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Read A Sample
It took the compelling historical evidence for a miracle—the resurrection—to convince an atheist like me that Jesus really is the unique Son of God. But my skeptical nature didn’t disappear when I became a Christian. I wanted to know: Is God still in the miracle business today?
This launched me on a two-year investigation into the supernatural, a journey that took me to unexpected places and provocative conclusions. What I learned left me flabbergasted as I probed eye-popping cases in which God unmistakably intervened in people’s lives in dramatic and well-documented ways. You’ll read about some of them in the coming pages, so get ready to be amazed!
Yet I also encountered instances in which charlatans falsely claimed miracles had occurred or where people exaggerated circumstances to make it look like a miracle happened when it clearly didn’t. If there’s one lesson I learned in this process, it’s that care and discernment are needed whenever we investigate the miraculous.
In fact, this word of caution is important: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:19–22). An appropriate application of that verse for us might be, “Do not treat miracle claims with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good.”
In other words, don’t reject unusual stories out of hand, but don’t uncritically accept them either. Be neither cynical nor gullible. Instead, scrutinize claims of the miraculous with the goal of discovering what might be genuine works from a supernatural source. The same Source who promised, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
It’s with that goal in mind that I wrote my larger volume, The Case for Miracles.1 Now my ministry associate Mark Mittelberg and I have produced this question-and-answer book to cover the key issues involving God’s supernatural intervention in our world. I believe you’ll find it to be helpful and inspiring at the same time.
Let me urge you to approach these topics with an open heart and mind. Ask the “God of Wonders” to lead you into all truth and to bless you as you seek and follow him. You’ll emerge with a deeper faith and a more profound sense of awe in God’s majesty, creativity, and love for each of us.
- Lee Strobel
What do you mean by miracle? I hear that term used in so many ways.
So do I—sometimes even by myself! I was recently driving through downtown Houston, its streets choked with cars at rush hour, as I inched toward a skyscraper where I was due for a meeting. Suddenly, against all odds, I spotted a vacant parking space adjacent to the door.
“A miracle,” I mused—and maybe it was. Or maybe it wasn’t. The truth is that we often throw around that term too loosely.
Not long ago I set my computer to search for the keyword miracle among the news stories on the Internet, and all sorts of articles popped up:
- “Boat captain rescues ‘miracle’ cat thrown off bridge”
- “Miracle on Water Street: A doctor witnesses crash, saves man’s life”
- “Miracle baby born the size of a tennis ball now home”
- A football player was said to need a “miracle” to resuscitate his sagging career
- A diver who survived hitting his head on the platform is called a “miracle man”
So what’s the best way to define the miraculous? Philosophers and theologians have offered various descriptions. Augustine was poetic, saying a miracle is “whatever appears that is difficult or unusual above the hope and power of them who wonder.” Scottish philosopher David Hume was skeptical: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.” Oxford’s Richard Swinburne was straightforward, calling a miracle “an event of an extraordinary kind, brought about by a god, and of religious significance.”1
Personally, I’m partial to the definition offered by the late Richard L. Purtill, professor emeritus of philosophy at Western Washington University:
A miracle is an event:
- brought about by the power of God that is
- a temporary
- to the ordinary course of nature
- for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history.2
This obviously sets real miracles apart from much of what is described today as “miraculous”—including, I’ll have to admit, my finding a parking spot in Houston’s rush hour!
Can you explain the difference between a divine miracle and an ordinary coincidence?
Richard L. Purtill, whose definition of miracles I quoted in the previous answer, recounted how he was once prescribed nitroglycerine tablets for a heart condition. The pharmacist said something that stuck in his mind: if two pills taken in succession don’t relieve the pain, take a third but immediately call an ambulance.
Not long afterward, he awoke with chest pain. He took one pill and later another, but neither had an effect. He took a third, and his wife called 911. The paramedics arrived promptly, and his life was saved.
After he recovered, he had a flat tire on a car trip and his heart stopped while he was changing the tire. He fell unconscious, his head on the freeway. Two passing motorists stopped; both of them just happened to know CPR. One called the paramedics. Purtill’s heart was restarted, and his life was spared once more.
Although he said he’s grateful to God for the outcome, Purtill stressed that “there was nothing in the events to suggest any non-natural causes. The pharmacist’s remarks, the training of the people who helped me, the medical technology are all things that seem to need no non-natural explanation.”
