Wondering about Signs and Wonders


A statue in the Cave of Elijah. The cave is lo...

A statue in the Cave of Elijah. The cave is located on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was writing an article on crisis care within the context of the story of Elijah. It occurred to me how generally useless is miracles (as they are popularly identified). There are different ways to define “miracle” of course. However, I am using the most common, although doubtful, definition. That is, a miracle is a supernatural and visible demonstration of power that cannot be explained by “natural” (predictable/repeatable) means.

One problem with the definition is that any well-crafted paradigm can come up with an internally feasible explanation for nearly anything, so the definition above can mean nearly anything or nothing depending on who one is talking to. In other words there is likely no possible phenomena that could not be “explained” by the naturalist, or any other well-developed, paradigm (regardless of the validity of the explanation).

A second problem is that it implies that certain phenomena are more from God than others.

The definition above for miracles certainly seems to apply quite well with the story of Elijah – fire falling from heaven consuming a sacrifice drenched with water in a highly public event. Lightning or a meotorite strike stains credulity. Perhaps only the parting of the Red Sea fits this view of miracle better in the Bible. One is left with either attacking the historicity of the story, or assuming that chicanery is involved.

To me, however, the more important question is the long-term results of miracles. The writer of the Books of the Kings appears to give an ambiguous answer. The immediate response of the people bowing down to Jehovah God appears positive. However, there seems to be no general change in the trajectory of the people of the Northern Kingdom in their move toward idolatry. Additionaly, the king and queen (Ahab and Jezebel) appear to be unmoved by the event. Elijah runs off in fear feeling as if he is a failure. He runs to Mount Horeb (aka Mount Sinai where God presented His power to Moses). There, God does present Himself in power to Elijah and yet the writer appears to emphasize the ineffectivity of the show of power. First, it is mentioned that God was not in the powerful displays but in the gentle whisper speaking to Elijah. Second, the writer notes that Elijah’s feelings and complaints are identical before and after the “signs and wonders.”

That got me thinking. How effective were signs and wonders in the Bible? Again the evidence is ambiguous. Generally, miracles appear to be valuable in two basic roles:

  1. Miracles have value primarily in the direct result. The parting of the Red Sea achieved the direct goal of allowing Israel to escape from the Egyptian army. This was important and necessary at the time. Christ’s healing was most importantly a compassionate reponse to illness.
  2. Miracles get people’s attention, initially. Miracles get people to pay attention, but without a clear message to respond to, the miracle becomes lost.

However,

3. Miracles do not appear to inspire long-term change. Love and truth inspire long-term change.

4. Miracles (as defined above) appear to be intentionally non-normative. This is a fairly obvious result of of reason #2 above. Miracles that are common-place no longer get people’s attention. As far as reason #1 above, one might imagine that miracles could always have value in direct result, but so many other means exist that better achieve the same result (Christians acting out of Christ-like sacrificial love is an obvious one), so, again, miracles only make sense if they are non-normative.

5. Miracles (even as defined above) are hard to identify. The main reason is that there is a vast gulf that cannot be bridged without faith. I am not talking about religious faith. Rather, it is the gulf between something being believable and it being compelling.

Lewis Carroll wrote “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,” about the fact that syllogistic logic cannot be compelling. Any attempt to take logic to the point of being compelling without a leap of faith requires an infinite (never ending) regression. Douglas Hofstadter repeats and extends the idea in “Gödel, Escher, Bach.” Within the Christian understanding of faith, Søren Kierkegaard in “Fear and Trembling” repeats the same idea. Logic and evidence can only bring us so far. Logic and evidence can get us near the truth, but we ultimately need a “leap of faith” to embrace divine truth. Some feel that faith is only a religious thing, yet faith is needed (on some level) by everyone about pretty much everything because no evidence is inherently and completley compelling.

That is a problem with miracles. They don’t compel belief. In fact, their value appears to be pretty limited in this. Jesus did many miracles, yet few seemed to have been compelled to believe because of them. The Twelve appear to have followed Jesus because He had “the words of life,” not that He was a miracle worker. Many disciples fell away because of His words, despite His miracles. The skeptics kept asking for more signs and wonders, without becoming believers. In fact, Jesus did not do miracles on certain occasions when miracles were most sought after by the public.

Pentecost found the church growing from 120 to several thousand. There was a miracle involved, the ability to speak in languages that one had not previously learned, yet the value appeared to be its direct use… making the message of the gospel intelligible to people who have a different heart language. The miracle in itself appeared not to compel belief. After all, there was no way an outside observer could verify that it was miraculous. If someone began speaking in Farsi, I would have no way to be sure the person was speaking in Farsi (if I did not know the language), and I would have no way to know how the person came to speak Farsi in the first place (if I did know the language).

The early church did do miracles at times. The Bible text seems to downplay their role. The text that speaks most of signs and wonders (I Cor. 12-14) actually attempts to provide limits and perspective to their role. The post-NT church even gives a lesser role, only rarely mentioning them in the writings of the church Fathers.

Why does this matter? There has been a lot spoken on signs and wonders as an appropriate (or even necessary) method of missions outreach. I don’t see that as Biblically or logically sound. Some suggest that it is useful or necessary in animistic cultures. If it is true in animistic cultures then it is probably true in most cultures since folk religion in most cultures has a similar focus on manipulation of supernatural power for personal benefit. So… if power encounter/“signs and wonders” is a necessary part of God’s witness in animistic societies, it seems like it would have been a more common (and more effective) witnessing tool in the NT Jewish and Hellenistic cultures.

I am sure there is a place for “signs and wonders” in Christian work. However, the direct benefit of miracles (the immediate corrective nature of the act) and getting the people’s momentary attention seems to be the key values here. Actual change and faith will not come from miracles. Rather they will come from evidence of God’s love and God’s word. I fear that the focus on signs and wonders as an evangelistic tool comes from our own lack of of characteristics of godliness that can be seen by others.

Living out our call as the voice, hands, and feet of Christ will always be our best evangelistic tool in any culture.

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