My recent book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), responds to claims like R. Bultmann’s. New Testament scholars have often taken for granted Bultmann’s quip that no one in the modern world believes in miracles. Some have even assumed that biblical reports of Jesus’ miracles must have arisen by legend or later invention, excluding the possibility of reliable tradition from eyewitnesses. Yet from a sociological standpoint, such an approach is certainly wrong. However we explain the claims, firsthand witnesses can and do report miracles, and report them by the millions.
Indeed, most historical Jesus scholars today recognize that Jesus’ contemporaries experienced him as a healer and an exorcist. The scholars themselves explain this experience in different ways, sometimes as psychosomatic recoveries. But most recognize that all our earliest sources, both Christian and non-Christian, agree that Jesus was known for healing. The earliest form of Josephus’s brief comments about Jesus, for example, portrays Jesus as a healer as well as a sage (cf. e.g., G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew [Fortress, 1973], 79). Granted that some wish to leave the matter there historically, what options remain if we want to explain these cures theologically?
Bultmann felt no need to argue against the possibility of miracles, because no one in his circle believed in them. Yet I doubt that Bultmann himself would claim today that no one believes in miracles. He might not believe in miracles himself, but he certainly could not dismiss them by an appeal to universal modern opinion. We know too much about modern opinion for that.
United Methodist theologian J. González points out that “what Bultmann declares to be impossible is not just possible, but even frequent” (Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit [Orbis, 2001], 63). Likewise, Hwa Yung, Methodist bishop of Malaysia, challenges Bultmann’s ethnocentric approach to the modern world, noting that Asian worldviews do not find miracles or spirits problematic (Mangoes or Bananas? The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology [Regnum, 1997]). Even among people in the US, surveys suggest that roughly 80 percent believe in miracles, including 73 percent of physicians. Indeed, 55 percent of physicians report that they have witnessed treatment results that they consider miraculous.
Globally, the figures of those who believe they have witnessed miracles are enormous. A 2006 Pew Forum survey estimated the proportion of Pentecostals and charismatics in ten nations who claimed to have witnessed or experienced divine healing. For these groups alone, and in these ten countries alone, the figures come out to roughly two hundred million people. More surprisingly, some 39 percent of Christians in these ten countries who do not claim to be Pentecostal or charismatic offer the same claims. Even granting the serious possibility of inflation in some of these figures, we are talking about hundreds of millions of people.
Nor are these figures exhaustive. The ten countries surveyed did not include some countries that also boast high figures, such as China. More than a decade ago some members of the official China Christian Council reported that about half the abundant conversions of the previous two decades resulted from “faith healing experiences.” Some other Christian sources in China estimate as high as 90 percent. Whatever the precise figures, we are talking about vast numbers of people. Not only in China but elsewhere, many have been so convinced by the cures that they have made costly changes in their traditional religious or spiritual affiliation.
In other cases, claims are offered by those who are not Christians, sometimes even about Christian prayers. In one study in 1981, roughly 10 percent of non-Christians in Madras, India, reported having experienced significant healings through prayers to Jesus, with more than twice that number aware of such healings (M. Bergunder, The South Indian Pentecostal Movement in the Twentieth Century [Eerdmans, 2008], 233). I offer some concrete samples of miracle claims below.
In simply dismissing miracles, Bultmann followed a traditional argument developed by D. Hume. Although many philosophers today challenge Hume’s argument, many intellectuals simply take for granted that miracle claims are not believable, often without realizing that they echo Hume.
Recycling arguments of earlier deists, Hume’s brief essay sometimes confuses modern readers. The first part of his essay may try to explain miracles away: they are violations of natural law, and natural law cannot be violated. Hume’s argument depends on a then-current understanding of natural law no longer accepted. (Even in his own day, most English scientists who affirmed natural law, such as Isaac Newton, also believed in biblical miracles.) Hume’s definition differed from historic ones, and does not fit most biblical examples of miracles (e.g., even the parting of the sea employed a strong wind, according to Exod 14:21).
