God’s Spotty Performance on Miracles

Not quite a “tidal wave” of wonders

Christianity is stuck with its miracles—they’re an integral part of scripture—and Christian apologists are stuck with their obligation to defend them. Of course serious Christian thinkers—by which I mean those tuned in to how the real world works—have made the adjustment: miracle tales are part of folklore across a very diverse religious spectrum. So, no, Jesus didn’t walk on water, still the storm, or feed the five thousand. Given the era in which the New Testament was written, these are special effects that increase the wow-factor—“Just look at what gods can do!” Supposedly, of course, there is residual “spiritual value” in the miracle stories, so preachers can make the most of them.

But how could the Bible have gotten it so wrong—passing along fantasy tales so common in other religions as well? How can it be that Jesus didn’t perform the miracles we’re so used to hearing about? After all, aren’t they what he’s so famous for? Thus there are indeed apologists—at the conservative end of the spectrum—who won’t stand for any doubt about the truth of the Bible. No indeed, the Bible got it right, they insist, no matter how much some Christians don’t mind giving up Biblical literalism.

One way to defend the truth of Bible miracles is to show that God is still at it. One apologist who has risen to this challenge is Dr. Craig Keener; he published a two-volume work in 2011, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. This work earned two responses in the new John Loftus anthology, The Case Against Miracles, one by Darren Slade and another by Edward Babinski. In my blog article here on 27 December 2019, I offered my reflections on the Slade essay. Babinski offers a devastating critique as well.

I think most of us are suspicious of miracle claims. If your neighbor came home from a healing service at church and claimed that 500 people had witnessed the preacher regrow a man’s amputated leg, you would probably not be convinced. Your first response might be, “Wow, how many people got a video of that?” In other words, you’d be skeptical. You’d want evidence to back up such an extraordinary claim.

But if it’s in the Bible, people let their guard down. Once a Christian friend mentioned the reading of I Corinthians 15 on Easter Sunday—and how impressed he was by Paul’s report:

“…Christ appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.”

I asked my friend: “What was Paul’s source for this information?” Is his word to be trusted? In the same text Paul also claims that Christ appeared to him as well: Paul claimed that a dead man spoke to him. It’s not all that uncommon for people to hallucinate the dead appearing to them; in fact, it’s common in dreams. Anyone who wants to resist being taken in by religious fantasy would also ask for something more than Paul’s hearsay report; for example, it would be good to know how many of the 500 were interviewed about the experience. Whether it’s a regrown amputated leg or a body coming back life, we’d like verification based on hard data.

But those who are hooked on religious fantasy—as found in the Bible or contemporary versions of piety—commonly skip the request for verification. Testimony is good enough for them.

In Babinski’s analysis of the Keener book, he focuses attention on the extent that Keener relies on testimony, and seems to assume that his case can be made by “the tidal wave” of miracle reports. Keener even concedes that many of the so-called miracles have “natural explanations,” but surely in the mix there must be the real miracles.

Resurrection, of course, is a big thing in Christianity, and since the New Testament overused the idea—the raising of Lazarus, the many dead people who emerged from their tombs near Jerusalem on Easter morning, the disciples being commissioned by Jesus to raise the dead—healing preachers have capitalized on this superstition. Keener cites the example of Pentecostal preacher Smith Wigglesworth (1859-1947), to whom fourteen resurrections were attributed.

Babinski cites the work of Sandra Anne Carp, who did extensive research on this character: “Wigglesworth raising from the dead stories appear to be intentionally deceptive claims.” (p. 151) “As a result of this investigation, I believe the mythology surrounding Wigglesworth has been created by Wigglesworth himself; biographers and later authors continued to further develop these myths.” (p. 152)

Why include Wigglesworth is a “tidal wave” of miracles? Why would any apologist aiming for honesty and credibility have included such accounts in a defense of miracles? For each of the fourteen resurrections we would need thorough corroborating evidence, not just “Well, he convinced a lot of people.”

Miracles, of course, have been taken as evidence for gods for millennia—so why not pile on the stories? Many people will be impressed, and Keener’s 1,200-plus page work was intended to inspire awe. But it’s a flawed methodology, in terms of trying to find out what really has happened. Each miracle cited—to be honestly included in such a massive study—would need careful documentation. Babinski points out the failure of sound methodology:

“Keener admits he did not have the time or resources to vet more than a small number of the miraculous claims in his book (many of course are not even capable of being vetted due to the passage of time, lack of medical data, or their anecdotal nature). But his enthusiasm apparently got the better of him, hence his choice of quantity over quality.” (p. 166)

Babinski goes into considerable detail (pp. 152-157) analyzing two supposed miracles that Keener cites—both of which happened too long ago for proper vetting. Babinski demonstrates the kind of digging and probing that Keener ought to have done. The first was the healing of Blaise Pascal’s niece, Marguerite Perier in 1656; this occurred when her eye fistula was healed after being touched by a holy relic, a thorn from the crown of thorns. Was it really smart for Keener to include a blatant example of magical thinking in his tidal wave of miracles? Touch something that touched Christ and you’ll be healed? Moreover, how in the world can anyone verify that the thorn in question came from the crown of thorns?—provided it’s not pure fiction anyway.

