Category Archives: Faith-Healing

Pseudoscience, Faith-Healing & Testimonials

You can find testimonials to the efficacy of pretty much anything: homeopathy, cancer-killing teabags, magnetic cures, or faith-healing. It’s a form of marketing which can be incredibly persuasive. We are probably more likely to make a judgment about some treatment or other based on a personal recommendation or testimony than on the basis of expert advice or research. Take, for example, “Miracle Mineral Solution,” an elixir commonly touted as a cure for autism, and sometimes even for AIDS and cancer. Not only is MMS utterly useless as a treatment for any of these conditions, it is a noxious brew containing industrial bleach that can quickly cause renal failure. Health authorities all over the world warn against it, and sadly many people – including children –  have suffered severe internal injuries from using it. Despite being medically effete and actively hazardous to health, it isn’t hard to find glowing testimonials – on the websites of dubious pushers of the elixir – from people whose improvement coincided with using it.

The trouble is that testimonials are incredibly unreliable.

Firstly, many people don’t have a terribly good grasp of their own condition and may even be self-diagnosed, such that when they claim to have been cured of X it might well be the case that they never had it to begin with, or it wasn’t as serious as they thought. Secondly, testimonials are selected by the advertiser/pusher of some quack procedure, and represent a few hits in a sea of misses. For instance, one can find volumes of testimonials in a Christian Science reading room. It gives the strong impression that Christian Science works. However, you aren’t being told of the thousands of people who got worse or even died as a direct result of applying Christian Science methods. Suppose I show you my dart board and you see 3 darts in the bulls eye. You might be tempted to think I’m a fair player, at least until I tell you I was throwing darts for 5 hours straight before I got those 3 hits. That’s what testimonials do – they present a lop-sided and carefully selected – sample that is highly misleading. Thirdly, claiming that one got better after using some quack medicine or spiritual procedure demonstrates a correlation in that instance. It doesn’t provide evidence of causation. If every time I have a headache I take 2 aspirin and eat a tube of Smarties can I rightly conclude that Smarties help take away pain? You need proper scientific evidence of the sort that only emerges after lengthy – often expensive – research before you can justifiably claim causation. Fourthly, testimonies are used for marketing purposes and can be edited to make them sound even more persuasive. “My doctor had me on antibiotics and other medicines, but then I tried QUACK X and my improvement was immense!” becomes simply “I tried QUACK X and my improvement was immense!” Or “QUACK X was the only thing that helped me!” sounds convincing because it implies that all other treatments were pursued, but that might not have been the case. Testimonials are a form of marketing, and marketing is rarely straightforwardly honest with us.

Furthermore, the nature of sickness helps the quacks sound more plausible and can provide them with testimonies of cures or improvements where none are present. The trick is to understand that every illness or health condition has a natural variability. With most illnesses or conditions there are times when you feel better, or at least less rotten, and it is during these times that a quack healer will claim that his prescriptions are working. Many people will seek out alternative therapies or spiritual healers when regular treatments don’t seem to be helping. If the person begins using the therapy at a stage when the symptoms are receding then the alternative therapy looks efficacious. If the condition doesn’t improve the quack healer can claim that the patient is fortunate to have started the treatment when he did or he would be in a much worse position.  Should the patient get worse then the quack healer can claim he needs to redouble his efforts. If the patient dies then sadly he started treatment too late and everyone should take note and not make the same mistake! The pushers of quack cures – whether medicines or spiritual procedures – are in a win-win situation; if they are crafty enough they can always avoid being proved wrong, and no matter what the outcome the quack healer can have himself a testimony.

In order not to be mislead it is crucial to bear in mind how flimsy testimonials are as evidence. In fact, as Terence Hines, the author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, reminds us: “It is safe to say that if testimonials play a major part in the “come on” for a cure or therapy, the cure or therapy is almost certainly worthless. If the promoters of the therapy had actual evidence for its effectiveness, they would cite it and not have to rely on testimonials.”

Stephen J. Graham

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The Perils of Faith-Healing

My most recent article “The Peril of Faith Healing” is published at On Religion here:

http://www.onreligion.co.uk/the-perils-of-faith-healing/

In this article I respond to the claims of Gloria Copeland that Christians can and should refuse flu shots because they are provided with supernatural protection by Jesus. I also go on to make a number of critical comments on faith-healing generally, and lay out the dangers inherent in this theology.

Stephen J. Graham

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Miraculous Healing Claims and Medical Inexplicability

I’m currently wading through Craig Keener’s massive two volume work “Miracles.” The book relays healing anecdote after healing anecdote. Frankly it is largely boring, incredibly tedious reading, and should have been about a quarter of the size.

Keener tells us that his main thesis is to defend the claim that people all over the globe – past and present – have claimed to be eyewitnesses to miraculous events, and thus New Testament claims can’t be dismissed as later legends, but rather they were genuine claims by eyewitnesses. I honestly don’t know who Keener is aiming at here because I have never met a single person – past or present, in real life or in literature – who doesn’t already know that many people past and present make claims concerning supposed miraculous events they witnessed. Such miracle claims abound in practically every culture. No-one seriously disputes that. I suspect Keener is being rather disingenuous with us, telling us hundreds and hundreds of miracle stories in the hope that we too begin to believe in miracles, or if we already believe then he means to affirm our belief with all these stories. I simply do not believe him when he tells us that the point of his book is the far more modest claim that people claim to have witnessed miracles.

Keener frequently refers to some instance of recovery as “medically inexplicable.” This is a common emphasis in the miracle-touting literature. This stress on medical inexplicability fits well with the definition of miracle provided by Webster’s New Universal Encyclopedia: “an event that cannot be explained by the known laws of nature and is therefore attributed to divine intervention.” Now, admittedly Keener is at pains to stress that he does not regard all the cases he reports as miraculous, but he does seem to strongly imply that many – even most – of his cases are best explained in these terms. In fact, it seems to me that the main reason Keener presents hundreds of such claims, regardless of their quality (and most are little more than folk tales or hearsay) is to allow him to say something like “sure, some of these claims might be false but there so many of them such that they can’t all be false, and therefore some must be due to supernatural agency.” As part of his cumulative case Keener presents these medically inexplicable recoveries. But how significant is it that some recovery is “medically inexplicable?

