There is probably no area of the whole atheist/believer debate where more anger and hostility is generated than the subject of miracles. When we get an e-mail from either an atheist or a believer that has the word miracle in it, I almost always find that there is also a great deal of abuse and name calling in the body of the e-mail. There are a lot of causes for this anger. Atheists feel that claims of miracles have been overblown and are generally false. They also have had the experience of being treated in a condescending way by religious people who hold miracles as a demonstration of superiority. For many denominations the existence of miracles is a doctrinal issue, and if a miracle is denied it is a denial of their creed. For most of us who just try to live from day to day without engaging in any heavy discussion of an issue like this, the subject of miracles is difficult because we need one. We may be sick or have sickness in our family, we may be in economic stress, death may be or has been present in a loved one, or we may feel threatened by things beyond our control. "Why has God let this happen?" is a phrase I have heard many times from atheists and believers alike. Any discussion of miracles in the past has tended to generate more heat than light, and I hope that in this discussion we can look at some of the problems with miracles and prayer in a constructive way that will reduce the inflammatory nature of this subject.
Definitions. Webster defines the word miracle as "an event or effect that apparently contradicts known scientific law and is hence thought to be due to supernatural causes, especially to an act of God." There are two different words in the Greek of the New Testament that are used for miracle. The first is the word semeion which literally means a sign. John 2:11 says, "This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed ... ." This kind of miracle was a validation of a spokesman as approved of God. The Gospel of John is a gospel with apologetic intent, and this is the word John uses throughout his gospel (see John 2:11; 2:23; 3:2; 4:54; 6:2; 6:14; 6:26; 7:31; 9:16; 10:41; 11:47; 12:18; 12:37). It is also used in Acts in the same way (see Acts 4:16; 4:22; 6:8; 8:6; 15:12). The point of this use of the word miracle is that a miracle was an indication that this speaker was from God and was not an imposter. There are and always have been humans who claimed to be God or claimed to speak for God. Performing a miracle that was clearly impossible for humans to do was a validation of the speaker and the speaker's message. In the case of Jesus, this use of miracles was stated to be a sign of who he was and what he was--"The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us" (John 1:14).
The second Greek word used to convey a miracle is dunamis, referring to an act of power. This is something used to go beyond what man can do by his own devices and might better fit the definition given in Webster. John never uses this word and Mark uses it once in Mark 9:39. It is more commonly used in Acts (see Acts 2:22; 8:13; 19:11). An act of power might not necessarily be a sign. In Acts 2:22 Peter lists three things that Jesus did that he calls their attention to--miracles (dunamis), wonders (teras in the Greek, meaning wonder or prodigy), and signs (semeion mentioned above). Peter indicates that these three things were done by Christ to confirm his authority. It is obvious that in our day and time no one should be attempting to do what Peter is talking about. Anyone claiming to be Christ today is at odds with what Jesus taught and we would join the atheist in rejecting their claims. Not only can they not do the things Jesus did, but the purpose Jesus had in his miracles is not relevant to us today. If there is a miracle in today's world, it will come directly from God, not from any mortal. There are some limits as to what God will and will not do that must necessarily be a part of this discussion.
There are Some Things God Will Not Do. One thing God will not do is to violate the promises He has made. God has told us, "It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that to face judgment." I may live as perfectly as I can, but I have a promise of God that will not be violated and that promise is that I will die and face judgment. Many times people on all sides of the issues want God to step in and violate this promise. That is not consistent with God's nature, and it will not happen. I remember praying for a man in our local hospital shortly after I became a Christian, and having him interrupt my prayer when I asked God to spare his life. He let me know in no uncertain terms that he was ready to die and he knew that promise of God was going to happen; and he was ready for it to happen as soon as possible. He then led me in a prayer that concerned helping his family deal with his death and helping him to go peacefully and without pain. Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that there are things that God will not alter in the physical world--"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven."
God has promised us as humans that we will reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7). Sometimes we want to engage in destructive behaviors and then have God step in and stop the natural consequences of those behaviors. Not only does this apply to a situation like a smoker who gets lung cancer after smoking for 30 years, but it also applies to a political system the teaches racial superiority and rejects the principles of morality that God has given us. People who reject God because He did not strike Adolph Hitler dead before Nazi Germany started rounding up Jews and putting them in concentration camps are asking God to violate His promises. If you believe this life is all there is, then these kinds of events are catastrophic in nature. If this life is only a blink in the total expanse of our existence, their horribleness is less consuming.
Another thing that God will not do is to be a respecter of persons. One of the unique things about the Christian system is its total rejection of racism, elitism, sexism, and nationalism. Matthew 5:45 begins by telling us that God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." In Acts 10:34 God convinces Peter about the fact that all men are equal in God's sight. Peter says "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who respect Him and do what is right." Over and over in the New Testament writings the equality of mankind in God's sight is emphasized. "For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free" (1 Corinthians 12:13). "For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all" (Romans 10:12-13). "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). "Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all" (Colossians 3:11).
God never intended for Christians to come to their faith to escape problems in life. Nowhere are we promised we will not have problems, sickness, death, or will not suffer violence. What we are promised is that we will have a way of escape provided for us before we reach the breaking point (1 Corinthians 10:13), but that way of escape may be death. To expect God to do something for me that would not be available to others is to make God a respecter of persons. We are all equally precious in the sight of God, and miracles and prayers are not vehicles to make me better than someone else.
