The Case For Miracles Book Review

by Ryan Leasure

I can still hear Al Michael’s voice in the background, “Do you believe in miracles?!?!” The United States victory over the heavily favored Russian hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics defied the odds. But as improbable as it was, should the “Miracle on Ice” really be dubbed a miracle? Unlikely? Yes. Coincidence? Perhaps. Miracle? No.

The Case For Miracles Book Review

We often use the word miracle in vain to describe coincidental events. For example, we say things like “it’s a miracle we got to church on time,” or “it’s a miracle we found a parking spot!” The statements reflect hyperbole rather than a bona fide miracle. Even extremely improbable events like a hole in one or winning the lottery can’t properly classify as a miracle. Which leads us to the question, what classifies as a miracle? And perhaps an even more important question, do miracles still happen today?

Lee Strobel contributes another great work to his growing list of “Case For” books with his newest “The Case For Miracles.” I must confess, I’m a skeptic as far as Christians go. When I hear of supernatural occurrences, I doubt them by default. I like to think of myself as a level-headed Christian who doesn’t fall for fanciful claims. Yet, this “level-headed” Christian wept as he read The Case for Miracles.

BOOK SUMMARY

True to his journalistic form, Strobel interviews eight leading experts in their respective fields to get an answer to his question, “do miracles happen?” While several define the word miracle in different ways, Strobel prefers Richard Purtill’s definition which states, “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” (27).

With the definition in place, Strobel asks the question, “do miracles happen?” To find out, he turns to the experts.

Michael Shermer, The Skeptic

Counterintuitively, Strobel’s first interview is with a prominent skeptic to hear his best case against miracles. A Christian in his younger days, Michael Shermer admits that his interest in science caused him to stray away from Christianity.  He doesn’t shy away from asserting, “science became my belief system, and evolution my doctrine” (43). Even though Shermer had already transitioned away from Christianity, he recalls that the final straw occurred much later when he prayed to God — as a last-ditch effort — to heal his then college sweetheart who had become paralyzed. God didn’t answer, which confirmed Shermer’s suspicion that God must not exist.

Shermer admits that he can’t say for sure that God doesn’t exist; rather, he simply lacks belief in God. In that sense, God could be real if he performed an unequivocal miracle so blatantly obvious, that no other explanation could explain what happened. Shermer, therefore, chalks up highly unusual events to anomalies, e.g., cured cancer after prayer, immediate recovery to years-long struggle with M.S., etc. Oddly, he suggests that if someone’s limb grew back, then God would have his attention.

Circular Reasoning

As with most skeptics, Shermer subscribes to eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume’s argument against the possibility of miracles. Hume argued that “miracles were a violation of natural law, yet the natural law is always unalterably uniform. Therefore, no amount of evidence would convince him that God had intervened.” That is to say; miracles are impossible; therefore, a miracle didn’t happen — circular reasoning at its finest.

Due to Shermer’s methodological naturalism, he shrugged off Jesus’ miracles presented in the gospels as pure legend passed down decade after decade — a lot like the children’s telephone game. Furthermore, despite not having a good explanation for the initial cause of the universe or it’s precisely fine-tuned laws of physics, he predicts that natural causes will eventually offer good explanations. One could call this a “naturalism of the gaps” argument.

Craig Keener,  The Miracle Reporter

Ben Witherington III declared that Craig Keener’s book Miracles is “perhaps the best book ever written on miracles in this or any age” (73), so it makes sense that Strobel interviewed him next. Keener didn’t set out to become an expert on miracles, but a two hundred page footnote in his Acts commentary led him to pursue the topic further.

Opposite Shermer, Keener believes Jesus performed real miracles. He bases this claim on the multiple, independent sources that report Jesus’ miracles within the lifetime of eye-witnesses. More than that, non-Christian sources such as the Greek philosopher Celsus and Jewish Talmud refer to Jesus as a miracle worker — although they attribute his acts to sorcery and magic. The first-century Jewish historian even states that Jesus “worked startling deeds.”

