I’m often asked why I’m so opposed to faith-healing. Surprisingly, even by people who agree with me about all the fakery at work. If people think they are being healed, if it gives them something to put their trust and hope in, isn’t that a good thing? If they’re wrong, why does it matter? If people go to faith-healers and even FEEL a little bit better, why do I seek to tear that down and take it away from them?
The answer strikes me a fairly obvious, and but for the fact that I’m frequently asked such questions I wouldn’t even feel the need to spell it out. As it is, I thought I’d write a short article listing a few ways in which faith-healing is often positively harmful.
1. Delay in Seeking Medical Appointments
There are some people who are genuinely afraid of their doctor and what he might tell them. Often these fears are groundless, but unfortunately sometimes doctors do give their patients bad news. In either event it is in the patient’s best interests to go to their doctor. If they are well, their mind will be put at rest; if they are sick they can begin necessary treatment which might even save their lives. Sadly, there are too many stories of people seeking help in all the wrong places – whether it be from homeopathy, aromatherapy, special “cancer-killing” tea bags, or faith-healing. By the time they discover that they really should go to their doctor it is often too late. Faith-healing can, and does, fuel this delay.
2. Stopping Medication
Sometimes people stop their medication after visiting a faith-healer. Sometimes this is their own choice, other times it’s the command of the faith-healer. The person might be encouraged to throw their medication away as a sign of faith. Alternatively, they might simply be so assured by the healer that they are cured that they stop taking their tablets in a bout of excitement at their divine encounter. Lamentably, many have paid with their lives for doing so. In a BBC programme called “Heart of the Matter,” which first aired in 1992, we see the case of a woman called Audrey Reynolds who suffered from an ankle injury, epilepsy, and learning difficulties. After her visit to the American faith-healer Morris Cerullo, she stopped taking her tablets. She took a fit and drowned in her bath. The coroner noted: “It’s a tragedy that she went to this meeting and thought she had been cured of everything. Sadly it lead to her death.”
3. Mistaken Healings
Closely connected to the above are cases of mistaken healings. The difference here is that the person is harmed by behaving a certain way rather than by stopping medication. So, people might be asked to run around the stage or bend and touch their toes or walk without their crutches. However, there are cases when the person – who remains unhealed – ends up exacerbating their condition, sometimes with lethal effects. The faith healer Katherine Kuhlman once declared a woman healed of spine cancer, and had her perform for the audience on stage. The woman’s spine subsequently collapsed and she died a few months later. Or consider a case related by Justin Peters when he attended a Benny Hinn rally in Birmingham, Alabama in 2002. Beside Peters was a woman with an oxygen tank and tubes up her nose. She suffered from severe emphysema and hadn’t walked in years. In the euphoria of the service she pulled out the tubes, stood up, and began to walk around. As Hinn’s assistants were walking her to the stage she got slower and slower until she had to be sat down in a chair, absolutely exhausted. She hadn’t been healed at all. Like thousands of others she had experienced nothing more than a temporary euphoria that caused an illusion of healing, and a rush of pain-reducing endorphins which can make humans achieve feats they might not normally be capable of.
4. The Distress of the Unhealed
Millions of people all over the globe have hoped for healing, been prayed for, and remain unhealed. Many of these people suffer great anguish when they listen to stories – typically false or exaggerated – of other people being healed. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians in Northern Ireland have been recently trumpeting the alleged healing of a teenage boy who suffered from an aggressive cancer (they don’t quite so loudly trumpet the fact that this boy had received months of chemotherapy and invasive surgery). However, what are parents of all those children who remain unhealed to make of it? What are the parents of a young boy called Oscar Knox – who suffered and finally died of cancer – to make of it? Did they not pray enough? Did God not love Oscar just as much as this other boy? The impression is often given – whether intentional or not – that God has healed someone because of his great love. Where does that message leave the unhealed? Too often they are left feeling unloved by God, lacking in faith, too full of sin, or not having given enough money.
5. Further Psychological Costs
The message that proponents of faith-healing spread abroad is that those who suffer should seeking their miracle, keep pursuing their healing, don’t give up! This is a hopeless endeavour that robs often the most vulnerable people of their dignity. It hinders their ability to come to terms with their condition and make the best of the time they have left. One of the most undignified sights I’ve ever seen is watching sick people desperate to be healed having to effectively audition to get on stage at a Benny Hinn rally. One man I knew personally died in hopeless distress because he didn’t get the miracle he had been lead to expect. Hope deferred makes the heart sick.
6. Financial Cost
You never meet a poor faith-healer. They might not all have pacific view mansions, but they nevertheless do very well. Much of their money comes from sick and disabled people, people who are desperate. The quest for a miracle robs the sick and disabled of the money they should be using to improve their care and quality of life. Regrettably, being disabled is an expensive business, and the needed adaptations to a home that can make life worthwhile don’t come cheap. Unlike faith-healers, disabled people rarely have a lot of money to spare, and the homes they are trying to adapt certainly don’t have 20 pacific-view rooms.
7. The Truth
As important as 1-6 are, the most fundamental reason I’m opposed to faith-healing claims and practices is that I’m convinced they are false – and often deliberately faked. There is typically one or some combination of the following at work:
i. The power of suggestion or the placebo effect – such as when a person experiences pain relief in the emotionally charged atmosphere of a healing crusade.
ii. The ideomotor effect – which seems to lie behind certain miracles which involve bodily joints or limbs, such as (possibly) the leg growing miracle I discussed in my previous two articles.
iii. The natural healing ability of the human body – millions of year of evolution has equipped our bodies with amazing, and widely misunderstood, defence mechanisms.
iv. Misdiagnosis or faulty self-diagnosis – which leads people to think they have been cured of ailments they never actually had.
v. Misreporting or exaggeration – the temptation to “sex-up” one’s healing story is a strong one, especially when a person is asked to testify to an expectant crowd moments after they are proclaimed healed.
vi. Medical ignorance – which can lead people to have a very different understanding of their condition than a medical professional has.
vii. Plain old fraud, which is well documented.
If truth matters, then it’s important to investigate healing claims; and if those claims don’t hold up to scrutiny, it’s important to say so. In doing so we might just help protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society from false hope, guilt, and crippling debt.
Stephen J. Graham