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Dr. Walter Kaiser on Can We Believe in Bible Miracles?

02 Jul

HSOTB Kaiser Bruce Davids Brauch

Without Miracles, Biblical Faith is Meaningless – by Walter C. Kaiser Jr.

In the New Testament we read about numerous miracles. Did these really happen, or are they simply legends or perhaps the way ancient people described what they could not explain?

First we need to look at what is at stake in this question. Both Old Testament and New Testament belief are based on miracles. In the Old Testament the basic event is that of the exodus, including the miracles of the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea. These were miracles of deliverance for Israel and judgment for her enemies. Without them the faith of the Old Testament has little meaning. In the New Testament the resurrection of Jesus is the basic miracle. Every author in the New Testament believed that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified and on the third day had returned to life. Without this miracle there is no Christian faith; as Paul points out, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). Thus in both Old and New Testaments, without miracles, biblical faith is meaningless.

The fact that miracles are at the root of biblical faith, however, does not mean that they happened. Thus we need to ask if it is possible that they did occur. Some people take a philosophical position that miracles cannot happen in that the “laws of nature” are fixed and that God, if he exists, either cannot or will not “violate” them. While this is an honestly held position, it is also outdated. The idea of firmly fixed “laws of nature” belongs to Newtonian physics, not the world of relativity, which views laws as generalities covering observations to date. The issue for us, then, is whether there is evidence that there is a force (a spiritual force) which creates those irregularities in our observations of events that we term miracles.

The response of the Bible in general and the New Testament in particular is that there is. The basic spiritual force is that of God. He, Scripture asserts, is the only fully adequate explanation for the existence of the world. His personality is the only adequate explanation for the existence of personality in human beings. What is more, because he is personal he has remained engaged with this world. Some of his engagement we see in the regular events of “nature” (Col 1:16–17; Heb 1:3), while at other times he reveals his presence by doing something differently. It is those events that we call miracles.

A miracle has two parts: event and explanation. The event is an unusual occurrence, often one which cannot be explained by the normally occurring forces which we know of. Sometimes the event itself is not unique, but its timing is, as is the case in the Old Testament with the parting of the Jordan River and at least some of the plagues of Egypt. At other times, as in the resurrection of the dead, the event itself is unique.

The explanation part of the miracle points out who stands behind the event and why he did it. If a sick person suddenly recovers, we might say, “Boy, that was odd. I wonder what happened?” Or we might say, “Since I’ve never seen such a thing happen, perhaps he or she was not really sick.” We might even say, “This is witchcraft, the operation of a negative spiritual power.” Yet if the event happens when a person is praying to God the Father in the name of Jesus, the context explains the event. So we correctly say, “God worked a miracle.” Thus in the New Testament we discover that the resurrection of Jesus is explained as an act of God vindicating the claims of Jesus and exalting him to God’s throne.

How do we know that such a miracle happened? It is clear that we cannot ever know for certain. On the one hand, I cannot be totally sure even of what I experience. I could be hallucinating that I am now typing this chapter on this computer keyboard. I certainly have had dreams about doing such things. Yet generally I trust (or have faith in) my senses, even though I cannot be 100 percent sure of their accuracy. On the other hand, we did not directly experience biblical miracles, although it is not unknown for Christians (including us) to have analogous experiences now, including experiences of meeting the resurrected Jesus. Still, none of us were present when the biblical events happened. Therefore we cannot believe on the basis of direct observation; we have to trust credible witnesses.

When it comes to the resurrection, we have more documents from closer to the time of the event than we have for virtually any other ancient event. The witnesses in those New Testament documents subscribe to the highest standards of truthfulness. Furthermore, most of them died on behalf of their witness, hardly the actions of people who were lying. They claim to have had multiple personal experiences that convinced them that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead (see 1 Cor 15:1–11). None of this absolutely proves that this central miracle happened. There could have been some type of a grand illusion. Yet it makes the resurrection believable enough for it to be a credible basis for faith. We see enough evidence for us to commit ourselves to, which is something that we do in everyday life constantly when we commit ourselves to something that someone has told us.

