Rumors of Miracles

Keener

Keener

By Craig Keener –

In his journal for December 15, 1742, John Wesley reports that he and a Mr. Meyrick both fell sick. But while Wesley recovered, Meyrick declined. On Christmas Day, Meyrick appeared to be dead. However, as Wesley and others cried out to God, Meyrick regained consciousness and then began to regain strength.

This incident was not isolated in early Methodism. Charles Wesley was healed from a severe condition when a woman commanded him to be healed “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Methodist preacher John Valton reported healings, revelatory dreams, and even rainfall through prayer. The blind eye of early Methodist Ann Brookes was healed after Jesus touched it in a dream. Many people in Wesley’s meetings fell to the ground under conviction from God’s Spirit; one skeptical physician was converted when one of his patients was cured from her sickness.

Western assumptions. Lest we suppose that Wesley had it easier than we do today regarding miracles, Wesley lived in a time when many discounted supernatural claims. Skepticism was so pervasive in certain circles that Wesley actually had to secure the release from asylums of persons committed there who were deemed “insane” from “religion and Methodism.” A key cultural influence that Wesley had to combat was that of David Hume.

Although Hume’s essay against miracles simply recycled earlier deist arguments, it remains the primary philosophic case against miracles today. Most current philosophers writing about Hume’s argument find it hopelessly circular: he uses uniform human experience to dismiss the testimony of witnesses that such experience is not uniform. A central component of Hume’s argument is that miracles are not claimed by credible eyewitnesses with something to lose.

As a starting premise, however, this argument simply cannot work today. One 2006 Pew Forum survey suggests that hundreds of millions of Christians in the 10 nations surveyed claim to have witnessed divine healing. The survey covered three nations in Latin America, three in Asia, three in Africa and one in the West.

Ironically, China was not included in the survey. Reliable research has estimated that millions of non-Christians in rural areas of China — people without Christian “biases” — have become Christians because of healing experiences. Their willingness to change centuries of tradition suggests that they witnessed something unusual even by the criteria of their culture.

Although talk about healing was less popular two generations ago, a survey of mainline pastors in the United States already in 1950 reported that more than one-third had prayed for divine healing. A majority of those ministers who prayed for healing, especially Methodists and Episcopalians, reported some fairly significant healings.

Today, surveys show that a similar one-third of all Americans claim to have witnessed divine healing. Although scientific approaches necessarily and appropriately seek natural explanations, which are not incompatible with divine activity, more than half of surveyed physicians in the United States also reported witnessing restorations that they deemed miraculous.

Around the world. If Hume’s radical skepticism retains some attraction in the West, it is less appealing elsewhere. “It is now recognized that much of Western thought has been domesticated by modernity, with its roots in Enlightenment thought,” wrote Dr. Hwa Yung, bishop of the Methodist Church of Malaysia, in Christianity Today. “The autonomous rationalism initiated by Descartes and the narrow empiricism pioneered by Hume have so emasculated the modern worldview that a mechanistic universe is all that remains.”

The Methodist Church of Ghana ordains evangelists gifted in healing and sponsors evangelistic healing crusades. One of their official reports in 2001 cites public cases of healings of deafness. It also notes that a leg instantly grew four inches in public sight, so that the previously disabled person could now walk and jump.

Expecting God’s work among the poor, charismatic missionary couple Heidi and Rolland Baker started an orphanage in Mozambique. After several years of hardship, dramatic healings of deafness and blindness began to occur, often drawing entire unchurched villages to Christ, reminiscent of incidents in the Book of Acts.

Consequently, researchers from the United States traveled to Mozambique and tested some disabled people before and after prayer. They found a number of cases in which people who were blind or deaf experienced significant sight or hearing immediately after prayer, and published their results in Southern Medical Journal in September 2010. Critics understandably complained about the testing conditions, which in rural Mozambique are hardly ideal. Nevertheless, one of the study’s authors, Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University, responded with even more striking details in her book Testing Prayer, published by Harvard University Press in 2012. (See Dr. Wendy Deichmann’s report on page 20.)

Miracles in the West. Despite less openness to miracles in the West, dramatic recoveries occur here as well. In his book Healing Miracles, Dr. Rex Gardner offers case studies of spontaneous cures in the context of prayer, some of which he had also published in an article for the British Medical Journal. One example is that of a nine-year-old girl who was deaf without her hearing aid; testing revealed auditory nerve damage, which does not simply go away. She had been praying for healing, and one day after a test for a new hearing aid verified her continuing condition, she was instantly healed. When the parents phoned the audiologist, he protested that what they described was impossible. Testing the next day, however, showed that she had indeed experienced complete healing.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 1.14.47 PMMany years ago, when I was still a recent convert from atheism, I was helping in a nursing home Bible study. One of the women who attended the study each week, Barbara, regularly complained, “I wish I could walk.” After hearing a couple months of such laments, Don, the Bible study leader and a seminarian, walked over to her and took her by the hand. “In the name of Jesus Christ,” he commanded, “rise up and walk.” She looked as horrified as I felt; if faith is a bias, we could not have been accused of it. Yet she walked, and continued to do so from that day forward. From then on, her refrain became, “I love this Bible study.”

