So, Jesus didn’t ‘walk’ on water, ‘raise’ the dead, or ‘feed’ 5 to 9 thousand people: Why Miracles are not Magic

When you are a young child the world is mysterious and unknown. There may be monsters hiding under the bed. It seems impossible for the space underneath the Christmas tree to go from empty to full of toys simply overnight. And there is just no way to understand how your Mommy’s tummy getting bigger means you will soon have a new little brother.

But children, despite their naiveté, are surprisingly rational. We figure things out, and we often times accept the explanations we are given, no matter how strange they might be. And yet, our explanations lack something they will gain once we get older, they lack complexity. Our explanations are simple, and they rely on something simple that every child inherently understands…magic.

Magic can mean many things, but for a child magic is the way to explain how things come to be as they are. It appeals to the mythmaker in us, and also to the rational skeptic. It is the place where childhood wonder meets that grown up desire to know how the world around us really is. We may not know how a microwave works, but when we are young we know it must be magic. This sense of magic never quite leaves us either, it remains our old standby even as adults. We may not know how the phone we are holding works, but sometimes it feels like magic.

Simple or Complex

But as adults we also understand something else. We understand that there are technical, complex, interlocking, varied, diverse, multifaceted, and interwoven answers to even our simplest questions. We know that although the precise workings of the internal combustion engine may be a mystery to ourselves, nevertheless there is a rational explanation for it. This is an explanation which requires our patience for complex ideas and also no small amount of patience.

But often times I have little time or patience for such complexity. In those moments, even as an adult, all I care about is whether or not it works. What’s more, I am perfectly ready to accept any overly simplistic, narrow, and reductive explanation over the complex, broad, and expansive one. There is a comfort to simplicity here, but it is a cheat.

The comfort we gain from that simplicity is the illusion of the peace and security we think we have when a thing or process is within our power. The simple explanation deludes me into thinking that I know all the particulars and am thus not going to be surprised or confused. The simple explanation makes me feel a great degree of false confidence in my own knowledge and abilities.

In a word, the simple explanation is flattering. It flatters my ego and my knowledge, and it makes me feel as though the situation is well in hand.

So we seek for the simple answer in matters of politics, medicine, economics, nutrition, and yes even our own faith.

Miracles are not magic

This finally leads us to our point. There is a profoundly disturbing tendency in Christianity to view the miracles of Jesus, as well as all miraculous events in the Bible, as though they were magic.

Take for example the feeding of the 5,000, which is the only miracle aside from the resurrection to appear in all four canonical gospels. (At least according to Robert Maguire in his 1863  book The Miracles of Christ). The story is well known, but you can refresh your memory by reading the account in Matthew.  Did you catch the part where Jesus used his superpowers? Did you perhaps see Jesus holding his hands over the bread and fish, concentrating really hard, and then poof! More bread and fish appeared?

Well no, of course not, the story doesn’t tell us any of that. Like all the rest of the miracles of Christ, the work of God is subtle, but effective. The story says that Jesus thanked God for the food broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples. (No word on whether he broke the fish). Then the disciples handed out the bread and fish, the 5,000 ate and were satisfied, and the disciples collected the leftovers into about 12 baskets.

There is no magic trick here, there is no strange incomprehensible power. The story presents a straightforward account which is only complicated by the disciple’s complaint that all they have to eat are five loaves and two fishes. Sure things look difficult but look at the story. When the disciples pass out the food that Jesus has thanked God for, the bible moves on to the next verse and says that everyone ate and was satisfied. Then the disciples picked up 12 baskets worth of leftovers.

We are not told how the people were fed, and that leaves many possibilities open.

The miracle of generosity – Perhaps the people had brought food and the disciples just didn’t know it, but Jesus and his followers sharing what little food they had inspired the crowds to be generous too. Then the food was shared by everyone and all ate and were satisfied. Then the disciples picked up the remains of the communal meal since it no longer mattered who had brought what. Private ownership of food, and individual responsibility to feed yourself no longer matter when Jesus shows us the way to be generous.

The miracle of feeding our souls – Perhaps five loaves and two fishes were enough to satisfy the hunger of the people present. But rather than creating a great multiplicity of extra food, what was shared was simply divided, and then passed on. Each person took the food in turn, but thinking that others were in greater need than themselves, they simply broke it and passed it on. Then everyone kept on doing this, and in an amazing display of selflessness, everyone passed the food on by so that others may partake. Then the disciples gathered up the remnants, because everyone had eaten and was satisfied. But they had eaten something which couldn’t be contained in food, they had eaten a spiritual meal and it was their souls which had been fed.


Heresy and Resurrection

So why this sudden and unexpected attack of heresy on my part? After all how dare I insinuate that there might be nothing supernatural about the miracle of Jesus feeding five thousand people!

I do not profess to know how Jesus and his disciples fed 5,000 people with only 5 loaves of bread and two fish. The bible says it was done, and that all ate and were satisfied and that 12 baskets of leftovers were gathered up.

But I do know this, it wasn’t magic. Jesus didn’t do a trick, he didn’t use a mutant power, he didn’t cast a spell, he didn’t turn something natural into something artificial so it would fit into a human power structure. Magic does these things, but Jesus performed a miracle. Miracles are in line with the world that God has made. Miracles do not unmake the world, but rather they put the world to rights. Magic involves humans using their power to force things to go their way. Miracles are the work of God which doesn’t alter the design of His world, it returns it to its true nature.

What this means is that the work of Jesus might have been carried out quite naturally, and that the miracles of Jesus must have been the miracles of everyday compassion. Jesus healed people but perhaps all they needed was kindness and someone who had the knowledge of the divine to know what natural remedies would make them better. Jesus turned water to wine, but perhaps all that was needed was the knowledge of a fine sommelier. Jesus moved through crowds that were intent on killing him, without being harmed, but all he needed to do was hide his face and walk quickly.

The works of Jesus would be no less impressive if we knew he had done them using very natural means. It would not make him any less, it would instead make him more. It would mean that we were no longer putting our faith in magic, but perhaps finally putting our faith in God. Such a faith does not depend on overly simplistic explanations, but accepts that the truth, no matter what it is, is far more complex than we could ever dream.

So when someone asks me about the resurrection, I don’t deny it. Neither do I think it was done by magic. Instead I accept that I do not know how it could have come about, but however it came about it was more in tune with the order of God’s creation than it was out of tune. Death is a part of God’s very good world, and so Christ experienced the same thing we all will. But this should fill us with hope. As death is a natural part of life so also in the same way that Christ was reborn, we all live and wait for the day of our death and the day of our rebirth.  

Photo by Sean MacEntee

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