That some healing or other is “medically inexplicable” is a woefully inadequate – albeit very common – reason for positing divine intervention. It relies not on any positive evidence but rather on the mere lack of an explanation. This amounts to little more than an argument from ignorance. It is not legitimate to argue: “Doctors cannot explain why Bob’s tumour has disappeared, therefore the tumour was taken away by God.” That’s classic god of the gaps reasoning. There are lots of good potential reasons why some recovery might be “medically inexplicable.” For instance, perhaps a patient was misdiagnosed with Serious Disease A when she in fact only had Temporary Disease B. That she recovered is inexplicable as long as we think she suffered Serious Disease A, but of course she might not have. Alternatively, a doctor might well be mistaken about some condition or other. Doctors, after all, do not know everything about every disease. They can also make mistakes, thinking a disease was incurable when it in fact isn’t. Such might be very common in impoverished countries with little or no decent healthcare. Doctors might well lack the equipment for making a sound diagnosis. It is noteworthy that most of the healing claims Keener relates originate in such countries. A doctor might also use the language of “miracle” simply to mean “highly unusual,” rather than “act of God.” Moreover, a patient might misunderstand or misreport what his doctor tells him about his condition and chances of recovery, and in many cases it is the patient – not the doctor – who reports the recovery as “medically inexplicable.” Lastly, even modern medicine is far from omniscient. There are many things we do not know, such as why certain diseases behave the way they do. Remember that what was “medically inexplicable” 400 years ago is routine to us, and the same will likely be the case 400 years from now.

It is worth pointing out also that an event could be “miraculous” in some sense – as a special providence or intervention by God – even if it is completely medically explicable. For instance, suppose God heals Bob of cancer, such that had God not intervened Bob would’ve died. In this case Bob’s recovery might well be medically explicable (perhaps he had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery) and yet it is miraculous nonetheless. Or imagine a faith-healer who had an uncanny success rate in praying for people to be healed of cancer. It is possible to see that the case for miraculous intervention could be made despite the fact that each and every case is technically medically explicable (cancer often does remit, particularly with treatment).

It seems clear to me, therefore, that being medically inexplicable is neither necessary nor anywhere near sufficient to establish a miracle.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article (7) – Miracles and Manifestations: A Short Guide

Some people don’t have time to read my articles investigating the many claims within the charismatic movement and beyond, so here is a digest of my conclusions.

1. Glossolalia (speaking in tongues)

A very natural phenomenon which occurs in many religions, in children, and in people with certain mental illnesses. It’s often a learned behaviour in which people use sounds from their own native language to create a babble which on the surface sounds like another language but which linguistic analysis has revealed to be nothing of the sort.

2. Healing

I have come across very few cases of alleged healing that weren’t incredibly easily explained in natural terms. Healing claims are rarely investigated and medical evidence often never sought or offered by those who claim to have been miraculously healed. Instead we find one or a combination of the following at work: misdiagnosis, orthodox medical treatment, placebo, exaggeration, misunderstanding, rumour, anecdote, the body’s own healing ability, or plain old fraud.

3. Words of Knowledge or Prophecy

These can often sound quite persuasive, leaving us thinking “how did he/she know that if it wasn’t for supernatural revelation?” Charismatic prophets have been caught using various quite normal techniques to create the illusion: eaves dropping on conversations, researching people beforehand, cold reading techniques, and the use of vague propositions that sound specific but could apply to almost anyone.

4. Gold Dust and Glory Clouds

The appearance of gold dust is a favourite staple in the wackier charismatic churches, and it’s one of the biggest signs of fraud you could see. Samples of the gold dust have been analysed and in every single case they turn out to be nothing but cheap poster glitter, found in any art supplies store. Sometimes this is put into the air-conditioning system in a church to make it look like gold dust is raining down in a “glory cloud.” It’s fraudulent. Pure and simple.

5. Gold Teeth and Fillings

This popular miraculous manifestation relies on two things: people generally not knowing where exactly they have fillings – such that when a healer pronounces a new one the person is easily convinced – and the use of a torch by the healer, which when shined on a silver coloured surface makes the surface look golden. That’s why soon afterwards people discover that their fillings have “reverted” to a silver colour. They were never gold, they just looked golden under torch light. Moreover, there’s nothing special about a filing being cross-shaped – this is entirely normal in many types of fillings. These miracles play on our oral ignorance.

6. Angel Feathers

This has got to be my favourite fraudulent miraculous manifestation, if only for sheer hilarity. Bethel Church in California is a cesspit of fraudulent supernatural claims, and it has also claimed this one after finding lots of little white feathers around and ruling out the presence of nesting birds. The origin of the idea of angel feathers is utterly pagan. Why think angels have feathers anyway? After all, the vast majority of species on earth which can fly do NOT have feathers. It’s so unbelievably silly that anyone who claims this miracle is genuine is either a crooked conman or so utterly deluded as to be in need of a straight-jacket.

7. Miraculous Oil

As with gold dust, sometimes certain evangelists have oil manifest itself on their face and/or hands. Joshua Mills was dripping in so much oil on one occasion that he started to fill two cups with the stuff. Most others tend to look just a bit sweaty. I confess I find the greasy look very fitting for these charismatic leaders.

8. “Slaying” in the Spirit

A preacher prays for someone who ends up falling backwards allegedly under the power of God. In reality it’s just a learned behaviour and people fall under the power of suggestion and the weight of expectation. In many cases there’s a form of hypnosis at work leading up to the “slaying.” The less scrupulous evangelists aren’t beyond pushing people to the floor or subtly affecting their balance to send them falling backwards.

9. Leg Growing

No, amputated limbs do not grow back, but God is – apparently – able to grow legs that are about an inch shorter than the other leg. More likely it’s just a simple parlour trick – as exposed by James Randi and Derren Brown – which involves either manipulating people’s shoes, or their limbs to create the illusion that one leg is growing right before our eyes. Sadly, it’s not even a good trick!

10. Stigmata

The first stigmatic – St Francis of Assisi – probably engaged in self-harm during a vivid visionary experience of some kind during a period of prayer and fasting. I don’t believe he was a deliberate fraud, but pretty much everyone who has followed is exactly that. Stigmata: when self-harming becomes holy.

