Chapter 4: Miracles and Religious Significance
“The Pharisees came . . . seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, ‘Why does this generation seek a sign?’ ” (Mark 8:11-12a)
Our belief in a loving God does not allow us to depict this Being as pulling strings to control events here on earth. Our common sense of how the universe works does not allow us to conceive of God as “zapping” into the normal course of natural laws. What, then, do we say about the Biblical accounts of miracles?
If God doesn’t go “zap” then we cannot simply accept all the miracle stories as true at face value. There are three different approaches to miracles generally used by those interpreters of the Bible who don’t simply accept them or reject them outright. These alternatives, we will see, boil down to a choice between explaining miracles away or ignoring them. We will begin this chapter by looking at (1) the “classic liberal” approach, which explains them away. Then we will consider (2) Rudolf Bultmann’s “demythologization”, and (3) “demiracle-ization”, both of which ignore miracles under the guise of interpreting them.
1. The Classic Liberal Approach
This first approach to dealing with miracles was especially identified with “liberal” scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was not confined to this era, however, and still has widespread appeal and usage. No doubt you have either used this approach yourself or have been exposed to it in others. It works like this: the report of a miraculous event is explained as being of a natural, unmiraculous event which was either misunderstood by witnesses or misinterpreted by those to whom it was reported. At the same time it is affirmed that what the Bible reports did in fact happen, or something very similar to it, albeit unmiraculously.
Thus, for instance, the stilling of the storm by Jesus is explained as a coincidental or predictable change in the weather following upon Jesus’ prayer for calm. The disciples, of course, saw the calm follow upon his prayer and interpreted coincidence as cause and effect. (It would not be unusual for an allusion to be made to the ignorance and superstition of the witnesses. This is both arrogant and not entirely inappropriate.) Similarly, Jesus walking on the water becomes his undetected use of a sandbar or sunken log which no one else knew was there. The feeding of the five thousand becomes a “miracle” of the heart: all those people in the crowd who were selfishly keeping their picnic dinners to themselves were inspired to share with others, as opposed to there having been an actual physical multiplication of the five loaves and two fish.
Another example of this approach was passed on to us by Mark Twain. This was delivered by a certain ship’s captain, who, says Twain, was a profound Biblical scholar — that is, he thought he was. He believed everything in the Bible, but he had his own method of arriving at his beliefs. He was of the ‘advanced’ school of thinkers, and applied natural law to the interpretation of all miracles, somewhat on the plan of the people who make the six days of creation six geological epochs, and so forth. Without being aware of it, he was a rather severe satire on modern scientific religionists.”1
Twain overheard and recorded his interpretation of the contest on Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18), which, though perhaps a caricature, illustrates well the shortcomings of this approach. So I pass on to you here a portion of one of my favorite pieces of Biblical exposition. After explaining how Elijah (the captain calls him Isaac), as “the only Presbyterian”, challenged all the prophets of Baal to a contest to see whose God could cause an altar to ignite, the captain turns to the contest itself, beginning with the prophets of Baal:
So they went at it, the whole four hundred and fifty, praying around the altar, very hopeful, and doing their level best. They prayed an hours — two hours, — three hours, — and so on, plumb till noon. It wasn’t any use; they hadn’t took a trick. Of course they felt kind of ashamed before all those people, and well they might. Now, what would a magnanimous man do? Keep still, wouldn’t he? Of course. What did Isaac do? He gravelled the prophets of Baal every way he could think of. Says he, ‘You don’t speak up loud enough; your God’s asleep, like enough, or maybe he’s taking a walk; you want to holler, you know — or words to that effect; I don’t recollect the exact language. Mind, I don’t apologize for Isaac; he had his faults.
Well, the prophets of Baal prayed along the best they knew how all afternoon, and never raised a spark. At last, about sundown, they were all tuckered out, and they owned up and quit.
What does Isaac do, now? He steps up and says to some friends of his, there, ‘Pour four barrels of water on the altar!’ Everybody was astonished; for the other side had prayed at it dry, you know, and got whitewashed. They poured it on. Says he, ‘Heave on four more barrels.’ Then he says, ‘Heave on four more.’ Twelve barrels, you see, altogether. The water ran all over the altar, and all down the sides, and filled up a trench around it that would hold a couple of hogsheads, — measures’ it says; I reckon it means about a hogshead. Some of the people were going to put on their things and go, for they allowed he was crazy. They didn’t know Isaac. Isaac knelt down and began to pray; he strung along, and strung along, about the heathen in distant lands, and about the sister churches, and about the state and the country at large, and about those that’s in authority in the government, and all the usual programme, you know, till everybody had got tired and gone to thinking about something else, and then, all of a sudden, when nobody was noticing, he outs with a match and rakes it on the under side of his leg, and pff! Up the whole thing blazes like a house afire! Twelve barrels of water? Petroleum, sir, PETROLEUM! That’s what it was!
