Supernatural Signs – Gibbon’s astonishing third reason for the spread of Christianity in the first 3 centuries.

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

It’s fair to say that all lovers of the Bible would adhere to the notion that God answers prayer. He hears our cry (Ps 40:1). However, while desiring to honour God with genuine faith, many believers wrestle with two difficulties.

On the one hand there’s the challenge of apparently unanswered prayer in our own experience, and on the other, there is the religious TV world of health, wealth and extravagant claims and promises. Perhaps history can help us at this point.

Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, lists as a third key reason for the unexpected spread of the Christian faith throughout the Roman empire the fact that the church successfully exercised miraculous powers.

This was such a prominent factor in the early centuries of the church that he addresses it before mentioning the high moral quality of the believers’ lives. He specifically lists tongues, prophecy, deliverance, healings and even people being raised from the dead. This supernatural phenomena, accompanying the gospel message, continued on into the beginning of the 3rd century without any apparent evidence of ceasing.

Reading his description of the ‘post-apostolic’ church is like being plunged back into the gospels. He writes:

‘The Christian church, from the time of the apostles and their first disciples, has claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of vision, and of prophecy, the power of expelling demons, of healing the sick, and of raising the dead…The design of the visions was for the most part either to disclose the future history or to guide the present administration of the church…

The expulsion of the demons from the bodies of those unhappy persons whom they had been permitted to torment was considered as a signal though ordinary triumph of religion, and is repeatedly alleged by the ancient apologists as the most convincing evidence of the truth of Christianity…

But the miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate [long-standing] or even preternatural [beyond the normal] kind can no longer occasion any surprise when we recollect that in the days of Irenaeus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event;

that the miracle [of raising a dead person to life] was frequently performed on necessary occasions by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place; and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterwards among them many years.’ (i)

It is deeply challenging to our faith that the churches frequently organised to pray and fast and successfully saw those they considered to have died prematurely raised to life again.

But that is perhaps to focus on the most challenging aspect of Gibbon’s account. Perhaps we should begin by merely embracing the reality of the supernatural dynamic of the Christian faith once more as a central apologetic in our mission to present the grace of God to a needy world around us.

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i Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Abridged), (Leicester 1982: Penguin) p279-281

© 2008 Lex Loizides