Saturday, August 25, 2007

Believing Miracle Stories

My wife once met a woman who claimed that God had made her invisible. This happened at a women’s luncheon at an Assemblies of God church that my wife attended at the invitation of a friend. After the luncheon, women were invited to share what God had done in their lives during the past week.

It seems that this woman had gone to the hospital to visit a friend in the intensive care unit. According to hospital rules, only relatives were allowed in the ICU, but the woman was able to walk right past the nurse’s station without being challenged. While she sat and prayed with her friend, nurses came in and out of the room without taking notice of her. Therefore, the woman concluded that God must have made her invisible.

A common theme in apologetics is that anyone who is willing to keep an open mind to the possibility of miracles will come to the conclusion that the only reasonable explanation for the stories of Jesus’ miracles is that they really occurred as the authors of the gospels recorded them. If we can believe what ancient historians said about Alexander the Great or the Battle of Thermopylae, why shouldn’t we believe what Mark and Luke said about Jesus? The apologists say we should. They say that skeptics have a closed-minded world view that refuses to recognize the possibility of miracles and therefore reject what must otherwise be deemed trustworthy accounts.

But wouldn’t a person whose worldview allowed for the possibility of supernatural miracles still take the “invisible” woman’s story with a grain of salt? Isn’t it more likely that the nurses were busy or that they mistakenly thought she was a relative? The problem with miracle stories is not that some people are so closed-minded that they automatically reject them in all cases. The problem is that some people assume the supernatural intervention of God’s power whenever a natural explanation is not immediately obvious. Indeed, the prefer a supernatural explanation. I once attended a religious retreat where a man told me that God had miraculously repaired his vacuum cleaner. He could not give me any details about the malfunction, but he assured me that supernatural intervention was the only possible explanation. People like this see the slightest coincidence as the hand of God.

Another problem is that people who see God’s supernatural intervention in everyday events tend to believe others’ miracle tales without question and happily pass them along. Televangelists regularly pass on stories they get in the mail from viewers who claim to have been healed while watching the program. (Of course, there are also those preachers who stage healings for the benefit of the camera, but that is another story.) I have always found it interesting that the Catholic Church directs a healthy skepticism towards claims of miraculous healings at Lourdes or Fatima, and will not recognize them without an investigation. However, that is the exception rather than the rule among miracle believers.

Suppose for example, that Jesus addressed a crowd of people who became hungry. He asked if anyone had any food to share and one small boy volunteered some loaves and fishes. Jesus blessed the food and passes it around, whereupon, others who had brought food for themselves were shamed into sharing it. In the end, there was much food left over and the disciples were amazed that such disparate people with no natural sympathy towards one another—tax collectors, Roman soldiers, prostitutes, and priests—recognized the needs of their fellow man and shared what they had. They knew that Jesus had caused them to do this and they told others of the wondrous thing that Jesus had done.

As the story gets retold, some of the hearers may not be as impressed with the event as the original witnesses were. In order to communicate the meaning and significance of what Jesus did, the story gets condensed: the crowd was hungry; Jesus blessed a small amount of food; there were lots of leftovers. The details that survive are perfectly true, but now it is a story of Jesus conjuring food out of thin air rather than a miracle of sharing. Considering the possibility that Luke or Mark may have been inclined to accept miracle stories without question, and the possibility that the stories passed through several similarly unquestioning people before reaching them, it is impossible to be sure what actually happened.

This is not to say that the stories of Jesus' miracles can't be true, merely that we cannot claim the stories as historical evidence of the events.

1 comment:

  1. One problem with your "feeding of the 5000" explanation. The accounts in the Bible were written by those that were there to see the event. It is a requirement of being an Apostle of Jesus (you had to be with him through his entire ministry). Did they exaggerate? They had seen the dead raised, the sick healed, Jesus walk on water, etc. Why would they exaggerate, the truth was far more amazing. I personally have seen broken bones healed before my eyes in under 30 seconds, a woman with AIDS in final stages of AIDS related illnesses completely healed (which included regaining the lost site in one eye and a 0 count HIV tests, plural, doctors don't like getting tests "wrong"), a woman with severe tremors healed instantly (less than 30 seconds), tumors fall off (literally, it was gross), a boy with legs so twisted up that his feet touched his stomach have his legs straighten out like a Gumby doll. And the list goes on. So though I may agree with you on the "invisible" story, my experience tells me that your assumptions are false on the rest of the legimate miracles. Check out under XPTV and see interviews with people who have seen miracles (especially the ones about gem stones).