The Faces of Miracles

Eric Metaxas: the face of miracles next door

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Table of Contents

British writer and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton contrasted those who accept miracles with those who reject them: “The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.” To Chesterton the evidence in favor of miracles was overwhelming. “There is a choking cataract of human testimony in favor of the supernatural,” he continued. “If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story… It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence — it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence, being constrained to do so by your creed.”[1]

Chesterton’s point is one we’ve seen already in this book: For people who presuppose that there are no miracles, nothing they see or hear will convince them otherwise, however many credible reports of miracles, past and present, may confront them. But what about people whose mind is not made up one way or the other about miracles? What sort of evidence would convince someone with an open mind? Best-selling author Eric Metaxas wrote Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life with such an audience in mind. With no prejudice against miracles, the best proof of miracles is miracles themselves.

In collecting examples of miraculous events, Metaxas focused on those from people he knew personally and stories that were thoroughly documented. He writes, “The wealth of the miracle stories I was able to find within a fairly close circle of friends makes one wonder how many other stories are out there among my friends, and yours. I vetted these stories and all their details as carefully as possible. It was vital to me to get as much specificity as I could, and anything that did not seem clearly to be a miracle, I simply did not include.”[2]

Echoing Chesterton, Metaxas admits that his approach won’t convince everyone: “Whether one believes in miracles or the miraculous has mostly to do with the presuppositions one brings to the subject.”[3] At the same time, Metaxas believes we have an inborn desire to connect with the supernatural world that miracles represent. “We can spend our lives denying it,” he writes, “but our very bones and atoms cry out that this denial of meaning is a lie, that everything in us not only longs for that other world and for meaning, but also needs that other world and needs meaning more than food or water or air. It is what we were made for and we will not rest until we find it again.”[4] For Metaxas, miracles provide a tantalizing glimpse into the supernatural, providing evidence for a realm “truer and more real” than anything we know in this world.[5]

Divine Interventions

Metaxas defines a miracle as a point of intersection “when something outside time and space enters time and space, whether just to wink at us or poke at us briefly, or to come in and dwell among us for three decades”[6] as happened when Christ walked the earth. As creator of the earth and humanity, God could revisit it at will. If God could speak the universe into existence, he could also interrupt the established rules of cause and effect in order to achieve his divine purposes. If miracles actually do happen, the only rational explanation is that they’re divine interventions in our lives. A miracle is a message from God to assure people that he knows they’re there and cares about them. Though God could do what he wanted by other means, Metaxas believes that with miracles God wants to stand out and make his presence felt.

One of the Greek words in the New Testament for miracle is semeion, meaning sign. As signs, miracles are not about themselves but about that to which they point.[7] Miracles point us beyond our present world to a greater reality where God acts without restriction.

For Metaxas, God, both in the present and in the past, uses miracles to get our attention. This does not mean God wants to manipulate ignorant humanity into believing things that never happened. On the contrary, as the God of truth, God wants to startle us into believing the truth, and that includes the truth of miracles that actually happened. Jesus rising from the dead was considered just as impossible then as it would be now. No one would have believed it had there not been overwhelming testimony by witnesses who saw Jesus alive after his brutal and very public execution on a cross.

If the Red Sea regularly parted, we wouldn’t think anything of it. God could have delivered the Israelites with less drama. But God was intentionally drawing our attention in a way that no one would ever forget. God performs miracles “to speak to us about himself… If it was merely a freak of nature, something that happened to happen, it would not be a miracle… When God pokes into our world through the miraculous, he is communicating with us.”[8]

The God Behind the Miracles

One recurring point of contention in any discussion of miracles is that if God is good and can do whatever he wants, why do some people receive miracles while others do not? Why would a God who has the power to prevent suffering allow that suffering to continue?

In this respect, Metaxas spotlights his friend Joni Eareckson Tada (chapter 12), the inspiring Christian writer, speaker, and champion of rights for the disabled who was paralyzed in a diving accident at the age of seventeen. Her life, for Metaxas, is a reminder that some questions in this life have no neat and tidy answers. While the accident could have been in part to build her faith, it leaves open the question why God would choose such a harsh and dramatic way to achieve his aim.