Keener believes the biblical miracles are historical. But do they still happen? Keener thinks so, though he suggests we should approach miracle claims with caution. He says we should ask, “Are there eyewitnesses? When we have multiple, independent, and reliable witnesses, this increases the probability that their testimony is accurate. Do they have a reputation for honesty? Do they have something to gain or lose? … Are there any medical records? … Are there alternative naturalistic explanations for what happened?” (92). Keener argues that if you, like Hume, give miracles zero chance of occurring, then you will never find a miracle. If you keep an open mind, however, and follow the evidence, you might be surprised by what you find.

The Deaf Healed

With that in mind, Keener provides several miracle claims that are difficult to explain naturalistically. In his own research, hundreds of cases have stunned him. He describes a nine-year-old British girl who was deaf. The child’s medical chart reports that she had “untreatable bilateral sensorineural deafness” (100). Family and friends prayed fervently that she would regain her hearing. Then one evening, her hearing suddenly returned to her. The following day she visited the audiologist who was dumbfounded by her recovery, so much so that he exclaimed, “I have never seen anything like it in my life.” The ENT surgeon used the word “inexplicable.” The well-credentialed physician Dr. R. F. R Gardner documented this case (101).

The Lame Walk

Barbara is another miracle story. Dr. Harold Adolph admitted, “Barbara was one of the most hopelessly ill patients I ever saw” (101). Barbara’s diagnosis was progressive multiple sclerosis. For sixteen years, her conditioned worsened — she suffered from pneumonia, a paralyzed diaphragm, lung malfunctioning, loss of urinary and bowels control, blindness, contracted joints and muscles, the need for a tracheostomy tube, and the inability to walk for several years.

Then one day, one of Barbara’s friends called into a radio station asking for prayer for Barbara. She received about 450 letters from people saying they were praying for her. Her aunt kindly read these letters to her along with two other friends. While she read these letters, suddenly Barbara heard a voice behind her — even though no one was there — that said to get up and walk. At that moment, she literally jumped out of her bed and removed her oxygen. She had received her sight again, her muscles were fully functional, and her body was completely healed. The next day, Barbara went to the doctor’s office for an examination. The x-rays showed that she was perfectly healthy. The doctor exclaimed, “This is medically impossible” (104).

The Dead Raised

Keener listed several others including a newly broken ankle that miraculously wasn’t broken the next day. Two separate x-rays confirm that one day it was broken, and the next day it wasn’t. Another example was a fifty-three-year-old man who flatlined for forty minutes, had turned black from lack of oxygen, and was clinically dead. But then a doctor prompted to pray for the man’s soul and give it one more shot, used the defibrillator to shock the man back to life. Instantly, the dead man came back to life with a normal heartbeat and vital signs with no signs of brain damage. There was even one instance of a man’s small intestines growing back in length after having them severed from a terrible accident — something similar to what Shermer said he needed to see to believe in miracles.

Michael Strauss, The Physicist

The late Stephen Hawking once admitted, “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator” (169). In Strobel’s next interview, he turns his attention to physicist Michael Strauss to find out if God created our universe. Of course, the Bible declares that God created the world out of nothing, but Strobel was interested in what science says. Strauss unequivocally states that science points toward a creator.

In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding based on a “red shift” in the light coming from distant galaxies. Based on this discovery and others, three prominent cosmologists — Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin — concluded, “any universe that is expanding, on average, throughout its history, cannot be infinite in the past but must have a beginning” (171).

Cosmological Argument

Based on the evidence, Strauss suggests that the cosmological argument strongly points toward a creator. The argument proposes:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Since the universe began to exist, which the scientific data suggests, the universe must have a cause — namely a creator.

Teleological Argument

Strauss turned his attention to the fine-tuning of the universe. Several physical laws are so incredibly precise, he asserts, that it’s unreasonable to think that they are that perfect by chance. For example, the expansion rate of our universe is fine-tuned to one part in a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion (176). If this law was altered by a fraction, life as we know it could not exist.

Additionally, the ratio of the electromagnetic force to the gravitational force is fine-tuned to one part in ten thousand trillion trillion trillion. To understand how precise that is, astrophysicist Hugh Ross says that if we were to cover a billion North American continents with dimes that reached all the way to the moon, painted one of the dimes red, and chose that one red dime at random, that would be the equivalence of one in ten thousand trillion trillion trillion.

