Tag Archives: Healing

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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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

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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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“Explain THAT!” A Guide to Investigating Miraculous Claims

As a researcher into charismatic miracle claims and phenomena, I’m often presented with healing stories or videos and asked for my thoughts. Frequently the tone is one of challenge: “Explain THAT!” So, just what approach should we take when faced with some miraculous claim or other? Just how DO we “explain THAT!”?

Here’s one video that was recently shared with me (though, admittedly, not by way of an aggressive challenge, but simply asking me what I made if it): https://www.facebook.com/thenormalchristianlife/videos/813578605414072/

So, what do we do? There are two common routes – one taken by charismatics, the other by atheists – which I think should be rejected:

1. The “Praise Jesus” Route. Check the comments below the video and you’ll find multiple examples of this approach to miraculous claims. Here the claims are simply accepted at face value and Jesus is praised, but discernment is trampled underfoot and charismatic types are left wide open to unscrupulous miracle workers – of which there are many – and the manipulation and abuse that they bring.

2. The “That’s Bullshit!” Route. Here all miracle claims are written off before any investigation or attempt to examine them – God doesn’t exist, therefore God doesn’t heal. This is fine and dandy as a practical approach – after all, few have the time and resources these busy days to examine the various claims that come their way – however, it doesn’t help them to understand exactly what is going on in cases of miraculous claims. And so the response tends to be “bullshit!” rather than “I think that’s a false claim because…” Moreover, if some miraculous claim turns out to be genuine we’d miss it if we took this approach.

My own approach is to agree with the charismatics that miracles are possible, whilst adopting the scepticism of the second route when faced with miraculous claims, given that frauds and fake miracle claims abound and are dangerous. In order to help steer a course between these extremes, here are a few very basic questions we should all stop to ask.

Firstly, who produced the video or published the testimony? Often the claims are made by healing ministries – not the alleged healees themselves, and almost never by the medical community. Have the claims been adequately scrutinised? Has there been any attempt to be objective? Videos can – and are – edited to suit the needs of the people making them. It isn’t difficult, through the use of editing, to make something more appealing and persuasive than it really is. For example, when a psychic spends hours giving readings to people it can be edited to, say, a 20 minute feature which can make the psychic look more impressive than he or she really is; just edit out all the mistakes and misses that are made.

Secondly, does the video or testimony present objective evidence such as medical documentation, or is it purely anecdotal? The lack of medical evidence is a constant feature of healing claims, and one is often left with the impression that the person is “sexing up” his story for the camera, is mistaken about his ailment, or has even engaged in a faulty self-diagnosis. If healings are happening regularly then there shouldn’t be any difficulty providing medical evidence, and the lack of such evidence is concerning and suggests to me there’s something we aren’t being told.

Thirdly, what exactly is being claimed? I heard one couple give testimony that sounded like a healing in relation to their new born. However, after paying careful attention to what they actually said you note that their child had never actually been diagnosed with anything but was simply under investigation. Thus, when the child was declared healthy it wasn’t a case of healing as there was never anything confirmed to have been wrong with the child in the first place. In another testimony a man claimed to have been healed of cancer as a result of prayer, and yet careful attention to his story reveals a period of several months between the prayer and his all-clear from cancer, which opens up the question as to whether he had in fact been receiving orthodox treatment in the interim. Or, one boy in Northern Ireland has recently been trumpeted as the recipient of a divine miracle healing from cancer, despite his having received chemotherapy and invasive surgery. Paying attention to what is actually claimed can be very revealing, though there are often vagaries with which we must contend. For instance, we might hear a person is “blind” or has “diabetes,” words which conjure up images in our minds (typically total lack of visual ability, or type-A requiring injections) but which can take forms which do not often match what we imagine them to be (for example, “blind” covers a range of visual ability, and there are different types & severities of diabetes). Other claims might involve pain relief, and pain is, of course, notoriously subjective and susceptible to psychological techniques.

Fourthly, can we reasonably rule out misdiagnosis (often due to self-diagnosis), natural healing, placebo, medical intervention, exaggeration, misreporting, and good old fashioned fraud and fakery? It’s a tad disingenuous to claim a boy who has received aggressive chemotherapy and invasive surgery has really been cured due to a miracle. It’s hardly convincing to pray for a cure for one’s cold and claim divine intervention 3-4 days later when it starts to wane. Further, is the claim of the sort that can be easily faked or which actually has been faked many times before by unscrupulous healers? One of the reasons why I reject the leg growing claims of Mark Marx is that such demonstrations are easy to fake and have been proven fake time and time again. Or, again, take pain relief. Sometimes people chalk pain relief up as proof of miraculous intervention, when in fact we know that it is incredibly susceptible to the power of suggestion. Note how the mentalist Derren Brown was able to train someone as a faith-healer who could bring pain relief to people on the streets simply using psychological techniques and the power of suggestion.