The third thing that God will not do is to violate the purpose He had in creating us. We are here for a purpose and we have a mission to fulfill. Ephesians 6:12 and 3:10 tell us that our struggle extends far beyond the mundane things of this life. "His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ephesians 3:10-11). Job 1 and 2 allow us to see this wisdom being made known to Satan. Job serves as a major player in the cosmic struggle between good and evil. When all the theologians and philosophers of his day have had their say, God steps in and shows Job why he was created and what role he has played. Job responds in Job 42:5 by saying, "Lord, before all these things had happened to me, I had heard of thee by the ear, but now my eye sees you." He goes on and praises God because he sees his purpose and understands that he has been a part of the whole eternal battle between good and evil.
If God had intervened in the middle of Job's discourse with his friends, and stopped Job's struggle and his pain, the book of Job would not be in the Bible. The whole purpose and message of Job would have been lost, and in fact the reason for him being known to all of mankind today would have been destroyed. We are no different than Job. You can take Job's name out of the book of Job and put your name in place of it. When we leave this world, we will be freed from all of the things that afflict us here. That is when God steps in and puts a stop to our pain and trouble--"And God shall wipe away all tears from [our] eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are all passed away" (Revelation 21:4).
So Why Should We Pray? Prayer has never been for God's benefit. Jesus clearly demonstrated that principle when He said "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Worship and all the acts involved in worship are for man's benefit. Singing allows us to be united in a special way. Giving shapes our attitudes and gives us the ability to have the best of relationships in life. Prayer allows us to learn to look to a higher power and get beyond the problems and struggles of this life. God does not need for us to tell Him what is going on, or to build His ego or relieve His depression. The Bible tells us over and over that God knows what we have need of before we ask (Matthew 6:8). Prayer is our way to form a relationship with God and to be encouraged and feel support and fellowship that sustains us in the problems of life.
The times in the Bible when we have a promise of a miracle being given in response to our prayers is when the prayer involves ourselves and our work in service to God. James 1:5 says "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." When we read, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7-8), the context is "seek first his kingdom and righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). When we read "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" (Matthew 21:22) the context is the tackling of a mountain and having the faith to move that mountain--to try anything no matter how huge the obstacle may appear to be. When you read "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it" (John 14:14), the context is "Show us the father" in verse 8. Coming to God and learning about God will never be a disappointment. When we read "... ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you" (John 15:7), the context is bearing much fruit (verse 8). This is also true of John 15:16, "The father will give you whatever you ask in my name." The same statement is made in John 16:23-24 and the context is finding complete joy in the Second Coming. First John 3:22-23 tell us "We have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask" in the context of "love one another." God can give you the miracle of love so that you can love in a way and in circumstances the world cannot understand.
The times the Bible speaks negatively about prayers and guarantees they will not be answered is when the object of the prayer is selfishness. James 4:3 makes this very clear when James says "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." Prayer was never intended for purposes of boosting our ego, giving us physical or social comfort, economic gain or stability, or even good health. Romans 8:26-28 tells us that our prayers are helped by the Spirit when we do not even know what to pray for. That will not happen if our prayers are selfish, but it happens all the time when our prayers are spiritual and "according to the will of God." First Corinthians 2:11-16 makes it clear that "the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."
There is never any problem in asking God for anything as long as our heart is right and our motives are pure in what we ask. Attempting to force God to satisfy our selfish wants and desires is very wrong. Most claims of miracles that we hear about in today's world are not miracles at all, and making the claim they are causes great damage. One kind of damage is the Christian who has the same problem and does not get the claimed miracle that someone else got. All of the theological arguments in the world will not remove the hurt of trying to understand why God gave someone else an answer that was not given to me. We should never view a chronic illness or a death as a refusal of God to care about us or answer our prayers.
The other kind of damage is what atheists can do with this when it becomes clear that what happened was not a special miraculous act of God. In the February 2007 issue of Reader's Digest, there is a humorous article by Art Buchwald. Mr. Buchwald tells how he became a "poster boy" for Hospice. Buchwald was dying of kidney failure, was on dialysis, and decided to end his life by taking himself off of dialysis. He gets everything ready including planning his funeral and his family is told death is imminent by the Hospice nurses. Buchwald then tells us (page 202), "Against all odds, my kidneys started working again and could function without dialysis. It was a mystery to my doctors. My friends decided it was a miracle."
I had an atheist friend who was dying of colon cancer. He had entered the hospital to "be made comfortable." This 200-pound man was down to about 75 pounds and was being fed intravenously when he awoke one morning feeling better than he had in quite a while. He managed to get the nurses to bring him some food and felt even better. By the end of the day he was eating like a horse and feeling stronger by the minute. A week later he left the hospital and continued being an active atheist for many years after his hospital stay with no sign of the cancer he was dying with. Was this a miracle? My answer to that question is in the negative. Cancer is a mysterious disease, and sometimes things just happen with it that defy human explanation. Many of his religious friends told him God was giving him one last chance to avoid hell, but if that was the case it did not work.
Making wild and untestable claims about miracles is a destructive activity. Coming to God only for the purpose of obtaining a miracle is a misguided act. Being active in your communication with God and asking for something that maybe you should not ask for is fine, but do not get angry if it does not come. Most importantly enter into your search understanding why you exist, what prayer is about, and what God wants your objectives in life to be. We need to learn to pray for spiritual answers to our problems, and become less obsessed with physical solutions that are always temporary. We need to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to us as well. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:33-34). How true that is.
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