Thinking about miracles leads us to think about the nature of the God behind them and why he heals some people but not others. God in the person of Jesus Christ suffered horribly on the cross, and we should not be surprised when he calls us to suffer as well. If prayers were always answered, according to Metaxas, the answers would become routine and therefore unmiraculous. They would be predictable results that we could manipulate. We could end up not worshiping God but a hoped-for or prayed-for outcome. We might be tempted to turn God into a cosmic candy machine.

Metaxas offers the analogy of a parent and child. If a child loves her father, she is happy and grateful when she gets what she wants. But she also accepts that when she doesn’t get what she wants, there’s a good reason for it and he has her ultimate welfare at heart. If we know this is the nature of God, we can trust his wisdom to do what is best for us even when we don’t get what we want, or get what we think we need or deserve.

Metaxas admits that suffering can serve a good purpose. Trusting God to act in our best interests changes how we suffer by giving it meaning. It is much easier to endure if it has a purpose. As Romans 8:28 puts it, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

History is full of people whose apparently tragic lives eventually brought peace and satisfaction to them and hope and inspiration to others. John Newton, once the brutal captain of a slave ship, became a Christian preacher and writer of “Amazing Grace,” saying he praised God for his trials because he would probably have been ruined without them.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a prisoner for eight years in the Soviet prison system, which he described in The Gulag Archipelago. In that book, he exposed the brutalities of the Soviet system to the world, which in turn prompted Soviet officials to exile him. Solzhenitsyn insisted his time in prison was a blessing. “For there,” he wrote, “lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”[9]

Metaxas urges that we must not fall into the trap of thinking that if God doesn’t grant us what we’re praying for, it is because we aren’t praying hard enough or because our faith is weak. This position dramatically over-emphasizes our own power to control events. It also leads people to think that the reason they are not healed is that their faith is too weak. “To blame the victim or the sufferer for his or her illness, and to suggest that if that person only had more faith and prayed harder, healing would follow is simply wrong… This is bad theology.”[10]

Metaxas recognizes that some believe God has to do whatever we want as long as we have the right faith and pray the right way. The fact is, however, we have neither the right nor the ability go force God to do our will. God loves us, but we cannot arrogantly demand he do whatever we want as though our faith gave us the right to be in charge.

Biblical Miracles

According to Metaxas, miracles happen for a reason and are about more than the immediate result, pointing beyond the miracle itself. For example, in the story of Jesus healing the blind man in John’s Gospel, Jesus is illustrating the idea that all of us are spiritually blind and need God’s divine help to see and understand spiritual things. In addition, biblical miracles are always consistent with God’s character. As Metaxas writes, “God gave us common sense and he wants us to use our brains when we think about miracles. So it’s a fact that even though we might believe that God can do anything, we know there are some things he wouldn’t do. Some miracles would violate his character.”[11]

In assessing biblical accounts of miracles, Metaxas examines some of the most famous. The Gospel account of Jesus feeding a crowd of five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish is one of the most well-know of all miracles. The crowd that day was most likely closer to fifteen thousand because the five thousand figure only counted the men. With this small portion of food, Jesus fed everyone and had twelve baskets of food left over. Metaxas notes that there are naturalistic explanations for the story, such as that the food was there but people were stingy and didn’t want to share it at first. But Jesus said in Matthew 15:32 that he had compassion on the crowd because they had been with him for three days without anything to eat and didn’t want to send them away hungry.

Jesus and his disciples knew these people didn’t have any food. To claim that food was there but hidden out of sight is to flout the narrative. As with miracles generally, Jesus here delivered messages that go beyond the immediate need: 1) the heavenly father cares about physical needs as well as spiritual needs; and 2) God is not just a God of abundance but of superabundance. By multiplying the small amount of food present, Jesus would remind the audience of Elisha multiplying a jar of olive oil and loaves of bread (1 Kings 4-17). The people there also knew the story of Moses feeding the Israelites in the desert; this would have linked Jesus and Moses in their eyes.

This miracle, for Metaxas, is neither a naturalistic story about sharing food nor an impressive magic trick. It is a sign – a semeion – pointing beyond the basic facts to the identity of the one behind this miraculous event, the God who meets all our needs, and who is behind all other miracles as well.

