The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with New Testament scholar Craig Keener. Original audio here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today’s interview is Dr. Craig Keener, professor of the New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is especially known for his work as as a NT scholar on Bible background, and his popular level IVP commentary for the NT has sold over half a million copies. Dr. Keener is also the author of a newly-released book entitled Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, which is a two-volume work which we’ll be discussing a bit today. The purpose of this interview is to gain some insights from Dr. Keener’s study in the area of miracles, look at miracle claims today and how they relate to NT claims, and get his advice from an apologetic perspective. Well, thanks for joining me today Dr. Keener.
CK: It’s great to be with you.
BA: Dr. Keener, would you mind first telling our listeners a bit more about yourself, maybe your background, and what your current work is?
CK: Sure. My background growing up—I actually didn’t grow up in a churched or religiously practicing family. We didn’t talk about religion much. And I concluded, I think, somewhere around the age of 9 I decided I was an atheist. And, maintained that posture—at least officially—up until I was converted. Although I was starting to wonder what the stakes were if I was wrong. When I was 13 I started reading Plato, and his questions about the immortality of the soul—the answers he gave for it weren’t very persuasive, but the questions he asked got me thinking about life after death and meaning in life, and things that I hadn’t really been considering so much before. And then, finally one day, I started actually saying ‘if there is a God, or, you know, anything out there that might be infinite, please show yourself to me because I have no way to figure out my way to you’. I was still officially an atheist but harboring some doubts about what there might be besides us. And one day some people on the street brought me the gospel. I argued with them for 45 minutes. They really didn’t do good apologetics! They left me with a few problems afterwards, but I walked home so convicted by the Holy Spirit, and God’s presence was in the room—there was no way I could, I had to either accept Him or reject Him. And so, anyway, to make a long story short I became a Christian that day and then had a whole lot of catching up to do because I knew nothing about Christianity. Eventually I developed such a love for the Bible, because at the beginning I really had to cram, because little kids in Sunday school knew more about the Bible than I did. But, eventually I did go on for further research, did a PhD in New Testament at Duke University and have continued to do scholarly work since then.
BA: One of the works that you’ve written is the IVP Bible background commentary on the NT, and that’s been a huge influence. What are your thoughts on how God’s used the work you’ve done?
CK: I’m really grateful for the opportunity for that book. When I was starting my academic study of the Bible, you know, I was studying the Bible on my own, I was reading, like, 40 chapters a day, because I had to catch up with everybody! And as I began to do that I realized a lot of the verses were out of context after becoming a Christian, and a lot of more other context. But I also began to realize that the Bible was addressing, often, particular situations that I would skip over. I’d be excited about this or that verse in Romans but when it comes to Romans 1 verse 6 or 7 when he says he’s writing this to the saints in Rome, you know, I skipped over that. So when I started to take that into account, that also began to revolutionize the way I read the Bible. Problem was, that it took me like 10 years of research before I felt comfortable enough to be able to read the Biblical texts and say, you know, I think I know what’s going on here in terms of the background, fairly consistently. And at that point I thought it would be good to make it available to other people because, obviously not everybody’s going to have the time to do 10 years of research. So the background commentary was a way of trying to put that at people’s fingertips, and provide just a vast amount of research in an accessible way for people who wanted to read the Bible.
BA: Well, very good—I know that it’s influenced many and I’m sure that just as many are grateful for your work. Well, your most recent book is entitled ‘Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts’. So what’s your goal in writing this book, and how long did it take you to generate 1172 pages?
CK: Hehe, ahh—the goal in this book, originally, you know I was working on my commentary in Acts, and dealing with questions of historical reliability, and one of the objections people raise with the book of Acts or with the gospels is, well, these sources talk about miracles, and since, in quotation marks “we know that miracles don’t happen”, then these things must be legends or inventions of the authors and so on. That they could never be traced to eye-witnesses. Well, there are so many eye-witnesses today who claim things like this, that that is a really bad argument. And I just was gonna illustrate that with a footnote citing a few different sources. But the footnote grew and grew, and I got more and more fascinated by what I was finding. Eventually it became a chapter of 100 or 200 pages. And eventually I realized that’s too long for a chapter, and so it became a book, and continued growing to 1200 pages. Erm, now, the problem of telling how long it took to write is that during a lot of the time I was writing it I thought I was working on a chapter of my Acts commentary. But my guess is, it may have been about 3 years of research and writing.
BA: Ha, so this is just an overgrown footnote…ok!
CK: A massively overgrown footnote.
BA: One question I want to ask: can you mention what it is about and what it’s not about? I can imagine some might get the idea that you’re only talking in this book about NT miracle claims. Can you kind of clarify what people should expect when they pick up these two volumes?
CK: Yes, I think people could err on either side. I mean, some people, because some interviews have focused on modern miracle claims, some people might wanna get the book and find out how to get a miracle…that’s not the point of the book. Er, not that that’s a bad thing to pray for but that’s not what the book is about. On the other hand, some people may think, well, I’m just covering accounts of miracles in the NT. And I do that in the commentaries—I mean, I deal with the miracle accounts like I deal with everything else—but that’s not the point of the book either. The point of the book is to ask the question of how we can approach the miracle accounts of the NT. Can we take them as credible as…can they be legitimately understood as eye-witness material, or material based on reports ultimately going back to eye-witnesses? And secondly, can we actually speak of them as Divine acts, rather than, you know, just say somebody had a psychosomatic recovery, or something of that nature. And to do that, I needed to explore the objections that people have raised against miracles, and I also needed to explore some of the miracle claims that are going on around the world today that actually bring into question some of the objections that have been raised.
