“Ask a Priest: Is It OK That I Don’t Take Stories of Jesus’ Miracles for Real?”

Q: Could I make it to heaven if I believe in good morals but don’t view the stories of miracles performed by Jesus as history? Rather, I view them as teachings of good morals (helping others and doing good). I don’t look at the Bible in literal ways because it has been told and retold, written and rewritten, translated and retranslated so many times. It’s hard for me to take the stories for what they are, rather than interpreting them as lessons that tie back to the Commandments. – C.S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It might be worth quoting a few numbers from the Catechism that appear under the section “The Mysteries of Christ’s Life”:

515 The Gospels were written by men who were among the first to have the faith and wanted to share it with others. Having known in faith who Jesus is, they could see and make others see the traces of his mystery in all his earthly life. From the swaddling clothes of his birth to the vinegar of his Passion and the shroud of his Resurrection, everything in Jesus’ life was a sign of his mystery. His deeds, miracles and words all revealed that “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” […]

547 Jesus accompanies his words with many “mighty works and wonders and signs,” which manifest that the kingdom is present in him and attest that he was the promised Messiah.

548 The signs worked by Jesus attest that the Father has sent him. They invite belief in him. To those who turn to him in faith, he grants what they ask. So miracles strengthen faith in the One who does his Father’s works; they bear witness that he is the Son of God. But his miracles can also be occasions for “offence”; they are not intended to satisfy people’s curiosity or desire for magic. Despite his evident miracles some people reject Jesus; he is even accused of acting by the power of demons. [end quoted material]

You’ll notice that the Catechism doesn’t speak of “alleged miracles.” The miracles are taken as facts in the life of Christ. After all, miracles would be easy for him as God.

If God can create the universe out of nothing, it shouldn’t be so hard to believe that Jesus could feed the multitudes with a few loaves or even raise people from the dead.

It’s true that the Bible can be read at different levels. This is especially important in the Old Testament, which sometimes uses very stylized types of writing to transmit deep truths. This is a far cry, however, from dismissing the accounts of miracles by Jesus.

You might ask yourself what the source of your skepticism is. Has rationalism crept into your thinking? Have you exposed your faith to attacks?

A tenet of our faith is believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God. That doesn’t mean we should read it as a history textbook – it’s much more complex than that — but it does mean that we should accept that whatever is in the Bible, is there because God wanted it there.

There are no “mistakes” in the sense that something slipped in there when the Holy Spirit was distracted. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit could easily oversee the whole process of writing and editing and compilation of Scripture. In any case, we believe in the inspiration of Scripture because we believe in the Church that has guarded Scripture and passed it down generation after generation.

This doesn’t mean that the Bible is easy to interpret. Scripture can be very perplexing at times. That is why we need to be humble and to be open to what the Church teaches.

This doesn’t prohibit us from having personal interpretations of Scripture. I might read the parable the good Samaritan, for instance, and come away with a personal interpretation that says, “Jesus is asking me to reach out and help my Buddhist neighbor across the street.”

I cannot, however, read an account of the last supper and say, “Jesus was only speaking symbolically about giving us his body and blood in the Eucharist.” That would be a private interpretation which contradicts the official Church interpretation that the Eucharist truly is the body and blood of Christ.

As to whether your skepticism about miracles will bar you from heaven, that’s a different issue. God alone is the judge of souls.

Ideally you should pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit and delve into what the Church teaches in regard to the miracle accounts.

In general you want to be careful about skepticism, since it can metastasize over time. Catholicism is a unified whole, and to deny one part is to open the door to doubting other parts as well. If Scripture is flawed, that would undercut the credibility of the Church which oversaw its compilation. Which in turn would undercut Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would guide Our Lord’s followers “to all truth” (John 16:13).

My suggestion is to keep up a regimen of prayer, sacraments and acts of charity, and try to take the Gospels at face value. The Holy Spirit will be there to guide you.

For more reading you might want to see the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” May some of this help you appreciate the richness of Scripture.

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