Lastly, is there any way to verify the report? Often reports have a “folk take” quality to them and lack the kinds of details required to properly investigate. When it’s possible to scrutinise claims it’s important to note how the people you are investigating react to questioning or scepticism. Are you snubbed, dismissed, blocked, shunned, demonised or viewed with suspicion simply for asking questions? If so, there’s probably something fishy going on and you have every right to be suspicious. If a genuine miracle has occurred, then there shouldn’t be any difficulty in having claims scrutinised, investigated, and examined. Genuine claims can stand up to honest investigation.

These are just a few of the initial questions we should ask when invited to “explain THAT!” How we should apply this to the above video I leave as homework for the reader.

Stephen J. Graham

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Debating Claimed Healings & Miracles: A Public Invitation to Peter Lynas

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UPDATE 4TH APRIL

The article below was written a few weeks ago, I still haven’t heard back from Peter Lynas. In any event, Lynas appeared on Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme on Sunday 3rd April to discuss prayer. In the course of the discussion he made reference to an apparent divine healing involving a self-harming scar which disappeared after prayer from Lynas’s wife. Lynas claimed that this is a verifiable healing. I therefore ask him to provide further information and evidence to support this claim. I admit that whilst scars can heal naturally (I had one that disappeared with time) it would be quite uncanny if a clearly visible scar suddenly disappeared after prayer.

So, if this is a verifiable miracle, as Lynas claims, where is the evidence to verify it? I will gladly publish it – completely unedited – on this blog.

Again, I look forward to hearing from Peter Lynas regarding this claim.

*****

Causeway Coast Vineyard Church, in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, is a source of constant miracle claims, and these claims have received some rather soft-soap treatment recently from two major local newspapers: The Belfast Telegraph & The Irish Times. However, these claims must be examined much more carefully than either paper has bothered to do. These claims, if true, are brilliant news for humankind, for it means that God is healing a lot of people through the power of prayer. However, if they are false then they are incredibly dangerous and need to be exposed as such. Faith-healing claims and practices are inherently very dangerous, particularly in contexts in which there is a constant stream of them. People very easily get into thinking of divine healing as the norm for people who hold onto God in faith and hope. Sadly, many of these people delay seeking medical help, sometimes with fatal consequences. Others stop their medication prematurely with equally serious effects. Still more mistakenly think they are healed and in the heat of the moment they act in ways which end up exacerbating their condition. And then those – typically with the most serious conditions – who find no change in their circumstances must deal with the psychological and spiritual trauma caused by deferred hope and the feeling that God doesn’t really love them the way he loves the others. Lastly, there are many people who spend every last penny chasing a healing, money which would be better spent on making their lives and their environment more tolerable. The consequences of faith-healing claims and practices can be severe – sometimes deadly. They at least better be true.

Regular readers of my blog will be well aware of my reservations concerning charismatic supernatural claims, (so I was greatly pleased to see that the overwhelming reaction to the local newspaper features has been largely sceptical). I will continue to write articles on this blogsite, but I think it would be a valuable thing to have the other side present to give their explanation of the phenomena and practices in question. I’ve said several times before that the claims coming from Causeway Coast in general and Mark Marx in particular are unfounded at best. It seems to me that the church has a case to answer. They owe the wider society of which they are a part an explanation of their claims. To refuse to submit their claims to rational scrutiny is socially, morally, and intellectual irresponsible. Since Mark Marx blocks and ignores anyone who shows the slightest degree of scepticism, I doubt he’ll be interested in a public debate. However, Peter Lynas – the head of Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland and a Director of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church – seems a much more reasonable and open person. I therefore invite him to publicly debate his church’s miracle claims to see if they really can stand up to critical analysis, and if he can manage to convince a largely sceptical public. I ask him to produce evidence beyond the anecdotal that miracles and divine healing really do happen as regularly as his church makes out. We can work out the mechanics of this debate later, but for now I ask him – publicly – if he will give his commitment to a public debate of an issue which is clearly in the public interest.