BA: Well, ok, I think that will be helpful for people, you know, wondering what exactly they’re going to delve into in this large tome. Because we’ll be talking about miracles here, I want to start with a definition—and sometimes this can be a little slippery when we’re talking about miracles. How do we define a miracle?
CK: That is part of the fundamental problem, in that different people define them quite differently. As Christians, one of the definitions that we often use is ‘miracles are special Divine action’. ‘Special’ is a way of distinguishing them from God’s ordinary work, I mean, as Christians we believe that God is at work and God created the universe, God is at work in the universe. But miracles are a ‘special’ expression of that work in a particular way. I think I feel most comfortable with the Biblical association of miracles with signs—where a miracle was a special way of getting people’s attention and communicating something to them about God’s power and character. So that, you know, people may ignore God’s activity in nature around them, but this is something that gets their attention because it’s not the norm, it’s not usual. Now, the way David Hume, an 18th century skeptical philosopher, defined miracles was he defined them as violations of nature—which differed from the way people before him had defined them. And when you stop and think about it, actually the … he was polemicizing against the traditional religious use of miracle claims for apologetics, but when he defines them as violations of nature, he’s defining them in a way that none of the Christians in his day would have defined them because none of them believed that God was subject to the laws of nature and therefore, I mean, the language of violation is very er, I think he was being deliberately controversial in that usage, and yet it’s the usage that’s been commonly picked up today—even though most miracles in the Bible wouldn’t have to be defined that way. I mean, the parting of the Sea in the book of Exodus is not, er, it says God did it but it says God did it through a strong east wind. So technically it’s not a violation of nature, even though as a coincidence it’s so extraordinarily improbable that everybody would call it a miracle if we didn’t have Hume’s definition saying that it would have to be a violation of nature. There are problems with his definition; that’s the definition that’s commonly come to be used, and that’s why we speak of certain things as being supernatural.
BA: Yeah, that is the basic excuse a lot of people will use, by saying ‘by definition, miracles are impossible’. And, to me, that kind of strikes me as a handwaving of the issue, but if you were seriously looking at the question we need to properly define it without defining them outside the realm of possibility. It’s like, isn’t his definition sort of begging the question? or stacking the deck in advance?
CK: Yeah, precisely. It’s eliminating them by definition. It’s saying, well, to be a miracle it would have to be a violation of nature. And since nature can’t be violated, or the laws of nature can’t be violated, therefore miracles are by definition impossible. At least, that’s one of the common understandings of Hume’s argument.
BA: Alright, well then let’s unpack David Hume’s objection to miracles. Maybe if you could spell out more fully what that was and maybe show where he goes wrong in his assessment.
CK: Sure. There are two major parts to Hume’s essay. I should mention at the beginning though that there are debates among philosophers about exactly what Hume meant, because his essay is fairly concise and there are a lot of arguments that he takes for granted behind his arguments, because he’s pulling a lot of this from earlier deist arguments that were popular in his day. Hume’s own argument wasn’t that popular in his day and was soundly answered by a lot of people in his day. But it became the—kinda the foundation: people don’t even know they’re quoting Hume, or assuming Hume’s argument. Today people will simply assume ‘well, we know miracles don’t happen’, and they’re echoing the views of David Hume, to develop that er, the plausibility that miracles don’t happen, he’s the one who laid the foundations for that. But today, in philosophy of religion, this particular essay of his is quite debated and I, at least from the literature I surveyed, it looks like there are more people who have problems with his essay—not all of them Christians by the way—than who think it’s a good argument. But just looking now at his argument.
First of all, he says that miracles would be a violation of nature. At the very least, at the least possible way of understanding what he’s saying, the laws of nature as understood from human experience show us that miracles don’t happen. Now, there are a few problems with that argument. One is, his view of the laws of nature reflects views current in his day, but not any of the understandings of the laws of nature that exist today in modern physics. Secondly, though, he’s appealing to the laws of nature and the people who had the best knowledge about what were considered laws of nature in his day, his contemporaries who were English scientists in his era and his part of the world, they actually believed—like Isaac Newton, for example—believed that miracles, Biblical miracles, did occur. They didn’t see a problem with that; that didn’t believe that God as a legislator was subject to the laws of nature. But, finally, his argument from the laws of nature—his view of the laws of nature was an extrapolation from human experience, and so it brings us to the second part of his essay which I think is the biggest problem.
Hume argues from uniform human experience that we can’t trust any claims for miracles because they violate uniform human experience. Now, if that is not a circular argument, I don’t know what would qualify as one. Because, he’s arguing on the basis of uniform human experience that we can’t trust miracle claims, and at the same time these miracle claims represent part of human experience. Hume didn’t think that there were enough of them, and that the ones there were he had ways of explaining away, like he didn’t accept those that were not from Western culture. When they did come from Western culture he dismissed those as well—he said, ‘well, religious people made these claims, and they would be biased’—as if bias only works in one direction. And actually, not all the people who were making these claims actually believed in these things until they experienced them.