Stephen J. Graham

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Interview with a Former Charismatic

Below is the transcript of an interview I did for a local church newsletter with a charismatic friend – Ben Wylie – exploring my religious background, church experiences and why I left the charismatic movement. Kudos to the church – itself charismatic – for being interested in hearing what I had to say.

Ben: Thanks for agreeing to this little interview. Your church experiences are remarkably varied, taking you from traditional Church of Ireland to Pentecostal to Presbyterian back to Pentecostal to Word of Faith charismatic to reformed charismatic and back again to Presbyterian! Whew! How did it all begin?

Stephen: My parents were not Christians but my grandmother was and as a family we would accompany her to an old traditional Church of Ireland. I never liked it much and when I about 11 or 12, I was left behind with my grandfather – who worshipped only at the local pub – while everyone else headed off to church.

Ben: So, what brought you back to church?

Stephen: When I was about 15 a close friend of mine had become a Christian and was attending a local Pentecostal church. He pretty much bullied and cajoled me into going! Surprisingly I loved it, largely because it was very different from the stuffy environment I had always associated with church, and a few months later I too had become a Christian.

Ben: Did you begin at this time to have any problems with the Pentecostal movement?

Stephen: No, not at all. I simply got involved in a youth group in a neighbouring Presbyterian church and started going there. I attended that church for around 6 or 7 years and during that time I had some of the best experiences of my life, including mission trips to Croatia (shortly after the war there) and Hungary.

Ben: So what was it that led you back to Pentecost?

Stephen: The refusal of the church to modernise and change frustrated me greatly and I was hearing whisperings of some amazing things that were happening back in the Pentecostal church I had attended at first. They had just experienced a little of what was known as the “Toronto Blessing.” There were rumours of powerful manifestations of the power and presence of God. I was attracted primarily because they seemed to promise an experiential dimension to faith that I had been missing. God seemed to be moving there in powerful ways and I wanted a piece of the action, I guess. There were indeed some rather odd experiences to be had!

Ben: I’m intrigued! Tell us more about the sorts of things you experienced there.

Stephen: Most of the typical Pentecostal manifestations were present: speaking in tongues, words of knowledge and prophecy, “slayings” in the Spirit, and general Pentecostal exuberance. I played drums there and on one occasion about two thirds of the congregation formed a conga line and danced right out of the church leaving us playing to a small group of bewildered more reserved people!

Ben: And did you experience anything directly yourself in your time there?

Stephen: Not much. I don’t recall ever being “slain” in the Spirit, but I did experience people trying to push me down a few times and witnessed many other people clearly pushed to the ground. I also had experience of receiving a personal prophecy. The prophet told me God told him that I was going to be a pastor. Of course, I had just told the prophet I was studying theology so I suspect he was simply playing the odds! I also eventually did learn to speak in tongues. I remember in one particular meeting being called to the front with a group of others to be prayed for to “receive the Holy Ghost.” People actually expressed their disappointment afterwards that I didn’t speak in tongues. I felt guilty and angry. But later on that same night when I was praying at home I ended up speaking in tongues, which I can still do to this day.

Ben: I want to come back to your experiences shortly, but could you tell us a bit more about your charismatic experiences after you left this church.

Stephen: Yes, I had met my wife here but as she didn’t enjoy it very much we left shortly after we got married and went to her family church – another Pentecostal church, but far less wacky. After witnessing some rather unsightly church politics we left this church and I vowed never to go to church again! Around this time I began battling with severe depression and anxiety. It was about 9 months or so before my wife got me going to another church where a group of friends had gone. It was a Word of Faith church. This is pretty much the extreme end of charismania – those who believe Christians should always be healthy and wealthy and that you can use the Bible almost like a spell book to ward off “demons of illness” from your life. I’m still embarrassed that I ended up here, but it happened during a psychologically problematic period of my life during which I was emotionally and psychological vulnerable. Perhaps I hoped these guys had the answer. I just wasn’t in my right mind. As I got a handle on my own mental health my rational faculties returned; and when they did charismania didn’t stand a chance! We left for a reformed charismatic church – part of the Newfrontiers network – but my belief in such things had already shattered.

Ben: So, you gave up on the charismatic movement, but didn’t you think there was anything genuine that you witnessed in all your time there? What about your experiences of speaking in tongues, for instance?

Stephen: I met a lot of very good and godly people, even in the wackiest of places, but I saw very little that could even plausibly count as a genuine supernatural event or phenomenon. I don’t regard my ability to speak in tongues as supernatural in the slightest. I desperately wanted to do it, I had been around people who did it all the time, and I simply copied them. I think that’s what tongues speech is: a big game of Let’s Pretend.

Ben: I confess I find it bewildering and even a little shocking that you speak that way. I speak in tongues and I regard it as a blessed thing to do. I can’t imagine giving it up! All I know is when I do it I feel close to God. Didn’t you ever feel like that?

Stephen: I did. I felt spiritual. I felt part of a spiritual elite. But I wasn’t doing anything supernatural. Speaking in tongues is a very natural thing. Linguistic research into the phenomena of tongues speech has been absolutely devastating to the practice. We know it is not language. Linguistic research has shown that tongues speakers take syllables and sounds from their native languages and babble them out so they sound like a language when it fact it’s just gibberish. This also explains why a Chinese tongues speaker will speak a different “tongue” to an English tongues speaker. Each uses sounds from their native language. If tongues was a truly supernatural phenomenon this would not be the case, but rather people could speak in other languages without having been taught them.

Ben: But might it not be a private prayer language? I find tongues most beneficial in this sort of context?

Stephen: I have no doubt people find it beneficial, but they do so because it operates like a form of meditation, not because they are speaking any kind of divinely-bestowed language. At best tongues-speech is a form of meditative babble. That it has good effects – like making people feel spiritually blessed or close to God – does not mean it is remotely a genuine phenomenon. After all, we see the same practices with identical results in other religions. For example, Hindu tongues speakers will report the blessed benefits of their practices too.

Ben: I wanted also to ask you about faith-healing, because I know a large part of your recent research project has focused on that. You once believed God healed people, but now you don’t?

