Are Miracles in the Bible Overrated?
What Science Fiction Horror Films Have Taught Me About Miracles
Miracles were not “normal” in Bible times. This seems like an obvious assertion, but it is surprising how many Bible critics speak of miracles as if they were normal and “natural” occurrences in the Ancient Near East (ANE).
Miracles were not normal. Those who witnessed them did not just yawn and move on with their lives. Miracles in the Bible were disruptive events in the lives of those who witnessed them. That is why they are also referred to as “miracles” or “signs” even in the Bible.
People knew that the world worked in certain ways and nature obeyed certain laws and whenever those laws were “broken”, people stopped and stared. It was not normal for a bush to burn without getting consumed, that is why Moses stared at the burning bush in dismay at the foot of Sinai.
It was against “the laws of physics” for people to walk on water. That is why the disciples in the boat peed their pants and stared wide eyed when they saw Jesus walking on water. Anyone who insists that “belief in miracles” is merely a characteristic of an archaic worldview in which “miracles were normal” is being dishonest about our ancestors.
Secondly, miracles were not “common” in the Bible. Abraham didn’t just conjure up a cup of water with his wand when he felt thirsty. He had to dig wells and fight for wells and work for water. In his 175 years on earth, Abraham could count on two fingers the number of times he was an “eye witness” to miraculous events.
For argument’s sake, I can only think of the birth of Isaac and the “miraculous” appearance of a lamb when Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son. Even so, Sarah conceiving in old age can still be explained as “biologically possible though rare” while the lamb in the thickets may have just wandered off from a nearby herd. Nothing miraculous there.
Even Moses seldom experienced any miracles in his life. He was 80 years when he “witnessed” his first miracle, the burning bush. The 10 plagues probably happened over the course of less than a year. This is followed by the parting of the red sea and the fall of manna from the sky, among others.
Clearly, Moses’ life wasn’t one in which miracles were the “order of the day” and even the “many” miracles that he witnessed were in a very tiny sliver of his otherwise long life.
Pick a Bible character, including Jesus, and the same case can be made for the “rarity” of miracles in their lives, no matter how closely they walked with God.
A similar case can be made for how frequently miracles happened throughout the history of the Israelite people. More than 1,500 years had passed between the time of Adam and Noah’s flood and there was no mention of a miracle (except, maybe, the disappearance of Enoch).
Some people may not even consider the flood a miraculous event, and yet that is the first account we have of something even remotely close to a miracle.
From Noah’s time, the next recorded miracles are the few in Abraham’s life, some shaky episodes in the lives of Jacob and Joseph and then we jump some 600 years to the time of Moses. After Moses, a few more miracles are scattered in the life of Joshua, Samson and some prophets like Elijah.
Between Israel going into exile and the time of Christ, another 500 years or so passed in which nothing “miraculous” happened. In the time of Jesus and the few years that followed, we have many miracles concentrated within a period of not more than 50 years and then, as far as many people believe, nothing “substantial” in the 2000 years that followed.
Clearly, miracles were not as commonplace in the ancient times as those who “disbelieve” them would like to believe. People were still as rational back then as we are today, and something that seemed to defy the laws of science (no matter how primitive the science back then) was not so easily relegated into the “miraculous” category.
So it is quite dishonest to claim that belief in the supernatural was easier in the past because people were more gullible and highly superstitious.
Miracles and Science Fiction
But there is a more compelling (albeit somehow elusive) reason why I believe miracles continue to defy scrutiny and rational analysis, whether or not they happen today. Indulge me for a moment.
If miracles are really what the Bible presents them to be: supernatural acts of God meant to communicate specific messages (signs) to specific people or people groups, then we shouldn’t be surprised if only those whom God is targeting get to be the only ones to witness them.
In other words, if miracles are occurrences that defy the “natural laws of physics”, for instance, what is to stop God from also making the miracles incidents that defy our natural ways of verifying events?
I believe many horror science fiction movies have something important to teach us concerning the point I am trying to make. In a typical story, there is a supernatural “monster” that will usually appear to some people but not to others.
Any attempt to photograph the monster will usually fail either because the camera breaks down or a series of circumstances ensure relevant people never get to see the picture. Also, for some reason, the people who may have seen the monster and are best placed to describe it (and would even be more believable) somehow choose not to reveal their knowledge, or they are killed before they can speak to anyone else.
To make matters more annoying, the people who are “allowed” to talk about the monster are too hysterical and “crazy” to be believable. They seem to have lost all rationality, and therefore all credibility.
Throughout all these circumstances (which serve as a great recipe for suspense for the audience), the person watching the film has the advantage of omniscience and knows that the monster really exists despite the skepticism of some characters, the ignorance of others and even the craziness of those who “know”.
What am I getting at with this illustration? My point is quite simple: if God does not want other people to witness the miracle because He does not mean it to be a sign for them but only for a few, it is well within His powers and rights to manipulate circumstances such that no amount of scientific testing and journalistic investigation will“prove” the miracle.
Perhaps this is why those who have doctrines against miracles persist in their disbelief. Perhaps this is why those who have witnessed miracles persist in their belief no matter how crazy they appear to others.
Perhaps some things are simply too lofty for us mere mortals to break them up and box them into neat little categories that make a lot of theological sense but lead to very little change in the lives of those who claim to believe or disbelieve them.