When looking at whether miracles can happen, there are three options:
1. The first option flatly denies even the possibility of miracles. A philosophical assumption is made that miracles cannot and, therefore, do not take place. Following these assumptions leads to the conclusion that no evidence will ever be sufficient to verify a miraculous event.
2. The second option grants that God could perform miracles but questions whether there is any historical evidence that he has done so.
Either there is no evidence sufficient to settle the issue, or it is unreasonable to expect that Almighty God would stoop to the use of miracles to cause people to believe in him.
3. The third option is that God has intervened in history in miraculous ways to accomplish his purposes.
Those who object to the possibility of miracles usually assume that the natural laws of the universe cannot be overruled by some outside force; it is a closed system.
This anti-supernatural assumption has profoundly influenced many scientists who argue that a universe open to miracles would not be orderly. There are several problems with this position:
- The assumption that the universe is a closed system cannot be proven by science; it is philosophical, not scientific.
- Natural laws describe what normally happens but do not cause it to happen; that is, they are descriptive, not prescriptive.
- Miracles, by definition, are unusual events that involve an intervention into the normal processes of nature by a higher power; therefore, scientific inquiry is not threatened by their occurrence.
- The real issue behind this question is whether God exists. If there is a God who can act, then acts of God are possible.
- There is contemporary evidence of miracles such as that amassed by Craig Keener in his two-volume study Miracles (2011).
How can we know whether God has chosen to intervene in his creation through miraculous works? To answer this, we must turn from philosophy to history.
The Case for the Resurrection
According to the Bible, God has chosen to reveal himself in historical ways, and these include divinely empowered miracles. Most miracles in Scripture occurred in only three periods: Moses/Joshua, Elijah/Elisha, and Jesus/the apostles.
The only sign worth subjecting to historical scrutiny is Jesus’ Resurrection, and a presentation of the case for the Resurrection is the best way to affirm that miracles have occurred.
Let’s start with the points virtually all historians and theologians agree upon:
- Jesus suffered death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate in 30 or 33 CE.
- Friends placed Jesus’ body in a tomb.
- Jesus’ friend, Mary Magdalene, and other followers found the tomb empty on the third day.
- The disciples had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus.
- Among the earliest converts to Christianity were Paul of Tarsus and James, who was raised as a brother to Jesus. Neither was a follower of Jesus during his lifetime, and Paul actually persecuted Christians prior to his conversion.
Objections to the Empty Tomb
Some object to these facts by suggesting that the tomb was still occupied based on one of the following arguments.
1. The location of the tomb was unknown, or Jesus wasn’t buried in a tomb at all. The common practice was to throw crucified persons into a common burial pit, but this was not the universal practice.
All four gospels attest to Jesus’ burial, something that would have been patently false if there was no possibility of Jesus being put in a tomb.
Further, archaeologists have found the body of a crucified man, complete with a nail still embedded in his ankle, in a tomb in Israel.
2. The women and disciples went to the wrong tomb. This absurd theory assumes that everyone, including not only the women and disciples but Joseph of Arimathea, in whose tomb Jesus was buried, and the Roman and Jewish authorities all misidentified the place where Jesus was buried.
3. Jesus was resurrected spiritually, not bodily. Yet the gospel accounts insist that after the resurrection, Jesus placed great emphasis on his physicality, eating with the disciples and having Thomas touch his wounds.
This was in keeping with Jewish messianic expectations of a bodily resurrection. The only logical conclusion is that the tomb was empty. So, how is this explained by skeptics?
4. One or more of Jesus’ friends stole his body. Given that the gospel accounts say that the disciples did not expect Jesus to be raised, there was no motive for them to do this.
Further, the disciples all faced suffering, many to the point of gruesome deaths, without wavering in their testimony that Christ had risen.
People may die for things that ultimately prove false, but they will not die for something they know is a lie.
5. Further, as Jews, if Jesus did not rise, they would know that the claim was blasphemous and would invite the judgment of God. This explanation is thus implausible.
6. The enemies of Jesus stole the body. If this were so, why did they not produce the body and end Christianity before it even started? This, too, makes no sense.
7. Jesus “swooned” on the cross and only appeared to be dead. He revived in the cool of the tomb, snuck out, and presented himself as alive to the disciples, only to die later in obscurity.
