Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 6

“For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:16-19, NRSV).


To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.

Strobel’s volume has taken us on a journey beginning with skepticism (a la Michael Shermer) all the way to a consideration of the fine-tuning of the universe (a la Michael Strauss). And now we come to what is perhaps the most important miracle in all of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. To discuss such a pivotal event, Strobel interviews J. Warner Wallace, a homicide detective turned pop-apologist.

INTERVIEW #6 – J WARNER WALLACE

Wallace is no doubt familiar to many Christians and non-Christians due to his books which include Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene. His work in law-enforcement has left him with the impression that he is qualified to rigorously examine the Gospels of the New Testament to check their validity. And his claim of a youthful atheism gives him a degree of “street cred” with the apologetic community. Beginning at age thirty-five, Wallace “subjected the gospels to months of painstaking analysis through various investigative techniques, including what detectives call ‘forensic statement analysis'” (190). His investigation led him to the conclusion that “Christianity is true beyond a reasonable doubt” (190).

Examining the Gospels

As Strobel begins his interview with Wallace he is given a Bible that Wallace had marked up during his investigation of Christianity. “I went to the gospel of Mark,” Strobel writes, “and saw that it was thoroughly annotated” (193). According to Wallace, he used forensic statement analysis to analyze the Gospels and with regard to Mark’s Gospel he “was looking for the influence of Peter” (193). The examination of the Gospel accounts took six months and at the end Wallace concluded that “the gospels recorded true events” (193).

“But that presented a problem for me.”

“Why?”

“Because they talk about the resurrection and other miracles,” he said. “I could believe the gospels if they said Jesus ate bread, but what if they said the loaf levitated? C’mon, I couldn’t believe that. I didn’t believe miracles could happen, so I rejected them out of hand.” (193)

But Wallace was able to do away with his anti-supernaturalism by simply considering the origin of the universe and the existence of absolute moral values. With that removed, it became far easier to believe that a dead man came back to life.

Wallace notes that he tested the Gospels “through the analysis of eyewitness testimony” (196) and asserts that each of the Gospels have eyewitness testimony standing behind them in one way or another.

“There’s good evidence that John and Matthew wrote their gospels based on their eyewitness testimony as disciples of Jesus. While Luke wasn’t a witness himself, he said he ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning,’ presumably by interviewing eyewitnesses. According to Papias, who was the bishop of Hierapolis, Mark was the scribe of the apostle Peter – and my forensic analysis of Mark’s gospel bears that out.” (196)

In addition, the Gospels were all written relatively early which means they are reliable. “I’ve seen witnesses in cold cases say their memories from thirty-five years ago are like it happened yesterday – why? Because not all memories are created the same,” Wallace tells Strobel (197). We may forget some dates but others stick out more than others and that is apparently what we find recorded in the Gospels.

Strobel asks Wallace what he thinks about the discrepancies between the Gospel accounts. “[D]on’t they cast doubt on the reliability of the eyewitness testimony?” he asks (198). Wallace doesn’t think so. Rather, if they were all in absolute agreement we would have grounds for suspicion. If the Gospels “meshed too perfectly, it would be evidence of collusion” (198).

“Think of this: the early believers could have destroyed all but one of the gospels in order to eliminate any differences between them. But they didn’t. Why? Because they knew the gospels were true and that they told the story from different perspectives, emphasizing different things.” (198)

Recalling the work of Michael Licona in his book Why Are There Differences Among the Gospels?1 Strobel notes that when it comes to the various discrepancies in the Easter stories it seems that the authors are using a technique known as “literary” spotlighting whereby

an author focuses attention on a person so that the person’s involvement in a scene is clearly described, whereas mention of others who were likewise involved is neglected, the author has shined his literary spotlight on that person….In literary spotlighting, the author only mentions one of the people present but knows of the others.2

And there is also the phenomenon of “undesigned coincidences” when independent eyewitnesses offer details that explain other independent eyewitnesses. Wallace offers the calling narratives in Matthew and Luke as evidence of such a coincidence with the latter answering the question as to why Peter, Andrew, James, and John so quickly abandoned their livelihoods in the former. “When the testimony is put together,” he tells Strobel, “we get a complete picture” (201).

