Must Christians Believe in Miracles?

The four Gospel narratives are filled with examples of Jesus performing miraculous acts.  According to Matthew’s version, even his life began supernaturally, in that his conception was not the result of a sexual union.

For most Christians, the picture of Jesus working miracles seems to be exactly what one would expect of a divine being -the Son of God. These supernatural acts “prove” that Jesus was no mere man. For many others, though, these miracle accounts are not easily swallowed and deter them from accepting much, if not all, of the Gospels as truth.  Probably the most famous of these skeptics was Thomas Jefferson, who went through the bible with scissors and glue, removing all the supernatural accounts. His truncated version, the “Jefferson Bible” is more like a collections of Jesus’ sayings than the story of his life, death and resurrection.

I talked with a friend not long ago, an ex-Roman Catholic, now an Evangelical Protestant, who said that the idea of the ‘virgin birth’ was very important to him, as this underscored the idea of Jesus as God.  Without the virgin birth Jesus would be just another man.  But is that a fair assumption to make? Do we need miracles to sell ourselves on the idea that Jesus is in some way ‘other’ than us – that he is divine?

If miracles are the (super)natural by-product of divinity, then Jesus’ life must have been full of them.  This is suggested in the various apocryphal Infancy Gospels. There the boy Jesus is said to have made clay birds fly and he magically kills a naughty playmate (who he later brings back to life).  No serious scholars give these folk stories much credence, although bestselling horror writer Ann Rice has written a novel based upon them.  There is something appealing as well as appalling to these tales. (I have a theory that they were the inspiration for  that old Twilight Zone episode where the young Billy Mumy uses his awesome supernatural powers to terrorize his family and neighbors.)

Recently our church considered the story in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus stilled the stormy Sea of Galilee.  While asleep in the boat, a squall rose up and his disciples, who were for the most part experienced fisherman, began to panic and they awakened Jesus.  But why?  Did they expect Jesus to provide them with nautical advice?  He may have been a carpenter, but Jesus was certainly no sailor.  Did they expect him to magically calm the storm, as he does before scolding them for their hysteria? Their reaction to this event would seem to suggest otherwise.

Was it the purpose of this miracle account to prove that Jesus was God, or at least in touch with supernatural power? Is that the purpose of all of Jesus’ miracles? Because if we look at them in that way, adding them to the pile of evidence needed to make a “case for Christ”, then we may risk losing other, deeper meanings hidden within the stories.

Perhaps, as our pastor suggested, the main thrust of this story is to portray Jesus as a powerful presence that can calm the storms that rage within us.  Rather than joining us in our stress and hysteria (which we have invited others to do) Jesus projects calmness upon what we often perceive to be the ‘perfect storm’.

Isn’t this usually what happens when we call upon Jesus for help? Really, how often is it the case where he has literally changed our circumstances, fixed our external problems or calmed the storms we are caught in? Isn’t it more likely that he help will help us to find the strength we need to deal with our crises? Jesus gives us a glimpse of things from his infinite perspective, a glimpse that tends to diminish our own earthly struggles.

Do we need to believe in miracles in order to be in communion with God?  Are miracles necessary proof that there is a God?  Conversely, does a disbelief in miracles, an ‘inability’ to see them, indicate a lack of faith? When we question the historicity of Jesus’ miracles, are we diminishing his divinity?  What kind of faith is it that must depend upon evidence of miracles in order to survive?

I don’t know.  Personally, I don’t think it is necessary for me to believe that the  miracles actually  occurred to hear what God is telling me,  something that when put into practice, underscores the divinity of Jesus.  Something that Thomas Jefferson might have missed.

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  1. #1 by logiopath on June 24, 2009 - 4:15 pm

    Maybe I’m just a naysayer.

  2. #2 by literalbible on June 25, 2009 - 8:30 am

    Okay, I’ll try to answer both of you about the Old Covenant and New Covenant idea.

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus more clearly defines the Law as something more than physical obedience; it also has to do with the heart. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus tells us that the commandment “You shall not committ murder” isn’t only talking about the actual act of murder. He says “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court…” So the Law doesn’t just deal with physical actions, it deals with the heart.

