For much of my life, I was not concerned with Christianity in the slightest. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t ponder the question of God; it was out of sight, out of mind. Once I became interested in religious study and started to explore Christianity a bit from a historical and theological perspective, I was faced with a fairly significant roadblock.
Coming from an irreligious perspective, Christianity can seem a bit daunting in terms of what you’re expected to believe. Christians teach that God came to Earth as Christ, and that the person of Christ traveled around first century Palestine turning water to wine and raising people from the dead. As if that wasn’t enough, this Christ also gave the ability to work miracles to his apostles as well, who then traveled out into the world performing these acts as part of a campaign to spread the word about the arrival of the kingdom of God. But wait, there’s more – most Christians also believe that throughout the last two millennia, various saints and believers have been gifted with the power to perform incredible acts that defy the “laws of nature” as we know them.
This all can seem like a lot to swallow. As you’re being introduced to the Christian faith, you find that you are already expected to believe that God took human form and allowed himself to be executed on a cross as a form of payment for our sins. That’s enough to wrangle with as it is without including these “miracles” – so how do Christians square them and why do Christians believe in them?
What is a Miracle?
First, it’s important that we establish exactly what a miracle is considered to be. I was actually caught off guard by the Merriam-Webster definition of a miracle, which is “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.” The inclusion of the adjective “surprising” makes sense – I would say people generally expect things to continue on in the way that they always have. For example, when I step onto a pool of water, I fully expect to fall right through into the water. This has always been my experience, and as far as I understand it, it has been everyone’s experience. The laws of nature dictate that objects beyond a certain mass will not be able to stand or walk on water. There are insects that can “walk” on water via surface tension, but that’s another discussion altogether.
All of this is to say that if I saw someone walk on water as if it were concrete, I would be quite surprised. That actually wasn’t the part of the definition of “miracle” that stood out to me. The inclusion of “and welcome” was unexpected, but the more I considered it, the more it made sense. We Christians tend to think of God being good – very good, in fact. If He were to extend his divine hand to cause an event in our world that doesn’t adhere to our generally observed natural laws, we would assume that this event would be good as well, and therefore welcome. Christ’s miracles were always works of positivity. He healed the sick, restored the crippled to full ability, gave the blind their sight, and turned a small basket of fish and loaves into enough to feed thousands.
If Christ was able to perform all of these wonderful acts, he clearly had the power to do the opposite, smiting his enemies in the blink of an eye or raining fire down on the house of Herod or Pilate. He himself mentions this when he is being arrested by the soldiers in the garden of Gethsemane. In the fray, his disciples start fighting back, to which Jesus says, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:53-54). A miracle will never result in violence, or pain – miracles are acts performed with power from beyond our natural world, and therefore not subject to the ills that constrain our day-to-day.
Why Should I Believe in Them?
One thing I want to avoid with my posts is poorly restating points already made by famous theologians. I think the best way to prevent myself from doing this (or at least having it be the main substance of my content) is to present those points and add my own thoughts and personal experiences. Anyway, I was prompted to make this post by an interesting excerpt from Orthodoxy by early 20th century British theologian G.K. Chesterton:
“The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. If I say, ‘Medieval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,’ they answer, ‘But medievals were superstitious’; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles.”
There’s a lot to chew on here, and Orthodoxy is meant to be a short work (it’s about 150 pages) that explains how, as an adult, Chesterton discovered Christianity and eventually converted. Most of the book is spent explaining the logical fallacies posed by authors and thinkers of his day such as Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, and when he gets to his actual explanation of the truth of Christianity, it almost feels like he is rushing and trying not to get caught in the weeds. This causes some of his arguments to feel as though we are only getting the broad strokes, but I found his point on miracles to be thought-provoking at the very least.
Let’s examine the argument he is making for his own belief in miracles, because I feel that it both mirrors my own quite closely. I feel that we, especially as modern Westerners, tend to view those who came before us as probably less intelligent and certainly more ignorant than we are. You hear it quite a bit when historical figures are discussed – “He was a product of his time,” or “Things were different back then.” Of course, some things were different, but the essential capabilities of human cognition were the same.
So why do we have so much testimony, both from the Bible and from the last two thousand years of human history, to the truth of miracles? And why is it so tough for us to believe? I think the obvious answer is that a miracle, by definition, cannot be explained by science or by our understanding of how the world tends to work. The advancements made in science over the past few centuries have increased the quality of human life and our comprehension of the universe by incredible leaps and bounds, but they’ve also narrowed our capacity to accept any degree of mysticism in the world.
For example, we still have no scientific consensus on how life began on Earth or how our consciousness truly functions beyond the abstract. We have theories about organisms growing in the ocean or how the electric currents in our brains form our perception of self, but these remain theories. In a way, the ancient man was perhaps a bit wiser in the sense that he was willing to accept that there are things in this world, and things in this universe, that he may not ever be able to fully comprehend. From the dawn of mankind, we have recognized our own consciousness as something miraculous and a factor that separates us from other species. There is nothing inherently wrong with understanding what consciousness truly is or where it came from, but there is also nothing inherently wrong with pondering the possibility that there is no answer to this question that we will ever be able completely understand.