Stephen: I believed God healed and I believed the many testimonies and stories I heard during my time as a charismatic. But I didn’t stop to analyse them, I took them for granted. I knew God healed, so when someone claimed God healed them I didn’t think to examine it. Healings were just to be expected. They were normal. But I began to be uneasy. Most of the healings were rather trivial – warts falling off hands or headaches and other pains going away. The disabled kid never received healing. The guy with terminal stomach cancer just got worse and worse and died. Serious physical conditions never ever got healed. It made me wonder, and so I began to investigate healing stories and time and time again there was no reason to think that there had been any supernatural intervention. In fact, in most cases just a cursory examination of the healing claim is enough to dispel the myth of a miracle. Some one or combination of the following is typically at work: placebo, exaggeration, misdiagnosis, the body’s natural healing abilities, the “Chinese-whisper” effect, medical treatment, and plain old fraud.

Ben: So you conclude that God does not heal?

Stephen: Not exactly! God might heal. In fact, he might heal all the time. My point is primarily an epistemological one: we have scant basis for believing that God does heal, and certainly not anywhere near as regularly as Charismatics make out.

Ben: What would convince you then that God had miraculously healed someone?

Stephen: One thing that would convince me is if there was clear physiological change quite outside the limits of what we know about how our bodies work. So, if a man without eye balls suddenly grew them in his head, or an amputated limb suddenly grew back. Alternatively if a healing evangelist had an astounding success of curing people, such that, say, a very high proposition of people with cancer for whom he prays get completely healed – enough people to clearly beat the odds of it all being explained by spontaneous remission.

Ben: I agree we rarely see things like that but I’d love to send you some stories of amazing healings I’ve come across to see what you make of them. For now, I would simply say that I’ve seen belief in healing do a lot of good. It gives sick people hope, and praying for healing is an excellent way to connect with people and minister to their problems. Do you see any value in that?

Stephen: I don’t have any problem at all with prayers for healing, as long as a sick person isn’t being given unreasonable expectations or made to think that they need to give money or have more faith. Sadly there’s so much scope for abuse. People have had their expectations raised so much that rather than seek medical help they seek prayer, with sometimes fatal consequences. Others, assuming they have been healed, quit taking medication, with equally potentially fatal consequences. Others hand over money they can ill-afford to spare in the hope that God will bless their generosity. I think churches would be better off supporting people’s practical needs in practical ways, and perhaps help people to face life-changing illness in emotionally helpful ways that doesn’t chiefly involve holding out hope for healing that sadly very rarely comes. There are many ways faith-healing can be physically, emotionally, and psychologically damaging. Human beings get sick and we die – no amount of faith or faith-healing can change that.

Ben: Thanks for talking us through your experiences and thinking, it was all too brief! We’ll have to catch up and get into these issues a bit deeper.

Stephen: Thank you for having me!

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The Curious Incident of the Pony in the Nighttime

^Mark Marx – of leg-growing faith-healing fame – recently made another rather intriguing claim:

Well, it seems God heals animals too. We’ve seen a flock of sheep healed, and now a pony!

Sadly Marx refuses to engage with me, but another kind tweep was able to get the story from him, which is quoted unedited and in full below:

Here’s the story, with kind permission to share… “Hi, I would just like to thank the lovely ladies who prayed for my very sick pony a few weeks ago. I know it sounds strange praying for a pony, but i cared a lot about him and the worry was affecting my health. He became v sick with Strangles and his throat swelled up so he couldn’t eat properly. He was seen by 2 different vets and given antibiotics but nothing helped. Both vets thought he would die. This went on for a few weeks and the 2nd vet said to give him till July and then he would be a loss. He also said there would probably be complications with his throat if he did survive. I went to the healing on the streets and some lovely women prayed with me for the stress and anxiety I was suffering from, and also prayed for a miracle for my pony. She prayed that that night he would be galloping about the field. Well, that evening, with 3 witnesses, my wee pony came galloping up to the field gate! He previously had been lying down or slowly walking about. I was so thankful. Just before July, the infection finally left him and he was able to eat. He has since put on loads of weight, is very bright eyed and full of life. Last week he galloped about the field non-stop for 5 minutes, a happy, healthy boy. The results have just come back from the vet that he is all clear. I am v thankful for the healing prayers he received. God cares for all creation, not just ourselves.””

Now, there’s not too much we can do with anonymous anecdotes except to analyse what little we have, without being able to follow up and ask questions of the various relevant parties.

On the face of it the story is probably enough to convince many people that the power of prayer was instrumental in healing this afflicted beast. To my mind, however, the story simply illustrates the problem with trying to use such anecdotes to defend miracles. A careful reading of the story suggests a much more simple explanation beneath the surface. Sadly, many people don’t bother to read carefully (few people have the time for that these busy days, I guess), and I suspect the story will be passed on as a simple “pony at death’s door – got prayed for – was healed – galloped in celebration” story. Perhaps in a few years we’ll hear also how eyewitnesses saw it turn into a horse, sprout wings, and fly. But let’s have a more careful reading.

Firstly, the pony was “very sick” with a condition called Strangles. Now, how many people will hear this story and bother to find out what Strangles is and how it’s treated? Very few, I suspect. But it sure does sound horrible, doesn’t it? It sounds like the sort of killer disease that would torment a poor beast, finally killing it through asphyxiation or starvation. That’s not quite what it is. Granted, like any health ailment, it isn’t pleasant, but in most cases it simply runs its course and the animal recovers in time. There can sometimes be complications, but the disease is very rarely fatal.

Which brings me to the second point: how sick was this particular animal? The anonymous owner says “very sick,” but notice that she was suffering from stress and anxiety. As a fellow-sufferer of these scourges I know only too well the reality-warping effects they can have. On several occasions I was truly convinced I was “very sick” – dying of cancer, in fact – due to the appearance of some otherwise common physical symptoms. Sufferers of anxiety tend to catastrophize, and one’s judgment is not terribly reliable under such circumstances. “But, wait a minute, Stephen,” I hear you cry, “didn’t this woman’s judgment get confirmed not only by one but two vets?” I’m glad you asked, this brings us to the third point.

The answer is “not quite.” Notice how this woman says “both vets thought he would die.” But this can’t be quite accurate since she also reports that one of them “said to give him till July and then he would be at a loss.” [Emphasis mine] So, this vet at least had not lost all hope. Seemingly in his professional opinion the animal could still get well again. Note that later on the woman tells us “just before July the infection finally left him,” which is in keeping with the vet’s prognosis.

