This page in brief ….
Does God heal people today? The question is important for those suffering illness, as well as those looking for evidence of God in the world.
Two British “doctors” (one a medical specialist, the other with a PhD in social anthropology) investigated documented cases of apparent healings and reported on them in books and even in a paper in the British Medical Journal.
On this page I outline some of the cases, the evidence, and the conclusion we may reasonably draw. I also discuss some cases where it appears that God may have communicated his intention to heal through a “word of knowledge”.
“I want to be well”
So many people want to be well. They may be suffering physically from cancer, a debilitating injury, a mental illness or an inability to cope emotionally, but being well can become the focus of their lives.
So it is no wonder that many seek healing. From doctors, yes, but also from faith healers, natural healers or spiritual healers. Many seek healing through christian prayer from friends and family, their pastor, or from a healing meeting.
Do any of these prayers “work”? Or to express it more accurately, does God ever hear and act to comfort or to heal?
A social anthropologist and a specialist doctor separately investigated this question, and wrote books about their findings. The doctor even published in the British Medical Journal.
This is a brief summary of some of what they found.
“Did you get healed?”
Social anthropologist Dr David Lewis investigated the outcomes of a healing conference in England in 1986. He had almost 2,000 of the participants complete a detailed questionnaire. Six months later he followed this up with interviews with 100 of these, randomly selected, to test the outcomes. Where appropriate and possible, he sought responses from the doctors treating those who said they had been healed. The results were extensively analysed statistically and reported in his 1989 book Healing: Fiction, Fantasy or Fact? and in this blog post.
He found that about a third of the participants had received prayer for healing, and of these, 8% reported being completely healed, a further 24% reported being substantially healed, 26% reported “a fair amount” of healing, and 42% reported receiving little or no healing. Six months later, the percentage of the smaller sample who were healed was almost the same, indicating that the healings were not short term only.
The apparent healings included recoveries from the following conditions: endometriosis, a lump in the breast, recovery of hearing, severe bone malformation due to injury, hernia, prolapse of the womb, blood pressure and heart problems.
In the British Medical Journal
Consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr Rex Gardner, investigated seven apparent miraculous healings and published them in a paper in the British Medical Journal in 1983. He later published further reports in his 1986 book Healing Miracles: A Doctor Investigates.
In most cases, Gardner was able to question the doctors treating these people at the time of their miraculous recovery. He admits it is probably impossible to prove these recoveries were miraculous, but argues they are “almost inexplicable” and occurred after prayer for healing.
Fatal lung disorder in a child
In 1977 an eight month old boy in Newcastle upon Tyne in England developed measles. He didn’t recover, and over the next three months lost weight, lost energy and began to have difficulty breathing. At 11 months he was admitted to hospital and diagnosed definitely with advanced fibrosing alveolitis.
This condition is a “progressive thickening of the walls of the air sacs of the lungs, resulting in shortness of breath” which most commonly affects men over 60. According to Professor Webb who treated the boy: “The prognosis for fibrosing alveolitis starting in the first year of life is almost uniformly fatal”.
The boy was treated with the best medications available at the time, with no improvement, so the parents were told “the prognosis was hopeless”, and he was sent home and given a “maintenance” steroid. Medically, there was no further treatment and no hope of recovery.
The boy’s general practitioner recommended to the parents that they take their son to a healing service at a local church. From that point onwards, his condition began to improve. He began to gain weight, his breathing became easier, and by the time he was five his weight and health were perfectly normal.
Reg Gardner reports that the diagnosis is “not in doubt” and his recovery was locally talked about as being miraculous. If this was not “the work of God” it was a case of “inexplicable spontaneous remission” after prayer.
Meningitis, blood poisoning and internal bleeding
In 1975 a young trainee doctor became suddenly ill and was admitted to a hospital in north Wales. She was unconscious, suffering from meningococcal septicaemia (blood poisoning) with meningitis, and diagnosed with Waterhouse–Friderichsen syndrome. These conditions are all potentially fatal, and can kill within hours if not treated properly and quickly. No similar case in that hospital had ever survived.
That evening, groups in four nearby Welsh towns began praying for her and came to believe that she would be “healed with no residual disability”. At about the same time, her condition began to spontaneously improve.
Doctors were unable to explain the improvements. Chest X-rays which showed a collapsed lung with pneumonia showed a normally clear chest 48 hours later. An ophthalmologist photographed a haemorrhage in one eye and advised that this would result in permanent blindness, and was later shocked to find her sight completely recovered. His response was: “Do you realise you are unique?”
Later, some medical experts claimed there must have been a faulty diagnosis, but the medical records suggest otherwise, and the four doctors who saw her when she was admitted are confident their diagnosis was correct.
Severe hearing loss
Nine year old “Rebecca” suffered severe hearing loss, confirmed by audiograms (subjective measures of ability to hear sounds of different volumes and frequencies) and tympanograms (objective measures of middle ear functioning). Her consultant confirmed “she was nerve deaf in both ears and that there was no cure, no operation, nothing he could do.” But friends and family began to pray for healing.