Then there was the healing of Edward Morike, who died in 1875. Babinski refutes Keener’s claim that Morike had been unable to walk, by citing Keener’s own source, a biography of the healer, Johann Christoph Blumbardt: “Morike’s improvement did not last. His health never improved sufficiently to allow him more than a few hours of productivity for weeks or months at a time…His own illness caused him constant pain, and his death on June 4, 1875 was not unexpected.” (pp. 156-157)

Keener landed on these two “miracles” because the prominent skeptics David Hume and David F. Strauss had dismissed them—for lack of evidence. Babinski’s research demonstrates that Hume and Strauss were correct.

Of course so many of the miracles included in Keener’s tidal wave of wonders are modeled on Biblical accounts, e.g. the healing miracles of Jesus and Peter. But he admits that there have not been many imitations of one specific miracle:

“I have neither found nor expect to find any solid modern reports of ascensions, which pure invention might create perhaps to evoke very exceptional biblical narrative.”

Why isn’t “pure invention”—enabled by the widespread failure of critical thinking—at work in the vast majority of miracle stories? But Keener commits, it seems to me, a grave error in mentioning the Ascension of Jesus. This is the story—in Acts 1 especially—that falsifies Christianity.

This cannot be stated emphatically enough: The ascension story falsifies Christianity.

In Acts 1 we read that Jesus ascended to heaven: the disciples watched it happened: “a cloud took him out of their sight.” This story worked for first century audiences because heaven, even multiple levels of heaven, were up there. Knowing what we now know, we can be 100 percent certain that the body of Jesus never left planet earth. Period.

So what happened to him? No matter how passionately Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected—despite the embarrassingly bad resurrection tale—the inescapable conclusion is that, remaining as he did on planet earth, Jesus died again. And presumable was buried again. Thus the New Testament is guilty of a cover-up; it has lied about what happened to Jesus. So the resurrected Jesus suffered the same fate as the resurrected Lazarus and all those resurrected folks who wandered around Jerusalem on Easter morning: they all died again. The whole point of the resurrection of Jesus is that he conquered death and lives on in glory with the father. But, if he died just as all humans do, this theology is defeated by reality.

Thus I appreciate Babinski’s inclusion of an extended discussion of the ascension stories (pp. 159-165), following Keener’s comment that there are so few ascension-miracle stories—nothing to compare, for example, with healing miracles. Babinski shows that the ascension story was intended to parallel or mimic ascension stories of Roman emperors, and he provides a careful analysis of the imagery used by the author of Luke-Acts, who easily imagined ascents to heaven:

“The ascension scene is just one of several in Luke-Acts in which beings return to heaven. There is Luke 1:38 (“Then the angel left her.”); 2:15 (“When the [multitude of] angels had left them and gone back to heaven”); 9:33 (“as Moses and Elijah were leaving”); 24:51 (“he [Jesus] left them and was taken up to heaven”). Such scenes are common to that author.” (p. 165)

This kind of mythology was slipped into the gospels in place of honesty about what really happened to Jesus. Readers should follow Babinski’s lead in carefully dissecting the resurrection-ascension narratives. If there is anything we should repeatedly and emphatically ask Christians to think about, it would be the ascension story. It has disastrous fallout for their faith; the alternatives are not sustainable.

Keener does make damning concessions. Babinski quotes this admission: “…vast numbers of people in the world—probably the majority—who need healing…do not have it,” and adds, “Keener’s own caveats may reduce his ‘tidal wave’ to a trickle after natural explanations and failed prayers (recalling the few hits, forgetting the misses) are taken into consideration.” (p. 148) Nonetheless, Keener is comfortable espousing “God provides” theology:

“God cares about us more than he cares about birds and flowers, and yet he provides from them, Jesus says. How much more, then, will he provide for us?”

Which prompts Babinski’s retort: “Which seems trite coming from someone who admits that the majority of those who need healing do not receive it.” (p. 168) And Babinski brings a welcome bit of humor to the discussion:

“…Jesus makes it sound like we are all living in a garden of Eden where God provides for birds, and humans even more so. Not a very comforting comparison since millions of birds are slaughtered in factories each month (or sacrificed in Old Testament days). Another way they perish is starvation. A third of adult birds and four-fifths of their offspring die of starvation every year…I guess that’s how God works. So when Jesus says that God cares more about us than birds, he isn’t saying much—but it does make me more sympathetic towards birds.” (p 169)

Moreover, the idea that God takes care of birds raises a fundamental question about collecting miracle stories to prove something—to prove anything—about God. Why does God apply miracles so unevenly? Why would he favor those who touch a sacred relic? Why would he perform miracles in answer to some prayers—but obviously ignore so many other prayers? Keener’s collection makes us wonder why God’s miracle performance is so spotty. It would actually be a blow to benevolent theism—belief in a good God—if it could be proved that God indeed cured just one person of cancer. If he has that power, if he can perform that astounding feat, then why not eliminate cancer once and for all, lift that scourge from humanity?

And we’re waiting for the other big miracles that the Good Lord never seems to get around to: stopping tsunamis, pandemics, genocides, persecutions, slavery, starvation. The list goes on forever—surely God is swamped with prayers for help. During the Nazi siege of Leningrad (1941-1944) up to fifty thousand people died of starvation per month.

God needs to step up his game. That would give Keener something to brag about.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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