Review: Miracles for Skeptics - Word&Way

Review: Miracles for Skeptics

MIRACLES FOR SKEPTICS: Encountering the Paranormal Ministry of Jesus. By Frank G. Honeycutt. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2024. Ix + 217 pages.

The Gospels are filled with miracle stories. Jesus heals people, raises the dead, feeds thousands with a few loaves of bread, and calms storms. Many modern folk find these stories strange and incompatible with what we know about the world we live in. Since at least the late seventeenth century, which marked the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment in Western Europe and North America, these stories have been difficult to deal with. Thomas Jefferson took matters into his own hands and created his own version of the Gospels which he removed all the miracle stories, leaving only the moral teachings of Jesus. This act on Jefferson’s part left the reader with a rather truncated view of Jesus, who no longer fit with John’s description of Jesus being the incarnate Word of God. Nevertheless, here was a Gospel that fit the modern Enlightenment mindset. Now, most Christians didn’t give up on the miracle stories, but they became more difficult to defend in the face of skeptics. The question is, when we remove the miraculous or demythologize the Bible as Bultmann did, do we lose something important from the story? Even if we’re not ready to accept everything we read at face value, isn’t there more to the story than meets the eye? Science can tell us a lot about the world in which we live, and I’m a believer in science. But isn’t it possible that science can’t tell us everything? Might this seemingly disenchanted world be more enchanted than we might think? In other words, might the distinction often made between natural and supernatural be unnecessary?

Robert D. Cornwall

In his book Miracles for Skeptics, Frank Honeycutt, a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, invites us to consider carefully the message inherent in the miracle stories of the New Testament. He writes for skeptics, among whom one can count clergy who find some of these stories not only problematic but embarrassing. What Honeycutt does here is draw out the truths embedded in these miracle stories, including those in John’s Gospel such as the Wedding feast at Cana (you know, the one where Jesus turned water into wine). Before he gets into the paranormal elements of the Gospel accounts, he acknowledges in his introduction “The Value of Skepticism in the Christian Life.” He tells us that he wrote this book for people “who admire the teachings of Jesus but are pretty convinced that anyone who seriously ascribes to the weird stuff in the Bible is a couple of steps away from admittance to a good psych ward” (p. 6). I understand the sentiment in that statement. I not only sympathize but share some of that skepticism implied in that statement. Yet, I can’t help but be attracted to the miracle stories because they’re so revelatory of Jesus’ identity. Like Frank Honeycutt, I retain some of the doubt that is healthy when reading the Gospels but appreciate his attempt to interpret these stories anew so that they can speak to contemporary audiences without trying to convince the skeptical reader to see these stories as being literally true. Therefore, he invites us to bring our skepticism with us as we engage the miraculous elements of the biblical stories.

While Honeycutt invites us to bring our skepticism with us, he also wants to help us engage with the miraculous and paranormal parts of the Gospels. He states something I can get behind in Chapter One, which is titled “The Breadth of the Miraculous in the Bible.”  He writes: “I love the Bible, even the weird parts — maybe especially its unusual stories” (p. 12). Honeycutt has not set out to prove that the Bible is the bearer of inerrant truth. He recognizes the rather complex and convoluted way that the Bible as we know it emerged. He recognizes that when we come to the Bible we must bring our skepticism, our questions, and the necessity of not taking everything at face value. Some biblical stories, such as the story of the prophet who turned angry bears on youth who mocked him for his baldness, are clearly problematic and need to be acknowledged as such. At the same time offering reductionist interpretations in the hope of making them more believable often misses the point. In fact, Honeycutt reminds us of the power of fairy tales to communicate deep truths otherwise missed. Is this not why many of us, even adults, turn to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia? He writes: “Like fairy tales, the miracle stories of the Bible often point to a greater truth and offer a way forward into an uncertain future” (p. 31). So, the miracle stories of the Bible are, he writes “true to the extent that they lead a reader or listener to deep truth.” This message is important to those of us living in a political era when outright lying masquerades as truth,  and “with conspiracy theories holding an outsized role in the imaginations of the American electorate, the abiding promise found in these old miracle narratives offers no small alternative to all the false claims of fake news” (p. 36).

The second chapter is titled “Jesus the Miracle Worker.” In this chapter, Honeycutt takes up five miracle stories from the Gospel of John, the author of which refers to these miracles as signs.  He starts with the aforementioned sign that involved turning water into wine at Cana and concludes with the raising of Lazarus. While that first story often puzzles readers as to why it’s there, Honeycutt suggests that a deeper truth is embedded in the story. As for what this deeper truth is, he writes that “this first miracle maxim in John’s Gospel is foundational for the other four that will follow: life with Jesus is described in this story by a bottomless well of wine leading to both joy and deep ferment.” (pp. 44-45). Note that the story that follows this one involves Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, who receives the promise of living water that is available without end. In other words, the well is bottomless. Surely, we wouldn’t want to avoid these stories where Jesus offers us abundant life.

