It Only Takes One Miracle
Sep 23, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 12 Comments
“For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” (Romans 8:24 NIV)
I watched a fascinating “debate” on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation channel while I was in Sydney in July. It involved a leading Christian mathematician from Oxford and four Aussies: a humanist, a skeptical comedian, a Pentecostal Bible scholar and an adult convert to Islam. A well-known journalist facilitated the informal banter among the participants in response to a wide variety of questions of current, public interest.
The humanist took an interesting tack. Every time one of the three religious people cited an example of something good being done by their communities in the world, she had a counterexample, either of something bad those same communities had done elsewhere or of evil in the world still unaddressed by them.
A friend of mine has frequently done the same thing in her conversations with me. At first blush, the rejoinders seem persuasive—if you look at the amazing good Christians have done, you can always find counterexamples of unspeakable horror offered in Christ’s name, enough to make you question God’s wisdom in granting free will to human beings or perhaps to question his very existence. For every example of amazing answered prayer you can find plenty of examples of unanswered ones where surely the good and compassionate thing for an omnicompetent, omnibenevolent God to do would be to provide the answer as requested.
But there are several fallacies with this approach to spiritual matters. If I return home to my house after setting out the trash to be collected, only to find garbage strewn about my yard and the can tipped over and the bag torn apart and on the ground near the can, something which has never happened before, and then learn that my neighbor’s German shepherd accidentally got loose from his leash and roamed the neighborhood for an hour before coming home, and that all this took place before the time the trashmen usually come by, I have a pretty good idea of what happened, even if the evidence is all circumstantial and fails to pass the strictest logical and philosophical tests for compelling proof. Indeed, I would need new evidence of a rather significant nature to suggest any other hypothesis as more likely than that “the dog did it.”
And it doesn’t really matter that mine was the only garbage can of several nearby so attacked. I don’t know why the dog chose mine only. Maybe it was the closest and he found a nice morsel of something and wasn’t as hungry afterwards. Maybe he tried all of them and mine was the loosest lid. Maybe someone was home at the other houses and saw him, yelled at him and shooed him off. Numerous other suggestions readily come to mind. The point is that I don’t need to explain his inaction elsewhere—there are plenty of plausible possibilities--to make it likely that he was the culprit in my yard. Nor do I need to discuss the fact that in other parts of my city, country or world, other animals might do something similar, or that hooligans might be out just to mess up a nice neighborhood, or that a starving person might even be foraging for a bite to eat. It is not impossible that one of those explanations applies in my neighborhood too—foxes come through it occasionally, hooligans have been known to teepee my yard, and the homeless are moving ever southward in the Denver metro area. But I would still need some new evidence I don’t currently have to make those hypotheses more likely than the one about my neighbor’s dog.
I have been privy to a handful of miracles in my life. I have been privileged a few times, with a group of church elders, to follow James 5:13-18 in praying for seriously ill people on a Sunday morning and to have doctors confirm the next day that their tumors or other internal maladies have inexplicably vanished. I have had close friends and relatives, whose chronic pain I was very familiar with, experience instantaneous healing and permanent relief from pain after pretty exotic charismatic Christian events. I have studied enough church history and observed enough current events in my 56 years to know that Christians are disproportionately responsible for the sum total of physical and social help offered to the most unlovely, despised, rejected people throughout history. I am well aware that the foundations of most of what the Western world so values today and often does not associate with God—science, law, education, medicine, relief work, etc.—all owe disproportionately large amounts of their foundations and values to Jews, Christians and Muslims—the three great theist religions of the world. Even today Christians alone work far more than all non-religious people put together every year to help the desperately hurting of our world.
I have also known non-Christians who knew nothing of Jesus to whom Jesus appeared in a dream or vision and they eventually became his followers. I have known people who have had near-death experiences knowing nothing of Jesus who met Jesus but returned to this life and became Christians. Devotees of other religions sometimes report similar experiences, but typically only with religious figures and destinies they already have learned about within world views that are already largely theirs.
When I understand that Christianity also offers a wide array of plausible reasons why God does not miraculously heal the majority of chronically ill people or supernaturally intervene to obliterate the majority of all evil (not least because his power is made perfect in weakness), then I don’t have to explain his inaction in those settings. He has his purposes and I don’t have to know them. When I understand that Christians remain sinners, sometimes horrible ones, even as saved people in the process of being transformed, and that many people who have never been Christians have coopted the term to gain power for themselves and then wreak unspeakable havoc in Jesus’ name, then I don’t have to explain all the evil perpetrated by people using that label.
But I have yet to encounter a plausible explanation from non-theists to account for the miracles that have occurred or for the sum total of all the good that has been accomplished in the world by Christ’s followers, who by their own testimonies had no desire in and of themselves to commit to such tasks. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” offers no explanation for the fit who sacrifice their health and even their lives in the service of the least fit of the world.
But wouldn’t it be so much better if God just made his existence plain enough that no rational person could ever doubt it? One wonders what form that disclosure would have to take. The Israelites turned their back on God after seeing him work spectacular miracles. So did a variety of people in Jesus’ day. Is there anything humans value more than their autonomy, including their autonomy to rebel against God? We could have been created without this freedom but then we would probably be incapable of even having this kind of conversation. We can look forward to perfected, resurrection lives without the possibility of evil, now that we have seen what freedom is like. But could we ever appreciate such existence without first experiencing such freedom? Indeed, what kind of beings would we be if loyalty to God (or anyone or anything) was always coerced? I doubt our fallen, finite minds even have the ability to begin to grasp the nature of such existence, much less pontificate that we know it would have been better.
It only takes one miracle for belief to make perfect sense to me. And I’ve been privileged to see or know about a whole bunch of them. The rest is properly left to faith, to hope, as Paul so poignantly put it in Romans 8:24. God has left enough evidence of himself to support faith without giving so much that it destroys the freedom that is crucial to the very essence of our humanity. And a God who can do that is far more complex, powerful, wise and worthy of worship than one who could only have done the comparatively easy tasks either of creating the universe and then leaving it to run on its own or compelling everyone to follow him.