You know, Hume got away with his argument, because most people in his day were willing to accept an ethnocentric argument against miracle claims from other parts of the world. And most of the people who were reading him were already accustomed to dismissing arguments that didn’t fit their theological worldview. So, if Catholics made the arguments—well, there were a lot of Anglicans in his part of the world who didn’t accept Catholic miracle claims, and so on, and so he was able to get away with his argument in his day. But I don’t think he would get away with it today. In fact, I think today Hume himself wouldn’t make an argument like this. I mean, there was a survey done in 2006, and extrapolating from the evidence of the survey, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people who claim to have witnessed or experienced divine healing. Now, you don’t have to agree that all of those are actual miracles—in fact, most of us would probably not think that all of them were actual miracles—but you can’t make an argument based on uniform human experience when you have hundreds of millions of people claiming a different experience. Human experience in this point is obviously not uniform.
BA: So, what seemed to me the best that maybe Hume could say was that he hasn’t seen any miracles so he doesn’t think that they take place. But even if he was able to evaluate every experience in history and in his time and he didn’t find a miracle, the best he could say was ‘we haven’t seen one’. But, who’s to say there couldn’t be one today or tomorrow, just because it hasn’t happened yet. It just seems—he just defines it out of existence, you know.
CK: Right. Hume extrapolates from his own immediate circle using a very skeptical epistemology, and it wouldn’t work with most other things that we think we know. I mean, if we can’t depend on other people’s testimony—we can only depend on our own experience, our own limited circle of experience, just because it hasn’t happened to us—well, I’ve never been to Poland. Does that mean Poland doesn’t exist? I mean, we are dependent on other people’s testimony, evidence that other people bring—we can say well, those photographs are doctored, you know, we don’t believe in Poland! People can raise objections like that but we don’t really normally take them seriously for the vast majority of things. I mean, in journalism, in historiography, in all these things—we have to depend a lot on what people report. I mean, we can think about them critically and say ‘well, can we trust these witnesses?’, and so on, but when you’ve got a lot of independent witnesses for the same thing, you know, Hume’s argument is very weakened. In one case, he dismissed arguments from the majority world as I mentioned earlier, he called them ‘ignorant and barbarous peoples’, which fits with what Hume says elsewhere in his writings where he speaks of the inferiority of non-white peoples. There was actually a Jamaican who was a Cambridge graduate who composed poetry in Latin and Hume just dismissed him as ‘like a parrot’ who was just an imitator of intelligence. Hume’s arguments of that nature were picked up by those who were in favor of slavery; they were used in support of slavery. I mean, Hume’s arguments on that side were very ethnocentric. But when it comes to Western claims, Blaise Pascale, no person of mean intelligence himself—in a sense the father of the modern computer—his niece had a running eye sore that emitted a foul odor, it was an organic sore, and she was instantly and publicly healed at a Jansenist monastery. The Queen Mother of France sent her own physician to investigate, and the physician concluded that this was a miracle, despite the fact that the Jansenists were already being kind of suspected by some of the church establishment. Hume cites some of the evidence for this miracle and then simply dismisses it. He says, well, the documentation for this miracle is stronger than the documentation for miracles we have from long ago, like in the Bible, and yet we know that this couldn’t have happened—and therefore miracles don’t happen. And you can’t even trust even when there is documentation. So, even when there were witnesses, Hume, in a circular way, excluded their testimony by saying ‘this can’t happen’.
BA: So, from a philosophical perspective, we see how there are quite a few errors in Hume’s classical objection against miracles. However, one of the things that you mentioned there, is that there are lots of miracle claims coming in from all around the world, but even those who believe in miracles would not believe that all of them—all those testimonies—would be true. So one of the, sort of, objections you would hear sometimes from a sceptic is along the lines of this: “you Christians immediately accept everything that’s happened in the Bible, but if someone in Islam says that a miracle happened you just dismiss it without even investigating it—’of course it’s false, because it’s not Christianity’ “. So, sort of, along that line, we hear about miracle claims outside the Bible, say from other religions: does that do anything to weaken Christian claims? Does it simply show support for the fact that there’s something supernatural going on in either case? What are your thoughts on those things?
CK: As you said, not every claim—we don’t necessarily accept every claim, it depends on the credibility of the eye-witnesses and other factors. Having said that, there are claims outside of Christianity that I think are good claims for things happening. Now, as with Christian claims, there will be other claims—not everything that appears anomalous is supernatural activity. But, again, I think there are some things that do qualify, that do meet those, er, you know, basic kind of criteria that we might use to say ‘this is something that does not happen on it’s own’, so to speak. Now, there are a couple of ways of approaching it there. One is to say, well, even in the Bible we have examples of other practices—Exodus chapter 7 you have Pharaoh’s magicians, you have confrontations with Simon in Acts chapter 8, and Elymas Bar-Jesus in Acts chapter 13, and a variety of other examples in the Bible, where it’s clear in the Bible that what we call supernatural activity is not limited to Christianity. Now, some of that in the Bible is negative, as in the cases that I just cited. Biblically, they would be seen as other kinds of spirits working these things. And yet, also we can acknowledge that because God loves everybody, God may sometimes also reach out to people who don’t already know Him. So there can be different explanations for this, and yet some of the things that we see as supernatural, I think, even in the other religions, can testify that something beyond the natural is going on. Now when I say ‘beyond the natural’, I guess I mean ‘beyond the norm of human experience’. Because, from a Christian perspective, only God is supernatural—everything else is part of nature, including other spirits.