Wallace comes to the conclusion that the Gospels are reliable and if they are reliable then it means that Jesus must have been raised from the dead. But there are two issues that must be addressed before coming to a sure conclusion on Jesus’ resurrection: the death of Jesus and the appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples. Doing away with various hypotheses of Jesus not dying upon a Roman cross, Wallace concludes that the crucifixion of Jesus and his death upon the cross is “virtually unanimously accepted” by scholars (204). He also does away with any notion that Jesus was not buried in a tomb following his death, a claim made by some scholars including historian Bart Ehrman,3 or that there was some conspiracy among the disciples to steal Jesus’ corpse or lie about it. In fact, it is surprising to Wallace that the disciples were willing to die for their belief in a resurrected Jesus.

“[T]hey had no motive to be deceitful. In fact, we have at least seven ancient sources that tell us that the  disciples were willing to suffer and even die for their conviction that they encountered the risen Jesus.” (206)

Why would they die for something they knew to be false? Of course not. “They knew the truth about what occurred,” Wallace tells Strobel, “and my experience is that people aren’t willing to suffer or die for what they know is a lie” (206). Wallace also dispels the idea that the disciples hallucinated a risen Jesus, telling Strobel that “groups don’t have hallucinations, and the earliest report of the resurrection said five hundred people saw him” (207). Furthermore, the person who was the least likely to have a hallucination of Jesus was the apostle Paul yet he records that he was the recipient of just such a visit by the risen Jesus (207).

What does this add up to for Wallace? It is all evidence against philosophical naturalism and for supernaturalism. Since “the gospels passed all the tests we use to evaluate eyewitness accounts” it forced him to believe that Jesus had indeed been raised by God from the dead (208).

“The more I understood the true nature of Jesus, the more my true nature was exposed – and I didn’t like what I saw. Being a cop had led me to lose faith in people. My heart had shriveled. To me, everyone was a liar capable of depraved behavior. I saw myself as superior to everyone else. I was cynical, cocky, and distant.” (208)

But Wallace’s faith in Jesus changed him into something altogether different.

Before ending their time together, Strobel asks a question that Michael Shermer asked him during his interview: why don’t the Jewish people accept the idea of resurrection? Wallace offers Strobel three reasons. First, they feel they are too smart for it. Second, there are emotional issues having to do with conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Finally, they are proud of their following of the Torah (209). “Humans love works-based systems because they can measure their progress and compare themselves favorably with others,” Wallace said (209). But a true investigation into the claims of Christianity reveals that Jesus did indeed rise from the grave in Wallace’s estimation. And some Jews have discovered just that (210).

Wallace’s Assumptions

It should go without saying that Wallace’s take is devoid of any serious scholarship. Wallace himself is nothing more than a pop-apologist who seems to think his experience in law enforcement has made him something of an expert on the New Testament. Consider his claim that he used “forensic statement analysis” on the Gospel of Mark (193). Forensic statement analysis examines the language a person uses to determine their proximity to an event. One law-enforcement consultant agency describes it as

a process by which a person’s own written or spoken words are scientifically analyzed to determine truth and deception. Given the opportunity a person’s words WILL betray them, in spite of their prior training, education and best efforts to avoid detection.4

But this rests on the assumption that a person is an eyewitness to something. This is simply not what we find in the Gospel of Mark. Nowhere do we ever get the impression in Mark’s Gospel that his account is either that of an eyewitness or even based upon eyewitness testimony. As Luke Timothy Johnson observes,

The current favor accorded Mark began with pioneering literary-redactional studies. They showed that Mark’s peculiar emphasis on Galilee (esp. 14:28; 15:41; 16:7) was a theological symbol. Likewise, Mark’s anachronistic use of the term “gospel,” euangelion, revealed a self-conscious awareness of the multilayered theological nature of his narrative (see 1:1, 14, 15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9). As a result, Mark’s Gospel was seen less as a direct witness to the life of Jesus or to the period of oral transmission than as a witness to the Christian communities of Mark’s day.5

We must also note the literary artistry the Markan author used when composing his Gospel. For example, we find throughout Mark intercalations or “sandwich stories” wherein the author begins a story, interrupts it with another, and finishes the story that he had begun. Such a technique “serves to create suspense and also either to contrast one narrative with another…or to interpret one narrative by another.”6 We also find chiastic patterns, triads, and much more.7 In other words, Mark is trying to tell a story. No doubt, it is a story in which he finds meaning and even truth but it is a carefully constructed story nonetheless and it cannot be considered “historical” in any modern sense of the word.

