Speaking of Faith: Can You Be Rational and Still Believe in Miracles?

By Mark A. Pierson

What happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas. One night, after finishing his popular stage show "Penn & Teller," magician Penn Jillette had a memorable encounter with a fan--so memorable that he felt compelled to post a video about it on YouTube. "It was really wonderful," Penn recalled thoughtfully. "He was really kind, and nice, and sane, and looked me in the eyes, and. . .gave me this Bible." Penn then proceeded to do something quite remarkable. He criticized believers who refuse to evangelize, and chastised those who think Christians should keep their mouths shut and never bother anyone. Why is this surprising? Because Penn is a stone-cold, outspoken atheist.

It may be rare for an atheist to tell Christians they should convert others, but the reasons why Penn is an atheist are actually quite common. It's not that atheism is a popular position--only about 2% of people are true atheists (that is, materialists). But skeptics who reject the Bible frequently do so because it contains accounts of miracles. Surely, no thinking adult who lives in our scientific age can believe in those, right? Wrong.

People Are Entitled to Their Own Opinions, but Not Their Own Facts 

"Jesus fooled thousands with smoke and mirrors, like a magic act in Vegas." "Ancient people were gullible, and didn't know the difference between facts and fairy tales." "The supernatural stories of Scripture are myths. They might convey spiritual truths, but they can't be taken literally." Unbelievers who talk like this think they have an open-and-shut case. No need for discussion. It's decided: They're smart, and we're stupid. However, when we look at their reasoning, we find a few problems.

Many who deny the possibility of miracles often assume that the laws of nature can never be altered. So whenever a miracle is said to have occurred, it automatically gets placed into the "myth" category. An investigation simply isn't necessary. God or no God, everything has a natural explanation, and no amount of evidence can support the supernatural. Does this sound reasonable? On the contrary, it's as closed-minded as it gets!

Imagine if this is how a court trial proceeded. The prosecutor presents piece after piece of incriminating evidence, showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect is guilty. Even the defendant's lawyer is persuaded, and chooses not to give his closing argument. Yet when the judge reads his verdict, everyone is shocked to hear the words "Not guilty." After court is adjourned, the plaintiff asks the judge privately what he found unconvincing. "Nothing," the judge replies. "I simply made up my mind beforehand that he was innocent, so I knew you had to be wrong." As ridiculous as this may seem, it is precisely what happens when opinions triumph over facts.

From Present to Past?

Another widespread assumption of the anti-miracle crowd concerns the nature of history. It is presumed that the way the universe operates now is the same way it always has. In other words, what we observe in the present determines how we should understand the past. And since water is neither turned into wine nor walked on these days, surely Christians invented such tales.

The problems with this line of thinking are manifold. First, we cannot be absolutely certain that miracles don't happen today. Honest science requires that each claim be examined on its own merits. Second, even if no current claims are legitimate, it does not necessarily follow that all past accounts are likewise false. Honest historical inquiry requires that these, too, be investigated on their own merits prior to being dismissed. Third, we must consider cataclysmic events. If we fail to take into account the effects of a drastic change in the earth's atmosphere, of a large meteor slamming into the planet, or of a global flood, we will miss a big piece of the historical puzzle. Thus, we would be wrong in our assumption that the present essentially mirrors the past.

Finally, the God who established the laws of physics in the first place can certainly adjust them when and where He pleases, whether that means turning the Nile into blood, having someone swallowed by a fish, or entering time and space Himself as a Jewish baby in the womb of a virgin. And He's under no obligation to perform a miracle today to prove that He also did them in the past. So when skeptics say they don't believe in miracles because they've never witnessed one firsthand, push them on that logic. Point out that they also shouldn't believe in Christopher Columbus, abstract concepts, or subatomic particles, since they've never personally seen any of those either.

Check Your Assumptions, not Your Brains, at the Door

Contrary to what most people think, it is not necessary to assume the Bible is God's Word before its miracles can be believed. Why not? Because Jesus is a figure of history, who lived in full view of thousands of people, such that both friendly and hostile eyewitnesses knew what He did and said. This means the records of His life, death, and even resurrection can be examined by the standard methods of historical investigation. If one doesn't rule out the possibility of miracles beforehand, and takes into account all the available evidence, the most probable scenario is that Christ physically and supernaturally rose from the dead.

Contrary to what most people think, it is not necessary to assume the Bible is God's Word before its miracles can be believed. Why not? Because Jesus is a figure of history, who lived in full view of thousands of people, such that both friendly and hostile eyewitnesses knew what He did and said. This means the records of His life, death, and even resurrection can be examined by the standard methods of historical investigation. If one doesn't rule out the possibility of miracles beforehand, and takes into account all the available evidence, the most probable scenario is that Christ physically and supernaturally rose from the dead.

It is easy to see why Paul said all of Christianity stands or falls on this one event (1 Corinthians 15:14). For with the resurrection, Jesus' claims to be God have been vindicated (Matthew 12:40; John 2:19-21). Thus, every miracle He performed is true. It also means He continues to do miracles everyday, whenever someone is baptized into His name or fed His Body and Blood, for only God can forgive sins.

Rev. Mark A. Pierson is the pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Long Beach, California. He has been a long-time enthusiast of Christian apologetics.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2010 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
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