In the halls of the academy as well as on the street, there is no more controversial aspect of the Bible than its accounts of miracles. Skepticism about supernatural intervention in human affairs—rooted in the Enlightenment, especially the writings of philosopher David Hume—has become mainstream in the modern mind. At the same time, however, there is a growing body of documented evidence, as well as compelling stories by credible witnesses, of miracles taking place.
Ten years ago, prominent New Testament scholar Craig Keener assembled a large collection of this evidence in his two-volume work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, and he returns to the topic in his latest publication, Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World. Freelance writer and editor of The Worldview Bulletin Christopher Reese spoke with Keener about the reasons for widespread skepticism of miracles and about some of the amazing stories his new book recounts.
You wrote a two-volume book on miracles in 2011, a topic you revisit in this current book. Why has this been an important subject for you to write about?
My regular job is as a New Testament scholar, and one of my interests is historical study about Jesus and his first followers. Sometimes critics have dismissed miracle stories in the Gospels and Acts simply because they recount miracles. (They often do make exceptions for potentially psychosomatic cures, but normally not for instant healings of blindness, raisings from the dead, or stilling storms.) The idea is that such reports must be legends that couldn’t really go back to eyewitnesses.
Yet I always found that approach problematic, since I know of many eyewitness reports like this in my own circle and have witnessed some events like this myself. In my two-volume book, I was seeking to challenge the prejudice against eyewitness claims to miracle events of this sort.
Unfortunately, that book is 1,100 pages long, so most people never had time to read it. For that reason, it seemed important to revisit the subject with a much shorter, more readable book. To make it more accessible, I condensed the philosophic and other material and elaborated specific accounts (which I tried to keep short, like many New Testament accounts!). Among these, I favored especially those with multiple witnesses, with special appreciation for when doctors were witnesses.
What is your definition of a miracle?
There is no universally agreed-on definition (our term does not correspond exactly to biblical terminology), but probably the most useful one, with abundant historic warrant, is “special divine action”—although that definition may require some defining itself.
Believers recognize God’s activity in all creation; existence, life, and DNA are all larger expressions of divine action than most miracle accounts I report. These are so pervasive and happen with such regularity that people consider them “ordinary.” In the Bible, though, God also acts in special or “extraordinary” ways in history and people’s lives to reveal himself and get people’s attention.
We may not always be able to clearly define the boundaries between “general” and “special” divine action, since even in special events (such as the parting of the sea in Exodus) God may use ordinary causes in extraordinary ways. (Exodus says God blew back the sea with a strong wind.) But plenty of events are extraordinary enough that virtually any observer would consider them “special” or “extraordinary.” When God uses such events to draw attention to his message, we usually call them miracles.
Why do you think contemporary Westerners are so skeptical that miracles happen or are even possible?
The roots go back to the radical Enlightenment, but the idea was popularized especially by David Hume’s essay against miracles, which took over some deist arguments of the day. Many people today take for granted the assumptions he published without always realizing the historic source of their assumptions.
Hume’s essay falls into two parts. In the first, according to what I think is the most straightforward reading, he defines miracles as violations of natural law. He also defines natural law as something that can’t be violated. Therefore, his very definitions effectively define miracles out of existence. His idea of natural law borrows from Isaac Newton and early proponents of Newtonian science. They, however, believed not only that God established nature’s laws but also that he transcended them and could act within nature as he pleased.
The second half of Hume’s essay essentially argues that uniform human experience should predispose us to doubt all claims about miracles. This argument begs the question, however, of how uniform human experience is. Even in his own day, Hume cites the medically documented healing of Blaise Pascal’s niece in front of many witnesses. How does he respond to it? Basically, he simply remarks that it’s unbelievable and moves on.
Hume’s access to knowledge of human experience was far more limited—though sometimes self-limited—than what we have available today. I don’t think that even Hume would have attempted to argue his case from uniform human experience today. Pew and other surveys show that hundreds of millions of people in the world today claim to have witnessed miracles. Other sources indicate millions of people converted at great social cost from different ancestral traditions because they believed they witnessed or experienced extraordinary miracles, beyond their indigenous healing traditions, in the name of Jesus.
