By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Ramsay MacMullen, a Roman social historian, suggests the idea that it was miracles, or alleged miracles, that converted people to Christianity in the Roman world. People were convinced that the Christian God could provide better than others, and so it was the God to worship. However, to worship Christian God, one had to abandon all the others; Christianity was exclusivity.
Belief in Miracles
One cannot say that the miracles really happened; believers would probably say they did, and nonbelievers would almost certainly say they didn’t. But what everyone can agree on is that stories of the miracles were being told insistently and repeatedly. All it takes to convince someone of a miracle is to get them to believe the stories. They don’t actually have to observe it happened.
That’s as true in the present day as it was in antiquity. By far, the majority of people who believe in miracles do so because they’ve heard others describe them, just as most Christians today believe that Jesus and his apostles performed miracles. These Christians have not actually seen Jesus and the apostles do the miracles; they’ve read and heard about them, but they believe they happened.
So, too, in the ancient world, one didn’t have to see the miracles to believe in them. Moreover, not a lot of people had to believe in them at a time, even though eventually this number turned into millions.
Pagans Did Miracles, Too
There is an objection regarding MacMullen’s argument. Isn’t it an assumption that Christians were the only ones allegedly doing these miracles? Weren’t pagan holy men able to do many of the same things? In fact, the pagan holy men are on record for healing the sick, casting out the demons, controlling the weather, and raising the dead.
While the pagans were, indeed, credited with comparable miracles, it’s important to remember that when a pagan did a miracle, in say the name of Apollo, and he convinced another pagan, say a worshipper of Athena, to start worshipping Apollo, that person did not stop worshipping Athena. With the Christians, it was different. Even if they convinced only two or three people out of 100, and 97 or 98 people were completely unconvinced, that would still mean that Christianity gained two or three people and lost no one. However, paganism lost two or three people and gained no one. If that happened once a year, over the course of three centuries, the empire had to convert.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Miracles in Christianity
Whenever we have accounts of people converting in the first four centuries, it’s almost always because of miracles.
The earliest Christian author Paul tells us why he himself was successful on the mission field. He says it’s because he did signs and wonders. In the earliest narratives of conversion in the book of Acts, people converted because of miracles. In Acts 2, when the crowds in Jerusalem see the miracle of the coming spirit on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 convert on the spot. In chapters 3 and 4, when the crowds in Jerusalem see Peter heal a lame man at the temple, 5,000 convert.
In the book of Acts, Peter becomes so powerful that as he walks down the street, the sick and dying line up and his shadow heals them. Paul takes handkerchiefs, and when he blesses them, and they’re taken to the sick, they heal them.
Missionary Activities of the Apostles
In a group of writings, known as the Apocryphal Acts, there are legendary accounts of the missionary activities of the apostles after Jesus’s death; they converted people based on supernatural interventions that convinced them of the supreme power of God.
In a book called the Acts of John, which is about the disciple John and his missionary activities after Jesus’s resurrection, John goes into the large city of Ephesus, and he goes into the temple of the patron deity of the city. In order to show the power of his God, John speaks a word and destroys the temple with the roof falling down and killing the chief priest. The massive crowd, without hearing John preach a word, realizes that his God is more powerful than the pagan divinities, even the most powerful and popular divinity of their city, and they convert on the spot.
In the Acts of Peter, the disciple Peter amazes the crowds who are not persuaded by his preaching; he persuades them by doing miracles. At one point, he makes a large dog talk with a human voice; and another instance, he convinces a crowd who doesn’t believe his preaching by making a smoked tuna fish come to life. When his pagan audience sees all of that, they all convert.
These, of course, are legends, but there were stories that were told and retold, and they were believed. Not by masses at once, but periodically, one person at a time as paganism slowly died, just as they heard the miracles of Jesus and his disciples and Paul.
Rewards in Afterlife
Sometimes the miracles Christians described involved not the desperate needs of everyday life, but of matters directly connected with death.
Christians believed that the power of God seen in earthly miracles would be manifest in the life after death. While believers would be given fantastic eternal rewards, unbelievers would be subject to divine omnipotence in the most horrific ways, to be tortured for all eternity.
If a pagan came to believe God could do great miracles now, it would not have taken much to convince them that these miracles would continue after death.
Common Questions about Miracles and Conversions in Christianity
In the book of Acts, Peter becomes so powerful that as he walks down the street, the sick and dying line up and his shadow heals them.
The book called the Acts of John is about the disciple John and his missionary activities after Jesus’s resurrection.
Christians believed that the power of God seen in earthly miracles would be manifest in the life after death; while believers would be given fantastic eternal rewards, unbelievers would be subject to divine omnipotence in the most horrific ways, to be tortured for all eternity.