Miracles - A Book Review

It was an exciting day when Eric Metaxas’s newest book, Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life, came in the mail. I expected to find a well-written book on an interesting topic.

I was not disappointed.

This book is part apologetics text and part narrative. It has a theological tinge to some of it, but it is not an academic treatise on the theology of miracles or the supernatural.

The first third of the book lays the groundwork for the rest. Metaxas writes about the nature of miracles, the possibility of miracles. He also discusses, in detail, the reality that the existence of the universe can best be described as miraculous. The sheer improbability of the fine tuning of the universe is a miracle. It is also an amazing argument for the existence of God, based on the inference to the best explanation--a fancy term for “the thing that makes the most sense under the circumstances.” In this part, Metaxas also relates the importance of a worldview that allows for miracles because the testimony of Scripture relies on the existence of miracles and the possibility of objectively observable reality that allows for unexpected events. All this without resorting to a “God of the gaps” approach to science.

The last two thirds of the book relate a number of miracle stories. Metaxas wisely limits the accounts to those presented to him directly by people he trusts. He does not take the approach of relating every tale of inexplicable happenings that anyone sent him. The miracles described fall into several categories, including conversion miracles (When is conversion not a miracle?), miracles of healing, miracles of inner healing, and other highly improbable events that he describes as miraculous. He concludes the book with a chapter calling for a response to the stories that results in faith in the Creator of all things.

All of Metaxas’s books are engaging and entertaining. Miracles is no exception. It is a book that is often difficult to put down, particularly the earlier chapters. His reasoning in the apologetic section is sound and helpful. That combined with the eloquence of his writing make the book a very rewarding text.

This book is not intended for the credulous. Metaxas is aware of the strength of the arguments of those who have a naturalistic worldview (that is, they except only natural explanations for all things). He begins by addressing the rejection of supernatural explanations by skeptics, including the militantly confident materialists. The absolute certainty in the absence of the supernatural, Metaxas argues, is as unscientific as it comes. In fact, arguing that the only possible explanations are natural ones is a rather closed minded approach to the world.

The most delightful aspects of this book include the places where Metaxas, with the help of the witty G. K. Chesterton, displays the illogic of excluding the supernatural as foolish when foolishness is defined as the inclusion of supernatural. Such tightly circular argumentation is, in reality, very poor and should be rejected. Metaxas points this out with candor and clarity. The book is worth reading if only for the first part.

I appreciate the winnowing Metaxas did to use only those miracles reported by people he deems trustworthy. This helps. I also appreciate the repeated insistence that the purpose of any miracle should be to point toward God. Also, Metaxas clearly indicates that many of the miracle stories occurred not because of the individual’s faith, as is the pattern in the Prosperity Gospel, but in many cases despite the individual’s doubts––they were intended to point toward the power of the Redeemer not the faith of the individual. These are all positive aspects to the book.

Many of the miracle stories relate what is best described as a subjective experience. This is to be expected, as Metaxas introduces the miracle stories with these sentences:

[These miracle stories] illustrate that the God of the universe wants to communicate with every single one of us and that there is not only one way in which he does that. Because he created each of us differently, he will communicate with us individually. Though he is the same God for every one of us, in his tenderness and desire to reach us he is able to speak to us in ways that are very specific to us. . . . God will never demand that we speak his language; on the contrary, in love he condescends to speak ours. He uses vision and dreams and words and circumstances and experiences to communicate with us, and he wants us to expect that––not to demand it but neither to be closed to it. (p. 117)

Two careful objections are warranted here. First, if such extraordinary communications are to be expected from God, then they, at some point, cease to be miracles. They are no longer extraordinary communications, but regular patterns that should be observable in the lives of most Christians. Second, a pattern of communication directly from God and apart from the canon of Scripture needs to be carefully balanced with the reality that all communications with God will be in accordance with his revelation in Scripture. This book does not adequately reflect the caution that is due in interpreting extra-biblical communication. For example, for every positive angelic communication there is likely to be a demonic counterpart, which is designed to look like the real thing. This book addresses this topic briefly (p. 67) but does not do enough to caution against such counterfeit communications.

An additional quibble with the book, which points toward theological sponginess, is that Metaxas describes cessationist Christians––those who hold the age of miracles and charismatic gifts of the Spirit ceased when the canon was completed––as dispensationalists. This does not undermine his broader argument that there are some Christians who hold a cessationist view, but it does point toward a level of theological naïveté, since cessationism is a view held outside of eschatological dispensationalism. And some dispensationalists, particularly among the Pentecostals, readily accept many forms of ongoing miracles, signs and wonders. There was room in the production of this book for a careful edit by someone with theological training.

In balance, this is a good book. Like any text, it should be read with one eye on Scripture and one eye on its pages. However, the encouragement toward accepting the possibility of the supernatural is good and many of the stories, particularly the conversion stories, are like a stream of water in the desert. They helped me to remember the power of the cross in transforming lives, especially the lives of those who seem farthest from the Kingdom. I appreciate Metaxas’s work, enjoyed the book, and commend this book to others.