I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately with Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians about the so-called “spiritual gifts” mentioned in the Bible, and in particular tongues, knowledge, prophecy and healing. Now, the reader should note that for 10 years of my life I was part of this Christian subculture myself, drawn to it because of Charismatic and Pentecostal claims to have frequent supernatural experiences, with such spiritual gifts in regular operation. I was, I confess, desperate to see God at work. I wanted to experience and witness the supernatural. I truly hoped that God did regularly heal people, that he did regularly communicate his will in words of knowledge and prophecy. I went to these churches wanting it to be true. Looking out for it.
Just over a decade later I left the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement, incredibly disappointed and disillusioned. My hopes felt crushed. After more than 10 years I couldn’t point to a single case of any of these gifts that I can truly say was genuine. In fact the majority was at best play-acting and at worst malicious deception, fraud and trickery. I didn’t go to these churches to “play the sceptic,” either. I went because I was desperately seeking God. I was willing to believe. However, I’m also an incredibly analytical person and I’m not willing to believe something just because everyone else does or even because things seem a certain way on the face of it. I dig deeper. But if God is genuinely operating in the ways that Charismatics and Pentecostals claim he regularly acts then surely it should survive my analytical mind? As it is I found that a cursory look beneath the surface unmasked what appeared to be largely a case of adults engaging in Let’s Pretend. My abiding image of the movement is watching sick people fall – being “slain in the Spirit,” as Charismatics say – only to get up off the floor a short time later just as sick as they were when they went down. Is that really the power of God?
I must also admit there were a few instances that certainly made me wonder. One involved my own mother-in-law who is one of the most genuine godly people I have ever met. I have no question that what she reports is true. The facts are as follows. For a long period of time she experienced severe incapacitating migraines. One night she attended a Christian meeting and the migraines struck. She was about to go home when it was suggested to her to go forward for prayer. She went forward, got prayed for, and not only did the migraine lift, but she has never had another one to this day – years later.
What are we to make of this? I have absolutely no quibble with the facts. Nor do I have any beef with the notion that God healed her of migraines. God, being omnipotent, can easily heal a human being of any condition he chooses to. It’s not therefore an issue of can God heal, but rather did God heal. Do we have good reason to think God healed her that night?
Discussing this the other night, my wife, who comes from a Pentecostal background, says yes. I don’t think so. Why not? Isn’t what happened so incredibly improbable as to provide good reason to believe God healed her? Again, no. In fact, I would argue that such events are in fact statistically highly probable. Bear in mind that around the world at any given time millions of people are being prayed for. Remember also that virtually every report of healing concerns a condition which we know can spontaneously disappear. Moreover, the vast majority of healing testimonies concern conditions that we know respond well to the placebo effect. Lastly, many such episodes of healing occur under conditions in which the placebo effect is known to work – such as the charged emotionalism of a healing crusade. Now, with this additional background knowledge it should be relatively clear that it would be odd if such coincidences didn’t happen. Some people will experience the remission – that’s just a natural fact about lots of ailments. Most people, though, will not, and go home disappointed.
An example should illustrate the point. Think of the national lottery. Bob has just won the £7.5 million jackpot. The odds of his winning the lottery stand (generally) at around 1 in 14 million. In other words, if we look solely at Bob we might think “wow, that’s incredibly improbable!” And so it is. But, when we factor in that millions around the country play the lottery every week someone winning the jackpot is highly probable. As with the lottery so with healings – that some people report spontaneous healing after prayer is only to be expected! What would be unexpected is if the spontaneous remission occurred in a disease or ailment which we know does not naturally behave this way.
If healings were far more frequent or concerned conditions that we know do not naturally go into remission – say, missing eyes or limbs, or quadriplegia – then we might have more reason to accept such healing instances as divine in origin. As it is, instances of supposed divine healing (1) almost always concern illnesses which do occasionally go into remission on their own; (2) almost always concern illnesses which are known to respond to placebo; (3) typically occur in the emotionally charged atmosphere of a healing crusade or worship service which makes them more conducive to the placebo effect, and, frankly, alters people’s perception of reality (many subsequently report that they were not healed as they thought they were at the time); and (4) do not happen anywhere near frequently enough to make one think there’s anything other than coincidence at work.
I’m delighted my mother-in-law no longer experiences migraines. But I’m not convinced that we have any reason to suppose it was a genuine divine healing. Of course, it might well have been – I have no idea – but the point is there doesn’t appear to be good grounds to suggest that a genuine healing did take place.
Stephen J Graham
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