Last week, a California couple’s two-year-old daughter stopped breathing and died. In the wake of the tragedy, the parents, Andrew and Kalley Heiligenthal, had an unusual response:
“We are asking for bold, unified prayers from the global church to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life. Her time here is not done, and it is our time to believe boldly, and with confidence wield what King Jesus paid for. It’s time for her to come to life,” Kalley, a worship leader and songwriter at Bethel Church, wrote on Instagram, where she has more than 250,000 followers. In response to her words, hundreds of people posted under the hashtag #wakeupolive.
Reaction to the Heiligenthals’ actions has been polarized. But according to apologist Lee Strobel, the family’s belief in miracles is similiar to that of many others. In a Barna study about prayer and healing that he commissioned for his recent The Case for Miracles, Strobel asked a sample of American adults if there was anything in their life they could only explain as being a miracle.
“Thirty-eight percent of American adults said yes,” said Strobel. “Now if you extrapolate that number, that would mean that there would be 94 million miracles just in the United States!”
Strobel joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss what is unique or interesting about Jesus’ miracles, how the Protestant Reformation changed Christians’ understanding of miracles, and whether or not Christians should pray for their loved ones to come back to life.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #192
Was there something specific that prompted you to look into miracles in your most recent book?
Lee Strobel: I was an atheist for much of my life, and it was really the historical evidence for a miracle—that is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead—that brought me to faith in Christ. It was what I found to be a persuasive amount of historical data, establishing that Jesus didn’t just claim to be the son of God, but he backed up that claim by returning from the dead. But I always harbored some hesitation about the question of whether God is still in the miracle business today. Is he still doing miracles in the 21st century? Is he still divinely intervening in people’s lives?
I’m kind of a skeptic by nature, so I’d see something on television, or I’d hear a story about a miraculous healing and I kind of roll my eyes a little bit and say, OK, that’s probably the result of a spontaneous remission of an illness or emotionalism or wishful thinking, or fakery or fraud. I mean, I don’t want to sound overly negative, but I tend to be skeptical.
So, I decided to take two years and to systematically investigate this issue of whether or not God is still in the miracle business today. So that’s what led to my book, The Case for Miracles, and also a little gift book that we did called The Miracle Answer Book.
When you say miracle, what are you talking about?
Lee Strobel: People do use it in a lot of different ways, and in a lot of ways, we use it very loosely. Like, I’m in downtown Houston and “Oh my gosh, I found a parking place at rush hour! It’s a miracle!” Now that might be a miracle, knowing the traffic in Houston, but I think the best definition that I found of miracles comes from a philosophy professor named Richard Swinburne and it’s a five-point definition. I think it covers the bases pretty well.
This is what it is: A miracle is an event brought about by the power of God that is a temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature, for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history.
What I like about that is it emphasizes it’s an intervention, it’s a temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature. You know, a lot of skeptics like David Hume, the famous Scottish skeptic, said, “Well, miracles are impossible because miracles are a violation of the laws of nature. The laws of nature cannot be violated. Therefore, miracles are not possible.” But that’s a misunderstanding of what miracles are.
I’m sitting here, holding a pen. If I would’ve dropped this pen, the law of gravity says it would hit the floor. But if I drop this pen and you reach in and grab it before it hits the floor, you’re not violating the law of gravity. You’re not overturning the law of gravity, you’re merely intervening. And that’s what God does in a miracle. He created the laws of nature, and he’s merely intervening in those laws in order to accomplish something that will show that he has acted in history. I think that’s a pretty good definition.
I wouldn’t consider conversion a miracle. I would consider it a divine, something that God brings to pass in a person’s life. Salvation is an incredible experience—the renewal of the heart, the fresh perspective and worldview and attitudes and behavior of people who’ve come into the family of God is remarkable, astounding. Many times, hard to explain. I don’t think it technically is a miracle, but I do believe it’s a work of God for sure.
What about the other kinds of ways that miracles get talked about in the New Testament, specifically this language of “signs and wonders”?
