Miracles or Myths
Does it really matter whether the biblical miracles actually happened? If you say it doesn’t, you lose something very important.
|Can we still believe in miracles? That’s the question asked in an article in Time magazine, from April 10, 1995. I was very happy when I read this article because it finally gives a balanced treatment. They interviewed people from a number of different perspectives that not only gave their point of view, particularly the conservative point of view, but gave their reasons.This is so critical and I have emphasized this time and time again in the tactic that I call “Rhodes Scholar”. The point of the tactic is that it doesn’t matter so much what a scholar believes, what matters is why he believes it. Generally, they have the Jesus Seminar giving their pronouncements as academic scholars and their opinion is offered as “gospel” (pardon the pun) and they don’t give the reasons why they believe such a thing. Then you hear from a lot of so-called conservatives that say, How dare you assault our faith, and they don’t give any of their reasons either. It looks like the scholars vs. the wackos on the religious right. That is not the case at all in this article. We have a great response, a full page of material, it seems, written to give the conservative response point by point, much of it given by Murray Harris, Bible professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
But there is something else going on in this article. First, I tip my hat to Time magazine. I think they did a great job. But there a question that is raised–not one that they answer, but it is raised. They start out the article by talking about the deepest mysteries of faith–miracles. I thought this was an unusual way of putting it, though I’ve heard it put this way many times. Why is a miracle considered a deep mystery of faith? Why is the resurrection a deep mystery of faith? To me, there is no mystery at all. Either it happened or it didn’t happen. If it didn’t happen, then it is a mistaken claim by Christians and by the Bible, and Christians ought to be pitied, Paul says, if it didn’t happen. If it did happen, then it seems to substantiate the claims that the Bible makes. Paul puts it in Romans 1 as “the declaration of the Sonship of Jesus Christ, declared with power to be the son of God through the resurrection.” So, if it did happen, there is some obvious theological meaning to it. So what’s the mystery?
Well, there is mystery if you don’t ask the question, Did it happen or not? It is a mystery if you don’t address it as a historical issue. A number of comments are made in this article in that vein. Ellen Rawlston, a mechanical engineer and member of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Hawthorne, California, says, “Whether those actions actually occurred is somewhat irrelevant to me. It’s the spirit of the message that is more important.” The spirit of the message.The Jesus Seminar is quoted. Jackson Carroll, professor of Religion and Society at Duke Divinity School, comments on the distinction between flesh and spirit. He says, “They [the gospel writers] were talking not about the resurrection of the flesh, but about the resurrection of Christ’s selfhood, his essence.” He goes on to point out that there is a critical distinction. It says that the “gospel writers made a critical or crucial distinction between flesh and spirit.” So there are fleshly truths and there are spiritual truths, and the resurrection is a spiritual truth, not an historical, fleshly truth.
It is true that the gospel writers did make that distinction. They were careful to distinguish between flesh and spirit, and they were very careful to point out that they weren’t talking about a spirit resurrection in the case of Jesus. They were talking about a physical resurrection.
“Liberals argue,” the article goes on to say, “that it is not blasphemy to say that the resurrection never happened because accounts of Christ’s rising are meant metaphorically.”
This reminds me of a comment I heard yesterday in a discussion about religious issues on Dennis Prager’s show here in Los Angeles, noting that Friday, yesterday was Good Friday and also Passover. He accurately pointed out that the Exodus and Resurrection are the defining events of two of the world’s major religions. They are not the highest of holidays but they are the most defining events. Then he said something rather interesting. Dennis said that he has callers that talk about these kinds of things that are so pregnant with religious significance and meaning–the resurrection and the Passover–but have said to him, “I have a hard time taking these stories literally.” Prager said, “So what? It is the meaning that is most important.” This point of view reflects comments that were made a number of times in this article, that it is not so much whether the event actually happened or not, it’s the story or the spiritual truth that is communicated through the message. I think this is a profound misunderstanding. It comes into play in my comments on the notion of myth.
A myth is not the same as a fairy tale. You need to know this. Oftentimes, we think of it that way, but that is not what a myth is. A myth is a story. It’s not true in the same way that a fairy tale is not true, so they are similar in that way, but they have a different purpose. A fairy tale is simply meant to entertain. A myth is a story meant to communicate a truth of life. The message has deep significance for the mysteries of the meaning of life.
So it seems that people are not concerned about the historicity of the events in the Bible because what is more important is not that they happened, but that they teach this deep life truth. The resurrection teaches about new life in Jesus. The chances of new beginnings. Power over death. Life after death. That’s what the message is. Whether Jesus rose from the dead or not is quite incidental to the message of the resurrection story. The message is paramount.
