Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 1

“Over the years, I came to reject the possibility of the supernatural and even God himself, living as an atheist for a long period of time. But sixteen years after that dream, the angel’s prophecy came true.” – Lee Strobel


I was around seventeen years of age, sitting in a barber’s chair, getting my haircut when I first heard the name “Lee Strobel.” My barber, a wiry old Italian, was one of the kindest men I’d ever known. My father had taken my brother and I there once a month to get our hair cut since we were very young and so Sam knew us by name. He would chat with my dad about cars while Nate and I would wait our turn in the chair. Once Sam had finished with us, he’d open up his candy drawer and we’d pick out a couple of pieces. I usually went for the Bazooka Joe bubblegum since I liked the comic strip inside of it so much. (The gum wasn’t bad either!)

As I got older, my desire to get into the candy drawer diminished and eventually my haircuts were less about the cut and more about the conversation with Sam. Sam was a devout Christian, belonging to the local Christian Missionary Alliance church in town. He knew my dad was a committed Christian and that I too had a deep love for God and the Bible. One Saturday Sam asked me if I had ever read the book The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. I hadn’t. He said it had strengthened his faith in Jesus as it gave a variety of evidences to support the biblical claims about him. I was an avid reader even then and decided to find the book and read it.

So I read The Case for Christ and then around 2001 I read The Case for Faith and then a few years later I read The Case for a Creator. I wasn’t particularly fond of Strobel’s writing style since it felt too informal but I did appreciate the content. I have read The Case for Christ at least three times in the last eighteen years and it still holds a special place in my heart.

INTERVIEW #1 – MICHAEL SHERMER

Though in the years since The Case for a Creator was first published Strobel has written voluminously in the Case For series, it was his latest book on miracles that caught my eye. It follows the basic format of all his books which include interviews with “experts” on a given subject as well as personal anecdotes to illustrate the issues at hand. The first interview in The Case for Miracles is with notorious skeptic Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and a prolific author. Strobel’s interview of Shermer runs three chapters.

I am not a big fan of Shermer though I do enjoy his short column in Scientific American. He is a very intelligent man but he is not exactly a polished orator or writer. Nevertheless, I can see why Strobel would want to interview Shermer on the topic of miracles. Shermer once wrote,

In my opinion, most believers in miracles, monster, and mysteries are not hoaxers, flimflam artists, or lunatics. Most are normal people whose normal thinking has gone wrong in some way. [1] 

That last sentence is a shot across the bow of supernaturalism and as such represents an affront to Christian beliefs regarding miraculous claims, both in the distant past as well as the present.

Jesus Freak

Strobel’s conversation with Shermer began with a discussion of the skeptic’s former life as a devout Christian. “I became a Jesus freak,” he told Strobel (40). Following his graduation from high school, Shermer attended Pepperdine University in the hopes to become a professor of religious studies. “To be a professor, I needed a PhD. And to get that, I’d have to learn Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin. Well, I could barely get through Spanish class” (41). So he switched his major to psychology but continued on his Christian journey, not losing his faith until after finishing his undergraduate degree. The clincher for Shermer was the experience of seeing his college sweetheart lose her ability to walk following a tragic accident. “It was very upsetting,” he said. “Why would this happen to such a wonderful woman?” (44) Deep down he knew that sometimes bad stuff just happens. For Shermer, it was just the second law of thermodynamics at work (45).

But lest anyone claim Shermer rejects theism and the miraculous on purely emotional reasons, he makes it clear that his reasons for being a skeptic and an agnostic has to do with the failure of theism to provide sufficient evidence to warrant belief in God.

The burden of proof should be on the claimant. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve a drug just because you say it works. The burden of proof isn’t on them; you have to prove your drug works. And it should be like that with all claims. (48)

Anyone who has spent any time in discussions with theists knows they often don’t understand burden of proof. I have seen on more than one occasion someone say, “Well, prove there isn’t a God!” to which the reply tends to be, “That isn’t how burden of proof works.” But it should be noted that atheists sometimes don’t get burden of proof either. If a theist provides an atheist with an evidence-based argument for their position, no amount of sweeping under the rug will make it go away. And just because you don’t find the argument convincing doesn’t mean that the argument isn’t true. We have to do the hard work of dismantling such arguments.

Intercessory Prayer

What follows in the interview is a discussion of specific miraculous claims revolving around prayer. Shermer rightly points out that often claims or the miraculous “are just highly improbable events” and that even if the odds are a million to one that an event should occur “it would occur pretty often” (50). Two excellent books (which I need to reread) come to mind here: David J. Hand’s The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day and John Allen Paulos’ classic Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. Hand wrote that “progress in science leads to natural explanations for many things that were previously taken to be miracles.” [2] In other words, miracles are highly improbable events by their very nature but to say they belong to the realm of the supernatural

is in fact a useless explanation; it’s just too powerful, since it can explain everything. No event, no matter how bizarre, would fail to fall under its spell. Whatever happened, we would just say: “The gods made it so.” [3] 

An obvious objection comes to mind: isn’t naturalism an equally useless explanation since it too would explain everything? This is a tension that needs to be worked out.

