For moderns, the very notion of the miraculous is difficult. Suspend the laws of physics? Bypass normal biological processes? Change weather systems with a word? Doesn’t happen! Didn’t happen!
Scholars have spent the past 150 years demythologizing Jesus and the Apostles, suggesting what he could and couldn’t do, deciding what they did and didn’t witness. Systematically, scientifically, they have stripped out every hint of the miraculous and offered naturalistic explanations for supernatural events. A stockpile of bread hidden behind rocks. The girl must have awakened from a coma. The disciples were so fatigued, they hallucinated a buoyant Jesus.
But after they’ve debunked the miracles of Jesus, you have to wonder whether they’ve also discredited the identity of Jesus. What kind of Jesus is left after you take away the supernatural? Was he just an ordinary man after all? Extraordinarily persuasive, perhaps. Uncommonly captivating. But ordinary, not a miracle worker. Ordinary, not someone who controlled nature. Ordinary, with no more command over demons and death than you or I. Not the Son of God, after all. Not the Messiah. Not Elijah reborn. Not a prophet (in the prophetic sense). Just an regular guy, living within conventional constraints, bounded by the ordinary like all of us.
Of course, we Biblical conservatives get upset with Biblical liberals for suggesting the miracles of Jesus are merely myths, made up by superstitious people, meant for a more credulous age. We bridle—as we should—at the “demythologized” Jesus.
And yet, pragmatically, we “demythologize” Jesus just as certainly.
We wouldn’t say, “Miracles didn’t happen.” We’d fight to the death rather than let liberals pry a miraculous Jesus from our hands.
But we quite easily say, “Miracles don’t happen,” changing only the voice of the verb. Wonders happened then, we allow. But not here and now. Not in the world in which we live. Not in our scientific, rational, empirical, physics-bounded, laws-of-nature world. People who claim miracles today are succumbing to the superstitious, the mythological, the credulous yearnings of gullible individuals.
Miracles are historical artifacts, we insist, confined to the dim and distant past. We’ve never seen the sick healed or the storm calmed or the dead raised. Nor do we expect to. If Jesus is sitting beside us in the boat, he got there the old fashioned way—he climbed in at the shore with the rest of us.
In the end, such denials discredit the identity of Jesus just as completely. For what kind of Jesus is left after you take away his enduring power today? If there are no present miracles—no healing, no prophecy, no empirically-difficult acts of power, no breaking into our world in order to break natural laws with the intent to break the power of evil—what exactly remains of Jesus?
He was extraordinary back then but ordinary today? He was a miracle worker once-upon-a-time but no longer? He controlled nature and commanded demons and death in a former life but refrains from such displays presently? He is the Son of God but, sadly, we aren’t able to see his power or witness his wonder or quake before his glory?
This refusal of the miraculous today invites believers to adopt modern notions of the “possible” and accept that even Jesus is bounded by the rules of normal life. This refusal of the miraculous today encourages us to conclude that Jesus is like any other man we might meet, like any other man who’s ever lived.
Is it so surprising that, as a result of our demythologized faith, there is little wonder or awe or (God-forbid!) fear left in many Christians today?
We admire Jesus’ teachings and try to follow his example (so long as we are in general agreement). We give assent to certain doctrinal statements and theological claims (without actually recognizing the implications of our confession). We call Jesus “friend” (but have little conception of Jesus “the Lord”). We sit with the crowds to applaud the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings (but never witness him healing the sick or casting out demons or walking on the water, and asking “Who is this man?” as a result). We confuse obedience with gob-stopped wonder. We think believing “truth” is synonymous with experiencing the presence of the divine.
And so, we grow quite comfortable with Jesus. We imagine that, though he once broke out in displays of shattering power that left his followers quaking, he does so no longer. He lives now within standard boxes and honors normal boundaries. We convince ourselves he is safe and predictable. We assure one another that church is not a dangerous place to be.
We don’t really expect Jesus to break into our lives in any miraculous way. And, because of this, we are rarely confronted with the implications of a miraculous Christ.
We don’t see beyond the miracles to him. We don’t learn the lessons buried in the miracles … inferences and implications we are meant to draw when we see the power Jesus possesses. The miracles no longer mess with us. They don’t defy us. They don’t terrify and threaten us.
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