    Well, we know that we corrupt and fallen hearts. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) If our hearts aren’t perfect, then we cannot keep the Law; we might be able to actually not committ murder, but we will surely get angry. That is why the Old Covenant was only temporary; it didn’t have the power to change a person’s heart. In Galations 3 (probably my second favorite Bible passage), Paul says “However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’” The whole purpose of the Old Covenant was to show that men could not do anything to appease the wrath of God for their sins; it was preparing the way for Christ. Again in Galatians 3: “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”

    This doesn’t mean, though, that Christ abolished the Old Covenant; He redefined it, He fulfilled it. Jesus fulfilled what the Old Covenant Law lacked; He was able to change the hearts of people. By dying on the cross, Jesus became the sacrifice that the Old Law had required, and since He is the Son of God and seated at the right hand of God, He is able to continue interceding on our behalf. (Hebrews 7:25) Now we can come to God through faith in Jesus Christ without fear of the Law, because Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law for us. What we could never have done, Jesus did for us. I’ve heard it said that after you’re saved, God looks at you through Jesus Christ, just like one would look through a magnifying glass. He no longer sees your miserable sinfullness, instead He sees the perfection of Jesus Christ, whose blood washes away the most evil stains.

    Where do I draw the line? Well, I live by the example of Jesus. The Law is still in effect, but it is a matter of the heart, and where I failed, Jesus has prevailed. For example, I can still get angry. But thanks be to God, for my salvation is not in my own hands. Jesus has bought me, and He will not forsake me. Paul says this in Galatians 3:3. Since the Law was, and is, a heart matter, the whole idea of not eating certain foods and wearing certain types of clothing can be seen. It was designed to keep God’s people focused on Him, to keep them clean. God required these things to show us (and them) that we cannot rescue ourselves. The Israelites failed time and time and time again because they didn’t recognize that the Law was designed to point out their sin, not to make them righteous; it was designed so that they would draw closer to God, not lean on themselves.

    I know that was a bit preachy, but it’s an important topic. I hope that I was clear and that, perhaps, you understand just a bit better than before. Grace and peace from God through Jesus our Lord!

    • #3 by Christian Beyer on June 25, 2009 - 1:42 pm

      the Law as something more than physical obedience; it also has to do with the heart

      That is why the Old Covenant was only temporary; it didn’t have the power to change a person’s heart.

      The whole purpose of the Old Covenant was to show that men could not do anything to appease the wrath of God for their sins; it was preparing the way for Christ.

      OK. I would suggest that what we are calling the Law has absolutely nothing to do with physical obedience as a first cause. It is only about that heart. One’s heart must be ‘circumcised’ – cut to the core – order for us to live out the “law” that is made up of two essential parts – love God and love others.

      I think the ‘laws’ that we often think of as the ‘Law’ – the Mosaic laws – are there so that a society – the Israelites – would seek mercy, love justice and be humble before God (and others). They are not meant to be taken as personal instruction. As individuals we don’t need laws to know that murder, rape and theft are wrong. Some of us, with particularly wounded hearts, need to be deterred from doing wrong so we have laws. If we all had hearts like Christ there would be no need for any ‘law’.

      You are right. It is entirely a ‘heart matter’.

  3. #4 by literalbible on June 25, 2009 - 8:37 am

    Dear Christian:

    “If I insisted that these types of miracles were common and necessary parts of a Christian’s life, well I would likely have few people interested in hearing any more about my faith. These are secondary issues. Uncommon icing on the spiritual cake.”

    You’re right, this isn’t essential to the whole proceess of salvation, but I wouldn’t say that it is a secondary issue. The real issue we’re dealing with is whether what the Bible says really, truly happened. If one part didn’t really happen, then wouldn’t it be possible if others didn’t? If God didn’t really create the world in six days, then did Jesus really rise from the dead? We have to believe that all parts of the Bible are true literally. I’m currently debating with atheists and all kinds of other people on a site called Goodreads (www.goodreads.com), and they jump all over people who say these kinds of things. Like I said, if parts of the Bible aren’t true, then how do we know that any part of the Bible is true?

    • #5 by Christian Beyer on June 25, 2009 - 1:48 pm

      We have to believe that all parts of the Bible are true literally. I’m currently debating with atheists and all kinds of other people on a site called Goodreads (www.goodreads.com), and they jump all over people who say these kinds of things. )

      Exactly. The atheist who sees the Bible as a collection of fairy tales does so for the same reason that the fundamentalist does not; both insist that it all must be taken at face value. They both say that if one part is factually suspect then all parts must be. And as Logio points out below, this is not logically defensible.