Lee Strobel: I kind of equate the two. I think signs and wonders are a way of expressing that which is miraculous. Certainly we see that in the New Testament. We see it in the works of Jesus and the miracles that he wrought. We see it in the early church, the miracles that took place. I believe we see it today.
Let’s start with Jesus. Is there anything that really strikes you about the types of miracles that Jesus ends up performing?
Mark Galli: There’s a couple of what I consider “oddball” miracles. They don’t seem to fit the pattern.
The pattern seems to be, he does miracles for the most part simply to help people in their infirmities—helping the dumb to speak and the blind to see. And then every once in awhile, there’s a miracle thrown in where he does something like tells Peter to go out and catch a fish and there’s a coin in it, which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with helping human beings flourish, but just seems to be out there. Which leads a lot of people to doubt that miracle.
And then, of course, people may take the healing miracles as Jesus having a psychosomatic effect or a psychological effect on the person. So a person who didn’t think they could walk, Jesus somehow convinced them they had the self-esteem to walk.
Lee Strobel: You know the other thing that Jesus miracles did, and we see this in John 10, where Jesus said, “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you did not believe me, believe the works that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I in the Father.” So in other words, in that case, he was saying, let the miraculous work sort of persuade you of the validity of his message.
And then we see in Mark 2, where he heals the paralytic man who has been lowered on his mat into the place where Jesus was, he forgives his sin, but he heals him as well. And I think is a way of illustrating, and he made this explicit, “So you know the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So I think it points to the validity of Jesus’ ministry and his divine identity.
It’s interesting too, in the old Testament, we see a resurrection that took place in 1 Kings 17, where Elijah raised the widow’s son. And the widow instantly recognized, she said, “Now I know you are a man of God.” So there was a way in which Elijah validated his prophetic credentials by raising this widow’s son from the dead.
Mark Galli: Actually one of my favorite miracles, which I became more keenly aware of after reading The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters describes the first miracle of Jesus and says it wasn’t intended to heal people’s infirmities, but to enhance their joy. It’s the miracle of creating the wine at the wedding of Canaan. That might even be considered another category of miracle, where the miracle is just bringing abundance to something that wasn’t abundant before. Peter’s catching the fish might be in that category too. But they all do the thing that you talk about. They validate, they stamp, they put an exclamation point about the person of Jesus.
While we see people raised from the dead in the Old Testament, what makes this kind of miracle unique and that Jesus decides to do this as part of his ministry?
Lee Strobel: There’s a distinction between his resurrection and him bringing these people back to life, because Jesus, in contrast to them, made the claim that he is the unique son of God. He said, “I and the Father are one.” The word in Greek there for “one,” it’s not masculine, it’s neuter. So Jesus was not saying, I am the Father are the same person. He was saying, I am the Father are the same thing. We’re one in nature, one in essence. So on a variety of different ways, from the earliest gospel to the latest gospel, Jesus made divine and messianic and transcendent claims about himself.
And so I see one of the meanings of his resurrection as being a validation of that claim. That God would not have allowed him to be raised from the dead if he were making up this stuff. If you were lying about his divine credentials, certainly God would not have raised him from the dead. But here we have him sort of validating his divine identity, in contrast with these other two people that Jesus raised who didn’t make those kinds of claims. And I think the motivation of Jesus in raising them, therefore, was different.
Mark Galli: Another difference is that it does seem that Jesus’ resurrection entailed a transformation of sorts. That was actually difficult for the early disciples to recognize him at first. Whereas when Lazarus comes from the grave, nobody is mistaken. They know immediately it’s Lazarus. But there seemed to be some confusion when Jesus raises, so there’s some transformation of his appearance that apparently is miraculous with the capital M as well.
How do you think evangelical churches today embrace or downplay the subject of miracles?
Lee Strobel: I am seeing different reactions among churches, and one of the people I interviewed for my book, The Case for Miracles, Roger Olson from Baylor University, is a theologian who talked about how a lot of evangelical churches are embarrassed by the supernatural. And he makes the point that a lot of evangelicals want to be accepted by the society at large, they want people to see us as normal, they want people to see us as “I’m just as normal as my neighbor. I just happen to believe in Jesus... I don’t believe this wacky stuff.” And I think he’s got a point there.