A Test Case on Eyewitness Testimony

We can put his claim that the Gospels were based on eyewitness testimony to the test. Consider the Markan and Johannine Passion narratives. In the Gospel of Mark, heavy emphasis is placed on the fact that Jesus had been abandoned by his followers. Not only does he predict it will happen (Mark 14:27-31) but it becomes part of the narrative itself when Jesus is arrested at Gethsemane (14:50-52) so that when he is crucified he is utterly alone with only his female followers “looking on from a distance” (15:40). But not so in the Gospel of John. While Jesus does predict that the disciples will desert him (John 16:32), at the crucifixion “the disciple whom he loved” is there are the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother (19:26-27). If Mark’s account is based upon Peter and John’s account on John, how could they get this all so wrong? Was Jesus all alone as in Mark or was “the disciple whom he loved” present as in John?

And on what basis does Wallace make the assertion that in Mark’s Gospel “Mark’s first and last mention of a disciple is Peter, which is an ancient bookending technique where a piece of history is attributed to a particular eyewitness” (196). Why should that be the case? All such an inclusio would suggest is that Peter plays an important role in the narrative of the Gospel, which he does. To assert that this means Peter was behind the Markan narrative is a non sequitur. It may also show Petrine importance in the Markan community, i.e. that he was a known leader of great importance. Again, there is no need to assert then that Peter is behind it all.

Gospel Discrepancies

Wallace thinks that if the Gospels had “meshed too perfectly, it would be evidence of collusion” (198). That is ironic considering that over ninety percent of Mark’s Gospel is reproduced in Matthew’s. If that isn’t collusion I don’t know what it is. But the discrepancies between the Gospel of Mark and Matthew at times reveal their two differing agendas. For example, the Markan Jesus forbids divorce (Mark 10:1-12) despite the allowances made in the Torah. But in Matthew’s redaction of Mark, there is no total prohibition of divorce but rather an exception in keeping with the Torah (Matthew 19:1-19). This is because Matthew’s Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-18). But the Markan Jesus, though an observant Jew, feels to free to do away with some of the Torah’s demands (see Mark 7:19) so that Gentiles need not follow the law.

What About the Resurrection?

Yet none of this means that Jesus did not rise from the grave. It does mean that getting to whatever historical event that lies behind the resurrection narratives of the Gospels requires peeling back layers of tradition and literary elements. This is what Wallace fails to appreciate or even acknowledge. The Gospels are not impassioned retellings of what really happened but rather they are stories about what those events meant. Often they are based on nothing more than a block of tradition whose origin can hardly be traced. Were they based upon an actual resurrection? Or were they based upon visions of a risen Jesus? Or both? Or neither?

Whatever the case might be, if it did happen, the resurrection of Jesus would be undoubtedly a miracle that would cause even the most ardent skeptic to sit up and take notice. Or at least it would me. Yet nothing in Strobel’s interview of Wallace gave me pause to consider that Jesus is alive.

I suppose pop-apologetics just doesn’t do it for me.

NOTES

1 Michael R. Licona, Why Are There Differences Among the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017).

2 Ibid., 20.

3 Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, 2014), 157. Ehrman writes,

The point of crucifixion was to torture and humiliate a person as fully as possible, and to show any bystanders what happens to someone who is a troublemaker in the eyes of Rome. Part of the humiliation and degradation was the body being left on the cross after death to be subject to scavenging animals.

Ehrman doubts the burial story of Jesus for a couple of other reasons as well: criminals were generally tossed into common graves and Pontius Pilate wasn’t known to be all that accommodating a prefect. See pages 160-164.

4 Forensic Statement Analysis,” law-tech.net. Accessed 6 February 2019.

5 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Kindle), third edition (Fortress Press, 2010), loc 3334.

6 John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina vol. 2 (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 18.

