Thoughts from Jonathan
Christian conversions, miracles and gullibility
This blog is the third in a series of modified excerpts from Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said?
The fourth chapter of Echoes of Jesus examines the relationship between miracles and gullibility. I hope you enjoy this brief look inside:
Christian beliefs, miracles and gullibility
The other belief that I mentioned earlier, in relation to miracles inducing gullibility, also warranted investigation. This belief posits that the miracles performed by Jesus and his followers were simply clever deceptions. These hoaxes then caused otherwise discerning people to become gullible, which resulted in the rapid growth of Christian communities. Gullibility can be described as a state in which people can be easily duped. Theoretically, people may become so awestruck by a miracle, or seeming miracle, that they suspend their normal thought processes and uncritically accept what is being spoken to them or asked of them. Leaving aside the question of whether the miracles were authentic, I wanted to consider whether the alleged miracles always induced a profound level of gullibility among large numbers of the first Christians.
When examining the New Testament records of the reactions of some of Jesus’ first and most loyal disciples — the inner group of 12 — it soon became apparent that they did not permanently suspend their ability to think critically. This is evident even after they had followed Jesus for years and observed many of his miracles. For example, these first disciples would not believe the eyewitness accounts from the women who visited Jesus’ tomb after he had been crucified and found it empty. The women relayed to these disciples that two angels appeared to them and explained that Jesus had come back to life. But the disciples didn’t believe the women ‘because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (Luke 24:11). Their disbelief is even more surprising when one considers that Jesus had told them many times that he would come back to life (Matthew 27:63, Mark 8:31). The reason for the disciples’ disbelief cannot be explained as them simply being critical of women’s testimony in general for the text explicitly states that they simply could not make sense of the story. It is likely that they could not accept the message because they had reasoned that it would be impossible for anyone to come back to life after such a gruesome and protracted period of torture and killing. Thus their critical-thought processes were still well and truly intact.
This level of ongoing questioning, despite many direct observations of what the Bible texts report as miraculous, was not confined to the inner group of disciples. One of the Gospels records that other disciples who had witnessed Jesus performing a miracle still deserted him in large numbers because of his teachings (John 6:66). Their desertion wasn’t based on suddenly disbelieving the miracles they had seen, but rather in consciously deciding his teachings were too demanding. Jesus’ miracles weren’t so overpowering as to cause people to then become gullible to other aspects of his teachings.
Even those who were the beneficiaries of life-changing miracles did not necessarily become followers of Jesus, let alone cease to think critically. In fact, at one stage Jesus healed 10 lepers and only one of these bothered to show any appreciation (Luke 17:11–19). This report counters the idea that many people at that time were very gullible and that all it took for them to become a follower of Jesus was to witness one of the reported miracles.