Craig Keener: An Interview on Miracles
We had the honor of interviewing Professor Keener from Asbury seminary. He has written many books on the NT, for more details you can see his amazon page. We asked Professor Keener about his book Miracles. We live in a skeptical age where many have said God does not intervene in miraculous ways. When I first read this book years back, it really encouraged my faith, and we hope that you guys would be encouraged by Keeners answers and book as well. I will leave you with these questions as you ponder while reading, A) what if God acts on behalf of those who cry out? B) what if God is alive and active in the universe? C) What if Jesus was raised to life is the greatest miracle of all? - Casey
1) What compelled you to write two massive volumes on Miracles?
Believe it or not, it started as a footnote for the Acts commentary I was writing. Some scholars had dismissed a variety of miracle reports by saying that eyewitnesses, or at least credible eyewitnesses, don't claim things on the scale we have reported in the NT. I knew better than that because I have plenty of friends who have experienced some of these kinds of things and I had experienced a few myself. (Because I was an atheist before my conversion I understood that these could often be given alternative explanations, but after I began digging a bit I found my own inherited Western skepticism on that point being challenged--the cumulative evidence appeared overwhelming.) In any case, I had planned to find just one or two books listing some eyewitness accounts and place them in the footnote. But not finding those books initially, I kept digging and digging, and it kept growing ... and 1100 pages is too long for a footnote. It would've kept growing if the book hadn't come out when it did!
2) What is a miracle in the biblical world and what did the NT writers mean by the use of this word? Or did they use this word at all?
Technically they had different ways of speaking of these things. They thought in terms of a range of God's activity, but what we call "miracles" were the special things that got people's attention even if they were used to ignoring his works in nature or their lives. These then functioned often as "signs and wonders" (the language was used especially with reference to the exodus in the OT, but applied to Jesus's ministry in John's Gospel and to that of his followers in Acts)--things that get our attention and communicate something to us.
That being said, my concern in this book was more historical than theological: could eyewitnesses have experienced the kinds of things they describe? And, secondly, the theological question of causation: are many of these things best described as divine acts (what many scholars today call "special divine action")? I found plenty of grist for the biblical theological question of what the signs mean, also, but that wasn't the focus of the book.
My response was rather to the modern meta-historiographic issue of whether we are even able to discuss these things since David Hume "showed" that "miracles," which he defined as "violations of nature," can't be verified among credible eyewitnesses. His way of defining miracles actually sidesteps most biblical miracles (even the parting of the sea by an east wind in Exodus 14 doesn't "violate" nature), but in any case, I had to work with the agenda he set to try to respond to it and to its repercussions.
3) Was Jesus the only person who performed miracles in the Bible or do we have more examples? Do we know of anyone else outside of the Bible in the ancient world who performed/experienced miracles?
There were lots of people in the Bible associated with miracles--of course Moses, Elijah and Elisha among others in the OT; many of Jesus's followers in Acts. These included apostles such as Peter; Paul also appeals to the Corinthians' eyewitness knowledge of signs performed through him among them (2 Cor 12:12). But it wasn't limited to apostles--you see Stephen and Philip in Acts, for example.
As far as others outside the Bible, often our reports of significant wonders come from periods much longer after the reputed wonder workers lived, but we also have accounts of some Jewish exorcists and, in the Book of Acts, Simon the sorcerer and others. Exodus, 2 Thessalonians, Revelation 13, Matthew 24, and other texts speak of what appear to be wonders through other spirits. But where you have power encounters--direct confrontations between spiritual forces--God's power is depicted as far greater (e.g., Exodus 8; Acts 13). I think that we also should allow that there were some genuine people of prayer that God himself was using, such as the pre-Christian pious man Onias (Honi the Circle-Drawer), though again, most of the detailed material about his wonders come from long after the time that he lived. Jesus seems to have approved of some others who acted in his name (Mark 9:38-39), though some who performed miracles in his name and did not obey his Father would not fare well in the day of judgment (Matt 7:21-23).
4) I have a brother in law from Africa, he and his family have seen and witnessed God acting in ways that we in the west would refer to as "a miracle." Do you know of any documented cases of miracles in your book, or is it just hear say?
