Greg interviews Lee Strobel on the case for miracles and whether God answers prayer. Listen to the entire interview here.
Greg: Some of these accounts, and we’ll talk about some of those in a bit, are so amazing, they’re so otherworldly, that they can’t simply be dismissed as a psychosomatic disorder, a psychological thing, an accidental thing. So how is it that Michael Shermer kind of prosecuted his own case against miracles?
Lee: Well, you know, he—in one sense, he did something that a lot of skeptics do, which is, he raises the bar of the evidence unreasonably high. For instance, there was a woman who was an atheist and a physician who wrote an article for his magazine on miracles, and she said, “What would it take for me to believe a miracle has occurred?” And she said, “Well, if a chicken learned how to read and then beat a grandmaster at chess, I may begin to think something out of the ordinary”—she wouldn’t even use the word miracle—“something out of the ordinary has taken place.”
Greg: Maybe, yeah.
Lee: Maybe. So this is what I notice: A lot of people will set the bar just unreasonably high, higher than any other area in their life.
Lee: And, now, you hear it said sometimes that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof...
Lee: ...and they just are requiring extraordinary proof. And I just don’t think that’s true.
Greg: I agree with you.
Lee: I think what we need is sufficient proof, incredible proof. For instance, if I said that aliens have landed in a spaceship in Washington D.C., you’d probably say, number one, how can you tell? But secondly, you know, would you believe it? Yeah, you would probably believe it if you had a credible source of information—like NBC and ABC had a report, and they’ve got eyewitnesses. You’d probably believe it even though it would be absolutely extraordinary for aliens to land in Washington D.C. So I don’t think we need extraordinary. We just need good evidence. We need persuasive evidence just as you would for any other claim that you’re making.
Greg: I am with you on that.
Lee: Often, though, they just raise that bar unreasonably high.
Greg: Well, I’m with you entirely on that. It doesn’t take extraordinary evidence. It just takes adequate evidence. And if you let them use that language, then what’s going to happen is, no evidence will be extraordinary enough to justify a belief that goes against their worldview. Okay?
Lee: That’s exactly right.
Greg: And I like the way that this gal put it. I mean, this is a tell, this is a giveaway. “What would it take for me to believe?” Well, that’s true. What would it take for you to believe? You’d have to have a chicken be a grandmaster in chess. But that says more about you than it does about the evidence.
Lee: Yes, that’s exactly right.
Greg: One wag put it this way. He said, “You, the atheist, said you’ll believe in God if God would just come down and talk to you face to face,” and he said, “If God did that to you, you wouldn’t go to God; you’d go to a psychiatrist.”
Lee: Exactly right. And so I think we have to say, you know, where the miracle bell goes off for me is when there’s an absolutely extraordinary circumstance in a spiritual context for which we’ve got strong evidence—that is, either scientific evidence or documentation of some sort, medical documentation, eyewitnesses—and there’s no naturalistic explanation that makes really any sense.
Lee: You know, when I see those things going on, that’s when the miracle bell kind of goes off for me.
Greg: Right. Well, I know how Michael’s going to respond to that, and I’m not sure if I read this also in your book, but I’ve heard him say it before, and he said, “Why can’t we just say we don’t know? Why not that? That’s just a perfectly good explanation.” And to me, that’s like saying you found a dead man with three bullet holes in his chest, a couple of knives in his back, and you’re trying to find a naturalistic explanation for his death, and you’re saying, “Why can’t we just say we don’t know?” Because we do know. We’ve got all the evidence we need to show that someone was involved in that.
Lee: Exactly. When the evidence points in a certain direction, it’s natural to take a step in the same direction the evidence is pointing and reach a conclusion. And, you know, all conclusions, I guess, are to some degree provisional—you know, open to new evidence or new interpretations—but let’s declare what the evidence tells us at this point. Otherwise, you’d never have a jury reach a verdict.
Greg: That’s right. That’s right. Now, I know one of Shermer’s concerns had to do with the clinical evidence for answered prayer, and he said, “Yeah, well they’ve already tested that out, and it just didn’t work out well.” Take a moment—this was one of the most fascinating parts of the book for me, partly because it was a tutorial on the kinds of claims people make about things that look different when you look closer, you know. So tell us what he was referring to and what you discovered when you looked closer.
Lee: Yeah, this was absolutely fascinating to me. I mean, one of the things he threw in my face during the interview was that there was a major study. He said, “Look, you can give me some anecdotes, you can suggest some anecdotes, that are kind of persuasive about miracles, but when you test it scientifically, it just shows that God does not answer prayer, that miracles are not happening.” And he specifically pointed to an in-depth study. It was a 10-year, 2.4-million-dollar study called the STEP Study that showed where you had people being prayed for who were recovering from heart surgery and another group that was not being prayed for, and they did it under clinical circumstances and used scientific rigor, and what did they find? They found that the group that was prayed for got a little worse than the group that was not prayed for. In other words, prayer either had zero effect or even maybe possibly a slightly negative effect on people who were seeking healing. And so, he said to me, “There you go. You just sort of lost everything right there with that study.”
