Eric Metaxas, best-selling biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce, has often sought to challenge a materialistic worldview that rules out the possibility of supernatural intervention in everyday life. His latest book, Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life, continues that theme with a wide-ranging tour of philosophy, science, and personal testimony. Tim Stafford, CT senior writer and author of Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern-Day Experiences of God’s Power (Bethany House), spoke with Metaxas about opening the eyes of believers—and skeptics—to moments when a God beyond time and space seems to be reaching down into our world.
In the acknowledgements section of Miracles, you describe your editor’s determination to get you to write this book, and your determination to say no.
Isn’t that the funniest thing? For the first time in my life I’ve reached the point where I can write what I want to write. I’ve had in mind things I want to write, and this wasn’t one of them. I thought a book on miracles might be a great idea, but just because it’s a great idea doesn’t mean I’m supposed to do it. But my editor persisted, and eventually I thought, “He’s right. I should write this book.”
What made you change your mind?
It’s one of those topics that needs a kind of balance. It needs a level of skepticism and critical acumen, coupled with an open-mindedness and openheartedness to the subject. That’s rare. You usually find a hard-boiled journalist, or you find people gushing—a subjectivity that’s too subjective.
This is a subject at the heart of everything—to determine the nature of reality. Is this all there is? Is there something beyond the natural world? And if so, can we know? It’s not just a religious question.
You spend quite a bit of time on the discoveries of science, which is not something I expected in a book on miracles.
In asking the question, “What is a miracle?” I began with the parting of the Red Sea, healing a tumor, curing blindness—things that aren’t fluffy like a kitten in the sunlight. People say life is a miracle, and yes, this can be a cliché that doesn’t mean anything. But if you look at it in a different way, it’s a miracle and maybe the most hard-to-fathom and mind-blowing miracle.
From science we can get this idea that we absolutely should not be here. The existence of life is an unfathomable reality. I go into the fine-tuning of the universe, what’s called the anthropic principle. Most scientists, if they aren’t ignoring that, are contorting themselves impossibly to figure out a way out of it, like the multiverse theory. Incredibly, science has led us more and more to the idea that life is an outlandish impossibility and a miracle. The average person hasn’t heard this. This is news, huge news.
Maybe the most amazing thing for me is the existence of the moon, and how it came to be. You know, everybody looks at the moon. It’s not some obscure thing! The scientists’ explanation of how it came to be makes the parting of the Red Sea seem like nothing!
You say you are writing to both believers and non-believers. What do you hope these two audiences will come away with?
I want to challenge and inspire both. A believer should say, I am not enough in awe of God. Every breath genuinely is a gift. That’s not a cliché; that’s something I need to think about because science helps us understand how real that is. The way God designed the universe is a staggering thing, and I ought to be in awe. I ought to be praising God for this more than I probably am. And the same thing with the miracle stories I tell in the book. A believer should think, wow, I don’t know if I buy every one if these, but gee whiz, look at the welter of evidence just from people that Eric knows. I need to think about this. Maybe I ought to pray that God would speak to me in this way.
Skeptics, on the other hand, haven’t been exposed to any of these experiences or any of these arguments. They haven’t heard stories of miracles that don’t involve flying unicorns or something insane. I hope it will be a revelation that there is this world they have somehow missed.
I don’t think the world is neatly divided between saved people who have it all figured out and unsaved people who are hostile. Most people have questions, and I try to reach everybody. I think believers need encouragement and inspiration and information that bolsters their faith. And I think there are nonbelievers who are open-minded, who don’t know what they believe, and they get this fake choice between ideological secularism and materialism on the one hand and gloopy, saccharine religiosity on the other. They know that’s wrong but they don’t get something in the middle with any meat. I hope I am providing this.