Most relevant here, Hume’s understanding of natural law extrapolates from limited human experience, the subject of the second part of his essay. In the second part of Hume’s essay, he denies that we should trust even eyewitness testimony for miracles because uniform human experience leads us not to expect that miracles happen. As most philosophers of religion point out today, Hume’s argument here is circular: uniform human experience is used to exclude claims about human experience that differ from the alleged uniformity. Today, when we are aware that hundreds of millions of people claim to have witnessed or experienced divine healing, it would be difficult for even Hume to appeal to “uniform” human experience. One might disbelieve in miracles, but one cannot argue from universal human experience to simply dismiss them.
Many even in Hume’s own day and shortly afterward (such as John Wesley) challenged his argument, but in many circles Hume got away with it. Miracles were not reported in his own circle, and he had ways of dispensing with reports in other circles. For example, he dismissed non-Western reports by attributing them to “ignorant and barbarous” peoples, following an earlier deist line of argument. Lest we suppose that Hume meant this in a less ethnocentric way than it sounds, he elsewhere claims that all true civilizations in history were white; others widely adopted his arguments supporting slavery and the inferiority of people of color. Confronted with the reality of a Jamaican Cambridge graduate who composed poetry in Latin, Hume compared him to a parrot that mimicked human sounds. Unfortunately, Hume’s racist dismissal of non-Western reports found ready hearers.
Hume also dismissed Western miracle reports, complaining that religious people’s claims were sectarian, hence untrustworthy. Blaise Pascal’s niece had a foul-smelling, running eye sore; she was instantly and publicly healed at a Jansenist monastery and the queen mother of France sent her own physician to verify the report. Hume cites some of the evidence supporting this cure, notes that it is better documented than miracles in the Bible, and then uses this observation to dismiss evidence for all miracle reports, since, after all, he considered this miracle unbelievable. Hume got away with this dismissal because Protestants already had the habit of dismissing all Catholic miracle claims.
Most thinkers today would reject arguments based on ethnocentrism or sectarian polemic. If we reject Hume’s circular argument against miracles, miracles should be allowed back on the table as a potential explanation for some anomalous events. Indeed, the firsthand claims available for miracles are stronger than much evidence we use for other claims about historical or current events that we commonly take for granted.
Clearly firsthand witnesses do report miracles. They do not all arise, as biblical critics once supposed, through legends or the literary imagination of the writers. But even when miracle claims stem from eyewitnesses, do we need to suppose that they are genuinely miracles, i.e., divine acts?
Not always. In a small minority of cases, fraud is involved. More common is exaggeration or initial misdiagnosis. Moreover, studies show that “faith” itself has curative properties and religious practice encourages positive health outcomes. A large proportion of ailments have psychosomatic or psychogenic causes that can be treated psychologically. Psychoimmunology shows how belief influences immune responses.
Christians may believe that God can work through such factors to achieve cures in these cases, but is the Christian God limited to such means? Some accounts today invite other explanations, for example, in reports of cataracts instantly disappearing or persons recovering from apparent death. Cataracts require surgery for removal, and after six minutes without oxygen a person suffers irreparable brain damage.
When people speak about experiencing miracles, what do they mean? For the book I interviewed scores of people from around the world, as well as surveyed claims published in other sources. Reported cures addressed a wide range of illnesses. I offer the barest sample in what follows.
As a child, Brad Wilkinson had atrial septal defect, with two holes in his heart. A week before surgery was scheduled, the family went for prayer at their church, but on the day before the surgery tests confirmed that the holes remained. The next day, however, as the doctors went in to repair the heart, they found that it was completely restored — so much so that Brad was sent home the next day with no restrictions. Now an adult, Brad has never experienced further heart problems, and his father and former minister both remember the healing vividly.