In 1983 she attended an audiologist to receive a new hearing aid. That evening, she told her parents she could hear, which they confirmed by whispering to her. They rang the specialist and he requested further tests. The audiogram and typanogram results showed normal hearing, just 48 hours after the audiologist knew she was deaf. Neither the audiologist nor the consultant could offer any medical explanation for the healing.
Healing of an incurable knee condition
In 1983 a women was involved in a serious car accident in which she sustained a number of injuries including to her right knee. She was treated for several years, but physiotherapy was unable to bring relief from the pain. In 1986 she was diagnosed with Hoffa’s Disease, in which a fat “pad” grows in the knee in response to an injury. The condition isn’t life threatening, but can cause significant pain, inflammation, loss of mobility and damage to the joint.
This condition can sometimes be treated with steroid injection, but at the time the first option was physiotherapy, which hadn’t worked. Once the condition became established, it was at that time “virtually incapable of cure” except by surgery.
This women received prayer at the 1986 healing conference and experienced almost complete healing – afterwards she occasionally had pain in her knee if she knocked it, but otherwise could move freely and painlessly. David Lewis contacted the specialist treating her, and he understood she had been healed, but he hadn’t examined her since the apparent healing.
Cancer in a baby
In 1987, a lump suddenly appeared on the left forearm of a two week old baby, and was still growing when the baby, now two months old, was referred to a paediatric surgeon. Exploratory surgery showed a large lesion (an infantile fibrosarcoma) was growing around the nerves and arteries, making surgical removal impossible. Chemotherapy was difficult for such a young child and the only medical option was probably amputation. The doctor decided to wait to see if the tumour might spontaneously regress.
Around this time, a young christian ‘accidentally’ visited the family at home and when told of the situation by the child’s mother, began to pray for healing. The doctor’s notes have been made available and can be correlated with the prayer.
The tumour stopped growing, and then shrank a little in the first few weeks of the prayer, but was still causing concern for the wellbeing of the baby, who was now six and a half months old. Then on one day, the woman praying for the baby felt the need to pray urgently, and did so right through that day and into the evening. The doctor’s notes show that over a few days which included this day, the tumour shrank remarkably and disappeared completely.
This case is interesting because it is uncertain how likely this regression would be naturally. The treating doctor felt there were other examples of regression of these type of tumours, but a medical expert consulted by David Lewis felt this was optimistic, and that if the exact type of tumour is considered, spontaneous regression is unlikely, a conclusion borne out by a study of 48 cases where 8 had died, all had been treated by amputation or excision surgery, and none had spontaneously regressed. In any case, such a rapid regression is highly unusual.
Many people at the conference reported receiving “inner healing” – healing of emotions and harmful states of mind. David Lewis gives some significant examples in his book, but since these are much harder to verify, I haven’t discussed them here.
Does God speak?
It is not uncommon for people to believe God has spoken to them, but it is generally impossible to verify or falsify this. But David Lewis followed up a number of cases from the healing conference where people were given “words of knowledge” – information apparently given by God to someone that identifies another person with a particular ailment that God wishes to heal. The purpose of such “words” is apparently to give the recipient faith to believe that a healing is possible and should be sought.
These words of knowledge can easily be abused by unscrupulous televangelists, who can arrange for stooges to be apparently healed, or can give such generalised information that it could apply to half the people in the room. But Lewis’ more thorough investigation provides some more useful (and testable!) information.
About 500 people believed they had been given a word from God at the conference, and the vast majority of these were not very specific. But a small number were very detailed, sufficient to assess statistically the probability of getting them right by chance.
In one such case, the conference leader, John Wimber, publicly announced a very detailed word about someone seeking healing – he gave her first name, the age when an accident occurred, the location (lower back, sacro-iliac) and nature of the problem (nerves, pain radiating down legs). A woman for whom all this was true was indeed at the conference (in an overflow room away from the main auditorium), she asked for prayer and reported receiving healing.
Lewis has estimated the probability of each of these details if they were given by chance, leading to a probability of one in three million for the whole “word”. Since there were about 2400 people at the conference, the probability of someone meeting this description by chance can be estimated as less that one in a thousand, which is highly significant.
Several other “words” were given with impressive details.
What can we learn?
We can say that some remarkable recoveries occurred after prayer, recoveries which cannot always be explained medically. And some people received apparently miraculous assurances, via “word of knowledge”, that God wished to heal them.
We can also conclude that such apparently miraculous events are not common – only about a third of people seeking healing received what they were asking for, though many experienced some improvement in their condition. Healing is not a mechanical matter of asking and automatically receiving.
Explaining these events is contentious. It is possible to insist that they are all spontaneous remissions, but their occurrence after prayer for healing must give support to belief that they are often or mostly genuine healings. The probability that so many healings occurring after prayer were simply a matter of chance seems extraordinarily low.
Those seeking evidence for God can reasonably see these healings and “words of knowledge”, and many others documented in the links below, as evidence that is far more likely if God exists than if he doesn’t.
And those seeking healing should feel encouraged to keep on praying. Not everyone will receive the healing they ask for, and I have no idea why that is, but enough receive what they ask for that it should encourage us to keep on praying. It may well be that if we ask, we will receive. The evidence suggests that God cares enough to heal, even if he has reasons not to do this every time.
It remains a mystery, but we can all learn something nevertheless.
Photo Credit: NealeA Flickr via Compfight cc