      Try to tell an atheist that a scripture they find to be factually incredible should be read metaphorically and you will often hear the same response a fundamentalist would give; “You are picking and choosing what you want to believe in.” Both mindsets insist that we live in an all or nothing world – you are either for us or against – black and white – right and wrong -good or evil. But the problem with that is that we don’t live in that type of world. God must understand this. Why else would scripture (especially Jesus parables) be so…indefinite?

  4. #6 by logiopath on June 25, 2009 - 11:36 am

    Okay–a huge logical gap exists between six day creation and the resurrection.

    In A. D. 60, many people who could attest to the reports of Jesus’s resurrection were still alive–including those who may have seen Him after the resurrection. Therefore, reports about the resurrection, although without direct eyewitnesses, can be verified from those who saw Jesus afterwards.

    Six day creation cannot be verified in the same way.

    Therefore, negating six day creation does not negate the resurrection. These are different kinds of writing that were composed at least 4,000 years apart.

    Each reported event stands or falls on its own merit. The fall, and the victory for a critic, happens when things are defended as a whole.

    • #7 by Christian Beyer on June 25, 2009 - 1:52 pm

      Right. Although I don’t think Genesis was written 4,000 years before Christ.

  5. #8 by literalbible on June 25, 2009 - 1:12 pm

    Dear logiopath:

    Every event in Scripture is important to the history of redemption. God had to create man in order to save man. Man had to sin in order for God to save man. Christ had to come to earth and die and rise again for God to save man. Each of these, and more, is an important link in the chain of redemptive history.

    Let us say, for instance, that God didn’t really create the world in six days, like He said He did in Scripture. Well, He also said that He would redeem His people and crush Satan once and for all. Let’s then fast foward. God has sent His Son. Or is it really His Son? How do we know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Because it was revealed in Scripture according to the will of God. But if some parts of Scripture are true and some are just exaggeration, how do we know what is true and what isn’t? Now let’s say that the flood never really happened. How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead (a crucial doctrine of Christianity)? Because it is recorded in the Scriptures. But if some parts of Scripture are an exaggeration, how do we know which parts are true?

    I’m playing the Devil’s advocate because I want you to see that atheistic apologists will pounce on you for saying things like that. If one part of the Bible is true, how do you know that the rest isn’t fictional as well?

    You’re right to a certain degree that the events stand on their own, but Scripture is one story about the glory of God and His redemption of His people. It’s like looking at a war. Each battle in a war can stand on it’s own, but that one battle of a bigger story. The battle of Midway was important, but it was only a part of the larger battle. The battle of Iwo Jima was important, but only one part in the larger war. Each even in Scripture does have individual merit, but it is more importantly part of a bigger picture, the history of redemption for the glory of God.

  6. #9 by netprophet on June 25, 2009 - 1:45 pm

    It seems once again we have moved a little east (or west) of the actual question that Chris is asking.

    1. Whether or not it is intrinsic to the Christian faith that we believe that any or all of the miracles accounted for in the Bible actually occurred?

    Of course the only answer to that question is YES! Why? Because the “Christian faith” is (among other things), based on the fact that Jesus is the CHRIST. To the Jews this performance of miracles was the most important proof requirement of all. They not only fulfilled the Prophecies of the Christ, but also gave Jesus the credibility in a time when there was a lot of Messianic controversy among and between the various Jewish sects. We for sure wouldn’t be the Christians as we are known today. Which might better really… Who knows? ;-)

    In other words, Jesus would have no Divine identity or credibility without the miracles prophesied in the OT. But as far as The Christ is concerned, Jesus told Peter that the only way he knew that Jesus was the Christ was because the Holy Spirit revealed it to him, as it is for us also. So, in that respect we do not need the miracles to believe in Jesus but I feel if we believe in Jesus because the Spirit drew us to His truth, then the miracles are a strong part of how the Holy Spirit confirms to our spirit that Jesus is the Christ.

    • #10 by Christian Beyer on June 25, 2009 - 1:58 pm

      Jesus told Peter that the only way he knew that Jesus was the Christ was because the Holy Spirit revealed it to him, as it is for us also.