Let’s step back a bit further and look at this concept through a wider lens. For example, if I was at a wedding and saw a man touch a large bowl of water that instantly turned to wine, I would likely not scream, “Miracle!” I would be quite skeptical, assuming there was some kind of trick involved or maybe he slipped a color tablet into the bowl. If I saw this same man walk on water, or heal the sick with his hands, or raise the dead to life, I would still be skeptical – perhaps the walking on water is some kind of optical illusion, and maybe the dead man was simply in a coma. The interesting thing is that the disciples were skeptical as well. There are many examples throughout the Gospels of these followers of Christ not understanding or not believing in his divinity or in the miracles he was performing right before their eyes, including the famous story about the doubts of Thomas.
So what’s the difference? The difference is that, under the weight of evidence, they were able to come to the believe in the truth of miracles. Even when their initial skepticism was strong, it became impossible to deny or rationally explain what they were witnessing. Would our 21st century scientifically-trained minds allow us to the do the same? To circle back around to Chesterton’s point, we have more evidence for miracles in history than we do for various battles and major events that we wholeheartedly accept as fact. Our ancestors understood the laws of nature just as well as we do, although they may not have called them that. They recognized that if you throw an object in the air, it will fall back down to the Earth, and that every year around the same time the leaves fall off of the trees.
However, they also recognized that there was no “law” governing these events. Laws are things that humans create, to govern society and discourage antisocial behavior. Our ancestors saw gravity, and the changing of the seasons, and the rotations of the Sun and Moon as acts of will – they happen regularly because there is a greater force willing them to happen, not because there is any law saying they must happen. Considering this perspective, which science certainly does not disprove, it is completely rational to posit that the same force willing these things to happen could also not will them to happen in certain circumstances, allowing humans to perform acts that don’t necessarily fit within our understanding of nature’s “laws.”
I would like to close out this post with my own miracle experience, which is also the experience that led me to unwittingly begin walking the long road to acceptance of the Christian faith. Throughout my adolescence and early adult life, I was a heavy drinker and a regular user of whatever drugs I could get my hands on. I would regularly drink to the point of blacking out, becoming violent and irrational and pushing away any who were kindhearted enough to try and offer help. This relationship with alcohol developed during my youth, so as I grew up, it became an integral character trait that felt inseparable from who I was as a person. I knew I would never be able to give up my addiction to alcohol, and would always have to deal with the blackouts and the relationships that lay ruined in my path.
In 2019, I was extremely depressed and my drinking had become even worse. Drinking had become a solitary act, happening in the darkness of my apartment as I laid on the couch guzzling vodka or working my way through a case of beer. I needed the numbness, and to feel like I was giving up control. When I wasn’t drunk, I was able to recognize that I needed to slow down a bit, so I tried a few brief stints of sobriety – Dry July, Sober October, you name it I tried it and I failed each and every time. I would make it a week, or two weeks, and then I would find my will totally shattered and a bottle in my hand. Quitting felt impossible, and my life as a whole felt like I was trying to dig my way out of a pit of quicksand.
That was until one morning in late October of that year. It was a Sunday, and nothing special had happened that weekend; no arrests, no hospitalizations, no fistfights or drunk driving. A friend had visited from out of town and we had consumed a fairly significant amount of alcohol, but that was pretty usual for me. When I woke up that morning, he had already left to begin the long drive home. As I got out of bed, some kind of strong feeling came over me. I hesitate to call it a voice, because it wasn’t like I heard anything, but it was more of a secure, safe thought that was tunneling deep into my brain. I sat there and realized, with complete and total assurance, that I would never drink again. To reiterate, nothing special had happened to set this up – in fact, I had sort of given up on the idea of sobriety and accepted my lifestyle. For whatever reason, that morning, something greater than myself gave me not only the opportunity to choose something better but also the will to actually step forward and make that choice.
I know this isn’t exactly walking on water, but it was a welcome event that I have never been able to explain naturally, and I know that miracles like this happen in the lives of people all over the world on a daily basis. When stepping back and looking at the Bible from a birds eye view, it becomes clear that God tends to work His most miraculous acts through people in a way that we may think of as mundane. Yes, you have the obvious ones like the water turning to wine or some of the miracles of the apostles, but the Bible is mostly full of stories of God changing the hearts and minds of average, everyday people and working His will through them. He may sometimes extend his hand and work directly, but he tends to use us, his greatest creation, to carry out His plan.
I saw this more and more as I journeyed through early sobriety. Things continued to happen to me that I couldn’t understand or explain. At my second AA meeting, I was full of doubt and was questioning whether AA was really for me or if I even needed the meeting. At that very same meeting, which was happening at 4pm on a Sunday in a tiny church basement somewhere outside of Atlanta, a famous television star showed up with his entourage to sit in on the meeting and participate. Something compelled me to raise my hand and share my addiction story despite my shyness and lack of experience, and at the end of the meeting he made a beeline right for me.
He gave me a hug, told me he loved what I shared, and said that I had given him inspiration for a scene he was filming later that night. This actor wasn’t a household name; in fact, I was the only one at the meeting that recognized him. The chances of him showing up at this meeting, at this exact time (the church did 7 AA meetings a day) on this exact day, at this random church in the suburbs of Atlanta, and that I would recognize him, that I would even be there at all, and that he would be moved enough by my share to approach me, are so infinitesimal that I think you would run out of pencil lead trying to write all the zeroes following the one. It happened, and it kept me coming back to AA, which kept me sober.
Anyway, I know this post probably won’t convince you of miracles if you are strongly against the idea of them. However, I encourage you to keep an open mind, not just to the miraculous but to all things in life that may initially seem nonsensical to you. It is incredible the things that you learn just by listening with an open mind and an open heart.