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Discerning The Voice of God: The Apologetic Function of Miracles

by Steven B. Cowan-
Christians believe in a miracle-working God. Since he is the sovereign creator of the physical universe and the natural laws by which it operates, we believe that there is no obstacle to his intervening in the course of world history to do spectacular, out of the ordinary things that defy natural explanations. So God can do miracles if it pleases him to do so. But why would God do a miracle? In addition to our belief in God’s omnipotent power, we also believe that God is a rational being, a purposeful being. He is not capricious or frivolous. This means that if he does a miracle, he will have a reason or purpose for doing so. But what reason or reasons does he have?

In this article, we will explore what the Bible has to say about the nature and purpose of miracles. We will see that one of the major reasons God has for miracles is helping human beings discern his voice when he speaks to us. That is, miracles serve a vital purpose in Christian apologetics.

The Nature and Purpose of Miracles1
When the Bible speaks of miracles, it usually characterizes them as “signs” and “wonders.” Sometimes these two terms are used separately when describing miracles (Exod. 4:1-8; 11:9; John 2:11; 11:47; 20:30; et passim). On other occasions they are used together in the phrase “signs and wonders” (Exod. 7:3; Ps. 135:9; Acts 2:22, 43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; et passim). Sometimes one text describes a miraculous event as a “sign” and another text describes the same event as a “wonder” (cp. Exod.4:21 and Ps. 78:43). There are a few places in the New Testament where the terms “miracle” and “signs and miracles” are used (e.g., Acts 4:16; 8:13).

The description of miracles as signs and wonders tells us something about both the nature and purpose of miracles. As Christian philosopher Norman Geisler puts it:

From the human vantage point a miracle, then, is  an  unusual  event  (“wonder”) that conveys and confirms an unusual message (“sign”) by means of unusual power.  .  .  .From  the  divine  vantage point a miracle is an act of God. . .that attracts the attention of the people  of God (“wonder”) to the Word of God (by a  “sign”).2

Notice, first, that miracles are  wonders. This means that they are spectacular, amazing events that inspire awe in those who witness them (cf. Matt. 8:27; 9:33; Mark  2:12;  5:42; Acts 5: 11). They are not the kinds of things that ordinarily happen. People born blind do not normally receive  their  sight  at  the  command of another person. Nor do storms cease raging when someone waves his hand. Nor do dead people come back to life after being in  the grave for four days. Miracles defy the ordinary operations of nature.  They  do  not  appear  to be explainable by appeal to natural laws and processes.

Second, notice again that miracles are signs. In Scripture, miracles certainly had multiple functions. For example, miracles of healing and exorcism were no doubt intended by God as acts of compassion and mercy toward the suffering. Yet, in calling miracles “signs,” the Bible makes it clear that the primary function of miracles is to draw the attention of people to the presence and activity of God. When a person witnesses a miracle, he is supposed to recognize the hand of God. This is why miracles were often designed to authenticate a prophet of God and his message. In other words, miracles provide evidence that a particular person is sent by God as his spokesman. For example, when Moses expressed concern that the Israelites might not believe that God had sent him to lead them out of Egypt, God gave Moses two miraculous signs to prove that he was indeed sent by God (Exod. 4:1·8, 29-31). Similarly, when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, the Lord confirmed him as the true prophet of  the true God by raining fire down from heaven (1 Kings 18:36). Nicodemus understood this  function  of  miracles  when he told Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one could do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Jesus himself emphasized the authenticating nature of miracles when he said at the healing of the paralytic, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . .I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home” (Mark 2:10-11). Also significant in this regard is Jesus’ response to John the Baptist when the latter came to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus responded to John’s messengers, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind received sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Luke 7:22). Jesus appealed to Old Testament texts (esp. Isa. 35:5) which foresaw the miracles of the coming Messiah to prove to John that he was indeed the Messiah and not a counterfeit.

The apostles likewise saw Jesus’ miracles as authenticating his divine authority. John organized his entire gospel around seven miraculous signs of Jesus “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31). In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter declared that Jesus was “a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst” (Acts 2:22). The apostles saw their own miracles the same way. Paul spoke of apostolic miracles as the “signs of an apostle” (i .e., one who was designated by Christ as his spokesman, 2 Cor. 12:12). And the author of Hebrews asserts that Jesus’ gospel message was confirmed by the teaching of the apostles with “God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles. . .” (Heb. 2:4).

It is clear from the Bible, then, that the primary  purpose  of   miracles  was  and  is to provide signs that authenticate a divine revelation. By miracles human beings can know that God is making his presence known, usually for the purpose of teaching or directing his people. This means that miracles are a central part of Christian apologetics.   God has used miracles in the past to confirm the authority of the prophets and apostles so that we can know that the Bible is God’s Word and that the Christian religion is true. This is why contemporary Christian apologists defend the possibility of miracles and attempt to demonstrate that miracles connected to the origins of the Christian faith (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus) really happened. In making such a defense we provide grounds to believe that Christianity is true – it’s true because it is authenticated by miraculous signs and wonders that only God can do.

Can Miracles Produce Saving Faith?
The fact that miracles play a role in showing that Christianity is true might raise the question as to whether or not miracles can produce saving faith. That is, would those who witness miracles – or otherwise know that they have occurred – necessarily respond to the gospel in faith and repentance? The answer is no. The Bible makes it clear that fallen human beings can be exposed to the most amazing miracles of God and fail to come to faith in Christ. Pharaoh, for example, stubbornly refused to believe in the face of ten devastating plagues sent by God. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day resisted the authenticating power of his miracles by attributing them to Satan (Matt. 12:24). In his Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus indicated that the unregenerate “will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” So miracles by themselves are incapable of producing saving faith.