How do biblical scholars in the mainstream academy tend to treat the miracle accounts in the New Testament?
With respect to belief in actual miracles, that depends on the scholar. Biblical scholars today span a spectrum of theological and philosophic beliefs, and their personal approach to the reality of special divine action varies no less. Because “divine action” is considered a theological or philosophic claim, our polite discussions of New Testament history often leave it off the table.
But the question of divine action differs from the historical question of ancient experience and interpretation. Many mainstream scholars accept a core of historical tradition in many New Testament miracle accounts. In fact, a strong majority of New Testament scholars, regardless of their personal theological convictions, affirm that Jesus was experienced by his contemporaries as a healer and an exorcist.
Jesus’ healing activity appears in every stratum of gospel tradition, is acknowledged by his ancient detractors, is attested by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, and is consistent with reports of his followers’ activity in Acts and over the next few centuries. Paul speaks of signs and wonders following wherever he was breaking new ground for the kingdom (Rom. 15:19) and appeals to his own audience’s eyewitness testimony of them (2 Cor. 12:12). By every criterion of historical investigation, Jesus appears as a healer and exorcist. Whether scholars attribute this only to something like psychosomatic experiences or whether they are willing to consider special divine activity depends on the particular scholars and their approach.
You mentioned witnessing the miraculous firsthand. Can you share the details?
I have witnessed some events firsthand that, I think, most people would consider miraculous. When I was a young Christian helping at a nursing-home Bible study, one wheelchair-bound woman complained every week how she couldn’t walk. One day the Bible study leader, someone from Fuller Theological Seminary, took her by one hand and commanded her in Jesus’ name to rise and walk. To both her astonishment and mine, he led her around the room. From then on she happily walked to the Bible study.
When I was a new seminary professor, the campus ministry scheduled an outreach on the attached undergraduate campus. On the scheduled day, however, it was pouring down rain, and the forecast said it was going to pour down rain all day. A sophomore biology major led us in prayer for the rain to stop, and just after we said “Amen,” it stopped. Then the sun came out for the rest of the day.
So I have accounts like that. But they pale in comparison with many other accounts in the book, especially in the chapters dealing with medical documentation, instant healings of blindness, raisings from the dead, and so forth.
You relate accounts in the book of many modern-day miracles. Which one stands out to you as the most remarkable?
That is always a hard question for me, because there are so many that are remarkable in different ways. One of the first in the book is that of a young woman on her deathbed, almost completely paralyzed from multiple sclerosis. She heard Jesus’ voice calling her to rise and walk, and she was instantly healed so thoroughly that she didn’t even have to contend with atrophied muscles. All three of her doctors have confirmed the account in writing, laying their own reputations on the line. She lived for 40 more years with no recurrence, passing away only recently from COVID-19, much to the sorrow of those of us who knew her.
Another story is of a woman blind for 12 years, instantly healed during prayer, a fully documented case now written up in a medical journal. There are some others so remarkable that I initially hesitated to include them in the book, lest someone disinclined to believe them would discount all the others.
One account that I almost always share is the one that some years ago began shifting my own perspective. There’s no medical documentation, because it happened in a place where no doctors were available, which was probably partly why a miracle was needed. I had heard the story before, but it was when I interviewed Antoinette Malombé in Congo that I learned the details. Malombé’s two-year-old daughter Thérèse cried out that a snake bit her; Malombé found her not breathing, and she ran for about three hours with the toddler on her back to where a family friend was doing ministry. He prayed, and Thérèse began breathing again; the next day she was fine. Even though irreparable brain damage starts after just six minutes without oxygen, Thérèse had no brain damage; she later achieved a master’s degree and just recently retired from ministry.
This is far from the most dramatic case, but it got my attention because Antoinette Malombé was my mother-in-law, and Thérèse is my sister-in-law. Not to doubt one’s mother-in-law, but we confirmed the story with the family friend who prayed for her.
