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. In part two I covered chapters 4-6 featuring his interview with Craig Keener. In part three I covered chapter 7 which featured an interview Strobel had with Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University. Today I will cover chapter which contains Strobel’s interview with missionary Tom Doyle.
INTERVIEW #4 – TOM DOYLE
It seems nowadays control of the living room television has been seized from my wife and I and is now in the hands of my kids. My youngest, Elijah, is about to turn two years old and he loves the Disney Channel so it is on regularly. Whether it’s Puppy Dog Pals, Muppet Babies, or Duck Tales, he loves having it playing in the background while he’s cuddling with his teddy bear or playing with his toy cars. One show that he surprisingly enjoys is Raven’s Home, a spinoff of That’s So Raven.
Raven’s Home stars Raven-Symoné who plays the title character Raven Baxter. Baxter, who was a teenager in That’s So Raven, is now an adult with kids of her own. But Baxter is not just some ordinary mother trying to make it in life; she’s a psychic and will at times have sudden premonitions of events about to transpire. And she’s not the only one as her son Booker also has the gift. In a recent episode entitled “The Missteps,” Booker begins having psychic premonitions while he’s sleeping which prompts his friend Levi to stay up and write them down. At the end of the episode, Booker sits up and begins rattling off the winning lottery numbers. Unfortunately, Levi has fallen asleep and, since Booker is not conscious of what he is doing, he is unaware that millions of dollars have slipped through his fingertips.
Booker’s experience in Raven’s Home is clearly fictional yet there are many people who believe that dreams can have some prophetic function in our lives. Days before his death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have told his wife and friends that he had a dream wherein he woke up in the White House, heard the moans of mourners, and saw in the East Room a casket.
Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers, ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.”1
Lincoln would be shot just a few days later on the evening of April 14th, 1865 and die the following morning at 7:22am. What do we make of this? Did Lincoln know about his death ahead of time? Was this an example of precognition?
Dreams and Visions
Chapter eight of Strobel’s The Case for Miracles is entitled “Dreams and Visions” and relates a number of stories wherein a dream contributed to the conversion of an individual, particularly Muslims. In the opening we read of the late Nabeel Qureshi, a Muslim convert to Christianity. Qureshi had a dream in which he was looking into a home wherein was a feast. The door blocking his entry was seven feet tall but only three feet wide and he could see from peering inside the windows that this was a large home with plenty of room (and plenty of food and wine). He noticed his friend David sitting at one of the tables and called out to him – “I thought we were going to eat together.” David replied, “You never responded.” (139)
As Qureshi explains to Strobel, he had asked God for a vision before this dream had happened. And the following morning he contacted David to ask him about the dream, to which the Christian replied that there was no need to interpret the dream other than to read Luke 13:22-30. Qureshi explains,
I was standing at the door and it had not yet closed, but it was clear I would not be at this banquet of God – this heaven – unless I responded to the invitation….The door would be shut for good; the feast would go on without me, forever. (140, emphasis Strobel)
Strobel wondered if Qureshi had ever read that passage in Luke before but prior to that night he had not. “How do you account for that?” Strobel asked him.
“I’m a man of science. A medical doctor. I deal with flesh and bones, with evidence and facts and logic. But this,” he said, searching for the right words, “this was the exact vision I needed. It was a miracle. A miracle that opened the door for me.” (141, emphasis Strobel).
Color me unimpressed. It seems to me that while Qureshi may have never read the Lukan passage before having that dream, it is very likely that his friend David, who was apparently a strong enough character in his life to make a definitive appearance in a dream, had used this passage before in discussions with Qureshi. This is very likely since Qureshi claims that David knew exactly what passage his Muslim friend needed to turn to in order to understand the dream on the fly. In other words, the seed had been planted in his mind and his brain used the imagery from it to form the contents of the dream.
I Dream of Jesus
Strobel contends in his chapter that “more Muslims have become Christians in the last couple of decades than in the previous fourteen hundred years since Muhammad.” This is probably true though he offers no citation to support it. But then Strobel writes, “It’s estimated that a quarter to a third of [those converts] experienced a dream or vision of Jesus before their salvation experience.” (141) The citation Strobel offers is from Tom Doyle’s Dreams and Visions: Is Jesus Awakening the Muslim World? On page 127 of that book, Doyle writes,
About a decade ago, those of us who work in Muslim outreach started to hear about something new in the world of Islam. God was opening the closed hearts of Muslims by giving them spectacular dreams and visions. At first, the stories were rare, but today these amazing accounts of God breaking through to Muslims have become a common occurrence. We find that about one out of every three Muslim-background believers has had some dream or vision prior to their salvation experience. Some more precise surveys are a bit more conservative and suggest a little over 25 percent of Muslims had a dream or vision before becoming disciples of Jesus. Either way, the percentage is significant.2
Unfortunately, Doyle does not provide a reference to these statistics so we can’t see how they arrived at their numbers or even evaluate the countries of origin for these Muslim converts. Without context, they aren’t useful.
