It’s a Miracle! – Apologetics 101 – no.9

This is the latest in the series on Apologetics 101 – You can get the original by clicking HERE – It was published at the weekend.

Understanding miracles: Does God break the laws of nature?

Do miracles contradict science?

The scientist was adamant. “I don’t believe in God, because I have never met anyone healed in answer to prayer”. I was shocked. Not just because it seemed such a strange reason, but also because it was my first public speaking event, after being healed in answer to prayer. I ripped up my prepared speech shook his hand and said “You have now!” before going on to tell my story.

I guess many people would say they would believe if they saw a real miracle. But is it that simple?

Firstly we need to define our terms. What is a miracle? The word can be used very lightly. It’s a miracle that you got out of bed today…it’s a miracle that your football team won (especially if they are Scottish). But that is not what we mean when we talk about a biblical miracle. CS Lewis, whose book Miracles is our apologetic book of the week, explains: “I use the word miracle to mean an interference with nature by a supernatural power.”

Could miracles actually happen?

The 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal declared: “It is not possible to have reasonable grounds for not believing in miracles.” The trouble is the pre-suppositions that one brings to the argument. If you pre-suppose there is no supernatural being then by definition there cannot be miracles. If, on the other hand, you accept the possibility of an almighty God, then miracles are not a problem. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it: “God, in his ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.”

At this point the argument could be over. The atheist who says there is no evidence for God, but cannot accept the evidence of miracles because there is no God to perform those miracles, needs a miracle to break out of this circular thinking. The religious person who just accepts that God works miracles finds themselves in the same circular argument and never the twain shall meet.

Is there a way out of this impasse? Yes.

GK Chesterton at work.

Lewis argues that before you look at the historical evidence for miracles you have to determine philosophically whether they are possible at all. He accuses modern historians and Bible critics of having a cultural bias that precludes them from even allowing for the possibility. InOrthodoxy, GK Chesterton put it beautifully: “The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.”

So step one is accepting that miracles are possible. The question then becomes one of evidence.

Did Jesus do miracles?

The evidence for the miracles of Jesus is very strong.

First, we have the historical testimony of the Gospels themselves and the testimony of the early Church. There were many witnesses of these miracles, whether it was the feeding of the 5,000, the 500 who at one time saw the resurrected Christ, or the hundreds who were at the greatest funeral ever, that of Lazarus.

The man who is known as the first of the Christian apologists, Quadratus, addressed the Emperor Hadrian in the year 124 AD with these astonishing words: “Our Saviour’s works, moreover, were always present: for they were real, consisting of those who had been healed of their diseases, those who had been raised from the dead; who were not only seen while they were being healed and raised up, but were afterwards constantly present. Nor did they remain only during the sojourn of the Saviour on earth but also a considerable time after His departure; and indeed some of them have survived even down to our own times.”

The early Church Fathers were much clearer on this than some church leaders in the 20th century, who, following the fashion of the age, decided that everything could and should be explained in naturalistic terms. Thus Jesus feeding the 5,000 was really Jesus using a small boy to encourage everyone to share their hidden picnic lunches, Lazarus being raised from the dead was really him waking up from a deep coma, and Jesus walking on the water was actually him walking on a sandbank. But a Jesus who did not perform miracles, but only pretended that he did, would not be worth following.

We have then a logical possibility that an almighty God could perform miracles and historical testimony claiming many witnesses that this did happen. However, the biblical case for miracles goes beyond philosophy and history. It also has the ring of truth in terms of its purpose.

Why did Jesus do miracles?

“You are probably quite right in thinking you will never see a miracle done: you are probably equally right in thinking that there was a natural explanation of anything in your past life which seemed, at the first glance, to be ‘rum’ or ‘odd’. God does not shake miracles into nature at random as if from a pepper pot. They come on great occasions; they are found at the great junctions of history – not of political or social history, but of that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by man” (CS Lewis, Miracles).

Contrary to many people’s impressions, miracles are not commonplace in the Bible. They are clustered around Moses, Elijah and Elisha and Jesus. Miracles were signs to authenticate the messenger and usher in a new period of God’s revelation of himself.

Miracles were signs to authenticate the messenger and usher in a new period of Gods revelation of himself”  The miraculous deeds of Jesus show us his identity, his kingdom and his character. His identity, because as Peter told the Jews at Pentecost: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22).

