By David F. Watson
Since the 1700s, it has been commonplace in Western Christianity to question, or even reject, the veracity of claims about miracles, or what theologians refer to as “special divine action.” Sometimes, God acts directly in ways that transcend the normal course of events in nature. When we recognize such divine action, we call it a miracle.
Enlightenment philosophers and the theologians they influenced have at times argued that, if there is a God, this God does not enter directly into the goings-on of creation, exercising agency to change what would otherwise be the natural course of events. In the wake of two World Wars, the Holocaust, the detonation of atomic bombs over Japan, and countless other atrocities throughout the twentieth-century, many theologians simply regarded miracles as a non-starter. No, they said, the unavoidable conclusion is that we can no longer believe in the God of the Bible who so readily enters into the goings-on of our lives.
The problem is, there are so many cases in which Christians actually see miracles happen. They witness them in their own lives and the lives of those they love. There are simply too many accounts of God’s action in the world for us to ignore them. Miracles happen. They are in some senses shrouded in mystery, but the evidence for them is overwhelming.
Nevertheless, there remains much skepticism of miracles throughout the academy and segments of the church. Moreover, in parts of the church where miracles are generally accepted, there can still be considerable misunderstanding and irresponsible teaching. Thus in 2011, Professor Craig S. Keener published a two-volume magisterial work, Miracles: the Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic). At almost 1,200 pages, this work is an indispensable scholarly investigation into claims of special divine action, not only in the New Testament, but today as well. This book may be a bit much for the non-specialist, however. Not everyone has the time or inclination to make his or her way through such a weighty scholarly tome, valuable as it may be. Keener is aware of this, and has therefore provided a much briefer and more accessible volume, Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World (Baker).
The book consists of seven parts which are divided into relatively short chapters. Part 1 is called “Perspectives on Miracles” and asks the question, “What is a miracle?” It then provides a few answers, dealing in the process with some skeptical responses to claims of the miraculous, and particularly that of Scottish philosopher David Hume. In Part 2, Keener discusses witnesses to miracles. Are there many of them? Do people other than Christains report them? Is healing a new phenomenon in the history of the church? He then offers a few testimonies of healing. With Part 3, “Videos and Doctor’s Reports,” the book becomes a bit more testimony-heavy. Keener deals with cases in which healings are captured on video and medically-attested healings of such conditions as severe brain injuries and cancer. Part 4 describes healings of conditions such as blindness, deafness, nerve damage, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and leprosy.
Many Christians find faith healing to be plausible, and even pray for it. The next two sections, however, will likely be harder pills to swallow. Part 5 deals with the raising of the dead, and Part 6 with nature miracles. Keener provides documentary evidence that the prayers of the faithful can even raise the dead. In fact, he provides testimony of this phenomenon from within his own family. He then goes on to discuss what are often called “nature miracles,” such as the calming of storms or the multiplication of food through the prayers of the faithful.
Part 7, “Kingdom Mysteries,” takes up more philosophical and theological matters related to healing and deals with some common objections. After discussing some miracles that he himself has witnessed and experienced, Keener addresses some questions that many inquisitive readers will ask. Why don’t we see more miracles in the West? Correlatively, why do these reports seem so commonly to come from the “mission field”? How should we understand occasions when we pray for miracles and they don’t happen? Why do conditions that God heals sometimes return later?
Following this seven-part discussion are three appendices: (A) Did Prayer Make Things Worse? (B) Some of Hume’s Other Arguments, and (C) False Signs.
Even in this briefer volume, Keener’s descriptions and theological account of miracles are substantial and compelling. He marshals considerable evidence in support of his primary claim, which is that God acts in miraculous ways today, just as he did in the time of the Bible. He offers testimony after testimony of miracles of various kinds. These testimonies are drawn from historical and contemporary sources, including people he knows personally. He even offers his own testimony in a few places.
Testimonies can help to build faith, and I found my own faith strengthened as I read. The quality of the research in these testimonies is impressive. These are not the equivalent of Bigfoot sightings. They are the thoroughly researched accounts of a meticulous scholar.
Keener doesn’t dodge difficult questions, either. While most of the book consists of testimonies, particularly in the latter chapters Keener deals with some important objections and problems related to belief in miracles. One objection he addresses, which I often hear as well, is that accounts of miracles seem to come much more often from faraway places than from the United States. Does this not diminish their credibility?
Keener addresses such questions adroitly. First of all, he provides numerous testimonies throughout the book of miracles occurring in the West. Further, he argues, the U.S. contains only about 5 percent of the world’s population. It is only natural that more miracles occur outside of the U.S. than within it.
Additionally, “when miracles happen here, our antisupernatural mindset often renders them invisible to us because we grasp at other explanations,” he writes. “Since miracles are therefore less meaningful to us, they are less likely to happen.”
Keener also suggests that “God usually performs dramatic signs either when people desperately need them or when he is getting people’s attention for the good news of Christ’s love in a special way.” In Africa, for example, which is the world’s second most populous continent, there is only one doctor for every ten thousand people. There are also many people in Africa who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. God wishes for these people to have the opportunity to know and love him. In this context, miracles are more prevalent.
Dr. Randy Clark, founder of Global Awakening, has seen miracles firsthand all over the world. He once told me, “The way of healing is the way of the cross.” What he meant was that a healing ministry can be a painful one because people are not always healed. The compassion that motivates one to engage in a ministry of healing necessarily leads to heartache over those who are not healed.
Keener discusses cases where a person is healed for a time, but then the same condition returns and takes his or her life. He also discusses cases in which people are not healed. A particularly moving account involves the death of his friend Nabeel Qureshi. Nabeel had a prominent ministry, and thousands of people were praying for his healing of stage-four stomach cancer. Keener even prayed that he himself might die in Nabeel’s place. “I felt that I had already accomplished enough for one life, if need be, whereas Nabeel had many years of fruitful ministry ahead of him.” God did not heal Nabeel in this life, though. “Toward the end of his mortal life,” Keener writes, “Nabeel suffered terribly.”
Many Christians know the pain of praying fervently for someone who nevertheless dies. Many know the pain of being with the sick through their last days of life. These can be a gut-wrenching, traumatic experiences, and we may understandably wonder why God did not heal in these cases. It may make no sense to us. Keener remarks, “After Nabeel’s death, I felt that God was saying we would understand this matter someday. It is beyond me to understand now, but I trust that God does know and understands much more than I do.”
Miracles Today is a sensitive, well-researched, theologically sophisticated work. I have seen miracles in my life. In fact, I have prayed for people who subsequently received healing. Yet reading through page after page of these testimonies of God’s goodness was a great encouragement to me, particularly after these two very difficult years of dealing with a global pandemic. I also learned a great deal from reading this work. Keener is one of the finest scholars working today. He is both a faithful Christian and a first-rate intellect. I give this book my strongest recommendation. It is a treasure.
One final note: in many ways, the postmodern West is returning to the kind of pluralistic environment in which the first Christians found themselves. Their milieu was permeated by all manner of religions and philosophy. To those early Christians amid the religiously chaotic world of ancient Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).
Paul knew that it would be the visible power of the Holy Spirit that would bring that generation to faith. In our day, so very chaotic in its own ways, it can be hard to get a hearing for the faith, regardless of how wise or persuasive one’s words may be. We are once again going to have to rely upon the power of the living God and believe he will reveal himself through miracles of various kinds for his name’s sake and for the salvation of the lost. In recovering this kind of faith, we will need guides along the way. Professor Keener is one we can trust.
David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of several books, including Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed), and lead editor of Firebrand (firebrandmag.com).