7 See ibid., 16-19.

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The Weekly Roundup – 2.1.19

“I propose the final edition of Genesis is the result of a similar process by an editor of the Holiness school of pre-exilic Israel, who combined and organized these various materials into a continuous and meaningful whole.” – Bill T. Arnold


  • Over on her blog @thclosetatheist has posted her review of Lee Strobel’s book The Case for a Creator. It is a rather scathing indictment of Strobel’s tendency to parade as a skeptic despite going all-in for theism. She refers to Strobel’s creating “the illusion of skepticism” and how often his toughest objections to those he interviews are nothing more than things like “Amazing, tell me more,” etc. She also points out that Strobel doesn’t interview top scholars or scientists in their respective fields but those who have some degree of popularity in the world of evangelicalism. This is Strobel’s habit and one seen clearly even in his latest book The Case for Miracles. (I mean, he interviews J. Warner Wallace, for crying out loud!)
  • @StudyofChrist, whose ability to produce excellent content on YouTube sickens me, discusses some more ways in which many have sought to reconcile the Matthean and Lukan genealogies of Jesus, including the notion that Joseph was adopted by Heli, the possibility of Leviarite marriage being a factor, and the problems with Julius Africanus’ take. Finally, @StudyofChrist concludes that the best approach is to “embrace the differences” between the two genealogies and recognize that there are theological motives in play. I second that motion!
  • Rachel Martin at NPR recently conducted an interview with Robert Alter on his magnum opus, his translation of the entire Tanakh. I’ve read Alter’s The Five Books of Moses and it was insightful, readable, and beautiful. I’ve also read significant portions of his translation of Job and loved what I read there as well. So as soon as I move I plan on getting his translation of the Hebrew Bible.
  • Phil Long, whose work I highlighted last week on Acts, has a short post on “The Times of Refreshing” found in Acts 3:20. He notes that the phrase is a “Second Temple Period way of describing the eschatological kingdom” and brings up a variety of texts – biblical and extrabiblical – that point to the age of the eschatological reign of God in the world.
  • Over a decade ago biblical scholar Bill Arnold wrote about his view of the composition of the book of Genesis in his 2009 commentary on it. A shortened summary of his take entitled “Reflections on the Composition of Genesis” demonstrates that Arnold is in general agreement with the findings of the Documentary Hypothesis that the text of Genesis is made up of three sources: J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), and P (Priestly). He compares the creation of Genesis to the creation of the Synoptic Gospels wherein both written and oral sources were brought together to form a coherent whole.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 5b

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. In part four I covered chapter 8 featuring his interview with missionary Tom Doyle. Strobel’s fifth interview is with Michael Strauss and covers chapters 9-10. In part 5a I covered Strauss’ discussion of the origin of the universe, focusing on whether Genesis portrays creation ex nihilo. Today’s post covers chapter 10 which dives into the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence.

To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.


INTERVIEW #5b – MICHAEL STRAUSS

“In the beginning the Universe was created,” wrote Douglas Adams in his book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. “This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”1 That the universe exists may or may not be surprising depending on your view of the laws of physics. But that life – including people to be very angry at the “bad move” of the universe’s creation – exists is a different story altogether. Why should we or monkeys or roses or amoeba exist at all? Why isn’t the universe populated entirely with inanimate dead stuff? Why is there at least one planet that we know of upon which life exists?

A “Miraculous” World

For theists like Michael Strauss, the existence of life is evidence for fine-tuning. As he explains to Strobel, “Over the last five decades, physicists have discovered that the numbers which govern the operation of the universe are calibrated with mind-boggling precision so intelligent life can exist” (175). Strauss overs Strobel two main examples: the amount of matter in the universe (176-177) and the strength of the strong nuclear force (177). In the former, an increase or decrease results in a universe wherein planets never form upon which life could proliferate. In the latter, a slight increase in strength results in a universe filled with elements that are “radioactive and life destroying” (177) while a slight decrease in strength would result in a world made up of hydrogen and only hydrogen.

And it is not just the universe at large which exhibits signs of fine-tuning. Strauss observes that our planet too seems to be in a very special condition for life to flourish. He lists the following conditions that need to be met to have life (179-180):

  • The planet should be in orbit around a Class G star like our sun.
  • That star should be middle-aged so that “its luminosity is stabilized.”
  • That star should be a “bachelor star,” i.e. not a binary or in some other less stable configuration.
  • That star should be a third-generation star, i.e. a star with enough material to create rocky planets like earth.
  • The planet should be one that is in the “Goldilocks Zone” so that it isn’t too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist.
  • That planet needs to have a particular rotation rate, tilt, and size.
  • That planet needs a moon to stabilize the planet’s tilt.
  • That planet needs to have active tectonic plates.
  • That planet needs to be near larger planets to keep comets and meteors at bay (i.e. Jupiter).

