Faith healers holding out on us?

In the comments of a recent post on evidence-based versus faith-based claims, Luke Holzmann (who writes at the Sonlight Blog) had some interesting things to say about miracles, pointing out that “Your assumptions make a huge difference in [how you interpret] those instances.” When I responded with an example about people getting better from colds slightly faster than average, he responded:

I was thinking of the times when, say, a child is flayed by the asphalt in a bike accident, rushed to the hospital where the doctors bandage him up and send him home. That night–while the church is praying for the boy–the lacerated skin drops off him and, upon his return to the doctor’s office a day later, is not recognized for the transformation that befell him. Or, the man who was hit by a car, and fell mutilated to the ground–his leg, for instance, broken in three places… among other things. He was taken to the hospital where doctors were unable to do anything for him, so he is brought to the church for prayer. While being prayed for, his entire body is healed–including the shattered bones–and, as his son-in-law tells it–the only reason he did not jump up to praise God was because he didn’t have a stitch of clothing on under the sheet [smile]. Those kinds of things.

Naturally, I told him that “I would love to see particular well-recorded examples of these more dramatic and improbable healings you mention,” and he clarified:

The two stories I recounted above are based on what I’ve been told by 1. the guy to whom it happened when he was a boy (the bicycle incident), and 2. my pastor, whose wife’s father was the one hit by the car. I completely agree that the “my wife’s sister’s dog’s former-owner’s neighbor heard of a guy who once almost did something crazy” is not all that compelling. Knowing the people for whom it happened, or whose parents it happened to, is a tad bit more compelling to me.

I obviously can’t speak to these particular examples, because I don’t know any more of the details and Luke hasn’t shared any sort of objective record of these events. (After all, wouldn’t/shouldn’t this kind of thing make big international news? Or wouldn’t at least one of these doctors write a case study for a medical journal?) But let’s suppose for a moment that we grant their veracity, and accept that Christian prayer works to directly bring about miraculous healing. What does this say about Christians?

Why isn’t there a Christian wing in hospitals, maybe right next to the ER, where Christians who are wounded get wheeled right over the prayer team for instant healing? Why don’t doctors refer tough cases out to local churches, instead of expensive specialists? I’m assuming, of course, that this healing only works when prayed to Jesus, and it only works when the injured or sick person is a Christian themselves. If it worked in more cases, that’d be even better, but even this alone would have a huge impact on American health care, considering the portion of Americans who are Christians. (To say nothing of the world!) If these people are holding out on us, I’d be outraged! And you should be outraged too. What an immense cruelty they are perpetrating on humanity, having such an incredible ability to heal, but hiding it from the public and refrain from using it in all but the most obscure and poorly-documented situations. Just think of all the people whose quality of life could be vastly improved, if only Christians actually used this ability that they have. So much for Christian love, right?

Of course, there is an alternative, simpler explanation. Maybe faith healing doesn’t really work, after all. So, Luke (and other Christians) — which is it? Are Christians heartless and uncaring toward their fellow humans? Or is your prayer ineffective and pointless?

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  1. Aristarchus

     /  March 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Ok, I call bullshit on those stories. Partially detached skin is supposed to fall off. That’s part of the natural healing process. I’ve had it happen with much smaller injuries many times personally. I don’t know how much or how fast these things usually happen, but I’m willing to bet the people telling the story don’t either. (And even if it’s a little faster or more dramatic than usual, that’s far from proof of supernatural intervention.)

    I also just don’t believe that doctors were unable to do anything for someone who had a car accident of the type described. I am 100% sure they can at least set broken bones and give pain medication. Did they not do those things? Or did they, and perhaps the pain medication had some effect? And was he rushed back to the hospital immediately for x-rays to confirm the instantly healed bones? Or did he just feel better? I’m willing to bet the latter, which is entirely consistent with placebo effects. And given that the “they couldn’t do anything for him” part is obviously not true, this story has at least gotten modified meaningfully in the chain of retelling. So who knows what else has changed.

