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Strobel’s The Case for Miracles Reviewed

We earlier did Strobel’s press conference. I won’t repeat details of that here, which is concerned solely with the book.

Strobel sticks with the formula that brought him to the ball. He begins and ends each chapter as a breathless race against the clock. He runs to the car to hurry to the next interview—before it’s too late. He bursts out, pondering the clues, and jumps on an airplane to the next man in the chain. It’s a mystery whether miracles are real, and our hero is going to solve it.

Not unlike modern journalists, he’s always inserting himself into the story. He smiles, holds up his hand, feels “emotional punches”, and pads with things like “‘Good point’, I said”, and “I was about to ask a follow-up question when Strauss jumped in with an interesting theological observation.”

This makes for what book reviewers call a “breezy” read. There isn’t anything challenging, and it’s doubtful any atheist would be convinced by the material. But it does provide a useful starting point for Christians who have not thought deeply about the subject.

There are pleasant surprises. Such as the interview with arch-skeptic Michael Shermer, who is given three chapters, and who comes across as a sympathetic character. Shermer started as a protesting Christian but fell away after experiencing what seemed to him unanswered prayers. He then leaned too hard on Hume and became a skeptic.

But Shermer is not dogmatic. He ends with an eerie story of a radio coming to life at just the right moment, only to die again as the moment passed. (More about that here in his own words.) Strobel asked, “Did this incident crack open a door for you?” Shermer answered, “A little, yeah. Maybe a bit.”

I paused and considered this. I wondered at how I felt about it. But this book review had to be done by 7 AM, so I quickly turned the page to the next chapter. “What was this next chapter about?” I asked myself.

It’s about Craig Keener pointing up the absurdity of David Hume’s argument against miracles. “Hume defines miracle as a violation of natural law, and he defines natural law as being principles that cannot be violated.” Many were persuaded by that maneuver.

Strobel acknowledges the weaknesses of medical miracles. Spontaneous remissions, placebo effects, misdiagnoses, even scams account for many supposed miracles. A shortcoming Strobel did not flesh out is that as medical knowledge increases, what earlier seemed miraculous becomes mundane. That also shows his working definition of miracle is in need of fixing (which I will do elsewhere). Still, some cures, such as being raised from the dead, are surely miraculous.

He met with Candy Gunther Brown, a physician who explained what happened when scientists tried studying miracles. These earnest researchers must never have heard Thou shalt not tempt [test] the Lord thy God.

One peer-reviewed study was the “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer” study, a “prospective, randomized, double-blind, parallel group controlled trial”, published in American Heart Journal. One group prayed for, one group not. No wee p-values were found.

But then the prayer team in the study were not “genuinely Christian”. “Reading through Unity’s [the prayer group’s] beliefs, I detected a mixture of Hinduism, Spritism, Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and Christian Science.” Not quite classical theological views.

Brown pointed to other statistical studies where prayer did produce wee ps, which was enough to convince her. It will not be convincing to those who understand the severe limitations of statistical models. Nor to those who question the theology of statistically testing the Lord’s powers.

An intriguing anecdote came from missionary Tom Doyle, whose milieu is the Muslim world.

[M]ore Muslims have become Christians in the last couple of decades than in the previous fourteen hundred years since Muhammad, and it’s estimated that a quarter to a third of them experienced a dream or vision of Jesus before their salvation experience.

The dream is (reportedly) the same: a vision of a man in a white robe bringing the feeling of intense love.

Strobel spends some time with physics: the Big Bang, multiverses, fine tuning of physics constants, and so on. This section is, as would be expected, hand-wavy. (See instead Robert Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God, which requires advanced study in physics to follow.)

The last words on when miracles don’t happen is poignant, and even more unsolvable than eternal inflation theory.

What’s more fascinating, but not unexpected, is how many Christians are embarrassed about the subject, preferring to side with atheists on the impossibility of miracles (at least in our time). Once you allow miracles you are forced to acknowledge the supernatural—and all that that entails.

10 thoughts on “Strobel’s The Case for Miracles Reviewed Leave a comment

  1. People don’t seem to understand that there is no love in Islam. There is obedience and mercy
    (for the faithful), but no love.