These words bring us to the fourth point. After the pony was prayed for he was up and able to run over to a gate. But the woman appears to imply he wasn’t fully healed even at this stage. It seems to be a much more gradual recovery before “the infection finally left him” and the vet was able to give him the all clear. Perhaps the antibiotics that the woman had spoken of previously had begun kicking in, and the disease was now fading out – as one of the vets seems to have expected.

Upon our closer reading then it seems that what we really have here is a case of a pony with a disease that tends to run its course, (though this animal may have suffered some complications or perhaps for longer than is normal), and which recovered in the time frame laid down by at least one vet, after receiving treatment which included the use of antibiotics. The woman – suffering stress and anxiety as a result of her sick animal – was clearly incredibly relieved that the animal got well and, being a religious person, quite naturally attributed the recovery to a supernatural intervention.

It would be interesting to get the testimony of one of the vets rather than have to go on an interpretation of their words by a woman suffering stress and anxiety. Patients frequently have a very different understanding of their illness from that of their doctor – typically thinking they are in worse shape than they actually are. There are other questions we could ask: What was the time frame of the illness? How long after being prayed for did he fully recover? Did the vets think this within the parameters of what is normal in the circumstances? These are all questions that naturally arise on the back of a more careful reading of the story. Only by ignoring all these relevant details can anyone sensibly claim that what we have here is a case of a pony being miraculously healed by God. Sadly I suspect Mark Marx won’t care one jot about being careful, nuanced, and critical. It gives him another wonderful anecdote to share as he travels the world seeking to amaze the masses.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article (1): Healing & Disobedience

*****
Readers tell me they would like fewer long articles and more shorter pieces, so here’s my first.
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Alan Scott, the leader of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland has me blocked on Twitter (for having the audacity to question him), but one of his tweets was retweeted by John Dickinson – a Presbyterian minister in Carnmoney, Northern Ireland – who I follow. The tweet – aimed at a Christian audience – said “The call to heal the sick is inescapable. If you don’t have the gift of healing, try out the gift of obedience.” A little perplexed by this notion I asked is it really the case that failure to heal the sick amounts to disobedience on our part. Unsurprisingly I got nothing from Scott, but Dickinson responded with: “Matthew 10:8.”

I looked it up:

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

Frankly I was even more baffled than before. First of all, if this verse means we are disobedient to a command of Christ by failing to heal the sick then we are equally disobedient for failing to raise the dead. In any event, Dickinson appears to have taken little or no notice of the context of this verse: a narrative in which Jesus sends out his disciples on an evangelistic mission. There is no indication whatsoever that this is a divine injunction for all believers everywhere for all of time. I made the point to Dickinson – asking him, perhaps a little cheekily, when he had last raised the dead – but sadly he didn’t respond.

I confess I feel sorry for the people who choose to sit under the teaching of those who would place such a burden on their backs. You don’t heal the sick? Then suffer the guilt of being disobedient to Christ. When I read the tweet to my wife she asked, “what about people like me? I don’t know how to heal the sick. How am I supposed to obey a command to do something I can’t do?” Despite not being philosophical astute, my wife had hit upon the ethical principle of “ought implies can:” if it is the case that I ought to do something, then the thing in question must be something I am indeed capable of doing. My wife can of course pray for the sick, but as for actually healing them, that’s beyond her power. Is she therefore disobedient? On the theological ruminations of Scott – seconded, seemingly, by John Dickinson – the answer is “yes.” But isn’t that simply a reductio ad absurdum of their position?

I wonder how this wonderful “gift of obedience” works out for Scott (or Dickinson). In practical terms how does one obey Christ by healing the sick? Scott’s friend Mark Marx regularly performs the “leg growing” wonder which I’ve written about numerous times before. He simply commands legs to grow – he commands muscle and sinew and bone to grow in the name of Jesus. Is this what we should be doing to obey Christ, commanding body parts to normalise, diseases to leave, and tumours to shrink? Does Scott (or Dickinson, if he agrees with this theology) do this or is there some other method available? Do they regularly see the lame walk? The blind see? The dead rise? I doubt it, though if they wish to present evidence to the contrary I’ll gladly consider it.

As well as putting a burden of guilt on the backs of other believers, such theology achieves another purpose: the elevation of the leader in the eyes of the congregation. This kind of theology creates the illusion that the leader sees much more success in healing people – because, unlike regular believers like you and I, these guys really really obey Jesus. This mix of guilt and admiration is a bewitching brew used as a form of social control over the lives of often vulnerable and impressionable people. It keeps the flock in check, and helps create and maintain the sort of spiritual hierarchy in which a certain breed of modern – typically charismatic – church leader thrives. However, it’s fundamentally abusive and leaves people emotionally and spiritually shipwrecked. My wife and I have suffered our fair share of abuse at the hands of such theology and the men and women who preach it. It was most liberating to leave it behind and come to realise that despite all the hype the preachers of such theology don’t have much success themselves. They certainly do, however, possess the gift of beguilement.

Stephen J Graham

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Modern Miracle Claims & the Limitations of Eyewitness Testimony

It is not uncommon for those who claim to have witnessed miraculous events to chastise sceptics with lines like, “you weren’t there, I was!” And that’s understandable, since humans quite naturally ascribe great weight to eyewitness testimony. However, psychological research in the past few decades has documented numerous problems with eyewitness testimony, particularly when it comes to events which are shocking, surprising, alarming, or “miraculous.” In this article I want to briefly explore some of these problems to show that when it comes to examining alleged miracles eyewitness testimony carries far less weight than is typically assumed. It needs to be examined very critically, analysed in the context of other evidence, sometimes taken with a pinch of salt, or even rejected altogether.

A report by the Innocence Project estimated that 73% of 239 convictions that were overturned by DNA evidence had been initially based on eyewitness testimony. John Munkman, an expert in court advocacy writes: “The most honest witnesses frequently give evidence which is unsound, though they are quite sure that it is true.” There are several reasons for witness mistakes which I will examine in turn.

1. Errors of Perception

In order for observations to be accurate the person must have the opportunity to observe – he or she must be in the right place, under the right conditions, and paying close attention. Errors of perception are particularly more likely when events happen very quickly, or a lot happens in a short space of time. Most witnesses in such cases see and hear only a fraction of the total occurrence, and of course we can be easily distracted from one thing by another. In fact, a bigger picture of an event is typically created subsequently – as smaller mental images are linked together by inference and imagination. Further, psychologists tell us that surprise and excitement, as well as the presence of intense pain or strong emotion, can make a picture confused and obscure the precise details, so much so that our senses can be prevented from operating normally and produce memories which are distorted or completely imaginary. Moreover, if an eyewitness has a personal interest in the matter then his or her attention will be focused on those parts of an event which are – or can be interpreted as – favourable to him, whilst ignoring those which aren’t.

