Does God use miracles to prove himself? Should he?

July 10th, 2013 in Belief. Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Shaft of sunlight

Nate generated some discussion on miracles on his Finding Truth blog. Some of his blog, and the subsequent discussion, suggested that miracles in the Bible and the ministry of Jesus were meant to provide proof of Jesus’ divinity. And therefore if God wants us to believe in him today, he should keep on providing convincing miracles for all who need them to believe.

I thought these ideas were worth considering in more detail than a blog comment allows ….

Why did Jesus do miracles?

What he said

On at least three occasions said he would not do miracles to prove a point.

  • In Luke 4:9-12 he rejected the temptation to jump off the top of the temple as a stunt, because that would be pushing God.
  • In Mark 8:11-12, the religious leaders asked him from a “sign from heaven”, but Jesus said that wouldn’t be given to them.
  • In Luke 23:8-9 Herod wants Jesus to do a miracle, but he refuses.

Jesus most often called his miracles “works”, or “works of power”, not emphasising their evidential value, but rather their role in bring in the kingdom of God “forcefully”. And for him, the kingdom of God was about putting things right, healing and freedom:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Luke 4:18-19

What the gospel writers say

Matthew, Mark and Luke use similar words to Jesus – outgoings of divine power.

John uses the word “signs”, which might seem to be closer to ‘proof by miracle’, and which conveys the double meaning of pointers to Jesus’ divine authority, and tokens of God’s new order. But on several occasions (e.g. John 4:48, 6:29-36) Jesus criticised people for needing such signs, and on one occasion (John 10:25, note he doesn’t use the word “sign” but “works”) he suggests needing signs is second best.

What the scholars say

The scholars I looked up all agree that Jesus didn’t primarily do miracles to prove his divinity, but to demonstrate the power and purpose of God to usher in the kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus’ powerful acts of healing, then, together with all the other extraordinary things the gospels credit him with, are not done in order to “prove” his “divinity”. …. new creation is breaking into the world

NT Wright, Simply Jesus, p 148-150

Jesus believed that in exorcism and in some other kinds of healing, he released people from the power of the devil.

Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, p 278

the mighty works of Jesus were the reign of God in action

AM Hunter, The words & work of Jesus, p83

In addition to displaying Christ’s power and compassion, the miracles have at least two important theological dimensions….. the covenant curses described in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere were being lifted …. [and] a foretaste of God’s kingdom

John Dickson, A spectator’s guide to Jesus, p40-43

So I think it is clear that Jesus’ miracles indeed pointed to his divinity, but their primary purpose was to demonstrate the kingdom of God – how God was going to put things right.

Miracles today

It seems to me that the situation is similar today. There are many plausible miracle stories (see, for example, Healing miracles and God), enough for anyone willing to believe, but not so much as to compel belief.

I conclude that God is being consistent. Some people receive divine healing and this begins or confirms in them a strong faith in Jesus. Others of us can find pointers to God in the verified stories of miraculous healings, but more often than not God seems to use other means to encourage faith.

I’m inclined to think God works this way because his primary purpose is to create autonomous, freely choosing, rational, ethical beings, and over-use of his power would negate that purpose. But that is just a guess.

Next post

How does God ‘prove’ himself to believers?

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc

6 Comments

  1. UnkleE, thanks for addressing these issues and linking to my blog post. Much appreciated. 🙂 A couple of things, though:

    First of all, I tried to make the point that miracles weren’t solely done for the sake of evidence. But are you saying that wasn’t their purpose at all? I think that would be inconsistent, since they were used that way countless times in the OT, and Jesus used them as evidence too when he healed the sick, fed the 5000, and appeared to Paul on his way to Damascus. Again, John 20:30-31 says that the miracles were recorded so people would believe. If the miracles weren’t used for evidence at all, why would the writer of John have said that? Also, Mark 16:20 says this:

    And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word by the signs that followed

    Hebrews 2:3-4:

    spoken through the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard; God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders, and by manifold powers, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will

    You may have some scholars that don’t think miracles offered much in the way of evidence, but the Bible seems to disagree.

    Secondly, if Jesus’ primary purpose with miracles was to usher in the Kingdom of God:

    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

    then I have to say he didn’t seem to do such a great job. We still have blind people today. Even if we isolate this to Jesus’ time on earth, are you saying all blind people were cured? And even if that were the case, so what? There’s been no lasting impact, so what was the point?

    Jesus said many times that his kingdom was “not of this earth.” When I was a Christian, this is what I believed: Jesus’ kingdom is the church — it’s his group of followers, just like an earthly kingdom is not a building but the collection of citizens within it. Jesus did perform miracles to establish his kingdom, but in the sense that they demonstrated his divinity. He wasn’t just some crackpot going around saying he was divine; he could actually prove it! That’s why the quality of miracles in the Bible so far surpasses anything people claim today — they were used to establish that he and his followers had God’s authority. Once their teachings were recorded for us, the need for miracles passed, because they were never really about fixing individual problems, they were credentials for his authority. In the kingdom of God, earthly suffering, while unfortunate, is only temporary. The faithful will be rewarded with something better in the next life. So while it was nice that some people received miraculous fixes to their earthly problems, the larger purpose was to demonstrate to the bystanders that Jesus (or any miracle worker in the Bible) was speaking on God’s behalf.

    That’s how I think you can make sense of Jesus’ kingdom and the purpose of miracles — and why we don’t see the same kind of miracles today. Of course, for many different reasons, I’ve now rejected the ideas I just wrote about. But I still think it makes better sense of the situation than what you’re describing.