If accurate, this list makes an impressive case for fine-tuning. But what explanations are there for this apparent fine-tuning?

Explanations for Fine-Tuning

After rightly dismissing notions that the fine-tuning is best explained by self-creating humans (181) or that we exist in some kind of simulation like we find in the movie The Matrix (182), Strauss offers two possible explanations. First, some scientists have speculated that our universe is one of many universes and that we are in what has come to be known as a “multiverse.” Strauss notes that the late Stephen Hawking suggested what is known as “M-theory,” an idea derived from the highly speculative string theory. M-theory, says Strauss, “may be untestable and nonfalsifiable, and there’s no observational evidence for it” (183). And despite the varied attempts by scientists to explain the origin of the multiverse, “there is no observational or experimental evidence for it” and “there is likely no way for us to discover something that’s beyond our universe” (183). To believe in such a multiverse, Strauss contends, “you basically need blind faith” (183).

The other possible explanation Strauss offers is that God is behind fine-tuning and that from the evidence of fine-tuning we can figure out some pretty interesting things about him (186-187):

  • He is transcendent (i.e. he exists apart from creation).
  • He is immaterial (i.e. he existed before physical creation).
  • He is timeless (i.e. he existed before time was created).
  • He is powerful (i.e. he had the ability to create the cosmos in the Big Bang).
  • He is intelligent (i.e. he has fine-tuned the world for life).
  • He is personal (i.e. he made a decision to create).
  • He is creative (i.e. he has made some pretty impressive stuff).
  • He is caring (i.e. he has “purposefully crafted a habitat for us”).

So which God performed this universe creation and fine-tuning? “All the qualities we’ve elicited from the evidence,” Strauss tells Strobel, “are consistent with the God of the Bible” (186). And this God is an artist: “I can look deeply into the universe and the subatomic world and see the soul of the Artist” (187-188). In fact, Strauss is able to look at the world with all its “nuances and subtleties and intricacies” and see that they can only point to “one conclusion: the God hypothesis has no competitors” (188).

Not So Fast!

Strauss’ case for fine-tuning is at once compelling and problematic. It is compelling in that he lays out the case that it does exist. What is problematic about it is his conclusion that it must have been God and that it was the God of Christianity.

For example, consider the claim that God is “caring” because he has “purposefully crafted a habitat for us” (186). But the existence of a world that is habitable does not imply that it was created by a deity who is caring. In fact, given human biology, nearly three-quarters of the planet is inhospitable to human life by virtue of the fact that humans lack gills to breathe underwater. And over ninety percent of all that water cannot be consumed by humans. Humans are also unable to operate in geographic locales with extreme temperatures, at least not without serious modifications. This information doesn’t suggest a deity who is caring but rather one who is restrictive.

We might also consider Strauss’ contention that God is also “personal” because “a decision had to be made to create” (186). But doesn’t this beg the question? Isn’t Strauss assuming the Big Bang was an intentional act and then reasoning to it being so? Perhaps the Big Bang was not intentional and was triggered accidentally by a deity. We simply do not have any evidence to suggest God is personal, at least not from looking at the universe.

Or consider the claim that God is “timeless or eternal, since he existed before physical time was created” (186). How is it possible for a mind to exist outside of a temporal existence? We certainly have no examples of such a thing and if a mind like God’s was able also to create, would not this imply a temporal existence? For at one moment God was not creating the universe and in another he was creating it. This, to me, suggests God experiences some sort of temporal existence. And if this is the case, how then is he “timeless”?2  

We could, in some form or fashion, contest each of Strauss’ contentions. The point is, I do not find it plausible to infer a specific deity from the fine-tuning argument. If we assume that there is some kind of consciousness behind the universe’s alleged design, the nature of that evidence prohibits us from declaring with any degree of certainty that it is this or that deity.

Alternative Explanations

So if not God, then who or what? While many subscribe to the idea of a multiverse, I find it to be too hypothetical and without sufficient empirical grounds. As far as I’m concerned, it is on par with the God hypothesis at this time. So then how do I explain the fine-tuning of the universe?

I don’t know. I honestly do not have any good explanation for it. This may trouble some who need to have some degree of certainty on such matters. But I am content with not knowing and holding out until such time as more evidence comes in from which we may draw conclusions. I feel this way about the origin of the universe itself. I do not find any version of the cosmological argument to be persuasive nor do I find non-theistic explanations compelling. I am comfortable saying the universe has always existed and I am comfortable saying that the universe has not always existed. Since I do not think there is sufficient evidence either way, I reserve judgment.