So, just because someone happens to be in a room in which an alleged miracle occurs does not make them particularly useful witnesses. What exactly did they see and hear? Were they in an atmosphere of intense emotion and hype? Are they so focused on one thing that they miss something else? This tends to happen to those who claim to witness the supposed leg growing miracle: they are so focused on one leg “growing” that they miss the fact that a loosened shoe is being pushed back on the other foot to create an illusion of leg growth.

2. Errors in Interpretation

Perception is just one stage in building up a picture of an event. Our minds are also engaged in the interpretation of events as they happen. We interpret events through a complex mix of perception, inference, previous experience, and imagination. Errors can very easily occur at this stage – through mistaken assumptions or poor inferences. So, eyewitnesses at a WV Grant healing crusade will witness people being pulled out of wheelchairs and conclude that paralysed people have been healed, despite the fact these people were not in fact paralysed to begin with. People might more easily believe that paralysed people are healed before their very eyes because they are caught up in the emotion of the moment, or simply have a bias that makes them too easily interpret an event as miraculous when a much more plausible explanation is available. Seeing a person rise out of a wheelchair after prayer is not the same as seeing the lame walk, though the former is often interpreted as a case of the latter.

3. Errors of Memory and Imagination

Too many people buy into the “video recorder” view of memory, a view which has long since been discarded by experts in the phenomenology of memory. On this conception our mind simply records an event and later on replays it just as it really happened. Psychologists, such as the eminent memory researcher Elizabeth F. Loftus, tell us memories are “reconstructed” rather than “played back.” Rather than storing information exactly as presented to us, we extract from it the gist or underlying meaning, storing information in a way that makes most sense to us, even reconstructing memories to conform to our beliefs and expectations.

Memory also fades with the lapse of time, and is frequently supplemented by imagination. In fact, psychologists are aware of several factors which accentuate our natural tendency to use our imagination to supplement our memory of some event. For example, psychologists are aware that after an event witnesses talk to each other and run things over in their minds. During this process a picture of the event is filled out – certain details get omitted, others get added, and memories get modified. Witness A might talk to Witness B and in the course of the conversation B mentions aspects of the event that A was either only hazily aware of or not conscious of at all. However, it frequently happens that witness A will later report this aspect of the event as if he himself actually witnessed it clearly.

Even more importantly is the power of suggestion. In discussing a very basic coin trick, Derren Brown shows how it’s possible to make a person remember seeing something they never actually saw. At the beginning of the trick a coin is placed on a table. The magician goes to pick it up but in doing so simply slips the coin into their lap. He holds up his hand as if still holding the coin and makes a gesture as if he’s moving the coin into his other hand. The magician blows on this hand, opens it, and the coin has “gone.” The person guesses it must still be in the first hand, which is also empty. As the person is stumped the magician talks about the stages of the trick: “you saw me lift it, hold it up in front of you, pass it into my other hand….etc…” In most cases the person will agree that they actually saw the coin in the magicians hand before he passed it into his other hand. It’s a simple trick of suggestion, and people are most prone to being fooled by it when they are puzzled, confused, or in a high state of emotion. The creation of false memories has been reported time and time again by psychologists. Elizabeth Loftus’ experiments demonstrated how false facts are introduced into memory; she was able to have subjects remember false images, and even to change their memory of an event simply by wording questions about it in a certain way. Crucially, many of the subjects of such experiments are certain that their memories are real. This is well-known in the legal world, with the judge in the case of Krist v Eli Lilly writing: “memory is highly suggestible – people are easily ‘reminded’ of events that never happened, and having been ‘reminded’ may thereafter hold the false recollection as tenaciously as they would a true one.”

We should be wary then of eyewitness reports of miracles, particularly when they occur in the context of a healing crusade or charismatic worship service. Under such conditions people who are susceptible to miraculous interpretations of events can very easily imagine that a miracle of some kind has occurred, especially if they have discussed the events with others of a similar disposition, or if a charismatic leader has – whether consciously or not – used the power of suggestion.

4. Errors of Expression

No-one reports an event exactly as it happens. We tell stories, and these stories are selective. We omit details that are seemingly superfluous, or we exaggerate elements which we hope will surprise and delight the person we are talking to. If I had a pound for every time I heard phrases like “people were being healed all over the place!” Often this phrase simply means people were being prayed for all over the place, and the person was assuming they were being healed. Or “we prayed for Joe yesterday and the pain he’d had for 30 years totally left him for good.” Crucially, our stories can actually change our memories of the very events in question. Laura Englehardt writes, “Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory – even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party.”

This is very common amongst charismatic leaders, who seem to thrive on personal anecdotes about wonders they have performed around the globe. One is left wondering to precisely what extent has their memory of some event been modified by the telling and retelling of such stories.

What all this means is that eyewitness testimony – as important as it can be – should be examined thoroughly, preferably by someone who was not present at the event in question. With claims of miraculous healing we are right to require additional evidence such as medical histories and expert opinion, rather than simply believing the testimony of an eyewitness, who could be – and in many cases is – in error about what exactly they witnessed or remember happening.

Stephen J Graham

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Robby Dawkins & The Fake Resurrection

In my previous article I stated that when it comes to telling stories of the miraculous Charismatics habitually damage their own credibility though overstatement and even fabrication of facts. I also alluded to how Robby Dawkins – an in demand travelling healer/evangelist and member of the Vineyard group of churches – made claims to have ministered a resurrection in March 2015. I knew little about this incident at the time but I’ve been researching it recently and, unsurprisingly, have discovered that the truth is not quite how Dawkins has stated it.

