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What would it take to convince you that a healing miracle had occurred?

July 6th, 2019

It’s not uncommon to come across stories of people being miraculously healed. They are some of the most popular pages on this site, and there’s no shortage of them on the internet.

I’m not sure why, but I’m guessing that some people want to feel re-assured God is really there, and some are perhaps looking for hope for their own healing. And then of course there are those who don’t believe healing can occur and want to debunk the stories.

So I wonder what evidence you would need to believe someone was miraculously healed?

Beyond belief?

For some people, this isn’t even a question.

Some people, most likely enthusiastic christians or those we might loosely classify as “new age”, seem willing to believe almost any positive story of healing. They don’t seem to worry about evidence, if it feels good then for them it is good.

On the other end of the spectrum are the sceptics who know miracles can’t possibly occur. For them, evidence is also unnecessary. A variation on this position is to set the bar so high – let’s see God miraculously re-grow an amputee’s limb – that they never have to consider the evidence.

But for the rest of us, the question of evidence and believability is important. How high will we set the bar? What evidence do we need to give credence?

Some obvious criteria

These criteria seem reasonable:

  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 was complete or very significant, and not what might be expected from any treatment being received.
  4. There was 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.

If a miracle report met all or most of those criteria, we could legitimately conclude that something very unusual had occurred, and the miracle claim merited consideration.

Miracle stories that satisfy these criteria

I search out miracle healing stories to find ones that seem reasonable. There are certainly many accounts where the evidence is not documented and their truth and accuracy uncertain. Some might be little more than urban myths.

But I have found around a dozen credible accounts, mostly meeting these criteria, that I have reported here, mostly under Healing stories.

Most recently, I found a story written up in a reputable, peer-reviewed medical journal (Complementary Therapies in Medicine, published by Elsevier), where a teenage boy who, since birth, had suffered from a serious abdominal condition that had defied medical intervention, was healed instantly after specific prayer for healing, and went home that night and ate a meal normally for the first time in his life.

I have written up his story in Remarkable healing reported in medical journal.

Here are some other credible accounts I have been able to find:

Does a remarkable recovery = a miracle = proof of God?

Sceptics will say, quite rightly, that even the most baffling healing doesn’t prove that God exists. We can’t directly observe God at work. There may always be a natural explanation, even if we don’t know what it may be.

The same is true, of course, with most science. There may always be new information that changes a hypothesis. Newton’s laws of motion worked and were considered to be correct until Einstein modified them with his understanding of relativity. But this doesn’t stop science moving forwards. Scientists often use probability to express their conclusions. For example, a conclusion may be expressed within 95% confidence limits, or shown to be more probable than any other conclusion currently available.

So can we make a probabilistic assessment of these apparent miracles?

I think we can, in descriptive terms though not numerically.

The logic behind Bayes Theorem

Bayes Theorem is an idea and an equation that is commonly used in science and statistics to calculate probabilities. Suppose we have two competing explanations or hypotheses and a new piece of information is found. We then ask whether this new fact is more likely if the first explanation is true, or more likely if the second is true. Bayes Theorem says the probability that the more likely hypothesis is true is increased by this new information. It isn’t proof, but it is a matter of probability.

(Bayes Theorem is expressed mathematically, and if we can estimate the probabilities numerically, we can calculate a new probability. There is no real way to estimate numerical values for the probability of miracles, but the logic still holds.)

Thus each apparent miracle, if it passes the test of the five criteria I’ve set out, adds to the probability that God exists, because it is more likely on the hypothesis that God exists than it is on the hypothesis that there is no God.

Of course there are many other factors we may want to consider in assessing the likelihood of God’s existence, including unanswered prayers for healing. But regardless of what other factors we wish to consider, it remains true (as I understand Bayes Theorem) that plausible miracles increase the probability that God exists.

Cumulative evidence

It is sometimes argued that we can never accept a miracle claim because there must always be a more probable explanation. David Hume famously said: “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish…”

However it is now fairly clear that Hume’s quote doesn’t consider cumulative evidence and Bayes Theorem. The probability that a given case of a remarkable recovery is indeed a miracle may be low, but if enough cases are found, the cumulative case must be much stronger, as can be shown via Bayes Theorem. (I have done an example calculation, using plausible probabilities, to show this. I don’t pretend the numbers are any more than guesses, but the outcome is illustrative.)

I reckon

I reckon this adds up to useful evidence for the existence of God. For the person who was healed, it may well be sufficient in itself to convert an unbeliever, as it did in several of the cases I’ve referenced above.

The rest of us may require more evidence than just these cases. Those who already believe in God will find their faith strengthened. Sceptics will likely want more evidence than this. But surely these apparent healings are enough to lead an honest sceptic to at least consider the evidence carefully.

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