Among the more interesting books I’ve recently read is Miracles by Eric Metaxas. Together with several members from my church, I recently heard Metaxas at an event at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and purchased a copy of the book (which he graciously autographed). I finished it a couple of days ago. Few books have both thrilled and puzzled me as much as this one.
The overall design of the book is deductive-inductive. The first few chapters propose an deductive case for the possibility of the miraculous. From the current state of theoretical physics and from the philosophical disciplines, Metaxas argues that believing in the miraculous requires not a reconsideration of the physical laws of the universe but merely the acknowledgement that something else might exist beyond the universe of matter and energy and might be able to interact with that universe.
The fine-tuning argument is clearly Metaxas’s favorite. He also argues significantly (and inductively) from the number of scientists who are also people of faith. Many of Metaxas’s arguments (from the fine-tuning of the Big Bang, from the precision required if the Giant Impact Hypothesis concerning the origin of the moon is correct, etc.) are compatible solely with Old Earth Creationism, and most of his poster-children for the reconciliation of faith and science (e.g., Francis Collins) are Old Earth Creationists. Intelligent Design makes a brief explicit cameo appearance in the book but underlies most of the thinking in the early chapters. A recapitulation of arguments for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ helps to carry the argument beyond a general case for the miraculous to a specific case for Christianity.
It is easy for me, as a Christian, to conclude that Metaxas’s arguments are successful. Metaxas (in his remarks at the event) says that some of his unbelieving friends have conceded the strength of his case as well. At the very least, I think one must acknowledge that Metaxas has compiled some of the stronger theistic arguments together with a few of the central arguments for the Christian faith.
The remainder of the book—which constitutes the bulk of the tome—makes an inductive case for miraculous Christianity. From conversion stories to healing stories to stories of personal growth to angelic encounters, Metaxas showcases a collection of miracle stories gathered solely from his personal circle of acquaintance. Metaxas makes the case that an enormous number of people claim to have experienced something miraculous, that almost never are these accounts disproven, and that significant contravening evidence ought to be required before we should dismiss these ubiquitous accounts out-of-hand. Metaxas claims that if a book full of miracle stories can be gleaned from a single person’s circle of acquaintance we can reasonably infer that they occur with considerable frequency. According to Metaxas, those who deny the miraculous do so simply because they are committed to a dogma (scientific naturalism) that requires them to do so. The argument is not unrelated to themes about which I have written before.
There is room to critique Metaxas’s approach. In some sense, his collection of miracle stories can be criticized as too broad. He favorably entertains miracle stories involving Benny Hinn on the one hand and a Roman Catholic widow’s prayers not to God but to her deceased husband for help on the other hand. It is difficult to imagine a system of theology any deeper than a thimble that wouldn’t provoke at least some discomfort with one or the other of these stories, and then there are those of us distrustful of the both of them. In another sense, Metaxas’s approach can be criticized as too narrow. After all, does Christianity alone hold a monopoly upon stories of the miraculous? Do not miracle stories occur among Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, Moonies, and Mormons? Do not the African animists among whom our church shares the gospel tell their own miracle stories, and with great frequency? Why does Metaxas’s book not recount these miracle stories as well? Is he acquainted with no miracle-believing people from different faiths?
In consideration of these critiques, I take a bifurcated approach. On the one hand, I can give you the factors that I think led Metaxas to approach the miracle stories as he does. On the other hand, I can give you the rationale by which I receive and understand them.
Metaxas, I think, represents the bland, largely a-ecclesiological Evangelical genericism that suits the Evangelical marketing machine and is understandably popular in certain sectors of the Euro-American church. The approach to the miraculous in that wing of the church amounts simply to the idea that miraculous claims made by sincere Christians must be accepted at face value. This approach to the Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal spectrum of experiences is evident throughout the book (“I know not every Christian believes in [blank], but here’s [so-and-so’s] story”). An occasional sparring partner in the book is that portion of Christianity that rejects modern-day miracle claims a priori—hard cessationism. Unrepresented is the approach that submits the claims of individual Christians to doctrinal tests, for which I have advocated elsewhere.
And yet, although I do not share Metaxas’s approach, I find Miracles to be valuable. Even if I doubt the veracity of some of these miracle stories, I think it remains a forceful argument to say, “Sure, some of these accounts are probably mistaken, and not all miracles lead to Truth, but look at HOW MANY claims of the miraculous there are around the world. Isn’t it something of a stretch to dismiss them all?” Indeed, had I written this book, I think I would gladly have included miracle stories from other religions. At one point Metaxas touched obliquely upon the possibility that a benevolent God is not the only one effecting the miraculous in our world. Once one makes room for the demonic, miracle stories are no longer universally signs validating the beliefs of the recipients. Pharaoh’s magicians changed staffs into snakes. Zoroastrian magi found the Christ-child. Simon Magus had amazed the Samaritans. Occasional encounters with the miraculous seem to belong to the category of common grace—or at the very least they are a common experience from diverse sources.
Metaxas’s strongest contribution, in my opinion, is his turnabout-is-fair-play challenge to those who deny the existence of the miraculous to search their own selves to see whether there is not something about them that is actively resisting the idea of the miraculous—something committed to the idea that these accounts necessarily must be utterly and entirely false. He manages to do so quite winsomely, and it is precisely Metaxas’s winsome way of interacting with the skeptical sets this book apart from some others of the genre.
You can get it on Amazon for under $20. I am glad to recommend Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life.