A common challenge to Christian faith that I receive is this: “I just don’t see enough evidence that God is real. If He would show up and do some major miracles in New York City or on television or something, then I’d believe.”
It’s an interesting thought, and I’ve often wondered why God doesn’t do something like this. I was never satisfied with the answer that God wants us to live by faith (although that is true), but after some digging in the Scriptures I’ve discovered a better answer: God doesn’t do big displays because they don’t work.
There are several stories that illustrate this:
Elijah on Mount Carmel
Despite only appearing in a few chapters of the Old Testament, Elijah is one of the most famous prophets. One of the reasons for this is his taste for the theatrical. During Elijah’s ministry, the people of Israel worshiped the storm God Baal. To demonstrate the foolishness of this, Elijah prophesied a drought that would not end until he decided. In 1 Kings 18, after three years, he called everyone to Mount Carmel.
King Ahab was there, and he brought 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah. Elijah called many of the people from Israel to watch as well. He was going to put on a show and prove, once and for all, that God is God.
If you read the story, you’ll see that Elijah’s showmanship skills were in full force. He made fun of the prophets of Baal, he used symbolism of the twelve tribes, and he covered the alter with excessive amounts of water. And then, when the tension had built to a crescendo, he called down fire from Heaven and it devoured the offerings. People were amazed, and they killed the prophets of Baal. But Elijah wasn’t done, he prayed that God would return rain and end the drought, and it happened.
He then ran ahead to Jezreel, which was the heart of enemy territory. Why would he do this? Because Elijah was convinced that, after the huge demonstration of God’s power on Mount Carmel, everyone would repent and believe in the one true God.
But when he reached Jezreel, he learned that nothing had changed. Jezebel was still controlling King Ahab, and she commanded the death of Elijah.
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah runs into the wilderness. He is so depressed that he even asks God to end his own life. But instead, God lets him take a nap and feeds him. After another long journey, God appears before Elijah. Verses 11 and 12 say, “And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.“
Although God is powerful and can appear however He wants, more often than not, He speaks to us with a gentle word. It isn’t the fire or the earthquakes, but His word and His Spirit that changes our hearts.
The Transfiguration and Peter’s response
One of the more famous stories in the New Testament is the Transfiguration. The story is told in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9. In it, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured to appear as his heavenly self. His clothes are bleached white and his face appears as radiant as the sun. Moses and Elijah appear and have a conversation with Jesus, and the disciples are stunned.
Something that always fascinated me about this story was Peter’s response to it in 2 Peter 1:16-21:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Peter remembers the power and the glory he beheld on the mountain top. You would think the transfiguration alone would be plenty to convince someone that Jesus is Lord, but then he says the prophetic word (the many ways the Old Testament points to Jesus) actually provides more confirmation that Jesus is who he says he is.
These two stories are a small sampling in the Bible, and the list could go on to include the miracles Pharaoh saw Moses perform or the fact that the Word became flesh when Jesus came to Earth. In other words, God did appear to people and prove he was real, and they completely rejected him and crucified him.
In Luke 16, Jesus shares a parable about a rich man and poor man, named Lazarus. Lazarus goes to Heaven, but the rich man goes to Hell. He does not repent himself, but asks Abraham (who happens to be watching) to send Lazarus from Heaven to warn his own siblings, so that they might be saved.
“But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’He said to him, If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
The reality is, God’s Word and the work of his Spirit are far more effective than massive miracles. This should encourage us because it means two things for us today:
We don’t have to call down fire from heaven to prove to others that God is real.
We’re called to share His word and be ambassadors for Jesus, but ultimately it’s up to God to change people’s hearts.