What good are miracles in apologetics, then? If they cannot produce faith, what is the use of appealing to them in our evangelism and apologetics? In answering this question it is important to keep in mind what we have already seen. God did give his prophets and apostles miracles as signs pointing to the truth of the Christian faith. Jesus was attested by signs and wonders, Peter said at Pentecost. Moses was given miraculous signs so that the Israelite’s would believe that God sent him. So, it is clear from Scripture that miracles function as authenticating signs that evidence the truth of Christianity. We can say, then, that miracles ought to persuade people to believe if they could see them with unbiased, objective minds. The problem, according to Scripture, is that such objectivity is impossible for fallen humans apart from the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor.2:14). Those who refuse to accept the testimony of God’s miracles are sometimes even described as “blind” (cf. John 9:39-41; 13:37-41). So, even though miracles do attest the truth of Christianity, fallen sinners, left to themselves, will reject their testimony by “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). The problem is not with the evidence God provides through miracles, but with the unregenerate human heart.

With all this said, however, we should also note that many people in the Bible did come to believe on the basis of miracles (cf. Exod. 4:30-31; Luke 7:18-23; John 11:45; Acts 2:40-41; 8:6-8). So, on the one hand, Scripture indicates that miracles cannot produce saving faith because fallen men and women are spiritually blind and hard-hearted. But, on the other hand, we see some sinners coming to faith in Christ because they witnessed a miracle. How are we to understand this? The only plausible conclusion seems to be that in some cases, the testimony of a miracle is accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit in opening blind eyes. This fact ought to give the Christian apologist confidence as he appeals to the evidence for biblical miracles in seeking to persuade people to believe the gospel. Even though the evidence alone will not produce saving faith, often God is pleased to use the evidence as part of the means by which he draws sinners to Christ.

Don’t Other Religions Appeal to Miracles?
A strong critic of miracles was the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. He offered some reasons why people should not believe that a miracle has occurred. Most of these reasons were philosophical in nature and we will not address them here.3 However, Hume made one objection to miracles that is directly relevant to their apologetic function as outlined above.

Hume noted that many world religions claim miracles as part of their traditions of belief. For example, Muslims claim that Muhammad once split the moon in half. He is also said to have healed broken legs and made miraculous provisions of food and water. Some Buddhists believe that Gautama (the original Buddha) once rose into the air shooting fire and water out of his body. Other religions contain similar miracle stories. This being so, Hume claimed, it would seem that miracle-claims in the world’s religions cancel each other out when they are used (as in the Bible) to authenticate religious beliefs. In his words, Hume said, “All the prodigies {i.e., miracles} of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether strong or weak, as opposite to each other.”4 In other words, if miracles support many religions, then they really don’t support any religion.

What can we say in response to this argument? The most significant problem with it is that it assumes that all miracle-claims are equally well-evidenced. Yet, it is certainly possible that the miracle-claims of one religion are far better supported by evidence than others.5 On the one hand, the miracle-claims in non-Christian religions are almost entirely unsupported by historical evidence. For example, the miracles attributed to Muhammad do not occur in the Islamic tradition until many years after his death. What’s more, Muhammad himself denied that he performed miracles. In the Qur’an, Muhammad declared, “Signs are with Allah only, and I am only a plain warner” (Surah 29:50). Likewise, the miracle stories surrounding the Buddha developed long after his lifetime, and the Buddha’s own teaching (e.g., that all of reality is materialistic) does not allow even for the possibility of miracles. So, miracle stories in non-Christian religions have very little going for them. They are not believable.

On the other hand, the evidence for the veracity of at least some of the biblical miracles is quite strong. In Fact, the central miracle of the Christian faith – the resurrection of Jesus – is supported enough by historical evidence for us to confidently say that its occurrence is more probable than not, perhaps even beyond a reasonable doubt.6 So, Hume is simply incorrect when he says that miracle claims in the world’s religions cancel each other out. Whether or not that is true depends upon how strong the evidence is for competing miracle-claims. And a case can and has been made by Christian apologists that Christian miracle-claims are superior to those in other faiths.

Conclusion
We have seen that miracles play a crucial role in Christian apologetics. God has used them (perhaps still uses them) as signs for finite human beings to discern his voice among the cacophony of counterfeits that have existed in the world. Miracles are wonders that can only be performed by the Creator of nature. When we witness a miracle or have adequate testimony to the occurrence of a miracle and that miracle accompanies a claim to divine revelation, then we can know that it is God’s voice that we hear.

Notes

1 Some of the material in this section is adapted from George Kurian, ed. The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (Oxford: Blackwell, forthcoming), s.v. “Miracles” by Seven B. Cowan.

2 Norman L. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind: A Defense of Biblical Miracles [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 98-99.

3 For a discussion and response to Hume’s primary philosophical arguments against miracles, see Winfried Corduan, “Miracles and their Omniscient Critics,” elsewhere in this issue of Areopagus Journal.

4 David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10.2.130.

5 For a detailed discussion of this response to Hume see David K. Clark, “Miracles in the World’s Religions,” in In Defense of Miracles, eds. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 199-213.

6 For thorough presentations of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection see, William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1981); Gary R. Haabermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case of the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004); and N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003); and (at a more popular level), Steven B. Cowan, “The Resurrection of Jesus: Hoax or History?” Areopagus Journal 3:4 (July-August 2003): 16-23.

Steven B. Cowan is editor of Areopagus Journal and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Southeastern Bible College, Birmingham, AL.

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