‘Is God bothered by human death and dying?’

 

The ‘Bigger Picture’

Perhaps the thing that bothers people most about suffering today is the sense of waste or futility when loved ones die as a result of illness, evil actions or natural events. Central to the concern is a sense that the life of the deceased individual has somehow been cut short or left unfulfilled – and even for those who have lived a long life. But this is largely a secular perspective on life because the assumption is that the time we have on earth is the only time we have got. A position that runs contrary to spiritual perspectives that Christians (and others) posit in which:

Life => death => afterlife

Imagine a caterpillar on a branch being watched by someone – let’s call the person Jim. As Jim watches, the caterpillar slows to a stop. A few days later, he returns to the place where the caterpillar was last seen and sees that all that remains of it is a lifeless, indistinguishable object on a branch. Around the body a hard layer of shell has formed, disfiguring the caterpillar’s shape. Outraged at this outcome for the poor defenceless creature – okay I’m going a bit over the top here  – the person speaks out angrily at the unfairness of life and the cruelty of a God who would create an insect whose life was so limited, only to bring it to  an ignominious end. Jim’s rant complete, he enters the house and thinks no more of it until….

… a few days later, as he walks along the path close to the tree and notices that a chrysalis shell has formed around the lifeless body of the caterpillar. Moreover, there is a hole in the shell. As Jim watches he sees the shell being discarded by a beautiful butterfly which eventually spreads its wings and flies away. It’s metamorphosis now complete.

Reflecting on events, Jim sees that the caterpillar has been liberated in a way that could not have initially been imagined. Now, he is forced to rethink how that which was once considered tragedy, is  instead a transitory stage to a different life altogether.

Why do I tell that story?

Well…the Christian belief that death is a stage or transition point by which people transfer from this world into the next, challenges the ideas that some people have concerning the necessity for longevity of physical life. Indeed, it could be argued that this future life (the other side of death) brings release for people who are experiencing pain and suffering in this world right now, then death is not necessarily the bad thing that people might suppose it to be. Moreover, it comes to be seen as a staging post through which people pass into a different type of existence. A transition that carries a degree of fear because death is the great unknown but not necessarily the end of life per se.

Could it possibly be that God’s larger plan does not consider death in the same way that humans see it? Might it rather be a staging or transit point from the physical world into the spiritual realm? If so, then death is no longer a tragedy but a positive and one that provides hope and comfort to people in their times of suffering and grief.

 

Why does God allow illness?

Research over the years has helped researchers to understand diseases and find cures. One example is leprosy which, if left untreated, affects the person’s nervous system, causing damage to skin, limbs and eyes. Although, leprosy was recorded in biblical times, it was not until the last century that it was found that bacteria was responsible for this condition. Before this, many people considered it incurable and managed leprosy by keeping the infected individual separate from everyone else. However, Norwegian physician Gerhard Hansen’s discovery that it was caused by a particular bacterium (Mycobacterium leprae) has since advanced so that today we use multidrug treatments to cure individuals with leprosy.

Here it is important we consider a different issue about the nature of these constructs within our world. We encountered this in a previous post considering the advantages and disadvantages of gravity. Just as the benefits of gravity far outweigh the disadvantagesso too our understanding of bacteria. Given that humans are dependent on bacteria which affects human health (in quite positive and negative ways) we might question:

‘would humans truly want to live in a world devoid of bacteria?’

Indeed, we might also ask if:

‘bacteria is not part of the way that God has designed this world to operate?

Recent research suggests the survival of each species is dependent on genetic anomalies that enable them to adapt to new or changing environments. So, in a barren area, the giraffe with a longer neck that can reach the highest foliage hanging from a tree is more likely to survive than the giraffe with a shorter neck. If our tall healthy giraffe then mates with another tall-necked giraffe, the offspring will carry the parents’ enhanced DNA, increasingly the likelihood of producing tall offspring who will be able to survive in future droughts.

The observation that species develop at the expense of others has led some to speculate that a specific ‘selfish’ gene exists within the DNA of every surviving species. A gene that selfishly seeks its own genetic construct be advanced at expense of everything else. From this, it is easy to see the problem facing the Divine. If God creates a world that is too tight in its structure, human life might not emerge. However, if God creates the earth in a less deterministic way there is a risk that it will facilitate a variety of other things in the food chain that will also grow and develop. Things that  may cause disease, illness and death – a world in which humans may flourish along with giraffes, bacteria and other viruses – but at a price.

So in summary, if God makes the world too precisely, there is a risk that life might not emerge. However, if the Divine loosens up control of the world, then there is a different risk that other things will emerge that may develop and survive at expense to human life and existence.

 

 

‘Can all illnesses be attributed to humans ‘meddling’ with their environment?’