The incident occurred in March at Inglewhite Congregational Church in North England. Whilst Dawkins was speaking, a man I will simply call Matthew began to suffer contortions of the face as well as involuntary jerking movements. Seeing this, Dawkins ran over and began to “[bind] demonic powers and [command] his body to be loosed in Jesus’ name.” Matthew’s lips turned blue and he went stiff. As Dawkins continued to “bind the spirit of death” he claimed that he “heard the death rattle” – a sound made by dying people as fluid accumulates at the top of the chest. Dawkins told “death” that he could not have Matthew, and he “began to declare the resurrection life of Jesus over him.” When Matthew began to come round Dawkins pulled him into a hug – because doing so, according to Dawkins, “imparts life.” Dawkins claimed a resurrection had occurred, and in defence of his claims he temporarily posted the report of a doctor who had been sitting behind Matthew when this all happened. Even in this doctor’s report the evidence to suggest Matthew had died was flimsy in excelsis. The report states that Matthew’s breathing became worse – “agonal breathing” – and then declared “in other words, he was dead” – a somewhat hasty comment for the doctor to make, particularly as he had not taken a pulse, and admitted that Matthew didn’t need heart massage. Seemingly the doctor in question subsequently sought to withdraw his report. (In addition to claiming a resurrection, Dawkins claimed that Matthew’s speech was massively improved thanks to his ministering efforts).

Of course, all this is suspicious enough, but the thing that is utterly devastating to Dawkins’ claims is the testimony of Matthew’s sister Rebecca, a testimony which was deleted from Robby Dawkins’ Facebook pages. Here is her testimony in full as stated on her Facebook page. I have made a few minor editorial amendments:

“Robby Dawkins claims to have raised my brother from the dead.

I’d like you to hear the truth. I have noticed a few people have questioned his story and each time their comments mysteriously get deleted. Seems a little suspicious if you ask me.

Matthew is my brother and it seems that Robby Dawkins is in fact feeding people a few twists of the truth. Maybe it sells more books and keeps him more in the public view, but as his family are so distressed by what he has been putting on Facebook I am doing what I can to get our story out. We have been blocked from commenting on his Facebook sites and therefore unable to explain our side of events.

Although I wasn’t there at the meeting, my mother and many extended family and friends were. We come from a Christian background; my father is married to a pastor and the family attends church regularly. I am writing this so people are given the chance to hear what we have to say and make up their own minds as to whether to believe Mr Robby Dawkins.

Matthew had a stroke about a year ago. Physically he was not affected, but his speech and communication unfortunately were affected. He is 10 times better at communicating than he was a year ago, but this improvement occurred prior to the meeting and was due to all the hard work Matthew has put into retraining his brain. Therefore, for Robby to claim that his speech is 100% improved as a result of his ministrations is a pure lie. He did not know Matthew beforehand and therefore is unable to comment on whether his speech had improved or not.

With respect to the “death,” what Robby is telling everyone is also not true. It has since been MEDICALLY proven that Matthew had suffered an epileptic seizure which can often display similar signs to someone dying. TWO nurse family friends of ours both had their hands on Matthew throughout and not once lost his pulse. So no, Matthew did not die.

The preacher from Inglewhite church has been so thrown by all of this that on Sunday just gone he stood at the front of church and apologized to his congregation for allowing Robby into their church. The doctor who was also there is said to be apologizing to them next week for all the pain caused through this unbelievable encounter that he had given and the shock that all this had been broadcast on Facebook by this coward of a man who will not face up to the actual truth.

What you choose to believe is up to you. As his sister I have known him for 30+ years, Dawkins met my brother for all of half an hour.

I just want the freedom to be able to share our side of the story instead of being silenced.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.”

Commenting further on Matthew’s state shortly after the episode, Rebecca writes:

He is struggling right now. More seizures. Very low. And every time he sees something on Facebook about Robby Dawkins and that night and the promises that were made to him about being healed, it gets him down.”

Lest anyone should think that Rebecca has had any change of mind after a year of reflection, know that she has approved my reproducing her story here.

So, there we have it. It certainly casts events in a very different light. Despite having the facts provided to him, Dawkins has not retracted his claims to have ministered a resurrection. In passing we should note this further comment by Dawkins on the event: “The Charisma article on the resurrection in England has official [sic] gone viral on social media…my book…has shot to number one in 3 best sellers categories. It’s at number on [sic] in Evangelism.”

Dawkins is being completely honest about the success of his book, but his claims concerning the resurrection are far from compelling and trustworthy. His own understanding of the event is so sloppy that he was chastised by Rebecca for failing to get Matthew’s surname right let alone understand his medical history. Moreover, Dawkins seems to accept that Matthew was dead simply because his pupils were dilated and he was struggling to breathe. Furthermore, Dawkins never mentioned the nurses who were present until Rebecca pointed it out, a convenient omission since at least one of these nurses could confirm that Matthew’s pulse was never lost once during the entire episode. In any event, even aside from this fact there was no positive evidence that Matthew had died, and even the doctor seemed to suggest Matthew did not stop breathing. I would think it’s fairly reasonable to suppose that a man who retained his pulse and ability to breathe was still very much alive. Dawkins’ claims are therefore blown completely out of the water.

We could add other curious features of Dawkins’ claim. The doctor he cited was initially named but very quickly made anonymous; who was he, what were his credentials? In fact, in his report to Dawkins he seems incredibly relieved that he didn’t have to perform mouth to mouth resuscitation. Was he nervous at having to do so? Why? Is this normal for a medical professional? Of course, doctors have various specialisms, and in this case at least it seems the doctor in question wasn’t an expert in Matthew’s condition.

Dawkins appears to have Rebecca in mind when he implied that certain family members were not fit to comment because they were not present. However, whilst there can be certain advantages to being an eyewitness, there are well-known problems also. In fact, it’s more likely that those who were not present are more able to provide an objective analysis, especially when they are far more knowledgeable about the background of the event (in this case, familiarity with Matthew’s physical condition, his medical history, and his actual subsequent diagnosis). Lawyers who are trained to cross-examine eyewitnesses in court are well aware that eyewitnesses are often unreliable. They can suffer from errors of perception, errors in interpreting the data of perception, errors of memory and confusions that occur when memory is blended with imagination (which is surprisingly common), and errors in how they express their understanding of what happened (typically, damaging omissions or grandstanding exaggerations). If an event happens quickly, or is particularly surprising, exciting, or adrenaline inducing, then so much the worst for accurate eyewitness perception. Munkman writes that the presence of such strong emotion “may prevent the senses from operating in a natural way, and may produce pictures or sounds which are distorted, or totally imaginary.”

