In his two-volume study Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, scholar Craig Keener confirms that “hundreds of millions” of people today report experiencing or witnessing miraculous events. It seems that miracles are not as uncommon as some skeptics might have claimed.
But do miracles occur outside of Christianity? And if they do, what does that say about the authenticity of Christian claims? Non-Christians claim to experience miraculous events, which, skeptics argue, invalidates Christian miracles. At the very least, they say, we should accept them with equal credulity.
Should Christians feel threatened by these competing miracle claims? Not necessarily. It would be unreasonable to assume that all miracle reports are equally credible. Just as criminal allegations should be investigated on a case-by-case basis, so should miracle claims. The fact is, God may work a miracle outside of an explicitly Christian context.
Adequate conceptual basis
If a non-Christian religion makes a miracle claim, we can first look at that religion’s theological framework and ask whether miracles should be expected.
Consider, for example, the teachings of Siddhartha Buddha. He was agnostic (at best) about the existence of a personal and all-powerful God. Furthermore, he discouraged the working of marvels (e.g., magic) because the desire for power or influence would be a hindrance to enlightenment. Long after Buddha’s lifetime, however, stories of his great powers began to emerge. Although later Buddhist teaching allowed for a variety of doctrinal views, original teachings by the Buddha seemed to exclude or at least provide little basis for miracle-working and would be reason to give critics pause.
In a similar vein, miracles were also attributed to Muhammad many years after his death. Ayman Ibrahim, a professor of Islamic studies, observes in referring to Sura 6:37: “In the Quran, Allah, of course, has the power to send down miracles, signs, and wonders, but, it appears, that he did not send any to Muhammad, and thus people wondered: ‘Why has no sign been sent down upon him from his Lord?'” Ibrahim points out that, in the Quran, Allah identifies Muhammad as a “warner” without a sign (Sura 29:50). Thus, although Islam believes in a God capable in theory of performing miracles, we still have grounds to be critical of miracles later attributed to Muhammad.
For every miracle claim, possible supernatural and natural causes should be considered. A miracle is an act of God in history for which no natural explanation is adequate. Thus we should start by asking whether any adequate natural explanations may be given.
A non-divine supernatural explanation may also explain apparent miracles. Satan is cunning and deceitful and wants to generate religious confusion. He may therefore conduct false apparitions or manipulate the physical world in an attempt to trick someone into thinking that God is the one acting. Demonic forces could also be the source behind a person’s supernatural abilities.
A third possibility is that an extraordinary event may be authentically caused by God directly or indirectly through the angels and saints.
Christians should also consider whether there is adequate historical support for non-Christian miracle claims. Multiple firsthand attestations are valuable, as is testimony by those who are unsympathetic to the event at hand.
Consider the miracle of the dancing sun at Fatima. This extraordinary event, which was witnessed by more than 30,000 people, was also attested to by unsympathetic, secular sources including Avelino de Almeida, a reporter who had mocked the visionaries at Fatima. She wrote in the newspaper O Século, “Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws—the sun ‘danced’ according to the typical expression of the people.”
Consider also the well-rounded support for the miracles of Jesus. They are recorded in all four Gospels, which are typically dated from thirty-five to sixty-five years after the life of Christ. These early accounts, written within the lifetime of the apostles, are corroborated by thousands of ancient manuscripts. Oral tradition in the form of a creed, which is dated by the majority of experts to within five years of Christ, also testifies to the bodily resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Finally, unsympathetic sources such as Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud, who rejected Jesus’ Messiahship, attest to supernatural deeds of Christ.
By contrast, the sources which testify to the alleged miracles of Muhammad arose over a century after his life. These Islamic accounts lack early, independent attestation by multiple sources. Furthermore, they lack any attestation by enemy or unsympathetic sources.
Finally, we must consider whether God might have reasons for working a miracle outside of the Christian context. From a biblical perspective, we know that such miracles are not impossible. Consider how God healed Naaman the Syrian from leprosy (2 Kings 5) or the angelic vision of the unbaptized Cornelius (Acts 9:3). New Testament scholar Michael Licona affirms that “a Christian who believes that Jesus provides the only way to know God might also believe that God acts in the lives of those who practice other religions” (The Resurrection of Jesus).
God may act in the life of a non-Christian in order to increase his faith in a divine, personal being as a preparation for the gospel. Another possibility may be that out of his “good will” God may work a miracle in response to the personal prayer of a non-Christian. Such an act of providence would obviously be one small part of a larger plan to bring the person to belief in the one true God. God, after all, “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).
Skeptics are wrong when they assert that miracles claimed by other world religions nullify the authenticity of Christian miracles. This is a hasty and unreasonable conclusion. Miracle claims exist outside of Christianity, and these claims emphasize the need for careful examination of each claim. Thus, miracle reports should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and should include consideration of their theological, philosophical, and historical merits.
Believers in Jesus Christ can be at ease, since many Christian miracles—including that foundational supernatural event of Christ’s resurrection—pass the tests with more ease than those of other world religions. At the same time, they should remember that God may have good reasons for working in the lives of non-Christians. All in all, the case for Christianity remains unshaken, firmly bolstered by its rich history of miracles by and through Jesus Christ. If the miracle is authentic, we should rejoice—God never makes mistakes and always acts toward the true good of mankind according to his will.
Regarding non-Christian religion, the fathers of Vatican II tell us, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (Nostra Aetate, 2).
By Matt Nelson