Biblical scholars consider the raising of Lazarus from the dead to be the culmination of Jesus’s New Testament miracles. All of his previous miracles lead up to this dramatic moment. Lazarus had been dead four days, so there was no chance he was only unconscious, in some sort of trance, or otherwise somehow actually alive. When Jesus commanded it, Lazarus walked out of the tomb, still in his funeral wrappings, to the astonishment of the mourners present. These witnesses quickly spread the news, which not only ignited faith in many others but also made it clear to religious leaders that they would have to kill Jesus in order to protect their power structure.

The messages in this miracle include: 1) there is evil in the world; 2) God performs miracles to communicate with us; 3) for God to be glorified, sometimes bad things have to happen. If we trust God, he may take us down a long and difficult path, but his purpose is to bless us in the long run. Metaxas sees in the raising of Lazarus God acting solo, without human help. Lazarus is dead, inert and passive, unable to contribute anything to his raising from the dead. It’s all up to God and God’s grace. So too in general, “apart from God and the spiritual life that God imparts to us, we have no life.”[12]

The ultimate miracle, for Metaxas, is the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, the apostle Paul held that “if Christ was not actually and literally raised from the dead, Christian faith is useless.”[13] Many scholars doubt the resurrection because, as materialists, their worldview leaves them no choice. They have dismissed any notion of an actual resurrection, as well as of any other authentic miracle. They try to make the story a metaphor or else explain it away in materialist terms.

Metaxas examines various explanations for Jesus’ resurrection. One proposed scenario is that someone stole his body. The trouble with that idea is that no one had any reason to do so. Romans and religious leaders, who might have had access to the tomb, were glad Jesus was dead. Jesus’s disciples believed he was dead and so would not have had any reason to visit a tomb sealed under Roman law. We know from their initial reactions to the resurrection that not only did they not expect it, but also they didn’t believe it was possible.

Another suggested explanation is that Jesus never really died but merely “swooned.” However, after being scourged and crucified there was no chance he could still be alive. Proof of this comes from the Roman soldiers who had seen crucified bodies and knew he was dead before they took him down; otherwise they would have broken his legs, as they broke those of the thieves crucified with Jesus in order to hasten their death so they would not be on the cross when the Sabbath started at sunset.

On the flip side, Metaxas examines the available evidence that a real and completely unexpected resurrection took place. One item of evidence is the Jerusalem elders bribing the Roman guards at Jesus’s tomb to keep quiet about what they had seen. If nothing unusual happened at the tomb, no bribe would have been necessary. Another item of evidence is the failure of three women (Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) to finish Jesus’s burial preparations. As they reported to the disciples, Jesus’ body was gone and an angel told them that he was risen. In the patriarchal society of that day, the testimony of women, even eyewitness testimony, was considered questionable. In any fabrication of the resurrection, women would therefore be the last people entrusted with making the discovery of the empty tomb. Even the disciples didn’t believe what the women reported to them.

Many more eyewitnesses saw Jesus after the resurrection. According to Metaxas, they witnessed an outrageous miracle. Jesus’s death had been a horrible, torturous execution, and afterward it seemed that the little band of Christian believers was in deep peril, their message in danger of being silenced. But after the miracle of the resurrection, their conviction that it had occurred was complete, they proclaimed it boldly, and nothing could frighten them into denying it. The best explanation of the existing evidence seems to be that Jesus, after his crucifixion, really was raised bodily from the dead.[14]

Metaxas’s Miracle Stories

The heart of Eric Metaxas’s examination of miracles is a series of miraculous events experienced by Metaxas himself or by trusted friends. The stories range from the conversion of a Brooklyn drug dealer to the healing of a life-threatening allergy to the dazzling vision of an angel. Though miracle stories often focus on physical healing, Metaxas emphasizes that there are other reasons for miracles. He shares stories that illustrate God’s desire to communicate with each of us and notes that God may communicate through a variety of methods including visions, dreams, actions, circumstances, and experiences. God wants us to be open to all of these ways of communication without putting down one at the expense of another.