For me, evidence for God must lie elsewhere. Strauss’ God is one I simply cannot find.

NOTES

1 Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, in The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide (Wings Books, 1996), 149.

2 For an overview of the debates on God’s relationship to time, see Gregory E. Ganssle, “God and Time” (n.d.), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 5a

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. In part four I covered chapter 8 featuring his interview with missionary Tom Doyle. Strobel’s fifth interview is with Michael Strauss and covers chapters 9-10. I will cover chapter 9 today.

To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.

INTERVIEW #5a – MICHAEL STRAUSS 

In his book Just Six Numbers physicist Martin Rees details how if six cosmic parameters were different than what their values are that the universe (and life) as we know it would cease to exist. Reese wrote that the “six numbers constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life.”This is staggering and astonishing. I had first read this book as an evangelical Christian working as a youth director for a small Presbyterian church. So when I read what Rees said next, I was a bit disheartened: “Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it that providence of a benign Creator? I take the view that it is neither.”2 In the margin, next to that final sentence, I wrote the word “tragic.”

Rees’ proposal was that the universe was one of a vast number of universes that exist, each with different values for the six numbers so important to life as we know it. Some universes may be like ours while others would be empty of life entirely. It is like playing Russian Roulette but instead of a bullet in one of the chambers you have a cosmic parameter set with a value that prohibits the universe in which we live. One squeeze and it could all be over.

Creation Ex Nihilo

For Christians, the universe is not part of a multiversebut is instead a world intentionally created by the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. From the very first verse of the Bible it is clear that the universe was God’s doing. As Strobel writes,

[C]reating an actual universe from nothing, while fine-tuning it to provide a flourishing habitat for human beings, is a primary job description of God – at least, if the very first verse in the Bible is true: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Strobel, 163-164)

And so chapters 9-10 of The Case for Miracles feature an interview Strobel had with physicist Michael Strauss. Chapter 9 deals with the subject of creation ex nihilo and chapter 10 deals with the topic of fine-tuning.

One of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century is that the universe expanding. This meant that we could extrapolate back in time to a moment when all the material of the universe was condensed into a single point. As Carl Sagan so eloquently stated it,

All the matter and energy now in the universe was concentrated at extremely high density – a kind of cosmic egg, reminiscent of the creation myths of many cultures – perhaps into a mathematical point with no dimensions at all. It was not that all the matter and energy were squeezed into a minor corner of the present universe; rather, the entire universe, matter and energy and the space they fill, occupied a very small volume. There was not much room for events to happen in.4 

But the universe as we know it is no longer a “cosmic egg.” It is a humongous place with a diameter of over ninety billion light-years. So how did the universe go from an infinitesimally small egg to a monstrous cosmos? The answer is: the Big Bang.

Kalam

The Big Bang theory is one of the best attested scientific models in cosmology if not all of science. So it is no surprise that many Christians have latched onto the theory as evidence for God’s existence. One argument employed by Christian philosophers and apologists is known as the “Kalam Cosmological Argument.” Its most ardent defender and popularizer today is Christian philosopher William Lane Craig.5 The argument is simple enough:

  • Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
  • Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

In his interview with Strauss, Strobel asks the physicist what he thinks of the Kalam cosmological argument. Strauss replies,

It’s extremely strong….Think about it: Is there anything that comes into existence without a cause behind it? Some scientists say there may be uncaused quantum events, but I think there are good reasons to be skeptical about that. And we know from the evidence that the universe did come into existence. If those two premises of the argument are true, then the conclusion inexorably follows: the universe has a cause. (Strobel, 172)

It is not my intention to dissect Kalam here. Both premises 1 and 2 above have been contested by philosophers and scientists.6 But I do want to ask the question as to whether the text of Genesis supports Kalam. The answer is a resounding “No!”

“In the beginning…”

Most of us are familiar with the rendering of Genesis 1:1 in the King James Version: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Other translations generally follow suit with minor modifications.7 And then there are still others with very different readings. Here are three:

  • NRSV – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth….”
  • JPS – “When God began to create heaven and earth….”
  • Robert Alter – “When God began to create heaven and earth….”8

What is going on? Why do the KJV and many modern translations read one way and the NRSV, JPS, and Robert Alter’s translation read another?