Yes, sir; the country was full of it. Isaac knew all about that. You read the Bible. Don’t you worry about the tough places. They ain’t tough when you come to think them Out and throw light on them. There ain’t a thing in the Bible but what is true; all you want is to go prayerfully to work and cipher out how’t was done.
Now the usual point of this and similar interpretations is to shore up the Bible’s believability and to defend its accuracy to people for whom the miraculous has become unbelievable. But as admirable as this intent may be, and as laudable was the good captain’s sincerity of effort, the result of this kind of approach is to miss entirely the central point of the miracle accounts. The point of the account of the contest on Mt. Carmel is that the Lord is God and Baal is not. The point is not that Elijah could make fire. In defending the truth of this story with his “petroleum” explanation, the captain has changed it from a demonstration of whose God is God to a demonstration of whose prophet is cleverer (or perhaps sneakier).
The point of the miracle stories in the Gospels is to show that in Jesus, God was at work in a special way, and to affirm his unique authority. The point is not to show that Jesus could in fact predict changes in the weather, or appear to walk on water, or perform any other particular trick that might fool his disciples or the crowds.
Miracle accounts in general were not intended simply to relate the specifics of what happened, but to make it clear that God was at work here, intervening in worldly affairs in a special way, such that we should respond with faith and obedience. To interpret these accounts by concentrating on the event itself, and to explain this event as a misinterpreted unmiraculous occurrence, is to remove God from the story and so is to miss the point of it.
This is not to say that this sort of explanation is never valid or helpful. In some cases it seems obvious that we ought to make use of it. But it should be used to help us gain understanding of a passage, rather than being used to interpret it. By this I mean that this “classic liberal” approach can be used to explain the background, origin, or development of miracle accounts. It may give us an idea of what really happened, and so aid in our understanding of the Biblical stories. But we can’t assume, as many people have, that this is all that needs to be said in interpreting these stories.
For instance, it is probable that what happened at the Red Sea — actually the Sea of Reeds — had more to do with darkness and an east wind and chariots mired in the mud and the change of the tide, than with the vertical walls of water rendered so picturesquely by Cecil B. DeMille. (These more impressive walls of water seem to be a later elaboration on the Exodus tradition. See Exodus 14:19-29.) Personally, I find it helpful to arrive at this understanding of the event itself.
But we cannot interpret this passage by saying that what really happened was a narrow escape in a dark marsh. The point of the story is not just to give the details of how they escaped from Pharaoh’s grasp. More important here is the profession by the people of Israel that it was the Lord their God who delivered them out of Egypt. To interpret the Exodus by just “explaining away” God’s miraculous intervention is to replace a grand example of God’s caring for Israel with a plain old lucky escape, and to replace one of the central formative events of Judaism with an insignificant incident. So while “explaining” a miracle may help us to understand “what really happened”, this explanation cannot give us a satisfactory understanding of what the Bible is saying.
2. The Bultmann Approach: Demythologization
While the classic liberal approach concentrates on the physical event and, in explaining what “really happened”, ignores any deeper meaning involved in the miracle account, the approach developed by Rudolf Bultmann does just the opposite by ignoring the event in favor of the meaning. Bultmann, a German theologian active in the first half of the twentieth century, developed the aptly named approach of “demythologization”. This approach merits our attention both because of the impact it has had and because many seminary graduates believe they use it themselves, though few actually do.
“Demythologization” does not refer to “myth” in its everyday sense of an imaginary legend or fairy tale. Instead, “myth” is used here in its technical sense to mean any story or account that makes reference to God or to the supernatural in general, especially in relation to events on earth and the affairs of humankind.
Obviously, with this definition of “myth” the Bible contains a substantial amount of material that is mythical. This presents a problem, said Bultmann, for with our different world-view today we cannot understand or believe these mythical accounts. He sought a solution to this problem by examining the Bible — and the New Testament in particular — to see if it presented a truth that did not depend on its mythical content. He concluded that it did, that the true purpose of myth here was to give expression to human self-understanding.
