Portrait of A.J. Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda

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Location: Portland, Oregon | USA

Jan 17, 2012

Sign-Seeking, Miracles, and Coffee-Based Testimony (Responding to Dr. McGrath)

The endless questions surrounding the issue of miracles has been one that theologians and practitioners of the Christian faith have wrestled with for years. How do we know if miracles can or cannot happen? How do we know if one is verifiably true and one is not? This is a personal question for me.

Especially in pastoral ministry, I find that many struggle consistently with knowing the role of the unexplainable in the everyday of life. Even more so, a small but influential group of Christ-followers that I have known seem to live from miracle to miracle like drug addicts; needing an endless perpetual line of the unexplainable to give their faith the strength they think it needs.

Miracles become the pick-me-up many Christian need to make it through the day.

Earlier this week, I came across a fascinating little piece by Dr. James McGrath. McGrath—one of my favorite scholar/bloggers/theologians who consistently bugs and inspires all at once—brings up a set of interesting questions regarding the nature of miracles in the book of Exodus.

Read what he writes:

As you might be able to tell, Dr. McGrath brings up an important and compelling point; he suggests that the lack of historical evidence (letters, scribal material, etc.) demonstrates that the miraculous Exodus events (e.g. the death of the firstborn) might not have ever literally happened. He bases this on the striking reality that there’s seemingly little to no evidence from the side of the Egyptians that these miracles ever happened. And so, for Dr. McGrath, the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea or the death of the firstborn would have been followed up by historical evidence in writings, transcripts, and the like. But they weren’t.

Two sides to this conversation are deeply important to me.

First, on an academic side, I have a simple critique to lay at the feet of Dr. McGrath. What an incredibly Western way of looking at things. That these miraculous events weren’t written down must, for him, mean they didn’t happen. While I am entirely in agreement with Dr. McGrath’s sentiment that the lack of evidence is troubling, what disturbs me even more is why he would insist that the people of antiquity (i.e. the Egyptians) must communicate to us today in our Western ways by writing stuff down. I’m sorry, but the Egyptians didn’t speak the love language of 21st century Americans. Nor did they speak our language. Ours is a language—textuality, writing, and Facebook—that is intensely different from theirs. Are we going to say that whales didn’t exist 10,000 years ago because we hadn’t recorded their songs then? I would further argue that the Egyptians would have NO interest in writing down or recording such stories as being disciplined by the God of their slaves—the Egyptians. How embarrassing would that have been?

However, secondly, on the other side, I see and acknowledge Dr. McGrath’s point. He is right. Archeology doesn’t match up to all of the biblical narrative. Holes clearly exist between the two. There is no archeology for the sermon on the mount. No archeology for much of Jonah. And there is certainly no archeology for the resurrection. For many Christians, this is rightfully troubling.

Here’s my point. In the end, I would argue that archeologists and my friends who need miracle after miracle as pick-me-ups are guilty of the same thing: they’re both sign-seekers.

Jesus had something to say to sign-seekers. After some Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign, he tells them that only the sign of Jonah will be given to them and that needing signs is the culmination of a “wicked and adulterous generation.” (Matt. 12:37-39) And for Jesus, the sign of Jonah was that of a guy going into a deep place for three days, singing some songs of grace in that dark place, and being puked up on dry land. The first Jonah did this.

Jesus did it again.

In the end, Christians should rightly acknowledge what archeologists have or have not found. It is what it is. These are smart people who have worked intensely hard to do what they do. They demand to be heard.

And many of us who wish we’d never had to leave the cozy confines of the youth of our faith are brought to maturity by being forced to deal with tough stuff. What do you do in your faith when you come across stuff like this?

I once met a non-literate African man who saw a man healed of leprosy in his hometown. He never wrote it down, however, because he was illiterate. His story was told over coffee. As far as I can tell, the story of the resurrection was passed on in the same exact way (1 Cor. 15).

As it still should be.

Friends, God has never based his sermon of endless grace on proper exegesis of archeology.



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Books I've Written

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Alan Hirsch

Allan Anderson

Amos Yong

Bernard Anderson

Dale Davis

Don Carson

Donald Bloesch

Donald Dayton

Donald Gelpi

Ed Dobson

Elizabeth Johnson

Eugene Peterson

Frederick Beuchner

Gary Babcock

Gordon Fee

Gregory Boyd

Harvey Cox

John Drane

John Goldingay

John Stott

John Zizioulas

Jim Belcher

Jürgen Moltmann

Karen Armstrong

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Kevin Vanhoozer

Kirsteen Kim

Larry Hurtado

Lauren Winner

Mark Cartledge

Margaret Feinberg

Mel Robeck

Nancey Murphy

N.T. Wright

Paul Hiebert

Ray Bakke

Richard Baukham

Rodney Clapp

Robert Banks

Rowan Williams

Sallie McFague

Stanley Fish

Stanley Hauerwas

Thomas Schmidt

Timothy Keller

Walter Brueggemann

Zygmunt Bauman

Dead People I Read

Aimee Semple McPherson



Basil the Great

Charles Spurgeon

Charles Wesley

Colin Gunton

C.S. Lewis

David Bosch

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Sayer

G.K. Chesterton

George Eldon Ladd

Hendrickus Berkhof

Henri Nouwen

John Wesley

Jonathan Edwards

John Calvin

Joseph Fitzmyer

Karl Barth

Leslie Newbigin

Martin Luther

Michel Foucault

Paul Tillich

Raymond Brown

Robert Farrar Capon

Roland Allen

Simone Weil

Steven Bevans

Theresa of Avila

Vincent Donovan

Walter Hollenweger

William McClendon