I got to thinking about this last night. I was driving around town with my wife and son. We were on our way to scout a couple of houses that are on the market. We drove past a business that is noted for its habit of posting Scripture verses on its sign. Last night this verse that was posted (I have highlighted the part that was on the sign, and included more context for it):
After the two days he left for Galilee. 44(Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.) 45When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they also had been there. Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. 47When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.
48“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.” The man took Jesus at his word and departed. 51While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.” Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed. This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.
What is ironic about this, is that in Jesus’ day people would not believe, as he says, unless they saw signs (‘miraculous’ here is assumed, but not a necessary translation of the Greek). We have come a long way. Worse, they were seeing signs all around and still not believing in Jesus.
Here are some excerpts from a friend of mine who has been responding to my post on Edward Tingley’s essay in Touchstone. My friend Jeff wrote:
There’s no solid evidence Jesus actually even existed. Most historians believe he did, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. I think he probably did. History doesn’t have to “account for … his death” because, well, everyone dies. This isn’t particularly difficult. If he lived, he died. Now, his resurrection? Well, history doesn’t have to “account for” this because it’s such a fantastical notion to say it actually happened, that it’s you that needs to show it occurred, not the other way around. All we have now is an ancient book full of metaphors, allegories and questionable, contradictory eyewitness accounts. For instance, Paul doesn’t even mention the empty tomb in his accounts, while Matthew, Luke and John all have differing accounts of the women’s visit to the tomb. And, of all the religions in the world, Christians are the only ones who believe Jesus was resurrected. It appears you’re in the minority on this one, so it’s going to take more than an old book full of fantastical stories and contradictory information to prove a person was, literally, risen from the dead. (Jeff, my emphasis)
Another poster wrote:
It’s completely different from believing any of those things. None of the above are in any way unusual, nor do they invoke the supernatural. Believing that someone came back to life – something that has never been reliably proven to have happened before or since – requires far stronger evidence than mere eye witness, just as the many instances of the gods appearing in ancient Roman history would require more evidence than believing that, say, a certain man was emperor or king at a certain time period. (Vitamin, my emphasis)
Isn’t it ironic that in Jesus’ day people would not believe in him unless they saw signs and that in our day it is these very signs that actually turn people away from faith and belief that God was working in and through Jesus? But I wonder this: If the miraculous were a part of our visible culture would the results be any different for Jeff or Vitamin?
Here’s another question: If people find it so hard to believe in God or Jesus because they find it so impossible to believe in the miraculous, is it possible to believe in God or Jesus quite apart from the miraculous? I’ll direct you to two passages, both from John. First, 10:34-39:
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? 35If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken— 36what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? 37Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. 38But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” 39Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp. (NIV)
These comments Jesus made to his opponents.
Second, John 14:8-14:
8Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” 9Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. 12I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 14You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (NIV)
These comments Jesus made to his followers. Two different groups of people and two different situations and circumstances and yet the same comment is made. The question is, why would Jesus make such a statement? (Here, ‘miracles’ is the GK erga in both 10:38 and 14:11 which, according to DA Carson, ‘includes, by should probably not be restricted to, the ‘miracles’ (Commentary on John 400.) In commenting on 14:11, Carson writes this:
If they still find it difficult to penetrate the meaning of his words, at the very least they should believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. Similar appear is made twice elsewhere, but the context of this passage makes it the most telling of the three. Jesus’ point is not simply that displays of supernatural power frequently prove convincing, but that the miracles themselves are signs. Thoughtful meditation on, say, the turning of the water into wine, the multiplication of the loaves or on the raising of Lazarus will disclose what these miracles signify: viz. that the saving kingdom of Godis at work in the ministry of Jesus, and this in ways tied to his very person. The miracles are non-verbal Christological signposts” (495).
