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Roger Olson: Embarrassed by the Supernatural?

Roger Olson, “Embarrassed by the Supernatural?” (April 29, 2015).

Roger Olson’s challenge to Western Christianity about the power of God is a bold and biblical one. Questioning the status quo of our current version of traditional Christianity, he rightly believes that it has, “absorbed the worldview of modernity by relegating the supernatural, miracles, scientifically unexplainable interventions of God, to the past (‘Bible times’) and elsewhere (‘the mission fields’).”[1]

Roger Olson

Several years ago, Olson sounded a similar alarm: “It seems to me that belief in ‘the supernatural’ is an essential part of traditional, classical Christianity (and I mean that normatively and not only historically). That is to say, denying the reality of the supernatural is tantamount to giving up Christianity. However, of course, many people who believe they are Christians deny the supernatural.”[2] Olson began a recent article with the same alarm: “My claim is that most contemporary American evangelical Christians only pay lip service to the supernatural whereas the Bible is saturated with it.”

The perplexity of this is shared by many who consider themselves Pentecostals and Charismatics. It is a strange thing indeed for one who claims to be a Jesus-follower to simultaneously deny that the same power we see Jesus and His followers exercising in our day is now obsolete two thousand years later. Ironic is not a powerful enough word to describe a mindset which claims to abide by the worldview of the Bible while concurrently embracing an anti-supernatural, Enlightenment sentiment regarding the existence of the miraculous today.

Thankfully, while this may be common among various versions and flavors of Christianity, it does not seem to be so common among the vast majority of Americans. According to A survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion five years ago (2010), nearly 80% of Americans believe in miracles.[3] Three years later (2013), that number was down to 72% per the Harris Poll.[4] Five years later (2015), the Today Show’s recent survey among 1,500 people revealed that 76% of those polled believed that prayer could heal, revealing a sustained depth of belief in the miraculous and our connection to it.[5] This touches on the bullseye of Olson’s post.

Many Pentecostals and Charismatics today would have a theological splinter in their soul if at least the idea of miraculous healing, if not the offer to pray for it, didn’t follow a person’s verbalization of their pain, suffering, or illness. Yet strangely, Olson’s experience reveals that too many of those who claim to follow Jesus, “avoid asking God to heal them…avoid any mention of demons or demonic possession and strictly shun exorcism as primitive and superstitious…look down on churches that anoint the sick with oil and pray for their physical healing…suspect they are ‘cultic’ and probably encourage ill people not to seek medical treatment…make fun of evangelists who claim to have prayed for God to re-route hurricanes but never ourselves pray for God to save people from natural disasters…have gradually adopted the idea that ‘Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me’ and…regard petitionary prayer as something for children.” How horrific. That was my own behavior prior to 2004, and is an accurate description of the treatment I’ve received from others in the camp I left.

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” – James 5:14 NKJV

If there was ever one verse in the epistles which ought to feel safe to Western evangelical cessationists, I would think it would be James 5:14. When I was a cessationist myself I practiced that verse in pastoral ministry. The context of the passage didn’t seem as dangerous at the time as other texts. Strangely, however, many evangelicals seemingly ignore it altogether, and resort to praying for the sick in congregational and small group prayer meetings with strange concepts we don’t seem to find anywhere in the Bible. Asking God to not let them suffer too much is quite foreign to Scripture. Petitioning God to help them see the “redemptive” purposes in their illness has no reference either. And while there is definite value in praying for God to bless a person with perseverance to hold firm to the faith in the midst of suffering, it doesn’t seem to be a central teaching in the New Testament. What is central is laying hands on the sick, praying for them, and commanding illness to leave and demons to depart.

I share a similar story of healing along with Olson. I’ve had pretty severe allergies during the Spring ever since I can remember. Last year I felt filled with the faith to just go and ask a friend to lay hands on me and ask God to heal me. My friend did. So did God. I did not suffer with allergies for the remainder of the season last year, and have not suffered one day this year. And to my surprise, a lifelong allergy to milk has also been healed and I have enjoyed ice cream multiple times now with seemingly no effects. While I have not been to a doctor to verify this, my assumption is that if I no longer have the allergic reactions I used to have all my life, then something happened to me. And I also assume that if I can trace it all back to that single point in time when someone prayed for me, then the connection is legitimate. I asked. I had faith that God would do it. My friend believed. Two of us agreed on a matter touching the kingdom. And God granted it. No problems immediately thereafter.

I felt a strange sensation last week, however, when talking to my dad about this. He asked me how I was holding up this Spring so far. I began to describe for him that I no longer seemed to struggle, and suddenly acquiesced. The force and joy with which I would have normally talked about it suddenly began to subside. That surprised me. My father is a cessationist to this day, and pastored as such for thirty years in the Southern Baptist Convention. Knowing his position seemed to create in me a bizarre sense of obligation toward his viewpoint. Thankfully I caught myself, reassured myself that there’s nothing wrong proclaiming the goodness of God even to a convinced cessationist, and finished the story by stating what happened to me in a matter-of-fact sort of way. My dad’s response was just what I had expected: “Hmmm. Okay, son. That’s great.” But with a tone of voice which seemed to belie his true feelings on the matter.

In the end, I share Olson’s suspicion that, “our contemporary evangelical avoidance of the supernatural in the physical realm of reality has little to do with intellectual questions and issues.” I also believe that, “it has more to do with wanting our religion to be respectable; above all we don’t want to be viewed by the world around us as fanatics. The abuses of the supernatural seen on cable television cause us to drop it entirely.”[6] I think that’s the bizarre sense of obligation I felt when speaking with my dad. It was that feeling of “respectability,” yet obviously one based purely on culture instead of on the kingdom.

What is also just as obvious is that the abuse of a thing should never dictate the avoidance of that thing altogether. Yet strangely, this too, is a standard practice of cultural respectability. As Olson frames it, “the cure for abuse is not disuse but proper use.”[7] I believe that Christians should labor diligently to not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but instead should continually place themselves in a place to be transformed by the renewing of their mind (Romans 12:1-2). The Enlightenment has poisoned our minds with the toxins of respectability and the genetic fallacy.[8] The truth of Scriptures, contained especially in the life and ministry of Jesus and the early church as our lifestyle and pattern for the kingdom, provide the source material for this transformative renewal of our minds. This, along with an openness to miraculous experiences and participation in the power of God, will ultimately inoculate us from our cultural anti-supernaturalism and return the people of God to a place of effectiveness in the mission Jesus has called us to until His return.

Reviewed by Rob Wilkerson


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[1] believe-in-it/






[7] ibid.


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Category: Spirit, Spring 2015

About the Author: Rob Wilkerson, M.Div. (The Master's Seminary, 2000), B.S. (Luther Seminary, 1994), is a follower of Jesus in Woodstock, GA, where he works in the tech industry as an analyst and consultant. From there he envisions and pursues missional-shaped business for the kingdom. He and his wife Sherri have been married for 21 years and together have three sons and a daughter. Rob believes the mission of the gospel is summed up in four simple phrases: know God, obey Jesus, love one another, and make disciples. Google+ Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

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