On Eric Metaxas’s Miracles
by Brian Watson
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the launch of Eric Metaxas’s new book, Miracles (New York: Dutton, 2014). What that means was that I received a free copy of the book prior to its official publication date (last Tuesday), and was invited to help promote it.
In case you don’t know Eric Metaxas, he is one funny and talented fellow. I first encountered him when I saw his performance at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast (I highly recommend watching the video). I have also seen his Socrates in the City interviews. He is also the author of Amazing Grace, a biography of William Wilberforce, and Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Miracles is the first Metaxas book I’ve read.
Purpose and Structure of the Book
Metaxas wants his readers to believe in the possibility of miracles. He wants them to believe they can happen, to trust the God who works miracles, and to understand how they can change their lives.
The book is structured in two parts. The part, “The Question of Miracles,” is a defense of the very possibility of miracles. The second, larger part, “The Miracle Stories,” relates miracle stories experienced by, or told to, Metaxas. In his own words: “I decided to limit the book only to the stories of people I knew personally” (xi). These people, in Metaxas’s view, are trustworthy. Additionally, “I vetted these stories and all their details as carefully as possible” (xii). I’m not sure if that is true, as we’ll see below, but Metaxas wants the reader to know he’s not including questionable stories from questionable characters.
The Question of Miracles
The first part of the book is an attempt to persuade the reader that miracles are possible. Metaxas here argues against a materialistic, naturalistic worldview–one that denies the existence of the immaterial and the supernatural, not to mention the miraculous. Miracles, in Metaxas’s view, are God breaking into space and time to communicate to us. “Miracles are signs, and like all signs, they are never about themselves; they’re about whatever they are pointing toward. Miracles point to something beyond themselves. But to what? To God himself” (16).
Much of Metaxas’s case rests on this argument: “[I]f we believe that God created the universe out of nothing–ex nihilo, to use the famous Latin phrase–how can we possibly quibble over small miracles like turning water into wine or giving sight to a man born blind? Believing that God could create the universe but could not perform any infinitely smaller miracle is illogical” (12). Miracles, by their nature, are not repeated occurrences that can be tested by experimental science. They are historical events, reported by eyewitnesses. In the case of the eyewitnesses of the Bible, Metaxas thinks we should give them the benefit of the doubt. “Shouldn’t we give the people in the past the same respect and dignity we would like people to give us?” (18). People in the past reported miracles not because they were searching for some religious explanation for how things normally worked, but because something amazing happened, an event that could be explained by natural causes, one intended by God to communicate something.
Metaxas then shows that science and miracles are not at odds. Relying heavily on the Oxford mathematician, John Lennox, Metaxas states that “the realm of the miraculous is by definition beyond the scope of science,” and “The world of scientific inquiry does not encompass all rational inquiry” (26, original emphasis). In other words, science has its limits.
In the chapters that follow, Metaxas explores the fine tuning of the universe–the observation that the universe seems to be designed to support human life on Earth. He also sees that the Big Bang theory, which implies creation ex nihilo, supports the idea that the very existence of the universe, as well as life within it, is miraculous.
He also takes up the question of why God heals some and not others. Why does God perform some miracles, in which he heals or protects, yet not eradicate all evil, healing all, protecting all? In other words, why does God allow suffering. Metaxas’s answer: “as much as we wish to avoid suffering, there is more to life than merely avoiding suffering” (65). Suffering must have a purpose. (Interestingly, in the same chapter, he makes the observation that not everything supernatural is good, and that there are angels and demons–this is an important issue that he seems to forget later on as he presents miracle stories. We have to entertain the possibility that some things that appear “miraculous” may not come from the hand of the Lord.)
In Metaxas’s view, many people today do not believe in miracles because they think reported miracles of the past are myths. Now, we know better. We know certain things are not possible because scientists have taught us that much. Yet this is a fairly arrogant claim. “Every culture and era flatters itself that we are the finally seeing what previous eras and cultures could not see because of their own blinders and ideological lenses. . . . What is it about human pride that insists our generation is the one to finally see the unmediated and unadulterated truth?” (74).
Metaxas finishes the first part of the book by looking at some miracles of the Bible, including the resurrection of Jesus.