      Yes. And that is what I am driving at here. I also think it is very possible for someone to believe in all the miracles, right up to and including the Resurrection, and yet still not understand that Jesus is the Christ. That perhaps there is a bit too much emphasis on the magic and not the practice of the faith. The real practice, that is worked out where people come together, and not usually in Church.

      I also think that there are people who fully recognize Jesus as divine and live their lives as his disciples (not just converts to the faith) and consider stories like the one above to be myth, yet like most myths, containing deeper wisdom than they could have learned in a more academic or instructional form.

      • #11 by literalbible on June 25, 2009 - 3:08 pm

        We’re still shying away from the real issue. I understand the question, “Do you have to believe in miracles if you’re a Christian.” However, what does that question imply? “Do you have to believe everything that is in the Bible to be a Christian?” As a true follower of Jesus Christ, you cannot pick and choose which parts of the Bible you want to believe. Every word in Scripture is God-breathed and has a purpose. That purpose is to add to the history of redemption for the glory of God. The Old Testament is full of failures on the part of the Israelites. Why did they fail so many times, even when the Spirit of God dwelled among them? Because they failed to understand that salvation comes through faith in Jesus by grace alone; they were trying to earn their salvation. Then Jesus came to do what we could not: fulfill the laws of God. Jesus lived perfectly in order that He might be able to take our place, to take our punishment. As netprophet said, one way He showed people that He really was the Son of God was through miracles. Now let me ask you this: do you believe in the resurrection? If so, you already believe in miracles. The resurrection is a miracle, just as conversion is, and as Christians we must believe in miracles. Without miracles, we would still be under the wrath of God.

  7. #12 by logiopath on June 25, 2009 - 3:23 pm

    Literalbible,

    Trust me, you have no need to use that condescending tone with me, I am not a 10 year old child in Sunday School or VBS.

    Your arguments are filled with presuppositions and pat answers. I am sure you have the right kind of zeal, but I sugget you come up with a better system of logic, or an atheist will blast your arguments to bits.

    Okay, so let’s break down what you have said.

    You wrote, “Every event in Scripture is important to the history of redemption.”

    So, Moses circumcising his sons is a part of the history of redemption? Or David killing Uriah?

    Man was a necessary creation? How so? Poor God was so lonely that He had to make man, who had to fall, so he could be saved?

    If God is supreme, and complete in Himself, then man did not need to be created. All of this is unnecessary in light of God’s being–unless you are a hyper-Calvinist and you believe in an inevitable route to the course of creation.

    You bring up the term “redemptive history.” What do you mean? If you mean what Barth meant, than it does not have to match real history. If you mean the actions of God to redeem humanity, then the only necessary event was the cross. All of the other stuff about Israel, etc., was not necessary.

    Does the Bible have to be correct for redemption?
    I don’t know. I used to see all of this as a whole, but no longer. The Bible has many different kinds of literature, from History to myth to drama to philosophical dialectics. We act as if we hold Scripture’s feet to a hotter fire because of the location of a particular text. However, if we saw many of these texts outside of Scripture, we would be more likely to see these are they are–and that Scripture is a a collection in which the editors of Israel and the leaders of the early church chose the books. In fact, for most of church history, disagreements have happened in which the canon is not agreed upon (for example, Luther rejected the book of James and Revelation).

    So? Be careful before you say what applies to the story of salvation, and do some more reading before you try and take on atheists. They will filet your logic. If you think I’m cruel, you should try our buddy Jason.

    Logio

  8. #13 by logiopath on June 25, 2009 - 3:24 pm

    Forgive my harsh tone, Literal.

    • #14 by literalbible on June 25, 2009 - 3:37 pm

      Hey, no harm, no foul, right? Don’t worry about it. Compared to some of the stuff people have said to me, that was pretty angelic! ;)

  9. #15 by logiopath on June 25, 2009 - 4:54 pm

    Okay

  10. #16 by netprophet on June 25, 2009 - 5:09 pm

    Let me try this again.
    The Holy Spirit does not draw us to any religion including the Christian faith, He draws us to Christ.
    Remember the Centurion? He came to Jesus because he heard that Jesus was a man sent by God and he believed (drawn by the Spirit) that Jesus could heal his child. “Just say the word and my daughter will be healed.” He wasn’t a Christian and he wasn’t a religious man. He heard, he believed and he sought out the God he knew existed. He got his miracle because of his faith not his religion… does this make more sense? You don’t have to believe in religion or miracles, only in God and His Christ.