As Shermer points out to Strobel, sometimes cancers do spontaneously go into remission but the harder miracles – like curing someone of AIDS or restoring the limb of an amputee – simply doesn’t happen no matter how hard someone prays. “Why can’t God do that?” he asks Strobel (51). Anecdotes – the kind you hear from the religious about little Johnny getting over a cold or some other such “miracle” – are less than useless for establishing the truth of something like a miracle. “So, you’d want something unambiguous, out in the open – clear and obvious,” Strobel told Shermer (51). If prayer could affect things like growing back limbs then Shermer said that such events would grab his attention.

Shermer brings up a study on prayer that took place over a decade ago called The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer[4] In it researchers took patients from six hospitals and randomly assigned them to three different groups. 604 were informed that they may or may not be prayed over but were while 597 were told they may or may not be prayed over but weren’t. Another 601 were told they would receive prayer and did. The prayers began the night before cardiac surgery was performed on each patient and continued for two weeks. The results were interesting.

In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups. [5]

This led the researchers to conclude that intercessory prayer “had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.” [6] 

After discussing STEP, Shermer notes that “this is the best prayer study we have. So when you get beyond anecdotes and use the scientific method, there’s no evidence for the miraculous” (51). Strobel pushed back, “Nevertheless, these kinds of prayer studies have intrinsic problems. For example, you can’t control people praying for themselves or having a family and friends who were praying for them” (52). Strobel is right but misses the point. Are we to think that someone was praying against successful surgery and recovery? Or that God would grant the request of such prayers? Wouldn’t a “control” be the fact that most people don’t pray that they’ll die? Later in his interview with Candy Gunther Brown we are told that the prayer study was showing poor results because the group prayer for the patients was a New Age “cult!”

Hume and the Power of Suggestion

Shermer reveals himself to be a fan of Hume and his take down of miracles, something Strobel takes note of and deals with in his interview with Douglas Groothuis. But Shermer wrote on Hume,

Hume distinguished between “antecedent skepticism,” such as Rene Descartes’ method of doubting everything that has no “antecedent” infallible criterion for belief; and “consequent skepticism,” the method Hume employed, which recognizes the “consequences” of our fallible senses but corrects them through reason: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” Better words could not be found for a skeptical motto. [7] 

In his interview with Strobel, Shermer frames it this way.

Which is more likely, that the laws of nature be suspended or that the person telling you the story is mistaken or has been deceived? Misperceptions are common. People make things up. We have a lot of experience with this. It could be an illusion, a hallucination, a mistake – whatever. All of that is more likely than a miracle. (54)

I find this compelling, especially given how fallible the human mind can be. I have memories of events from when I was younger that simply didn’t happen. I have had that creepy feeling someone is standing right behind me when there was no one there.

Take a group of people through an old theatre in London and say, “This place is haunted.” Take another group and say, “We’re renovating the theatre; tell us how you feel about the look of the place.” Even if the two groups hear the same noises or see the same shadows, they’ll interpret it differently based on what they expect. (54)

As someone who has been on a dozen or so “ghost walks” in various towns and cities, I can attest to the fact that the power of suggestion is mighty indeed! I’ve seen my share of shadowy apparitions lurking in windows in creepy old buildings in places like Jefferson, Texas or even Ottawa, Canada. Was anything really there? I doubt it.

“In the beginning…”

The next part of Strobel’s interview with Shermer covers Jesus and the creation story of Genesis. Strobel asks Shermer, “How do you evaluate the credibility of the New Testament accounts of his miracles?” For Shermer it’s simple: “I think this, in part, is a reporting problem.” (57)

People say five hundred witnesses saw the resurrected Jesus, but do we have five hundred sources? No, we have one source that says five hundred people saw him. That’s different than five hundred independent sources. How reliable is that one source that gets passed down and passed down – you know, like the telephone game. Decades after the fact, it’s written down by proselytizers who have a motive. (57-58)

Shermer isn’t wrong but it may help to add some nuance. The “five hundred witnesses” comes from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians where he writes,

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NRSV)

Generally speaking, scholars recognize 15:3-5 as a tradition in the early Christian movement that predates Paul. [8] 15:6-8 appear to be Paul’s own additions to the tradition based on his own experiences and perhaps conversations with people acquainted with Jesus. Among them are “more than five hundred brothers and sisters” to whom Jesus appeared all at once. This interesting details has no corroboration in anything else Paul wrote or even in the Gospels themselves. This raises the question as to why neither Mark, our earliest Gospel, nor John, our latest Gospel, ever mention it. All of them come after Paul and surely would have known about this Pauline tradition, right?