Consequently, he doesn’t consider his survival to be miraculous. On the other hand, he does believe as a Christian that “God was, as usual, hiding divine action in plain sight amid the ordinary course of events.”1
So some of what we casually classify as “miracles” really seem closer to fortunate coincidences. How can we tell them apart? When I see something extraordinary that has spiritual overtones and is validated by an independent source or event, that’s when the “miracle” bell goes off in my mind.
In other words, a dream about a nebulous figure writing chemistry problems on a blackboard wouldn’t be miraculous in itself. But if those equations then correspond to the very same problems that present themselves on an examination the next day, that seems miraculous—especially if the event occurs after a prayer pleading for God’s help.
Spontaneous remissions sometimes happen in serious illnesses, but they usually take place over a period of time and often are transient. But if a serious illness is instantly and permanently eradicated at the exact moment a prayer for healing is being offered—well, that would probably push the needle over into the “miracle” category for me.
So, when trying to determine whether something is a miracle, the circumstances surrounding the event often matter as much as the event itself.
Aren’t a lot of miracle claims just plain weird—like people who see Jesus’ face on their burned burrito?
Absolutely. And as much as I like burritos, I have to wonder whether Jesus would manifest a miracle with something so obviously fattening!
But it gets weirder than that. Just scan the Internet for “strange miracles” and you’ll read stories about birds that consulted with saints, religious people levitating above the clouds, statues and paintings that weep, and, of course, Jesus’ face showing up not only on burritos, but also on pieces of toast, potato chips, tortillas, pizzas and pancakes, sliced oranges, inside the caps of Marmite jars, on Walmart receipts, garage doors, in the clouds, and even on the moldy trim next to an old bathtub.
Is it possible some of those are actual signs from God? I guess that’s possible, but to most observers these things come across as fake news or speculative rumors. Generally, these are easily discarded or at best become interesting curiosities. But they have no bearing on our lives—and they certainly don’t tell us anything about the validity of serious miracle claims.
Worse, these kinds of examples can sometimes be used by deceitful people to draw the gullible into their religious group or sect. Peter distanced himself from such things when he said, “We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). He also warned about false prophets who, “in their greed . . . will exploit you with fabricated stories” (2 Peter 2:3).
Paul was even more pointed:
- Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. (Colossians 2:18–19)
Also, if you look back at the definition of biblical miracles that I presented in the first chapter, these strange examples almost always miss the mark.
So, my advice would be to ignore these odd and meaningless claims. Focus instead on finding the truth about the genuine works of the Creator, with the goal of knowing him and his supernatural blessings in your life.
How common are miracles? Aren’t they pretty rare?
That’s what I used to think—but then I started my investigation into the miraculous. As I began researching this topic, my curiosity prompted me to commission a national scientific survey, which was conducted by Barna Research.1
What did we discover? Interestingly, half of US adults (51 percent) said they believe that the miracles of the Bible happened as they are described. The numbers, however, were lower among millennials (ages eighteen to thirty) compared to baby boomers (ages fifty to sixty-eight) by 43 percent versus 55 percent.
Asked whether miracles are possible today, two out of three Americans (67 percent) said yes, with only 15 percent saying no. The others weren’t sure. Again, there were generational differences, with young adults less likely (61 percent) to believe than boomers (73 percent). Incidentally, Republicans were more likely to believe in modern miracles (74 percent) than Democrats (61 percent)—a statistic on which I offer no comment.
I was interested in what was generating the skepticism of those who don’t think miracles can occur these days. The biggest reasons turned out to be a lack of belief in the supernatural (44 percent) and the contention that modern science has ruled out the possibility of miracles (20 percent). While only 12 percent of those age sixty-nine and older cited science as their obstacle, that number doubled among millennials.
Most of all, I wanted to know how many people have had an experience that they can explain only as being a miracle of God. I found that a surprising number of Americans believe God has intervened supernaturally in their lives.
As it turns out, nearly two out of five US adults (38 percent) said they have had such an experience—which by extrapolation means that an eye-popping 94,792,000 Americans are convinced that God has performed at least one miracle for them personally.2
Even weeding out instances that were actually just coincidences, as many of those undoubtedly would be, that still leaves a surprising number of seemingly supernatural events. Among various age groups, the data stayed fairly consistent: 35.5 percent among millennials and 39.7 percent among boomers.
The conclusion? It seems that miracles are not nearly as rare as we might assume.
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