Bultmann’s reasoning went like this: he assumed that all statements are either (1) objective statements which are intended to provide information about the world, or (2) existential statements which are intended to confront the reader or listener with a decision about his or her possibilities of self-understanding. That is, all statements are either “this is what is” statements or “this is what you can be/ought to be” statements. Now, religious language in particular is addressed to answer the question of what ought to be rather than what is. Therefore, concluded Bultmann, religious myths are not intended to be objective statements — “what is” — but rather existential statements. So what we need is a translation of these mythical accounts into existential statements — or, if you will, demythologization.
For example, the mythical accounts of Jesus’ miracles might be understood as pointing out his special authority and the need for us to respond to his life and message. The meaning of these accounts is obtained by demythologizing them. This is done by taking out the myth and translating the story into a challenge to answer Jesus’ call to a new way of life. Thus, Bultmann might say that the miracle accounts can be translated into the existential message that “authentic existence”2 is a real possibility for you and me.
No one should question the value of demythologization in helping to point out for us the important meaning that is implicit in the miracle accounts. But as practiced in a strict and thorough-going way it has two major flaws as a tool for interpreting the Bible: first, it prohibits us from making any statements at all about God; and second, it fails to do justice to the language of the Bible.
First: Since any reference to God is by definition myth (in the sense of the word we are using here), demythologizing means translating all such language into existential statements without reference to God. By emphasizing the distinction between God-talk and other uses of language Bultmann misses the chance to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate ways of talking about God, and throws out the former along with the latter. To say the least, an approach that rules out all speech about God seems somewhat inappropriate as a tool for interpreting a book of religion.
Second: Even without this first defect, demythologization fails to do justice to the language of the Bible. The problem lies in Bultmann’s assumption that all statements are intended to be either objective information statements or existential statements. This assumption fails to appreciate the multifaceted richness of language and leads Bultmann to a false conclusion. Since Bultmann views religious statements as existential, this “either/or” attitude forces him to conclude that they are therefore not factual statements. Therefore, to demythologize a miracle story into its existential meaning is not lust to give us the existential implications of this miracle account. It is to make a complete translation of this account. Thus, for example, we would have to say that in relating the miracle stories the Gospel writers meant to challenge us with the possibility of authentic existence like Jesus’ for ourselves. And this much is certainly true. But if we claim that this is a complete translation, then we are saying that they did not also mean to say that Jesus walked on water or stilled the storm.
Certainly the writers meant to point out the authority and specialness of Jesus, and thus to challenge us with a certain response, a certain way of life. But this is not all. They meant just as clearly to say that Jesus did as a matter of fact still the storm and walk on water. The fact is that language is quite capable of making an objective fact claim and giving us existential meaning at the same time, and so demythologization misses half the meaning.
A much more common approach is that which I call “demiracle-ization”. I am unsure whether the relationship of this to demythologization is that of offspring, parent, or sibling. Many people who have read about Bultmann and who believe that they use demythologization are in fact using this third approach instead.
In fact the thrust of demiracle-ization is much the same as demythologization: to extract and emphasize the meaning of the miracle. The difference is that demiracle-ization does not rule out all references to God — all “myth” in the technical sense. Instead, only those passages which are not in keeping with our common sense, such as the miracle accounts, need to be “translated” into different language.
Thus, for instance, the stories of Jesus walking on the water or stilling the storm can be said to be claiming that Jesus is the Son of God, or that he had special authority from God. Demiracle-ization would say that the point of these miracle accounts is that God was acting in and through this individual, and also, therefore, that we need to respond to him.
Certainly to this extent demiracle-ization serves a very important purpose. Too often we pay too much attention to the miracles themselves, when the real point of these stories is not that Elijah could bring down fire or that Jesus could heal people or walk on water. The point of these accounts is that God is at work in these people and events, that Elijah is the prophet of the true God or that Jesus is the one who can offer us God’s forgiveness and a new life in God’s love.
Too often we are distracted from the message of these stories by their miraculous nature. Whether or not you believe that the miracle accounts are true, we need to extract their meaning, to understand the religious significance they had for their contemporary audience. Otherwise they may appear to us only as marvelous tricks without any real meaning. So we need to ask, “What is the point of this miracle story? What is it trying to say about God or Jesus or a life of faith?”
The strength of demiracle-ization is that it can convey this meaning to us. Its weakness is that — like demythologization — it ends up translating miracles into other language altogether, and does, in fact, demiracle-ize the Bible. This is for many of us a comfortable way of dealing with miracles, since it allows us to make them disappear without having to come right out and say that we don’t believe them, that the Bible is wrong. But this is not quite honest. Furthermore, eventually someone is going to notice that we haven’t actually dealt with the miracles themselves, with the claim that God caused the water-soaked altar on Mt. Carmel to burst into flames or that Jesus walked on the water. Yes, the point of these is to say something about God, but the writers also meant to say that these events did in fact happen in just this way.
