Reason to Believe The miracles have adequate and reliable testimony
“Do you really believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale? And do you seriously think that Christ actually fed 5000 persons from five loaves of bread and two fish?” So goes the trend and tone of many modern questioners. Surely, they say, these “miracle” stories in the Bible must be quaint ways of conveying spiritual truth, and they are not meant to be taken literally.
With many questions, it is more important to discern the root problem than to become involved in discussing a twig on a branch. This is especially true of questions about miracles. The questioner’s problem is generally not with a particular miracle, but with a whole principle. To establish the miracle in question would not answer his question. His controversy is with the whole principle of the possibility of miracles.
One who has problems with miracles often has difficulty with the validity of predictive prophecy. These questions stem from a weak view of God. The real problem is not with miracles or prophecy, but with the whole concept of God. Once we assume the existence of God, there is really no problem with miracles.
This came to me very forcibly one day as I was talking about the deity of Christ with a Japanese professor friend. “I find it very difficult to believe,” he said, “that a man could become God”. Sensing his problem, I replied, “Yes, Kinichi, so do I, but I can believe that God became a man.” He saw the difference in a flash, and not long afterward he became a Christian. The question, then, really is, “Does an all-powerful God, who created the universe, exist?” If so, we shall have little difficulty with miracles in which he transcends the natural law of which he is the author. It is important to keep this fundamental question in mind in discussing miracles. How we know God exists has already been discussed.
David Hume and others have defined a miracle as a violation of natural law. To take such a position, however, is practically to deify natural law, to capitalize it in such a way that whatever God there may be becomes the prisoner of natural law and, in effect, ceases to be God.
In this modern scientific age, people tend to personify science and natural law.
They fail to realise that these are merely the impersonal results of observation. A Christian believes in natural law, which is to say that things behave in a certain cause-and-effect way almost all the time — year after year, century after century. But in maintaining this he does not restrict God’s right and power to intervene when and how he chooses. God is over, above and outside natural law, and is not bound by it. Laws do not cause anything in the sense that God causes things. They are merely descriptions of what happens.
What, in fact, is a miracle? We use the term rather loosely today. If a scared student passes an exam, he says, “It was a miracle!” Or if an old jalopy makes a successful trip from one city to another, we say, “It’s a miracle the thing ran!” We use the term to mean anything that is unusual or unexpected. We do not necessarily mean that the hand of God has been at work.
However, when we consider miracles as they are thought of in the Bible, the word is used in an entirely different sense. Here we mean an act of God breaking into, changing, or interrupting the ordinary course of things.
It is important to note, however, that miracles are not in conflict with any natural law. Rather, as J. N. Hawthorne puts it, “Miracles are unusual events caused by God. The laws of nature are generalisations about ordinary events caused by him.”
People often say, “If God performed miracles then, why does he not do them now? If I saw a miracle I could believe.” This question was answered in our Lord’s time. A rich man who was in the torment of hell lifted up his eyes and pleaded with Abraham that someone should warn his five brothers lest they too should come into the awful place. He was told that his brothers had the Scriptures.
And so it is today. Many have made a rationalistic presupposition which rules out the very possibility of miracles. Since they believe that miracles are impossible, no amount of evidence would ever persuade them one had taken place. There would always be an alternate naturalistic explanation for them to advance.
Miracles are not necessary for us today because we already have reliable records of those miracles which have occurred. As Ramm observes, “If miracles are capable of sensory perception, they can be made matters of testimony. If they are adequately testified to, then the recorded testimony has the same validity for evidence as the experience of beholding the event.”
Every court in the world operates on the basis of reliable testimony by word of mouth or in writing. If the raising of Lazarus was actually witnessed by John and recorded faithfully by him when still in soundness of faculties and memory, for purposes of evidence it is the same as if we were there and saw it. Ramm then lists reasons we may know that the miracles have adequate and reliable testimony. We summarise:
First, many miracles were done in public. They were not performed in secret before only one or two people, who announced them to the world. There was every opportunity to investigate the miracles on the spot. It is very impressive that the opponents of Jesus never denied the fact of the miracles he performed. They either attributed them to the power of Satan or else tried to suppress the evidence, as with the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
Second, some miracles were performed before unbelievers. It is significant that the miracles claimed by cults and offbeat groups never seem to happen when the skeptic is present to observe. It was not so with Jesus.
Third, the miracles of Jesus were performed over a period of time and involved a great variety of powers. He had power over nature, as when he turned the water to wine; he had power over disease, as when he healed the lepers and the blind; he had power over demons, as was shown by his casting them out; he had supernatural powers of knowledge, as in his knowing that Nathanael was under a fig tree; he demonstrated his power of creation when he fed 5000 people from a few loaves and fish; and he exhibited power over death itself in the raising of Lazarus and others.
Fourth, we have the testimony of the cured. As noted earlier, we have it from those, like Lazarus, whose healings could not have been psychosomatic or a result of inaccurate diagnosis.
Fifth, we cannot discount the gospel miracles because of the extravagant claim of pagan miracles. Miracles are believed in non-Christian religions because the religion is already believed, but in the biblical religion, miracles are part of the means of establishing the true religion. This distinction is of immense importance. Israel was brought into existence by a series of miracles, the Law was given surrounded by supernatural wonders, and many of the prophets were identified as God’s spokesmen by their power to perform miracles. Jesus came not only preaching but performing miracles, and the apostles from time to time worked wonders.
It was the miracle authenticating the religion at every point. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “All the essentials of Hinduism would, I think, remain unimpaired if you subtracted the miraculous, and the same is almost true of Islam, but you cannot do that with Christianity.”
It is precisely the story of a great miracle. A naturalistic Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian.
Some attempts have been made to explain miracles on the basis of exaggerated reporting. It has been demonstrated that people are notoriously inaccurate in reporting events and impressions. It may be answered that, despite this tendency, law courts have not ceased functioning, and eyewitnesses are still considered able to provide highly useful information. And though there may be some question about such details of an accident as the time, speed of the cars, etc., the accident cannot be said not to have happened because of discrepancies in witnesses’ stories.
Another erroneous idea, sometimes advanced, is that the miracle stories must be discarded because they are told by believing disciples and are therefore not objective. But the disciples were the ones on the scene who saw the miracles. The fact that they were disciples is neither here nor there. The question is, did they tell the truth? As we have seen, eyewitness testimony is the best we can get, and most of the disciples faced the test of death as the test of their veracity.
We have seen that the question of whether miracles are possible is not scientific, but philosophical. Science can only say miracles do not occur in the ordinary course of nature. Science cannot forbid miracles because natural laws do not cause, and therefore cannot forbid, anything. They are merely descriptions of what happens. The Christian embraces the concept of natural law. “It is essential to the theistic doctrine of miracles that nature be uniform in her daily routine. If nature were utterly spontaneous, miracles would be as impossible of detection as it would be to establish a natural law.”
It is “scientism”, rather than science, which says miracles cannot happen. The scientist, like anyone else, can only ask, “Are the records of miracles historically reliable?” Further, we have seen the miracles in the Bible are an inherent part of God’s communication to us — not a mere appendage of little significance. We have seen that the whole question ultimately depends on the existence of God. Settle that question and miracles cease to be a problem.