Raising faith. John Wesley’s report about Mr. Meyrick, with which this article opened, was not unique. In October 2006, Jeff Markin was pronounced dead by cardiologist Chauncey Crandall. The emergency room team had been unable to resuscitate Markin for 40 minutes. As Dr. Crandall (a Christian physician) returned to his rounds, he felt led to return and pray for Markin to be raised. After six minutes with no oxygen, irreparable brain damage sets in; Markin had been flatlined for some forty minutes, and his extremities had already turned black. Nevertheless, at Crandall’s request, his colleague shocked Markin one more time. Immediately Markin’s heartbeat returned to normal, and he soon recovered fully. Crandall later participated in Markin’s baptism as a new believer.

Unexpectedly, when I began inquiring among my own circle of friends and coworkers, I found that 10 of them had eyewitness accounts of people considered dead being resuscitated through prayer. Even allowing for modern questions about the line between life and death, that figure seems too high for coincidence. Moreover, no one is deemed merely psychosomatically dead.

In December 1985, Timothy Olonade was one of three people killed in a traffic accident at about 5 p.m. near Kaduna in northwest Nigeria. Olonade was pronounced dead on the scene. To everyone’s astonishment, he was discovered alive nine hours later in the mortuary. He is now a leader in Nigerian missions. Another friend, Leo Bawa, now a PhD student, was ministering in a village when neighbors brought the lifeless body of their boy and asked Leo to pray. After a couple hours of prayer, Leo handed their son back to them alive.

In my wife’s country of Congo-Brazzaville, family friend Albert Bissoussoue was working as a school inspector in a northern town when non-Christians brought him a girl who had died eight hours earlier. Their more traditional religious attempts to revive her, including smearing sacrificial blood in her eyes and nose and mouth, had failed. Papa Bissouessoue urged them to turn to the true God, then took the child to where he normally prayed. After half an hour, he returned her to her family alive. People in the village were so impressed that the next time a child died, they came looking for Papa Bissouessoue. He was away on business, but his wife Julienne prayed and that child also revived immediately.

Astonishing as these report were to me, the account that affected my own perspective most significantly was one shared with me by Antoinette Malombé. When her daughter Thérèse was two, Thérèse became unconscious from a snakebite and apparently stopped breathing — for about three hours. When a minister friend prayed for Thérèse, she began breathing again and recovered fully by the next day. As in the other accounts, Thérèse suffered no brain damage; she later finished seminary and is now a pastor in Congo. This account commanded my attention in a special way because Thérèse is my wife’s sister.

Precipitating events. Like raisings, stilling of storms are not easily deemed psychosomatic. In my book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011), I note scores of other healing accounts as well as some eyewitness accounts of nature miracles. One case of the latter was among the eyewitness experiences I learned from my close friend Emmanuel Itapson, my colleague in Old Testament at my previous institution.

When Emmanuel was a child, his father Anana was planting churches in northern Nigeria. In one village where they settled, rainy season was beginning but it was going to take a few more days to get the roof on their house. Exasperated by the ridicule of some villagers, Anana announced that it would not rain in that village until he had the roof on his house. After his mockers departed, laughing, Anana fell on his face before God, wondering what he had just done.

For the next four days, until his roof was finished, although rain poured down around the village, not a drop fell within that village. At the end of those four days, there was only one person in the village who had not become a Christian. People in the village still identify that as the precipitating event that made it a Christian village.

Why don’t miracles always occur? But miracles don’t always occur. Before Chauncey Crandall prayed for Jeff Markin, Crandall’s own son had died of leukemia. The only other person Leo Bawa prayed for to be raised was his best friend — who stayed dead. My wife and I suffered a series of miscarriages.

Miracles don’t replace our responsibility to work for justice, peace, food and medical care in the world. In fact, they show us how much God cares about these things; the kind of miracles Jesus usually performed reveal his compassion for human need.

Concern for when miracles don’t occur is not new. With no miracle in sight, John the Baptist awaited death in prison. He heard that Jesus was healing sick people but not baptizing in fire or, so far as John could see, bringing the kingdom. So John sent messengers to ask whether Jesus was the expected Messiah. Jesus responds: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Matthew 11:5). His summary paraphrased two passages in Isaiah, the context of which addressed the restoration of God’s people and of all creation.

Healings in this life are temporary; we will die again. Healings are not the completed kingdom; they are, however, a foretaste or sample of that kingdom, signs that point our attention toward the kingdom’s coming consummation. Their purpose is not to solve all the world’s problems today. Instead they are a first installment, a concrete reminder of God’s promise that a time will come when there will be no more sickness, no more suffering, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

One sign runs deeper than miracles: in the Cross, God reminds us that even in the worst suffering, he is at work to bring about his purposes. Yet miracles themselves are a gift to all of us, not only those who are dramatically healed. Miracles on behalf of anyone show all of us that God’s kingdom is coming, and that he has the power and compassion to fulfill that promise.

Craig S. Keener is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including the two-volume Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver, and commentaries on Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. 

 

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