BA: Mmhmm. So, supernatural claims—if we wanna call them miracles we can, but at bottom we’re calling them supernatural activity—isn’t really a problem for the Christian it’s more a problem for the naturalist. Whether you are Christian or not, if you believe in the supernatural, competing claims can be explained somehow within such a system, but the naturalist doesn’t have, really, any accounting for that other than either ‘these things just don’t happen’ or ‘there *must* be a naturalistic explanation’. Is that sort of kinda what we’re seeing?
CK: Yeah, often when people say ‘there *must* be a naturalistic explanation’, sometimes people even say ‘well, we don’t have a [natural] explanation now, but we will someday, and if you Christians are appealing to supernatural explanations simply because we don’t have a natural explanation, that these cataracts instantly disappeared when somebody prayed, we say you’re doing God of the gaps—because you’re appealing to our lack of knowledge’. Well, yes, we are appealing to their lack of knowledge, and they’ve admitted their lack of knowledge on this point. I mean, I think that’s significant. It’s true that sometimes a natural explanation comes up for things, but to say that—based on our current state of knowledge, to say ‘well we believe a natural explanation *will* come up’—that’s just saying ‘no matter what evidence you give me, I’m not gonna believe you, even if I can’t answer you.’ That’s not an open-minded position.
BA: You just reminded me of a story. The story was that—I don’t know if you’ve heard of Dan Barker—he tells these stories of being healed when he was a Christian, but now that he’s an atheist, he doesn’t know what the explanation is but it sure wasn’t God that healed him.
CK: There was a survey done in the 1980s in Madras in India, in which roughly 10% of the non-Christians surveyed said that they had been healed in answer to a prayer in Jesus’ name. And roughly 20% more of the non-Christians in Madras knew people that that had happened to. So these aren’t just Christians who are claiming these things. Now, in many cases, you also have people who are, er, who experience these kinds of healings, and the healings are so dramatic, and their experience is so dramatic, that people are willing to abandon centuries of tradition and often face great social ostracization, great social costs, to follow Jesus. So it’s not something like ‘well, yeah, every other Tuesday, somebody like this gets better and we see this all the time’, it’s like—there are entire villages in Mozambique now where it seems to be happened fairly frequently. We’re getting reports of someone being miraculously healed, and a church being started in a village the next day, in a whole region—sometimes entire villages turning to faith in Christ.
BA: Some of these accounts that you’re telling, they definitely have a purpose tied to them—there’s some sort of spiritual significance to the miracle, or it has a dramatic effect upon the people around them. And it reminds me about how Biblical miracles as far as I understand are much different than maybe miracle claims from other religions. There’s certain, maybe, key aspects of how God does miracles—making a theological point, or to validate a revelation, or to, as you said earlier, have a sign, not just ‘wow that was a dramatic thing but that’s about, you know, the extent of it’. So, would you say that Christian miracles or Biblical miracles have certain aspects like that? Is there something that makes them different or just stand out from just other, regular supernatural claims?
CK: In the Bible, there’s a theological context that makes miracles more probable rather than more improbable. And, in the Gospels and Acts, and in the Old Testament as well, we often read of signs, which were God’s way of getting people’s attention for His claims. His power, and also, often—especially in the Gospels and Acts—the expressions of His power, were usually healings or delivering people from spiritual captivity so that these also show us something about God’s character. That’s not to say that you don’t also have some of these kinds of things—cures and so on—going on elsewhere. But I think that the most distinctive thing about Biblical miracles, or miracles in the name of the One True God, is that they tell us about the One True God. That’s what’s most distinctive about them.
BA: So what kind of evidence do we encounter from New Testament accounts, and what reasons do we have to trust the miraculous claims of the Gospels?
CK: Most Gospel scholars today—not all, but most—see the Gospels as biographies. And if you look through the ancient genres available for comparison, I mean, biography is the one genre that would deal with historical characters, recent historical characters. You have on occasion an historical novel, but they don’t deal with characters of recent history. The gospels are dealing with somebody whose public ministry was just about one to two generations earlier, depending on when you date the Gospels. And normally, when you compare—I’ve actually done work going back and testing ancient biographies with external means—normally, when you have an ancient biography of a character who lived a generation or two before, they are dealing with very substantive historical information. And this can be especially the case when you’re dealing with a sage or teacher—as virtually everybody agrees Jesus was a teacher—if Jesus was a teacher, his disciples, like other disciples in antiquity, would be expected to pass on his sayings, and reports of his actions as well. So, unless the disciples of Jesus were totally eccentric, totally unlike what we expect for other disciples in the period of the early Roman Empire, you know, they’re going to have conveyed at least the heart of what Jesus was saying and doing.