At this point we have several choices. Certainly we need to translate the miracle stories so that we today can understand their original significance. But in conjunction with this do we just ignore the miracles themselves? Or do we deny that they happened? Or do we use the “classic liberal” approach and explain them away?
Personally I think that a combination of “demiracle-ization” and the “classic liberal” approach can do justice to many miracle accounts. But there is another alternative that gets to the heart of the matter and avoids disputes over whether a certain miracle did or didn’t happen. This alternative is to apply the concept of “religious significance.”
What do we mean by “religious significance”? Religion has to do with our understanding of God, our understanding of our moral and spiritual nature and our relationship with God. It has to do with our understanding of how we ought to live and relate to each other and with how we do in fact live out these various understandings. Therefore, anything which affects any of these understandings or the way we live them out means something to our religion. It has religious significance.
Thus someone who taught that God loves us and that we ought to love even our enemies, and who lived in such a way as to help us see that this is possible, had teachings and a life that are religiously significant. However, if our understanding of God is that God does not act by “zapping” into the finite physical processes of the world, then accounts of events which violate natural laws cannot have any religious significance for us.
Therefore we do not have to argue that this kind of miracle account is completely translatable into a different kind of language or offer non-miraculous explanations. We do not have to take sides with those who claim that they must be true or with those who claim that they are literally incredible, for their truth or falsehood is irrelevant to our religion. They are religiously insignificant.
If a person can walk on water this is very curious and interesting and certainly out of the ordinary. But it is of scientific interest, not religious. It addresses our understanding of natural laws, not theology. The ability of someone to walk on water or ignite an altar gives us not a clue as to their qualification as a moral leader. It tells us nothing about the adequacy of their understanding of God. It does not affect our own understanding of God, or of ourselves, or of the right way to live. Someone walking on water has no meaning, no significance, for our religion.
However, miracles did have religious significance to the people of first century Palestine. It was entirely in keeping with their common sense to explain an event as the result of specific intervention by God. A miracle implied divine authority or approbation.
So it is proper and even necessary to ask, what was the religious significance of this miracle account to its contemporary audience? What is its meaning? What point is it making? But it is also proper and necessary at the same time to point out that the reported miracle can have no such significance for us.
The meaning of the miracle to its contemporaries may be important to us. For instance, the writer may be claiming that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins, or that God is working through this person. We may need to translate the miracle accounts into these kinds of statements to make sure that we do not miss their intended implications, for these implications may in fact be of religious significance to us. But the miracles themselves are irrelevant. They simply are not religiously significant.
Jesus On Miracles
Jesus himself apparently had an attitude towards miracles that had much in common with this. His comments on miracles are otherwise very puzzling, if not incomprehensible:
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.” (Mark 8:11-12)
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the son of man be to this generation. The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here?’ (Luke 11:29-32)
We might remark on several things here. For one, those of us with old fashioned Anglo-Saxon reserve might think it untoward for someone to talk about himself in this way. But Jesus of Nazareth taught “as one who had authority”. No one could have followed his course and made his mark without supreme confidence that he was following the will of God. And he was, after all, making a particular point here.
For another thing, we need to point out that Matthew, in his version of this second passage, includes an explanation of the sign of Jonah; “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the son of man be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth?’ (Matthew 12:40) But this is obviously a post-resurrection editorial addition, for besides demonstrating knowledge of the Easter event (albeit with poor arithmetic), it is entirely out of place here. Jesus is arguing against signs in this passage. As he pointed out, the only sign to the men of Nineveh was Jonah’s preaching, and they repented at this, knowing nothing about the whale incident. The queen of the South came to hear Solomon’s wisdom, not to see him perform miracles.
But the really remarkable thing here is what Jesus apparently did say. A “sign” is a sign from heaven, a miracle. And he said that no sign would be given to that generation, save only the sign of his preaching. And this is a real puzzle. For on the one hand we have accounts of a large number of miracles being performed by Jesus of Nazareth; on the other hand, we have this same Jesus saying that no sign would be given.
The simple solution here would be to dismiss one or the other, to say either that Jesus didn’t perform any miracles or that he didn’t really say that no sign would be given. But like most simplistic solutions where one is asked to choose between black and white, this ignores the gray areas that encompass most of reality. The truth is not going to avoid ambiguities just so we can feel comfortable.