As a Christian I am open to God performing whatever wonders He pleases to perform; however, as a sceptic I think it is unwise and dangerous to peddle such claims if they are not true. I think being a sceptical Christian puts me in a better position to examine the claims than either an unbelieving sceptic or a credulous believer. Unbelieving sceptics tend to dismiss all healing claims with a shake of the hand, or with little more than “God doesn’t exist, therefore he doesn’t heal.” That attitude might be acceptable for them to take personally, but it doesn’t help them to get to the bottom of healing claims and really discover exactly what’s going on. Credulous believers on the other hand tend to gasp and cheer at even the slightest whiff of a supernatural healing, without ever stopping to ask some very basic questions. However, a sceptical Christian is open to a miracle or divine healing, but conscious of the need to test claims as rigorously as possible, given the sheer number of false and fraudulent claims that have been made in recent years.

My academic background has trained me in both philosophy and theology, both of which are vital for understanding and analysing miracles claims and the theological context in which they emerge. Moreover, I have a breadth of church experience including almost 15 years in a variety of charismatic churches, from traditional Pentecostal churches to moderate charismatic churches like Newfrontiers, and more extreme charismatic churches such as Word of Faith. My experience in these churches lead to years of research which ultimately saw me leave this form of Christianity. My academic background, experience, and research puts me in a good position to cross-examine the claims of Causeway Coast Vineyard, and I hope that they can see the value of putting their claims to the test. If they are true and sound they have nothing to fear.

In addition to my invitation to a public debate, I reiterate my offer to Lynas, or any member of Healing on the Streets or Causeway Coast Vineyard, that should they wish to respond to any of my articles on this blogsite, I will gladly publish them, unedited.

I am also interested to hear from any groups – church groups, humanists, or other interested parties – who would like to facilitate such a debate.

I eagerly await a response from Mr Lynas.

Stephen J. Graham

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Non-Charismatic “Gifts of the Spirit”

The charismatic movement is not the only source of miraculous claims. In fact, many of the “gifts of the spirit” can be found elsewhere. I want to take a brief look at a few examples and ask the charismatic what we should make of them.

1. Healing

Beyond the fringe of Christianity lies a movement called Christian Science, founded by Mary Baker Eddy. Christian Scientists claim to know the exact method by which Jesus healed people, and they claim to be able to replicate his results systematically and repeatedly. Christian Scientists do not get trained in diagnosing illness, largely because they believe illness is an illusion which is tackled by prayer.

I suspect most charismatics would agree that Christian Science is nonsense. However, it seems to me that there’s as much evidence for the claims of Christian Science as there is for those of modern charismatics. The vast majority of charismatic healing claims amount to purely testimonies and anecdotes, passed on from person to person with all the embellishment that inevitably goes with that. Christian Science has published volumes of healing testimonies – literally thousands of them, claiming to demonstrate the potency of Christian Science healing methods. Of course, this reliance on anecdotes suffers from huge problems. Whilst it might initially seem impressive to see volumes of healing testimonies, it’s important to pay attention to what Christian Science does not tell us: 1000s of other cases when the methods did not work, some including people who decided to turn their backs on conventional medicine and paid with their lives for their folly. Likewise, charismatic healers will rarely tell tales of failure. In short, they count only the hits and ignore all the misses, and declare their practices genuine. When it’s possible to examine individual cases, one or a combination of the following always appears highly likely: placebo, misdiagnosis (either by a doctor or, more likely, due to self-diagnosis), medical ignorance, natural healing, medical intervention, exaggeration, or plain old fraud. If there really were genuine healings taking place these groups would not have to rely exclusively on anecdotes to make their case.

I ask the charismatic: why should I believe your anecdotes but not those of Christian Science? Why would you reject the testimonies of Christian Science but expect me to accept yours, which suffer from near identical evidential problems?

2. Tongues & Interpretation

The charismatic phenomenon of speaking in tongues can be found in many religions past and present. In fact, even children and people suffering from certain mental illnesses – such as schizophrenia – can do it. It appears in all manner of non-Christian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, or African Voodoo. Studies of tongues-speech have yet to find a single convincing case of a person speaking in another language without having previous exposure to that language. Further, the vast majority of tongues-speech turns out not to be a language at all, but rather is free vocalisation, produced from sounds the speaker uses as part of his native language. Thus there is no substantial difference between the tongues of an Indian Hindu and an Indian Charismatic who both speak Hindi as their mother-tongue. When we take an English-speaking charismatic and compare him to a Hindi speaking charismatic we find that their tongues are quite different – each reflecting the sounds (phonemes) of his native language. Moreover, interpretation of tongues – right across religious boundaries – is something of a dubious business. Time and again different interpreters will give very different interpretations of the same sample of tongues speech, or an actual foreign language will be completely wrongly interpreted. Indeed, frequently the interpretation is significantly longer or shorter than the original message in tongues. All of this is far most consistent with a natural psychological interpretation of the phenomenon than a supernatural one.