Many diseases and illnesses occurr in history at times when there was no obvious link to human activity or interference. Here, my intention is to provide some instances by which we might reason that illness might be a necessary part of the world we inhabit though I also appreciate some may disagree with the argument that follows – and that’s okay.

Over time, there are clearly strains of virus that repeat and modify themselves. One example is influenza – a viral infection that has the capacity to adapt and develop into more virulent strains. Although the recurrence of these viruses can be quite frequent, they may also occur in more haphazard ways, by which they develop into and/or become pandemics.

This is a major concern for governments around the world who are currently aware of the risk carried by bird flu which has accounted for millions of deaths over the years. A characteristic of the virus is the way it develops in other creatures first and only passes on to humans at a much later stage that may have skipped several generations. From this, it is apparent that humans cannot be held responsible for the way the virus develops other than that they are unwitting recipients and hosts, carrying it from one person to the next. This aspect of how infections are passed between people leads us onto our next aspect – the human immune system.

While it is apparent that the immune system of a human is generally robust in dealing with infections, it is clear that there have been periods in the human lifecycle when the body has been less able to manage these events. Two such times are: infancy when the body is learning to fight infection; and old age when the body is not so strong. Another time when the human defence might fail is when a new virus is encountered which the immune system has not had experience of before.

A classic example of this occurred in New Zealand in the late 18th century with the arrival of colonists from Great Britain, who unwittingly introduced the indigenous Maori population to a range of infectious illnesses. These viruses, such as chicken pox, measles and the common cold, had never been encountered by the Maoris before and many were unable to fight off these infections with the result that a sizeable proportion of this indigenous population died within a decade.

Nowadays, humans have developed antibiotics to assist the immune system ito fight infection. However, although penicillin and other antibiotics have saved many lives, present day medicine advises against the repeated use of these drugs for fear they will inadvertently weaken the immune system’s defences. The problem being that the virus – also a living thing – desires to survive and so adapts to these new antibiotics creating even more complex infections that may one day go beyond the capacity of the human immune system to adapt. Of course, a different problem that arises from this is the failure of humanity to keep pace with these viruses, which continually require new antibiotics to be developed and manufactured.

From this, I think it is unfair to attribute all illnesses to human meddling as clearly some viruses originate within the animal kingdom. However, perhaps more interesting is the innate resourcefulness of our immune system that fights, protects against and adapts on our behalf to ensure that humans survive. Perhaps a case of in-built human resilience in a world that is good for sustaining life but never harm-free.

 

 

‘Why is our world full of carcogens, chemicals, diseases etc?’

Four Questions

  1. Is disease and death simply the consequence of human activity in the world that has brought us into contact with substances we might have otherwise avoided?
  2. Could it be the bi-product of a world in which human existence is facilitated by a gas-filled environment comprising oxygen and hydrogen, also contains other elements and substances that are detrimental to life and health?
  3. Should blame rest on human disobedience in the Garen of Eden? Did carceogens arrive as the idyll was lost when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree and their eyes were opened to a world of toil and alienation in which weeds grow and death enters the world?
  4. Or is it something else all together?

Now, read on…

Clearly there is a sense in which human decisions do affect health in very direct ways in the divide between rich and poor and the consequences of economic disparity. Likewise, the lifestyle choices people make where the risk of illness is increased through consumables such as alcohol, cigarettes, sugary or fatty foods,etc. Often, the danger is not known beforehand and people persist because it is addictive and/or enjoyable. These lifestyle decisions are particular to each person and the way they exercise freewill by living healthy or unhealthy lives either through choice or no choice at all.

Of course, this sort of decision making can affect us in less obvious ways – such as when the consequence of what we have done is not immediately apparent to us. A good example of this is passive smoking, where the inhalation of a person’s second-hand smoke has only been recognised as dangerous in the last few decades. The danger being uncovered after millions of people had been exposed to it for many years. Although the danger of passive smoking is now recognised, risks associated with other products and activities are not. Here, I am thinking of products that people have used for a number of years but which are only later recognised as detrimental to health because they contain substances we now recognise as cancerous or harmful. And just as many other things we will discover are harmful tomorrow.

One example of this from history is that of asbestos which dates back to 4,000 BC. Initially, this was added into wicks by people to increase the length of time their lamps and candles were able to burn. Later, in Ancient Egypt, the material was woven into fabric to make cloth that was used to prepare pharaohs for burial with Benjamin Franklin bringing a purse made from asbestos to England as late as the 19th century. Indeed,  asbestos continued to be manufactured and used in the building industry in the UK for much of the last century. That said, it is only in the last few decades that scientists have come to realise the how dust particles from asbestos result in many people developing lung and respiratory problems as they unwittingly absorb it into their bodies.

So, returning to the question, ‘Why are there so many things in the world harmful to humans?’ a better question we might ask is:

‘why is it that so many things that humans use and consume have the potential of being dangerous to our wellbeing?’