Now, in terms of Jesus’ work as a miracle worker—I mean, every different early Christian source we have portrays him that way, and also the non-Christian sources portray him that way. Some of these non-Christian sources, like the Rabbis and the gentile writer Tacitus, were writing at a later period, but Josephus, who was writing in the first century, a Jewish historian, there’s a short section where Josephus talks about Jesus as well, and it summarizes what Jesus was known for doing. Most scholars today think that this was authentic although there were certain additions made later on by scribes, but they tried to reconstruct what it looked like before the scribes added these things, and since then scholars have discovered an early translation of Josephus that doesn’t have those additions and confirms that yes, here’s the earliest line. In the earliest sources about Jesus, Josephus was not a Christian, he didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, didn’t believe Jesus was divine, but he summarizes Jesus as a sage who taught and who was executed by the authorities, but he also reports that Jesus was a worker of ‘paradoxa’. It’s the same word, and this is again often pointed out by scholars, including the Jewish scholar at Oxford, Géza Vermes, the term that Josephus uses for Elisha’s miracles, so most scholars think that he describes Jesus as a miracle-working sage. That is how people in Jesus’ day experienced him.
The majority of historical Jesus scholars today recognize that Jesus was experienced by his contemporaries as a miracle-worker even though the scholars themselves usually don’t try to offer an explanation for that, and sometimes when they do it’s, like ‘Jesus was healing psychosomatic illnesses’ or ‘Jesus was healing psycho-genically begun illnesses’, and so on. But whatever explanations they give most people recognize that Jesus was doing these things. Erm, my personal take on it is you offset multiple attestations for certain kinds of miracles, like the curing of blindness, the raising of the dead, and so on, and those are not the kinds of things that, raising from the dead certainly doesn’t work for psychosomatic explanations, the curing of blindness—maybe gradually, or something like that, but on multiple occasions, instantly, in public? So, I think that we don’t have er—I think that on the normal grounds we would use to reconstruct evidence from the first century, we have very good evidence for trusting that Jesus was known for these things, Jesus was experienced in this way, and unless you start with the premise that miracles can’t happen, I think miracles are the best explanation for this side of his public ministry.
BA: Let’s apply maybe one of Hume’s variant objections to miracle claims—the idea that it’s more likely that the person presenting their testimony is lying than a miracle has occurred. Does the likelihood argument there carry much weight in your mind, and how would you answer something like that?
CK: By that criterion, we could explain away any kind of anomaly in history, because there are—I mean, most events in history, we have one person’s word for it, because only a certain amount of evidence has survived. When we have multiple independent witnesses, it makes it a lot more credible that what you have is true. When the witnesses, we have reasons to believe, were credible—when they were willing to give their lives for their claim—I mean, that’s a pretty good indication that they really believed what they were saying. That doesn’t prove that they were correct in what they were saying, but again, it was the disciples of Jesus—they weren’t simply saying, for example, with respect to the resurrection, the New Testament miracle par excellence—they weren’t simply saying that they believed Jesus rose from the dead, they were saying that they had seen him alive from the dead. Which means, if they genuinely believed this, they are speaking about genuine faith in something that isn’t supposed to happen if you don’t believe miracles can happen.
Now, when Hume puts that level of burden of proof against claimants, again it goes back to a circular argument: miracles don’t happen, or miracles can’t be known to happen, and therefore anybody who claims they happen, we can’t trust their testimony. That’s a circular argument—we have too many claims today to start with that premise. We even have cases with medical documentation—an incident in Mozambique, for example—there was a team that went there and tested some of the people, and found that, during prayer they went from being deaf or blind to a great degree, to being able to hear and see, and this was published in Southern Medical Journal, I think in September of 2010. Their work also keeps track of medical documentation, and their criteria are so rigorous, actually, that I think there are a lot of probable miracle claims that don’t make it through the net, even though I think that those things are probable.
Hume, in terms of going from experience, there was an illustration that was debated back and forth between Hume and his detractors in his day, and that was about a prince in a certain part of Asia, that was told by Dutch visitors about people riding horses on rivers frozen as hard as stone, and he said ‘that’s impossible, that can’t happen’, because it was outside his norm of experience. And Hume said, well, he was right to say that, and of course Hume’s detractors said no, he’s arguing from too narrow a pool of experience. The eye-witnesses in fact were correct. People could do that, just not where this prince lived.
BA: OK, so, as we bring the question closer to our time, you’ve mentioned various miracle accounts happening today: so what other kinds of reports are we hearing, and are there any examples that you want to give that may be notable?
CK: Sure, just to start by setting the stage for this, there was a survey done in 2006 by Pew Forum, and they surveyed Pentecostals and Charismatics in 10 countries, and if you take the number of—well, the projected number, based on the survey—of those who claim to have witnessed or experienced divine healing, the number comes out in those 10 countries alone, and among Pentecostals and Charismatics alone, to about 200 million. But what is more striking is, from the same survey, that about 39% of Christians who did not claim to be Pentecostals or Charismatic, in those 10 countries, also claimed to have witnessed or experienced divine healing. Now that’s just 10 countries. They didn’t even include China, where about 10 years ago some information from within the China Christian Council, suggested that nearly half of all new conversions from the previous 2 decades had come from what they called faith healing experiences. And some other surveys put the figure even higher. Now, I don’t know how we would figure out more precise data, you know, like what the percentages actually are, or so on, but in any case, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people who make these claims.