Strobel interviews Doyle who has served as a missionary to the Islamic world for a significant part of his life. He relates numerous stories of people having dreams about a man in a white robe that leads the dreamers with questions that cause them to reach out to Christians. Some of the stories are very compelling but ultimately they lack the sort of punch that Doyle and Strobel want them to have.
For example, Doyle relates the story of a man in Jericho named Osama. He had been having dreams about Jesus and told his imam who instructed to read more of the Qur’an. The more he read, the more he dreamed of Jesus. The imam told him to become more involved with the mosque but it didn’t mitigate his dreams of Jesus. The imam told him to make the trek to Mecca to visit the Kaaba. So he did. And Osama said that as he went to pray at the Kaaba, he looked up and saw Jesus standing on top of it.
Jesus was looking at him and saying, “Osama, leave this place. You’re going in the wrong direction. Leave and go home.” So he did. Later a Christian friend shared the gospel with him, and he came to faith in Christ. Today, this man has such love for Jesus that you can literally see it on his face. (149)
Now, this story is obviously taken out of a particular context so it is difficult to reconstruct the whole narrative. But Doyle makes it clear that Osama had a Christian friend who was willing to share his faith with him. Isn’t it possible then that this Christian friend primed the pump, as it were? That maybe conversations with him stirred Osama to have dreams and visions of Jesus? That maybe this all happened in his mind and nothing particularly supernatural was going on?
Consider for a moment those people who don’t have these spectacular visions of Jesus. Why don’t they? If this is such a powerful tool for conversion, and Jesus really does want all to come to know him, then why not just appear to everyone in such a way that it is obvious that it is him?
Why haven’t I had a vision of Jesus? Why haven’t you?
Let’s reconsider the story about Abraham Lincoln we mentioned earlier. Assuming it happened as Lemon claimed it did, is this really all that surprising? Not at all. Joe Nickell writes,
The important point to make is that there is nothing remarkable about Lincoln having dreamed of death – even his own assassination. In the Civil War strife, death was all around him. Moreover, not only had an assassination plot been thwarted prior to his first inauguration in 1861, he had subsequently received numerous death threats and once had a hole shot through his hat by an intended assassin.3
In other words, consider the historical and cultural context in which the “premonition” took place.
For Muslims, Jesus is not just a figure who belongs only to Christianity. Though there are significant differences between the New Testament Jesus and the Quranic Jesus (“Isa”), it is clear from reading the Qur’an that Jesus plays an important role.
[Jesus] said: ‘I am a servant of God. He has granted me the Scripture; made me a prophet; made me blessed wherever I may be. He commanded me to pray, to give alms as long as I live, to cherish my mother. He did not make me domineering or graceless. Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.’ Such was Jesus, son of Mary (Surah 19:30-34).4
Islamic scholar Joseph Lumbard writes that “despite [the Qur’an’s] emphasis upon his human nature, Jesus is recognized as holding an exalted position in relation to other prophets.”5 He also points out that “the Prophet Muhammad is said to have confirmed that of all human beings, only Jesus and the Virgin Mary were born without the stain of sin.”6 John Renard notes that in some traditions of Islam that Jesus will return at the end of the age “to vanquish the anti-Christ and usher in an age of justice.”7
This is the backdrop in which many Muslims live and breathe. Jesus isn’t a foreign character, missing from their faith, nor is he a minor figure. He is an important individual in their religion. Couple this with missionary activity or even encounters with Christian neighbors, and dreaming about Jesus in a culture where dreams play an important role is not at all surprising.
Dreams as evidence for miracles? Count me out.
1 From Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln 1847-1865 (University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 116-117. Available at http://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln46.html. Accessed 24 July 2018.
2 Tom Doyle, Dreams and Visions: Is Jesus Awakening the Muslim World? (Thomas Nelson, 2012), 127.
3 Joe Nickell, The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead (Prometheus Books, 2012), 229-230.
4 From M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, translator, The Qur’an (OUP, 2016).
5 Joseph Lumbard, “The Quranic View of Sacred History and Other Religions,” in Seyyed Hossein Nasr, editor-in-chief, The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (HarperOne, 2015), 1,778.
7 John Renard, 101 Questions and Answers on Islam (Gramercy Books, 1998), 108.