I think there are some evangelicals today who downplay the miraculous, who don’t specifically ask for it, or seek it, or explore it, but who would rather shove it aside because it makes them kind of oddballs by believing that there are things like angels, and there are things like prophetic dreams and that there are healings and stuff like that.
So I think one of the things that makes my book different is I’m not known as a charismatic. I grew up in an interdenominational church after I came to faith, it was an evangelical church that was not known for the practicing of gifts of healing and so forth. So I think, you know, if The Case for Miracles had been written by a well-known charismatic, they probably would have been dismissed more readily than being written by someone like me, who’s not seen as being part of that kind of genre.
Lee, you said that you had studied what the early church’s relationship with miracles was, and I’m wondering if you can share some of that.
Lee Strobel: In the earliest church, we see not only miracles taking place, but resurrections taking place. We see that in the book of Acts, which describes the early days of the church, and we see numerous miracles there. Peter healing the lame man in the temple, and God answering Peter in this miraculous earthquake, it talks about the prison doors being opened by an angel, it says Steven did wonders, and Phillip did wonders in Samaria. And so we have a variety of miracles, including of course, in Acts 9, where Peter raises from the dead Tabitha or Dorcas. It’s interesting, in that passage, it says, “And many people believed in the Lord.” So God used it, in that case, to point people toward Him. So we see, going back to the earliest days of the church, a continuation of the miraculous, including resurrections.
What did the Reformers think of miracles?
Lee Strobel: I just happened to be reading some stuff recently about 16th- and 17th-century Protestant ministers in England, and what they talked about when it came to miracles. So you have some post-Reformation preaching going on, reflecting the thinking of the times, and they would deny that extraordinary events like that still occurred. They would say that they ceased. They would say, and again, following some of Calvin’s teachings, they would say, the early miracles that we see in scripture, those were the first seeds of the faith. They were necessary to plant this new religion that centers on the redemption of mankind, but that was only of temporary duration. That was the mother’s milk, which initially the church was weaned on. But now, they would say that it’s the word of God, it’s the meat that they would be expected to learn from rather than to be anticipating these miracles taking place to validate their belief in God and so forth.
And of course, today we have cessationists in the church who deny miracles. There are two kinds of cessation: One is those who denied the continued existence of spiritual gifts of healing, and then you have others that will go further and deny that miracles themselves still take place.
I was focusing primarily on the contemporary times, but certainly we do see that there is evidence of continuing miracles that have people scratching their head and saying, “Well, golly, if miracles have ceased, why are we seeing these apparent manifestations of the Holy Spirit in ways that can’t be explained in natural terms?”
You talked a little bit about maybe where your own Christian upbringing had kind of led you on this topic. Would you say that that seemed to kind of be in line with where you found many evangelical churches to be today?
Lee Strobel: I think they are all across the board. We see churches that really emphasize the supernatural and the very active role of the Holy Spirit in producing miracles of all kinds. And we see other churches that downplay that or certainly don’t encourage that kind of teaching. So I think we see a spectrum in the modern church.
I do think, though, that there is good evidence that miracles are continuing to take place. I hired George Barna’s organization to do a scientific survey for me of American adults, and one of the questions I asked was, “Have you ever had an experience in your life that you can only explain as being a miracle of God?” And 38% of American adults said, yes. Now, if you extrapolate that number, that would mean there’d be 94 million miracles just in the United States.
Mark Galli: Assuming they only add one.
Lee Strobel: Yeah, that’s right. So let’s, let’s say 95% of them are wrong. Let’s say 95% think it was a miracle, but it was just an amazing coincidence. That still leaves a million miracles. So people certainly think that God is active. They certainly think that miracles are taking place in their lives. And actually, we’ve had some very interesting scientific studies that have suggested that indeed, some supernatural activity may very well be going on.
