I came across another story of an apparently miraculous healing the other day. But can I believe it really happened and it was really a miracle?
How can we avoid both naive gullibility and closed-minded scepticism? Does it really matter?
The Suffolk News-Herald reported last week that Scott Toney, a fitness instructor, was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, a low grade cancer of the lymph system, almost a year ago. The doctors advised him it had progressed past the point of being curable, but could be delayed by chemotherapy, and gave him between 5 and 12 years to live.
After visiting several cancer treatment centres, Toney decided to postpone chemotherapy and try alternative treatments – organic foods and prayer – and he attended two healing services where people laid hands on him and prayed for healing.
When he finally went in to begin the chemotherapy, the doctors took some more scans and were surprised to find that the cancer had gone, for no apparent medical reason. Toney attributes his healing to prayer:
I attribute it to prayer. I feel there was something divine happening there. When I walked out of the hospital, I said, ‘I think I have been healed by God.’
Assessing the evidence
I have been looking recently at how we might best test whether apparent healing miracles are genuine (see How should we assess healing miracles?), and believe the following criteria need to be satisfied:
- The account 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.
- The disease had little possibility of natural recovery.
- The recovery must have been complete, or at least very significant, and not what might be expected from any treatment being received.
- There must be good independent medical opinion (backed up by documentation) that the disease was present before the prayer and not present afterwards.
Applying these criteria to this story
- The newspaper supplies names and places, but newspapers are not always reliable sources, and I have not been able to find another source. There seems to be little reason why the story would be made up. I suppose it does give his fitness business some free publicity, but it is hard to see how inventing such a story would be worth the trouble.
- It seems that follicular lymphoma can naturally go into remission, although the surprised reaction of the doctors seems to indicate it wasn’t what they expected in this case.
- The recovery appears to be complete, but it is too soon to say whether it is permanent.
- There is good independent medical opinion, with documentation, that the disease was present before the prayer and not present afterwards, but we do not have access to this information.
It becomes clear that this story falls somewhere in the middle. There is reasonable evidence that something unusual happened, but it isn’t clear if it was unusual enough to demonstrate it was a miracle. We don’t have a clear medical statement backed by documentation, though we have some indication of medical opinion.
If I was Toney, I would be thanking God for my healing. Perhaps it wasn’t God, but perhaps it was, and it is always better to be thankful than not. If I was an unbeliever, I would argue that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to claim a miracle, though I think I would agree that it was a little unusual.
Me? I wouldn’t claim it as a miracle, but I’m inclined to think God had a hand in it. Time will tell. I certainly wish Scott well, and hope his healing continues. And the longer it does, the closer this healing will come to meeting the criteria.
Read more about healing miracles
You can read about other healing miracles which appear to more clearly meet the criteria and offer good evidence that divine healing has occurred:
- Healing miracles and God – a summary.
- Heart starting action – a miracle in the emergency ward.
- Ten healing miracles – a medical researcher investigates divine healing.
- Healings at Lourdes – accounts from the famous French healing village.
One thing I find difficult about accepting such accounts is that it also means God decided not to heal other people. Now I can think of a good reason not to heal everybody or even not to heal in most cases because to do otherwise threatens the autonomy of the natural order, but accepting even a teeny sample still poses a hellishly difficult question to us: why in this case instead of this other case?
I don’t think I’ve ever really worried about that. We can only avoid the “problem” if we think God set up the world and then never interfered again. But surely we have to say he at least interfered when he sent Jesus and resurrected him? And if we think the statements about answering prayer in the NT are all wrong? So if he interferes at all, then we have a “problem”, and one more healing doesn’t change that.
I think I just trust God to know best on this one.
Actually, I think it does make a difference if God only healed during Jesus’ ministry and resurrection or also before and after for the argument, since without it the reasonableness of belief and commitment to Jesus would have been diminished.
But probably your final point’s best.
I think it is very helpful if we can distinguish between issues that are genuine problems, and ones which are just something we can’t understand, and can’t really expect to.
Interesting that believers will jump up and down claiming divine intervention for such a recovery yet there are millions of prayers offered up to your – and several others – deity every minute of the day.
I wonder what the percentage of ‘hits’ are achieved by prayer?(sic)
And yet you state that this form of dis -ease will go into remission naturally but because the doctors express surprise, claim the recovery is miraculous?
Shakes head and smiles.
In statistics, you have to use the statistic appropriate to the question being asked. So if we wanted to know how many prayers are answered, the statistics on answers and no answers would be the relevant ones. But that isn’t the question we are trying to answer.
We are asking if there is any evidence for God healing people. For that, we don’t need to know the percentage of times he heals, but whether he ever heals. For that we need either:
1. Statistics on whether there are more unusual healings when people pray than when they don’t. Unfortunately, we don’t have this information, so we need to try #2.
2. Case studies of apparent healings, well enough documented that we can be sure something unusual has happened. If we get enough of these, we may be able to say that the occurrence of highly unusual healings after prayer is more than coincidence could allow. That is what I have tried to research and provide. Each of us can then decide what conclusions we draw.
In the present post, I report on a claimed healing that I didn’t think was strong evidence for God’s healing, though it was perhaps a small piece of evidence.
“Me? I wouldn’t claim it as a miracle, but I’m inclined to think God had a hand in it.”
So if it wasn’t a miracle how could God have had a hand in it?
How then, do you understand the term miracle or/and evidence of intervention by your god?
Sorry, forgot to add, yes I have read the miracle link you provide.
It would be very interesting to find out whether any other religions can provide stories of similar recovery from illness/dis-ease.
If there were no known accounts it might certainly add credence to your belief in Divine Intervention, (from your god) would it not?
“So if it wasn’t a miracle how could God have had a hand in it?”
It is possible for an event to have multiple causes. I can be partly responsible for my child’s good or bad behaviour, but other factors will be involved as well. Likewise God can be partially responsible, e.g. he could do something to assist a healing without there being an obvious miracle.
“How then, do you understand the term miracle or/and evidence of intervention by your god?”
A miracle can be defined in many way, and I am assuming it includes something like an intervention by a supernatural agency to change the outcome from what would have occurred by natural processes. If someone prays and a remarkable healing occurs, it might be natural, but it may not. If it happens enough, the probability of its being supernatural increases.
“It would be very interesting to find out whether any other religions can provide stories of similar recovery from illness/dis-ease.”
They do claim miracles. Whether similar or not, and as common or not, I do not know.
“If there were no known accounts it might certainly add credence to your belief in Divine Intervention, (from your god) would it not?”
I don’t think it makes any difference one way or another. Each case can be discussed on its merits.
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