How do skeptics respond to miraculous healings? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
I count Nabeel Qureshi as a friend. My wife and I prayed for him every day when we found out he had stomach cancer of the most advanced kind. There were several people praying for Nabeel all over the world.
Despite this, Nabeel died.
So yes, I am familiar with people talking about faith healing. I do believe that it can happen, but it’s not a necessity. God does things for His own reasons. It is my duty to trust when I don’t know those reasons.
In this chapter, David Pye looks at miraculous healings. I find this an odd place to go to so early on. I do believe there is good evidence that miracles have happened and do happen, but generally, it’s not the best starting point. If you’re a hardened skeptic, you will find a way to explain everything in that lens. If you are a Christian, you are far more prone to see the miraculous.
So let’s go through David Pye’s chapter.
At the start, he does list several conditions people are said to be healed from, but then we get to a problematic statement.
“But what about conditions like Alzheimer’s disease? Huntington’s chorea? Cerebral palsy? Why are people diagnosed with these conditions never healed?”
How does Pye know this?
To begin with, if you don’t believe miraculous healing is possible, then of course, miraculous healings of these have never taken place, but alas, we are arguing in a circle at that point. For Pye to know this, he would have to have exhaustive knowledge of all the Earth past and present. Even if the claim was true, that would not rule out that it could happen. There could hypothetically never have been a miracle in Earth’s history, and yet miraculous healing could still be possible.
In all this chapter, there is never any interaction with the best sources on this. Of course, such a work could have been written before their release, but it would be nice to see more miracle claims looked at. Only one is really examined. There is no interaction with a work like Craig Keener’s Miracles. Keener in this work traveled all over the world collecting accounts of miraculous healing, some with medical documentation.
Pye prefers to speak of surprising or astonishing healings. He does say that these happen in other religions and happen in hypnosis. I believe we are getting into the whole “Why do miracles happen in other religions?” I do not know why that would be a problem for me.
You see, if a miraculous healing takes place, then miracles are possible and the position of atheism is in serious trouble. As a Christian, I can think of any number of reasons. Perhaps it is a demonic interaction taking place. Perhaps God is extending some grace outside of Christianity to bring someone to Christianity. We don’t know. For the former, there is even a Biblical precedent. One could look to the beast being healed in Revelation 13 for an example. Of course, I read Revelation differently than most Christians, but the idea of a healing from a dark source is still there.
He goes on to say that
“If Christianity were true we might expect miraculous healings to occur only through Christian healers. Or we might expect Christian healings to be far more impressive than healings in other contexts – for example, there being conditions which only Christian healers, but no-one else, are able to heal. I am not aware of any definitive investigation of comparative success at healing in different religions but my strong impression is that all have about the same success rate. Christianity doesn’t stand out as noticeably superior (nor does any other religion).”
I find this again quite odd. He is not aware of any definitive investigation, but he wishes to make a universal statement on a “strong impression.” How is this done? If I say I have a strong impression that many skeptics don’t come to Christianity because they want to continue living in sin, would anyone really accept this?
He also quotes from John Dominic Crossan on Wikipedia about healing shrines. Absent is any data directly from the shrines themselves. Someone like Keener actually did the hard work on that level.
He then tells a story about a man healed from a chronic skin disease. Then, he describes a similar story with someone healed under hypnosis. I do not see how this is meant to be a rebuttal. God could do through miraculous means what could be done through natural means. In understanding miracles, there are first-class and second-class miracle. First class are things that cannot happen by any means we know of. Jesus rising from the dead would be one. For a second, consider Israel crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. The waters stop so they can pass. That in itself is not a miracle. The waters had stopped before and probably have since then. What is a miracle is that it happened when it happened. Keener lists several times in his book where something was healed because of a prayer in the name of Jesus specifically.
The next section is about exorcism. Pye does think something happens, but it is certainly not the expulsion of a demon. I invite Pye to really look at such accounts of demonic possession, such as the ones with super strength and such. Note also exorcism was common in the ancient world and it wasn’t just Christians doing it, but Jesus was the one deemed the most successful and it is widely agreed among New Testament scholars today that Jesus had a reputation as both a healer and an exorcist.
It’s worth pointing out that Pye regularly speaks of the natural and the supernatural. I will not speak of the supernatural save when he does. I do not really like the term supernatural as it is way too vague. My thoughts on that can be found here.
Pye does list many realities of life about suffering. The problem is while these may seem foreign to a Western audience, to the audience Jesus spoke to and Christianity rose up in, while the science would not be there, the reality would be well known. Suffering is real. Many of these people encountered death on a regular basis. Pye thinks Buddhism is more real in admitting these realities up front. Chrisitanity does too though. It has no reason to deny them. This was the world Jesus lived in. The problem for us is our modern Western world treats suffering like an exception. People in many countries today risk their lives if they walk to church. We consider it suffering if we don’t get a parking spot near the church on Sunday morning.
There is something on church politics and how that some people don’t talk about healing lest they be seen as immature and such. My wife and I are both part of Celebrate Recovery at our church. That leads me to think that this is not really valid. In a group like this, people are encouraged to come and let their guard down. In turn, through this, I have come to know this group of people much better than others. I think the church could learn a lot here.
Finally, Pye has something on the disabled. Readers of this blog know that my wife and I both have Aspergers. That awareness is near and dear to my heart. I rejoice at seeing Autism coming into the mainstream through such shows as The Good Doctor.
Pye says here
“So, here we have two viewpoints, two approaches, with regard to disabled people – and the results of both approaches can be evaluated.
On the one hand many Christians have said that disabled people can and should be healed of their disabilities. But, in practice, such healing doesn’t happen.
And on the other hand you have a primarily secular initiative which sees disabled people as full people who have full human rights and who deserve respect, acceptance and opportunities just as much as non-disabled people. And this sort of outlook has changed society for the better (and continues to do so) giving disabled people a better chance of fulfilling lives.
Which position is better? One that promises much but delivers little (and may even cause harm)? Or one that is more modest but has, nonetheless, delivered significant changes for the better?”
I find this to be a radical dichotomy. There is nothing wrong with praying for someone to be healed who has a seriously debilitating disability. (At the same time, I have no wish to be healed of Aspergers. Others would, but not I.) That does not mean that they are any less human. If someone thinks so, this thinking does not come from Jesus.
Yet I have to ask, where does the secularist position come from? Disabled are full people who deserve full human rights? I agree, but upon what are these rights grounded? What makes a human so valuable? Are we not all the result of a cosmic accident? Why should any of us “deserve” anything? It looks to me like a morality floating in air.
This does not mean that I am not thankful that Pye takes the position that he does with the disabled, but I wonder how he could ground it. I think too often skeptics have taken the morality that comes from Christianity, assumed that it is just something everyone really knows, takes it for granted, and then acts like it fits in right at home with their worldview.
When we return to this book, we’ll look at chapter 3 on evangelism and eternity.