One challenge I read at an atheist blog-site argues that the Bible represents an absurd universe because it is an “archaic book with talking donkeys, and floating axeheads.”
This “absurdity” could be multiplied through other miracles done by God, such as Moses dividing the sea (Exodus 14:21), a burning bush that doesn’t get consumed (Exodus 3:3), Manna falling from heaven to feed the wandering Israelites (Exodus 16), water sprouting from a rock (Numbers 20:7-11), the sun and moon being stilled in battle (Joshua 10:12-14), Samson’s supernatural strength (Judges 14-16), Daniel being saved from lions (Daniel 6:16-23), Jonah being swallowed by a fish (Jonah 2:1-10). The fact is that there are a lot of obvious supernatural events that occur in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament. However, I believe several points can be made in response to this challenge.
First off, we need to note that none of these miracle events are represented as the ordinary course of nature. Serpents and donkeys cannot talk in ordinary life, axe heads did not float on water in the days of Elisha any more than in our day. If any of these things happened in time and space, it was a supernatural event and not a freak of nature. That is the point of what constitutes the definition of a miracle. If donkeys and other animals did speak on a regular occasion we would not consider it to be a miracle, but the fact that the “LORD opened the mouth of the donkey” means that God intervened in history, and did something extraordinary that does not normally take place.
Secondly, and perhaps mostly importantly is God himself. Given biblical theology God can do what he pleases, and nothing is too difficult for him (Jeremiah 32:27). In fact, God created the universe from nothing (Genesis 1:1). With that in mind would it be too difficult for him to open the mouth of a donkey, to cause water to sprout from a rock, or for a person to be supernaturally swallowed and transported by a large fish?
The Christian universe holds to the existence of a powerful, sovereign (Isaiah 46:10), and infinite God (1 Kings 8:27) that cannot be fully comprehended (Isaiah 40:28). If this is true, then are we in a position to doubt God’s ability to intervene in nature in some extraordinary way? To split an ocean for the Israelites to walk through would hardly be a task too difficult for such an entity.
Thirdly, the reality of miracles today is worth noting. Craig Keener has investigated miracle healings from around the world and compiled them into a 2-volume set. I have read much of the book, and it is incredibly long, and densely packed with miracle testimonies and corroboration. For example, Keener interviewed Mooneyham who reported that 80% of a village was converted to Christianity in response to a miraculous healing. Another case saw a man completely healed from paralysis after prayer (Währisch-Oblau, “Healthy,” 89). An atheist and others come to Christ after witnessing a girl being healed (Oblau, “Healing,” 314), a university administrator was healed after prayer (Wesley, Stories, 37). In one interview Keener had with an eyewitness “most of the village” became Christians after a preacher begun healing people in the village center. Another account independently reported to Keener by two individuals confirmed that an atheist and his family became Christians after his wife, and the childrens mother was healed from cancer as a result of prayer. Keener spoke with a man called Wimalasiri who ended up planting a church in his area after his foot that had been swelling for two years was miraculously healed after prayer. A famous rugby player I watched play was miraculously healed from a career ending leg injury, and after receiving prayer he went on to play for his professional club and win the championship (see testimony here)
A further study of miracle healings found that, “562 of the 604 Christian respondents claimed to have experienced healings, all with positive spiritual and church benefits” (Kwon, “Foundations,” 187). South Koreans further affirm healing from diabetes; tuberculosis; paralysis from prayer and fasting. A boy dying from severe kidney failure, now healed; a continuously bleeding head injury, was healed after three days of prayer (with the wound disappearing) (Choi, Korean Miracles). According to Edmond Tang “90% of new believers cite healing as a reason for their conversion. This is especially true in the countryside where medical facilities are often inadequate or non-existent.”
In his 2-volume set Keener says that: “For these countries alone, and for Pentecostals and charismatics in these countries alone, the estimated total of people claiming to have “witnessed divine healings” comes out to somewhere around 202,141,082, that is, about two hundred million.” According to Hwa Yung, a bishop in Malaysia, “the miraculous is assumed and fairly regularly experienced.” Keener goes on to tell us that “86.4 percent of Brazilian Pentecostals in one study claimed that they had experienced divine healing.”
This list can go on with many, many more reports and interviews that Keener includes in his investigations. The fact is that to many people miracles are often witnessed, and corroborated through eyewitness testimony. If God can do this, then would it be too challenging for him to do any of the miracles reported of in the New and Old Testaments?
Fourthly, is Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection is by far the best explanation of the minimal facts: 1) Jesus was crucified. 2) Jesus was buried. 3) Jesus’ tomb was found empty three days later. 4) Jesus appeared and convinced the disciples and skeptics James and Paul that he was raised from the dead. In fact, the historical evidence motivated former atheist turned deist Anthony Flew to remark that: “The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.” (An Exclusive Interview with Former British Atheist Professor Antony Flew.’)
Jesus’ resurrection, a miracle, is well attested historically, and we can be confident that Christianity stands true because of it. However, a physical resurrection from the dead in the case of Jesus is hardly anything less than a talking donkey, Jonah being swallowed by a fish, or any other Old Testament miracle performed by God. I am quite confident that Jesus really was raised from the dead as an act of God, thus it does not stretch my credulity to believe that God can make a donkey talk if that is what he wanted it to do. In fact, in a conversation I had with philosopher of science Timothy McGrew he says:
“Admittedly, these three – the story of the serpent in the Garden, the story of Baalam’s ass, and the story of Elisha’s floating axe head – are fairly remote from the resurrection, both in time and in content. I am certainly *not* saying, “Jesus rose from the dead; therefore you should take every miracle reported in the Old Testament as literally true.” That would be far too simplistic. But such accounts can now be approached without the sort of bias that would prevent us from even considering the possibility of their truth. I do not believe that a man *must* accept their literal truth in order to be a Christian. But I do think it likely that at this remove from the events only a Jew or a Christian *could* reasonably believe them.”
Christianity’s truth stands upon Jesus’ resurrection. It is the resurrection that is the bedrock of the Christian’s faith, and whether Jonah being swallowed by a fish and spat ashore is a myth or a real miracle in time and space in history is not a determining factor. The same can be said of any other miracle found in the Old and New Testament. As McGrew continues: “I am compelled to say that God has broken into human history in an extraordinary way. Because of that, I cannot take so lightly other stories of supernatural intervention linked into the history of the resurrection.”
In concluding I don’t think any of the “absurd” miracles can be ruled out if God exists, at least the God portrayed by biblical theology. God being God is quite capable of intervening in his creation. He did that as suggested by our Biblical accounts, and he still does today via miracle healings, and supernatural events. If God created the universe, it surely would not be impossible for him to resurrect Jesus from the dead, or do any of the miracles ascribed to him, thus any rejection of miracles is not done for historical or intellectual reasons but instead is ideological. Christianity stands true upon the resurrection of Jesus, and not on any of the miracles reported in other places within the Bible.