Such linguistic studies have been absolutely devastating to charismatic claims, and yet the charismatic would make an exception for his own practice, while seeing all these others as false; and this despite the fact that there is no better case for the genuineness of his own tongues speech.

3. Prophecy & Words of Knowledge

Prophecies are massively widespread. Not only do they occur all over the world in many different religions past and present, but there is a secular equivalent in the work of modern psychics. As part of my research I’ve compared the musings of charismatic prophets to those of modern day psychics, and it’s astounding how very similar they are in nature. In fact, the two main techniques used by psychics are also employed by charismatics: cold-reading and hot-reading. Cold-reading occurs in a number of ways. For example, a psychic or prophet might make a very vague or general statement that could apply to virtually anyone and make it seem as if the information had to be revealed in some supernatural or magical way. During a prophetic workshop held by a leading UK church a man was told he had a real heart to hear from God. Well, of course he does! He’s voluntarily attending a prophetic workshop! Statements that are inherently vague but seem to be specific are known as “Barnum statements,” and are used time and time again in modern prophecies, the work of psychics, and newspaper horoscopes. In addition, cold-reading picks up on lots of clues given unintentionally by the person to the prophet or psychic. Without saying a word to someone they can know a lot about us: based on how we dress, our mood, mannerisms, and demeanour. Hot-reading, on the other hand, involves the use of information already known to the prophet or psychic. Thus, famously, Peter Popoff was fed information through an earpiece from his wife that he was passing off as supernatural knowledge about people in the congregation.

I’ve even witnessed mistakes covered over in the same ways: so, if something is not a reality now the person is invited to take it as a promise or reality in the future. The crucial thing in prophecies, as in psychic readings, is the interpretation of the words of the prophet/psychic by the receiver of the prophecy. By simply following these simple techniques it’s not too difficult to give very convincing performances.

4. Miracles

In 1995 the world was treated to the miraculous events of Hindu statutes drinking milk. Many Hindu deities joined in the fun – from Ganesh to Nandi the Bull, to Shiva. So many Hindus were caught up in the hysteria that milk supplies were seriously depleted. Many charismatics might shake their heads at such behaviour, but the same reactions occur within charismania itself in the face of miraculous claims. The most significant lesson to learn from the milk-drinking statue extravaganza is just how quickly millions of people jumped on the bandwagon without ever pausing to ask some very basic questions. Before rational investigation was even getting its shoes on, the wave of miracle hype had taken off around the world. Calm investigation soon revealed the truth. In many cases the statues were made from baked clay which readily absorbs liquids through capillary attraction. With regards to other statues which were made from a non-porous material (such as marble), it was noticed that milk was pooling at their base. How come? Well, when milk is offered on a spoon to an idol which is wet from ritual washing, it drains imperceptibly over the idol in a virtually transparent layer, and then runs off and pools at the base. Mystery solved. Lastly, a small number of cases were discovered to be the result of hoaxing.

Presumably Charismatics would applaud the efforts of the investigators; and yet they routinely fail to investigate miracle claims closer to home. Far too many are more than happy to pass anecdotes of miraculous events from person to person without stopping to think or check a single fact.

The standard charismatic reaction is to label all these non-Charismatic “gifts of the Spirit” as “counterfeit.” A surprising number will go further and say the existence of the counterfeit is actually proof of the real! Firstly, it isn’t true that the existence of the counterfeit is proof of the real. James Randi notes that someone could produce a counterfeit $3 bill, despite there being no genuine $3 bill. The existence of magicians performing tricks hardly testifies to the existence of real magic. However, even if it was indeed the case that the counterfeit was proof of the real, how do we know what is counterfeit and what is real? In both the charismatic and non-charismatic versions of these gifts the same problems appear. None of them seem to be genuine at all. (In fact, at least in the case of tongues it’s interesting to note that the “counterfeit” came along centuries before the “real thing” as practised by modern charismatics!) In any event it would perhaps be more useful to speak not of counterfeit and real, but of genuine miracle claims and false ones. When presented with any claim we should investigate it as objectively as possible and come to a conclusion. With little more than shoddy evidence being offered on behalf of all these claims – charismatic and non-charismatic – we are right to be a tad sceptical.

