Emblazoned across the cover of a recent Newsweek Special Edition are the words, "AMAZING MIRACLES." Pictured just beneath is a US Airways jetliner floating in the Hudson River, scores of passengers standing on its wings. These were just some of the 155 crew and passengers piloted to safety by Captain "Sully" Sullenberger on January 15, 2009, after a huge flock of birds disabled his engines at 3000 feet.
This claim of the miraculous is nothing new. From the dawn of civilization human beings have been fascinated and drawn to the miraculous. Maybe it validates their belief in a god or higher power, maybe it's just superstition, or maybe it's simply in the mind. What does the Bible have to say about miracles? You might be surprised.
While there are a fair amount of miraculous occurrences within Holy Writ, they seem to come in bunches centered around the life of three men: Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. A far greater amount of Scripture is given to history, dates and times, and instruction on godly living.
While it is not my intention to discredit the miraculous in this essay (I do believe that miracles are possible), I want to present some distinct problems that arise due to an overemphasis on the miraculous.
The primary difficulty as I see it is the limited proof that experiencing miracles is a catalyst for great faith. While it is true that Jesus performed many miracles here on Earth, He was well aware of their limited ability to draw people closer to God. On multiple occasions he chastised those who came to "test" Him by asking for a sign: "A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matt.16:4).
Jesus knew that the people He was communicating to were no different than the congregation Moses led out of Egypt centuries prior. No people group had seen more than they – ten plagues that came upon Egypt and her gods, the drowning of Pharaoh's army, the parting of the Red Sea, water streaming from a rock, and forty years of manna – sufficient works, one would think, to grow the faith of any flock. Despite all of this, they are remembered for their stark unbelief: as the Apostle Paul said, "with most of them God was not well pleased" (1 Cor. 10:5).
It is comforting to me to know that Jesus said a greater blessing belonged to those who had faith in God without experiencing a big demonstration of His power: "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29).
A second problem with miracles is that they are criticism-magnets for people opposed to a Christian worldview. Critics believe the possibility of miracles negates scientific observation and the natural function of the universe. In the minds of critics, the expectation of miracles is a denial of realism and a refusal to think rigorously, and we who believe in them are irrational, unintelligent, and naive.
Third, we need to use great discernment when we experience or hear about something that seems miraculous, for the Bible itself warns of a time coming, perhaps even here now, when one in opposition to God will lead the world astray with "signs and lying wonders" (2 Thess. 2:9). Scripture says that these will be the work of Satan and not of God.
Nevertheless, as someone who takes the Bible literally, I must believe that true miracles have occurred, still do occur, and will occur even more so at the end of days. So how do we explain the miraculous in this day of materialism?
First, we need to understand what a miracle is. Stephen Hawking in his book The Grand Design coined the term "scientific determinism," saying, "Given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. That would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God" (quoted in God and Stephen Hawking by John Lennox, p. 79). Turned around, Mr. Hawking's statement actually gives us a good working definition for a miracle: an event that bypasses the laws of the physical universe. For instance, when Jesus turned water into wine, the natural processes of grape-growing and fermentation were bypassed, allowing the wedding guests to partake of a fine wine instantly.
But who gets credit for the "complete set of laws" that determine how things "normally" work, those things we take for granted such as the laws of nature, a perfectly balanced ecosystem, and an Earth perfectly placed for man and so much else to thrive? This is where we as Christians have been fighting the wrong battle. We have ceded the fine-tuning of the universe to science when actually God in His grace delivered this amazing work for us to enjoy and use to reflect upon who He is. As the psalmist says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork" (Psalm 19:1).
Second, if a true miracle is something that bypasses the natural laws of the universe, then it cannot be an event that could happen any other way. Francis Collins speaks to this idea in his book The Language of God:
It is crucial that a healthy skepticism be applied when interpreting potentially miraculous events, lest the integrity and rationality of the religious perspective be brought into question. The only thing that will kill the possibility of miracles more quickly than a committed materialism is the claiming of miracle status for everyday events for which natural explanations are readily at hand. (P. 51, emphasis added.)
In other words, is it really a miracle that I got that parking spot at the mall? Or made the varsity football team?
Third, there is a perception concerning miracles that they were readily received in ancient and pagan cultures, and that it is only more recently among more educated societies that people look askance at them. This is a fallacy.
The single greatest miracle in the Bible is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The Resurrection is so central to the Christian message that the Apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15 that, "if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty." He repeats, "And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!" He then adds, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable." (See 1 Corinthians 15:14-19.)
Was the idea of the resurrection of Jesus accepted long ago because folks back then were more inclined to believe in its possibility? On the contrary. Leading New Testament scholar, historian N.T. Wright says, "ancient paganism contains all kind of theories, but whenever resurrection is mentioned, the answer is a firm negative: 'We know that doesn't happen.'" ("Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?" Transcript, James Gregory Lecture, University of Durham, 2007. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0vjguF8Kpw.) The ancients were not stupid. They knew as well as we the laws of nature and that the dead remain dead.
The question is: why are there miracles? Let's go back to the wedding feast where Jesus turned the water into wine. John comments that this was the first of Jesus' "signs" and that it "manifested His glory" (John 2:11). Both the words "sign" and "manifest" give us hints of the purpose of miracles: a sign, as we well know, is an indicator, a thing that points to something else; to manifest something is to show or demonstrate it plainly. As Eric Metaxas says, "The most important point to be made about the miracles of the New Testament in particular is that they are all signs of things beyond themselves" (Miracles, p. 75). Hence, the turning of water into wine pointed to the fact that Jesus had the glory of the Creator, able to supersede the laws of nature. It demonstrated plainly that Jesus was the same as Yahweh God of Psalm 104, able and willing to bring joy back to man's relationship with God and his relationship with his fellow man.
John also contributes an often-overlooked signpost in his telling of that first miracle: "On the third daythere was a wedding..." (emphasis added). Jesus, the Winemaker, was pointing to His fuller identity: Savior.
So, was the landing of that plane on the Hudson River by Captain Sullenberger a miracle? Let's hear from Mr. Sullenberger himself: He had been flying airplanes for forty-two years, he knew metropolitan New York well, and, though he had never trained for a flock of birds disabling all his engines, he states, "I was confident I could quickly synthesize a lifetime of training and experience, adapt it in a new way to solve a problem I had never seen before, and get it right the first time." He adds, "So that's what I did" (Newsweek Special Edition 2015). Bottom line: While I am doubtful that God bypassed the laws of the universe that day, I'm more than certain that there were a number of people standing on the wing of that plane thanking God for a skillful pilot, a well-trained flight crew, a wide river, a buoyant aircraft, and ferryboats close enough for a rapid rescue.
Finally, this essay wouldn't be complete without stating that the greatest miracle in this world today is still the conversion of the human soul. As John Piper states, "Christian conversion... is a supernatural, radical thing. The heart is changed. And the evidence is not just new decisions, but new affections, new feelings" (Desiring God: Confessions of a Christian Hedonist, p.89). Those who experience it become joyously vocal, unable to suppress their testimony. Their newfound love, their newfound belief in God cannot be suppressed.
With John Newton they can declare the beloved words of the hymn, "Amazing Grace":
I once was lost, but now I'm found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Recommended Reading: Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life by Eric Metaxas.