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Miracles or Magic?

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The miracles of the Bible are under attack from an unusual discipline. Usually biblical miracles are called into question by liberal theologians and atheistic materialists. Now, the entertainment field is getting into the act. Illusionists Barry Jones and Stuart McLeod will attempt to see if eight New Testament miracles can be duplicated by non-miraculous means. British television will air the Christmas special “The Magic Of Jesus” on December 24, 2005, where the performers will attempt to raise a headless corpse from the dead, cure a blind person, feed 5,000 soccer fans with five loaves and two fishes, and walk on water. If they are going to do this right, they should only use the technology available to Jesus. This will mean, for example, no SCUBA divers to hold up a water-walker on an unseen platform.

So then, were the miracles in the Bible tricks? Was Jesus an extraordinary stage magician? Did He pretend to raise people from the dead, walk on water, and feed thousands? Was Jesus like Jim Jones, using His followers to concoct an elaborate deception to build a following of nationalist zealots to overthrow the Roman government? A magician needs a controlled environment to perform his illusions. Shirt-sleeve magic is easy to perform because the props are planted on the magician’s person. Stage magic takes hours to set up. There were certainly magicians in Jesus’ day. Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar had them, but they could not compete with the miracles God performed.

Walking on Water

The miracles that Jesus performed have never been duplicated using first-century technology and equipment. 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 for someone in the first century. 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 illusionist André Kole describes the near impossibility of a walk-on-water trick in 1987:

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.

Since writing this, Kole has shown it is possible to walk on water, if you have the right equipment and optimum conditions. He even demonstrated it in front of the cameras for the “Magic of Jesus” special. 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 length of two football fields. The conditions in first-century Israel were far from optimal for such an elaborate trick, especially during a time when engineering knowledge was minimal. Of course, there were no SCUBA divers to assist Jesus is such a hoax.

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 any one 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). So 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 beating and 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).

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