If you are a charismatic reading this then put yourself in the shoes of the sceptic. What reason is there to accept your claims about all these things but not equally good (or bad!) claims from outside your borders? Why should the sceptic believe you? Until such time as you can give a reasonable answer to that question your claims to the miraculous will be – quite rightly – written off as yet more supernatural silliness flying in the face of evidence.

Stephen J. Graham

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Moreland and Miracles

Every time I’m tempted to think Charismatics are stupid I remind myself that I was stuck in Charismania for well over a decade. Rumours and promises of the supernatural can be incredibly alluring. When people are so desperate to experience God their levels of credulity increase dramatically. But that doesn’t mean many of these people are not intelligent. Of course they are, and I was reminded recently of one highly intelligent thinker for whom I have the utmost of respect, and who also happens to be a charismatic: JP Moreland.

JP Moreland is an influential Christian philosopher and apologist. His text “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview,” co-written with William Lane Craig is one of the best standard Christian philosophy books on the market. I also particularly like his shorter volume “The Recalcitrant Imago Dei,” in which Moreland discusses several features of humanity which are difficult to accommodate within a naturalist worldview, such as: consciousness, rationality, morality, freedom, and personhood.

And so, naturally curious about his charismatic beliefs, I picked up a book he had written called “The Kingdom Triangle,” in which he has a few things to say about Christians rediscovering the power of the Spirit, and in which the influences of his Church – Anaheim Vineyard – are quite apparent. Admittedly Moreland’s language is often baffling when he speaks of such matters. He invites us to “seek to bring God’s supernatural power to bear on [needs],” as if God’s supernatural power is ours to distribute. He encourages us to “grow in the miraculous” as if the occurrence of miracles were down to our personal growth. He also speaks about how we “grow in power,” as if wonders happen because of how spiritually strong we are.

Moreland doesn’t have a lot to say about phenomena such as speaking in tongues or prophecy – though he clearly believes in such gifts – but he does have a few things to say about divine healing, a main emphasis of the Vineyard brand. Moreland even has some stories to tell, and some advice for the rest of us concerning the proper epistemic reaction to such testimonies.

I want to share a few of Moreland’s anecdotes, and critically assess his advice that the rest of us should believe such testimonies when we hear them. I’m not normally impressed with testimonies of healing, but Moreland makes me listen more than usual, largely because this is an obviously intelligent and coolly rational mind who is far less likely to be deceived or mislead than Joe Bloggs. Anyhow, here’s a summary of Moreland’s account of his own healing:

Moreland came down with a dose of laryngitis. The timing couldn’t have been worse for him, as he now had to cancel a 3-hour lecture he was to give at another church, not to mention having to cancel academic classes which would mean he had overshot his quota of missed lectures for that semester. After church that Sunday he just wanted to get home, and had to make phone calls to cancel his lectures, but just before he left some elders from his church prayed for him. One placed their hand on his throat, and when they prayed Moreland felt warmth rushing through him, and within minutes his laryngitis was gone. He never had to cancel his talks after all.

This testimony is the most significant in Moreland’s book, because it is first-hand. Other testimonies Moreland recounts have a sort of hearsay folk tale quality to them. There was a young woman in China who came down with a virus doctors had never seen before, and for whom everyone had lost hope. However “following prayer she was healed and fully recovered.” We have a Thai missionary reporting that a church service he was conducting was interrupted by a village leader desperate because the rains had not yet come and the crops were soon to be ruined. However, the church prayed and fasted for 3 days and on the 4th day it rained. Or consider another missionary tale of a boy with a hernia in a Brazilian village. The missionaries laid hands on the boy and the hernia disappeared during prayer. Moreland also recounts the tale of a young girl who had two parakeets, and when one of these birds died the little girl prayed for another and found another just like it up a tree the very next day.

Moreland clearly believes sharing such stories is vital to boost our faith. He admonishes us to “read to grow in faith from the testimonies of others as they bear witness to the things they have seen and heard.” Further, when faced with stories of the miraculous Moreland advises: “if there is credible eyewitness testimony for an event, including a miracle, then, all things being equal, one ought to believe the event even if there is no medical proof.” [Emphasis mine]

Now, what are we to make of all this? It seems to me that Moreland sets the bar far too low for miracle reports. There are lots of good reasons to be (at least prima facie) sceptical of miracle reports even when they come from credible eyewitnesses (please remember I write this as a Christian – not as a naturalist).

