Miracles? Can they happen?
Last week as I sat in his chair, my barber told me that someone had given him a Bible. He said that he had read the New Testament many times in his life but had never read the Old Testament. He found it very interesting, he told me. “But,” he said, “do you believe all those stories? Do you really believe that they happened? Are they not just parables? Fables?” He wanted to learn from the Bible. He was willing to accept that the Bible had a “good moral lesson.” He was raised as a “Christian” in a mainline Canadian church and now recently married and a new father, he was seeking his way in the world. But these stories! How can we believe them? Snakes talking! Water from the rock! The earth swallowing men alive! Ax heads floating! These are all Old Testament miracles and he was wondering if I believed that they actually happened.
The Belgic Confession
As a Reformed believer I accept the Belgic Confession as my own, so I, of course, believe certain things about the Bible. In articles 3-7 we confess what we believe about the Bible. There we say that the Word of God is not a human book but that men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God and that he commanded them to write down this revelation. As Christians, we accept the Bible as canonical (that is the rule and measure for our life) for the regulation, foundation and confirmation of our faith.
In the Belgic Confession we confess that we believe,
“Without any doubt all things contained in the books of the Bible, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God.”
We know them to be true because the Holy Spirit testifies that they are true. That means that they are also historically true.
Are miracles possible?
So, “Yes,” I told my barber, “I believe the stories in the Old Testament to be true.” I told him that I knew that those things really happened. These are historical facts. And here is the problem. Is it possible that God revealed himself in some special way? Did God, who is the creator, act in history? Did he do unusual things? Did he really bring the plagues on Egypt? Did he really make the sun and moon stand still? Are miracles possible? This is one of the great difficulties in presenting the gospel; for unbelievers the Bible is a book full of miracles. The Old Testament has many miracles, but the New Testament has many more. God became man, being born of a virgin. Jesus of Nazareth walked on water. He healed the lepers, the lame, the blind. He exorcised demons. Having been executed by crucifixion, he rose again and ascended into heaven. Modern man does not want to believe these things. To him these are the product of a pre-scientific worldview. In the modern worldview these stories are superstitious nonsense that primitive cultures believed. To our culture, the miraculous in the Bible story is below the credibility threshold. It is an embarrassment in our culture to believe that these things really happened.
So how can we address this problem? How can we show to be true what we know to be true? And we know these things to be true because we believe the testimony of a unique and reliable book, the Bible, and because the Holy Spirit himself testifies in our heart that these things are true? I think that you can argue for a sympathetic ear. One line of argument that you could use goes something like this: The apostles are reliable witnesses. They had nothing to gain by lying. They wrote down the testimony as eyewitnesses. Your neighbour might say that he cannot believe them because he has never seen anything like these miracles happen, nor has he heard any reliable modern reports of such events. We, however, can argue that the Bible's testimony to miracles cannot be refuted simply by saying that prior experiences and observations exclude the new event. If this were true, we would never be justified in believing anything outside our own experience. No new discoveries could ever be made. No new observations would be accepted.
Contrary, not contradictory events
We can also argue that miracles are not contradictory to experience. That is often the objection. “Moses could not have turned the Nile into blood because that is contradictory to my experience.” Someone might say, “Jesus never raised anyone from the dead and he never brought anyone from the dead to life. I cannot believe that he did because that is contradictory to my experience to reality.” To prove this, however, someone would need to refute the reliable historical testimony of the Bible. It is not good enough to argue that experience in general shows that dead men do not rise or that mighty rivers do not turn to blood. That is not good enough to prove that miracles do not happen.
Christians agree with exactly this. The dead do not normally come to life. That they are outside of general experience does not make these events contradictory to experience. Rather, miracles are events that are contrary to experience in general. They are not contradictory to experience in general. To extend this further, someone might argue that miracles are unbelievable because they are contrary to experience in general, but really they are simply saying that they are contrary to similar personal general experience. To say that a miracle is contrary to universal experience is question begging, since that assumes that miracles have not and cannot occur and that no one has even seen or experienced one.
Many have said, “If miracles occur, that would mean that events which break the laws of nature can happen. This is impossible.” You can counter that argument by stating that natural laws are descriptive, not prescriptive. That simply means that what we call “the laws of nature” are but our description of what generally happens in our experience and are summaries of our observations of the world around us. We can use these laws for predicting what will happen. We cannot use them, however, to refute what we observe to be true. The laws of nature are formulations of general observations. Let go of your pencil 1.5 meters from the floor and it falls. It does that every time you try. You can make this generalization, this law, “If I let go of my pencil, it will fall.” The pencil, however, does not fall in obedience to your law. Your law describes what the pencil does. You do not, however, prescribe what the pencil must do. This shows that what you know to be true (miracles can and have happened) cannot be rejected simply because of “natural laws.” Natural laws simply describe what generally has happened in the past and will likely happen in the future. A miracle is exactly that event that goes against what we generally expect would happen; the wind and waves obeying the command of the Lord Jesus, for example.
Logic and law
So my barber asks, “Well then, may a scientist say that a miracle is naturally impossible?” To this we agree readily. That is what a miracle is. It is an event, not contrary to logic; not contradictory to experience, but naturally impossible. And the only way for naturally impossible events to become historical reality is if the God of the Bible, the Almighty Creator, stands behind them. We believe in an omnipotent God, who created all things and who upholds them by his power. He is capable of free activity and so is capable acting in the universe that he has created. He is able to cause those things that are contrary to general experience. The miracles of Jesus Christ are examples of such events that lie outside the power of natural causes. They are events that occurred without physical or generally human causes. Therefore they must have a divine cause.
Reason for miracles
The miracles of the Bible are not magician's tricks but are events contrary to general experience by which God shows his power and reveals himself to men. These events did not happen in a vacuum but in a certain historical and religious context. God's miracles in Egypt by the hand of Moses and Aaron were not just tricks to amaze the people, nor simply to cause Pharaoh to be afraid of the Israelites. By these mighty acts God set his people free; and he hardened Pharaoh's heart lest anyone should say that Israel gained freedom by Pharaoh's grace.
The resurrection of Jesus happened after he was publicly charged with blasphemy and executed as a rebel. His resurrection happened in the context and at the climax of his unique life and teaching. This was not just a strange event at which we wonder. The resurrection underlines the reality of Jesus Christ's claim that he was the only son of God and that he was one with the Father. God underlines these claims by not leaving him in the grave and so raised him from the dead with a glorious body.
Not just past events
As Bible believing Christians we should show the honest seeker that there are no reasons for rejecting miracles as real, historical events. We must show that there are no solid grounds for him to reject what we know to be true. We must tell our neighbour that miracles have not just happened in the past. Challenge him that the universe may be a more wonderful place than he imagines. God has acted in history. He has caused the miraculous to happen. The God who created the heavens and earth is surely capable of raising the dead or changing water into wine. We can also tell the world that we look forward to the great day of miracles. We anticipate with joy the day when the trumpet will sound and with the cry of the archangel all the dead will be raised and God will gather his resurrected children to himself.