Under the category of "million dollar questions", here's a biggie; do physical healing miracles happen today?
I certainly can't *prove* that they don't, but let me just say instead that I am no longer convinced miracles exist as a real entity in any supernatural (god directed) sense at all; or that they ever have.
It seems to me a sizable chunk of evangelicals are already skeptical of the so called faith healers, such as Benny Hinn or Todd Bentley, and well they should be (even though both of these guys have large followings; Hinn in particular). Given their already controversial nature, even within Christian circles, I'm not going to waste much time commenting on that movement (despite the Hinn photo above).
Instead, I'd like to discuss briefly the very broadly accepted Christian belief that god regularly heals people as a result of the prayers of their friends and family. If you are a Christian, chances are high you believe this to your very core. You probably know someone, or even several people, who have received a "miracle" by way of god's physical healing.
There are two such cases, that have come to my attention quite organically, which will serve to illustrate my recent observations in this respect. In both of these cases it was the word "miracle" (or "miraculous"), which initially grabbed my attention and got me to thinking. Before I jump into it, let me be quick to admit that anecdotes never *prove* anything, one way or the other (and we could trade them back and forth all day). So my intention here is simply to use these two cases as a springboard for further thought & analysis, specifically on the issue of god's supposed involvement in physical healing.
I should also mention that these cases represent people I know personally.
A few months back, I went to the website of a Christian leader (an individual who is incidentally sort of a mini-celebrity, in certain limited circles). I don't want to get into the specifics, so as not to reveal her exact identity, but there was a line in her biography that really leapt off the screen. It said that she was "miraculously healed of a terminal illness". Wow. That sounds really cool, and it certainly helps to give her story some serious street cred. (*Note to those who weren't raised in a Christian home...in Christian culture, the more stuff that you've been "saved from", the cooler you are considered to be. It's an odd dynamic.)
As it happened, she actually also mentioned the name of the illness, but only in passing, so I decided to look it up on wikipedia. You may have trouble believing this, but I always try to keep an open mind about these sorts of stories. I realize, on one level, that I could be wrong about atheism. I sincerely don't think I am wrong, but I am not so arrogant as to rule out the very possibility. Maybe I was right before, and Christianity is true? If that's the case, I want to be the first to find out. This is, in part, why I retain a certain curiosity about statements like the one contained in her bio.
Anyway, to my genuine surprise, the wikipedia article included the following line, "remission can be achieved in up to 60-80% of cases".
How could she not have mentioned this??
If "remission can be achieved in up to 60-80% of cases", than why did she refer to the healing as "miraculous"? This is extremely confusing to someone like me.
The ironic thing is it actually would have been more "miraculous", if you want to put it in that way, if she had not gone into remission after treatment. If remission is achieved "in up to 60-80% of cases", the odds were actually in her favor!!
See my problem there?
Although it bugged me a little, at the time, I quickly forgot about case number 1 and moved on with my life. That is, until a few weeks later, when I had a prolonged conversation with another Christian who also threw out the word "miracle"; and once again in reference to a personal illness. While my other friends, who were also a part of the conversation, were busy saying how awesome they thought that was (and relating their own stories of god's healing of their own friends/family members), I took it upon myself to ask her what the name of her sickness had been. I also expressed to her my sincere congratulations, on the fact that she was o.k. now, and I did my best to divert away from the god talk. I simply wanted to connect with her on a human level, but she was pretty intent on bringing god into the dialogue at every opportunity.
Later that day, I decided once again to look up the given sickness on wikipedia. In this case, it was actually something, quite rare, that I had not even heard of before. Could it be that this woman had experienced a genuine "miracle", I wondered to myself, as she had claimed?
As you've probably guessed by now, much as it had before, wikipedia told a very, very different story. Included, in the article regarding her illness, was the following line, "the cure rate...is around 90-95%". Yes, you read that right, "the cure rate...is around 90-95%"!!! I have to tell you, I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that line. This woman seemed to me to be a perfectly *normal* Christian, if you know what I mean, and my (intelligent!) friends seemed also to believe that she had experienced a legitimate "miracle".
I received a clue, a few days later, in a seemingly unrelated conversation with one of these same friends. As she expressed it to me, her personal belief is that it is preferable to always "give god the credit" for something good in your life, even if he might not be responsible for it. Far better to thank god, and be wrong, than to not thank him at all she would say. My suspicion is this sort of (in my opinion) warped thinking stems from the Bible itself. And I think it may explain, at least in part, why it is so extremely difficult to divest everyday Christians of the "miracle" type language they use ever so casually (and irresponsibly). When my friend said this, Proverbs 3:6 came immediately to my mind, "in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight". Could it be, that Christians are desperate to "acknowledge" god, in "all things", because they believe they are commanded to do so? I think this may well be the case. The problem, of course, is that it tends to lead to a highly credulous approach, as illustrated above, to "all things" that their god *might* have been responsible for. This, to me, is a major flaw in my friend's logic.
But it occurs to me there is a flip side to that coin...perhaps there is no amount of de-bunking that will convince some believers they are mistaken. In other words, no matter how many "miracles" are explained, and shown to be (plausibly) quite natural events, these brand of believers will always cling to the hope that at least *some* genuine miracles still take place. It may not be this particular story or that particular story, which qualify as a miracle, but until skeptics are able to explain away literally every potential miracle, the *possibility* remains that supernatural miracles are real. But how could skeptics ever accept this massive challenge? We can't, of course, and it is irrational of such believers to even expect us to do so. Doubt and skepticism are not signs of weakness, despite what you may have been told. They represent the mature approach, as Michael Shermer demonstrates in his excellent book, "The Believing Brain" (see, for example, the Shermer quote at the end of this post).
So here's my bottom line...when Christians say something was a "miracle", what they often really mean is that it was unexplained. Do people sometimes recover, from physical illnesses, where the odds are much lower than "60-80%", or "90-95%", in their favor? Even when the odds are stacked strongly against them? Of course they do...sometimes...but often they don't. You can't count only the healing hits, chalk the misses up to god's sovereignty (or ignore them completely), and then call it "evidence" for god's involvement. It just doesn't work that way. Unexplained recoveries happen every day. We should expect them, because the odds are never 100% in either direction.
You can believe that god is responsible, for your mother's/aunt's/sister's/best friend's physical healing, if you want to insist on doing so, but I sincerely hope the above will help you to understand, if even just a little, why former believers like me no longer find this stuff very convincing.
I would leave the believer with one final question, to ponder. It is a question that haunted me, during my de-conversion, and it eventually helped to engineer a major shift in my thinking. The question is simply this, "why won't god heal amputees"?
Do you have an answer?
Please think about it.