“Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe,” said Jesus to a well-educated man of the first century, but in modern times the situation seems to have reversed. Whereas in earlier days the miracle authenticated Christianity, to men of our day they often present a stumbling-block, so that they find it difficult to accept a Christianity which speaks of the miraculous.
Sometimes they allege that our better education and knowledge of the world make it impossible to accept miracles in the way people did in earlier days. But the idea of modern man’s lack of credulity is a myth. Modern man in fact will swallow any nonsense provided it comes with a scientific label attached (as witness some of our patent medicine advertisements) and sometimes even without (as witness the popularity of astrology). The reason why moderns often reject the miracles is not that our education makes it impossible for us to believe, but rather that we start with some such dogma as Matthew Arnold’s “Miracles Don’t Happen.” Armed with such a weapon we become impervious to reasoned argument.
People don’t want miracles. They upset the tidy view of Christianity that otherwise is quite possible to draw up. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Christianity, but one that we are seeing in many spheres of life. For example the popular concept of the atom as a little hard ball makes for an easy understanding of the ultimate nature of things, but our scientists keep on insisting that this is all wrong, and that the atom cannot be pictured. So, too, the historians continually debunk the popular version of history in favour of one which is much less what we should have expected.
Miracles are Unseemly
A somewhat different position from that of the sceptic is that taken up by the believer who yet thinks that it is more in keeping with the fitness of things if God should work by natural law, rather than that from time to time He should interrupt the natural order. They will insist that God does work out His purposes, but that for example, He used the natural forces of wind and tide to make the crossing of the Red Sea possible, and not some unusual intervention of a miraculous character. This seems like the attitude of one who thinks that the story of Cinderella’s fairy godmother’s changing the pumpkin into a coach and six is too much to swallow, but is prepared to settle for a hansom cab*. Once admit that God works His purpose out and you have introduced the thought that there is something other than the operation of “natural” forces simply. In other words you have the idea of the miraculous, and it does not seem to matter greatly if you have a “big” miracle or a “small” one.
So is it with the contention that says that miracle contradicts God’s mode of working, and thinks it a greater miracle if God works through natural law, than if He has to confess Himself defeated, and so introduce something other than natural law to extricate Himself. Here Dorothy Sayers’ analogy of the writer is helpful. If an author lands his hero into a mess and then introduces someone who leaves him a fortune unexpectedly to get him out of it, he may be accused of poor craftsmanship. But there is no reason why an author should not write a story about the situation of a young man who suddenly finds himself the possessor of great wealth. In the first place it is a device of a beaten man: in the second it is what the plot is all about. And on the Bible view it would be wrong to say that God works miracles to extricate Himself from unfortunate positions – rather miracle is what the story is all about.
For it must be insisted upon that Christianity is essentially miraculous. The greatest miracle of all is the miracle of divine grace. Sinful man merits eternal death, for “the soul that sinneth it shall die,” and again “the mind of the flesh is death,” so that it needs a miracle for man to be delivered from the fate that seems inevitably to await him.
But that miracle has been effected. Without God’s abating one joy of His demands for moral uprightness, the way has been found whereby sinful man may be justified, and brought into the family of God. True it was at great cost, for it meant that the Son of God left His throne in glory to take upon Him man’s nature, to live a life in humility and obscurity, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Finally it meant the laying down of that perfect life on Calvary’s Cross. All this is stupendous miracle, but is at the very heart of Christianity. Do away with this, and you have destroyed the Christian faith.
Consequences of the Incarnation
But if Jesus Christ is really God, then we must expect that His entry into the world of men will have its consequences, not all of them predictable by men. In a sense it may well be that all still happens according to natural law, but it is the natural law of the being of God. Someone has pointed out that if a stone is cast into a quiet pool some piscatorial observer might notice a number of “miracles,” the hurling of spray into the air, the appearance of concentric ripples on the surface, the stirring-up of mud from the bottom, the maiming of a slow tadpole. But these are not the real miracle. The real miracle is the irruption of a body from another world.
And that is the essential miracle of Christianity. There is the irruption of a Being from another world, One who cannot be explained by the laws men. His coming will inevitably result in miracle, for His coming is sheer miracle. Grant the reality of the incarnation, and the rest would seem to follow. Deny the possibility of miracle and you deny the possibility of the incarnation.
This will also carry with it the miracles wrought at other times than during the lifetime of Jesus. For if we concede that it is possible for God to take human form and act in ways beyond our comprehension, then we must also accept the possibility that He will act in ways beyond our comprehension at other times, and through other people. If God is a God Who is interested in men, Who is active among men, then from time to time He will manifest Himself in ways men cannot explain.
One final point. The characteristic of the Bible miracles from start to finish is not so much that they are hard to explain, as that they are signs. In other words, they are meant, not so much to astonish us, but to reveal God. Buddha is said to have worked miracles, but the stories must be rejected because they would contradict the heart of Buddhism with its refusal to take matter seriously. Vespasian is said to have worked a couple of miracles, but if he did it is unimportant they mean nothing and they lead us nowhere. But the Bible miracles matter, for they are God’s way of bringing home to us that He is that sort of God. They show something of His concern for men, of His love for them, and His will to remove all obstacles in the way of His blessing them. They show us God.
Originally entitled Except Ye See Signs & Wonders, from the Vault of the Australian Church Record, August 4, 1955.
* Dr Morris’ mention of a ‘hansom cab’ refers to a type of horse-drawn carriage from the mid-1800s.