Christianity has long regarded Christian miracles as signs that the Christian religion is true: God, through the miracle, is authenticating to people the truth of the Christian religion. Yet, there appears to be some acknowledgment within the Old and New Testaments that evil people, people who are not from God, can perform miracles or impressive wonders, too, and can deceive others in the process.
One can then ask a question: Are miracles trustworthy signs that the Christian religion is true, when the bad side can do miracles, too? After all, Christianity would deny that the bad side’s miracles show the truth of the bad side’s religion, right? So why would Christian miracles indicate the truth of Christianity?
I remember atheist Christopher Hitchens asking this question in a debate with a Christian. Hitchens referred to passages in the Book of Exodus in which the Pharaoh’s magicians were able to do some of the same signs that Moses did (Exodus 7:11, 22; 8:7).
I have wrestled with this question before on this blog. See, for example, my posts here and here.
In this particular post, I want to talk about how two ancient religious documents interact with this question.
The first document is the Apocalypse of Elijah. This work has Jewish and Christian elements, and James H. Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha dates it to the first-fourth centuries C.E. Apocalypse of Elijah 3 explicitly addresses the question of the bad side’s miracles. I will quote O.S. Wintermute’s translation.
The second document is the Gospel of Nicodemus, or the Acts of Pilate. As I said in my post here, proposed dates for the Gospel of Nicodemus have ranged from the third century C.E. to the sixth century C.E. The Gospel of Nicodemus 5 is relevant to the question of the bad side’s miracles. I will be relying on the English translation that is in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.
A. The Apocalypse of Elijah 3 has a list of miracles that the son of lawlessness, or the Antichrist, will be able to do: he will cause the sun to fall, darken, and shine; he will cause the moon to become bloody; he will descend with the heavenly bodies; he will walk on water; he will heal the deaf, the mute, the blind, the lepers, and others who are ill; he will cast demons out of people; and he will be able to transform himself visually, into a young child or an old man.
But the Apocalypse of Elijah 3 says that there is one thing that the Antichrist will be unable to do: he cannot raise the dead: “He will do the works which the Christ did, except for raising the dead alone. In this you will know that he is the son of lawlessness, because he is unable to give life.”
The Apocalypse of Elijah 3 offers other ways for Christians living in the end-times to identify the Antichrist.
First of all, although the Antichrist will claim to be Christ, Christians can know that his claim is untrue on account of the manner in which the true Christ will return. According to Apocalypse of Elijah 3, the true Christ will come from heaven surrounded by doves and angels, and “The whole world will behold him like the sun which shines from the eastern horizon to the western” (cp. Matthew 24:27). If someone claims to be Christ and does not appear in that manner, then he is not the true Christ.
Second, the Apocalypse of Elijah says what the Antichrist will look like: “…a skinny-legged young lad, having a tuft of gray hair at the front of his bald head. His eyebrows will reach to his ears. There is a leprous bare spot on the front of his hands.” Although the Antichrist will be able to transform his visual appearance, the characteristics of his head will remain present, however he is appearing.
I have questions about the Apocalypse of Elijah’s argument. First, how can the Antichrist cast out demons? When some of the Pharisees were accusing Jesus of casting out demons through the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons, Jesus replied that Satan would not undermine his own kingdom, presumably by casting out demons (Matthew 10; Mark 3; Luke 11). Would that not preclude the Antichrist from casting out demons? Second, Revelation 13 depicts the Beast’s deadly wound being healed. Some Christians (i.e., Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins in the Left Behind series) interpret that to mean that the Antichrist will die and rise from the dead, or at least appear to do so. But the Apocalypse of Elijah 3 denies that the Antichrist will be able to raise the dead or to give life.
B. In the Gospel of Nicodemus, Jewish authorities say repeatedly that Jesus does his miracles and casts out demons through sorcery or demonic power. In the Gospel of Nicodemus 5, Nicodemus defends Jesus and says how people can tell that Jesus’ miracles indicate that Jesus is from God.
Essentially, Nicodemus makes the same sort of argument that the Jewish leader Gamaliel makes in Acts 5:35: if Jesus is from God, then his works will continue; if not, then they will cease, or come to nought. Nicodemus appeals to the example of Pharaoh’s magicians in the time of Moses: they were unable to copy some of Moses’ miracles, plus they and their followers perished. Nicodemus also says that Jesus’ works are unprecedented: no one has done those sorts of miracles before, and no one will do them again.
Indeed, Pharaoh’s magicians did get to the point where they were unable to imitate Moses’ miracles. In Exodus 8:18-19, they are unable to bring forth lice, and they acknowledge to Pharaoh that the plague of lice is from God. In Exodus 7, when they turn rods into serpents like Moses did, Moses’ rod eats their rods, showing that Moses’ God is superior. Although Pharaoh’s magicians could do some of the same things that Moses did, God still prevailed.
I have some questions about the Gospel of Nicodemus’ argument. Does it presume that we should wait and see how things turn out before we make a judgment? How long would we have to wait before we can make a decision about who to trust or not trust?
In terms of the end times, perhaps a Christian can say that there will come a point when God is obviously prevailing—-God will send plagues—-and yet people will still follow the Beast, even though God is giving them an opportunity to repent (Revelation 16:9). Then and there, they will know the truth, yet will reject it. In the Apocalypse of Elijah, by contrast, the followers of the Antichrist are outraged with the Antichrist because he has led them down a dead end.
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