To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.
The final chapter of Strobel’s book is titled “Reaching Your Verdict.” He begins by detailing healings that no doubt lend themselves to his own beliefs regarding the miraculous: a teenager with a life-threatening allergy is healed from its debilitating effects; a woman whose fainting spells suddenly disappear; a hearing impaired woman whose ears are restored unexpectedly; a wheelchair-bound man suffering from multiple sclerosis who suddenly can walk again. Each of these stories are connected because in each someone prayed for the sick and disabled and their lives were restored. Strobel received these stories from Adrian Holloway and writes that “Holloway checks out stories as best he can, confirming the character of the person, obtaining medical documentation when available, and recording people’s accounts on video” (p. 257). When asked by Strobel how these miraculous occurrences have changed his life, Holloway tells him, “It has strengthened my confidence in the integrity and reliability of the Bible and God’s willingness to act today” (p. 257). But what of those who aren’t healed?
Holloway answers this question by appealing to scripture: Jesus didn’t perform many miracles in Nazareth because of the town’s lack of faith (Matthew 13:58), the disciples, though given the authority to heal, couldn’t restore a boy with epilepsy (Matthew 17:14-16), and so on. “So there are biblical reasons that we shouldn’t be surprised when everyone isn’t healed in each and every instance” (pp. 258-259). So how does one know when God will heal and when he won’t? “We can’t figure out what he’ll decide, and we can’t base our own confidence on his favor,” he explains to Strobel. “We can, however, base our confidence on his faithfulness” (p. 259). Or, as Paul writes, “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34) Sometimes, it seems, discerning what God will do in response to a petitioner cannot be known.
Strobel contends that “the case against miracles falls short” (p. 261; emphasis author’s). Recalling the objections of Harriet Hall (pp. 260-261), Strobel contends that though stories of the miraculous depend on eyewitness testimony, this is no different than the way in which lawyers, detectives, historians, etc. operate. “This is simply standard practice for…[those] who are authentically trying to pursue truth” (p. 261). And in the ensuing pages (i.e. pp. 262-263) he recounts the case he built in the previous thirteen chapters. If his case is sound and Christianity is true, then there are certain implications for humanity: “Each of us must make our own decision to receive or decline [God’s] gift [of salvation]” (p. 266). In the end, Strobel implores his readers to consider his case and to decide for themselves if Christianity’s miraculous claims are true.
Not a Strong Case
Unfortunately, Strobel’s case for miracles is flimsy at best. As I’ve discussed in previous posts in this review series, the position Strobel and his interviewees take on the miraculous lacks any rigor or scientific control. Even on a historical level, the case for miracles dwindles. The reason for this should be apparent to any astute reader: anecdotal evidence bites back. That is, it is the least reliable form of information, especially when trying to figure out whether an exception in the natural order of things has occurred. Furthermore, miraculous claims aren’t unique to Christianity. Both in the ancient world and the modern, stories of the miraculous are told by people who are not Christians. If the miracles Strobel describes build a case for Christianity, what do these non-Christian miracles build?
As an atheist, I am inclined to believe all miraculous claims are bogus; as a skeptic, I am open to the evidence. I would be delighted to find out that miracles do happen, that prayer affects the medical states of ill individuals, and that God did in fact raise Jesus from the dead. But the evidence does not, in my opinion, warrant my belief. In the coming years, I plan on revisiting my beliefs, reading the philosophical literature on theism generally and the miraculous in particular. Strobel’s volume has fallen short but perhaps some other author will do better. And this is what is so unfortunate about Strobel’s work generally: it is shallow. While I recognize he writes for a general audience, Strobel’s approach to history and science leave a lot to be desired. His success is thanks in large part not to skeptics reading his work and becoming convinced but to believers reading his work and becoming confirmed. Such is the danger of pop-apologetics.
But this should serve as a warning to atheists. Many of us haven’t done the work to reach many of the conclusions that we do. And we rarely reevaluate our beliefs, seeking instead to engage with material that confirms our biases. That many atheists claim to bear the mantle of skepticism is a sin in its own right; most of us simply aren’t skeptics. We are sycophantic lemmings, too confident in our own beliefs to acknowledge we could be wrong and too strident in our dealings with believers to do any good. Perhaps, then, the case Strobel actually builds isn’t one for miracles, just as it wasn’t one for Christ, for faith, for a Creator, or anything else. Perhaps the case he builds is how not to build a case for being a believer. That, for me, is the greatest lesson learned from Strobel’s work.