Greg: It pulls the rug out from underneath you. Right.
Lee: Yeah. And I’m kind of scratching my head, saying, “Oh, wow, that is interesting.” But you know, I’m a journalist, so I check things out. So I go to a PhD from Harvard who’s a professor at Indiana University, Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, who studies things like miracles scientifically, and I said, “What about that? What about that circumstance?” And she looked at me, and she said, “Lee, what you have to understand about that, the only Protestants who prayed in that survey were from the Unity School of Christianity.” The Unity School of Christianity is most definitely not a Christian denomination…
Greg: Right, it’s not Protestant, either.
Lee: …It’s a cult.
Greg: Right, right exactly.
Lee: And, you know, I quote many experts in the book who say that even though they have the word “Christian” in their name, they’re anything but Christians.
Lee: It’s a bunch of New Age mysticism, and pantheism, and all kinds of other stuff thrown in. They reject the historic tenets of Christianity.
Lee: They have a Christian-sounding name. They’re not Christian in any respect in terms of their doctrine or teaching. In fact, they don’t even believe in a personal God. They don’t even believe that it’s appropriate to ask God for anything. It’s just absurd. So I said to her, “So what does this study tell us about the impact of prayer to heal people?” And she said, “It tells us absolutely nothing.” And I thought, that’s a great—you know, you quoted the proverb earlier that, you know, somebody presents a case that sounds persuasive until there’s cross-examination.
Lee: And it was a great example of just pulling the rug out from under him and showing that the study that he was relying on, honestly, they should have taken 2.4 million dollars and just flushed it down a toilet…
Lee: …because it just tells us zero about Christian prayer.
Greg: You know, I think—there’s a couple of thoughts I have about that, too. One of them is, our claim is not that prayer works. Our claim is that God answers prayer. That’s different. It isn’t like prayer is a certain kind of mechanism that when you pray it, then things happen, doesn’t matter who’s praying as long as they’re saying it. We’re saying that our God answers the prayers of those properly related to our God, and therefore, if you’re going to do a study like that, it’s got to match—to test our claim—it’s got to be our people talking to our God to see if our God is responding to their prayers. That would narrow it down.
Lee: That’s exactly right. And so what I thought was interesting is, Dr. Brown had heard about an outbreak of miracles supposedly happening in Mozambique where the gospel is just kind of breaking in. So she said, “I’m going to study it.” So she takes a team of researchers to Mozambique to conduct a scientific study. So what did they do? They went to these remote villages. They brought out the deaf and the blind and people who could barely see or hear. They tested them scientifically to determine the level of hearing and vision that they had. They were then immediately prayed for, not in some emotional atmosphere, but immediately prayed for by Christians who have a track record of God using them in healings. And hands are laid on them, they’re prayed for in the name of Jesus, and then immediately after that, they’re measured scientifically again. So what did they find? They found that there was some degree of improvement in virtually every single case. Some of them astoundingly so, like Martine, a woman who, before prayer, they tested her and her hearing was so bad she couldn’t hear the equivalent of a jackhammer next to her. She’s prayed for in the name of Jesus, she’s measured again, she could hear a normal conversation.
Lee: And then they took—they went to Brazil. The results were so astounding they said, “We gotta see if we can replicate this.” They went to Brazil, did the same thing, got the same results. And this was a scientifically valid experiment that was published in a secular, scientific, peer-reviewed medical journal. And so she said to me, you know, she’s reluctant as a scholar to draw too many conclusions, but she said, “Something’s going on.”
Greg: Yeah. I’ll say something’s going on.
Greg: I have another thought about this. I think that that approach may be helpful, as you just demonstrated, to qualify the power of prayer or the efficacy of prayer, but I don’t think it’s the right approach to try to disqualify it. And I’ll tell you why I think this. C.S. Lewis wrote about prayer just towards the end of his life, a short piece—[Letters] to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer is the name of it. But he mentions that God is not a machine. God is a person. You make requests of a person, and a person can either answer or not, dependent on that person’s own reasons, you know. And so, I mean, one could imagine—what if we tested Michael Shermer’s daughter to see how many times she asked her dad about something and her dad, Michael Shermer, said yes. And maybe, because she’s a kid, she only gets 10% of her requests answered positively because she doesn’t know how to ask properly. That doesn’t mean, “Well, that 90% error—so that’s not statistically significant. Her dad, Michael Shermer, doesn’t exist.” You see the point I’m making?
Lee: I think it’s a great point. I think it’s very astute, you know, and interestingly, there would probably be requests that Michael Shermer would deny out of care and love for his daughter, knowing that if he granted that request, there’d be a problem.