    • #17 by Christian Beyer on June 25, 2009 - 6:29 pm

      Nicely put. I always feel that this aspect of the centurion is overlooked. Jesus said that no one had greater faith, yet he was a pagan. Like you said, not a Jew or of the small sect of Jews who followed Jesus.

      Does everyone who is drawn to Christ (or drawn to God through Christ) recognize him as Jesus of Nazareth? Can they encounter Christ without ever having been exposed to the Judeo-Christian scriptures? To think otherwise, when it is never even expressly stated, certainly seems like we are limiting God, no less than a disbelief in every miracle is limiting to God.

      But it seems that the underlying issue in this immediate discussion is not a belief or disbelief in miracles (because as literabible said, the resurrection certainly is a miracle) but whether we believe in the infallibility and innerancy of the Bible. L B (literalbible) seems to be saying that if you do not accept all scriptural accounts as being absolutely factual then you may as well disregard scripture entirely. That in some way this is a litmus test for the faith.

      Of course this something that I have been arguing against on this blog for some time now. Not that I am interested in discouraging literalists in their faith, as I am not questioning their faith. But I find that this overt and explicit assertion that many Christians make has the effect of turning many people away from the faith (all due credit to the Holy Spirit’s efforts aside). This insistence creates an unnecessary cognitive dissonance with many. It did me, even after I had converted.

      But now I do not feel compelled to take the Bible literally – I understand that it is not one book but many books. I don’t read Tom Sawyer in the same way that I read Joan of Arc, even though both have the same author. The Bible may have one inspiration, God, but it does not have one author, and it was written at many different times and it incorporates many different literary styles. So yes, it is up to US, with the help of God’s spirit, along with our brains and our experiences to interpret scripture. Or let others, no more perfect, interpret it for us, which is what most Christians seem to advocate.

      Then again I know of blind and deaf people who have never ‘heard’ or read the Word who are truly filled with God’s spirit. Perhaps they had an edge?

      • #18 by literalbible on June 25, 2009 - 7:30 pm

        Dear Christian:

        You said that by asserting the literalness of the Bible I am, in effect, turning many people away. Does that make the truth any different? Didn’t Jesus say that the way to the Father was narrow and only a few people would find it? The object of teh Christian is not to win over anyone; that is God’s ability alone, therefore it is His responsibility alone. However, we have been commissioned by our Lord Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel, every part of the Gospel. If we say that when the Bible says God created the world in six days it didn’t mean a literal six days, aren’t we in effect taking away from the Word of God? If the Bible was inspired by God (as you said) then does it matter who copied down the words? For example, if I want to dictate a letter to someone, does it matter who the person copying my words is? No, because the letter’s content still comes from me. So even though the Scriptures may not have been written by the hand of God, they are none the less the Word of God. We cannot win anyone over, truly, even if we say “You can earn your salvation, all you need to do is drop a dollar in the offering plate every Sunday.” Of course that doesn’t do anything, because it isn’t the Gospel of God. In order for men to be saved, genuinely saved, they must be preached the gospel of Jesus Christ which is the power of God unto salvation. The Gospel is that God created the world in six days, literally six days, and He created man in His own image (an actual man). However, man sinned against God in the Garden of Eden (which really did exist) and man, because of his sin, was cast out of the Garden of Eden and cursed for his disobedience. But God, in His infinite grace and mercy, sent His son, Jesus Christ who was born in Bethlehem, spent time in Egypt, and was raised in Nazareth, to live a perfect life (to fulfill the Law), to die a sacrificial death (as payment for sin), and to rise to life three days later (to conquer Satan and death). Our only response should be to repent of our sins and believe in Jesus Christ, whose blood is sufficient to make us adopted sons and daughters of God.

    • #19 by literalbible on June 25, 2009 - 7:15 pm

      Dear netprophet:

      I don’t want you to believe in any religion; that’s not what I’m trying to say. You’re right in that faith in Christ is all you need. I completely agree with you. A Christian is just a follower of Christ; at least, that is how I define the word. Christianity is simply the doctrines of the faith, like the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, Original Sin, etc. etc.

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