Miracles and the Resurrection - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonApologetics - A Reasoned Defense of the Christian Faith
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How important are Miracles in the New Testament?
The room was quiet. The disciples sat pondering the devastating blow which had just hit them hours before. They had walked with Jesus, ate with him, talked with him, and even leaned upon His breast at the last supper. They could hear his healing words echo within their mind and soul. Three years of teaching and learning about the Kingdom of God came to a drastic halt the moment the dreaded tomb Joseph of Arimethia had used for Jesus’ body was sealed. All of them could envision the cursed Roman seal embedded in the wax which adhered to the tomb’s large stone door. What would they do now that their beloved Master was dead?
“Peace be with you!,” Jesus said as he entered the room appearing before his pouting disciples. Jesus, resurrected and glorified, stood among his nucleus as they gazed upon something Jesus had taught them, but did not understand-that the Son of Man must be crucified by the hands of pagans, die for the sins of men, and rise from the dead three days after. Here they were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Lord. It was a miracle. Miracles are an absolutely essential part of the Christian faith, for if Jesus did not rise from the dead in bodily form leaving an empty tomb, then we are yet in our sins and of all people, quite miserable. Miracles do have a purpose: they edify the church, and bring forth the truth of God’s revelation. The word miracle, “dunamis” in the Greek, in its basic meaning, refers to intrinsic power, either physical or moral, to work wonders or signs. There is a broad connotation of terms which could be applied to this word, therefore, we will begin with what a miracle is not. Miracles can be negatively distinguished in five basic areas: 1) Miracles should be distinguished from the works of God’s providence; they should not be portrayed as anything which is sustained within God’s grace as normal and operative in this world, (or by a special providence as we have today). 2) They should be distinguished from the type of answers to prayer that do not constitute signs or demonstrative evidences toward unbelievers. 3) They should be distinguished between works of magic (compare Exodus 7:11 and Exodus 8:7). 4) They must also be distinguished from Satanic or demonic “wonders”. Paul foretells of the Man of Sin “in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit signs and wonders”, 2 Thessalonians 2:9; cf. Revelation 13:14; 19:20. 5) And Finally, miracles are to be distinguished between mere “religious” exotic occurrences; existential, unprovable experiences. Miracles cannot be considered to be any none of these. Nor are they, as commonly misunderstood, part of God’s providence to His people in our day. Miracles have ceased, being immediately linked to the apostolic period and the resurrection of Christ. With the closing of the cannon and the reception of the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude v. 3) the restricted meaning of miracle is a thing of the past. God would now work in what we would call His “providence” or “special providence” upon men (which may include being healed from cancer, or the like).
“What are Miracles? Miracles are directed related to the resurrection power of Christ and connected with some type of religious significance. Thus, we connect miracles with concepts related to God and the way God interacts with the world. But at the same time, some people see miracles as just passing an exam at school with a good grade or finding an heirloom which had been lost for years. These are not “miracles.” Yet, somewhat more restricted, most relate miracles to any type of unexpected event caused by a supreme being or supernatural force. These, again, are not miracles just because some who is constantly late picks you up on time. To use miracles in that sense is to blaspheme the entire reason true miracles ever existed. David Basinger defines a miracle as, “a permanently inexplicable event directly cause by God.” “Michael Peterson explains a miracle as, “the result of some sort of divine activity…that God has caused a certain event.” “Geisler says a miracle is a divine intervention into, or an interruption of, the regular course of the world that produces a purposeful but unusual event that would not (or could not) have occurred otherwise. The natural world is the world of regular, observable, and predictable events. Hence, a miracle by definition cannot be predicted by natural means.”
It is important to understand the relationship between natural law and miracles. Before we can go on any further we must be able to grasp some type of understanding about the laws of nature. The natural order is that which operates usually and normally, following all the basic laws which uphold how the world runs. Natural laws have been given various titles in which scientists can verify and study nature, but no laws have been “created.” When I say “created” I mean “…bringing into existence something new.” The second law of thermodynamics, for example, is an empirical title given to an already existing natural law of God. A miracle then, is an unusual, irregular, specific way God acts within the bounds of this world which seem to be contrary to nature with a reference to His redemptive historical acts. Miracles are not contradictory towards nature but a super-addition to nature not presently seen in the natural order. In other words, if a miracle was to occur, it would not be a violation of the ordinary laws of cause and effect, but a new effect created by the introduction of a supernatural cause, namely, God. For example, the virgin birth was not contrary to the laws of nature. It was a nine-month pregnancy and resulted in a natural childbirth. God’s providential power is present in every birth which brings forth new life. The main difference between the virgin birth, which is a miracle, and a normal birth, which is simply part of His divine providence, is that one is a direct use of God’s power and the other is indirect. An indirect use of God’s power is called “providence” or the “law of secondary causes”. But this is not a miracle. Normal childbirth is not miraculous. Miracles are the direct intervention of God’s power. Miracles are not freaks of nature but enhancements. They are not malfunctions of any of “mother natures” laws, but a personal touch of God within the realm of His creation. There is a loving mind and a rational message behind all miracles, that is what makes them so special.
