Miracles Are Great, But They’re Always Also Tragic

I don’t think I have any reason to not believe in miracles. I believe in God; I might as well believe in miracles. My metaphysics might not be super tidy as a result, but tidy metaphysics aren’t a goal in and of themselves.

I think miracles happen. I think prayers are answered. I think people get healed of illnesses. I think circumstances change and re-align. I think people are protected. I think people beat unbeatable odds. I think people receive strength and hope in hopeless situations. I think water changes into wine, seas part, waves are walked upon, corpses revive, food multiplies and fishing nets are filled.

Without diving too deeply into the theological rabbit hole, I understand miracles eschatologically. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and when he healed and performed other miracles, he gave many of those he encountered a foretaste of what was to come when that kingdom was fully realised. Miracles are they in-breaking into what is of what is to come. There are two worlds, in other words. Two universes. There’s this one and there’s the one to come. To a full extent in the supreme miracle – the resurrection – and to lesser extents in all the other miracles Jesus performed, the two world overlap, momentarily, in space and in time. Christians ground their hope in those miracles, and in the miracles some of them experience today. Miracles are, quite literally, a glimpse into the resurrected, recreated order that is to come.

Which is to say, miracles are great.

But it’s precisely because they’re great that they’re also really tragic. Because by providing us with this brief glimpse into the future world to come, miracles throw this present world into painfully sharp relief. Miracles are the exception. Most do not encounter them directly, at least not particularly often. Most of the time, life plods along in its tedious indifference and sporadic cruelty. Everyone experiences hardships. Some are born with them hardcoded into their DNA, others have nature or other people or social structures serve it to them, free of charge. Others screw everything up for themselves. A lucky few get to experience miracles. But for them, too, life resumes. People healed of illnesses get sick again sooner or later. Maybe their illness returns or some other disease digs its claws into their backs. Every single person who was healed by Jesus died eventually.

Miracles don’t last. They are fleeting. Which is kind of what makes them great. But also really bad at the same time. The deeper the darkness, the more vivid the light. And vice versa. So while I believe in miracles and think they have happened and do happen, they always feel really ambiguous to me. I understand that a miracle can sustain a person through extremely dire circumstances and that even a relatively small miracle can have big consequences. Miracles have a way of being life-changing. But they are also undeniably tragic.

I think this has implications for those expressions of Christianity that give miracles a central place in their doctrine and practice. Go to some of these churches and listen to some of these preachers, you get the impression that miracles are not only unquestionably good, but absolutely central to what Christianity is about. The individual believer’s relationship with God is characterised in such a way that a constant stream of miracles is almost mandatory and definitional, and in some cases it is conceived of in more or less mechanistic terms. Faith becomes a magic formula in this understanding and, when said right with the right amount of conviction, it yields – and cannot fail to yield – miraculous results. There are a lot of problems with this, but most fundamental is the problem of how it characterises God. God, according to this understanding, is not Immanuel, the God of suffering solidarity, the crucified God. This is the God of success. God is only with successful people and those people who are with God are successful. God, then, only resides in a tiny sliver of human existence. An understanding of miracles that allows for their intrinsic ambiguity opens the door and lets God out, inviting him to live in all of life’s many facets.