Miracles: Providing Validation for the Christian Faith – Part 3
|By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2003|
|Unless miracles are possible and actual, there is no way to verify the truth claims of Christianity. This raises the question of the relationship between a miracle and a truth claim. Are miracles an appropriate and valuable confirmation of Christianity’s truth claims?|
Miracles: Providing Validation for the Christian Faith—Part Three
Miracles as Confirmation of Truth
Christian apologetics is based in miracles. Unless miracles are possible and actual, there is no way to verify the truth claims of Christianity. This raises the question of the relationship between a miracle and a truth claim. Are miracles an appropriate and valuable confirmation of Christianity’s truth claims?
The claim of David Hume (1711-1776) that all religious truth claims are self-canceling fails because the credibility of all alleged “miracles” is not equal. However, the question remains as to whether a miracle can confirm truth.
In both New and Old Testament contexts, people did not show naive acceptance of every alleged word or act from God. Like moderns, they wanted proof. Miracles were assumed to confirm the message of a spokesman for God.
Miracles Confirmed the Prophetic Claim. When asked by God to lead Israel out of Egypt, Moses replied:
- What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, “The Lord did not appear to you?” Then the Lord said to him. “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied.” The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.” [Exod. 4:1-5, emphasis added]
It is clear that the miracles were intended to confirm the message God had given him. God, in fact, offered multiple miracles. For, “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first miraculous sign, they may believe the second. But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground” (Exod. 4:8-9).
Later, when Moses was challenged by Korah, a miracle again was Moses’ vindication.
- Then [Moses] said to Korah and all his followers: “In the morning the Lord will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him.”… Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.”… They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. [Num. 16:5, 28-30, 33]
Few questioned Moses’ divine authority from this point.
When confronted by belief in pagan deities, Elijah the prophet of Israel, challenged thepeople of Israel: ‘“How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ But the people said nothing” (1 Kings 18:21). To prove he was a prophet of the true God, Yahweh, Elijah proposed a contest in which they would invoke a supernatural confirmation. When the prophets of Baal could not bring down fire on their sacrifice from heaven, Elijah had the altar to Yahweh drenched with water and prayed: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command” (1 Kings 18:36). The text adds, “Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.” And “When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord —he is God! The Lord—he is God!’” (1 Kings 18:38-39).
Miracles Confirmed the Messianic Claim. Jesus’ ministry was characterized by supernatural, confirming signs of his identity as a prophet and more. But the Gospel of Matthew records that some Pharisees and teachers of the law still demanded a confirming sign: “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” Jesus refused on this day, not because miracles did not constitute a sign of his identity, but because the question was asked in contempt and unbelief. Instead, Jesus announced that soon they would have the greatest confirming sign of all: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt. 12:38-39). Just as Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days, so Jesus was in the grave and then returned to life. He offered the miraculous sign of his resurrection as proof that he was the Jewish Messiah.
John sent messengers to ask Jesus whether he was the Messiah. “At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor’” (Luke 7:20-22). These were just the sorts of miracles the prophets had predicted would confirm the presence of Israel s Messiah. The answer was clear: Jesus’ miracles confirmed his messages.
Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, told Jesus, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:1-2).
In his great sermon on Pentecost, Peter told the crowd that Jesus had been “accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him” (Acts 2:22).
Miracles Confirmed the Apostolic Claim. Hebrews 2:3-4 proclaims that God has testified to his “great salvation” in the gospel “by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” Miracles were used to confirm the apostolic message. They were the supernatural sign for their sermon; the divine confirmation for their revelation.
In defense of his apostleship at Corinth, Paul wrote: “The things that mark an apostle— signs, wonders and miracles—were done among you with great perseverance” (2 Cor. 12:12). This special apostolic, miracle-working power was offered as proof of the truth he spoke to them.
Qur’an and Confirming Miracles
Judaism and Christianity are not the only religions that recognize the validity of miracles as a means of confirming a message from God. Islam does as well. Muhammad recognized that prophets before him (including Jesus) were confirmed by miraculous powers. “If they reject thee, So were rejected apostles Before thee, who came With Clear Signs” (sura 3:184).
The Qur’an records Moses saying of his miracles, “Thou knowest Well that these things Have been sent down by none But the Lord of the heavens And the earth as eye-opening Evidence” (17:102). Allah says, “Then We sent Moses and his brother Aaron, with Our signs and Authority manifest” (23:45). So, in principle, all three great monotheistic religions agree that a truth claim can be substantiated by miracles.
Unbelievers and Confirming Miracles
Even many who reject miracles agree that unique miracles could be used to support the truth claims of the religion possessing them. Even Hume implied that truly unique miracles would confirm the truth claims of a religion. He argued only that similar signs by conflicting religions would be self-canceling. He claimed only that “every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles)… so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system” and “in destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles on which that system was established.” Since a miracle’s “direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed, so has it the same force… to overthrow every other system.” This leaves open the possibility that a religion presenting unique miraculous confirmation would be true and all opposing claims false.
Agnostic Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) admitted miracles would confirm a truth claim. In response to the question “What kind of evidence could convince you God exists?” Russell said,
- I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then proceed to happen, then I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence. I can imagine other evidence of the same sort which might convince me, but as far as I know, no such evidence exists. [“What Is an Agnostic?”]
To the contrary, such evidence does exist.
(to be continued)