Miracles are events which dramatically reveal a living, personal God, active in the history of his people, not as mere “destiny”, but as a Redeemer who saves and guides His people. For our purpose, the main miracle in question is the possibility or actuality of the occurrence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is one of the greatest miracles that has ever taken place within the redemptive work of God through the entirety of the Bible. There are many advocates against the possibility of miracles in general, not to mention the absurdity they find within a resurrected/glorified God-man. Among such opposers is a Jewish philosopher, Benedict Spinoza, and his impossibility of miracles theory, and David Hume’s empirical argument found in his famous essay, “On Miracles.” Both of these arguments will be noted.
Hume’s argument in his essay “On Miracles,” rests upon a number of steps. First, we must be reminded of Hume’s famous epistemological maxim: “experience is our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact.” In other words, the only way which we can truly understand our present experiential matters, is to look at them in the light of our experiences in the past. We are to test all which comes before us with only that experiential evidence at hand. “Second, when we listen to the testimony of anybody on anything, we must proportion his belief by what his past experiences were, and the true state of affairs at hand. If a witness has been faithful in the past, then his testimony can be deemed somewhat reliable. If he has given false testimony in the past then his present testimony must be in question. With these principles in mind, Hume now criticizes the miraculous. A miracle, according to Hume, is a violation of a natural law by a god or some invisible force. Natural laws are set and have been seen as unwavering because of empirical data obtained through relating the past phenomena of nature to the present; it is unchanged and set. Thus, every “miracle” is automatically in direct opposition to our uniform past experience of nature and its laws. “Hume is not arguing that miracles are impossible, but that it is quite unreasonable to ever believe that any miracle has ever occurred. (if it is unreasonable, “against reason”, then it ought to be deemed by Hume irrational and thus, impossible.) Hume argues this from a “historical” standpoint; the resurrection could not possibly have occurred since a great deal of evidence throughout history proves that dead people stay dead. As Nash says about Hume’s position, “It is always easier to believe that those who testify on behalf of such an event are mistaken than it is to believe that the event really took place.” “Therefore Hume rules out miracles on the basis of his empirical skepticism.
To challenge Hume, we look at his argument on the basis of our own personal witness. What if we would be the ones to experience a miracle first hand? We would not be relying upon anyone’s testimony but believing what are own senses empirically observe. I suppose Hume would then borrow from Descartes and attempt to convince us that we were being deceived by an evil demon! Hume is also at fault when he suggests that miracles are supported only by direct evidence. Indirect evidence can stand on behalf of a supposed miracle also. Suppose a person (we will call him Bob) did not observe any type of miracle; this would make him dependent upon another’s testimony. Yet Bob is susceptible to the abiding effects of the miracle. Say someone claimed the lame man down the street from Bob had been healed. Bob could go and see the restored man walking around. The indirect evidence gives good probability that a miracle occurred; or at least something occurred which healed the man. Now if we apply this to the resurrection of Christ, we can see that the indirect evidences, i.e. the church, born again believers, and the Bible, for Christ being raised, readily exist and are apparent. Then we can say, at least in part, that one of the possibilities for explaining the resurrection, which is recorded in scripture, is that it actually did occur! We can see that Hume’s argument fails on various grounds. Reliance upon present experiences and empirical data does not allow us to make final judgments absolutely, if at all. We could go as far to say that since history has only been in the past, and has only happened once for all time, then it cannot be reliable by using Hume’s argument. History is not reliable. Since I was born once, my existence is then not reliable. This obviously leads to nonsense. Hume cannot rule out miracles solely on the grounds he has proposed. Hume’s arguments, the major two we have noted above, in his essay “On Miracles”, need a “miracle” to work.