    I’m amused by the current “scientific” fad that says the universe is merely a simulation being run by some all-knowing, all-powerful creator who stands outside of it. They explain consciousness as a program being run on supercomputers outside this mundane existence, which use the simulated brains as a complicated input-output device.

    It’s almost like they’re describing God and souls without using the words God and soul. No, wait, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

  2. The replies to your previous, recent piece here about Strobel pointed out that he is a well-known fraud and liar.

    In any case, I thought that your parody of his style in this review was nicely done.

  3. Ok. So what is your conclusion about this Strobel’s work? Does it prove anything? Your last article seemed to say “Yes”. This article seems to say “No”. What is your position about miracles in our time?

  4. Briggs is correct that in US churches, Catholic and mainline Protestant, that from the pulpit the lesson is that miracles were for “then” as in the time of Jesus and not for now. So the faithful are tempered and trained not to ask for or look for miracles, and voila, none are forthcoming.

  5. Had a whole different reply prepared but changed my mind.

    I would like to tell a story, not mine, but anonymous enough and several times removed, at a safe distance from the sharks.

    I believe it. My Brother told me and the lady who told him was a colleague of his several years ago.
    She was sitting in her kitchen, there was a knock at the door, she answered the door to her father who sat with her for a little while and brought her several or a rose, I can’t recall. She then explained that he went and nothing seemed unusual. Then, that she heard afterwards of his death. Prior to the evening she had seen him. This is in keeping with people’s experience of occurrences around death. These people are not necessarily Christians. This is what some Christians don’t want you to know. She also told my Brother that she had never told anybody and did not know why sho was telling him (except my brother has that kind of effect on people.)

    I believe that story because it fits with my, not identical, experiences, those of the many others I’ve listened to.

  6. “We marvel at something when, seeing an effect, we do not know the cause. And since one and the same cause is at times known to certain people and not to others, it happens that some marvel and some do not.”
    — St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra gentiles

    Of course, a marvel/miracle — the same Latin word does duty for both — need not be a suspension of the laws of nature any more than an author “suspends” the laws of grammar in a novel he is writing. Calling a miracle a “spontaneous remission” does not seem a vast improvement in nomenclature, but more like a case of begging the question. Normally speaking, iron does not naturally float on water; but fashioned into the form of, say, a battleship, it may do quite well. That’s why Hume’s definition is somewhat tendentious.

    The example of the “prayer group” experiment is ludicrous. God, under carefully designed and controlled conditions will do exactly as he pleases; and the conditions described were hardly controlled. What was to prevent some sincerely devout twelve-year old girl somewhere from praying for the health of everyone everywhere? The effectiveness of prayer does not depend on an inverse square law, after all.

    A number of years ago, I was in the intensive care unit suffering from toxic shock syndrome and was, as one of my doctors later put it, “this close” to being on the wrong side of the grass. One of my kidneys had shut down entirely and after several days of trying to work around on a shunt, they moved me to the prep room for dialysis. That evening, the parish priest, the delightfully-named Rev. Deogratias Rwegasira, A.J., visited and we prayed. The next morning, the kidney specialist appeared in the doorway and announced that the kidney had begin working overnight and the preparations were already underway to move me back to normal ICU care.

  7. YOS,
    Your comment amounts to a denial of occurrence of actual miracles which are true suspensions of the laws of nature. For instance, the virgin birth contradicts the laws of human biology–a woman can’t remain a virgin after giving a normal birth. This contradiction can not be understood or explained with a naturalistic framework.
    The Christian religion is founded on true miracles and to deny that miracles suspend the laws of nature can nothing but damaging to the Christian religion.

  8. That depends on whether you allow only the modern scientific definition of “virgin.” The original term meant “a woman who has not had relations with a man.” That may or may not correspond to “a woman with an intact hymen.” The latter is generally indicative of the former, but there are things that may break the latter other than the former. My solitary point was that calling something “spontaneous remission” is not in any way superior to calling it a “miracle.” Miracles take place innumerable times every day when bread and wine take on the substance of the body and blood without losing the accidents of the bread and wine.

  9. YOS,
    I believe the doctors that sit on the Lourdes committee do distinguish between spontaneous remission and miraculous cures.

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