Are Miracles Possible? Essays & Opinions
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The Ubiquity of the Miraculous

The Ubiquity of the Miraculous

Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Is it possible to believe in miracles today? That might depend on how one defines “possible,” but certainly the majority of the world’s population does believe in what could be called miracles. This is true even in many parts of the secular Western world. Thus surveys over the past few decades have placed belief in miracles in the United States at roughly 80 percent. Indeed, one wide survey of physicians gave a figure of 73 percent, with over half of U.S. doctors believing that they had witnessed one.

Moreover, for many, the belief in miracles goes beyond the merely hypothetical to how they understand some of their experiences. One 2006 Pew Forum Survey of Pentecostals and charismatics in ten countries suggests that some 200 million people from these groups claim to have witnessed divine healing. Even more surprising, 39 percent of Christians in these countries who did not identify as Pentecostal or charismatic claimed to have witnessed divine healing.

Many other countries not included in the survey also have high figures. In China, around the turn of the millennium, a source related to the official Three Self Church estimated that roughly half of all conversions in the previous two decades had stemmed from “faith healing experiences.” Some sources related to rural house churches in China suggested figures as high as 90 percent. Whatever the precise figures, we are likely speaking of millions of people who abandoned centuries of ancestral beliefs to accept a new faith because they were convinced that something dramatically outside their ordinary experiences had occurred. Such radical shifts based on healing experiences are reported in many other parts of the world, from the Nishi tribal people in northeast India to Nickerie, Suriname.

Nor are claims of spiritual healing limited to Christians; among other belief systems, they are fairly common among, for example, Hindus and practitioners of traditional tribal religions.

Healing reports do not by themselves prove that miracles occur; virtually no one would claim that every alleged miracle is best explained as such. What they do challenge is the basis for the common modern Western dismissal of miracle claims: David Hume’s philosophic argument that uniform human experience requires us to doubt any miracle claim. Presumably miracles violated the experience of Hume’s immediate circle, but Hume, whose prejudice against nonwhite and non-Western cultures is well known, may have generalized from his context too readily. Today, even Hume might look for a different argument, rather than assuming a premise of uniformity that a priori excludes the experience of hundreds of millions of people.

Nevertheless, the interpretation of such claims remains open to debate; we need not attribute all unusual recoveries to the special work of a deity. Those who are certain, for other reasons, that miracles are impossible can suggest alternative explanations, some more plausible than others. If one’s bar of evidence at least allows the possibility of miracles, however, probability appears to support some cases. And if any cases are probable, one does have good reason to believe that miracles sometimes occur.

To be sure, some reports are surely fraudulent and others stem from misdiagnosis, misinterpretation, or psychosomatic or psychogenic illnesses. But others are harder to dismiss. Most of the scores of witnesses I interviewed came across as deeply sincere, even regarding quite dramatic healings. Many were respected, highly educated friends whose integrity I trusted, and often multiple independent witnesses verified their accounts. None of those I trusted had anything to gain—and some had much to lose—by sharing their stories with me.

One friend, for example, is director of a business institute associated with Cambridge University. He reported (and another witness confirmed) the instant recovery of sight by a blind man with clouded eyes they prayed for in India. In other cases, concrete medical records are available. After formal diagnosis of blindness due to macular degeneration, Greg Spencer was instantly healed during prayer for a different matter. After investigating, the Social Security Administration acknowledged “a remarkable return of his visual acuity” and stopped his disability payments. Among various examples offered by British physician Rex Gardner, a deaf nine-year-old girl praying for healing was instantly healed of her auditory nerve damage.

Hundreds of recent reports of healed blindness and deafness come from Mozambique. A visiting team of Western researchers confirmed some of these immediate, extraordinary cures, afterward publishing the results in the Southern Medical Journal in 2010. Detractors understandably challenged the testing conditions available in rural Mozambique, but one of the study’s authors, Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University, provides fuller details in a chapter of her 2012 book published by Harvard University Press, Testing Prayer. However we explain them, after prayer some people experienced radical changes in visual and auditory acuity.

Also striking are numerous reports of resuscitations from death during prayer. One example is my wife’s own sister, who, after apparently not breathing for three hours, began breathing when prayed for. Lacking brain damage or other deficits, she later completed undergraduate and master’s degrees. Death is sometimes misdiagnosed, but unless vast numbers of people are being buried prematurely, the proportion of raising claims is remarkable. In my own and my wife’s immediate circles, we have at least ten close friends or family members who report witnessing or experiencing resuscitation from death during prayer—over half of them after several hours of apparent death.

Is it plausible to believe in miracles? That depends partly on one’s starting assumptions. If we do not a priori rule them out, though, some of the sorts of events noted above may qualify.

“I wish I could walk,” Barbara repeated from her wheelchair each week as I helped at a nursing home Bible study. One week the Bible study leader, a seminarian, commanded her to walk “in the name of Jesus.” She looked as horrified as I felt, but the seminarian walked her around the room, and from then on Barbara could walk. Although I had already converted from atheism a few years before, the experience challenged my worldview. I might have explained the event as psychosomatic, but the accumulation of such experiences in my life and circle predispose me today to retain “miracle” as an interpretive option. Rather than dismissing all claims of miracles, it seems better to critically evaluate them.

Still, I and many other believers struggle with why miracles do not happen more often. In one sense, the question involves the definition of miracles. Believers consider normal recovery and medical skills as gifts from God, classifying only unusual events as miracles. Early Christian experience may offer a further suggestion. Jesus’s followers viewed his healings as “signs” of the kingdom—a foretaste of the promised future when God would restore his people and renew creation. These signs are meant as samples, not yet the fullness, of that hope of a world made new. If miracles are signs, they are not meant as a panacea to solve this world’s problems. They do, however, point us to what a renewed world should look like, and in so doing invite us to work in the meantime to make this world better for everyone that we can. 

Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.

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