A Gap Between Miracles and Christianity

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, 1308–11

Christianity, at least in its traditional forms, is a religion based upon claims of miraculous events, or “miracle claims”.1 That is, as a metaphysical matter, the truth of certain miracle claims is required for the truth of Christianity. But there’s also a more epistemological sense in which it might be said that Christianity is based upon miracle claims. In particular, many Christians believe (1) that there is good evidence for some of these claims and (2) that this evidence justifies belief in Christianity. Often, they defend (1) by arguing that no known natural explanation adequately explains a particular set of data or that the evidence shows that a certain event occurred that admits of no known natural explanation. And from there, they argue that only a supernatural explanation involving divine agency—that is, a miraculous explanation—best explains the data or is best supported by the evidence and that we therefore should accept this explanation.2

Let’s suppose that this argument so far is correct and that we should indeed accept a miraculous explanation from the evidence or for the data in question. Does this justify the conclusion that Christianity is true, as (2) alleges? Not necessarily, as I’ll argue in this post.

In addition to making miracle claims, Christianity makes a number of other claims. It makes the ethical claim that we are to worship God and believe that His Son Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. It also makes the eschatological claim that those who reject Jesus as Messiah will suffer in some way in the world to come, while those who accept him can enter into everlasting beatitude. How does the truth of Christianity’s miracle claims support those kinds of claims?

A common answer is that if Christianity’s miracle claims are true, then the miraculous events performed by Jesus and his followers involved divine agency. And since God would empower or use people to perform miracles only if He approved of their teachings, God therefore must have approved of the teachings of Jesus and his followers. And among those teachings are the ethical and eschatological claims mentioned earlier (and many more). Hence, barring some sort of divine error in these matters (which, at any rate, most Christians believe to be impossible), we can thereby conclude that those claims are true.

The problem with this answer is that Jesus himself seems to teach that it’s possible for God to empower or use someone to perform a miracle without approving of his teachings. Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns,

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:21–23, ESV)

Three details of this warning are noteworthy. First, given the immediately preceding teaching in vv. 15–20, Jesus likely has false prophets in mind when describing the people who will come to him. (This identification might be further supported by Jesus’s calling these people “workers of lawlessness” rather than just sinners. This is because lawlessness arguably suggests a special disregard for the law relating to the Father’s will that would be expected for someone like a false prophet, who would know this law but disobeys or perverts it.)

Second, these people claim to have prophesied, cast out demons, and done mighty works, all in Jesus’s name. What would be the source of power for these miracles? Would they involve divine agency? It seems that the Christian must say that they would, given Jesus’s teaching in a different part of Matthew’s Gospel. There, Jesus responds to the charge by certain Pharisees that he had performed an exorcism on a man (healing him in the process of his blindness and muteness) by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons:

Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? (Matthew 12:25–26, ESV)

The suggestion here is that one cannot supernaturally perform exorcisms—and, probably, works that heal or help others in general—through the power of Satan or other demonic or dark supernatural forces. Return now to the people described by Jesus in Matthew 7. According to Jesus, they will claim to have performed the supernatural acts of prophesying, casting out demons, and doing mighty works. Jesus does not say that he will correct or rebuke them for claiming this. Nor does he say that he will deny that they ever did such works. This means that the people will have performed genuinely supernatural acts. But since they’re clearly beneficial to others, their source of power must also be divine. In other words, these people must have performed miracles.3

Third, Jesus tells that he will declare to these people not simply that he does not know them or that he no longer knows them but that he never knew them.4 The precise meaning of the term “knew” is unclear. But whatever it is, it’s safe to say that these people were never “known” by God in the sense needed to enter the kingdom of heaven and thus were never “saved”.

Thus, Jesus predicts:

  • that there will be people who teach falsehoods in matters of religion (e.g., by making false prophecies),
  • that they were never saved so as to enter the kingdom of heaven, and
  • that they nevertheless performed miracles despite God’s not approving of their teachings (since God allegedly does not approve of false religious teachings).

But this means that God can (and in fact will) empower or use someone to perform a miracle without approving of his teaching. And the possibility of this happening weakens the (2) from earlier: that good evidence for miracle claims justifies belief in Christianity.

1. The main miracle claim upon which Christianity rests is that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. As the apostle Paul emphatically puts it in a letter addressed to a Corinthian audience:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14–19, ESV)

2. Supernatural explanations involving angelic agency or other kinds of agency authorized by God may also count as miraculous. But for the sake of simplicity, I’ll speak only of divine agency in this post, though nothing I argue for depends on this.

3. Upon closer analysis, the New Testament paints a complicated, if not confused, picture of how exorcisms work. On the one hand, it appears that many people in the New Testament—such as the crowds that followed or saw Jesus or the Pharisees with whom Jesus interacts in Matthew 12—assumed that performing exorcisms requires divine or at least supernatural power. (And Jesus suggests this much in Matthew 12:28.) On the other hand, the book of Acts describes (presumably unconverted) Jews performing exorcisms in Jesus’s name with initial success (19:13). It’s only until later that the demons seem to catch on that some of these exorcists aren’t really followers of Jesus or Paul and stop obeying them. Here, no supernatural power was involved in the exorcisms; the demons simply left upon hearing Jesus’s name invoked against them. One thus might argue that the people described in Matthew 7 weren’t performing true miracles requiring God’s power after all. Instead, the feats they performed were done naturally, much like the exorcisms in Acts 19. But this response is unsatisfactory. While it might be possible to dismiss their casting out of demons as natural, surely their prophesying and their mighty works (which plausibly is a catch-all term to include other feats such as healings) can’t be naturally explained. Moreover, viewing the “natural exorcisms” of Acts 19 as commonplace would undermine the evidential value of Jesus’s exorcisms to his audiences in the Gospel. And that conclusion discomforts many Christians.

4. Of course, this needn’t apply to other people. It could, after all, be the case for other people that Jesus once knew them but ceases to know them at a later time. The only point I wish to make here is that Jesus never knew these particular people.

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