The Miracle Writer
Craig Keener: A Scholar Who Pursued the Truth of Impossible Things
by Terrell Clemmons
“Probably either heaven or hell,” Craig joked. His family was intellectual, but not religious.
At that, the men launched into a series of Bible verses about how Jesus died so that he could be forgiven and have eternal life. At age fifteen, Craig was already quite practiced in ridiculing Christians and using his knowledge of science and philosophy to expose flaws in their reasoning, but he listened patiently for a while before interrupting. “Sir, I’m sorry, but quoting the Bible can’t persuade me. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the Bible. Do you have any other arguments?”
Clearly, the street evangelists hadn’t expected this, and Craig moved to press his advantage. “If there’s a God, then where did the dinosaur bones come from?”
This was another question they weren’t prepared for, but after an awkward silence, the more vocal one pronounced, “The devil put them there to confuse us.”
This is ridiculous, Craig thought. “I’m leaving,” he shrugged, and turned to go.
A Compelling Presence
He was right. It was a ridiculous answer. But strangely, as Craig continued on, he found himself trembling. Although he’d become a convinced atheist by age nine, he had been rethinking his atheist certainties for some time. Plato in particular, whom he’d read at age thirteen, had provoked something of an existential crisis. Plato had put forth an idea for the immortality of the soul, but Craig didn’t think Plato’s argument really worked. What happens after we die? he’d started to wonder. If there is nothing higher than ourselves, then is life just a fleeting, meaningless accident? Craig very much wanted immortality, to the extent that he had pleaded in the privacy of his own soul, God if you’re out there, please show me.
He’d expected God, if he existed at all, to reveal himself through some kind of scientific evidence. But what he got that day after school was something far more personally compelling: evidence of God’s own presence. By the time he reached home and shut himself into his bedroom, the demanding presence was so strong his knees buckled. Craig didn’t understand how Jesus dying and rising could have anything to do with restoring him to God, “but if that’s what you’re saying, I’ll believe it,” he gasped. “But God, I don’t know how to be restored to you. So if you really want me to belong to you, you’re going to have to save me yourself.”
At that moment, he felt something rushing through his body. It was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. He didn’t know much about Christianity at this point, but he did know three things: he knew that God was real, that God was found in Christ, and that from that moment forward, he would devote everything to him.
An Adolescent Scholar
Up until then, Craig had planned to be an astrophysicist, because if there was truth to be found, naturally one would seek it out by studying the universe. But now, he only wanted to preach the gospel. He didn’t want anyone else to suffer the agony of missing God’s saving love. His usual half-hour walk home from school sometimes took four hours because he spent so much time talking with people about Christ. In some ways, he resembled a dreamy adolescent, only he was falling in love with God.
But he was also still a young scholar with a mind hungry for knowledge. He started attending a church and reading forty chapters of the Bible a day, a pace that took him through the New Testament about once a week, or the whole Bible once a month. It struck him, reading this way, that the Bible was not just a collection of memory verses with a lot of blank space in between. It contained narratives and streams of thought. Reading the Bible in context helped him figure out what a particular passage might be saying and then assimilate multiple passages into a comprehensive whole.
He further realized that the biblical authors took certain things for granted as they wrote. Paul’s readers, for example, would already know what situations were being addressed when Paul discussed matters such as head coverings or greeting one another with a holy kiss. But Craig didn’t always know what the situations were. He needed background information on the cultural settings to help him understand.
Eventually it registered with him that these texts had been written in Greek and Roman environments, and that he himself had already read a number of ancient texts from those settings. He’d read Tacitus, the Roman historian, for example, and the Iliad, the Aeneid, and some of the Greek playwrights. All of these could provide background information on the New Testament texts, and he marveled that in the foreknowledge of God, he could draw from one of his pre-conversion pastimes to fuel his post-conversion passion to know God.
All of this studying, combined with a growing, intimate prayer life, revealed to him a God whose love for his people was unfathomably deep, and a Savior whose earthly life had held many sorrows. Craig, too, had known sorrow and the woundedness of broken relationships. He told God he was willing to suffer whatever brokenness might come, so long as God’s own presence would stay with him through it.