One form of miracle that Metaxas has personally experienced is a vision delivered in a dream. Some time after his twenty-fifth birthday, Eric dreamed he was ice fishing on Candlewood Lake in Connecticut, a place where he fished in real life. A childhood friend and his father were there with him in the dream. Suddenly a fish poked its head up out of the hole in the ice that they had cut. Eric reached down and picked the fish up by the gills. In the blinding sunlight on the frozen lake the fish looked golden.

Instantly Metaxas understood that this golden fish coincided with the ancient Christian symbol IXTHYS, meaning Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.[15] The Greek word for “fish,” ixthys, was thus also an acronym for Jesus in his role as Christ, God, and savior. Through this vision, Metaxas experienced an overwhelming sense of God’s presence, of God reaching out to him in the innermost depths of his heart and flooding him with joy.[16]

Earlier, Metaxas had toyed with imagery that saw the goal of life and religion as drilling through the ice of the conscious mind to get to the collective unconscious underneath, where some vague “God force” lived. In this dream, God reached out to Eric in a way that assured him he was understood and that God was talking specifically and exclusively to him.

Evangelist and television personality Benny Hinn, as we saw in chapter 2, receives a lot of criticism from people who see his miracle claims as bogus. Unlike these critics, Metaxas claims to have seen genuine benefit and miraculous results in Hinn’s ministry. Metaxas describes a gathering of the New Canaan Society in Darien, Connecticut, where he went to hear Paul Teske, a Lutheran pastor.[17] Shortly after he got up to speak, Teske found he could not put any weight on his left leg. He finished speaking by holding onto the lectern, but was unable to walk by the time he finished. A CAT scan revealed that he had had a stroke during the meeting. Even after treatment, only 15 percent of his leg function returned.

Following his hospital stay, Paul felt moved to read Hosea 6:1-3, which begins, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.” Four years earlier a pastor from Ghana had prophesied that God was going to do something special in Paul’s life over the course of twenty-one days. So Paul decided he would be healed twenty-one days after his stroke, which would be May 28.

He was released from the hospital on May 20. With the pastor’s prophecy in mind, Paul felt he should go to a Benny Hinn service in Baltimore the next weekend. Entering the hall with thousands of others on the night of May 27, Paul and his wife went up for prayer. They “went down” under the power of the Holy Spirit at Hinn’s touch, falling backward as Benny put his hand on them in God’s name. The next morning Paul and his wife went back for the second service. When Benny asked all pastors to come forward so he could pray for them, Paul labored up the stairs and stood with the others onstage.

That night he went to a third service and expected to be healed based on the prophecy. This was the twenty-first day after his stroke. Up until then Paul and his wife had gotten VIP seats every night, but that night someone else had been assigned them. Yet when they arrived, a woman showed them to the same seats again. As Benny spoke, Paul suddenly began to shake violently like a jackhammer. The shaking continued for about five minutes.

Just then Benny announced that someone with a brace was being healed. Paul could walk with full weight on his bad leg for the first time since his stroke, but hesitated to speak up because the brace was under his clothing. Then Benny looked straight at Paul and his wife and invited them to come up onstage. Paul climbed the stairs normally and when he got to the stage told someone there he had just been healed. Benny again touched the two of them, and they fell over in a faint as before. Hinn said he’d invited them up because God told him they would start a healing ministry. He didn’t know about Paul’s leg. After an usher briefly relayed the story, Benny asked Paul to tell the crowd about his healing.

Paul took Benny’s words to heart that he would begin a healing ministry. Two days later he prayed for a visitor to his church, who was then healed. That was the beginning of a healing ministry that has taken Paul to sixty countries on six continents.

Metaxas also shares a remarkable story that he interprets as angels coming to earth to help us in supernatural ways. John Bechtel was an internationally renowned missionary who planted churches all over the world.[18] During the 1980s he was project director in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China for the DeMoss Foundation. Bechtel and two colleagues, Nancy DeMoss and Scott Hall, were in Changsha, China, visiting missionaries who ran a computer training center there.

