Monday, July 09, 2012

A Landmark Study Of Miracles

Timothy McGrew recently commented that Craig Keener is the sort of scholar who only comes along once every two or three centuries. He made that remark in the context of discussing Keener's upcoming commentary on Acts, which reportedly was around 7000 pages long in its original manuscript. While Keener was working on that commentary, he began a footnote on the subject of miracles. The footnote grew large enough to become a book of its own, titled Miracles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011). The main text of the book is just under 900 pages long, followed by more than 150 pages of bibliography. I recently finished reading the book, and I intend to write some posts about it, as I have time, in the coming weeks. The book has a lot of relevance to a lot of subjects: whether miracles occur, how often they occur, what types of miracles occur, the quality of the evidence for them, how Christian miracles compare to non-Christian miracles, etc. Once my series on the book has been completed, I intend to post an index that will link to each thread.

I want to open this series with a quote from Keener's book, taken from a passage that's significant on many levels. But I haven't yet seen anybody discuss this passage. Near the end of the book, Keener recounts some apparently supernatural experiences he had in the process of conducting his research. This is from an appendix on spirit possession:

In July 2008, my wife and I spent time in Congo…A few months later, on December 6, I was experiencing what felt like such an unusual and unnaturally dramatic spiritual assault I was literally not sure that I would survive the day. The next day, as I was recovering, I was walking with my wife and son, and we stopped under a particular strong tree, about three stories tall. No sooner had we followed my son's advice to walk a few steps away than the tree fell without warning, precisely where we had been standing, blocking the small road. Had it fallen a few seconds earlier, all three of us would have been crushed to death. I believe that this is the only tree I have ever witnessed falling (though I have of course seen fallen trees), yet out of hundreds of trees in view that day, and all the different ways that it could have fallen, it fell precisely where we had been standing seconds before. We came back and happily photographed the tree before the property owners called in a crew for it to be sawed and removed. The roots had not come up, but it looked as if the trunk had been cut through, and the wood appeared completely healthy.

When Medine's [Keener's wife's] brother went for prayer, the person prophesied that those employing witchcraft had tried to target us, to eliminate our support for the family; when the attack on my psyche proved ineffective, the hostile spirit settled in a tree that was twisting about, an image that made little sense to this woman until Medine's brother explained what had happened. She said that God had protected us, in part because of what God had called me to do. On December 15, 2008, an Ethiopian Pentecostal prophet prophesied about spirits having tried to kill me but being thwarted by God. He also gave various other relevant details about my life, including about this and another book, which something did not want written, without knowing anything about me, that I am an author, or the recent events.

To my recollection, no one had ever prophesied to me previously about spirits trying to kill me, or even about spirits per se; certainly no one had prophesied to me about a demon-afflicted tree. While I was fairly unfamiliar with African discourse about witchcraft, however, I was quite familiar with particular individuals who sometimes prophesied quite accurately (as opposed to random persons whose prophecies were more hit-and-miss). These were among the more accurate prophets. I felt deeply shaken by these events and their interpretation, which challenged elements of my worldview. (854-855)

Other cases Keener cites in the book involve video footage, medical documentation, more witnesses, etc. I'm not citing the account above because I consider it the most evidential one in the book. I don't. But it is significant in some ways.

For one thing, it illustrates how hard it is to dismiss some miracle accounts that don't involve something like video footage or medical documentation. How many highly unusual coincidences would it take, or how much would Keener have to be wrong about, and in how many different and unusual ways, in order to dismiss his account with an entirely naturalistic explanation? Think of the problems involved in claiming that he's lying about everything or lying about the aspects of the account that would prevent a naturalistic explanation. Or the problems involved in coming up with independent explanations of how he and the other individuals involved were honestly mistaken at each relevant step along the way.

Keener's account also reminds us that there's a dark side to the miraculous. Sometimes it's dark to the point of being murderous. People often approach the paranormal as if all of it is positive or as if it's far more positive than it actually is. That's dangerous.

And Keener's account should remind us that life is more significant than we often make it out to be. Those of us who live in a nation like the United States are surrounded by a highly secularized and trivialized society. We're not encouraged to think much about the significance of something like writing a book about miracles or the sort of spiritual warfare Keener refers to. Instead, we're encouraged to look at life as something like an extended vacation. There's a world around us that's far more significant, and far more interesting and exciting, than the television programs, movies, video games, sporting events, and novels we spend so much time on.


  1. Seems Keener is aptly named.

    Looking forward to this series, Jason.

  2. Keener's account also reminds us that there's a dark side to the miraculous.

    This is important to remember since skeptics often claim that people want to believe in the miraculous. There are plenty of supernatural things that people wish would never occur.

  3. "For one thing, it illustrates how hard it is to dismiss some miracle accounts that don't involve something like video footage or medical documentation."

    Not that that type of evidence fazes the atheists in the first place. I am always reminded of the end of the movie The Howling when Karen transforms into a werewolf on live tv to warn the world of their existence. Even though she dies to prove it, the people watching dismiss it as special effects. You can lead a horse to water...

  4. Interestingly I have just finished listening to a New Age testimony part of one of Dr. Groothuis apologetics lectures (held back in 2004) that deals with these issues. This one has a happy ending but sometimes this is not so. You can find it in here:

    These things are very real and if one comes saying there is no evidence for the supernatural, they're just fooling themselves!