Thinking Through Miracles

By Craig Keener –

So as to disclose my perspective up front, I believe in miracles.

In 2011, I published a two-volume scholarly work called Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic). When Good News asked me to review Lee Strobel’s new book, The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural (Zondervan, 2018), I revealed that not only did I endorse his book, but that three of the chapters in his book revolve around discussions he had with me about the subject.

Reviewing his book would not be quite like reviewing my own (an undoubtedly enjoyable but impossibly slanted exercise), but it would be the next closest thing. Instead, Good News asked me to engage Strobel’s work as a sympathetic interlocutor by comparing and contrasting it to my own.

It will be little surprise that I recommend The Case for Miracles as what is now the most useful popular-level exploration of this topic. My miracles book included much technical material (alongside more readable testimonies), and so readers have often urged me to write a follow-up summary on a less technical level. Strobel’s book may make that plan unnecessary, at least for the moment. The Case for Miracles makes a persuasive case for miracles on a popular, readable, yet intellectually respectable level. As I wrote in my endorsement, “For anyone wondering about miracles, this is the book to start with.”

I intended my own book as a ground-clearing exercise, to show why belief in biblical miracles can be credible. Yet some critics require a physical healing to be absolutely unique before it can be classified as a miracle — an approach that would rule out any miracles that have happened more than once. Others demand experimental conditions not applicable to unusual events in history. When a healing is recent, some dismiss it as temporary; when is not recent, the medical documentation is often no longer available. These are the sorts of catch-22’s that made my ground-clearing exercise necessary.

Although I provided a sampling of evidentially strong cases toward the end of the book, I warned that the next phase needs to be carried out by medical research teams. Global Medical Research Institute is undertaking such research; please send your medical documentation for healings their way (globalmri.org).

Like me, Strobel is not a medical doctor. Nevertheless, he is a researcher, a former journalist with the Chicago Tribune, and he knows how to interview key experts. And like me, he is a former atheist with a healthy appreciation for many open-minded questioners’ need for evidence. He also is an evenhanded and friendly interviewer with whom both interviewees and readers should feel comfortable whatever their own vantage point (though his own predilections are clear).

The first three chapters of The Case for Miracles focus on interviewing Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and founder of the Skeptics Society. Unlike Richard Dawkins, who has been known to dismiss the intelligence of his detractors, Shermer is a more respectful and friendly dialogue partner, a good choice for an interviewee. Although not a theist, his interest is in consistent thinking rather than in any visceral opposition to theism. We learn here Shermer’s own story (including his former faith), his arguments, and especially what he considers Hume’s “knockdown argument” against miracles.

The next three chapters, as I have noted, focus on Strobel’s interview with me. Whereas Shermer long ago moved from faith to skepticism, I long ago moved from atheism to faith. Strobel elaborates on my arguments that militate against the arguments on which Shermer depends. One cannot, with Hume, simply dismiss belief in miracles with the premise that we lack credible witnesses. Surveys today show that hundreds of millions of people claim to have experienced miracles. By no standard would anyone today accept all of those claims as genuine miracles, but neither can one simply dismiss all of them without investigation. Dismissing all of them because some are false is guilt by association.

A number of claims are both significant and include medical documentation and/or verification by independent eyewitnesses. Strobel includes a number of sample accounts. These include the resuscitation, through prayer alone, of my sister-in-law Thérèse, after three hours without breathing. They include many healings of blindness and deafness in Mozambique. (In January 2015, Good News itself included Dr. Wendy Deichmann’s eyewitness account of such a healing in Mozambique.) They also include the account of Barbara, who was blind, on oxygen, and dying from advanced multiple sclerosis. She was instantly and permanently healed after a voice commanded, “Get up and walk” — a healing confirmed as medically inexplicable by both her doctors.

The next section of his book addresses science, dreams, and visions. Strobel interviews Candy Gunther Brown, professor at Indiana University, regarding the science of miracles. She has published extensive sociological research on healing from a neutral scientific approach; Strobel obviously knows the right people to consult. She shows the problems with some past prayer studies and notes some significant evidence for prayer-related healing.

Strobel also interviews Tom Doyle, author of Dreams and Visions (Nelson, 2012). Doyle notes dreams and visions that have been bringing large numbers of Muslims to faith in Jesus. Sometimes different individuals simultaneously experienced the same dream, or the dream provided veridical information that the dreamer could not have known otherwise, for which Doyle suggests divine activity as the best explanation. Strobel could have cited still more researchers for divine activity, but the book would have run the risk of being too long for the average reader to follow (some might suggest: like mine).

Whereas my book focused on healings, raisings, and nature miracles, part 4 of Strobel’s book looks to larger issues: “The Most Spectacular Miracles.” In chapters 9 and 10 he draws on various scientists, but especially interviews university physics professor Dr. Michael Strauss. Here he discusses the miracle of creation (evidence for the universe’s beginning) and the evidence of design displayed in the universe’s and planet’s fine tuning for life. (Compare Strobel’s 2005 work, The Case for a Creator.) The only major alternative hypothesis, the multiverse, is far less economical logically than the thesis of a creator, and still fails to explain a beginning. With William Lane Craig, everything that has a beginning has a cause; an infinite and eternal creator needs no cause.

Strobel then turns to the miracle of Jesus’s resurrection, interviewing cold case detective and former atheist J. Warner Wallace. Wallace shows that the same lines of evidence that can break cold cases also supports the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection. Strobel also draws here on the important recent work by Michael Licona, Why Are There Differences In The Gospels, published by Oxford University Press.

Finally, in part 5, he addresses more existential difficulties with miracles. Strobel interviews theologian Roger Olson from Truett Seminary of Baylor University, regarding academic embarrassment about miracles. He also turns to a more heart-wrenching issue: when miracles don’t happen.

My popular-level book on miracles would have concluded with a chapter on the people who don’t get healed, and that is also how Strobel concludes. Even though we know, both from Scripture and experience, that God does not always heal everyone in this life, it remains painful. My wife and I experienced a series of miscarriages. My final chapter would have focused on the death of my friend Nabeel Qureshi from stomach cancer at the age of thirty four. Along with thousands of other Christians (and at least some Muslims), I was praying for Nabeel’s healing. But Strobel already recounted Nabeel’s vision-inspired conversion earlier in his book.

Thus Strobel turns to a different story for this final chapter. After sharing his own wife Leslie’s suffering from fibromyalgia, Strobel interviews Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis. For years, the mental function of Groothuis’s wife Rebecca has been declining due to primary progressive aphasia, all the more tragic because of her brilliance. (I always marveled at Becky’s masterful logic, and have also prayed for her and Doug for years.) Strobel’s choice is a wise one; Doug both knows what he knows intellectually and exemplifies the existential predicament of lingering grief.

Suffering remains the norm in this world, but we have some foretastes of God’s power in this world as reminders of his promise for the future. We are not always healed in this life, but when God heals anyone, it is a gift to all of us, because it is a reminder to all of us of God’s promise for a day when we will, in fact, all be fully healed and transformed, when we see Him face to face. Jesus’s resurrection is the basis for our own. This book offers a potent reminder of that reality.

Craig Keener is the F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of 24 books, including, most recently, Galatians (Cambridge, 2018); Spirit Hermeneutics (Eerdmans, 2016); The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Baker Academic, 2016); Acts: A Exegetical Commentary (4 vols., 4559 pages; Baker Academic, 2012-2015); and Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011).

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