Difficult to authenticate numerous accounts of dead being revived to life
RECENTLY a pastor from a Methodist church asked me to comment on a documentary that has caused some sensation and generated much interest. The documentary, produced by Christ for All Nations whose founder is the evangelist Reinhard Bonnke, tells the story of a certain pastor Daniel Ekechukwu from Nigeria who was miraculously raised to life after being involved in a fatal car accident.
Ekechukwu was pronounced dead by a medical doctor shortly after the accident, and his body was sent to the mortuary where it was embalmed and placed in a coffin soon after. In the documentary, the doctor who certified his death, the person who embalmed his body, and his wife were interviewed. In the interview, Ekechukwu’s wife said that she believed that God was going to do a miracle, and insisted that her husband’s body be brought to the evangelistic rally conducted by Reinhard Bonnke. Although Bonnke himself did not pray for the deceased Nigerian pastor, it was at this rally that he was brought back to life.
In the documentary those who were present when the miracle took place were also interviewed. Ekechukwu was himself interviewed, during which he related his experiences of heaven and even of hell, which he was allowed to visit. According to the documentary, these events occurred in November 2001.
Ekechukwu’s story is not unique. There are numerous similar accounts of the dead being revived to life in Christian literature, all of which are very difficult to authenticate. My purpose in writing this article is not to verify or falsify these stories. My purpose is rather to deal with the question pertaining to the significance and place of miracles in the Christian faith. But such stories will most certainly raise certain questions in the minds of Christians, and it is perhaps good to attend to them at this juncture.
The first question is whether God can raise people from the dead. The answer must be “Yes”. If God is the Creator and the Giver of life who has created the whole universe out of nothing, surely He can bring a corpse back to life. The second question is whether God has in fact done this. Again we must answer in the affirmative. There are many accounts of resuscitation in both the Old and New Testaments. 1 Kings 17:17-24 records Elijah praying for the son of the widow of Zarephath who has died because of an illness. God answered Elijah’s prayer, and the boy was restored to life (17:22).
Other instances of people raised from the dead in the Old Testament are the Synammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37) and the dead man who touched Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:14-21). The most well-known story in the New Testament is the raising of Lazarus (John 11). Other stories in the New Testament include Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43), the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17), Dorcas (Acts 9:36-42) and Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12). It must be pointed out that these were incidents of resuscitation, not resurrection. In all these instances the dead that were brought back to life would eventually die again.
What, then, is the purpose of such miracles? In order to answer this question we must return to the story of the
raising of Lazarus that is recorded in John 11. We begin by looking at verse 4, which records these words of Jesus: “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” The miracle, according to Jesus, was to glorify God and His Son. This theme is again brought up in verse 40: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you will see the glory of God?” The miracle that was about to happen was to point not to itself but to the glory of God.
Verses 25-26 record Jesus’ startling revelation to Martha, Lazarus’ sister, that He is the “Resurrection and the Life”. Verses 23-24 made clear that Martha already believes in the resurrection, that “at the last day”, the Day of the Lord, all would rise again. But Jesus’ revelation enables Martha to understand a deeper mystery, that the rule of God for which she hoped, and the resurrection through which eternal life was attained, was vested in Him. He is the Resurrection and the Life, and through Him the kingdom of God has already entered into human history. These verses stress that the raising of Lazarus from the dead was to point to the presence of the kingdom of God that was inaugurated by Jesus Christ.
Miracles are therefore signs of the Kingdom of God, and it is important that we understand what this means. Signs signify – they point away from themselves to the reality which is other than themselves and about which their presence announce. To some this may be belabouring in the obvious, but it is very important that we do not miss this point. When we do, then the signs become ends in themselves. This has happened time and again in the history of the church, and it is still happening now.
Take divine healing. Like all other miracles, divine healing is a sign of the presence of the eschatological salvation of God in Christ. As a sign, divine healing is the penultimate that points to the ultimate. A failure to understand this has resulted in physical healing becoming the ultimate concern. Once this happens, once a sign no longer is seen as a sign and is confused with the reality it is supposed to signify, it is accorded a status and importance that is not rightly its. It steals the stage, so to speak. And when this happens, the consequence is most serious. A Christianity that fails to recognise the sign for what it is really misses the Gospel!
As signs, miracles point to the ambiguity that prevails in the interval between the first coming of Christ and His return at the close of the age. Miracles point to the fact that the kingdom of God is already here, inaugurated as we have seen in the first advent. But “already” accentuates the “not yet”, for sickness, death and decay remain prevalent in our world. Thus we might say that miracles are eschatological signs, for they point to the fullness that is not yet a reality. Again this theological insight is so important for Christian living and ministry.
Miracles entirely dependent on God’s sovereignty
As signs, miracles are sporadic and entirely dependent on the freedom and sovereignty of God. Their taking place cannot depend on any prayer formula or any optimism that is mistaken as faith. There is a relationship between faith and the miraculous workings of God. But it would be absurd to maintain that there is always a direct and necessary causal link between the two. This means that one should never say that if one has faith God must work a miracle (which of course results in the converse claim that if a miracle has not occurred then it must be the case that there isn’t enough faith).
If there is a direct and necessary causal link between faith and miracles, then theoretically it is possible for Christians to rid the hospitals of the sick (and even the mortuaries of corpses) when they stand united in faith. Surely the faith of 30,000 Methodists can accomplish this, if this presupposition is indeed sound. But the significatory nature of miracles itself calls to question such a presupposition. Miracles point to the ambiguity of human history between the two advents. But miracles also point to the “already” of the kingdom of God, and insofar as they do, they serve as a pledge of the kingdom’s consummation.
It is important to note that miracles are not the only signs. The resurrected Christ is Himself a sign, one might say the sign, of the kingdom. The church, which came into being through the eschatological outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, is also a sign. Theologically speaking, signs have a promissory element. Together they point to the eschatological kingdom which is already here, but which will come in its fullness. Together they point to the fullness of salvation that God will bring about.
Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.