Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 2

In part one of my review of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Miracles I covered chapters 1-3, a section featuring Strobel’s interview of the skeptic Michael Shermer. Today we will briefly cover chapters 4-6 which features Strobel’s interview with biblical scholar Craig Keener.

INTERVIEW #2 – CRAIG KEENER

Chapter four, “From Skepticism to Belief,” sets the backdrop for chapters five and six. The reason Strobel interviews Keener is because Keener wrote a two-volume work on miracles entitled Miracles which sets out to defend the belief in them. This interview is also juxtaposed with Strobel’s interview with Shermer.

“Dr. Shermer has had a fascinating journey,” I commented at the end. “He was a professing Christian but is now a skeptic.”

Keener raised an eyebrow. “Quite the opposite from me.” (77)

In what follows, Keener lays out an abbreviated version of his life story. In a nutshell, he considered himself an atheist by age thirteen and felt that Christianity did not have any credibility. But then by age fifteen, things had begun to change.

While walking home from Latin class, Keener says he was “cornered” by “two fundamentalist Baptists” (78). As a former fundamentalist Baptist, I can assure you “cornered” is probably no exaggeration. In any event, Keener says that the two men told him that he could experience salvation. Following the conversation, Keener continued his journey home but he “felt convicted by the Holy Spirit” (78). When he got home and was in his room, Keener claims he felt something more: “I was simply overwhelmed by the palpable presence of God. It was like Someone was right there in the room with me, and it wasn’t something I was generating, because it wasn’t what I was necessarily wanting” (79). Two days later, he went into a church and prayed with a minister. He felt God’s presence again.

It is easy to simply brush aside Keener’s experience but many people have had such experiences. And while they don’t count as evidence for much of anything to anyone who hasn’t had them, they are still emotionally powerful events. I’ve had them. There were many instances that I can recall where I felt an overwhelming presence and, since I was a Christian, I understood them to be the work of the Holy Spirit himself. They can be very reaffirming and can create an air of confidence that what you believe must be the truth.

Keener would later go on to study the Bible at a Bible college, earn a MDiv in biblical languages, and receive a doctoral degree from Duke University. So Keener’s academic laurels are impressive. He is also a prolific author and has written commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, the book of Romans, and the book of Acts to name a few. Keener says that it was a footnote in his three-volume commentary on the book of Acts that turned into research on miracles and the subsequent two-volume book: “It all started as a footnote to my Acts commentary. Before long, the footnote grew to two hundred pages – and that’s when I decided to turn it into a book” (82).

Miracles and the Gospels

Keener notes that the current consensus among New Testament scholars is that the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are a kind of ancient biography. Keener also contends that they are not mythology, a rather self-evident point as anyone who has read the Gospels can see. But does this mean that the Gospels are recording true history? Strobel says to Keener, “Walking on water, raising the dead, instantly curing leprosy – you have to admit those are pretty fantastical claims” (85). Keener responds,

“But look at the way the gospels report them,” he replied. “In a sober fashion, with an eye for details. There were eyewitnesses; in fact, often Jesus’ miracles were performed before hostile audiences. His opponents didn’t dispute that he performed miracles; instead, they simply objected that he did them on the Sabbath. Plus, the gospels were written during the lifetimes of Jesus’ contemporaries, who surely would have disputed the facts if they had been made up” (85).

On the surface, this argument seems very compelling. We can believe Jesus performed miracles because the Gospels were based on eye-witness reports and if they were wrong then the contemporaries of Jesus who were alive during their writing would have disputed them. Unfortunately, this is only part of the picture.

For starters, the Gospels were not written by dispassionate observers; they were composed by Christians who had some familiarity with both oral and written traditions about Jesus. Nor were they written to communicate “just the facts.” How do we know this? Because of how varied the Gospels are. Each author is writing from their own perspective and with traditions not always shared by the others.

Consider for a moment the birth narratives present in the Gospels. Two of them – Mark and John – do not refer to the birth of Jesus at all. And the other two – Matthew and Luke – have different birth stories. In fact, Matthew’s version places the birth of Jesus sometime around 4 BCE whereas Luke’s version suggests an even later date around 6 CE. And whereas both stories have Jesus’ birth happening in Bethlehem, they go about it in two different ways. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ family is apparently residing in Bethlehem but in Luke’s Gospel they are living in Nazareth and the registration of Caesar is what forces them to go to Bethlehem. These are just the tip of the iceberg!

This theme continues even in the ministry of Jesus. In Mark 5:1-20 we read of the exorcism of Legion from the man who lived among the tombs. The text tells us that when Jesus and the disciples make it to the other side of the sea, they end up in the country of “the Gerasenes.” But Gerasa is thirty miles from the Sea of Galilee and yet there was a cliff overlooking some water wherein the demon-possessed pigs plunged to their deaths. The Mattehean version complicates things as well because in his version of the same story (Matthew 8:28-9:1) Jesus and the disciples make it to the other side of the sea and end up in the country of “the Gadarenes.” But not only is Gadara not the same place as Gerasa, it too is not on the shore of the Sea of Galilee but is instead six miles inland!

If it is, as Keener claims, that the Gospels were written with “an eye for details,” how did these stories become so muddled? If it is the case that we can trust the Gospels because eye-witnesses would have come forward to correct issues, why do we have a story of the casting out of demons in a location that wouldn’t have been close to the Sea of Galilee? And what, if anything, does the notion that Jesus performed miracles with his opponents around have to do with the reliability of the Gospel accounts? Had these Gospels been written by Jesus’ foes then you might have a decent case for their reliability. But they weren’t. They were written by Christians for Christians.

