that they are! What would it take to measure up to what they secretly imagine? Anything at all? Nothing could match it because really there is no literal referent! Ask a fundamentalist, what does he think it looked like for Jesus to multiply the loaves? Did they stretch like sponges? Ask him if the divine Christ, treading the dusty roads of Palestine, remembered the good old days when he created the planet Pluto.

Ask him what he expects to happen and not to happen to him because a miracle-working God is watching over him. What concrete difference does it make? Does he expect the angelic cavalry to march over the hill to get him out of a tight spot? Has it even happened? Why not? Doesn’t his pious rhetoric suggest it? Or is he just a Stoic, willing to take whatever Fate happens to dish out to him? He doesn’t really believe alleged miracles of the past provide any guide for what he may expect in his own experience. What does he really have in mind, besides a worn-out slogan?

In the end, I think people’s “beliefs” are not really assertions and affirmations about supposed events. I suspect they are slogans, and that if you repeat the right ones, you’re in the group, in with the in-crowd. The whole thing’s more a matter of social psychology than of metaphysical belief. I guess I’m no longer in the club. If I were, believe me, it’d be a miracle.

 By Robert M. Price



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