Most of the miracles you recount in the book are healings of various kinds. Have you discerned any pattern as to why healing does or does not take place?
In terms of patterns, most healings and other miracles recounted in the book appear in the context of people praying for them to happen. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that they happen more often among people who trust God enough to ask, recognizing that he is able to act. Also, the most dramatic miracles happen most often (though not by any means exclusively) on the cutting edge of evangelizing unevangelized areas, a setting similar to the one in the Gospels and Acts. They also happen where they are most needed—not to entertain us, not to get us to neglect other resources God has provided, but because of the Lord’s compassion for our need.
As in the Gospels, healing also often follows persistent or desperate faith. But also as in the Gospels, initial or deepened faith sometimes follows God’s special divine action. And there are cases today where people have to show their great faith by trusting God despite not experiencing healing right away or even in this life at all. Indeed, God’s power is displayed especially in weakness—most visibly in what for a time seemed the triumph of evil at Jesus’ cross. Some of the people who have witnessed the most miracles prayed for them for months or years before they began to see them—maybe so they would learn persistent faith or perhaps so they would learn that it is God’s grace, not who we are, that makes them happen.
But these observations are not a model for prediction in a given case. God remains sovereign. When my friend Leo Bawa was doing research in a Nigerian village, people there asked him to pray for their dead child; after a couple hours of prayer, he handed the child back to the parents alive. But the only other time Leo prayed for someone who died, it was his best friend, and the friend stayed dead.
When cardiologist Chauncey Crandall prayed for and shocked Jeff Markin, who had been flatlined for 40 minutes, Markin was restored. But when Crandall’s own son Chad earlier died of leukemia, Crandall had to determine that he would trust in God no matter what.
The greatest 19th-century heroes of faith like Hudson Taylor are no longer with us; sickness and death remain. My wife and I experienced many miscarriages. Before our marriage, she spent 18 months as a refugee. God has been good to us, but we are also keenly aware of the reality of suffering in this world, and suffering will continue until Christ’s return to put all the world right. Miracles get our attention, but they are not a panacea for all the world’s problems.
Skeptics often insist that if they could witness a miracle themselves, they would embrace religious belief. Is this how skeptics who were personally involved in the stories you cite have typically responded—by embracing faith?
It’s all across the board. When I was an atheist a few decades ago, witnessing a miracle probably wouldn’t have converted me instantly, but it sure would have gotten my attention and turned me into an inquirer. Some sources for the book were converted through witnessing miracles, such as the healing of their paralysis or the raising of their child many hours after he was pronounced dead. Some friendly skeptics who have not been converted by their “anomalous experiences” have admitted that this has made them more open-minded about possibilities. But I also have a couple skeptical friends who have told me that they wouldn’t believe even if somebody were raised from the dead in front of them.
This spectrum fits pretty much what we see in the Bible. When Jesus raised Lazarus, some people believed, but others ran and warned Jesus’ enemies what had just happened. Jesus’ enemies already had their minds made up not to believe him. Despite seeing the pillar of fire and the sea parted for the Israelites, Pharaoh’s army pursued them into the sea. Pharaoh still expected his own gods to be stronger than Israel’s God. We might say that he and Moses had different theological presuppositions.
Although John’s gospel reports that Thomas got to see the risen Lord, it goes on to explain that it offers testimony for the sake of those who didn’t get to see him (John 20:28–31). God has provided evidence already, and Jesus warns that those resistant to faith will not be converted even if someone returns to them from the dead (Luke 16:31). Nevertheless, for those who are open-minded, miracles can get their attention.
Not everybody experiences physical healing in this life, but when God does any miracle, it’s a gift to every one of us. That is because it’s a confirmation to us of God’s promise of a world made new—of the day when he will wipe away our tears and when death and suffering will be no more. Until then, as people of his kingdom, we keep working for people’s health and security in every way available to us, through medicine, through food, and, sometimes, through prayers for miracles that God hears and answers.