Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Miracles by Eric Metaxas (Book Review #53 of 2015)

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life

This is my first encounter with Metaxas' writing outside of childrens books he wrote early in his career that my son has. I read atheist-humanist physicist/philosopher Alan Lightman's The Accidental Universe immediately after this book, and I highly recommend the two juxtaposed. Lightman's book confirms Metaxas' summary of modern physics and cosmology, while taking the completely opposite view. For a preview of the cosmology of the book, check out Metaxas' article in the Wall Street Journal last year, which is supposedly the most-clicked article the history of the website.

Much of this book is autobiographical. Metaxas is of Greek-German descent and was raised in a Greek Orthodox church. When he later comes to a saving faith, he encounters his church in different ways. He reconnects with his German roots in the process of writing his bestseller Bonhoeffer, and he describes what he believes are supernatural events around that book. Metaxas is a good student of C.S. Lewis, quoting heavily from several of his works. I think this book is targeted at two audiences: Hyper-cessasionists like John MacArthur and atheists/materialists skeptical of anything unexplained by nature. On the former, Metaxas notes it would be inconsistent with God's character to intervene throughout history recorded by Scripture to reveal himself to others and encourage His followers and not afterward. To the latter, besides arguing for the probability of design in the cosmos, he also provides testimony that is verifiable by eyewitnesses of various events. One cannot prove either that God created or did not create the cosmos or that any of the recorded events happen, but one can give evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt," which he states is his purpose. Metaxas was a member of Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian, so you know he's been discipled with good doctrine. He's widely considered orthodox and uncontroversial, but some of the details of the miracle accounts are troubling for their somewhat "anything goes" implications. I highly recommend reading the last chapters of Augustine's classic The City of God before reading this book as you'll see similarities between the miracles that Augustine observes and recounts and what Metaxas recounts. It does not appear Metaxas has read Augustine, which is too bad.

The first chapters deal with cosmology. I have read Lightman, Hawking, Greene, Smolin, and others on the issue of cosmology, string theory, M-theory, and the multiverse. Why do things exist, and why do they keep existing? Metaxas recounts all of the "fine-tuning" of the cosmological constants necessary in order for our current universe to exist and for life to exist on earth:

"For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp. Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?"

Since the SETI experiments in the 1970s, scientists have come out with increasingly stringent requirements for life to exist elsewhere such that now the odds of our own existence are something like one in ten to the fiftieth power. This is why many scientists, physicists included, do not reject the existence of a Creator.

Hawking and Lightman deal with the anthropic principle in their books, and argue that the only true way around it is the theory of the multiverse, which they readily subscribe to. Comsmologist George Ellis was quoted recently in Scientific American criticizing physicists like them who have moved away from physics and science to pure metaphysical hypotheses which are not testable.
"(Lawrence) Krauss does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did.  And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t."

Lightman argues that since all scientific laws are immutable, God cannot interfere with them-- if he created the universe he's the watchmaker who wound it up and let it go. All events thereafter are the result of random chance as the processes play out. Metaxas' point is that the evidence suggests otherwise-- both that there was an order to design and that things today happen non-randomly, and that the laws of nature are violated. And if everything that happens here is a result of random assembly of molecules, then we have no basis for calling anything a "life," ethics, laws, morals, etc. The randomness of string theorists does not play well with the theory of natural selection, which requires information be transmitted non-randomly via genes. He notes Nobel prize winners in various fields, including physics, who uphold Design as a possibility. For Lightman et al, the multiverse is the answer-- the highly improbable becomes probable when dealing with infinite possibilities that co-exist at the same time. Metaxas calls this "laughable," agreeing with George Ellis and other physicists as this unscientific way out of dealing with a Creator. Metaxas writes that he stops short of calling the media's assumption of materialism being correct and intelligent a "conspiracy."

Miracles are events that happen to people which could not have been caused by man's intervention alone. The creation of the universe was a miracle. God answering any prayer is a miracle, as are the various processes in our body such as its ability to heal. One valid criticism of the book is that it's hard to delineate "mysterious natural process" from "miracle" at some points. Waking up is a miracle.