Benedict Spinoza is another contester of miracles. Spinoza’s argument against miracles is simply stated, “nothing then, comes to pass in nature in contravention to her universal laws, nay, nothing does not agree with them and follow them, for…she keeps a fixed and immutable order.” A miracle, if in contention with, or contrary to or beyond nature, is an absurdity according to Spinoza. Spinoza says, “We may, then, be absolutely certain that every event which is truly described in Scripture necessarily happened, like everything else, according to natural laws.” “To summarize his argument into its basic form is this: 1. Miracles are a violation of natural laws. 2. Natural Laws are immutable. 3. It is impossible for immutable laws to be violated. 4. Therefore, miracles are impossible. Because of the signs of the times for Spinoza, working out all problems in a geometric way and in an orderliness of the physical universe, he enveloped himself in these idea thus conclusions which he may arise with are influenced highly with an axiomatic tendency. Such thinking would give rise to false conclusions such as “natural laws are immutable.” “Since Spinoza’s thinking is as such, he said that the Apostles preached the gospel news solely on the virtue of Christ’s passion. Spinoza reduces Christianity to a mystical, nonpropositional religion without foundations. Christianity has held, since the time of the apostle Paul, that without regarding the resurrection of Christ as true, then it is a religion without hope (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Spinoza’s use of “natural laws” are based upon his conception of Newtonian physics; yet they are also scientifically indefensible. For Spinoza the system of nature was a closed book and therefore the system is set in a way in which it must behave. But for contemporary scientists (and all rational thinkers) the system is not closed but opened. Natural laws, to them, are merely statistical averages of the way things do behave. Therefore, there is, from a scientific perspective, the possibility that there may be exceptions to these “normal” patterns. (Such as the chaos theory.) In this way a miraculous event would be explained as some type of an anomaly, not a violation of immutable laws. Thus, as contemporaries, we cannot dismiss the miraculous as impossible by definition, as Spinoza does.
Furthermore, using scientific means to reach a solution about any miracle denies intelligence and the use of a personal mind. If we resort to geometric calculations and scientific variables then we rule out that there could be a personal deity behind miracles. Why is it so impossible that God would perform a miracle? This is actually more logical than trying to explain a natural anomaly. We are pushed into relying on impersonal scientific jargon and statistical tables as our deity. (A deity none-the-less.) Spinoza’s argument fails because his very definition of a miracle fails, i.e. a violation of “unbreakable laws”. What Spinoza should have done was to provide some sound argument for his rationalistic presuppositions, which of course, he did not do; his reasoning is geometric but his rationalistic axioms are wrong.
Miracles cannot be pronounced impossible by definition. The resurrection, for some, is just a figment of the apostolic writer’s imagination or that the dead Jesus continuously abides in the yearning hearts of believers. Some apply the understanding of what the resurrection means, as Bultmann does, and says that the resurrection is something which happens in the believer; it is a rise of faith, of a new understanding within us, not Jesus rising from the dead. Many turn to Process theology and it’s answer of the resurrection, i.e. that Jesus died and his memory still lingers in our souls (which is really like Bultmann’s view). Some even think that the resurrection was a desperate last-moment attempt to save the Hero from a situation which had got out of the gospel writer’s control. But all of these fail miserably in light of the historical data. The miracle of the resurrection is a vital tool of the Christian faith and cannot be dismissed as Hume and Spinoza have tried, nor just explained away as these ideas above.
In a biblical defense of the resurrection, we now turn our thoughts to the witnesses of the Biblical picture itself. The great miracle of the New Testament can be seen as a combination of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. If one is able to believe this, then all other miracles of the Gospels and Acts are easily believed. What then is the evidence for the Resurrection and how sufficient are the witnesses? Do the witnesses contradict each other? Given the wide scope of views within the Gospel account, and of Acts, some may question the answer to this, but it is an emphatic “NO”. Each New Testament writer tells part or the whole of the same ‘story’. Jesus proved his reality to the disciples so convincingly that they preached the Resurrection just over a month after the Ascension in the city of Jerusalem. Were there a sufficient number of witnesses? The number of witnesses to the Resurrection was 500 (1 Corinthians 15:6). Jesus appeared to Mary (John 20:11-18), to the other women (Matthew 28:9-10), to Peter (Luke 24:34), to two disciples going to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32), to ten apostles (John 20:19-25), to eleven apostles (John 20:26-29), to seven apostles at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-14), to the eleven apostles to commission them (Matthew 28:16-20), to more than five hundred brethren (1 Corinthians 15:6), to his unbelieving brother James (1Corinthians 15:7), and to the disciples at the ascension (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:4-11). Were the witnesses of good character? They were men of most high integrity. The writers of the New Testament wrote of high moral and ethical standards. They were highly esteemed in their communities, and held lofty positions in the church. No one in the first century ever proved them to be frauds. Certainly, because of the wickedness of men and their desire to hold fast to their sin, their message was resisted, but it was never refuted. These men believed in their cause so greatly, that they would have died for their Lord. If we cannot believe the apostles of Christ, who can we believe? What purpose could such a resurrection give?
