The point of miracles

  • Question from ES, USA

    There are many events taking place in the world all the time. Some of these are held (by some) to be miracles. How do you tell which events are miracles and which are not? What about things that don’t happen? Sometimes when something doesn’t occur that some expect to occur, that is held to be a miracle. “A tornado roared through town and not a soul was injured! It’s a miracle!” If it’s difficult to tell the miraculous events from the non-miraculous events, it’s much worse for non-events.

    The problem with ‘miracles’ is that they are ultimately subjective. Even where objective studies of miraculous healing take place, the findings of said studies either confirm previously-held convictions or produce conundrums that needs to be studied further. A cynical approach to miraculous events (and non-events) would be that when something ‘good’ happens, then it’s a miracle, but when a similarly unexpected and unlikely chain of events causes something ‘bad’, then it’s an unfortunate coincidence. How involved God is in either case is a matter of personal belief, with few people wanting to ascribe ‘negative miracles’ to God.

    Those Christians who rely on miracles to verify their beliefs unintentionally subjugate their belief system to subjective experience. The oft-raised unanswerable question in ‘charismatic’ Christianity is not whether God can heal, but why God sometimes does not. This is the crisis point for many Christians in the experiential tradition – the proof of God’s existence seen when God heals miraculously is reversed as proof against God’s existence when such healing does not occur.

    Another way to assess the ‘miraculous’ is to look at the point behind it. The New Testament gospel accounts include many ‘miracle stories’. In the post-Enlightenment scientific age, many of these have been explained away or ‘demythologised’, but whether the stories are taken at face value or not, it is obvious that the gospel writers viewed the stories about the miraculous as pointing to something more.

    Jesus’ ability to heal the sick and raise the dead indicate his authority over the effects of sin in the world; his divine power over creation is similarly revealed in the ‘nature miracles’, such as the calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mark chapter 4, verses 35-41 and parallel accounts). In John’s gospel the link is made even clearer through the use of the word ‘signs’ instead of ‘miracle’ – each mighty act prefaces or links to a discussion that Jesus has with various individuals. The ‘sign’ underlines Jesus’ authority to teach the things he taught about God.

    In the contemporary world, there is an emphasis on the miraculous that encompasses the human fascination with the mysterious. The same interest was recorded by the gospel-writers as a source of frustration to Jesus, who on occasion refused to ‘perform for the crowd’ (e.g. Matthew chapter 16, verses 1-4). To ascertain whether any unforeseen event could be a miracle, the point and ultimate result of said event is worth reviewing.

    Thanks for your question, ES.

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