If the central miracle of the New Testament actually happened, then we have much less of a problem with any of the other miracles. Some of those same witnesses are claiming to have observed them, or to have known others who did. After the resurrection of a dead person, a healing or even the calming of a storm appear to be relatively minor. After all, if God is showing himself in one way, it would not be surprising for him to show himself in many other ways.

Miracles in the Bible have several functions. First, they accredit the messengers God sends, whether that person be Moses or a prophet or Jesus or an apostle or an ordinary Christian. Miracles are how God gives evidence that this person who claims to be from him really is from him. He “backs up their act” with his spiritual power.

Second, miracles show the nature of God and his reign. They may work God’s justice, but more often they show his character as full of mercy and forgiveness. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God had come. The people might rightly ask what that rule of God looked like. Jesus worked miracles which showed the nature of that reign. The blind see, the lame walk, the outcasts are brought into community, and the wild forces of nature are tamed. That is what the kingdom of God is like.

Third, miracles actually do the work of the kingdom. When one reads Luke 18, he or she discovers that it is impossible for a rich person to be saved, although with God all things are possible. Then in Luke 19:1–10 Zacchaeus, a rich man, is parted from his wealth and is saved. Clearly a miracle has happened, and the kingdom of God has come even to a rich man. The same is true of the demons being driven out, for each time this happens the borders of Satan’s kingdom are driven back. Similarly, many other miracles also have this function.

So, did miracles really happen? The answer is that, yes, a historical case can be made for their happening. Furthermore, we have seen that it is important to establish that they happened. A miracle is central to Christian belief. And miracles serve important functions in certifying, explaining and doing the work of the kingdom of God.

Miracles are not simply nice stories for Sunday school. They are a demonstration of the character of God, not only in the past but also in the present.

In the New Testament we read about numerous miracles. Did these really happen, or are they simply legends or perhaps the way ancient people described what they could not explain?

First we need to look at what is at stake in this question. Both Old Testament and New Testament belief are based on miracles. In the Old Testament the basic event is that of the exodus, including the miracles of the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea. These were miracles of deliverance for Israel and judgment for her enemies. Without them the faith of the Old Testament has little meaning. In the New Testament the resurrection of Jesus is the basic miracle. Every author in the New Testament believed that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified and on the third day had returned to life. Without this miracle there is no Christian faith; as Paul points out, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). Thus in both Old and New Testaments, without miracles, biblical faith is meaningless.

The fact that miracles are at the root of biblical faith, however, does not mean that they happened. Thus we need to ask if it is possible that they did occur. Some people take a philosophical position that miracles cannot happen in that the “laws of nature” are fixed and that God, if he exists, either cannot or will not “violate” them. While this is an honestly held position, it is also outdated. The idea of firmly fixed “laws of nature” belongs to Newtonian physics, not the world of relativity, which views laws as generalities covering observations to date. The issue for us, then, is whether there is evidence that there is a force (a spiritual force) which creates those irregularities in our observations of events that we term miracles.

The response of the Bible in general and the New Testament in particular is that there is. The basic spiritual force is that of God. He, Scripture asserts, is the only fully adequate explanation for the existence of the world. His personality is the only adequate explanation for the existence of personality in human beings. What is more, because he is personal he has remained engaged with this world. Some of his engagement we see in the regular events of “nature” (Col 1:16–17; Heb 1:3), while at other times he reveals his presence by doing something differently. It is those events that we call miracles.

A miracle has two parts: event and explanation. The event is an unusual occurrence, often one which cannot be explained by the normally occurring forces which we know of. Sometimes the event itself is not unique, but its timing is, as is the case in the Old Testament with the parting of the Jordan River and at least some of the plagues of Egypt. At other times, as in the resurrection of the dead, the event itself is unique.