At the airport for a flight back to Hong Kong, the group learned their flight was cancelled. Because of Chinese New Year, they would have to wait two or three days for another plane. Bechtel tried to book a private plane but was unable to find one. That left the train as their only option. Due to the holiday, when millions of Chinese return home to visit their families, people were camped out on the sidewalk for blocks around the station. Hoping to avoid hours or days in line, Bechtel tried to buy tickets from other passengers, offering $200 for a $9 ticket to Canton, which is on the border with Hong Kong. When they found no takers, they tried to talk their way into the VIP waiting area, but were angrily turned away.

As they stood at the bottom of a staircase with their luggage considering their next steps, a petite, dignified-looking Chinese woman approached him. In perfectly accented British English she asked if she could help. She was dressed in the standard blue Chinese uniform with a blue hat and overcoat. When John explained that they were trying to get to Canton, she told the group to come with her. The woman led them back up the marble stairs to the VIP area that had just turned them away. The same policemen were flanking the entrance. John and his friends braced themselves, but to their astonishment the police saluted the women as she led them inside. They went through the station, directly out onto the platform, and to their private compartment. The stranger then wished them a nice trip to Canton and walked away.

After she left, John and the group realize they should have tipped her. John went to find her but she had completely disappeared. He rushed to the platform entrance where they had come out and asked the attendant there if she had seen the woman in the hat that had just been with them. She said, “No one with a hat brought you through here.”

John asked her, “Did I come through here?” “Yes,” the woman said.

“There were four of us,” he said. “No there weren’t,” she insisted. “There were three of you.”

“But where’s the woman with the blue hat and the coat?” “I didn’t see her,” the woman said.

Thinking he had come to the wrong door, John went to another one. The woman there said she had seen him going through the other door.

“Did you see four of us?” “No, I only saw three of you.”

She also had not seen the woman in the coat. He asked why, if there had only been three of them, that she let them on the train.

“Because I was supposed to,” she answered.

“But who told you you were supposed to?”

“I just knew I was supposed to.”

After the train was under way, a porter arrived with food. When they asked who ordered the food, the porter said there was a note in the kitchen that they were supposed to bring food to this compartment. The staff continued bringing food for the entire 400-mile trip.

At the end of the trip in Canton they were supposed to hand their tickets to the agent but of course they had no tickets. They explained this to the ticket taker.

“I know you don’t,” he said. Thank you very much. Carry on.” And he waved them through.

John concluded that the only explanation for what happened was that the woman was an angel in disguise.

The Narrow Gate

If miracles are so wonderful and not so uncommon, why do people resist accepting them? For Metaxas, the resistance stems from a cultural bias. Our secular, deeply materialistic world sees belief in God, along with miracles as evidence for God, as an affront to science and progress. They can’t believe that God could actually be a friend of science and progress.

It’s like a parent with rebellious children: we can resist and avoid God because we don’t trust him. Or we can believe that this parent has more resources and more wisdom that we do, knows us better than we can know ourselves, and “loves us and wants to bless us beyond our wildest imaginings.”

Metaxas sums up, “The great river of culture in which we live is flowing in this wrong direction. It tells us that ‘agnosticism’ is the wisest course, that not deciding is the smartest decision. It says that behaving as though the universe is all there is is the safer course.”[19] But Jesus invites us to “enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” (Matthew 7:13)

“Everything says that to open ourselves to this God is to take a great risk, and it is a risk.”[20] The lesson of miracles is that taking the risk is a far safer bet than not taking it.

For a sympathetic perspective on that lesson, we turn to a Christian neuroscientist — and another of the faces of miracles.

Chapter Notes

[1] Metaxas, Eric, Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life (New York: Dutton, 2014), p. ix.

[2] Ibid., p. xii.

[3] Ibid., p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 6.

[5] Ibid., p. 8.

[6] Ibid., p. 11.

[7] Ibid., p. 16.

[8] Ibid., pp. 20-21.

[9] Ibid., p. 65.

[10] Ibid., p. 71.

[11] Ibid., p. 78.

[12] Ibid., p. 92.

[13] Ibid., p. 96.

[14] Ibid., p. 111.

[15] Ibid., pp. 147-148.

[16] Ibid., p. 148.

[17] Ibid., ; all details and quotations of the Benny Hinn story taken from pp. 191-195.

[18] Ibid., story condensed from the chapter “Changsha Train Station” pp. 249-255.

[19] Ibid., p. 331.

[20] Ibid., p. 332.