I think this is a false view. Certainly the apostles didn’t have the belief that the message was more paramount than the history itself. In fact, the message was in the history. Without the history, there is no message. That was their point. So this view ignores the statements of those who wrote the Bible themselves. But beyond this, I think there is something incoherent about this point of view. In other words, it doesn’t really work.
One of the biblical events that was brought up in Dennis’s show yesterday was Noah and the Ark. Was there really a flood that killed everybody? It doesn’t matter, the host said, because it’s not important whether Noah existed or not. What is important is the meaning of the flood myth. Noah was saved because of his righteousness, the rest were condemned because of their evil. So what is the meaning? Well, the meaning is that God rewards goodness and judges evil. It doesn’t matter whether the flood really happened. We have flood accounts in many civilizations. Here’s what is important: God rewards righteousness and judges evil.There is a serious problem with this view. Francis Schaeffer points it out frequently. Think about this for a moment. If it is not true, if God did not send a flood to judge mankind, then why should I take the lesson seriously? Why should I believe that God rewards goodness and judges evil just because someone tells me a story? Now, if God did reward goodness and did judge evil in history, then it takes on a whole different texture. Then I have something real to be concerned about if I am doing evil. But if it is just a story, then what is God going to do? What happens if the world goes terribly nasty again, when every thought is turned toward evil constantly as before the flood? Is God going to say, Look out. You’d better straighten out or I’m going to tell you another scary story? I’m not scared of God if that’s it, that doesn’t bother me. Is that what this is about? No. We should fear God’s judgment because He has in fact, in history judged the world.
By the way, I mentioned the New Testament points this out very clearly. Peter says no less. In 2 Peter 2 Peter talks about false prophets rising among the people. False teachers, destructive heresies. “Many will follow their sensuality. Their judgment from long ago is not idle. Their destruction is not asleep.” Is that a story? Should I be shaking here? I’m a false teacher. I’m a man lost to my sensuality. Do I qualify for this? Should I be frightened? Peter is warning me. Look out, Koukl. Why should I be frightened? “If God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness reserved for judgment and He did not spare the ancient world but preserved Noah, preacher of righteousness and seven others and He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly, if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who live ungodly thereafter.” If He did this. If He did that. If He did this other thing. Do you think you are going to escape? Verse 9 says, “Then the Lord knows how to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment.” Do you see his reasoning? He is saying, We should fear God because He has acted in history.
This is what is unique about the biblical testimony, and it is not just Christian. It would be Hebrew, too, for those who take the Hebrew Bible as it was intended to be taken. These events happened. The Passover happened. The Flood happened. And the fact that they happened gives us reason to believe that God can judge the ungodly and can rescue the unrighteous as He did in the Flood, and God can rescue His people as He did in the Passover.
In fact, the law itself has validity because He did rescue them. If you look at the way the Law is set up, it follows a particular pattern. The great king/vassal treaty of that time was the pattern for the law. In other words, a king would rescue the people and say, Now that I’ve rescued you, you pay homage to me, pay taxes to me, be inscripted in my army, and I will protect you. If you do as I say, I will bless you, and if you don’t, I’m going to kick your butt. Basically, that is the book of Exodus and Deuteronomy in a nutshell because God says the same thing to the Jews. Because I saved you out of Egypt–it’s right there in the wording, you read it–therefore you obey me.
Now, if God didn’t save them, by His own testament, they are not obliged to obey him. This is the point I’m making. You cannot look at some of these seminal salvation events that are recorded as history in the Scriptures and reduce them to mere stories that communicate spiritually significant truth, because it is the event itself that is pregnant with the meaning of the truth. If you remove the event, you lose the truth. That’s why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, If Christ has not been raised, not only are we liars, but you are still in your sins. You’re lost. There are ramifications to these historical events of salvation that God has performed in history. If He has not in fact performed them, then the ramifications are lost and all you’re left with is nice, religious stories. That’s it. Placebo religion. That’s what you are left with. That is why you cannot gut these texts of their meaning by reducing these stories to mere myth because if they are myth, if it turns out that they are just myth, just stories, then there is no meaning to them at all. They are misleading.In the same way, by the way, why should I believe that there is new life in Christ as we celebrate the resurrection, that there is power over death, that there is a future beyond the grave if the resurrection is only a story?
The great, dramatic miracles and deliverances of the Bible are useless if they are not true, if they are only stories. You might as well go to Hans Christian Andersen if that is all it’s about.