After showing us how important these stories about Jesus the miracle worker to understanding his identity, especially since they reveal Jesus’ embrace of a life of joy, he turns in Chapter 3 to a discussion of Jesus and the Natural World. In this chapter, Honeycutt intersperses stories of his own encounters with nature as he biked across the country or hiked the Appalachian Trail. His encounters with nature serve as the background to his discussion of the natural miracles that include stories of Jesus calming storms and seas, as well as climbing a mountain where he meets with Moses and Elijah. This story reminds us that “there’s a heck of a lot of the Lord’s presence out there waiting to be experienced and discovered, shaping our various sacrificial vocations to help heal a broken world, and assisting ponderous disciples in making sense of the resistant wind keeping us from new shores.” (p. 119).

Any attempt to examine the miracle stories and paranormal events in Jesus’ ministry will need to explore “Jesus and the Demonic” (Chapter 4). For many Christians, especially more progressive ones, these stories can be rather problematic. This is especially true of descriptions of Satan/the Devil. Nevertheless, such stories are present in the Gospels. According to Honeycutt, what these stories do is bring to light the reality of evil in our world. These stories provide a metanarrative that helps us describe and address our struggles with the ongoing presence of evil in the world. These stories also promise that in the end, good will triumph over evil. However, in the meantime, evil remains with us and requires our attention (another deeper truth). According to the author that deeper truth is this: “Jesus cared about poor people, world peace, children, and marginalized folk who felt left out and discarded. But any depiction of that man that fails to mention this core component of his job description is offering less than the full picture: Jesus came into this world to engage and confront sin and evil, showing those who follow him how to resist temptation authored by the devil” (p. 130).

In Chapter 5 — titled “If Jesus Did That Then, Why Not Now?” — Honeycutt takes up the important question raised by the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, who gained fame for questioning the biblical miracle stories. Hume asked why we should believe stories about spectacular events in the ancient world if they don’t happen in the present. Most of the answers I’ve heard over the years don’t solve the problem. After all, if Jesus could do all these miracles in the first century why not now? Honeycutt offers the only answer he can, and that is that he doesn’t know why the miracles described in the Gospels don’t seem to be happening in the present. Perhaps we simply must suspend judgment and seek a deeper truth. That involves not rushing past the strange and even bizarre in the Bible, knowing that the answer is complicated.

Chapter 6 serves as something of an interlude in which he tells the story of a pastor named Vince, his “virginal laptop,” a laptop never connected to the internet, thus unable to be infected, that became the locus of a series of encounters with the Virgin Mary.  From this chapter, we’ll move to Honeycutt’s attempt to describe ways we can faithfully interpret Scripture. I’ll leave this chapter (short story) to your reading pleasure. I think I’ve given enough clues as it is.

We come to the end of this insightful book with a chapter titled “Learning to Love the Weird Parts of the Bible” (Chapter 7). Understandably, many find the “weird” parts problematic and like to skip over them. Preachers who use the Revised Common Lectionary, as I do, will have noticed that the lectionary often omits the more problematic passages. Nevertheless, despite the challenges posed by these stories, they often speak important truths. That is, if we learn to read them with a bit of appropriate skepticism, along with openness to the message of these passages. He writes that “the Bible cannot be skimmed or mined periodically for quick and instant truth. An encounter with pages will require time and lifelong attention” (p. 207). So welcome to the weird parts of the Bible, parts that require deep encounters. When we attend to these stories, they might shape us “with deep wisdom worth digging and diving fore, fare below the surface, leading the church ‘to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13), if you’re befuddled by the Bible in your initial forays into its pages, take heart. You’re on the right track.” (p. 208). I believe there is great wisdom in that statement.

I realize that many people who were raised with these stories have been taught in ways that have harmed them. They, rightly so, may be scarred to such an extent that they can’t sit with the texts, especially the “weird” ones. I hope that enough healing will come so they can reengage with the stories. I greatly appreciated what Frank Honeycutt does in Miracles for Skeptics, because he allows us to bring our skepticism to these passages while experiencing the deeper, enchanted dimensions of the Christian faith. Perhaps the many who struggle with these stories will find a path to re-engagement with them. That is, at least for me, my hope as I believe Honeycutt offers us an important message, for as he writes in the closing paragraphs, these stories “herald the dawn of a new world initiated by the grace and teachings of Christ” (p. 208).


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Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest “Second Thoughts about the Second Coming: Understanding the End Times, Our Future, and Christian Hope” coauthored with Ronald J. Allen. His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at