In other words, the miracles or signs, were never meant to be stumbling blocks, nor were they ever meant to be ends of themselves. They were pointing beyond themselves to something or someone. But maybe I can say this: Maybe Jesus was saying that belief in Him, as who he claimed to be, is possible apart from a strict scientific belief in miracles. For example, take the miracles out of the Bible (as Thomas Jefferson is famous for having done), is anything of the Gospel message lost? If Jesus had never turned water into wine, would his message be anything less than what it is? If Jesus had never raised Lazarus, would the Christian message of hope be anything less than what it is? (I don’t think it would.) The only miracles in the Bible that are necessary, as far as I can tell, are Creation and the Resurrection of Jesus. And yet the miracles are not excluded from the Bible: There they are, front and center, in your face. If I were in the business of starting a religion, I certainly would not include elements in it that would necessarily cause people to stumble or cause them to not want to follow me. Then again, maybe there is a point to this. Here’s what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”
Here, in fact, Paul seems to be saying that it is not the miraculous that we preach at all nor is it the miraculous that necessarily inclines one to faith in Christ. Rather, it is the crucifixion of Jesus.
To be sure, I think we run into problems when we come to the resurrection of Jesus. For even Paul says that if you take away the Resurrection, we are hopeless, to be pitied more than anyone: 1 Corinthians 15. Ironically, again, this is the place where my friends above seem to be stymied: “None of the above are in any way unusual, nor do they invoke the supernatural. Believing that someone came back to life – something that has never been reliably proven to have happened before or since – requires far stronger evidence than mere eye witness.” I suppose they might complain about miraculous healings of blind men, or deaf men, or of demon possessed women, but the complaint alwayscomes back to the Resurrection of Jesus. They just cannot get beyond it. Isn’t it ironic that the cornerstone of Christian faith, belief in the Resurrection, is the one place (aside from ex nihilo creation) so strenuously attacked and dismissed by unbelievers? No; actually it isn’t. In fact, I submit that the resurrection must be mythologized (or dismissed) by unbelievers if their complaints about Christians and dismissal of Jesus Christ is to carry any weight at all.
So why would the disciples invent a story like this? I mean, there is nothing easier to prove than that someone has died and been buried and not raised from the dead (which is why Jeff, even though he claims he believes Jesus was an historical figure, and I suppose other atheists, must claim that there is a concern or debate about whether or not Jesus was even a real historical figure). There’s a cemetery across from house. I can prove hundreds of people have not resurrected simply by pointing to their burial plots (or, worse, by digging up their coffins and finding their corpses; or by asking my neighbors if they have seen any of them alive after their death). Why didn’t the Romans or the Jewish leadership at the time make similar efforts to disprove this claim of Resurrection? This might account for why the early Christians did not make a monument of the tomb of Jesus and why there is debate concerning where it actually was (is) (as if anyone cares): They didn’t mark it because he wasn’t there! But there is still the issue of the historical record of eyewitness accounts. Many claimed to see Jesus alive; we either have faith they were telling the truth or we do not. The question is: Why would they lie? What point could possibly be served by giving people a false hope about life after life after death?
This brings me back to the point of this post which is formed in two points.
First, is it possible to accept Jesus Christ apart from a strict scientific belief in miracles?
Second, why is it that ‘signs’ (perhaps miraculous signs) were, ‘back in the day,’ somewhat necessary for belief (validation of actions and words) and ‘in our day’ such a stumbling block to belief?
I am not here trying to prove the Resurrection of Jesus. I concede that, at some level, I am most certainly putting my trust in the eyewitness accounts of the act just as I am putting my faith in the eyewitness accounts that Plato was real or that Pharaoh was real. But why should the documents that record those historical events, of Jesus, be given any less weight or credibility than any other document written in that time that records the history of other historical figures or events?
PS–I guess another point I am trying to get across is that I wish atheists and agnostics would stop playing this game where they accuse Christians of believing in things that are, by their standards, ‘impossible’ to prove, and saying that Christians are silly people for believing in an ancient book (what other source do we have for history?), and stop saying things like, ‘We cannot believe until we see evidence,’ and convincing themselves that they are someone impartial, truly dedicated scientific judges in these matters. (Another part of Tingley’s essay.) I wish atheists and agnostics would just admit that they don’t believe because they don’t want to believe, because they don’t want to be restricted and freed by the love of a holy God, and because they don’t want to be accountable to that God. In other words, I wish they would just admit that they don’t believe because they don’t want to and stop trying to convince themselves that they don’t believe because ‘there is no evidence’ for it or because they are somehow or other more illuminated or free thinking or enlightened than those who do. Pshaw!