    And the second story is told to him by his pastor, whose job relies on convincing him of the religion, and is obviously biased. It started based on the feelings an old man claimed to feel. In the community he was in, this sort of claim clearly was a big deal (after all, his daughter’s husband’s church member is still retelling it). I had a chemistry teacher in high school who told us that he was struck by lightning three times, kidnapped in Mexico, and a variety of other things…. I didn’t believe him, and I’m pretty sure I was right not to.

  2. I can predict the response from Christians: God cannot be expected to heal people whenever we want him to. He has his own inscrutable reasons for choosing whom he will heal, and who are we to second guess him?

    Of course, if this really is the case, then I wonder why Christians have faith healing services at all – wouldn’t that be looking the Gift Horse in the mouth?

  3. ….Christians: God cannot be expected to heal people whenever we want him to. …..
    Ahh! Sorry but that is a load of CRAP!!!
    [Jesus] says his self that ask and it WILL be granted. He did not say ‘maybe if he aint busy’ or ‘sorry, not when it aint in my plan.’ So either [God] can’t do schite or [Jesus] lied, or most likely both???

    [Proper nouns modified by NFQ. Come on, man, it’s just immature, and I want my blog to be a place where religious readers can feel comfortable participating in an intelligent discussion. Keep your comments polite and constructive or I’ll have to start deleting them.]

  4. We talk about this issue a lot (I know it seems we talk about everything you bring up, but so far, we have!), and I like my prof’s stance on these issues. Simply put, I’m with you. I don’t believe it unless I have proof of it. However, for me, it isn’t beyond realistic for this to happen. I just don’t think God operates that way (at least in our culture) because when something like this happens, we don’t first ask “Was this God?” but “Can we figure out how this happened?” Likewise, in a culture that puts more stock in God healing people, he might be more inclined to do such a thing.

    I don’t know if that muddies things up more or what, but you can feel free to pick that apart (as I’m sure some will do).

  5. @Adrian: It seems to me that “Can we figure out how this happened?” includes the option of a supernatural being doing the healing, in the same way that it includes all possible options for what happened. If the evidence supports it, it would be the conclusion. It also strikes me as pretty awful to imagine that God would heal people who never consider alternative explanations, but would leave suffering the people who consider the full range of possibilities. That sounds neither fair nor loving.

    I think you are right that there will be more apparent miraculous healings in a society which tends to attribute everything that happens first to God without question. But that says more about interpretation than it does about true causes.

  6. NFQ, thanks for the link-love [smile]. And I’m sorry I haven’t made it back to comment on the original post [life is busy!]–but since you mention me by name, I figured I needed to swing by and give my two cents.

    Looking back through history, it is odd–isn’t it?–that hospitals were often started by Christians. How does that fit with God’s ability to heal?

    I’m guessing there are far better explanations to be found within the writings of theologians–another topic we’ve discussed a bit–as I have spent very little time thinking about this as the situation never bothered me. But off the top…

    1. We can’t control God. The idea that we could open up shop and dispense healing is, it seems to me, countered in Scripture (such as the account of Simon the sorcerer). So while healing should absolutely be something we see within Christians who are following God–such as in the Acts 8–that’s not something we can wield. God gives us the power… but it’s about God, not us.

    2. Faith does play a huge role in God’s release of power. Even Jesus was hampered by lack of faith. But, keen observers will notice, He still healed people.

    3. Miracles don’t produce real faith. They can inspire people, draw a crowd, get people to consider… but following God is a choice. Thus, again, while faith healing should be a normal part of the Christian experience, it is not an evangelistic tool.