My wife is from Africa, and we have many eyewitness accounts from there as well as elsewhere, including an account from my mother-in-law where her eldest daughter, apparently dead for three hours, was raised through prayer (no brain damage, now with a master's degree). We have eyewitness accounts from doctors (including some raisings). We have before-and-after medical reports; after the book came out, I received one very strong, medically-documented case of healed blindness (the blindness had been caused by macular degeneration) and another of a damaged small intestine, which cannot grow longer in an adult, more than doubling in length after a command of faith.
So yes, we do have documentation. I would love to have more "hard' documentation than we have--in most of the world people don't have access to medical documentation when they're healed (often had they had access to medicine they might not have needed to be healed "miraculously" anyway--medicine is also God's gift to us). What is of greater concern is that many who are healed and could get medical documentation don't bother to do so--it can be hard to get (and if it's a recent cure, doubters will say you might relapse, whereas if it's an old cure, the medical documentation has likely been recycled!) But many people question people simply claiming that they are healed without evidence--and not without reason, since we all know that not all these claims are true, that some can easily be explained in other ways, and so forth. So I would put in a plug here for people when they experience healing gathering medical documentation when they are able to do so--by this I mean medical certification of the previous condition and that it is now gone (that, and the probability of that happening on its own, are all that medical documentation can provide). Getting the actual documentation may help somebody's faith; some, of course, will explain away any amount of documentation. But most people are open-minded enough to respect a fair amount of credible evidence.
But having said that, we do have medical documentation, we have multiple independent credible witnesses (a source of evidence accepted in many disciplines, including law, journalism, sociology, anthropology, and of course historiography), and so forth.
5) Have you ever witnessed a miracle? If so, can you briefly explain it?
I could give a number of accounts but one of the early dramatic ones I witnessed really shook me up. I was fairly new in my faith, but had led to Christ my younger brother (now a scientist) and we were helping in a nursing home Bible study. Every week, a woman named Barbara said, "I wish I could walk." One day Don, the leader of the Bible study, walked over to her and commanded her to rise and walk in Jesus's name, grabbing her by the hand. I was horrified, certain that she would fall down. She looked equally horrified, so I don't think this was psychosomatic. But he walked her around the room. I think that may have been Don's last week before he returned to seminary, but I was leading the Bible study after that and I can attest that Barbara kept walking. At the beginning she would often use a walker for security as she was growing accustomed to walking, but she no longer looked horrified--she showed us proudly that she could walk, and after that her refrain was no longer, "I wish I could walk," but, "I love this Bible study." Now, that may not be as dramatic as eyes blind from cataracts instantly receiving sight--something some friends of mine report witnessing--but it only takes a few of these kinds of things to wake you up to the fact that others who claim that miracles don't happen because they haven't seen them are not using the normal rules of investigation. Just because I didn't witness a traffic accident doesn't mean that it didn't happen and that I should dismiss the testimony of witnesses who were there. Anyway, I should be answering your questions more concisely!
6) What is the point of a miracle occurring?
God often answers prayers, and these don't need to be dramatic or attention-getting to be answers to prayer. Again, we can thank God for supplying us with medical technology where this is available. We can thank God for natural healing processes he has built into our bodies, and for many other gifts we just take for granted. (And if we're psychosomatically ill, we can thank God for help with getting better from that as well!)
But what we usually call "miracles" are the things that get our attention--in much of history, Christians defined them as unusual actions that caused us to be in awe of God. They show us something about God's power and usually something about God's benevolence, since most of these extraordinary works through Jesus and his followers were healing and deliverance. In John's Gospel, signs revealed Jesus's identity; indeed, they also showed something special that God was doing, since his first miracle is not turning water into blood (like Moses's first plague) but water into wine, and his final sign there is not the death of the firstborn (like Moses's final plague) but the raising of Lazarus.
Jesus also said that such actions were a foretaste, an initial experience, of the coming kingdom (Matt 12:28//Luke 11:20), and described them in language suggesting a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies about a new world (Matt 11:5//Luke 7:22, evoking Isa 35:5-6; 61:1).