Taking on Hume

Chapter six closes with a discussion of David Hume, the eighteenth century philosopher who is almost the patron saint of skepticism for modern-day skeptics. Strobel jokes with Keener, “If I could summarize what you’ve written about Hume…it would be this: you’re not a fan” (88). Keener tells Strobel that Hume’s “arguments against miracles are based on presuppositions and circular reasoning” (88).

What Keener objects to is Hume’s definition of “miracle.” He tells Strobel,

Hume defines miracle as a violation of natural law, and he defines natural law as being principles that cannot be violated. So he’s ruling out the possibility of miracles at the outset. He’s assuming that which he’s already stated he will prove – which is circular reasoning. In fact, it’s an anti-supernatural bias, not a cogent philosophical argument (88).

Keener then goes on to show Hume’s basic error.

Today we understand laws as describing the normal pattern of nature, not prescribing them. In other words…if I drop this pen, the law of gravity tells me it will fall to the floor. But if I were to reach in and grab the pen in midair, I wouldn’t be violating the law of gravity; I would merely be intervening. And certainly, if God exists, he would have the ability to intervene in the world that he himself created (88).

Fair enough. If God exists then he would be able to intervene in the world. But that isn’t the issue Hume is getting to. Really, Hume is interested in how we can know whether God has intervened. In other words, the issue is epistemological. Hume demonstrated that it is difficult to know with any real certainty whether a reported miracle occurred or not. Why? Because miracles are events which are highly improbable given their nature. Philosopher Edward Craig puts it this way,

Suppose I were to tell you that last week I drove, on a normal weekday morning just before midday, right across London from north to south, and didn’t see a single person or vehicle on the way – not a car, not a bicycle, not a pedestrian; everyone just happened to be somewhere else as I was passing. You might wonder whether it was an absurdly exaggerated way of saying that the roads were unusually quiet, or whether I was testing your gullibility, or recounting a dream, or maybe going mad, but one option you would not seriously entertain is that what I had said was true. Almost anything, you would tell yourself, however unlikely, is more likely than that.1

But what if it were true that he had not seen a single car, bicycle, or pedestrian on his trip through London? Well, Craig says, “it still wouldn’t be at all reasonable of you to believe it, if your only reason for believing it was that I had said so.” In other words, testimony alone is insufficient to provide justification for belief in a miraculous claim. The kind of testimony that would be required to justify belief in the miraculous would have to be one that it’s being false was more improbable than it being true.

Keener, of course, finds Hume’s methodology dubious but does admit that there would be some degree of skepticism when hearing claims of miracles.

I think we should look at the evidence with a healthy dose of skepticism but also with an open mind….Are there eyewitnesses? When we have multiple, independent, and reliable witnesses, this increases the probability that their testimony is accurate. Do the witnesses have a reputation for honesty? Do they have something to gain or lose? Did they have a good opportunity to observe what occurred? Is there corroboration? Are there any medical records? What were the precise circumstances and timing of the event? Are there alternative naturalistic explanations for what happened? (92)

These are all good question, particularly the final one. But Keener seems to think that the opposite of not having an alternative naturalistic explanation for a purportedly miraculous event is that the event was miraculous. But it could simply be that we just don’t know what happened. In fact, that seems like a far better place to settle rather than jump to a “God-did-it” appeal to ignorance.

Miracle After Miracle

The final chapter of the Keener interview covers a range of miracles, from hearing restored in the ears of a deaf child to a broken ankle that wasn’t broken. No, I’m being serious. In a section entitled “A Broken Ankle That Wasn’t” we read the story of Carl Cocherell. Cocherell reported that while on a trip to Missouri he broke his ankle while changing the oil in his car. The pain from the break was so intense that he passed out. He was taken to a local hospital where doctors took X-rays and confirmed that he had in fact broken the ankle. But that evening, while Cocherell was asleep in the hospital, he heard a voice from God tell him that his ankle was not broken at all. However, the next day the doctor had a cast made and told him he would likely need months of physical therapy.

Cocherell returned home to Michigan and his doctor there ordered more X-rays. And what did they discover? That there was no fracture at all. The doctor even compared his X-rays from Missouri to the ones just taken and it was like night and day. Was this a miracle? Did God tell Carl that the ankle was no longer broken because he had healed it? I have my doubts.

For starters, it is possible that they simply had the wrong X-ray. It happens. For another, speaking as someone who has broken their ankle and still has the screws in their foot to prove it, I can tell you that there is more to a broken ankle than just the break. Your foot swells since blood vessels are usually broken. There is a lot of enduring pain. So for there to be no evidence of any of that is a sign to me that whatever happened to Carl, the X-ray was either read incorrectly or, more probably, they simply had the wrong X-ray.

Now that doesn’t mean that the other miracles listed in this section are that easy to explain. But my point is simply this: positing a miracle as an explanation for some mysterious event is a dangerous game to play. Epistemically, it leads nowhere. And unless you are willing to believe whatever anyone says, a miracle should be the very last resort as an explanation. Sometimes mystery is just that: mystery.

That’s how we ended part one of my review and that seems a fitting way to end part two as well.

ENDNOTES

1 Edward Craig, Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 28-29.

2 Craig, 29.


Featured Image: By Boldizsár Komlós – S7000107.JPG, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28145132

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