Sometimes people of faith fool themselves into thinking that this is just something I believe, and who is to say what it means to anybody else… and that’s nonsense. This is like doing archeology: You say, here is the urn, I found the urn. It’s not an urn in my mind, it’s an actual urn. It is real. You realize this is not subjective reality, but objective reality. I’m inviting people to say, What do you make of it? The people who told these stories, did they lie, did they hallucinate? Really? What do you make of the symphony of voices? Maybe there is one you’re not so sure of, but what about this one, and this one, and this one? I think a secularist should be, and I hope would be, challenged.
You chose to tell stories of friends partly because you know these people to be trustworthy. But I’m a reader, and I don’t know them. How does it help me?
When you read these stories, something of the person’s character comes across. I’m mentioning that he’s a Harvard Law School graduate. Or he owns a five-million-dollar house. You get pieces of information. So these are not kooky people you meet on the street. I tried to give the reader context.
At the same time, I tried to let readers get to know me. If people know me personally or know me in any way, that is going to help them trust my own judgment. That kind of subjective judgment is what we do all the time, and it’s what we must do. Every historian makes those kinds of judgments. Is this person trustworthy? Did they make this up? That’s how history gets told, and that’s how science gets done. It’s always people; you can never get around that. I’m calling the reader to do that in the book. If they do that, they will get it. They will believe that these are things that actually happen.
Do you think your readers could set out to ask friends whether they had experienced miracles? If they did, would they discover the same kinds of things?
Maybe not as many, but without a doubt, yes. Religious experience is something that our secular culture has shied away from, but it’s a large part of most people’s reality. Maybe not all people, but most people have something happening, or have a relative who is serious about God and has experienced things. We ought to be able to have those conversations. We ought to realize that there are people walking around with amazing stories. My hope is that people will read the book and then ask their friends and relatives. I think they’ll be shocked and surprised at what comes out.
Typically when you think of a book devoted to stories about miracles, people expect healings or other physical events. Most of your stories are not about physical occurrences.
I’m trying to broaden our definition of miracle. If somebody says, God spoke to me, or if somebody is rescued from physical tragedy by what seems like an angel, it seems clear that we are talking about a miracle. But we tend to think of miracles in ways that are too narrow.
You say that you have never personally had your prayers for healing answered. What do you make of that?
I mention Joni Eareckson Tada, who was paralyzed in an accident when she was a teenager. How many people have prayed for her? At the end of the day this is a mystery, and God is not a candy machine. We have to live with that.
I’ve had health issues for 20 years. People have prayed for me many times, but there has never been a palpable change. I’m sure that’s the case for most people. But my goodness, imagine what it would be like to be healed. If it happens only to a tiny percentage, it’s still stunning. It blows people’s minds that the God outside of time and space would do something like that. I’ve heard so many stories from so many friends, and I’m convinced that healing is absolutely real. If it’s real for one person, it could be real for anyone. The Bible tells us we are supposed to pray, and it’s God’s business what he does with the prayer.
You write that it is hard to understand why God would care to help someone find their keys—one of the miracle stories you relate—and yet not stop the Holocaust.
It’s kind of the same question as why God heals one person and not another. If we are living in a world where Adam and Eve ate the fruit and destroyed everything, you pretty much don’t need to go beyond that. Why did God allow that to happen? An infinite mess followed: Sometimes God shows up in the middle of it, and sometimes he doesn’t.
If people are insisting on a system, they are misunderstanding God. If God allowed the Holocaust to happen, you could ask why we should care about any miracle. Finding my keys, parting the Red Sea—what difference does it make? What kind of a God are we dealing with, a joker? That is part of the challenge. We have to be honest about that. We shouldn’t pretend we have simple answers. Sometimes apologists give answers that don’t do justice to the question. To certain questions the first thing we have to say is, I don’t know. It’s a profound mystery. And then we can talk about possible answers.
But still, you’re telling me a story about a squirrel’s life being saved, and I’m thinking of Christians in Mosul who are being slaughtered by ISIS.
