Were the “Signs” of Jesus Miracles or Magic?
Jesus performed many “signs” (John 2:11; 2:23; 3:2; 4:54; 6:2, 14, 26, 30; 7:31; 9:16; 10:41; 11:47; 12:18, 37; 20:30), what we call miracles. Were the miracles in the Bible tricks, an elaborate form of prestidigitation like what stage magicians David Copperfield and Penn and Teller perform? Did Jesus pretend to raise people from the dead, walk on water, and feed thousands? Was Jesus like Jim Jones, using some of His followers to concoct an elaborate deception on the people to build a following of nationalist zealots to overthrow the Romans? Some people believe this, even though Jesus rejected any notion of armed revolt or refusal to pay taxes.
The skeptic will begin with the premise that miracles are impossible. This starting point forces them to conclude that the Bible is an elaborate work of fiction. If there is no god, there are no miracles, except the “miracle” of nothing becoming something and that something self-organized into intelligent beings. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Miracles are possible within the context of a God-created, God-ordained reality.
Walking on Water
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The miracles that Jesus performed have never been duplicated. Today’s magicians require numerous assistants, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of special equipment, and days of preparation time to perform their elaborate tricks. Walking on water would have been an elaborate piece of prestidigitation. Imagine the type of gear Jesus would have needed to convince His disciples that He was actually walking on water during a violent storm in the middle of a large lake where their boat was “battered by the waves” (Matt. 14:24). Here’s how Christian magician André Kole describes the impossibility of a walk-on-water trick:
On several occasions I have been asked to perform before magicians’ conventions. One time a convention host asked me to perform on the beach before 700 magicians from around the world. He wanted me to create an illusion in which I would get out of a boat and walk on the water a short distance to land.
After spending many weeks trying to formulate all the methods we could use for such an illusion, it was finally scrapped. It was impossible to create any type of effect that would convince anyone I was really walking on water.
This experience showed me that, even with all our modern technology, we can’t come close to duplicating many of the things Jesus did nearly 20 centuries ago.1
Keep in mind that Jesus walked on water during a storm “many stadia away from the land” (Matt. 14:24). A stadium is approximately 600 feet. The conditions in first-century Israel were far from optimal for such an elaborate trick, especially during a time when engineering knowledge was minimal.
Giving Sight to the Blind
Jesus’ healing miracles were different from the modern variety of so-called faith healers because He healed people with obvious maladies that could be investigated and validated. He restored the sight of a man who was known by the people of his town as someone who had been “blind from birth” (John 9:1). John adds that “since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind” (9:32). The man was known by his “neighbors” (9:8). It was not a case of mistaken identity (9:9). The miracle was thoroughly investigated because the religious skeptics did not believe the man’s testimony, “that he had been blind, and had received sight” (9:18). They questioned “the parents of the very one who had received his sight” (9:18). The parents gave the following answer, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but how he now sees, we do not know. Ask him; he is of age, he shall speak for himself” (9:20–21). John’s gospel anticipates the objections to the miraculous and meets them head-on by recounting the investigative process for its readers.
Feeding, Healing, and Raising the Dead
Jesus performed many miracles in front of numerous eyewitnesses. He fed more than five thousand people, multiplying the food from five loaves of bread and two fish (Matt. 14:17). Where did he hide all the food if this was a trick? He healed ten lepers and sent them to have their healing verified (Luke 17:11–19). Leprosy was the most dreaded disease in Jesus’ day. The priests had a record of those who had the disease (Lev. 13:2–3). They would have examined the ten men thoroughly before declaring them “clean.”
Of course, the resurrection of Jesus is the most significant New Testament miracle. If Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then the Christian’s faith is “in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). None of the popular debunking theories by atheists, rationalists, and materialists can withstand investigative scrutiny. The swoon theory and the stolen body theory, two of the most popular explanations for the resurrection, do not hold up when the New Testament record is studied. How does a beaten and battered Jesus roll a huge stone from the mouth of a cave where He was buried after an excruciating crucifixion, walk a few miles on feet that had large spikes driven through them, and then convince His disciples that He had risen from the dead? If the disciples had stolen the body, then it’s amazing that they suffered martyrdom for a lie. If Roman officials had stolen the body, then all they had to do to prove that Jesus had not risen from the dead was to display his crucified corpse.
The Bible goes a step further by including the testimony of eyewitnesses. Thomas was a “hands-on” eyewitness (John 20:24–29). Luke, the disciple who wrote that he had “investigated everything carefully from the beginning,” even interviewing “eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2–3), reports that Jesus “presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days” (Acts 1:3). Paul tells us that Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now” (1 Cor. 15:6). As Paul tells King Agrippa, “For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).
The Bible anticipates modern-day skeptics. All the criteria for determining if a miracle has taken place are evident in the biblical text. The miracles have not been duplicated under identical circumstances by any modern magician. None of these miracles could have been accomplished either by mechanical or magical means, either then or now. The miracles of the Bible are unique because Jesus is unique.
- Kole and Janssen, Miracles or Magic?, 110. [↩]