What I wanted to do in the book was to go interview some people and find out what kinds of claims these could include. My wife is from Congo-Brazzaville, she has a PhD from the University of Paris, and her brother who also was one of my informants also has a PhD from the University of Paris—he’s a science professor. We went to Congo and I interviewed mainly people from the mainstream Protestant church in her country—just people that she and her family knew, close family friends—and was astonished by the reports that I was getting in these places. One of them I’d heard of before I went, and that was the story of my sister-in-law, but I interviewed my mother-in-law to get more details, because my wife actually hadn’t been born yet when this happened, this was when my sister-in-law was 2 years old. She cried out that she was bitten by a snake, and when my mother-in-law got to her, she found her not breathing, at least, so far as she could tell by any means available to her. She strapped the child to her back—there was no medical help available in the village so she ran to a nearby village where evangelist Coco Ngoma Moise was doing ministry. He was a family friend, and so she asked him to pray. He prayed—Therese, my sister-in-law, started breathing again, and the next day she was fine. So I asked ‘how long was it that she wasn’t breathing?’, so my mother-in-law thought about, well, how long it takes to go up this hill, and down that hill—she had to think about it because she hadn’t really, it wasn’t really a concern to her how long it was, but she stopped and thought about how long it took to get from one village to the other, and concluded ‘about 3 hours’. And I was dumbfounded, because, I mean, 6 minutes without oxygen the brain is irreparably damaged. I wasn’t expecting that. I mean, in principle I believe in miracles but I wasn’t expecting this to be 3 hours. And in subsequent—also I checked with Coco Moise, who was still living, and he was able to confirm the story that my wife had heard growing up (she simply hadn’t heard how long it was), and then we also, erm, other people that I interviewed before I left Congo, in three weeks of interviews I got a lot of different kinds of accounts, but I got seven eye-witness accounts of people being raised from the dead, one of them a girl who certainly had to be dead given the condition she was in physically, and was reportedly dead for 8 hours. So these are some dramatic incidents that took place, often on the cutting edge of the gospel going forth in these areas.
And there’s a case that I saw myself many years ago—I could give other accounts but this one certainly got my attention—this was when I was involved with a nursing home Bible study in Mason, Ohio, and a woman there named Barbara would always say ‘I wish I could walk, I wish I could walk’. And one day, the Bible study leader, who was a seminary student at the time, got up and walked over to her, took her by the hand and said ‘in the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk’. She looked horrified—I was horrified, I was afraid she was gonna fall on the floor. If faith is a bias I can’t be accused of it in this case because I was really scared. He walked her around the room, and from then on Barbara could walk. Now, skeptics may explain that in various ways. You know, they can say ‘well maybe it was psychosomatic—she just thought she couldn’t walk’. Well, she certainly didn’t think she couldn’t walk, and afterwards, she certainly could walk! If it was just psychosomatic, Don, the Bible study leader, had no way of knowing that. But, in any case, there are lots and lots of accounts like this from eye-witnesses, and cumulatively I find them quite persuasive.
BA: Well, one of the question that does arise when we start talking about various miracle claims, especially ones that are happening around the world, is sort of this idea of ‘ah, well, you know, these are stories you hear from way out in the middle of nowhere where things aren’t documented well’. Maybe that’s the skeptical response, but even, say, there’s the Christian response as well which is kind of along the line of ‘well, why aren’t these things happening here in the West?’, or things like that. What are your thoughts on, you know, why we’re seeing these things in the areas we’re seeing them?
CK: Part of that initial objection goes back to Hume’s ethnocentric objection that we don’t really trust things from elsewhere. But, also, I think that often God does things where they are most needed. I mean, he doesn’t do the miracles just to entertain us; God doesn’t have to prove a point. Signs are to get our attention but He didn’t do them on demand in the Bible—He explicitly *didn’t* do them on demand. But, you know, we’re—in the West—my wife and other African Christians I’ve talked to have said, you know, life in Africa’s a miracle—we *have* to depend on God. But they also pray for a cure to be found for Malaria and so-on, because even though God often helps, so many more lives would be saved through better medical treatment, better medical facilities available. We know people who have died painful deaths there, because of medical conditions. So I think, where there’s a need, God is more likely to do those things. Where we already have medical resources, I mean, we don’t need to act like we can put God to the test and say well God I’m not gonna use these even though you’ve provided them. Jesus fed the 5,000, after he’d fed the 5,000 he said ‘gather up the fragments that remain—let nothing be lost’. They wouldn’t need a miracle for their next meal.
God doesn’t just do miracles all the time when we don’t really need them. He’s provided us medical means—that’s God’s gift to us, I think we should use that. But having said all those things, I don’t think it’s true that they don’t occur in the West. Some of them do. I did have a student—a Baptist minister from Northern India—whose church had grown from just a handful of people to about six hundred when he started praying for Hindus to be healed of things. And I found out about this one day when he prayed for me when I had a splitting headache, he prayed for me, after he finished praying for me I still had a splitting headache, and he was disappointed—he said ‘it doesn’t work here!’. But he said it works in India because God wants these precious people to know how much He loves them—these people who haven’t really been exposed to His message. But having said all that, sometimes it does happen here. The story I told about Barbara, for example.
I interviewed a doctor—a cardiologist—they had been trying to resuscitate a patient for 40 minutes. No heartbeat for 40 minutes. Again, after 6 minutes with no oxygen, a person has irreparable brain damage. He did the obvious—I mean, they recognized that they couldn’t revive the man, they pronounced him dead. He left the room. But, he was a Christian and he felt God’s Spirit prompting him to go back and pray for this man. He went back, laid hands on the man, prayed for him, and had them shock him with the paddle one more time. The man immediately had a normal heartbeat. Instead of suffering irreparable brain damage, I mean, the man was talking to him when he went to visit him a couple of days later. So we do have things that happen here. Again, you know, as a doctor he used medical means available to him—he did shock him with the paddle. At the same time, after 40 minutes of no heart beat, that really shouldn’t have done anything. So God is at work here in the West here as well.