Consider first-person healing testimonies. People are often very poor witnesses concerning themselves. Many don’t have a terribly good grasp of their own medical condition, so that what seems serious and incurable to them perhaps isn’t so to a medical professional. Cancer is a good example here. Many people think of cancer as if it’s a single illness which must be cut out or destroyed by chemotherapy. Few people realise that there are many forms of cancer which behave very differently from each other, and that many forms of cancer can spontaneously remit. Illnesses can behave in ways that can surprise many non-professionals who easily lapse into certain presuppositions when they think about illness. This might cause us to think a miracle has occurred in some case when in fact an illness is simply behaving in a natural way, albeit in a way that most of us don’t associate with the illness in question.

Further, when illness strikes close to home we can catastrophise matters. As someone who suffers from health anxiety I understand only too well the distorting effects health worries can have on our perceptions. Also, there is a strong temptation when testifying to healings to overdramatize things a little, to “sex-up” our stories, make them more interesting than perhaps they are. I’ve witnessed a large number of such testimonies in my time in charismania.

On top of this we must also keep in mind that many investigations have been undertaken into miracle claims which have yielded not-so-good results for miracle testimonies. Many alleged healings turn out to be dubious at best, and, sadly, often fraudulent, deceiving even intelligent and credible witnesses. How many credible witnesses saw people rise out of wheelchairs at a WV Grant crusade, not knowing they weren’t disabled in the first place or were stooges planted by the faith healer? Related to this problem is the lack of medical follow-up. Moreland says this doesn’t matter, but it obviously does. Many healing testimonies are given moments after an alleged healing. However, the sad fact is many of these people wake up the next morning only to find they are not healed, or go to the doctor only to discover the tumour is still there and that they experienced nothing other than temporary pain relief in the charged atmosphere of a healing service. And yet, credible witnesses wake up that very same morning and tell all their friends that a person with a painful tumour got healed and couldn’t feel the pain any more.

Furthermore, many witnesses do not understand the nature of illness and disease well enough to be considered good witnesses despite the fact that they might well be very honest in how they report some event or other. In fact, this ignorance is widely exploited by unscrupulous faith healers. For instance, a person might be brought on stage and “healed” of blindness. The faith healer will wave a brightly coloured handkerchief in front of their face and the person sees it and grabs it in their hand, and maybe even follows the healer around the stage. A person might honestly report that they saw a blind person healed. The truth is they were deceived. Faith-healers know that when people hear the word “blind” they typically think that the person can see nothing at all. But this is rarely the case. The vast majority of legally blind people have some visual ability, however slight. Most can at least see the blurred outlines of a brightly coloured handkerchief held in front of their face, and if not they can still hear well enough to be able to follow a healer’s voice around the stage. It all creates a very persuasive illusion.

I suspect there might be a misunderstanding of illness at work in one of Moreland’s anecdotes – the boy with the hernia that went away during prayer. I had an inguinal hernia in my late teens. With this sort of hernia a muscle tear causes part of one’s intestine to protrude, forming a lump in the groin. However, I was able to pop mine back in again at will. So, I wonder did the missionaries lay hands on this boy’s hernia – popping it back in temporarily – and think it went away under the power of prayer? Perhaps they then moved on to the next village, not knowing that the boy’s hernia manifested itself a day or so later. What we end up with is a credible witness report of a miracle that wasn’t a miracle at all.

These are just some of the reasons why we need to be cautious in the face of miracle claims: other articles on this blog give additional reasons. And these reasons lead me to think that Moreland’s claim that we “ought to believe” the sorts of anecdotes he recounts is rather epistemically wild.

Stephen J. Graham

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Miracles at New Wine?

New Wine is a network of churches which first came to my attention when I was investigating the leg lengthening parlour trick that occasionally reappears on the Church scene. I discovered that there was a leg lengthening miracle claim at the New Wine annual conference in Sligo, Ireland 2014. I contacted the person in question and told them they were probably the victim of a hoax, and linked to a Derren Brown video in which he gives one explanation of how the trick works. This wasn’t accepted by the person in question, who insisted that their leg was shorter and now it’s not. When I asked if there was medical evidence – in particular a diagnosis by a medical professional rather than a self-diagnosis or diagnosis by the healer, I received no further response.