    I want to end with part of a comment I made on my blog last night in reference to the idea that God uses miracles selectively today:

    To say that God picks and chooses which cases to help is the worst possible scenario, in my opinion. It would be better to believe in a god who simply decides not to interfere — let life play out as it will. But so many religions claim that God is all-powerful and intervenes in life here… that means that God chooses when to let a child die of leukemia. That flies in the face of descriptions like “all-loving” and “merciful.” So I find the gods of most religions to be logically impossible. That’s where I think miracles come into play. They show the inherent inconsistencies in most conceptions of god.

  2. Hi Nate, thanks for visiting and taking the trouble to explain your views. I think this has been very helpful, and I think I can see more clearly where our differences lie.

    In your post and in this comment, you seem to me to be making two assertions:

    1. God used miracles in the Bible as evidence for his existence and/or Jesus’ divinity.
    2. If God exists, he should do the same today.

    1. We agree that the miracles of Jesus pointed to something, but what?

    Not proof that God existed. Few, if any, of Jesus’ Jewish hearers doubted God existed, so this would have been pointless.

    Not proof of Jesus’ divinity. The Gospels present few, if any, explicit claims of divinity by Jesus, but rather actions which point more subtly to his divinity. He had good reason for this. It was left to his first followers, in the decade after his death, to draw that conclusion. So that wasn’t the purpose.

    They point to the coming reign of God. For at least 900 years since the demise of David’s kingdom, the Jews had been waiting for a new king (not a divine one) to put things right. And many were crying “how long?”. So when Jesus came, acting as the Messiah, they weren’t looking for proof of his divinity, but proof that the promised time of restoration was indeed at last here. That’s what the miracles pointed to. That’s what Jesus meant and that’s what the scholars tell us (though of course, they could also serve as encouragements to faith in God).

    2. If we want to make a judgment about God’s behaviour today, we need first to have an idea of what God’s aims are. The life of Jesus suggests to us that his aims aren’t as direct as you seem to be expecting. He’s not waiting for us to pass some knowledge exam, and then withholding that knowledge from us.

    The explanation you give from your christian past (“the need for miracles passed”) offers one explanation, but it is one we both reject, and it is not endorsed by the scholars.

    I suggest his aims are the same as then – not so much to prove God exists (though they offer one piece of evidence) but to establish and display how it looks when he is allowed to rule. So miracles still occur, but spread around the world.

    “There’s been no lasting impact, so what was the point?”

    No lasting impact? This obscure Galilean peasant is probably the most famous person in history. A third of the world claims to follow him today. Hospitals have been built, slaves set free, the elderly and disadvantaged cared for, injustice fought, educational facilities established, billions of individuals have found purpose, peace, hope and healing in him, and the world is a better place because of him (though I admit some have used his name to do unspeakable things, but they are not following him).

    But God’s kingdom is voluntary – we each have to opt in, that’s part of the plan – and some who name him seem to have missed the kingdom idea. So we still need new people to opt in to help the process along. I do hope one day, when you have got your previous experience of “christianity” out of your system, you might find it in your heart, mind and conscience to opt in again.

    Thanks again for your comments. I don’t suppose you will agree with what I have written, but you have helped me understand the issues more clearly and express my ideas better.

  3. Thanks unkleE, I appreciate the feedback, and it’s helped me understand your perspective better too. There’s only one part I’ll comment on:

    This obscure Galilean peasant is probably the most famous person in history. A third of the world claims to follow him today. Hospitals have been built, slaves set free, the elderly and disadvantaged cared for, injustice fought, educational facilities established, billions of individuals have found purpose, peace, hope and healing in him, and the world is a better place because of him

    I’ll grant you that he’s probably the most famous person in history. But our advancements in medicine are due to education, not Jesus. Our move from slavery is due to changing ideas of morality and humanity. Certainly some of the people pushing for equality were religious, but Jesus didn’t teach about slavery. And Paul said not to worry about earthly things like that — if you were a slave, be the best slave you could be. And he never told slave owners to release their slaves, just to treat them well.

    I agree that society has made tremendous strides over the centuries, but I really have a hard time seeing Jesus as the cause of all that. And so I still kind of wonder just what it was that he ushered in.

    Anyway, thanks again for discussing it with me! 🙂

  4. Hi Nate, I didn’t intend to infer that Jesus was “the cause of all that”, just a significant cause of much of it. For example:

    1. In the early days of christianity, one of the reasons it grew (according to Rodney Stark) was that it treated women and children far better, saved many children who were deliberately abandoned to die, and cared for the sick – not just their own sick, but all sick, so notable that even their critics noticed!

    2. Through history, the church in Europe established hospitals, schools and universities, promoted science (despite what some internet atheists say) and cared for the poor – not always of course, but often.

    3. There are still schools and hospitals in third world countries run by christians – even in Muslim countries! And christian aid groups do an amazing job in some countries – as this atheist journalist reports about Africa, where he grew up.

    4. Christians (and other believers have been shown by many studies to be happier, healthier and more generous with their time and money than average, thus bringing a great deal of good into the world.

    I’m not suggesting everything is good, and I recognise where christianity is used with selfish or evil intent, it can be very evil, but I’m just pointing out that the kingdom of God has done a lot of good already.

    But it could and should be more, and we christians need to be less selfish and materialistic and more committed. But we also need more people working for the kingdom.

    So we have only seen some of what he began, and it is up to people like me to make it more.

  5. Looking for miracles is a sign of Christian immaturity. I don’t need to seek miracles when God has shown me everything I need to believe. In just 6 words from Genesis…”and the stars He made also”.

    What else do I need to believe?

  6. Hi Jim, thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate that you feel God has shown you enough without miracles, but maybe that for some other people miracles are the thing that they need?

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