Many people today are familiar with miracle stories in the Bible -- the parting of a sea, water turned to wine, and, most frequently in the New Testament, healings, even of blindness, leprosy, and the reversal of recent death.
Yet it is not just people in the first century who have believed in miracles. Various polls peg U.S. belief in miracles at roughly 80 percent. One survey suggested that 73 percent of U.S. physicians believe in miracles, and 55 percent claim to have personally witnessed treatment results they consider miraculous.
Even more striking than the number of people who believe in miracles is the number who claim to have witnessed or experienced them. For example, a 2006 Pew Forum survey studied charismatic and Pentecostal Christians in 10 countries. From these 10 countries alone, the number of charismatic Christians who claim to have witnessed or experienced divine healing comes out to roughly 200 million people. This estimate was not, however, the most surprising finding of the survey. The same survey showed that more than one-third of Christians in these same countries who do not claim to be charismatic or Pentecostal report witnessing or experiencing divine healing.
And the reports in these countries appear to be merely the tip of the iceberg. The survey did not include China, where one report from the China Christian Council over a decade ago attributed roughly half of all new Christian conversions to "faith healing experiences." Another report from a different source in China suggested an even higher figure. Clearly many people around the world experience what they consider miracles, sometimes in life-changing ways.
What are we to make of such claims? At the very least, they testify that many people around the world today are experiencing cures in a context of deep religious faith. Numerous medical studies have shown that faith and faith communities provide a coping resource that often facilitates better health outcomes. A number of these global reports, however, exceed even our best current expectations for what "faith" can produce. In September 2010, Southern Medical Journal published an article showing that some people in Mozambique, tested before and after prayer, experienced significant recovery of hearing or eyesight. The Medical Bureau at Lourdes has long examined evidence for extraordinary recoveries.
Most stunning to me on a personal level were sincere eyewitness claims from people that I or my wife have long known and trusted, including everything from cures of blindness to restoration from apparent death. Sometimes the witnesses include doctors. In one case, the eyewitness was my mother-in-law, who reported that my sister-in-law was not breathing for three hours. During prayer, without available medical resources, my sister-in-law revived, and had fully recovered, without brain damage, by the next day. Similar reports, again sometimes from people I know or have interviewed personally, appear widely in Africa, Asia, Latin America and sometimes even North America. Many of these reports come from highly educated professionals.
That reports of extraordinary experiences are widespread is undeniable, but observers explain these experiences in various ways. Some reports stem from fraud or misdiagnosis, but vast numbers of cases cannot be explained this way. Some explanations may overlap; for example, most religious believers would allow that God can work through psychological causes. Some would not define such cures as miracles, however. The influential 18th-century philosopher David Hume, for example, defined miracles as "violations" of nature. Yet, this often-disputed definition cannot cover even many of the biblical miracles (for example, the Bible says that God used a strong wind to part the sea). Others define miracles simply as extraordinary divine action.
However miracles are defined, Hume's argument against them, which provides the traditional basis for skepticism about them, is now problematic. Hume questioned the possibility of having adequate testimony to affirm miracles, since virtually uniform human experience ruled them out. Today, however, when hundreds of millions of people from diverse cultures claim to have experienced miracles, it seems hardly courteous to presuppose a "uniform" human experience on the subject. If any of these experiences constituted a genuine miracle, Hume's argument against miracles, which in some circles has hardened into an uncontested consensus, would fail. Whatever one thinks about miracles, the long-held argument against them needs to be rethought.
While not everyone will agree regarding the causes of healing experiences, everyone must agree that they often do not happen. Sickness and injustice remain in the world. In the Gospels, miracles did not replace the kingdom that Jesus announced. Nevertheless, they were signs of hope to promise and invite us to work for a better future. This focus suggests the writers' conviction that God cares about people and about their suffering, and welcomes us to care about these also.
Craig Keener, author of 'Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts' (Baker Academic, 2011).