Healing miracles and God

Are miraculous healings proof of God?

Montage

It is not uncommon to hear of someone being healed miraculously, after prayer. But are these stories really true? And what do they tell us about God?

Healings? What healings?

There are actually hundreds of millions of stories. But are any of them anything more than an urban myth?

To be useful in throwing light on the possible existence of God, we need stories to be plausible as evidence, with as many as possible of the following atributes:

  1. The account of the story comes from a reputable source which provides names, time and place, and there is no reason to believe the story is a fraud, or that anyone had anything to gain by inventing it.
  2. The disease had little possibility of natural recovery.
  3. The recovery must have been complete, or at least very significant, and not what might be expected from any treatment being received.
  4. There must have been prayer for healing not long before the healing occurred.
  5. There must be good independent medical opinion (backed up by documentation) that the disease was present before the prayer and not present afterwards.

A few accounts of healings appear to meet these tests and have been outlined on this site:

  • An Australian doctor Sean George suffered a heart attack and was treated by two doctors and nurses. They tried the defrillator, and when his ECG 'flatlined' they kept on with CPR. After about an hour and a half treating him with no response, they gave up. But then his wife (also a doctor) arrived and prayed for a miracle - and imediately he began to breathe again, his heart began to beat again, and eventually he fully recovered with (unexpectedly) no brain damage. As a doctor, he kept all the medical documentation, which he has made available.
  • An expert medical team tried for 40 minutes to revive Jeff Markin after he suffered a massive heart attack. After he was officially pronounced dead, the heart surgeon laid hands on him and prayed for healing. The 'paddles' were applied one more time and he revived. Both the surgeon and Jeff verified his amazing revival.
  • Experienced medical researcher and doctor, Richard Casdorph investigated apparent healings which occurred after people were prayed for. He approached the doctors involved, examined the X-ray and other medical records, and submitted them to experienced professionals. He found that ten cases were cures well beyond what could be expected to have occurred naturally.
  • More than a thousand drug addicts in Hong Kong were healed of their addictions after prayer. In some cases, such as Winson, a Triad gang fighter, the healing was immediate and apparently miraculous.
  • New Testament scholar Craig Keener investigated the occurrence of reports of miraculous healings from around the world. He read hundreds of written accounts of miraculous healings, interviewed several hundred eye witnesses, and obtained medical documentation for some of them, and published the results in his book Miracles. What his investigation lacks in detailed medical evidence, it makes up with the sheer number of accounts he was able to study.
  • Over 150 years, 200 million pilgrims have flocked to Lourdes in southern France, seeking healing at what has become a holy place to Roman Catholics. Millions claimed to have received healing, thousands of these cases have been documented, and 68 cases have sufficient medical evidence to allow an international Medical Commission to verify the miracle.
  • The World Christian Doctors Network has documented many cases of apparent healing miracles, with supporting evidence.

Explanations

Five responses appear possible:

  1. There is insufficient evidence that the stories true.
    This is certainly true for many miracle stories, but the above accounts are harder to dispute. There is good documentary evidence, reviewed by competent medical specialists. The sceptic has to maintain that every last one of these stories is untrue, which seems more than can be reasonably claimed.
  2. They were spontaneous remissions.
    A small number of spontaneous remissions occur with no explanation. It is argued that alleged miraculous healings are simply spntaneous remissions that are remembered, while the many cases where prayer for healing is not successful are forgotten. This argument is difficult to assess because I know of no figures on the occurrence of spontaneous remissions vs the occurrence of miraculaous healings after prayer. However it is worth noting that all medical conditions are different, and spontaneous remissions are not known in some conditions. Dr Casdorph notes in his book that some of the cases he examined could not be satisfactorily explained that way.
  3. Some other natural explanation.
    Perhaps there are natural explanations for these apparent miracles? Perhaps the mind's powers to overcome sickness and disability, or other factors not as yet recognised, pave the way for cure. But until specific natural explanations are found, it is difficult to see how a reasonable person could opt for this explanation.
  4. Which supernatural being?
    Some say there are healing stories in many cultures and religions. So perhaps divine healing cannot be the correct explanation, because many different gods are claimed as the source of the miracle. They can't all be the true explanation, it is said. However, it could well be that God indeed healed, even if we cannot be sure which God.
  5. Divine healing.
    The people in these stories were prayed for, or received some form of christian minstry. They were subsequently healed. The most obvious explanation, except for those who firmly disbelieve in a God, is that God heard the prayers and acted to heal. Why he didn't heal others remains a mystery.

The verdict

It seems to me that, while we should rightly judge that many healing stories have insufficient supporting evidence to justify belief (except to those who actually experienced or observed the healing), the accounts quoted above are sufficiently well supported to conclude that something unusual has occurred

Only two explanations appear reasonable - either they were spontaneous remissions which coincidentally occurred after prayer, or they are genuine healing miracles. Which explanation we choose will likely depend on our presuppositions. Strong atheists will likely opt for spontaneous remission, theists are free to adopt either option, and agnostics will likely choose to wait for more evidence. But it is important to note that sceptics have decided this matter, not so much based on the evidence, but more according to their presuppositions.

Basing our conclusions on both evidence and presuppositions is a rational process, which is formalised in Bayesian statistics (see note 1, below). But according to Bayesian statistics, this evidence for miracles must increase the probability of God's existence, even for a sceptic. I have done a probability estimation for healing miracles (see Miracles and probability: the adventures of a maths nerd which suggests that there are more than enough credible healing miracle reports to show that the probability that God is the cause is quite high.

note 1:

Bayesian probability is often used in risk assessment. It starts with an initial estimate of an occurrence, and then considers how new information changes that probability. An estimate is made of how likely the new information would be if the occurrence is true, and if the occurrence is false. For example, if one is estimating the probability that a murder suspect is guilty, and then some new evidence is received (say the results of a chemical analysis of soil on the suspect's shoe), then one can ask what is the probability of this result if the suspect is guilty and if the suspect is innocent, and the Bayesian equation allows calculation of a new probability.

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The following pages provide external references to apparent miracles.