Before I look at the content of the second half of the book, I want to make some commentary on the first half. Metaxas makes some excellent points about science and faith. However, the first half of the book is marred by three problems. One, Metaxas does not provide citations for quotes, facts taken from books, and even Bible passages. If he is intention is to persuade skeptics, he should have included some footnotes. Two, he makes a few errors. He confuses 1 Kings for 2 Kings, and vice versa (86, 98), which could be a couple slips of the pen. But, more seriously, he confuses dispensationalism (a particular way of reading the Bible with a certain perspective on the end times) for cessationism (the idea that miraculous spiritual gifts such as speaking and tongues and prophesying are no longer in effect) (72-73). In fact, I think he is confused on what most cessationists believe. That’s a major theological error, which created some doubt in mind as to the author’s ability to make any theological points on miracles. A good editor would have caught these mistakes. My third critique is that the first part of the book felt a little disjointed and didn’t go far enough in providing a philosophical case for miracles. I think Metaxas expects a popular audience, not one steeped in philosophy, science, or apologetics. Still, other popular books have proper citations and make their case, so why not do the same here?
The Miracle Stories
In my opinion, it is the second part of the book that is its heart and soul. Over two hundred pages are devoted to various miracles stories relayed to or, in the case of at least two, experienced by, the author. The stories are presented in various groupings: conversion miracles, physical healing miracles, inner healing miracles, angelic appearances, and assorted other miracles that don’t fit neatly into other categories.
Instead of trying to summarize all these stories, I’ll offer some thoughts:
The conversion stories were all encouraging to read. I suppose all the miracle stories were encouraging, and that is Metaxas’s point.
The stories are told clearly and fairly well, though I was expecting more of Metaxas’s signature wit, which was largely missing throughout this book. (It is at this point that I should report the funniest line of the book, which comes from the first part: “For these people [ones who love miracles but don’t want to use reason or examine evidence], exactly what one believes in matters less than belief itself, and they don’t want to get too close to the details of it, lest they eff the ineffable and the fairy dust be blown away” (13, original emphasis).
I personally found the story about story of April Hernandez, her abortion, and subsequent experience of forgiveness the most moving story. It was told with honesty, compassion (yet not condoning of the sin), and hope.
The most amazing story was of a man named Hector who was supposedly healed of AIDS. Hector was a prisoner who was wasting away. Another prisoner, Cisco, prayed for his healing and, though Hector was about to die, he is reported to be healed of AIDS. I have no doubt that this is possible. Yet what I find strange is that though Hector was under the care of doctors (including a Dr. Matthews), in a specific hospital (Kings County Hospital), at a certain time in history, we have no indication that Metaxas actually contacted the prison, the hospital, or the doctors to vet the story (remember he said he personally vetted each story). I don’t find it incredible that God could heal a man of AIDS. But I find it hard to believe that this story didn’t make national headlines.
One more note: I was very disappointed that Metaxas tells the story of a Catholic woman who prays to her deceased husband for something, a request that apparently was answered. I have no doubt that this happened, or that the thing for which the woman asked occurred, but there was no theological commentary. Should we believe that God answered the prayer in spite of the woman’s bad theology? Or could this possibly be activity of demons? (Remember the point above about how not everything supernatural is of the Lord.) Metaxas doesn’t say.
The theology expressed throughout this book is one that is very subjective and not one anchored in Scripture, God’s objective revelation to us all. I fear that Metaxas inadvertently presents a theology of revelation that is highly individualized, as if we should expect that God will communicate to all of us through miracles. Yet I know many Christians who have never experienced the miraculous. I, for one, have not. I do not view my experience of God as insufficient or lacking because of that. Yet I fear that readers of Miracles would come to expect that they, too, should experience miracles. But what if they don’t? Will they be disappointed?
The Bible contains many miracle stories that, I have no doubt, are true. But the Bible doesn’t indicate that everyone in this age will experience miracles. We should pray for God to heal, and we should pray for God to provide, but we are not promised that God will supernaturally hear or protect. Unfortunately, these issues are not addressed by Metaxas.
To reiterate the positive, however: this book presents some good thoughts on the possibility of miracles in a scientific age, and it provides the reader many interesting and encouraging stories. It provides some rational for believing in the possibility of miracles. Those who would be turned off by footnotes, end notes, or longer, more technical arguments will find this book easier to read. Readers looking for encouragement may find this book to be helpful. Those looking for a better defense and/or theology of miracles will have to look elsewhere.