It boils down to whether Genesis 1:1 is a dependent or independent clause. The KJV and others see it as an independent main clause that is either a summary of the six days of creation9 or as the first of God’s creative acts.10 The NRSV, JPS, and Alter translations see Genesis 1:1 as a dependent temporal clause that modifies the main clause that comes in Genesis 1:3 with the words “God said, ‘Let there be light…’.” A note in the HarperCollins Study Bible reads,

The grammar of this temporal clause was clarified by the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, who noted that the Hebrew word for “beginning” (reshit) requires a dependent relation – it is the beginning of” something – and can be followed by a verb. The traditional rendering, “In the beginning, God created,” dates to the Hellenistic period (as in the Septuagint), when these details of Hebrew grammar had been forgotten.11 

So then does 1:2 fit in with the context? It would have to be a kind of disjunctive clause, offering the reader background for what transpires in verse 3. Elohim takes the “formless void” of the earth and begins to bring structure and order to it. But it is clear that in so doing he is using material already in existence. Consider Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis 1:1-3a.

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.”12

Alter’s understanding of the passage brings to light what is going on in the text: God using material already present and bringing order to it. This is in many ways what the creation story of Genesis 1 is all about. And it fits with other ANE literature wherein the gods form the cosmos with material already present.13 

So the idea of creation ex nihilo upon which Kalam rests is absent from Genesis. That isn’t to say it is absent from the whole of the Bible. But it does mean that we cannot look to Genesis for support of the principle.14 

Next Time

In part 5 of my review of The Case for Miracles I will look at chapter 10 and Strauss’ views on fine-tuning.

NOTES

1 Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (Basic Books, 2000), 4.

2 Reese, 4.

3 As some have argued, even if there were multiple universes then it would still demand an explanation. Apologists Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek write,

[E]ven if other universes could exist, they would need fine-tuning to get started just as our universe did…. So positing multiple universes doesn’t eliminate the need for a Designer – it multiplies the need for a Designer!

See Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Crossway, 2004), 107.

4 Carl Sagan, Cosmos (Ballantine Books, 1980), 200.

5 See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, third edition (Crossway, 2008), 111-156.

6 See Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, 2016), 199-201; Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press, 1990), 101-106.

7 Most of the modern translations change the KJV “heaven” to “heavens,” reflecting that the Hebrew word shamayim is plural. And some (i.e. ESV) add a comma in between the prepositional phrase “In the beginning” and the clause “God created the heavens and the earth.”

8 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 17.

9 See Bruce Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan, 2001), 58.

10 See John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Zondervan, 1992), 82, n.2.

11 Ronald Hendel, “Genesis,” in Harold W. Attridge, general editor, The HarperCollins Study Bible (HarperOne, 2006), 5.

12 Alter, 17.

13 For example, see Epic of Creation as well as Theogony of Dunnu. Stephanie Dalley offers a word of warning:

[W]e cannot speak of ‘the Mesopotamian view of creation’ as a single, specific tradition, and this in turn shows the futility of claiming a direct connection between genesis as described in the Old Testament and any one Mesopotamian account of creation. (Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others [OUP, 1989], 278.)

14 Biblical scholar John Walton writes about creation ex nihilo, 

Some believe that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in material terms lest we forfeit the important doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This is not true. The first observation to be made is that other passages in the Bible affirm God as Creator of the material world and either imply or affirm that creation happened ex nihilo. Secondly, the initial formulation of the theology of ex nihilo creation did not have to do with the material world. Rather, it served as the way to argue against Platonic assertions about the eternal existence of the soul. The opposite position, that eventually won consensus in the church, was that the soul is created “out of nothing” when each person comes into existence. It was only much later that the term was applied to the material cosmos. Consequently we can conclude that even though church doctrine in recent centuries has focused on the importance of material creation ex nihilo, it would not be appropriate to drive that doctrine back into the world of the Old Testament. That was not a big issue in the ancient world. Consequently, we need to recognize that there is no question that God is the one who created the material cosmos, and at some point at the beginning of that process he did it out of nothing. Other biblical passages confirm this, as do I—it is essential theology. So we don’t need to try to make this important theological point (God’s non-contingency) with Genesis 1, if this is not an issue it intended to address. After all, just because we have an origins text in Genesis 1 doesn’t mean that it has to offer a comprehensive account of everything that God did at every level. We need to inquire as to what aspects of origins Genesis 1 intends to address.