Anyhow, this episode put New Wine on my radar and I kept watch on their 2015 conference which has just finished. Again, there were healing claims made. Apparently during a seminar by John Derneborg there were several people healed. So, I asked what kind of healings these were and if they were being medically verified. A few days later I received a response that healings included “arthritis to knee and shoulder pain,” but that since the conference was still in progress no one would have been checked by their doctor. I was referred to the following testimony:

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=747377898717842&id=100003369178834

The first thing to notice is that this is – as is typically the case with the vast majority of healing claims – a case of pain reduction. It is well known that pain is incredibly susceptible to the power of suggestion – the placebo effect – and in the rush of adrenaline of a healing service pain can seemingly disappear, even for some time. For this reason it can be incredibly misleading to hear testimonies right after the supposed healing event, since it’s simply the nature of pain to come and go. A friend of mine with fibromyalgia will often go for days or weeks without pain before suffering once more. I was informed that this alleged miracle happened on Monday night and the lady was still pain free on Wednesday. But this is not remotely abnormal. Furthermore, I do question the lady’s testimony somewhat, wondering if she is not maybe over-stating things a little or giving a false impression of her condition? If she had a number of conditions that were all relatively severe, how is it that she just forgot to bring all her medication to a conference that was to last a number of days? Admittedly that’s not totally implausible, but I wonder how bad her pain was just prior to coming to the conference. If it was severe I doubt she would have forgotten her medication. In any event, it would be interesting if New Wine followed up this case and reported back as to whether this lady’s arthritis and fibromyalgia has really gone for good. If they do so I will post the results on this blog site.

New Wine has also been running a blog, recording daily events from their conference. One in particular is of interest to me, since it included stories alleging God to be a work. You can find these testimonies here:

http://www.vox.ie/vox-blog/2015/7/15/vox-live-blog-sligo15-day-five

I want to look briefly at the first two testimonies.

In the first, a couple were told that their baby “could have a syndrome that was “incompatible with life,” and that “after weeks of prayer…the next scan was clear.” Now, it shouldn’t take much digging to see that this is not as miraculous as it might sound to less discerning ears. The baby in question “could have” a syndrome – could, not did, could. It other words there doesn’t appear to have been a diagnosis in this instance.

I know what it’s like to be a parent in that situation. When my son was born medical professionals were alarmed at his large head. He had to be checked out at a centre specialising in infant development as well as having a scan on his head at hospital when he was only a month or two old. It was an incredibly worrying time and all sorts of nightmare scenarios went through our minds. After all the tests and anxiety we finally found out what was wrong with him: he just had a big head! However, for a number of weeks we genuinely thought there was something wrong with him, though – as with the New Wine case – there was no diagnosis of any illness or condition. Despite this the feelings of relief a parent feels when the nightmare scenarios are ruled out quite easily leaves one with the feeling that Someone Up There has been pulling strings on one’s behalf. The truth is that the child was not suffering from a condition that was life-threatening in the first place.

The second case is a slightly different claim, concerning a miraculous provision of petrol. I’ve heard this sort of story on several other occasions, including the pastor of a church I attended several years ago. It’s like a modern day version of the Old Testament stories concerning the miraculous provision of oil; a feat performed by both Elijah and Elisha. The New Wine story runs like so:

Margaret from Killarney was taking a friend for lunch in Cork when she noticed the petrol light was flashing. With about 20 miles to go she decided to risk it, planning to stop at a petrol station on the way home. But they stayed longer than they had originally intended and found themselves driving home after dark. “Every petrol station we passed, was closed,” Margaret said. “I began to pray Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want’. My friend was not a Christian but I challenged her to believe with me for a miracle – that God would not let us be stranded on the side of the road. 87 miles later on an empty tank of petrol, we arrived safely home in Killarney…”

What are we to make of this? My first concern is with the estimation of distance involved. What exactly is “about 20 miles?” 15 miles? 17 miles? Given that distances in Ireland are given in kilometres, has this lady mistaken kilometres for miles? Further she claims her round trip was 87 miles in total. However, the distance from Cork to Killarney is 50 miles. Add to this the “about 20 miles” of the outbound trip from Killarney to Cork when the fuel light came on and we have 70 miles at the most, suggesting either an overestimate of distance or a confusion of miles with kilometres. So, I suspect the distance was significantly less than 87 miles. In any event, depending on the model of car, even this distance is not extraordinary. Some cars light up when there is still as much as a quarter tank of petrol left, some even capable of doing 100-150 more miles. It’s hard to make a definitive judgment, but on what we have been told there is nothing that strikes me as requiring a miraculous explanation.

Unfortunately few Christians will stop to ask such questions. I suspect when it’s re-told the first story will simply become one in which a baby was cured from a fatal illness. Or, upon hearing the petrol story, how many will stop to ask questions about the model of car, how many miles it can go once the fuel light turns on, and how far Cork is from Killarney? And herein lies a blight in modern Christendom: the lack of discernment in the face of miraculous claims. I suspect so many desire to see God’s hand at work in their lives – particularly during difficult moments – that they will claim His intervention when there is little reason to do so.

