I recently had a thought-provoking conversation with a good friend in which he questioned whether miracles (including biblical miracles) actually prove the existence of God. This led me to formulate the following thesis: Biblical miracles are never directed at the simple philosophical question, “Is there a God?” but rather they tell us something about the God who exists. In other words, biblical miracles are not God’s way of saying, “Look, I exist!” but rather, “See, this is who I am.”
Take the two defining miracles in the Bible: In the Old Testament, it is the parting of the Red Sea and the associated events rescuing the people of Israel out of Egypt. In the New Testament, it is the resurrection of Jesus. (Note that “resurrection” means that the historic Jesus was raised from the dead and is alive now forever both body and soul.) Neither of these events are intended to answer a kind of philosophical question in-a-vacuum, “Is there a God?” In their historical contexts, they address much more specific questions, or I should say they have much more richer implications.
The Exodus from Egypt
In the context of the Ancient Near East, the exodus miracles meant: “Yahweh has publicly defeated Egypt and her gods, and has rescued his people Israel.” This deliverance miracle tells us much more than “Is there a God?” – it tells us something about this God and his purposes in the world. Some of this content is captured in the great hymn preserved in Exodus 15, a hymn composed in response to the exodus deliverance. Here are selections:
The exodus demonstrates the supremacy of Yahweh over other gods or so-called-gods:
11 Who among the gods
is like you, LORD?
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
The exodus affirms God’s relationship to biblical Israel as his chosen people:
13 In your unfailing love you will lead
the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
to your holy dwelling.
14 The nations will hear and tremble…
The exodus confirms the sovereignty of God over all power and authority:
18 The LORD reigns
for ever and ever.
The Resurrection of Jesus
In the context of first century Palestine (accurately portrayed in the Four Gospels), the resurrection of Jesus takes on particular significance. Here we have a Rabbi who many will agree was a great ethical teacher. However, his teaching – no matter which way you analyze it – accords extraordinary significance to himself. He calls God his own Father in a way that outraged his contemporaries. He accepts the title Messiah (anointed ruler or Christ) but adds to it a mission to suffer – and die! He refuses to take the route of popular acclaim leading to political power. He deliberately puts himself in harm’s way and is crucified after a special meal with his disciples, a meal in which he showed them – with visual props as it were – that the purpose of his death would be to establish “a new covenant in my blood.” This covenant would be comparable to – or even supersede – the “old covenant” which God had made with Israel shortly after the exodus.
It is this Jesus who lay dead for days and who was raised from the dead. Just like the exodus miracles, his resurrection does not address the philosophical question, “Does God exist?” Rather it has much more specific implications: Jesus’ life, teaching, ministry and death are validated by God. A new covenant has indeed been established. Instead of multiple sacrifices at a temple, there is one sacrifice on the cross valid for all time. Jesus of Nazareth is Savior of the World.
Paul and the Resurrection of Jesus
This rich set of implications is what fell upon Saul (later called Paul) when he was on the road to Damascus to persecute the newly formed sect of “Christians”. When he encountered the risen Jesus it was not some philosophical “proof of God” that he saw (he already believed in God); it was all those much more specific and dramatic implications: God had affirmed Jesus, the crucified, as Lord and Savior. This was shocking for Paul. His life was never the same. Paul became the great “apostle to the Gentiles” taking the good news of the new covenant outside the bounds of traditional Israel to the whole world. He continued this until his own martyrdom at the hands of imperial Rome.
These opening words from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome reference Jesus’ resurrection, and will repay careful reading as a first-hand account of some of the specific implications of the resurrection miracle:
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2 the gospel God promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. 6 And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
I believe this is the general pattern of miracles in the Bible: That they are presented as purposeful events, revealing information about God and his purposes and never directed to the narrow philosophical question-in-a-vacuum, “Does God exist?” Of course, that question is addressed in passing, much the way the question, “Do you have a car?” is answered by picking up someone and taking them to their needed destination.
The evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus is extraordinary. I recommend, for example, chapter 9 “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in William Lane Craig’s recent On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. See also my earlier brief post, The Resurrection of Jesus.
For accounts of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus, see the recounting in Luke’s narrative in Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:9-18 as well as the details from Paul’s own pen in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and Galatians 1:11-24.
The photo of the pyramids used above is intended to evoke the idea of Egypt. The pyramids at Giza were not built by Israelite slaves. In fact, they were in existence long before the time of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt.
By Ray Pennoyer (June 23, 2011)