His kingdom, because the signs of the Kingdom were done through him. When John the Baptist asked if he was the one who was to come, Jesus replied: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:5). And his character because they demonstrate his love – they were done for the good of people. At the feeding of the 5,000, “Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.'”

I think it is important that most of the things Jesus did were not miracles. He did many ordinary and extraordinary things as well as miracles. The miracle of the incarnation and the virgin birth is seen more clearly in the fact that Jesus sawed wood, walked through villages and wept at funerals, than it is in the miraculous signs. The miracles were a sign of who He was. They were also a message that tells us about God. Not least that God is love. The greatest miracles of all is surely that Jesus came from the glory of heaven, emptied himself, became a servant, became ‘nothing’ and lived among us. I rejoice that Jesus showed his power as the Lord of creation by stilling the waves and calming the storm, I rejoice even more that He as the Creator became part of the creation, so that He could deal with the raging storm within, rescue us and restore fallen human beings to be the children of God.

Does he still do miracles?

The question now is, were miracles only for the Gospels? I take my clue from the historian, Luke, who in part two of his account of Christ (what we now know as the Acts of the Apostles) writes: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). Note the word ‘began’. Jesus began his work and then when he was taken up to heaven, he continues his work through his Spirit working in and through his Church.

Now we need to be careful here. Not everything that claims to be a miracle done in the name of Jesus is. Right now you could switch on cable TV and find numerous Christian channels promising you a miracle. There is always some televangelist announcing that someone has grown his or her leg or been healed of a growth. Very few announce that they have had an amputated arm replaced or a dead person raised. Although there have even been exceptions to that – like Todd Bentley, who in the midst of his revival crusades announced that several people had been raised from the dead but that he was unable to provide verification because of ‘patient confidentiality’! I am not arguing for that degree of gullibility. But yes, I do believe that God still answers prayer and yes, sometimes these can be at the level of biblical miracles.

If you are like many people you will sometimes be tempted to think that if only God showed you a miracle then you would believe. I don’t think so. Jesus told the story of a rich man who lived in luxury every day and ignored a beggar named Lazarus. He died and in hell he pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus (who was standing beside Abraham in heaven) to go and warn his brothers, to which Abraham responded: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” The rich man thought that sending Lazarus would be better because he reckoned that if someone from the dead went to them they would repent. And yet Abraham’s reply was sobering: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). The bottom line is if you don’t believe what God says in His Word it is unlikely you will believe even if you see a miracle. As Pascal also said: “Miracles do not serve to convert, but to condemn.”

There is however one miracle which does serve to convert; the greatest miracle of all. Next week we will consider the miracle of the greatest day in history, the day when history was split in two – the day of the resurrection of Jesus. It’s the centre, heart and ultimate proof of the Christian faith. Christ IS alive!

David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee. Find out more on his blog and follow him on Twitter @theweeflea.

For more from his apologetics series, click here.


12 thoughts on “It’s a Miracle! – Apologetics 101 – no.9

  1. I like the way you put it David of ripping up your speach. I like the way you have argued apologetically in favour of miracles.

    Whether one is skilled as you are in apologetices, one always has one’s testimony and I wonder if more could be made of that to compliment the “apologetic”.

    What is a miracle? I like what you said about getting to the existence of God. In my 20’s I was going through a difficult situation. Finding no comfort in the midst of it I prayed and experienced a power while praying. This gave me strength to continue in the difficulty I was facing. 5 years later I was experiencing another difficult situation. I prayed and the most powerful experience I have ever had happened to me – it was like electricity, lightning going through my body. My boss at the time commented that he had seen a 100% improvement in my work the next day.

    When I took up motorcycling I hear this voice telling me not to go on a motorcycle run. I ignored it and went anyway. I ended up having a crash and the strangest thign happened when I realised I was going to crash – my body relaxed! I ended up doing a somersault into a field with a soft landing and all I got was a rather impressive bruise on my bottom!

    A couple of years later I was walking through Glasgow green having everythign I wanted humanly speaking but always wanting more, frustrated. Like Mick Jagger I could “get not satisfaction”. I quesiotned why. A voice spoke to me – the work it gave me was “change” and a memory of previous events came back.