Yet Jesus had been scourged by the Romans, leaving him mutilated, then was nailed to the cross for multiple hours, then when he stopped breathing, was stabbed with a spear by a Roman executioner to be sure he was dead, then was put in a tomb wrapped in linen with a hundred pounds of spices.
Even if the Romans were mistaken about his death, after suffering massive blood loss and with no water or medical care, it would have been impossible for him to wriggle out of the shroud, neatly replace it, rolled away a huge stone (uphill), and snuck past the guards. This also does not work.
8. Other conspiracy theories all lack any evidence and contradict the gospel accounts.
Objections to the Post-Resurrection Appearances
The most plausible conclusion is that the tomb was empty, which brings us to attempts to explain the accounts by Jesus’ followers of his post-resurrection appearances. Again, there have been several attempts to explain them away.
1. The disciples all lied about seeing the resurrected Jesus. Yet the disciples had nothing to gain and even faced suffering and death for their claim to have witnessed the risen Christ, yet none recanted.
As Jews, the claim was false, blasphemous, and invited divine retribution. Further, this theory does not explain the conversion of James and Paul, two very unlikely candidates for Christianity.
2. The post-Resurrection appearances of Christ were merely hallucinations in the minds of the disciples. Yet mass hallucinations do not happen, and hallucinations generally don’t stop as Jesus’ appearances did at his ascension.
3. The whole story of the resurrected Jesus, including the appearances, is simply an elaborate legend created by the early church.
Yet the dating of the New Testament documents does not allow time for such a legend to develop.
Further, the New Testament accounts circulated widely without being challenged by friends or enemies.
Evidence for the Resurrection
There is also considerable circumstantial evidence for the Resurrection:
1. The crucifixion came about because the Jewish leadership wanted to end the Jesus movement. If there was a body to be found or some other clear refutation of the Christian claim, they would have shouted it from the rooftops.
But the silence of the Jewish leaders about the Resurrection eloquently testified that they knew the basic facts were undeniable.
2. Before the Resurrection, the disciples were fearful men whose faith was weak, and all abandoned Jesus after his arrest.
But by the Day of Pentecost, seven weeks later, they were boldly proclaiming Christ to the multitudes in Jerusalem. This transformation was complete, permanent, and unanimous.
3. The success of the early Christian church despite fierce opposition is another evidence of the Resurrection. At least a few major attempts to quash this new religion (under Emperors Nero, Domitian, and Diocletian) failed, along with countless attempts on the local level.
Yet with no military campaign, no “incubation” period, and no charismatic and unifying leader walking the earth, by 300 CE, the church had grown from a few hundred to a population in the millions.
The church began in Jerusalem, the city of the empty tomb, and the apostles’ preaching centered on the resurrected Savior. Without the Resurrection, the church would not have come into existence.
4. The shift from Saturday to Sunday as the day of worship for the early Jewish Christians (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2) was a radical act that would never have taken place if Christ had not been raised on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1).
5. The sacraments of baptism and communion are both related to the Resurrection and would have been senseless in the early church apart from the historical reality of the Resurrection.
All the attempts to find naturalistic explanations for the historical facts related to the Resurrection have failed.
The direct evidence concerning the tomb and the appearances, combined with the circumstantial evidence, establish beyond a reasonable doubt the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He conquered the grave, and he offers resurrection life to those who place their trust in him.
But belief in the miracles of Christ is no guarantee of saving faith. Many have acknowledged the Resurrection without receiving Christ as their Savior.
The unbeliever needs to consider the implications of the claims and credentials of Christ for his life and respond to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.
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Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Sitthiphong
Kenneth Boa is a writer, teacher, speaker, and mentor working largely with business and professional people in the Atlanta area, throughout the country, and around the world. He writes a free monthly teaching letter—Reflections—and his website, KenBoa.org, has an abundance of free resources.
Publications by Dr. Boa include Conformed to His Image; Handbook to Prayer; Handbook to Leadership; Faith Has its Reasons; Rewriting Your Broken Story; Life in the Presence of God; Leverage; and Recalibrate Your Life.
He is President of Reflections Ministries and holds a B.S. from Case Institute of Technology, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. from New York University, and a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in England.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.