When it came time for college, he turned down a National Merit Scholarship and headed off to Bible college on faith.
Taking on Materialism
Throughout his years of schooling, he continued collecting background information. For his own purposes, he wanted a resource that provided this information, and he decided that he would write one himself if none existed by the time he finished his Ph.D. And so in 1994, he published the first-of-its-kind Bible Background Commentary—New Testament, which makes scholarly background data accessible to the general reader. One after another, more background commentaries followed.
While working on a commentary on the Book of Acts, he realized that a primary reason many people gave for doubting its historical reliability was the miracles it reported. In the modern West, this is largely due to the influence of David Hume, who’d asserted that uniform human experience rules out miracles. Not only was Hume’s argument faulty in itself, Craig knew, but human experience was certainly not uniform on the matter. Craig knew of several eyewitness accounts of miracles that were in his estimation quite credible.
And so, even though he knew it would probably get him laughed at in scholarly circles, he decided to deal with the matter in his Acts commentary. He started out addressing it in a footnote, but the footnote eventually grew into the two-volume, 1,200-page Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011), which documents hundreds of contemporary accounts of miracles. The objective was not to prove the truth of the Bible’s miracles, but to challenge scholars who dismiss them as historically implausible legends. Like all of his work, Miracles is meticulously researched and documented.
Trans-racial Ties That Bind
Craig Keener is an admittedly absent-minded professor who can get lost in his work, but from the day of his conversion he also regularly sought out Christian fellowship. When he arrived in Durham, North Carolina, to begin work on his Ph.D. at Duke University, he was in deep pain over a broken relationship. Before he’d even settled into an apartment, “Grandma Johnson,” an African American neighbor raising several grandchildren alone, befriended him. “The Lord told me to offer you somethin’ to eat,” she told him, “and to invite you to church this mornin’.” Through Grandma Johnson, he discovered both the comfort of Southern cooking and the cathartic joy of African American worship. The black church, he discovered, really knew how to deal with pain.
He found himself drawn to his black brothers and sisters in Christ, and soon after receiving his doctorate, he was ordained at the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church. With racial-reconciliation ministry a high personal priority, the thought had entered his mind that an ideal ministry partner for him might be an African woman. And so, when a new doctoral student from the Congo joined an InterVarsity meeting he was helping to lead, he was more than casually struck by her beauty and character.
Médine Moussounga was hard to forget, and a cherished friendship ensued. But neither of them felt led to pursue any relationship beyond that, and Médine completed her doctoral program and returned to the Congo just as a violent civil war was breaking out.
Nearly twelve years would pass before they would see one another again.
Médine Moussounga grew up in a home devoted to God. Both her parents had converted to Christianity from traditional African religions, and although the Moussounga home was happy and loving, the city of Dolisie where they lived, like much of Africa, lacked many of the resources the developed world takes for granted. Risk of disease, abduction, and unmitigated violence were ongoing realities for her siblings and her.
The war to which she returned eventually compelled Médine and her family to flee their home. Not knowing whether she would live or die, she wrote a letter to her dear American friend Craig, whom she knew would faithfully pray for them until further notice.
For eighteen months the Moussounga family lived on the run as refugees. And for eighteen months, Craig prayed and waited in lonely anguish. By war’s end, Craig and Médine both knew they wanted to marry each other, but reality itself seemed to conspire against it. At one point, after yet another prayer of desperation, Craig sensed God responding to him: The way is hard because I am cutting a new way before you, clearing a new path for you through the stubborn rocks. You don’t know the future—but you know my character. Look to the future not with fear, but as a challenge. . . . I am with you.
Whether or not Craig ever welcomed the challenge, the presence of God did indeed see them through, and after a seemingly interminable series of hurdles born of different continents, cultures, and government bureaucracies, Craig and Médine were married in 2001 at Palmer Theological Seminary near Philadelphia, where Craig served as a professor of New Testament. Today the Keener family lives in Wilmore, Kentucky, where Craig teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary.
Their beautiful story is told in Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles, and Hope Against All Odds. It’s three stories, actually—Craig’s, Médine’s, and theirs together. Beyond that, though, and more importantly, it’s a story of the faithful God who still works miracles and whose surpassing love accomplishes impossible things. •