Miracles have played a strange role in the history of faith, at times providing a strong reason for belief and at times a strong reason for disbelief.

The historian Edward Gibbon, for example, listed "The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church" as one of five reasons for the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

On the other hand, Protestant Reformers downplayed the significance of miracles, which they felt had been abused by the Catholic church. "The day of miracles is past," declared Luther.

Our own science-dominated century has found little place for miracles. Until now. Suddenly, Time and other popular magazines are publishing cover stories on documented miracles of healing. News flash: Surgery patients recover faster when prayed for! It is a classic American turnabout. People who could never swallow the miracles in the Bible now show an intense interest in the potential for miracles to help them.

While writing a book about Jesus' life, I went through all the gospel accounts of miracles to look for trends. The following observations do not constitute a "philosophy of miracles" by any means. But this is what I found:

1. The Gospels record about three dozen miracles, some of them group healings. (Many other miracles performed by Jesus, John tells us, are not recorded.) Although very impressive to eyewitnesses, the miracles affected a relatively small number of people who lived in one tiny corner of the world. No Europeans or Chinese felt Jesus' healing touch. Clearly, he did not come to solve "the problem of pain" while on earth. Augustine and other church fathers were as impressed with the miracles Jesus did not perform as with those he did.

2. Jesus resisted miracles "on demand," to prove himself, ...

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Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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