Can Christians Today Work True Miracles?
Jan 19, 2012 by Craig Blomberg | 9 Comments
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8)
When Jesus sent out the twelve he told them to limit their mission to Israel (Matt. 10:5-6) and to depend entirely on the villagers in the towns they visited for their support (vv. 9-10). Later, Jesus would change strategies on both counts—telling his followers to take preparations with them (Luke 22:35-38) and to go into all the world (Matt. 28:19-20).
Can we expect Jesus’ followers to be able to heal the sick, raised the dead, cleanse those with skin disease and exorcise in an ongoing way then? Not from this passage alone, given its limited context. But we do see Christians in Acts, and not just apostles, working miracles of various kinds, including healings, resurrections and exorcisms.
Some Christians limit such miracles, however, to the first century, arguing that they were needed to authenticate God’s Word until the canon of Scripture had been completed and/or the apostolic age had come to an end. Miracle-working, like other so-called charismatic gifts (e.g., prophecy, discerning of prophets; speaking in tongues and their interpretation), subsequently ceased. This view is thus called cessationism. Many cessationists, however, cannot attribute all modern-day accounts of miracles to mistaken or deceitful reporting, human manufacture or diabolic origin. So, while saying that the gift of miracle working has ceased as one of the spiritual gifts God gives to some individuals, he may still sovereignly choose to work miracles, including through certain individuals. The result unnecessarily splits theological hairs to salvage vacuous theological systems.
Atheist or agnostic skeptics often take a very different tack. Appealing to the arguments of the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, they insist that no accounts may be believed for which there are not adequate analogies in the personal experiences of contemporary people. What is more, with stupendous claims like resurrections, even eyewitness testimony by reliable witnesses are more likely to be misled than to report sober, objective reality. Thus Hume has created a watertight system that no narrative accounts of, say, instantaneous, lasting physical healing of previously insoluble maladies, in response to Christian prayer, will ever be believed. In other words, the argument is actually a vicious circle, presupposing what it claims to demonstrate. Hume went on to point out that multiple, mutually exclusive religions offer claims about the miraculous, so that miracle stories cannot be used to vindicate one religion as over against another. Finally, he noted that claims of the miraculous were far more frequent in “ignorant and barbarous nations”. Or, as I have heard more than one modern, American university professor rephrase it, “people believe in miracles until they get educated”!
Anybody who has succumbed to these misguided arguments must now come to grips with Craig Keener’s two-volume work, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), a work Ben Witherington hypes as perhaps the best book on miracles ever written. For a full review, see my latest contribution to the Denver Journal via the link on the homepage of the Denver Seminary website (here).
The only point I want to make here is that Keener’s documented evidence of modern-day miracles, closely akin to the biblical ones, including resurrections from the dead, destroys Hume’s argument from analogy beyond the shadow of any doubt. It may have been understandable for a Scotsman in the 1700s to think that there really were no reliable accounts of truly miraculous events, especially healings, elsewhere in the world. But in today’s global village, only those who refuse to look into matters can make such claims. Extrapolating from a Pew Charitable Trust study from the mid-2000s, Keener notes that perhaps as many as 200 million of the world’s 7 billion people have experienced a scientifically inexplicable miracle of some kind. Even if only the several hundred that he documents in his volumes were true, they would be far more than enough to lay Hume’s arguments to rest once and for all.
And, yes, the claims are somewhat more frequent in the Majority world. But read Hume in context and he is blatantly racist about how only white people can attain to truly civilized states of existence. It probably shouldn’t be surprising that God would occasionally choose to bypass medical and scientific processes for those people with least access to them. It is not that education makes people disbelieve miracles, only that materialist, antisupernaturalist education tries (successfully in too many instances) to get people to disbelieve miracles, without squarely facing the evidence for them.
Finally, it is not even true, as Hume asserted, that all or even most religions use miracles as central to the vindication of their overall claims. Actually, miracles are central only to two of the world’s religions, Christianity and Hinduism. They were central for Israelite religion in Old Testament times, but the rabbinic Judaism that emerged after A.D. 70 considerably downplayed the miraculous dimension, perhaps in part in response to its role in emerging Christianity. And while Hinduism has countless claims about the miraculous, they do not function as a foundational apologetic for the truth of the religion the way they do in Christianity. Keener stresses, however, that we do not need to take the tack of some Christian apologists, automatically rejecting all non-Christian miracle accounts. Whatever the religious or ideological worldview in which testimony emerges, our response as scholars should be the same—investigate the evidence. The God who worked through Cyrus the pagan, Persian king can choose to work through any person, object or source he chooses to in order to bring healing, freedom from the demonic, and occasionally even the more dramatic miracles over the forces of nature, including death.
I challenge everyone who thinks otherwise to read Keener’s two volumes carefully. If, after doing so, you can still in good conscience deny the existence of a God who on occasion works miracles, then you have more faith in your ideology than I could ever have in any ideology.