BA: Well, you know, one of the objections that I’ve heard—it seems that you’ve already answered the objection because, you know, it goes something like ‘well, you know, the fact that the only prayers that God seems to be answering are prayers for things that already have a chance of happening anyway, and so that’s evidence against prayers actually being answered’. For instance, somebody would say ‘oh, you say you got healed from a back problem, well everybody has back problems and everybody gets better from their back problems so that’s not an answer to prayer’, or a headache, or something like that—well, you’re gonna get better from that already. But a lot of the things you’re mentioning are things that people don’t really get better from. Do you have any thoughts on that sort of angle?
CK: Yeah—and sometimes it depends on the burden of proof that people give. I mean, I’ve had a couple of people that I’ve said well, would you believe if somebody was raised from the dead in front of you? and they’ve said no. Obviously, they put the burden of proof so high that, at least from what they say, nothing would persuade them. But I think if somebody’s coming from a neutral perspective, you know—I think often God does things that we can’t prove are miracles. Those can be answers to prayer but they’re not really signs that necessarily get everybody’s attention. And that’s not their purpose—their purpose is to answer our prayer.
But then there are other things that really are much more verifiable, like a 9-year-old girl who was deaf because of auditory nerve damage. She’d been tested by the audiologist. The next day she was praying that God would heal her, and she was completely healed. And the audiologist didn’t believe it until he tested her again. And it’s medically documented—Rex Gardner, he’s a physician in the UK, in his book ‘Healing Miracles’ talks about that and some other examples. There are a number of these kinds of miracles that do persuade people. I have a friend, he works with the Cambridge Business Institute, and he was in India. He prayed for a blind leper to be healed, there was also another person who was there at the time, who I was able to consult, who confirmed the account. The man’s eyes were clouded. The only way to remove cataracts by natural means is surgically. But instantly, the man’s eyes were no longer cloudy, and the man started crying ‘I can see! I can see!’, and started going round all the rest of the day looking at all the things that he hadn’t been able to see before, praising the God who had given him sight.
In Mozambique, we mentioned before, and I have this from multiple independent sources—people who were there—I did not actually go there myself, although I was invited to go and witness those things. There are teams that go into villages that are non-Christian, that had no churches, and they’ll show ‘The Jesus Film’, and then sometimes it’ll just start happening spontaneously, or sometimes they will invite people to come forward for prayer. A person who is deaf, and almost always, the deaf person is known by the village to be deaf, is healed and the village witnesses that—it happens in public. And the next day they start a church! Again, that doesn’t happen under all circumstances in all parts of the world, but it does seem to be happening in the kinds of circumstances that we might expect from the Bible, where the gospel is going forward into unreached areas, to give demonstrations of who Christ is. But there’s no guarantee that God—God has not promised that He’s always going to do that in every situation. It’s very interesting, to say the least, when He does.
BA: Well, what are your thoughts on this idea that maybe, you sort of suggest there, that God isn’t promising, guaranteeing to act on demand? Are there particular problems with demanding God perform certain feats of power to, like, prove Himself? You’ve mentioned how Jesus didn’t do miracles on demand, and sort of the idea that God isn’t at our beck and call, and sometimes you hear this one-liner from internet skeptics ‘ok, well God needs to heal the amputee—then we’ll really see if miracles can happen’. What are your thoughts on this sort of miracle-on-demand sort of thing?
CK: Yes, as we’ve mentioned, Jesus refused to perform miracles on demand. It’s one thing to go into an area and God offers them freely. But when people were specifically demanding a sign, Jesus refused to give one. So I don’t think we can expect to see them happening under those conditions, not from the God of the Bible. In terms of the specific kind of example like God healing amputees, we actually don’t have any cases of that in the Bible either, so it doesn’t really reflect on the Biblical patterns! But it’s at God’s discretion. And yet we do have a number of accounts of extraordinary things happening that should not happen on their own. Auditory nerve damage shouldn’t reverse, cataracts shouldn’t instantly and publicly disappear, eye scarring shouldn’t instantly (and medically documented) disappear as has happened also. That’s, er, not quite like a limb growing back but it’s analogous to that. There are some reports of limbs growing back, actually, or especially, more specifically, of withered limbs, shriveled limbs, within a day, or sometimes within an hour or so, filling out. Some of those are better documented than others. I have not been able to get to people to interview them—in fact, the one that I was probably most impressed with, the witnesses had probably been dead for, half a century—it was an earlier account. But there are accounts of those things, but I don’t weight as much on those things because in those particular cases I haven’t been able to interview the witnesses and so on. But we do have certainly quite a number of dramatic incidences taking place.
BA: Well, back to something I mentioned before about how there are lots of claims—in my mind I tend to think that miracle claims, regardless of the religion, say, are a defeater for naturalism, and the idea here is that if there are millions of claims of supernatural encounters, miracles or otherwise, it seems to make the case that even if one of them were true, you know, say there’s 10 million but only one of them’s an actual supernatural event, then naturalism would be falsified. But what of your thoughts on that?