I will discuss these issues in full in my next article (see: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/modern-miracle-claims-the-limitations-of-eyewitness-testimony/). For now I simply wish to stress that those who aren’t eyewitnesses to some event can actually be in a much better position to objectively sift the facts after the event than those who are caught up in the emotional hype of the moment. This is why police investigations and court room proceedings are incredibly successful mechanisms for discovering the truth, even in the face of eyewitness testimony. I think, therefore, that Rebecca’s distance from the event is a point in her favour. Moreover, she has nothing to gain by criticising Dawkins. Robby, on the other hand, is compromised as an objective reporter on the basis that he was caught up in the hype, and has a ministry and a book to punt to the masses. In his case it’s easy to see how truth might be sacrificed on the altar of self-interest.

Rebecca states that “who you choose to believe is up to you,” but to be honest there shouldn’t be much debate as to precisely where the evidence points in this case. Perhaps Dawkins is too busy selling his books and building his reputation and career as an in demand speaker and healer to bother too much with inconvenient facts.

Stephen J. Graham

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Dishonest Charismatic Claims

UPDATE: The Charisma News article now acknowledges the multiple surgeries. The other problems I identify in their report remain unremedied.

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 2ND UPDATE: I’ve been looking into Robby Dawkins’ resurrection claims and as I suspected there seems a fair amount of misstating or glossing over of facts. In fact the family of the resurrectee himself have a very different take on Dawkins’ claims! I would write about it but I discovered a two-part series which does a great job of exposing the truth behind the hype:

https://mennoknight.wordpress.com/2015/06/19/robby-resurrection-dawkins-part-1/

https://mennoknight.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/a-skeptical-evaluation-of-robby-resurrection-dawkins-part-2/

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Much of modern charismatic hype concerning miracles of divine healing is due to misreporting, misinformation, and plain wanton ignorance. This was wonderfully illustrated earlier this week in an article by Charisma News: “To passionate, Spirit-filled Christians, Charisma News is the most trusted source for credible news and insight from a charismatic perspective.” The article was shared on Twitter by Robby Dawkins a few days ago. Robby Dawkins is an advocate of faith-healing; he practices and teaches others how to perform the old leg-growing carnival trick, and even claims to have seen the dead brought back to life. Anyhow, here’s the article he tweeted:

http://www.charismanews.com/world/56535-cripple-healed-by-prayer-danced-after-visiting-miracle-ministry

“Cripple healed by prayer danced after visiting miracle ministry.”

The case was well publicised in Northern Ireland, being picked up by several newspapers. Joshua Martin was 14 years old when doctors discovered that his suspected appendicitis was really a number of cancerous tumours in his abdomen. Joshua’s parents brought him to see Mark Marx, the leader of Healing on the Streets in Coleraine, whose claims and practices I’ve discussed in several articles on this site. Marx claimed that one of Joshua’s legs was shorter than the other. Of course, Marx has no orthopaedic expertise whatsoever and diagnoses this condition simple by lifting a person’s legs and comparing them in length. It’s utter nonsense. Anyhow, he performed his signature leg-growing wonder on a 14 year old cancer sufferer, claiming that this was a sign of what was happening inside Joshua. Joshua, who was using a wheelchair at the time due to his condition, got out and began to dance. It turned out that Joshua was cancer free.

It certainly sounds like a miracle, doesn’t it? Well, no. As with most healing claims the case for miraculous intervention evaporates upon even a cursory glance at the actual facts. Sadly charismatics have been incredibly dishonest in their use of this story as evidence of miraculous healing. Firstly, the headline reads as if a wheelchair bound cripple miraculously got to his feet and danced. However, Joshua was not a “cripple” as Charisma magazine states. By its use of the word “cripple,” and the fact that most people naturally identify “cripple” with “paralysed,” the report implies that Joshua couldn’t walk at all. This was not the case: Joshua could walk. Not everyone in a wheelchair is paralysed. My father-in-law uses a wheel-chair, though – like many who use wheelchairs – on his better days can manage without one. Secondly, the Charisma article rather deceitfully hides the full truth of the matter – and Robby Dawkins and his ilk aren’t terribly quick to proclaim the full truth (“the truth shall set you free,” eh?). They do not mention that Joshua had undergone months of chemotherapy. Nor do they mention that he went through a series of radiotherapy treatment. Worse, they neglected to mention not only that Joshua had undergone invasive surgery, but that by the time he went to see Marx he had had his third operation. Furthermore, Joshua was not declared clear of cancer straight away. It was only several months later – after intensive chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and three bouts of surgery – that he was finally declare free of his cancer. And yet, all the medical intervention is glossed over or completely ignored by charismatics in their exuberance to claim yet another miraculous healing at the hands of a man who took advantage of a 14 year old cancer sufferer to boost his own ministry.

Frankly, I’m astounded at the deceit. And yet I shouldn’t be. I’ve seen this time and again from charismatics. As stories of healing get passed around they lose relevant details – like facts concerning medical intervention – and become simple stories of amazing and sudden healing.

I would love to investigate Robby Dawkins’ claim of seeing the dead come back to life. It reminds me of a story that went around Northern Ireland way back in the days of the so-called “Florida Revival,” lead by the discredited and publically shamed healing evangelist Todd Bentley. One church in North Belfast claimed a “raising of the dead” during this time. Now, what does that phrase mean to you, dear reader? To me it means someone who was irreversibly dead – and declared so – being miraculously brought back to life again in response to prayer and in the face of the utter failure of medical intervention. However, that isn’t what happened in this case. It involved a young man who had been in a car accident and had “died” on an operating table for a number of minutes. Doctors kept working on him and he was resuscitated, something which happens all over the world every day of the week. But because the man’s father had contacted a local pastor, and because that pastor had contacted Todd Bentley’s prayer team, and because the prayer team were praying, the case was declared as a “raising from the dead.” At best this is over-exuberance, at worst it’s plain dishonesty. Possibly the former, since the pastor of the church in question at the time took to going to morgues to pray for dead bodies, so he seems to at least have believed it. Needless to say, his prayers for actual irreversibly dead people had no success.

When we are faced with claims such as these it’s incredibly important to examine exactly what we are being told. It’s even more crucial to wonder what exactly we aren’t being told. Charismatics themselves have simply given us one more reason not to believe them.

Stephen J Graham

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