Strauss’ conclusion leads to an obvious conclusion. If God created the world out of nothing with physical laws, he could easily overpower those laws to perform miracles.

J. Warner Wallace, The Detective

  1. Warner Wallace knows how to evaluate evidence. He’s a cold-case detective who has used those same skills to evaluate evidence for Jesus’ miracles. He makes the case that not only are the gospels eyewitness accounts, they were written within 25-30 years of Jesus’ life. When you consider that the most credible biography for Alexander the Great comes 400 years after his life, 25-30 years doesn’t sound so bad.

Moreover, the disciples would have remembered Jesus’ teachings and miracles quite well even after a few decades. The reason is that we tend to remember important events, especially if we are personally involved in them. Additionally, the disciples taught these stories about Jesus hundreds of times so they would have cemented in their brains. If only one eyewitness existed, you could argue that their story could have changed over time. But because dozens of people knew the facts, when someone began to teach something wrong, others would have immediately corrected them. For these reasons, we can be confident that we have an accurate testimony of Jesus’s miracles.

Passion Narrative

When it comes to Jesus’ crucifixion, almost nobody disagrees that it happened — skeptics included. While some have tried to say that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross — he merely passed out, we have no historical record of anyone ever surviving a crucifixion. Furthermore, the “crucifixion was humiliating — it’s not something the early church would have invented” (204).

Skeptics have doubted his burial as well. But Jewish archaeologist Jodi Magness suggests otherwise. She affirms, “the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with the archaeological evidence and with Jewish law” (205).

Not only is there substantial evidence for his crucifixion and burial, there is strong evidence for Jesus’ postmortem appearances. The disciples were so convinced of his resurrection that they were willing to die for their belief. People don’t typically die for anything they know to be false. This is different from a modern-day Islamic extremist who kills themselves in the name of Allah. They die on the basis of faith alone. The disciples knew for certain and yet they were still willing to die. They would have known if it was false. It’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have caved under the threat of death if they were making it up.

MY CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

While I only mentioned four interviews, Strobel interacted with eight experts in all. Hopefully, my description of the four gives you a feel for the entire book.

Miracles Have Happened

I read this book in less than a day, and it’s not because I’m an exceptional reader. I couldn’t put it down. For someone who is generally skeptical of modern miracle claims, I find myself second guessing that position. As a Christian, I have long believed that the miracles contained in the Bible are historical. For me, it makes sense to think that God works miracles to authenticate his revelation. Miracles authenticated Moses, as he gave God’s Law. Likewise, miracles validated the era of the prophets as they authoritatively proclaimed God’s word. And miracles confirmed the life and ministry of Jesus and his apostles.

I appreciate that Strobel interviewed the physicist Michael Strauss. At first glance, this might seem like an odd interview in a book on miracles. After all, Strauss is a scientist who deals with the natural world. Miracles, it would seem, fall outside his expertise. His interview, however, gives strong evidence for the possibility of miracles. After all, if God can create the world out of nothing, then healing somebody or even raising the dead would not be difficult for him. If you can establish that God created this universe, then miracles are definitely possible.

Miracles Still Happen

Of all the interviews, Craig Keener’s was my favorite. When I first flipped through the table of contents, I knew I would enjoy his the best, and I was right. After all, Keener’s work on miracles is considered by many to be the definitive work on the topic. As I read through his interview, I was especially enthralled with the modern-day miracle claims because this was the issue I was most interested in. As I mentioned earlier, I already believed the biblical miracles; it was the modern miracle claims that were a stumbling block for me.

I must confess that these stories were fascinating and convincing. And these weren’t ordinary claims with no medical evidence or credible eyewitness testimony to back them up either. These accounts captivated my full attention and had me scratching my head repeatedly. I kept asking myself, how could these things have happened? How could someone’s intestines grow back? Intestines aren’t like fingernails. They don’t just grow back like that.