Every sensitive person will think that. I remember, myself, a time when a friend’s mother was dying. So many people prayed for her. My friend was listening to the radio one day, and Miss America was talking about how God had healed her leg. My friend was so angry, she threw something against the wall and said, God, why won’t you heal my mother? She’s dying! That’s normal for us. If you really know who God is, you realize we can’t know everything about him. He’s God. We have to know enough to trust him. In the story of Job, the question is, who are you to question God? If God really invented the universe and created it out of nothing, my goodness, it’s like an ant arguing with a human. It reflects our inability to grasp the greatness of God. We demand a kind of pint-sized logic of him.
We demand a user-friendly God, and that’s simply not who he is. He created the galaxies. If he deigns to talk to you, ever, or do anything for you, ever, you should just be grateful and shut up. Don’t demand that he now has to do whatever you demand him to do. It really boils down to humility. We want to play God. It’s the eternal temptation. We want to tell him how he should be. It can be healthy to tell God forthrightly how we think things should be, but it’s unhealthy to demand that he make them that way, and we need to find the balance.
I’d like to hear more about this question of whether life is a miracle. To use a more clichéd example, is a rainbow a miracle?
Or is everything a miracle? On some level the answer is yes, because God created this universe and is sustaining it. The only reason we don’t see it as a miracle is perspective. If we take all this for granted, and we’re bored by it, then the only miracle is when God steps in and does something extraordinary. But God is injecting himself from outside the system every fraction of a fraction of a second.
I’ve wondered whether the word miracle is confusing.
I talk about that in the book. I say miracles are really signs, something pointing beyond itself. What is it pointing to? It’s pointing to God, always. That’s what miracles do.
And signs can be many things: spiritual miracles, physical miracles, voices, angels, or stars and rainbows.
I’m trying to help people gain some discernment about these things. I want people to begin to see the breadth of how God works and gain perspective. I want them to open themselves to God and know the difference between what God says and my manic thoughts because I had a lot of coffee. There’s no substitute for discernment.
Is there any danger in overemphasizing miracles?
Exactly as much danger as in underemphasizing miracles. There’s no way around those two dangers, and that’s why I say there’s no substitute for discernment. I have been to plenty of churches where they focus way too much on this stuff, and I have been to churches where they don’t focus nearly enough. Both are wrong, in completely different ways.
Some evangelicals will be disturbed by your including a miracle story of Alice von Hildebrand praying to her dead husband (the theologian Dietrich Von Hildebrand), and believing that he heard her and responded. Why did you include that story?
She wasn’t praying to her dead husband. She was talking to him. I put the story in because she is a woman who is so impressive to me. Anything she says I’m interested in. Her theology is brilliant. If she’s had an experience like that, I’m not going to say that it just can’t be. I should let it challenge me. I should ask, Am I caricaturing Catholic belief when I say that they pray to saints? I am an evangelical, and I want to challenge my fellow evangelicals to think more deeply and not to be dismissive, just as I want my Catholic friends not to be dismissive of what’s in the evangelical world.
You deal with an amazing range of church life in your book, everything from Orthodox to Catholic to evangelical to Pentecostal.
That’s both intentional and unintentional. There is something healthy about being able to talk from these different points of view. I want to challenge anybody who is looking for neat categories. I take orthodoxy very seriously, but sometimes people make an idol of theological correctness. Rather than looking for Jesus they are looking to have all their theological boxes ticked.
One last question you must have asked yourself: What would Dietrich Bonhoeffer make of your book?
I think he would have written the foreword.
Just kidding. Genuinely, I have no idea. His Christianity, as I mention in the introduction, didn’t seem to include this kind of thing. I said that on purpose. I want people to realize that to me this stuff is very important, but to certain people I revere utterly, like Bonhoeffer, experiencing miracles wasn't so important.
Some people need to back off miracles, to stop making them an end-all and be-all. Other people need to open themselves up to this, with faith that God can instruct us. Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce (whom I also mention in the introduction) are two people who would make as good models as anybody on the planet. And yet, they don’t seem to have experienced something like this.