On the contrary side, one of the people I interviewed for my book was the most famous skeptic in America, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine, and he said, “Well, Lee, don’t you know that science has shown that miracles don’t happen? That prayer doesn’t work?” And he pointed to a study that had been done called “The Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer,” which was done under the auspices of Harvard Medical School.
They spent like $2.4 million on this thing. You know, you look at this ten-year clinical trial and they studied 1800 cardiac bypass patients at six hospitals, and they divided them into three groups. One group that was prayed for, a second there was not prayed for (although neither of them knew whether or not they were being prayed for), and a third group that was prayed for and was told that they were prayed for. And he said, “Well, don’t you know, Lee, that the result was that there was absolutely no difference in the rate of complications for patients who were prayed for and those that were not. And the ones that knew they’re being prayed for, they actually got worse results than the others.”
I saw that as a challenge and I investigated that particular prayer study, and what did I find? Well, I thought, wouldn’t it be kind of important on a study like this to know who was praying, who they were praying to, and how they were praying? It turned out that the group that they had praying in this study were from the Unity School of Christianity in Lee Summit, Missouri, which is a sect that denies Biblical teaching on the divinity of Jesus, on sin, on salvation, on the Trinity, on the Bible—just about every key Christian doctrine. The leaders of the Unity movement deny that prayer works, deny that miracles happen, believe that prayers are useless, and don’t really believe in a personal God. So if you want to study that tells us absolutely nothing about the effects of Christian prayer, that would be a good place to spend $2.4 million.
On the other hand, there have been several other studies that have been done through the years, similar studies where they have patients—cardiac patients who are recovering—published in peer-reviewed medical journals. Southern Medical Journal, for instance, they had a study that was published a perspective—a randomized, double-blinded control study, 400 subjects— but here they had born-again Christians, Catholics, and Protestants, who were praying specifically to the Christian God for rapid recovery and prevention of complications. And sure enough, the patients in the prayer group had less congestive heart failure, fewer cardiac arrests, fewer episodes of pneumonia, were less often intubated and ventilated, had less diuretic and antibiotic therapy and so forth.
So we’ve seen several studies like this, but I look at those studies and I say, wait a minute, how can you say this group is not being prayed for? Certainly they have relatives that are praying for them. Certainly they have friends that are praying for them. So I’m kind of skeptical of those kinds of studies, the way they’re formulated.
But there was a study that blew my mind. I went to Indiana University to a professor with a PhD from Harvard named Candace Brown. I was interviewing her, and I said, “You know, miracles tend to cluster in places around the world where the gospel is just breaking in.” And she said, “Yes, we have that in Mozambique.” And so to investigate that, what she did is she sent some researchers to Mozambique, where they went into the remote areas and they said, “Bring us your blind and bring us your deaf.” And so they did. And these are people with severe hearing or vision loss. And they tested them right on the spot, scientifically, to determine their level of vision and level of hearing.
Then, immediately after that, they were prayed for in the name of Jesus by people who had a track record of God using them in healings, and then they were immediately scientifically tested again. What is the change, if there has been any, in their vision and their hearing?
Guess what they found? In virtually every case, there was improvement. In some cases, extraordinary improvement. Like a woman named Martine, who when they encountered her, could not hear the equivalent of a jackhammer next to her, and after prayers in the name of Jesus, she can now hear a normal conversation. So they said, “Wait a minute, we’re, scientists. We want to do the next step, which is to try to replicate this.” So they went to Brazil, which is another place where miracles are clustering because the gospel was breaking into a new area. They did the same kind of experiment. Guess what? They got the same kinds of results.
So this is a valid scientific study that has been published in a secular, scientific, peer-reviewed medical journal. And I asked Dr. Brown, “What does this tell you?” And she said, “It’s not fakery, it’s not fraud, it’s not people under the effects of emotionalism or whatever. Something is going on.”
I think that’s a very intriguing study that suggests that indeed something supernatural is happening.
I explored some cases that just blew my mind. My favorite one involves someone right from where you guys live, a woman by the name of Barbara Snyder. And for Barbara, we’ve gotten medical records from the Mayo Clinic, we’ve got numerous physicians and experts and other witnesses to this. Physicians wrote books about her case because they were so blown away by it.