    4. So why aren’t miracles a normal part of the Christian church experience here in the West? Some thoughts:

    a. They probably are, more than we think, but because we assume miracles don’t happen, we don’t see them for what they are. I think this ties in with the point about doctors doing case studies: What would they study in that case? What would they record? How would that apply to medicine and such? It wouldn’t. And so, to draw a weak analogy, just as doctors learn nothing about celiac disease because there is no medication for it–and so no funding–I can see why doctors would simply shrug and say, “Glad you’re better.” There are plenty of examples of alternative medicine that, apparently/reportedly, works marvelously, and yet doctors continue to reject them as treatments. My dad has written a bit about this (at least, I think such things are covered on that blog…).

    b. They probably aren’t that common [yes, counter-point to a]: I, and many other believers I know, are pretty weak in faith. I’ve often bemoaned the lack of power I should experience as a Christian (all those “we should experience” comments above). But we don’t. Why? Largely, a lack of faith. Also, a lack of right motive. Also, an incorrect perspective on the whole thing–making it about “the ministry” or “proving something” rather than loving people. Plus, I don’t often feel like I need God, because I can turn to something else (medicine) in many cases.

    c. God meets us where we are. When we are powerless, that’s when–as Scripture says–He is strong. God uses dreams and visions to reach Muslims… because that works in that culture. Dreams and visions for me, as an American kid, not so much. Culture–much like faith above–plays a big role in how God interacts with us. Jesus came to the Jews as a Jew, and even–initially–refused to help a gentile woman.

    d. He also works in the background more than we would like. Throughout Scripture, there are relatively few “big” miracles–ones that everyone could see and knew for sure were the direct working of God. Again, I believe this is because God is much more interested in us following Him where He leads, rather than following sensationalism (one reason so many people really dislike the people like those guys on TV who “knock people over with prayer,” and such).

    e. God calls us to act. He’s given us brains and abilities, and so we are to reach out to a hurting world and be “His hands and feet.” This would be part of the reason believers have often been the first to reach out and care for the needy, the hurt, and the sick.

    A few rambling thoughts. That’s all I’ve got time for at the moment.

    Definitely a good topic, and something Christians should be thinking about too! Thanks for continuing the conversation, even though I haven’t been able to interact as much as I would like.


  7. Ubi Dubium

     /  March 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    The example given of “the guy to whom it happened when he was a boy” is a perfect example of the malleability of memory. Everything I read about what we are now learning about memory is pointing to how imperfect a process it is. Each time we retrieve a memory that retrieval becomes part of the memory, and when we file it back away, we “save over” the old version. And things that people tell us they recall about the event get muddled into our own memories over time. That’s how researchers have been able to implant false memories in their test subjects of things that never happened. Here’s Elizabeth Loftus talking about this:

  8. Aristarchus

     /  March 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Anyone who believes “It’s real, but you can only see that it’s real after you already believe it” is just asking to be conned….

  9. Luke:

    “Looking back through history, it is odd–isn’t it?–that hospitals were often started by Christians. How does that fit with God’s ability to heal?”

    Seems pretty straightforward to me: if Christians were starting hospitals it was because God wasn’t doing enough to heal the sick in his churches.

    As for examples of alternative medicines working, these simply demonstrate the fact anecdotes do not amount to much. The body is not only good at fooling itself into thinking it’s better (the placebo effect) but it often does actually make itself better without any intervention (spontaneous remission). A few stories of good experiences with alternative medicine therefore hold about as much water as a few stories of good experiences with faith healing.

    Once you learn about the enormous complexities of human biology, and the associated difficulties in establishing cause and effect when treating ailments, you realize that only carefully constructed and controlled studies are capable of sorting fact from fiction. And when alternative medicines are put to the test in this way, they fail utterly. (If they don’t fail, then they become mainstream medicine.)

    The same goes for claims about faith healing, or at least prayers for healing: studies on intercessory prayer show no positive effect.

  10. Even if these stories were true, and common, I would have a real problem with a God who can heal someone’s broken bones but who doesn’t lift a finger to help thousands of starving people.

    (What, all out of manna?)

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