Dr Gary Burnett offers this review of Craig Keener’s recent book, Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World, Baker, 2021.
Craig Keener is a significant and hugely respected New Testament scholar. If this book had been written by almost anyone else, I confess, I’m not sure what I would have made of it, containing as it does account after eye-watering account of healings and other miracles, including raisings of the dead. And I say that as someone who was involved for many years in a charismatic church, and who believes in a visible ministry of the Holy Spirit, in divine healing, speaking in tongues and so on.
But, over the years, personally, I’ve seen very little in the way of dramatic healings and other miracles and so I suppose you get “squeezed into that same old mould” of thinking as everybody else does, that in our modern, scientific world that sort of stuff doesn’t really happen, or, perhaps, might do rarely. Although I’ve said I believe in miracles, I haven’t really expected to see anything of the sort. And then, of course, many of us have seen the preachers who lay hands on people and push them over and things like the apparent lengthening of legs, and known heart-breaking stories of people believing for a miracle and then being terribly disappointed to the detriment of their faith.
So I came to the book intrigued that such a book might be written by someone like Craig Keener, many of whose commentaries, books and journal papers I was very aware of. His monumental 1,200-page Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, though, had somehow passed me by, so I came to Miracles Today fresh, with no knowledge of the author’s previous work in this area.
The book begins, arrestingly, with an account of the miraculous healing of Barbara Cummiskey, who suffered for many years with multiple sclerosis. She spent many of those years in hospital, suffering a variety of dreadful infections, and became almost blind and unable to walk. Coming to what was assumed to be the final weeks of her life, her body was contracted in a permanent foetal position. One Sunday, as friends from her church were visiting, Barbara heard a voice telling her to get up and walk. And, that’s what she did, something she’d been unable to do for years. She was suddenly no longer blind, her deformed hands and feet were working just fine and she no longer needed the oxygen she’d been dependent upon.
Keener has interviewed this woman and the doctors who treated her and has been able to verify this remarkable story. At this early point I was hooked, I could feel myself beginning to get excited and faith beginning to stir.
The rest of the book consists largely of account after account of miraculous events, mostly healings from around the world that have been shared with Keener by eyewitnesses. Many of these have been verified by medical professionals and Keener provides dates, names and circumstances for each account, approaching the overall task with considerable academic rigour.
After that initial account, and before he begins the various chapters on different types of miracles, Keener helpfully discusses the question of what constitutes a miracle, why people assume that they do not happen and whether science could be said to disprove miracles. He spends a little time, showing, quite convincingly, the difficulties with David Hume’s definition of a miracle as a “violation of natural law,” his view that miracles cannot occur, and his dismissal of eye-witness testimony. After a further discussion of the value of eye-witnesses, the occurrence of miracles in Christian history and in all sections of the church, Keener begins in earnest with his accounts of modern miracles.
He proceeds by grouping miracles into various chapters – so you can read accounts of healings from virtual brain death, from cancer, and from blindness, and of resuscitation of the dead. There are scores of accounts, to the extent that, interesting as they are, it becomes a little difficult to read huge chunks of the book at once. But maybe that’s a good thing. I found, in reading the book over the space of a few weeks, that it was beginning to have an effect on me, chipping away at my…well, let’s be blunt, unbelief. I found my faith strengthened and renewed, not simply at the thought that I might see God work a miracle sometime soon (though I’m not now discounting that), but more that, if God really is at work all around the world, breaking in and doing things we call miraculous, then that means something for my prayer life, and it means something for my expectations beyond this life.
So, if God is mending broken limbs and removing tumours, then I might expect something to happen when I pray for this person or that situation. The book, then, has been an encouragement to pray more and to do so expectantly. And, as Christians, we all believe in the resurrection and being present with the Lord after we die. Of course we do. And, as St. John says, “blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed.” But somehow, as I read Miracles Today, and I came face-to-face with God being very tangibly at work in today’s world, I found my sense of confidence in God’s future for the world and for me heightened. That’s not unimportant, the older you get.
Miracles as signs, then. That’s very much the way Keener sees them: “extraordinary signs…special acts of God that get attention and communicate something about him.” In a world where Keener recognizes that everybody dies and most people do not get miraculously cured from disease, he sees the miracles he has recounted as “already” signs of the kingdom which “nurture hope for its ‘not yet’ consummation.”
The book, although largely recounting many attested miracle stories, is more than that. Keener discusses a range of topics including why there are more miraculous events taking place in the developing world, what happens when healing doesn’t happen, and God being at work in modern medicine. Along the way, I was impressed by his own account of healing and healings within his family.
Since reading the book, I’ve had time to try and integrate it into my thinking and, I hope, to some degree, way of life. God is at work in all sorts of ways, in the mundane and the ordinary, in the trials and difficulties of life, often just through his presence or through the support of others. Sickness and suffering are the lot of all of us at some time or another, and sadly, are what makes up daily life for huge numbers of people in the world, including Christians, many of whom are suffering terrible persecution.
And yet – Keener’s miracle accounts are a much-needed reminder of God’s presence in the world and they are a spur to faith. They help us take our eyes off the trials and the mundane and the ordinary and encourage us that God is, indeed, at work in the world. And, if we have the faith to see it, in our own lives.
Dr Gary W Burnett taught New Testament for many years in the Institute of Theology at Queen’s University Belfast and is the author of a number of books, including the recently published Paul Distilled.