We cannot agree with those who would say that since Jesus said this about miracles he must not have performed any signs at all. Admittedly, there is a documented tendency for miraculous stories to grow up around famous individuals. Admittedly, a good number of the miracle accounts may be exaggeration or misunderstanding or legend. But there is a consistency of emphasis on faith healings that is impossible to dismiss. Unlike the walking-on-the-water type of miracle, faith healings appear as an integral part of his ministry. It is clear that many who sought him out came not to hear his preaching and teaching but rather to receive or at least to observe a healing.
On the other hand, we cannot dismiss these sayings in which Jesus says no sign will be given. We cannot explain them away, nor can they be attributed to anyone else. No early follower of Jesus would invent a statement that calls his miracles into question and that implicitly admits that he failed to perform when challenged by the Pharisees.
There is a possible solution to this apparent quandary: that Jesus did in fact perform faith healings, at least early in his ministry, and that he intended them as “signs”. For instance, the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 is specifically intended “that you may know that the son of man [i.e., himself] has authority on earth to forgive sins,” However, it developed that people were more interested in the signs themselves than in what the signs pointed to. That is, people were more interested in the apparently miraculous healings than in Jesus’ message to which the healings were supposed to bear witness. People came seeking signs, not to hear about repentance and forgiveness and love. They came seeking entertainment, not truth; a spectacle, not a way to live. No observer of humanity can be the least bit surprised at this.
When Jesus realized that most people were rejecting his message, even those who came out to see his signs, he became aware that the healings were not signs at all but were rather distractions from his all-important message.3 Here he was, bringing the good news of a new life in God, and people turned away from him! How could they hear the call to love and faithfulness upon which their whole lives depended and then demand something more?
Thus in the latter part of his ministry Jesus ruled out any signs. What was important was that people responded to his message. He realized that the faith healings were not of religious significance to people after all, for all they did was distract people from this message. Let them respond to the all-important life-changing truth!
After saying that neither our common sense nor our faith allows for a “zapping” God, I have now suggested that Jesus did, in fact, take part in what we call “faith healings”. Why this inconsistency?
First: there is no doubt that sudden and inexplicable healings of disease and infirmity do occasionally happen. Almost any physician will testify to that. And sometimes these sudden healings happen in conjunction with prayer and/or the laying on of hands, if not nearly so often as is claimed in Lourdes or by television evangelist healers. (It also needs to be said that this field of endeavor is unfortunately attractive to charlatans.) Nevertheless, the claims of such healings are so persistent that it is difficult to dismiss them all. It seems likely that the heightened excitement and conviction of the “faith healing” process could in fact bring about a physical effect.
Certainly it seems possible that a small percentage of those who are convinced they have been healed are correct, and certainly so strong a personality as Jesus of Nazareth could have elicited this response from people.
Second: this is not an inconsistency after all. In the last chapter we specifically noted that health and illness stand as a common sense exception to the requirement that finite physical effects have finite physical causes. In the case of both illness and healing, we recognize that the state of our mind or spirit plays a very important role. Spirit can affect our physical health.
Nevertheless, faith healings are not miracles in the classic sense. They do not represent an instance of God breaking into our affairs from outside. They are not a case of God’s deciding, “I will heal this one,” and then going “Zap! Be healed!” (Remember, neither our common sense nor our faith allows for this specific intervention.)
Rather than representing a breaking in of some power from “outside”, faith healings represent the tapping of a power that is present in our world and in us. If these healings do happen on occasion, then the potential for them is a part of the context in which we live.
Precisely because this kind of healing does not represent a miracle in the classic sense of a particular case of divine intervention from outside, it just may be of religious significance. Faith healings may inform our understanding of the power of the mind or indicate our connectedness with the spiritual. We may even see them as a part of our relationship with God.
Our conclusion is that miracles in the classic sense of specific divine intervention from outside do not have religious significance for us. We need to understand the religious significance of the miracle accounts to their original audience so that we do not lose sight of the point of these passages. It may also be helpful for us to reconstruct the historical, non-miraculous events that may be at the root of these accounts. And finally, we must remember that Jesus himself felt that “signs” were irrelevant to his message. As far as religion goes, miracles in the classic sense are indeed irrelevant.
1. Mark Twain, “Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion”, published with Tom Sawyer Abroad/Tom Sawyer Detective by Harper and Brothers. See pp. 234-7.
2. “Authentic existence” is a phrase that Bultmann borrowed from the German existentialist Heidegger, and which he believed represented the kind of life to which Jesus called us.
3. Could this also explain some of the secrecy apparent in his instructions to those he healed not to tell anyone?