See John Walton, “Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds (Part 1),” Biologos.com. Accessed 18 October 2018.

Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 4

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.

To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.

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 PalsMuppet 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 WorldOn 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?

Lincoln’s Premonition

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.

NOTES

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.

6 Ibid.

7 John Renard, 101 Questions and Answers on Islam (Gramercy Books, 1998), 108.

Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 3

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. Today we will briefly cover chapter 7 which features an interview with professor of religious studies Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University.

To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.

INTERVIEW #3 – CANDY GUNTHER BROWN

Chapter seven is entitled “The Science of Miracles” which sounds almost a contradiction in terms. If a miracle is “an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history” (27) then it is necessarily not repeatable and therefore not testable. There can be no science about it.

The chapter opens with a review of the study on prayer referenced in Strobel’s interview with Michael Shermer (see part 1 for a discussion). The STEP study showed that intercessory prayer did not yield positive results for the patients who were the recipients of it. But Brown, a Harvard educated scholar, cries foul. Other prayer studies had demonstrated prayer’s effectiveness, particularly Christian prayer. But the STEP study failed because those praying were not orthodox Christians.

“So why do we see different results in STEP?” she asked. “Well, you’ve got different inclusion criteria. Look who’s doing the prayer and how they’re doing it. It’s apples and oranges compared to the [other prayer] studies” (131).

Strobel goes on to ask Brown if anything helpful can be gleaned from the STEP study. “Well, it is instructive on how not to conduct a study of Christian prayer” (131).

But was STEP a study on Christian prayer? So far as I can see, it was not though it does not seem that the study’s designers asked non-Christian groups (i.e. Muslims or Jews) to participate in the praying. Furthermore, it seems to me this is an attempt to make a theological statement on a scientific study. The study was designed to see if intercessory prayer worked generally, not whether a specific set of creedal beliefs were required to make them work.

What can be said is that STEP was not the first and it will not be the last of studies inquiring about the effectiveness of prayer. And we can be certain that even if good evidence appeared that prayer wasn’t effective, evangelicals would never accept it.

Brown’s Study in Africa

Brown’s work took her to Mozambique wherein many reports of healings were coming out. Strobel, drawing upon Tim Stafford, a Christian author, writes that Mozambique has four characteristics that are usually shared by places experiencing supernatural “outbreaks.”

  1. The prevalence of illiteracy: “Miracles show God’s power without language.”
  2. A lack of a framework for understanding sin and salvation.
  3. Limited medical care.
  4. People have a real belief in the spirit world. (134)

There is a lot that could be said, particularly with regards to numbers 1 and 4, but we will set those aside for now. Brown notes that in her research they met with a missionary couple who reported a variety of healings. Brown’s work focused on healings of blindness or deafness. Among twenty-four subjects who received prayer, many saw significant improvement in hearing and eyesight. But what we don’t read is whether Brown’s team also administered healthcare in conjunction with the prayer. It also doesn’t address why prayer worked in those instances but so often does not work in others, particularly in Western nations with abundant healthcare. Why is prayer effective in the third-world but so seemingly ineffective in the West?

What is more is that Brown’s work on prayer seems to emphasize Pentecostal and charismatic types of prayer. But what of those Christian denominations who see those movements as borderline heresy? Or what about those Christians who are cessationists and do not believe miraculous gifts described in the Bible are for today?

Some of my ignorance here is that I’ve not had an opportunity to read Black’s work in detail, particularly her books on the subject. But Strobel is at fault to a degree in this, especially if he’s interested in reaching skeptics like me. For example, Strobel writes of Brown’s work,

To me, Brown’s methodology seemed uncannily simple but intuitively valid. The only thing that changed between the pre-prayer and post-prayer tests was the fact that someone prayed to Jesus for the person to get better. And virtually everyone did improve to one degree or another, often astoundingly so (136).

There are many variables when dealing with people and this kind of naivety is not befitting someone with the journalistic credentials Strobel claims to have. Perhaps he did ask them and just didn’t include them in the book. I am not sure. But this chapter left a lot to be desired.

What Brown undoubtedly gets right in her interview with Strobel is her call for further research. “Something is going on,” he tells Strobel, “and it surely warrants further investigation” (137).

With that I agree.

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.

To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.

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.