    I couldn’t ignor this. I spent a number of months reflecting on this, talking with people, weighing up the cost of “change” and then decided to folow Christ. Instead of that frustration, I have peace – and people have noticed! Now – miracles ordelusions, God being at work or coincidences – you be the judge.

    What I know for sure is I am content and grateful :).

  2. Not every atheist/agnostic is unwilling to consider the evidence for miracles. There are atheists and agnostics who are open-minded. Dr Alexis Carrel was an agnostic scientist. He went to Lourdes to witness what he considered to be nothing more than hysteria. But while there he witnessed the miraculous cure of Marie Bailly. As a result of witnessing that miracle he became a Christian. Read the full story here:
    https://churchpop.com/2015/12/25/agnostic-scientist-converted-miracle-lourdes/

  3. There is a seeming paradox. On the one hand there is suficient evidence to bring about belief, but on the other, insufficient evidence to warrant doubt. “I believe help my unbelief.” The resurrection is an example, as is Christ’s ascension. when some doubted. Scripture is disarmingly, honest, truthfult here.

    There is the “miracle” of the cross, the objective reality of the death of Christ in space and time, in history and there is the objective truth of what that has accomplished, once hidden, but now revealed, in scripture.

    So how does does an objective reality/truth become a subjective, life transforming, personal reality of the good news of Jesus Christ?

    Even if miracles could be shown to be true to the satisfaction of skeptics, what would turn a response of “so what,” “so what” if Jesus died, “so what” if he was raised from the dead, to a new life of joy, and deiight in union with Him.

    It is only through the miracle of salvation. It is only through revelation, through God the Holy Spirit will the “enlightenment” of Hume and others be truly enlightened, the “eyes of their understanding” be opened.

    “Salvation is of the LORD”. It is only of the LORD. A miracle indeed, by HIS deeds.

    “To God be the glory, great things has HE done.”.

    As for miracles today. That is another subject, as is “cessationism”. David has a testimony, Adam has a testimony (ies). I have testimonies, all subjective realities of God being alive and at work today, of objective truths being subjectively manifest. Some miracles have led to belief, some confirm belief, but could be dismissed (as has been said to me) by the relativist’s pragmatic phrase, “if it works for you.”

    But there are much more frequent “miracles”, what unbelief would call coincidences, but belief would call “God incidences”, which would beggar the belief of any mathematical or statistical analysis.

    “If it works for you” can not be left as the last word, and has to be countered by the good news of Jesus, with referrences to human longings, desires being ultimately fulfilled by and in Christ Jesus, so that we may “glorify God and ENJOY Him forever.” as our purpose in life. Anything else is an impoverished substitute, for our real, magnificent substitute, Jesus.

  4. A few comments. ISTM that:

    – nature has absolutely nothing to do with miracles. There exist God the Creator of all things – and, the sum total of created beings, from angels to sub-atomic particles, that is otherwise known as nature, or the natural order. Angels, being creatures of God, are not in any way supernatural. Neither are fallen angels, AKA demons. God, and God Alone, is worthy to be called super-natural. It is obvious to a Christian that the holy angels are as nothing in comparison with Him, so the point need not be laboured.

    – miracles are acts of God, that depend entirely for their origin on God alone and not on nature, or anything in it, at all. So miracles do not in the slightest “break the laws of nature”, for the simple reason that they do not proceed from anything in nature. Speeding at 100 miles per hour through a built-up area violates the Highway Code, because drivers are bound by it, and it forbids drivers to exceed 30 m.p.h. in a built-area. If people are not driving, it makes no sense to accuse them of violating a Code that governs an activity they are not occupied in. To apply the laws of nature to miracles, is equally irrelevant.

    – miracles leave nature entirely alone. Miracles are not applications of yet-undiscovered potentialities in nature that are in principle discoverable by human enquiry, for that very reason – that they are not in any way related to, or from, or immanent in, or possible to, any created being. These miraculous acts are called super-natural, to distinguish them from those acts of God’s Providence by which He ordinarily governs creation. To raise the dead to new life is a miracle – the succession of the seasons, though equally from God, is not a miracle.

    2. If miracles are super-natural, can they be historical ? IMHO, no. History is what man does – it is not supernatural, but natural. ISTM one could – in principle – have historical evidence of the wedding in Cana, and of the shortage of wine, and of the existence of the water, and of the wine resulting from the miracle – but not of the working by which Jesus turned water into wine. The middle, miraculous, stage of the working of a miracle STM to be of its very nature impossible to have *historical* evidence of. Much as one cannot have historical evidence of the Reality of the Holy Trinity, but only of belief in the truth of the dogma that God is Tri-Une.