My one complaint was that this section was too short. I know Strobel devoted a significant part of his book to Keener, but I found myself wanting more of the modern miracle stories.

Highly Recommend

Whether you are a skeptic who doesn’t believe in the possibility of miracles or a lifelong Christian who believes every miracle claim, I highly recommend this book. As a Christian who is skeptical of modern miracle claims, The Case for Miracles challenged my faith.

 


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8 replies
  1. TGM says:

    It’s disappointing that this author found the book to be so convincing. That’s hardly surprising, but at least most book reviews find something to challenge, rather than lavishing endless praise as is the case here. Perhaps Mr. Leasure is Lee Strobel’s publicist.
    .
    I, too, have read this book, and I find very little to praise. I will give Strobel credit for interviewing a skeptic, unlike some of his other works, but it’s noteworthy that Shermer came first, leaving the entire to book to argue against skepticism. Strobel also shortchanges Shermer and David Hume in his analysis, never learning what it means to be skeptical. Had Strobel learned something, the Keener section would have been vastly different.
    .
    Keener recites several miracle claims and yet, only one chapter after the Shermer section, you can already feel Strobel nodding along to every claim. Of course, the elephant in the room is that everything is anecdotal, same as all of Christianity, I suppose. Now there might be some physical evidence, the reader is never invited to investigate this, but then, neither did Mr. Strobel. Not a single citation in the Notes section on Keener’s chapters is given to a peer reviewed scientific publication. Where are the test results? Where is the MRI? What does the bloodwork show? What was the degeneration/regeneration rate on the atrophied muscles? We have no idea and Strobel never inquires.
    .
    If Strobel was trying to make fair investigation, he would have brought an educated skeptic to each interview. At least some of the obvious fallacies could have been addressed. One such fallacy is the conflation of “I have no explanation” with “it must be supernatural”. We are presented with cases where some phenomenon has been claimed. We have no idea what happened, therefore it’s “inexplicable”. Sorry, but just because we have no explanation does not mean that there is no explanation. This is sometimes called the fallacy of personal incredulity (I can’t figure it out, therefore it must be supernatural). Michael Shermer would have caught this.
    .
    Most non-believers realize that theists are allergic to the phrase “I don’t know”. But sometimes that’s the best we have. You don’t get to claim “miracle” just because you don’t know. Sorry, that’s cheating.
    .
    The rest of book travels well worn territory: the cosmological, teleological, and resurrection arguments and does not bring anything new. It even seems to be a retread of previous Strobel books in the “Case for X” series, only with different interview subjects. But each subject is still some suitable flavor of Christian.
    .
    Sadly we see another piece of poor Christian propaganda lofted into the marketplace. More sadly, this one will land on the non-Christian shelves and probably snare a few uncritical thinkers. My verdict: recommended reading – precisely so you can respond to the ones who fall for it.

    Reply
    • Magis Center says:

      A brief point regarding miracles: it’s certainly not all anecdotal, second-hand, he-said-she-said evidence. You can find a rigorous, scholarly article on a number of recent miracles here: https://www.magiscenter.com/contemporary-scientifically-validated-miracles-associated-with-blessed-mary-saints-and-the-holy-eucharist-2/

      And I would agree that just because we don’t have a scientific explanation for it, doesn’t make it supernatural – but if the circumstances of the inexplicable event strongly indicate some supernatural agency, then it’s reasonable to conclude that a miracle has taken place.

      It’s not so much a matter of cast-iron proof as of going beyond reasonable doubt.

      Reply
      • TGM says:

        Thank you for that resource. It was interesting reading. Much like Mr. Strobel, this author truly has a fondness for the word “inexplicable”, using it 17 times in a 25 page paper.
        .
        Curiously, however, the author, Dr. Spitzer (is that you?) claims that these purported miracles are inexplicable, but never actually demonstrates that to be the case. You have no available natural explanation, yet how do you demonstrate that something CAN NOT be explained naturally? If you won’t actually demonstrate this, please at least tell me how you have ruled out every natural possibility – including the ones that have not even occurred to you? Bear in mind that we have no evidence of the supernatural, so you’ll first need to demonstrate that it’s even possible for something to have a non-natural explanation.
        .
        I love the stories, though. The Marian appearances all happened over 100 years past, and are certainly anecdotal. But they’re kind of fun. It’s hard to see the larger significance of these events, but “mysterious ways” right?
        .
        Bernadette’s apparitions were certainly popular. Thousands congregated in Lourdes. Strangely, the article is very coy about whom else witnessed the apparition. Apparently, nobody else. So… an uneducated 14 year old claims to see a ghost and is canonized 70 years later. Nice work kid!
        .
        But I think my favorite is Floribeth Mora Diaz. She has a medical problem, claims to think about Pope john Paul II, no longer has a medical problem, Pope gets sainted. Notice that the only reason this cure is attributed to Pope JP2 is because she says that she was thinking of him. She didn’t even have to think of him, she just had to say she thought of him. Wow.
        .
        I’ll close on this, drawn from the introduction, in speaking of certain miracles… “This kind of miracle is rare – otherwise it would not be differentiateable from natural patterns and therefore not a “miracle.'” The author is obtusely arguing against himself, for miracles necessarily differentiate themselves by virtue of being inexplicable through nature. So rarity in miracles is completely unnecessary.
        .
        Magus, how does something indicate supernatural agency, particularly when you are identifying a supernatural agency through a gap in natural agency? Inexplicable equals inexplicable; inexplicable does not equal supernatural. You don’t just get to call things supernatural.

        Reply
        • KR says:

          “You have no available natural explanation, yet how do you demonstrate that something CAN NOT be explained naturally?”
          .
          This. It seems to me that claiming that there can be no natural (i.e. non-miraculous) explanation for an observed phenomenon is the same as claiming to know everything there is to know about nature. Wouldn’t that be just a tad presumptuous? Doesn’t the fact that we’re still doing science indicate that there are one or two things we don’t know?
          .
          “Magus, how does something indicate supernatural agency, particularly when you are identifying a supernatural agency through a gap in natural agency?”
          .
          It very much looks like a gap argument, doesn’t it? I’d like to know what would qualify as a strong indication of supernatural agency – and why. “You can’t explain it naturally, therefore it’s supernatural” clearly doesn’t cut it – that would be a textbook argument from ignorance fallacy.

          Reply
          • TGM says:

            “Wouldn’t that be just a tad presumptuous?”
            .
            Indeed. Christianity… the religion of humility. Except when it’s not. Which would be most of the time. Amusingly tangential, Turek’s podcast (sermon?) last weekend was about pride.

  2. Susan says:

    “science became my belief system, and evolution my doctrine”….scary. Because science is a method that shows it has feet of clay in the wrong people’s hands.

    A lot of people today are under a veil of governmentally sponsored censorship on various public health concerns in the name of science but occasionally if you snoop around you unveil the conspiracies between science and government to keep the individual in the dark.

    So don’t accept a lot of things at face value. Be a Berean and research and ask questions.

    I had no idea homosexuality was classified as disorder by the American Psychiatric Association up until the 1970’s when the death threats against the APA by the LGBT groups began to deprive it from the DSM list.

    I had no idea “safe sex” was a myth because condoms are not 100 percent fool proof until I researched into the topic. They advocate condoms publicly today rather than monogamy or abstinence because instead of the government validating the better moral position that actually medically and physically protects people better they settle for a lower approximation of matters then teach it to kids through the public school and health system.

    The Center for Disease Control has had officials that finally admitted to misleading the public on autism but that info never got mainstream attention.

    Certain facts about AIDS that were medically recognized never received mainstream attention. The public was never notified of all the details.

    So if anything on sex or health related topics concerns you be sure to investigate. Big business has so much government power now the “little guy” has a lot fewer protections against scientific error than he thinks and medicine is big business right now so don’t be a casualty of somebody else claiming to be an expert who is really out to make a buck by pandering his expertise to the public. Use your mind and check things out.

    Abraham Lincoln quote:
    “We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood… It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.

    Reply
  3. Marilyn scott says:

    We have seen miracles happen.The Barbara one for instance is documented by the Mayo clinic.They do happen

    Reply

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