Undergraduate Joy Wahnefried suffered from vertical heterophoria, a problem with her vision that generated severe migraines. During prayer, she was suddenly and completely healed, to the extent that she no longer needed glasses. She sent me material certifying the dramatic change in her condition.
Additional dramatic reports, from people I know personally, include cures of blindness. Although most cases of blindness are not supernaturally healed, hundreds of instances of healing are reported. Flint McGlaughlin, director of enterprise research at the Transforming Business Institute, Cambridge University, prayed for a blind leper in India whose eyes were clouded with cataracts. Both Flint and another eyewitness reported to me that the man was instantly and publicly healed. He went around the rest of the day looking at the sights he had not been able to see before and praising the God who had healed him.
Dr. Bungishabaku Katho, president of Shalom University in the Democratic Republic of Congo, shared with me that he came from circles that did not believe that miracles were for today. Nevertheless, one day he and his companions were doing evangelism in a village, and a man asked them to pray for his blind wife. They began praying, and after two minutes, she began exclaiming, “I can see!” Despite her advanced age, she began dancing joyfully. She retained her sight for the remaining years of her life. In September 2010, Southern Medical Journal published a study that attested people being significantly and instantly cured of blindness or deafness during prayer in Mozambique.
Some scholars who allow that Jesus may have cured psychosomatic ailments balk at claims that he raised anyone from the dead, pointing out that no one is raised from the dead today. Whether we explain raising reports as people coming out of deep comas or as literal raisings, however, there certainly are many raising accounts today.
From my wife, who is from Congo-Brazzaville, I heard a story that I followed up with my mother-in-law. When my sister-in-law Thérèse was two years old, she cried out that she had been bitten by a snake. When my mother-in-law reached her, she found her not breathing. Because no medical help was available in the village, she strapped Thérèse to her back and ran to a nearby village where an evangelist friend was ministering. He prayed, Thérèse started breathing, and the next day she was fine. “How long was she not breathing?” I inquired. After my mother-in-law stopped to calculate the rough distance between the two villages, I was shocked by her answer. “About three hours,” she concluded. Thérèse lacked brain damage. Now an adult, she recently completed seminary.
During three weeks of interviews with friends of the family in the mainstream Protestant church in my wife’s country, we received seven eyewitness accounts of people being raised from the dead, one of them involving a child clearly dead for roughly eight hours. When I asked a Nigerian friend, Leo Bawa, now a Ph.D. student in the UK, if he had witnessed any miracles, he said that he could share only a few. In one of the accounts that he shared with me, neighbors brought to him their son, who had died. After a few hours of prayer, he said, he handed the boy back to the parents alive.
At one academic conference, I was sharing such accounts with some of my colleagues. I was suggesting that the way that Majority World Christians read the Bible could help us hear its accounts of miracles more sympathetically. Afterward a professor and published scholar I know from Nigeria stood and recounted that his own son was born dead, but revived after twenty minutes. Lacking brain damage, the son has completed a master’s degree in London.
Even in parts of the world where healing reports are particularly frequent, not everyone is healed. My wife, who shared with me accounts of miracles in Congo, also shared with me tragedies of many people who suffered and died for lack of medical treatment readily available here in the West. Miracles are no panacea for all the world’s diseases, hunger, and injustice. In the Gospels and Acts, miracles do not constitute the kingdom; rather, they are signs of the kingdom — promises of a better future when everything will be whole. As such, they reveal that God cares about our sufferings and invite us to work to make things better. We do so by whatever other means God has provided, whether prayer or medicine. Both are his gifts, working for the same ends.
Yet experiences like those reported in the Gospels do happen, and happen in vast numbers. Which is the more open-minded approach to miracles — to rest secure in Hume’s circular argument, based on a lack of eyewitnesses? Or to take seriously the firsthand claims of millions of people who believe that they have experienced miracles? In this light, scholars should begin to take much more seriously the accounts of Jesus’ miracles as well.