But Barbara was diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic with multiple sclerosis. And she deteriorated very quickly. She had multiple hospitalizations, multiple surgeries, until she was in hospice. She was on her death bed at home, waiting to die. They decided that the next time she gets pneumonia, which she did on a regular basis, they were just going to let her die cause it was just prolonging the inevitable.
Here she is, she’s virtually blind. She can only see gray shapes. She’s got a tube in her throat, connected to a tube that went into the garage where there were oxygen canisters, so she could breathe. She was curled up like a pretzel. Her fingers were touching her wrists, or her feet were permanently extended. She hadn’t walked in seven years, so her leg muscles had atrophied. One lung, by the way, was collapsed. The other lung was 50%.
A friend of hers called WMBI, the Christian radio station in Chicago, and said, “Hey, would you pray for Barbara? She lives over in Wheaton. And she’s dying.” So we documented that at least 430 Christians began to pray for Barbara. We know that because they wrote letters saying, I’m praying for Barbara. So on Pentecost Sunday, Barbara is lying in bed as usual, and she had two friends over and they were reading her some of the letters from people who wrote saying, I’m praying for you. And Barbara hears the voice of God.
And God says to her, “Get up my child and walk.” Which is absurd, she hadn’t walked in seven years, her leg muscles are dead. But she rips the tube out from her throat and tells her friends, “Go get my parents. God just told me to get up and walk.” And so she leaps out of bed and she said, “Lee, the first thing I noticed, my feet were flat on the floor. My feet had not been able to be flat for years. And I looked at my hands had unfolded. They hadn’t unfolded for years. And then I realized I can see.” She said, “You’d think that’d be the first thing I’d noticed, but it was actually the third thing I noticed. My vision had come back.” She was completely and totally and instantaneously healed of multiple sclerosis.
Her mother came running and fell to her knees, grabbed her calves, and said, “Your muscles have returned.” Her muscle tone instantly returned. Well, she was a member of Wheaton Wesleyan church. And that night there was a service at the church, and she went to the service and showed up about halfway through the service and the pastor’s up there and he says, “Does anybody have any announcements?” And Barbara comes walking down the center aisle, and the whole church just freaked out. They began singing “Amazing Grace.”
So the next day, she goes to one of her doctors. And he said, “When I saw her walking down the corridor, my first thought was, oh, she died, and this is a ghost.” It would’ve made more sense. He said, “This is medically impossible.” There is no medical explanation for this. I don’t know what to do with that other than to say that God is still in the miracle business today.
My big question when I hear these stories is, well, what now? Or what’s next? Right? What the takeaway from this? One takeaway might be we’re not praying enough, we’re too timid or disillusioned. Or on the other side, how are people exploiting this? Or what is the dark side of this type of thing?
Lee Strobel: When I interview people for my book, I always pay them because I’m taking their time and expertise and so forth. So after I interviewed Barbara, I gave her an envelope with a thank-you note. And I wrote her a check because I’ve taken some of her time. Two days later, I get a letter from her with the check returned to me and she said, “You know, I really appreciate that, but I can’t accept anything from what God did in my life.” So it was kind of the opposite of those who were sensationalizing things.
I think part of the answer is, we do not have, because we do not ask. Do we really come to faith in God and ask him to intervene supernaturally? Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our own skepticism might get in the way. But I think it’s a completely legitimate issue. And I knew I couldn’t write a book about miracles without dealing with this issue of what about miracles that don’t happen? You know that’s a huge issue.
In my own life, my wife has a medical condition that has had her in pain every day for 20 years, and she will be in pain every day for the rest of her life unless God intervenes with a miracle cause she has an incurable condition. We have prayed for a miracle. It has not happened. And so I knew I had to address this. And so what I did is I went to a scholar, who’s written a 715-page book on the evidence for Christianity, Dr. Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary, whose wife was dying of a rare brain condition at the time and she did die by the time the book came out. He had prayed for a miracle for his wife, and it had not happened.
