Tuesday, October 25, 2011

M is for Miracles

According to the Gospels, Jesus worked several rather astonishing miracles. Among them are walking on water, turning water into wine, turning a few loaves of bread and fish into enough to feed a multitude, raising Lazarus from the dead, restoring sight to the blind, and returning himself to life after being dead for three days. The credulous reader is left with one inescapable conclusion: To perform miracles like these, this man had to have been Divine. Even the greatest magicians cannot perform tricks like these. And, as far as we know, no other religious founding father worked nearly as many public miracles as Jesus. I don’t recall the Buddha pulling rabbits from hats or Confucius levitating.

The obvious first question to ask is this: “How do we know Jesus actually performed these miracles?” All we really have to go on are the words of men who never met Jesus and who wrote about him decades after his disappearance. And bear in mind, making him look as good and as powerful as possible was their main motive in writing.

The second question is this: “Is there any logical connection between miracle-working and wisdom?” A man might be a great miracle worker and a crackpot. And, someone utterly incapable of performing even the most rudimentary magic tricks might possess the most extraordinary wisdom. Socrates comes to mind. Imagine someone preaching an uplifting sermon and at the conclusion pulling a turtle out of his ear. Would this make the sermon any more believable?

If Jesus had any sense of history, he might have performed a few miracles that would endure the test of time. He could have turned one of the great pyramids upside down and balanced it on its point for example. Or he could have removed all the salt from the Dead Sea. Or made the Jordan River flow backward. Or, maybe he could have made some amazingly accurate predictions: The conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity for example. But Jesus never engaged in any long-term thinking or predicting because he fully expected the Kingdom of God to reign on earth before the generation then living had passed away. The failure of God’s Kingdom to emerge on earth as predicted by their hero did not deter the followers of Jesus then nor does it do so now One marvels at their patience as years become centuries and centuries turn into millenniums and the Kingdom of God remains forever on hold.

As far as I know, the only major Christian theologian to face up to Jesus’ totally mistaken prophecy was the late Albert Schweitzer. He reasoned that Jesus could not have seriously intended his various commandments to be carried out over a long interval because they are so wildly impractical. He must have intended them only for the last generation of men who would live to see the Kingdom of God emerge in all its glory right here on earth. And, in Jesus’ own mind that was the generation that was still living when he died. His loyal followers never gave up expecting his imminent return. They all died disappointed. After all these years one can only marvel that so many people take seriously a prophet whose most urgent prophecy has been so profoundly mistaken and so long delayed.
Imagine hanging around an abandoned jungle airport in New Guinea for centuries waiting for a Cargo Plane to land.

For more on miracles and magic read Jesus The Magician by Morton Smith.

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