Pop culture rarely gives potent explanations for biblical ideas. When it does, those moments are extremely powerful. In the film The Prestige, the main character is an illusionist who discovers a machine which allows him to actually teleport. When he demonstrates this for a theatre owner, the other man is stunned, and says something fascinating: "Pardon me. It's very rare to see...real magic. It's been many years since I've seen... You'll have to dress it up a little. Disguise it. Give them enough reason to doubt it."
The theater owner has seen many illusionists and magicians. He knows how amazing those tricks can be. But when he sees this event, he knows it’s not an illusion. He knows that there’s an enormous difference between tricking people’s eyes and doing something truly supernatural.
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between “miracles” and “magic.” Yes, it’s a movie. Yes, it’s a machine, not divine power. The point is that even a hardened skeptic would—or should—know the difference between smoke and mirrors and something that can only be explained by breaking the laws of physics.
The illusionist, when buying his machine, says the following: “If people thought the things I did on stage were real, they wouldn't clap—they'd scream. Think of sawing a woman in half...”
Once again, the point is that even common people should be given a little credit when it comes to these kinds of issues. Part of the fun of watching magic shows is the jarring difference between what’s seen and what’s real and delighting in the knowledge that all is well and safe—despite what our eyes tell us. Once it ceases to seem illusory, that “fun” gives way to fear.
People skeptical of religion will sometimes claim that miracles in the Bible are like card tricks—simple stage magic meant to dupe the audience. Those skeptics usually suggest that people in the ancient world were gullible, more easily fooled, and that even if people “witnessed” a miracle, that doesn’t mean it really happened.
The problem with that is exactly the scenario described by The Prestige. Ancient audiences might not have had a sophisticated understanding of mirrors, magnets, and machines...then again, neither would any ancient magicians. But even the people of the ancient world knew that decade-long conditions don’t instantly heal (John 5:5-9). Entertaining trickery does not give sight to blind men (John 9:1-7). And sleight-of-hand cannot put life into a dead body (John 11:38-44).
Suggesting that ancient people were too dumb to see the difference between raising Lazarus from the dead and pulling a coin out of their ear is...well, kinda...dumb.
In the Bible, miracles are not done on-command or often. They’re extremely rare, and that’s part of why the people who witness them are so taken aback. Biblical miracles also involved events that could never be duplicated by mere tricks—such as God gradually raising the stakes against the magicians of Egypt until they had to admit, "This is the finger of God" (Exodus 8:17-19). And all biblical miracles are meant to prove some message or make some point. The gospel of John calls them “signs” for that reason (John 2:11).
The same ideas also separate biblical miracles from fictional magic, like that seen in Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. Fictional magic requires some secret energy source, incantation, or process. But miracles are direct interventions by God, performed for a specific purpose, and according to His will alone—not the glory of man.
“Magic,” by and large, is something done to distract from reality for entertainment and/or intended to deceive. Magic makes people impressed with the magician's ability to fool their eyes. Miracles are meant to prove what’s actually true and real, giving glory to God. Miracles are meant to give people greater faith in Him.
The theatre owner in The Prestige acts out the choice facing anyone confronted by a “true” miracle. They can accept that what’s happened can’t be explained in natural terms, or they can insist on being hard-headed and skeptical. Some of Jesus’ critics were faced with this exact dilemma, and many chose—meaning they made a conscious decision—to reject what they saw (John 11:37).
Scripture does not present miracles in a way that’s comparable to stage magic. Nor does it give the arrogant room to claim “those people” were too dumb to know better. The only connection between miracles and magic is in the minds of those who don’t WANT to know the difference.
The Bible’s miracles are rare, always connected to some message from God, and never in violation of His will. Biblical miracles involve things like raising the dead or instantly curing diseases, always giving glory to God. Magic distracts from reality and deceives its audience, bringing attention to the magician. People of the ancient world were smart enough to know the difference between sleight-of-hand illusions and actually resurrecting a corpse—just as today's world would. Most skeptics who try to dismiss miracles as “magic” don’t understand what miracles or magic really are.
Jeff is a staff writer with Got Questions Ministries and used to be a mechanical engineer. When he's not accidentally setting things on fire in his workshop, or petting strange dogs, he loves helping people better understand God’s Word and how it applies to our lives. Jeff's calling is to untangle the "big picture" of Christian faith, making it easier to understand.