The Meaning of Miracles

From Jonah surviving a week in a fish’s belly to Jesus’ resurrection itself, the Christian scriptures are full of miracles. By definition things that do not happen naturally, these fantastic events defy the laws of physics and point to God’s intervention in history.

In the Hebrew Bible, God sends plagues to Israel’s oppressors, a man parts the sea, and food manifests for the hungry. These miracles demonstrate Yahweh’s steadfast commitment to Israel against more powerful enemy kingdoms who worship other gods. In the New Testament, Jesus heals the sick and even raises the dead, miracles which largely revolve around Jesus’ authority as Lord and compassion towards society’s most marginalised and vulnerable.

Interpreting these fantastic stories of miraculous events is a matter that divides biblical scholars. To our modern sensibilities, these events that go against our scientific, rational approach seem ridiculous, the intervention of a God willing to break the laws of physics in ways that never happen nowadays.

In keeping with this, a number of theologians hold that miracles never happened. Instead, they suggest, the stories that the Bible contains are better understood metaphorically, describing a deeper truth in poetic ways.

While this approach is far from universal, it is a widespread way of understanding the creation narratives in Genesis.

Another way of approaching scripture’s miracles is looking to the deeper significance of the narratives themselves. Rather than being caught on the likelihood of whether or not the Bible’s events happened, this approach asks what they mean.

Karl Barth is one famous proponent of this approach. After delivering a lecture, Barth was once asked “Is it true that the serpent really spoke?” The heavyweight Swiss theologian replied, “It does not matter whether or not the serpent really spoke; all that matters is what the serpent said.”

Wendy Cotter is a Professor of New Testament at Chicago’s Loyola University. She writes that the Bible’s miracles “can be read to reflect the mercy and compassion of God.”

As Professor Cotter further suggests, Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels depict Him as meeting the needs of people who step forward as petitioners.

“The New Testament authors intended these stories to teach their audiences: even if the would-be Christian is unable to perform miracles, he or she could reach out and show mercy and compassion, like Jesus, to others”

Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor.




One thought on “The Meaning of Miracles

  1. Bob Hinchcliffe

    This article seems to play down the status of miracles in Christianity. Are we to regard the Resurrection of Christ as a metaphor, and the Incarnation of God in our world as a metaphor, events to be understood as a “narrative” only? The Bible uses the words “signs and wonders” in many places. The Oxford says the word “miracle” derives from “Wonder”. It seems to me that “sign” points to a sense of meaning. Hence the meaning of a wonderful event needs to be reflected upon. The article rightly mentions this aspect.

    Note that the “laws of physics” do not control or even explain events and behaviours in our world. They have been developed only to describe behaviours. The consistency behind those laws is God-given as part of Creation, and is an object of wonder in itself, yet humans take it all for granted and on faith as the very foundation of Science. In thinking about the possibility of miracles I think “our modern sensibilities” may need a reality check to get onto good philosophical ground. Read CS Lewis’s book on Miracles to elaborate on this. So I do not think the reality of signs and wonders generally in the Scriptures need to be played down by Christians by assuming or accepting in general that they are metaphor and did not occur in fact. Each case needs consideration on its own merits.

    Many wonders whether in Scripture or our own world seem to be extraordinary coincidences of timing, without any violation of the laws of physics, but they can still be called miracles.

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