And so I interviewed him about this issue, and I tell you what, I’ve been interviewing people for decades and it was one of the most profound interviews I’ve ever had. Cause he talked with the intellect of a scholar, but with the heart of a husband, a spouse whose wife was going through a tragic situation. Where she no longer knew what a telephone was. She didn’t know how to use a hairbrush. Her mind had deteriorated to that degree. I just encourage anybody who wrestles with this to read that chapter of his book. And he has some lessons for all of us.
I think one of the things he points out is that miracles were not automatic in the New Testament either. That Matthew talks about the disciples given the authority to heal, and then a few chapters later they fail to heal an epileptic boy. Paul didn’t heal everybody. Healings were not automatic then either. And we have to allow for the sovereignty of God, who sees things and knows things and understands things that we don’t. And you know, frankly, we like to throw around Romans 8:28, the cliché, but you know what? It’s from the word of God. It says God causes all things to work together for good, for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.
And by the way, God will heal all of us, all of his followers, as we lead this life and enter into the next life, a place of no more pain, suffering, or tears. But it’s a touchy issue cause it’s an emotional issue. I mean, we can talk about it rationally and we can say that there are answers that make sense. But people who are wrestling with this, it’s still a very real and present issue in their lives.
So how do we reconcile our belief in miracles with all of this?
Lee Strobel: You know, it’s interesting. In China, where we see growth of the church at a strong rate, it is a result of people themselves, or knowing someone who has, had a supernatural healing. In places in the world, for instance, Mozambique or Brazil that we talked about earlier, where people often are illiterate, they can’t read the gospels and they tend to believe in superstitions and so forth, I think God takes advantage of that. He uses miracles to point people toward him as a way to lay the groundwork for the spread of the gospel in new areas.
And then one of the miracles that fascinates me the most, and we’re seeing this in a global phenomenon, that I document in my book is seeing God intervening directly in the lives of Muslims who are having dreams about Jesus and who are coming to faith. These are not situations generally where someone goes to sleep, has a dream about Jesus, wakes up a Christian. There’s external verification to a lot of these, and that’s what I found fascinating.
I’ll give you an example. There was a woman in Cairo, a mother of four, as I recall, a Muslim woman. She had a “Jesus dream.” Jesus appears to her; she feels his love and grace in a way that is so contrary to what she had been raised in her faith tradition. And she’s walking in her dream with Jesus along a lake. And it’s the most powerful and vivid dream she’s ever had. She’s so drawn to him and she says, “Tell me more.” And he says, “Well, my friend will tell you.” And she says, “Who’s your friend?” And Jesus points to a man that she hadn’t noticed who was walking with them.
The next day, she goes to the crowded marketplace in Cairo and she sees the man from her dream. And she runs over to him and puts her finger in his face and says, “You were in my dream!” He was a missionary and opened the New Testament and taught her about Jesus. So these are not things just happening in people’s minds that are perhaps easy to dismiss.
I think it’s a form of the miraculous and an expression of the love and grace of God.
In the New Testament, Jesus is constantly asking people to not talk about what he just did after he does these miracles. Does that have any bearing on the ways that we are talking to other people? Like if you believe that you’ve experienced a miracle, how you’re supposed to share it or not share it?
Lee Strobel: You know, Jesus was in a unique position. He didn’t want his ministry to be prematurely short-circuited by an execution that came before time was due. And so I think he had a motivation at certain times for people not to be spreading the word about what he had done, if only to preserve the time he had available to do ministry before he was ultimately executed.
So I think that that provides a unique situation for him. I think today, am I skeptical of people that make a lot of money by proclaiming that God is working miraculously through them? Yeah, I am. I think the Bible says, test everything and hold fast to that which is good. And so we have to test things. I still think it’s important that we as Christians be a bit skeptical. We don’t want to be too gullible. It’s okay to be a little skeptical of things that we see, to test them and to see if there’s good evidence that something really did occur. And then secondly, to look at the fruit that is born of a person’s ministry, to see if it’s a good fruit, I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing to be discerning. Maybe that’s the best word to use. To be discerning or test everything and hold that fast to that which is good.
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