If you can accept that a Creator God made it and sustains it, then His ability to intervene in the space-time continuum without making everything fly apart doesn't seem a stretch. From cosmology, Metaxas moves to the life of Jesus-- God intervening in the biological process and implanting His nature into a man that develops naturally. Metaxas looks at some of Jesus' miracles and notes that while see the feeding of the large crowds as miraculous, we miss the thousands of healings that took place as "they brought their sick to him and he healed them." He also engages in a couple lengthy sermons related to interpreting the miracles. "The feeding of the 5,000 show God's generosity," etc. This was perhaps weak and unnecessary. He addresses the common arguments against the Resurrection, and does so pretty succinctly. Many Christian apologists I know of always come back to the high likelihood of the resurrection given all available evidence when faced with doubts in other areas. From Jesus, Metaxas moves to conversion stories.

All of the stories in the book are from people Metaxas knows personally, which creates a small sample size but lends reliability that Metaxas vouches for the person's trustworthiness. He tells several conversion stories, giving his own testimony of a changed life and that of others who he saw radically change after turning to Christ. Metaxas does not deal with any radical changes from those joining cults or other religions, nor tell any miracle stories by those who are not Christians or did not later become Christians. This is a weakness of the book. It may also imply that God's common grace does not go from the general to the more specific.

From here, Metaxas retells five healing miracles, the most radical is that of an innmate on his deathbed with AIDS being completely healed of the virus. That is a long story that is worth reading as it also involves another inmate's radical conversion, which has miraculous aspects as well including visions, voices, favor from authorities, and electronics that suddenly stopped working. Another woman is healed of a documented deadly nut allergy that had debilitated her. From there, Metaxas moves to stories of visions, healed marriages, encounters with angels, and phenonenal coincidences. One problem is that there are no journalistic efforts on Metaxas part to verify medical records, eyewitness accounts, etc. In some cases it's simply one person's word-- sincerely held, but lacking credibility to a skeptic. If you are saved from drowning by someone who scoops you out of the water and disappears then that's a miracle, but if no one else sees it then it's just your word. He explains premonitions he had in writing his Bonhoeffer biography, dreams with strange consequences.

Perhaps the more controversial is the story of Lutheran pastor Paul Teske who had a stroke while preaching--his watch also stopped working at that precise moment. He believed God had spoken to him that he'd be healed 28 days later. He went with his wife to a Benny Hinn crusade on the 27th and 28th days. While he was brought on stage and "slain the spirit" by Hinn on the 27th, the healing came while he was in his seat on the 28th, after which Hinn brought him up to give testimony. Hinn then prophecies that he will have a healing ministry. Teske has since written a bestseller titled Healing for Today and appears on TBN.

I find it odd that Teske would feel the need to go to a Hinn crusade on the day he felt he needed to be healed. Hinn is a false teacher, making several unbiblical statements, false prophecies, etc. from stage. Metaxas has no commentary on this, which is somewhat troubling. However, I don't see a lot of criticism of evangelicals of Teske like one will find of Hinn. Interestingly, this person claims he was healed of stroke symptoms after hearing this story listening to the audiobook:

One of Metaxas' final miracles was particularly troubling; a Catholic widow prayed to her husband in heaven for intervention in a particular court case. She essentially demanded a sign from him that he was her husband and cared for her. Metaxas does not comment on whether this is biblical or sound practice, which is troubling. In the end, the judge in the case remarkably had known her husband decades before and he'd had a profound impact on his life. She sees this as a sign from her husband, rather than from God. Not everything supernatural is from God, which is important to remember and is left out of this book.

Metaxas notes that for many of these who have been healed or have had visions of heaven, their fears are removed and they live life differently, demonstrating greater trust in God and willing to take more risks. Those who have had a near-death experience with a vision of heaven no longer fear going there, and have a renewed sense of purpose. Don Piper is not mentioned in the book but I have seen him speak and can testify to his own renewed sense to share the Gospel with others after his documented resuscitation.

In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. The author has collected evidence against materialists who argue nothing supernatural can occur. But that evidence is poorly documented. It is also lacking much theological foundation for a Christian. Reading this book at face value, I might pray to a dead relative or think Benny Hinn is legit, which is problematic biblically. The strengths are the summation of cosmology and evidences for the resurrection as well as the testimony of the Christians in this book who are living truly different lives than before and give all glory to God.

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