The explanation part of the miracle points out who stands behind the event and why he did it. If a sick person suddenly recovers, we might say, “Boy, that was odd. I wonder what happened?” Or we might say, “Since I’ve never seen such a thing happen, perhaps he or she was not really sick.” We might even say, “This is witchcraft, the operation of a negative spiritual power.” Yet if the event happens when a person is praying to God the Father in the name of Jesus, the context explains the event. So we correctly say, “God worked a miracle.” Thus in the New Testament we discover that the resurrection of Jesus is explained as an act of God vindicating the claims of Jesus and exalting him to God’s throne.

How do we know that such a miracle happened? It is clear that we cannot ever know for certain. On the one hand, I cannot be totally sure even of what I experience. I could be hallucinating that I am now typing this chapter on this computer keyboard. I certainly have had dreams about doing such things. Yet generally I trust (or have faith in) my senses, even though I cannot be 100 percent sure of their accuracy. On the other hand, we did not directly experience biblical miracles, although it is not unknown for Christians (including us) to have analogous experiences now, including experiences of meeting the resurrected Jesus. Still, none of us were present when the biblical events happened. Therefore we cannot believe on the basis of direct observation; we have to trust credible witnesses.

When it comes to the resurrection, we have more documents from closer to the time of the event than we have for virtually any other ancient event. The witnesses in those New Testament documents subscribe to the highest standards of truthfulness. Furthermore, most of them died on behalf of their witness, hardly the actions of people who were lying. They claim to have had multiple personal experiences that convinced them that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead (see 1 Cor 15:1–11). None of this absolutely proves that this central miracle happened. There could have been some type of a grand illusion. Yet it makes the resurrection believable enough for it to be a credible basis for faith. We see enough evidence for us to commit ourselves to, which is something that we do in everyday life constantly when we commit ourselves to something that someone has told us.

If the central miracle of the New Testament actually happened, then we have much less of a problem with any of the other miracles. Some of those same witnesses are claiming to have observed them, or to have known others who did. After the resurrection of a dead person, a healing or even the calming of a storm appear to be relatively minor. After all, if God is showing himself in one way, it would not be surprising for him to show himself in many other ways.

Miracles in the Bible have several functions. First, they accredit the messengers God sends, whether that person be Moses or a prophet or Jesus or an apostle or an ordinary Christian. Miracles are how God gives evidence that this person who claims to be from him really is from him. He “backs up their act” with his spiritual power.

Second, miracles show the nature of God and his reign. They may work God’s justice, but more often they show his character as full of mercy and forgiveness. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God had come. The people might rightly ask what that rule of God looked like. Jesus worked miracles which showed the nature of that reign. The blind see, the lame walk, the outcasts are brought into community, and the wild forces of nature are tamed. That is what the kingdom of God is like.

Third, miracles actually do the work of the kingdom. When one reads Luke 18, he or she discovers that it is impossible for a rich person to be saved, although with God all things are possible. Then in Luke 19:1–10 Zacchaeus, a rich man, is parted from his wealth and is saved. Clearly a miracle has happened, and the kingdom of God has come even to a rich man. The same is true of the demons being driven out, for each time this happens the borders of Satan’s kingdom are driven back. Similarly, many other miracles also have this function.

So, did miracles really happen? The answer is that, yes, a historical case can be made for their happening. Furthermore, we have seen that it is important to establish that they happened. A miracle is central to Christian belief. And miracles serve important functions in certifying, explaining and doing the work of the kingdom of God.

Miracles are not simply nice stories for Sunday school. They are a demonstration of the character of God, not only in the past but also in the present.

About The Author:

Kaiser W image w books in background

Walter C. Kaiser Jr. (PhD, Brandeis University) is the distinguished professor emeritus of Old Testament and president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Dr. Kaiser has written over 40 books, including Toward an Exegetical TheologyBiblical Exegesis for Preaching and TeachingA History of IsraelThe Messiah in the Old TestamentRecovering the Unity of the BibleThe Promise-Plan of GodPreaching and Teaching The Last Things; and coauthored (with Moises Silva) An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. Dr. Kaiser and his wife, Marge, currently reside at Kerith Farm in Cedar Grove, Wisconsin. Dr. Kaiser’s website is www.walterckaiserjr.com. The article above was adapted from the book The Hard Sayings of the Bible – Chapter 2.

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