It is easy to speculate when there is so little evidence and that is the point. Paul’s claim that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people is just that: a claim. And to Shermer’s point, we don’t have five hundred sources but one source. This makes it all quite problematic.

Shermer isn’t convinced by creationist accountings for the origin of the universe either. Strobel appeals to Genesis 1:1 and the cosmological argument, claiming that whatever is behind the origin of the universe “must be powerful, smart, immaterial, timeless or eternal, and so on.” Shermer’s retort is to the point: “You can’t determine anything about who that God would be.” (62) That doesn’t stop apologists from trying though! Shermer’s agnostic attitude shines through as he admits that we simply don’t know what there was before the Big Bang. It is guesswork.

Strobel also brings up the fine-tuning argument, a “good argument” in Shermer’s opinion though he does offer some objections. “What if there are multiple universes?” he asks (63). The multiverse would help solve the fine-tuning argument but there isn’t any direct evidence that it even exists. Strobel points out that the multiverse kind of sounds like a “Science-of-the-gaps” argument. I tend to agree. And the more I think about the fine-tuning argument, the more I think that it is a problem for atheism. Physicist Sean Carroll refers to it as “the best argument we have for God’s existence.” [9] Yet fine-tuning is not the sort of thing that keeps me up at night wondering if I should go back to theism. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that if there are scientific possibilities that explain fine-tuning, it would be better to wait before going all in on theism, especially when there are plenty of other problems with belief in God. Fine-tuning simply isn’t enough.

Music from Beyond

The final part of Strobel’s interview covers something that Shermer wrote about in his column for Scientific American. You can read the piece here. In short, Shermer’s wife had received a transistor radio through which she and her late grandfather would listen to music while spending time together. On their wedding day, Shermer’s wife was experiencing some lament that her grandfather was not there to share in their joy. He had tried to fix the radio but to no avail. Then, following the wedding, Shermer and his wife began hearing music coming from a back bedroom in their home. They walked in, pulled open a drawer where the radio had been stashed, and discovered that it was somehow playing music. Shermer’s wife felt as if her grandfather was there with them on their very special day. “Did this incident crack open a door for you?” Strobel asked Shermer.

“A little, yeah. Maybe a bit,” he replied (68). There are certainly natural explanations for such an event but Shermer didn’t bother to find out what it could be. “I savored the experience more than the explanation. What’s important is the emotional meaning it had for Jennifer” (68-69).

Sometimes that is the point. We may not have explanations for everything but that is okay. Sometimes it is what it means to us that is most important. But this isn’t an invitation necessarily to accept the miraculous. Rather, it is warrant to internalize and take stock of how events affect us and what we can do to make them count. “In our scientific world,” Shermer says, “we think we need an excellent answer for everything. Of course, that’s fine, but some things you can never explain – and that’s okay” (69).

I agree.

ENDNOTES

[1] Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002), 45.

[2] David J. Hand, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day (New York, NY: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), 27.

[3] Ibid., 26.

[4] H. Benson, et. al., “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trail of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer,” American Heart Journal (April 2006), 151(4): 934-42.

[5] “Results,” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567. Accessed 24 April 2018.

[6] “Conclusions,” Ibid. Accessed 24 April 2018.

[7] Shermer, 45.

[8] For more, see Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014), 137-143. See also Gerd Luedemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 33-109.

[9] Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (New York, NY: Dutton, 2016), 303. Following that statement, Carroll writes,

It’s still not a very good argument. It relies heavily on what statisticians call “old evidence” – we didn’t first formulate predictions of theism and naturalism and then go out and test them; we knew from the start that life exists. There is a selection effect: we can be having this conversation only in possible worlds where we exist, so our existence doesn’t really tell us anything new.

7 Comments

  1. Here is my review of that steaming pile of apologetics about which you tweeted. Yup, RYAN LEASURE does have a very different viewpoint from yourself and I do not mean that in a kind way about Pastor Leasure.

    Note for readers this response does not refer to Amateur Exegete’s review of Strobel’s book but to that of of Pastor Ryan Leasure of Grace Baptist Church Moore SC – http://jesusisnotfakenews.com/the-case-for-miracles-book-review/#comment-21

    This entire review stinks because you have not actually applied any critical thinking to this subject. From the charge of circular logic against Hume to your final recommendation there is nothing in your post that would have me read Strobel’s confection

    Let me begin with the “miraculous” healings none of which are.