CK: Yeah, I mean, the problem with naturalism isn’t talking about nature or the workings of nature. So, in a sense, I’m not really opposed to naturalism. I’m opposed to anti-supernaturalism. But the way people often use the phrase naturalism I know is meant in that—people who talk about metaphysical naturalism, that is, that there’s no God, complete reductionism into everything can be explained without God, or without anything supernatural. And, yeah, if there’s anything where we have a genuinely compelling case for something that goes beyond the activity of nature, then it brings Hume’s argument into question, and shifts the issue of probabilities. I mean, in most of history, in most cultures of the world, they had no problems believing that God, or spirits of some sort, work miracles, or things that wouldn’t just happen in the ordinary course of non-sentient nature. I was in a class where my professor was a Bultmannian, and I pointed out that I thought Bultmann said some nice things but he also said some things that weren’t so nice. And the heart of Bultmann’s logical flaw, I thought, was that Bultmann simply dismisses the possibility of miracles. He doesn’t even give an argument, he just says ‘nobody in the modern world believes in miracles’. Well, that excluded from the modern world all Orthodox Jews, Christians, Muslims, traditional tribal religionists—two-thirds of the graduate students sitting around the table, basically most of modern humanity! Now Bultmann may not have known that—I don’t think he would have done that today, because there’s just overwhelming evidence in terms of how many people actually believe in these things, how many people claim to have experienced these things. He may not believe in miracles himself but I don’t think somebody today can get away with saying ‘well, we just have a consensus that miracles don’t happen, and therefore we don’t even have to talk about them; we don’t even have to give an argument’. But that’s the premise from which many people start.
Now, when I was an atheist, that would have been the premise from which I would have started. As an agnostic, you can say well maybe they happen, maybe they don’t, let’s look at the evidence. I wasn’t such a hard-nosed atheist that I wasn’t willing to be persuaded by compelling evidence to the contrary, so I guess there are actually a range of positions. But yeah—if you have compelling evidence, even for a handful of miracle claims. Or even one, I mean, if you’ve got one that’s just, you know, this is by far the best explanation, then that’s what you’re gonna end up with—shifting the whole burden of proof for everything else.
BA: Obviously, there is an apologetic value to miracles in themselves, as well as being able to defend the rationality of miracles. So I’m wondering, for a Christian apologist, what advice you may have as far as approaching this subject?
CK: You know, David Hume actually framed his argument against miracles against apologists, Christian apologists—including early Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke—who used miracles as an apologetic for Christianity, saying that these things happen only in Christianity, they prove the foundations of Christianity, and so on. And sometimes their claims were overstated. And Hume reacted with being even more overstated than the other side! So, miracles—like, appealing to Biblical miracles—may not be the first place that we want to go for some of them. Some of them, like for the resurrection of Jesus, if you look at Michael Licona’s book, there is really strong evidence there—a number of independent eye-witnesses. But with apologetics it often comes to us from the other side. There are people who are skeptical of the Bible because they’re skeptical of miracles. And in that case, it’s helpful on the other side to be able to answer their objections, and to say well, look—what are the philosophic bases for your objections against miracles? Why do you say miracles can’t happen? Why are you skeptical of all miracle claims? And to show that there’s evidence for some miracle claims that’s stronger than the evidence that we have for all sorts of claims that we would just ordinarily accept, based on credible eye-witnesses. The reason that miracles have been excluded is because of a philosophic a priori, and the philosophic a priori rests especially on a circular argument—it goes back to David Hume. It’s not necessary to buy into that a priori, and if you don’t, then there’s considerable evidence for miracles. The analogy argument that’s been used since Hume’s day saying ‘well, miracles don’t happen today therefore they wouldn’t have happened back then’—actually, a lot of scholars today say ‘well, actually we’ve got so many miracle claims today that’s not a very good argument’.
BA: Well, Dr. Keener, I’ve taken a lot of your time today and I definitely want to point people to your book. But before we do that I’m just wondering if you’ve got any other footnotes that you’re expanding on, or other projects on the horizon?
CK: I wish I had time to write everything that I’ve done the research for, but I have a four volume commentary on Acts that’s in the process of coming out. Actually, the miracles book was a digression from working on that and the miracles book, being shorter, came out first. I’d like to turn to commentaries on Paul afterwards. I really like writing commentaries. The Biblical passages in the light of what we can know from other kinds of ancient sources—ancient Jewish sources, ancient Greek and Roman sources, and so forth—to help us hear better how the first Christians would have understood what these passages were saying.
BA: Well, regarding your book on miracles, what would you hope that others would do to sort of maybe pick up the torch and continue that line of work or research?
CK: I think it’s good for us to continue to consult eye-witnesses and check with them. It’s good for people to continue to work on the philosophy of religion aspect of it. But I think probably what we need most at this point is for more medical documentation, more medical research working on it. Of course, sometimes people start with the premise that anything that could possibly be explained in any other way can’t be a miracle. Again, even using the argument ‘well maybe someday we’ll be able to explain it some other way’, in which case you just throw out any kind of evidence. But I think we need to get medical documentation in more cases, like the study that was done in Mozambique. Like what’s being done at Lourdes. And I think the more that we have of that, the better. And I think, if any of your audience has any training in that area we could really use their work in this area.
BA: Well very good—Dr. Keener, I really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. It’s been fascinating.
CK: Thanks so much.
BA: I have been speaking with Dr. Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, and author of Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.