Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Miracles and other Religious Experience

My article from this week's newspapers about Miracles and other types of Religious Experience:

Q:  If I feel something supernatural in worship or experience an extraordinary spiritual event, how can I know whether it was from the True God or some other source?  What about miracles – are they always from God, or can they come from another source?

During the life of Jesus, the Gospels record numerous miracles performed by Jesus, and even after He ascended into heaven, we read about a few miracles associated with the Apostles in the book of Acts.  The Old Testament also has its share of miraculous events pointing forward to Jesus.  Christians believe these miracles to be authentic, because their history and source were recorded by the eyewitnesses to the events, and there is no record that opponents argued against them. 

The most significant and extraordinary of these miracles is the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after His death.  This is the central event of Scripture, and the foundation of Christianity.  If we inquire about the possibility of modern miracles, it is fairly simple to conclude that God is capable of doing them – after all, being all-powerful is part of the very definition of being God.  However, we also have to admit that there is no promise guaranteeing miracles to Christians of all generations. 

This makes it necessary to closely examine any claims to present-day miracles.  One important assumption that must be challenged is that because a miracle was helpful, it must be divine.  In contrast to this assumption, we see that the Bible describes several occasions of false miracles.  From Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus to the sorcerers and fortune-tellers in the book of Acts, we see miraculous acts which do not have their source in the True God, and whether these acts were merely illusions or were done by the power of demonic forces, they force us to admit that what we observe may be from another source, which is why both Jesus and Paul warn Christians about false miracles that will be done to deceive Christians.

Religious experiences are much the same.  There is simply no promise in Scripture that Christians will experience ecstatic feelings or have sensory confirmation – whether natural or supernatural – of God’s presence.  Instead, it seems that the lives of the Apostles, as recorded in the New Testament, are characterized by suffering and trouble more often than victory and emotional highs.  Even Paul, to whom Jesus appeared personally, prefers to point His readers to the eyewitness reports of Jesus’ resurrection rather than to His own personal experience of Christ on the Damascus road. 

Some spiritual experiences can easily be ruled out as fraudulent because they contradict known facts of Scripture and Christian doctrine.  Other experiences might turn out to be natural emotional responses without spiritual origins, while still others are less clear because, even though they are not demonstrably false, they also cannot be verified as true. 

Experience is a tricky thing, because the spiritual world is not all good.  Instead, there is both good and evil in the spiritual world, and the difference is not always apparent, because evil does not always declare itself as such, but instead prefers to disguise itself as good. 

So, it is entirely conceivable that an evil spirit or force might give a person an emotional high, grant earthly desires, or even perform miraculous signs.  This could be merely for the purpose of distracting a Christian toward the experience or miracle instead of Jesus, or the assault may be less direct.  Perhaps Satan and His forces might create a series of positive experiences or miracles, and even allow the Christian to give God credit for them, so that at an opportune time, they could then disappoint their victim and give the appearance that God had failed them. 

This is why Christianity has traditionally approached experience with skepticism, preferring instead to focus on the verifiable historical events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the sure and certain promises of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation dispensed through God’s Word and the Sacraments – because they provide a solid foundation that cannot be mistaken for an evil deception disguised under the veil of positive feelings or earthly blessings.

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