    Deaf healed –
    You need to know the CAUSE of the “untreatable bilateral sensorineural deafness” those words are merely descriptive, untreatable meaning only “Has not responded to the treatments we were able to provide,” and “inexplicable” means only that no explanation can currently be provided. There are natural explanations, for example for most children neurological development continues well until about age 20 so the brain working round a simple neurological problem is entirely possible. Even in adults repurposing of other circuits to overcome deficiencies is well known

    Lame walk –
    Sorry but extreme cases of remission and reversal of course of MS have been documented for years in people of many faiths and none, it always returns after a few years. Then there is the use of “x-rays” to diagnose the remission. sorry that doesn’t happen. Frankly a very dubious story

    Dead resurrected –
    A nonsense, firstly you do not turn “black” from lack of oxygen.

    Secondly flat lining, what of? During extreme resuscitation procedures you do not have the patient linked up to an eeg, the shocks from the defibrillator would blow it up. Therefore the flat line had to be of an ECG and extended heart stoppage with recovery is well known and documented, the patient is kept alive by ventilation and compressions forcing blood to the brain.

    This whole story stinks

    The broken ankle and repaired intestines stories. I had a broken ankle confirmed by 2 separate x-rays (normal, procedure because of the complexity of the ankle joint) But later examination by a consultant radiologist showed that the original diagnosis was faulty and an artefact of the original injury being captured on the radiograph by chance. Regrown intestines? Pull the other one as the druid said, you do not measure intestines before and after an injury.

    Moving on to the Cosmological argument. This has long been refuted because it is just a restatement of the Aristotelean fallacy of the Primum Mobile. Sorry but stuff is constantly coming from nothing, both matter and energy, check the Casimir experiment

    The Teleological argument is nothing more than what Douglas Adams memorably described as the Puddle Fallacy. We find ourselves in a universe that is marginally well suited for life, that does not mean that there could not be other universes as well or better suited to life

    The Passion narrative element opens with a lie Many people disagree about the Passion beginning with St Paul and the writers of the Gospels. Today the fast majority of those who study the Bible admit that the Jesus of the Gospels did not exist although the majority of those will claim there was a minor figure who, in Albert Schweitzers memorable description, was “a failed apocalyptic prophet” Every element of the Passion shows it to be invention. The burial may be in accordance with JEWISH law but the Trial was not, the punishment was not and Romans had those who were crucified thrown into the charnel pit.

    Your conclusion begins with making the false claim that miracles have occurred citing those of Moses. Sorry but again the consensus – even among Jewish scholars – is that Moses did not exist. Your continuation regarding miracles still happen is, by citing Keener, false

    Therefore your conclusion is false

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post. As an atheist, the miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues….etc trip me up a little. It’s hard for me to ever tell if I should be taking people’s experiences very seriously, or if they’re BSing me. I’ve never had any experiences, but plenty of people in my family and my husband’s family claim premonitions, God speaking to them, miraculous healings, tongues and so on. I even know of a youth pastor friend that recently claimed to witness a woman’s leg growing by 3 inches as they prayed (one was shorter than the other).
    I don’t want to believe my friends and family are liars, but I also don’t believe in a God who is that random and aloof. Why would he grow a woman’s leg, but not satiate a starving child or miraculously intervene in abuse? Healthy children would make a much better future overall. Why would he talk to my family and friends, but not me even though I’ve begged him? It’s a hard topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As someone who, while a Christian, had spiritual experiences, I can attest to the fact that it is very likely that your believing friends are sincere when they tell you about miracles, etc. But, as you know, the sincerity with which one holds a belief is not an indication of whether that belief is true. For me, my spiritual experiences came at times of emotional turmoil and were accompanied by stressful events. No doubt I had physiological responses that I interpreted to be spiritual given my worldview at that time.

      So, believe your friends – they probably aren’t lying since lying implies they *know* the experiences to be false. But do doubt their experiences.

      Like

      1. Oh, I have had spiritual experiences. I’ve thought I felt the presence of God, or saw signs, or felt comforted….etc. I’ve just never heard a voice, or seen the future, or began speaking another language, or seen the laws of nature suspended.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, yes. And sometimes it depends on what tradition of Christianity you are in. I spent years as a Independent Baptist and so speaking in tongues, visions, etc. were a no-no. So you don’t experience them because your worldview is that they cannot happen.

        Years ago I went to a charismatic church service and they had a man doing healing there. And he would knock people on the floor and cover them with a blanket. And I almost started cracking up because I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. Looking back, those people probably really did believe they were being healed. And I think it is possible that the minister who was “healing” thought so too. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t bend to our beliefs.

        Like

      3. Yes! Maybe it’s because I grew up Fundie Baptist. My husband grew up Pentecostal. He believes in all of that. I did for a while too, and tried to experience it but I could never really connect to it. I shared your experience of having to resist laughter.

        Liked by 1 person

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