    The non-historical, “more-than-historical” reality of miracles makes them non-historical because they transcend the limited categories of creaturely existence. And they have this transcendent character because they are the work of the God Whose Holiness, “Wholly Other-ness”, means that He cannot be contained within those categories. The non-historical Reality of miracles is a pointer to their being done by God the Holy One. To call them “historical” events, is to say too little of them. That they occur “within” history and nature and creation, does not make those things their origin or explanation.

    It was very good to see an article on this subject that took care to emphasise the importance of the nature of the miracles as signs.

  5. I found this article probably the most interesting of all of this series so far. You have asked what evidence atheists like myself would accept for the existence of God and I have been honest and told you that I don’t know. I do know it would have to miraculous on a level that challenges everything that I think I know or understand. Perhaps the only thing would be the mass resurrection of the long dead who are then able to confirm an existence beyond death.

    I appreciate that this goes against both the Luke and Pascal quotes but since I do not find the Bible or other religious texts convincing in any way it would need to be a miracle to change my mind.

  6. Thanks James for interesting points. Some thoughts:

    1 Some of the limits of my understanding. I had to look up the meaning of the acronym ISTM.

    2 I think your contribution emphasises the the points David makes about presuppositions as you clearly start with the reality of the existence of the triune God to discuss miracles whereas the apologetic seeks primarily to address those who start from the pre-supposition of non god.

    3 I’m not sure about a miracle not interferring with nature, or rather His created order leaving it “entirely alone”. Does not changing water into wine alter a chemical composition?

    4 Yes we do not see the “how” of a miracle but we do “see” the results in history and because they could be only done by God rather than humanity does not make them any less historical. Though I fully accept that they are “more than historical”, they were nevertheless performed by a transcendent God in created time and space, in His immanence, His presence His “with us-ness” , particularly in and through Christ Jesus. An interventionist God indeed.

    Isn’t He wonderful?

    Yours in Christ,

    Geoff

    1. @Geoff:

      1. Sorry about that – I’m so used to using these acronyms that I tend to assume everyone on the Net knows them :facepalm:

      2. I didn’t begin from the very beginning, partly because that is beyond my abilities, and also because one has to start somewhere. So I took the truth of Christian, and in my case more specifically Catholic, theism, as a given. If one were to go to the very start of the question of God, one would have to go into questions of epistemology, since the truth of the Christian Faith presupposes that knowledge of the truth is both possible, and attainable. If knowledge of the CF is a delusion, and cannot be made good, to say that miracles are part of that Faith becomes meaningless. But as Christians know, the Bible teaches, with the authority of God (Who neither deceives nor is deceived), that miracles are part of the Life of Christ, regardless of the theoretical difficulties they may raise.

      3. That was careless of me. I should have made clear that I was talking of nature considered as a *cause* of miracles. That miracles have *effects* on nature, is undeniable.

      4. I try to avoid the language of “intervention”, simply because it has, or, can have, a suggestion about it that God is somehow “alien” to it. Whereas He is its Lord and Master, without Whom it is nothing.

      The objection – if that is not too strong a word – that you make, occurred to me. I’m not quite convinced by it, because the Incarnation of the Word, though by it He becomes “accessible” in history, leaves His Godhead no less Holy and Awe-full than “before”. The Word Who is eternally with the Father, is no less with Him “during” the Life on earth, than this Word is present on earth at that time.

      Many thanks for your comments 🙂

  7. Many thanks James.

    In a certain “fulness of years” I’m youthfully learning internet communication and I’m not part of face book nor twitter.

    You’ve brought very careful consideration and depth which I’ve found is not usual on the large parts of the net. It is all too easy to “fire off” a response. It is appreciated.

    It was not an objection, more of an emphasis. And from what you say I agree with you, though that barely expresses it.- I worship with you. A deep theology indeed of the reality of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling/tabernacling among us, fully man, fully God, deeper still when we go on to ponder His death and resurrection and ascencion.and His return, to ponder bliblical theology as revealed in scripture.

    May you have a wonderful Easter.

    Geoff

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