Miracles vs Magic
In 1600, during Giordano Bruno’s heresy trial, the inquisitors asked a question: Did he believe Jesus’ miracles were performed by magic?
It’s hard for us to understand the significance of this question. In our post-Enlightenment world, this seems like a distinction without a difference, bordering on the absurd.
And yet this miracle / magic distinction runs quite deep. Sociologists suggest that this division is a distinctive aspect of monotheism. So what does it mean, and how does it connect to our world today?
Jesus on Miracles
In Christianity, everything is relational. So in the Gospels, the distinction between miracles and magic is that miracles are manifestations of legitimate pro-social authority, while magic is a manifestation of anti-social control.
When Jesus heals people, for example, he often tells them that they have healed themselves. “Your faith has made you well.” But in turn, he asserts that “My sheep hear my voice”. In other words, Jesus is not healing by exercising control over the people who come to him. Rather, he is commanding them to be healed, and in recognition of his spiritual authority, they are obediently healing themselves.
This response validates Jesus’ claims to spiritual authority. The community is responding to Jesus’ call for healing, affirming his authority in the process.
I’ve argued elsewhere that this is how the placebo effect operates. The placebo effect is the most documented phenomenon in medical history, and contrary to popular interpretation, it points to the pervasive ability of people to heal themselves.
We needn’t make any assumptions about how this works. Materialistically, spiritually, or some combination of the two—the phenomenon is the same. People have a widely documented capacity for self-healing.
Why, then, don’t people just spontaneously heal themselves as soon as symptoms start to manifest? Why wait until someone gives them a placebo?
My argument is that this self-healing ability is fundamentally dangerous. Just as pharmacists don’t dispense narcotics without a prescription, your brain requires external authorization in order to engage its most extreme functions.
For your own protection, you cannot invoke your own abilities without permission from a legitimate authority.
If this is true, it means that at a deep level, your brain possesses the ability to recognize legitimate, pro-social sources of authority. And it means that this system necessarily supercedes the conscious, volitional mind.
Your brain can recognize legitimate authority, whether you realize it or not.
When a Doctor, Priest, or Rabbi blesses you and tells you to get well, this internal system may recognize the presence of a legitimate pro-social authority, and unlock various mental and physical resources.
Like everything else, this system will be imperfect. But given its importance, it’s also likely to be one of the more robust systems in the human brain. This system likely grants varying levels of access, to varying kinds of abilities, depending on the nature of the authority.
This means that healings are evidence of legitimate pro-social authority.
This is what the Gospels suggest.
The Gospels continually present Jesus’ widespread, phenomenal healings as evidence of Jesus’ spiritual authority. Jesus always claims to be operating on the spiritual authority of God, as validated through the community, by the healings.
That’s the biblical understanding of a miracle. So what is magic?
Jesus on Trial for Magic
From the earliest times, skeptics have claimed that Jesus’ miracles were done by magic. In fact, this claim shows up in the Gospels themselves—as his opponents assert that Jesus healed people through the power of demons.
It’s important to understand the distinction here. To claim that these healings were magic was to claim that Jesus wasn’t legitimately recognized by the community, but was instead entering into a pact with spiritual forces which were opposed to the community.
If that’s what Jesus was doing, then the healings weren’t evidence of spiritual authority at all, but were evidence of having claimed spiritual authority on false pretenses. Further, they were evidence that Jesus was using these healings to undermine the community’s very existence.
So this was a very significant charge. Jesus answers this charge in two slightly different ways.
First, How can an anti-social force do pro-social things?
If the community is being healed, set right, and made well, how can that be a force working against the community? With enemies like these—who needs friends! More to the point, if this was a destructive force, it was the most ineffective one in history.
“If by the Prince of Demons, I cast out demons, how can his kingdom stand?”
Second, If you reject this evidence of spiritual authority, what further evidence is left?
This is Jesus’ infamous “unpardonable sin” passage. Jesus tells his opponents that it is understandable to have doubted God (who you cannot see), or himself (who was unexpected). But if you look at the only evidence that could be provided, and choose to dismiss it—what else is left?
What further proof could you find? What else could God or the community do? What could possibly keep you from sliding into nihilism?
If you interpret the flourishing of the community as a sign of the destruction of the community, then what kind of flourishing have you left open to yourself?
The Key to the Case
So this is the question: Does Jesus heal by miracles, or by magic? Does Jesus heal by the pro-social, emergent recognition of his spiritual authority within the community—or by the anti-social exercise of illegitimate control?
Key to the case is something that we tend to ignore, but the Gospels go out of their way to point out:
Jesus couldn’t heal everyone.
There were particular places, such as his own hometown, where Jesus was not able to heal people. The Gospels explain that this was because they were not receptive to his spiritual authority. In other words, having dismissed him as a mere carpenter’s son, Jesus’ power was nullified.
For many Christians, this is a point of embarrassment. How could the power of the Son of God fail? But for the Gospels, this is key.
If Jesus was exercising illegitimate control, cooperating with an anti-community force, he could coerce anyone and everyone to be healed.
But if Jesus was authorizing people to be healed, and their deepest selves were freely responding to his command, then it was a true recognition of pro-social authority. It validated the fact that God—the ultimate pro-social force—was really at work.
And it meant that sometimes, Jesus’ healings had to fail. God does not coerce anyone’s allegiance, and so the Son of God cannot coerce anyone’s self-healing.
It’s important to note that the Gospels don’t stop with the physical healings. Jesus goes on from healing people, to feeding crowds, to walking across water and calming a storm.
But the Gospels present all of these as the exercise of authority. Jesus commands the storm to be still, and it does. The Son of Man has authority even over the Sea.
This authority is remarkable precisely because it is not coercive power. In the worldview of the Gospels, we must conclude that the Sea had some measure of choice. Like a skilled horse-whisperer with an anxious animal, Jesus tells the Sea to be calm, and it responds in recognition of someone who can be trusted.
So these are the possibilities. One—that Jesus worked through the exercise of pro-social, legitimate and cooperative authority. Another—that Jesus worked through the exercise of anti-social, illegitimate control.
These possibilities have been debated since the earliest times.
But this is the difference between miracles and magic.