Jesus talked about the future consummation of the kingdom, but his ministry as a foretaste of that. Full healing is in the future--we know very clearly that everyone eventually dies, no matter how often some are made well. But whenever God heals someone in the present, that's a foretaste of that promised future. It's not a gift only to the person who is healed; it is a gift to all of us, because it reminds us that a time is coming when there will be no more sorrow, no more pain, but God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
7) Why has scholarship been so critical towards the belief in Miracles? Are you hoping that this book will shift the paradigm in the scholarly world?
Scholarship usually cites Hume as a starting point, taking his conclusion for granted (though many don't even know that Hume is to be credited for the argument; and in fact, he borrowed a lot of it from earlier deists). Yet most philosophers examining Hume's argument today find it circular and beneath his usual standards of logic. His argument about credible eyewitnesses can't stand today--we simply have too much evidence for too many witnesses in a way that wasn't known in his day. The claims of hundreds of millions of witnesses--and that's what we are talking about in broad survey terms--do not obligate people to believe that all these reports were acts of God. But it's simply irresponsible today to start from the premise that we have no credible eyewitnesses. These claims merit more inquiry than that.
Of course I hope for a paradigm shift. In some disciplines there is more openness to it than in others, but the material in the book provides more substance to people who are open to the idea, and it has been well-received in many circles. (Sometimes I think that is a miracle, though it's not a violation of nature! 🙂 )
But it is a piece of evidence contributed to the discussion, not the end of the discussion. It is a multidisciplinary study and one person can't do it all--we need doctors, philosophers, anthropologists, and so on involved. And remember such biblical miracle accounts as that of Lazarus: even among the eyewitnesses, though many believed, others simply reported Jesus to the authorities. It's unrealistic to expect that everyone will change their worldview, no matter what the level of evidence. But many will, and we do our best to make the evidence available to them. At least there is some more information on the table now for discussion. I am hoping that others will carry on the work--I have mostly gone back to finishing my Acts commentary!
8) Should Christians pray for miracles to happen in their lives and the lives of others?
Certainly. In Acts 4, when some tried to suppress testimony of a miracle, the believers prayed that God would continue to grant boldness by continuing to heal through Jesus's name, and the request was granted. These were signs to get people's attention for the gospel, and these happen in many places in the world today. James 5 invites us to pray for the sick expectantly (although it doesn't guarantee dramatic, attention-getting healing). Now, again, no one really will say that everyone always get healed when we pray--everyone recognizes that people in this world inevitably die (I don't know any Christians over 130 years old, for example). But that's not a reason to get discouraged. Sometimes God does miracles--in many places of groundbreaking evangelism, he does them often (sometimes after years of sowing and prayer)--and those are signs to all of us to remind us of his future promise.
And in terms of groundbreaking evangelism and sacrificial sowing: who is to say that there are not communities among us, even here in countries where there are many Christians, were ground needs to be broken? I knew Christians but didn't grow up in church and didn't really investigate what Christians believed until my conversion. Some people even in the U.S. today know about Christianity only from its detractors or from Christians' most newsworthy scandals. As a young Christian, I noticed how often in the Book of Acts God used healings or other signs to draw people's attention to the good news about Jesus Christ and his resurrection (not to substitute for that good news, but to draw attention to it). I also read a book called How to Give Away Your Faith, which mentioned offering to pray for people who had a need, such as sickness. People will often welcome the kind gesture. Sometimes, as I discovered at that time, God actually did heal them in ways they experienced as dramatic--and they were ready to give their lives over to him for eternity. We might not see a miracle every time we pray for them. But we'll likely see more than if we don't pray.
And it's an expression of love and concern for people when we pray for them--and such love is itself an expression of God's heart. Because as extraordinary as the miracles are as signs of the kingdom, I find an even deeper revelation of God in the cross. In the cross, we see the epitome of God's love for us--and discover that even in the deepest brokenness, the deepest injustice, the deepest tragedy--God is at work. And whether our experience of suffering is a prelude to a miracle or to a deeper revelation of God's faithfulness in the midst of suffering, when we meet God there it fosters expectation--evidenced hope. Both miracles and the resurrection-transformed cross remind us that God has not abandoned this world; we are experiencing the birth pangs of a new world to come.