The Bible is, at the very least, an accurate historical document which would stand the test of any courtroom since it testifies to things without a “reasonable doubt.” (…and has been proven as such to do so without any problem; see Greenleaf’s “Testimony of the Evangelists.”) Being such a reliable document, the historicity of the “man” Jesus is a fact. Yet, the narrative about this man Jesus shows him to be a miracle worker; His greatest miracle being raising himself from the dead. The historical narrative at its very nature shows that the resurrection was something believed by hundreds of people, and now by billions. The integrity of the data has been question, but never soundly refuted since the history of the church has existed. Many have tried, but none have triumphed. The integrity of the resurrection account holds true as historical fact. Those in opposition must be emphatically ready to accuse Jesus Christ if being a liar and deceiver if they attest to him as a historical figure, but not as the resurrected Lord. Christ lied and deceived his apostles if he was not raised from the dead. Either that or he was a lunatic preaching in ignorance. In either case, the opposers must admit that Christ is God or he is a liar. If He is God he ought to be obeyed. If he is a lair his testimony to God cannot be trusted.
The resurrection, more than any other miracle of the New Testament, is the foundation on which our Christian faith and hope rest. This event was the decisive triumph over sin and death. The book of the cross, i.e. the gospel’s account of the passion and death of our Lord to take away his sheep’s sin, is finalized with a triumphant chapter, the chapter of the resurrection. The cross allows us to live in its shadow now, as the resurrection gives its stamp of approval on the resurrection so we have a future hope with a present reality. The resurrection cannot be dismissed from the cross nor can the cross be separated from its sealed proof. Jesus had to be raised from the dead for the cross to do any good. When Hume, Spinoza and others try to take that away from the cross, and if their claims had any substantial weight or truth to them, then our faith would become dreary and dead, being overshadowed by a crucified fool who could do no good for our souls. Death and Resurrection are the heart of the biblical narrative concerning redemption. Jesus dies, is buried, and rises on the third day to become the Chief Cornerstone, the Author and Finisher of our faith. How can we rationally deny the miraculous event of the resurrection? The miracle of the resurrection is not a violation of the natural law, but a short cut; a divinely appointed short cut from which a loving God raises his Son from the dead and gives gifts to men. Miracles in general do not spout out of freaks of nature or figments of imagination. They are products of the redemptive work of a powerful, loving God.
The disciples stood listening to the words of Christ which they had doubted just over a month before. But Christ had revealed himself to them so many times, and stood among them and fellowshipped with them, how could they possibly not believe? He spoke a blessing upon them and then the clouds of Glory covered his ascending body as he entered heaven. His words lingered in their hearts, especially the beloved apostle. John wrote to us the whole purpose for which he felt, under the inspiration of the Spirit, that Christ did all the miraculous things they had seen: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:30-31
1. Basinger p. 32.
2. Zodhiates, p134.
3. Tenney, p. 660.
4. Peterson, p156.
5. Basinger p. 31.
6. Peterson, p. 156.
7. Geisler p. 12.
8. Geisler, p. 13.
9. Geisler, p. 131.
10. Douglas, p. 782.
11. Basinger, p. 32.
12. Basinger, p. 33.
13. Basinger, p. 33.
14. Nash, p. 231.
15. Nash, p. 232.
16. Nash, p. 233.
17. Geisler, p. 17.
18. Geisler, p. 14-15.
19. Ibid, p. 15.
20. Ibid, p. 15.
21. Ibid, p. 16.
22. Ibid, p. 18.
23. Ibid, p. 21.
24. Nash, p. 114.
25. Lewis, p. 63.
26. Ibid, p. 149.
27. Ibid, p. 150.
28. Douglas, p. 784.
Basinger, David and Randall Basinger. Philosophy and Miracle: Contemporary Debate. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Douglas, J.D. New Bible Dictionary. Leicaster: Intervarsity Press, 1988.
Geisler, Norman L. Miracles and Modern Thought. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982.
Lewis, C.S. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: Association Press, 1958.
Nash, Ronald. Christian Faith and Historical Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing Company, 1984.
Nash, Ronald. Faith and Reason. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988.
Peterson, Michael and William Hasker and Bruce Reichenbach and David Basinger. Reason and Religious Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Tenney, Merrill C. New International Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987.
Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete New Testament Word Study Dictionary. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, 1992.