Stephen J. Graham

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Investigating the Supernatural – Healing

Do you claim to have experienced or witnessed something supernatural?

I am currently planning a book on supernatural claims and practices within the Christian church. I will be focusing on a number of phenomena, including the following:

1. Glossolalia, more commonly known as speaking on tongues/other languages
2. Words of knowledge or predictive prophecies.
3. Healings.

I wish to hear from anyone who genuinely believes they have experienced – or knows someone who has experienced – one or more of these phenomena. I am particularly interested in healing claims and I’m hoping to investigate a number of claims for my book.

Healing claims are more difficult to assess than is often thought. In many cases we are presented only with healing testimonies, and often straight after the supposed healing event. However, in order for a genuinely persuasive healing claim to be made much more is required.

Firstly, we need medical confirmation that the person had the condition they claim to have been healed from. Regrettably many people have claimed healings for ailments they were never actually diagnosed with, but perhaps simply believed themselves to have. Moreover, when brought up on stage in front of an expectant crowd, a very natural human reaction is to play to the audience, even if that means stretching the truth a little about the severity of one’s ailment, and thus how dramatic one’s healing is. A person’s understanding of their own condition is often different from that of a medical professional.

Secondly, we require medical confirmation that a person no longer suffers from the ailment. Testimonies within minutes of a claimed healing are often misleading. The nature of many conditions – particularly pain related conditions – is that they can, through the power of suggestion (the placebo effect), go away during the highly charged atmosphere of a healing crusade or worship service. The person genuinely feels their back pain has gone, only to find it return a day or two later. The literature is full of examples of people thinking they are healed at the time only to discover later that they were not. This sometimes takes a rather insidious twist, especially in the presence of a theology that says a person can lose their healing through sin or lack of faith. In such cases not only does a person fail to experience genuine healing, but they must deal with often profound guilt, blaming themselves for losing a healing they never had. I remember a particularly tragic case of this in a Pentecostal church I attended in my early twenties. A couple who attended the church had a hard time because the woman had cancer. However, after being prayed for they believed she was healed. She continued to have symptoms of cancer, and the doctors continually told her she still had cancer. However, they simply refused to believe it, because they had swallowed a theology that said these symptoms were a satanic deception intended to make them lose faith and therefore lose the healing. But medical confirmation that a person no longer has a condition is crucial to any purported genuine healing.

Thirdly, note that not all healing claims are equal. For example, praying for a person with arthritic pain in her knees that goes away during a prayer meeting is not equal to a broken leg fusing within seconds. The former is far more consistent with what we know about the natural characteristics of arthritic pain, whilst the latter is highly anomalous and thus a better candidate for a genuine healing claim. I am particularly interested in healing claims where what has occurred is highly anonymous and against the grain of what we know about that illness. Praying for one’s cold to go away and finding it go away after 2 or 3 days would not be terribly impressive as a healing claim! Or, take a more extreme case such as cancer. The majority of cancer sufferers undergo treatment such as radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy. Moreover, in all likelihood virtually all cancer sufferers are prayed for by someone. We also know that many cancers will go into remission. This is a natural fact about cancer. Therefore, that some go into remission in the period of time after prayer has taken place is not necessarily surprising. However, there could of course be exceptions to this. Some people claim to have the “gift of healing,” and it would be significant if it could be shown that an overwhelming number of people they prayed for recovered, particularly if the recovery is from a form of the illness that is highly unlikely to go into remission. So, even though cancer can go into remission, it would strike me as significant if it just happened to go into remission right after a given person prayed for it to do so, and if this happened in a high proportion of cases.

I am interested in investigating any such claims as part of the research for my book, though please be aware that my approach will be analytical and investigative.

My own position with respect to divine healing is an “open but cautious” one. I am a Presbyterian who previously spent around 15 years in Pentecostal and charismatic churches. I believe God can heal anyone he chooses but I am initially sceptical of healing claims because I’ve witnessed so much that later turned out to be false. I have several articles on this website explaining my general scepticism of healing claims, but I would like to investigate specific claims in more depth.

I appreciate this can be a sensitive area for many people, who may not be entirely comfortable with sharing medical details with a stranger, however, all claims will be treated in the strictest confidence and no individual who comes forward will be identified in any subsequent book or articles.

Anyone who wishes to present a healing claim for investigation should make contact in the first instance by leaving a comment (which won’t be published publically).

Stephen J. Graham

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