For me, this is the far more interesting question as it majors on the environments we inhabit and their suitability for human longevity and existence which brings us back to our….

Four Questions

  1. Is disease and death simply the consequence of human activity in the world that has brought us into contact with substances we might have otherwise avoided?
  2. Could it be that the bi-product of a world in which human existence is facilitated by a gas-filled environment comprising oxygen and hydrogen, also contains other elements and substances that are detrimental to life and health?
  3. Should blame rest on human disobedience in the Garden of Eden? Did carceogens arrive as the idyll was lost when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree and their eyes were opened to a world of toil and alienation in which weeds grow and death enters the world?
  4. Or is it something else all together?

 

 

 

 

‘If God created the world perfect, why is there so much disease within it?’

 

It is necessary to start by saying this question is not without theological explanation. Many orthodox believers consider disease and illness to have come about as a result of human rebellion from God (aka The Fall). This is the idea that when humans rejected God, they collectively became prone to moral evil – that is they began to mistreat and kill one another. But more than that: the world which was under their stewardship was also affected with the result that their idyl was lost as weeds made work toilsome and disease and illnesses ran riot across the earth until such time that humanity could be restored with God.

Now, the difficulty with this orthodox explanation is that the rational person finds the idea unsatisfactory in terms of the action of a loving God. Indeed, some might reason that if God knew how humans would fail and allow illness and death to enter the world, He should also be held culpable. After all, if God gave humans the task of stewardship, He must have known the irreparable damage that would happen to the environment should they fail in this endeavour.  Author Harold Kushner observes the incidents recorded in Genesis 2 &3 with these words:

‘I can’t remember how old I was when I heard (the story) for the first time, but I can remember that, when I was still young, I found some aspects of it hard to understand or accept…Isn’t this a harsh punishment for one small mistake – pain and death. Banishment from Paradise, for breaking one rule. Is God really that strict? Why did God create a tree that He didn’t want anyone to eat from? 

Was God setting up Adam and Eve so that he could punish them? Was the woman ever told of the prohibition, either by God or by Adam? Why is the story told in such a way as to make it seem that it was all the woman’s fault? What is the significance of the first humans being unashamed of their nakedness before they ate the forbidden fruit, and feeling shame immediately afterward?

And perhaps most troubling of all, if the forbidden tree was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, does that imply that Adam and his mate had no knowledge of good and evil before they ate of it? If so, how could they have been expected to know that it was wrong to disobey God? And why were they punished if they had no sense of good and evil before they ate of it?’ (‘How Good Do We Have to Be?’ Harold S Kushner).

Today, the more rational among us would think it nonsense to believe the equilibrium of the physical, spiritual and moral world of humans might be affected through the consumption of an apple. That said, it is clear that our growing understanding of human activity in the world has and is resulting in changes to the environment in ways that are detrimental to health and wellbeing of ourselves and the creatures within it. However, this type of change is a long way removed from orthodox thinking of how the world is affected by a spiritual reality where illness and death have been introduced into it. True, human decisions do have outcomes for people in the world, like when rich nations prosper at the expense of the poor, but this is a different question altogether…

 

 

‘How should we understand miracles in the 21st Century?’

As we come to the end of series I’d like to say something about how I believe that miracles have been incorrectly elevated in the 21stC over other types of healing that occur through medicine, physiotherapy, etc every day of the week. Today, life for many in the developed world is often characterised by excess – one in which people constantly seek the next ‘new thing’. Often the ‘new’ thing that is sought is bigger, brighter and bolder than that which went before it. Sadly, churches can and do become complicit with this sort of consumerism in which miraculous healings take preference over less overt experiences of God’s power with the result that beleivers can be seduced into a belief that some healings are better they others – feeding the modern-day titillation for a ‘supernatural’ experience over everything else.

It is also worth noting that many believers consider miracles to be ‘on tap’ as they have been taught that all they have to do is ‘name it and claim it’ – perhaps a healing for Aunt Dora’s bowel cancer? Yet , rather than being ‘standard’ and ‘commonplace, experience tell us that miracles are actually a rare occurrence. So much so that this process of healing is better considered as…

…the exception and not the rule.

In summary, miraculous healing is not the experience of most believers – in fact very few. True, some believers will have valid testimonies about how God healed them or revealed Himself by some other means. But here, we might question

why do some church leaders fail to encourage their congregations to praise God and give testimony about how they have been healed using antibiotics or physiotherapy or counselling or a pacemaker or whatever with the same degree of enthusiasm that they would if it had been a miracle?

Antibiotics, physio, counselling, pacemaker (et al) are all valid testimonies of God’s activity in the world though there is a tendency that some will always consider these inferior to the miraculous event they beleive should be happening all around the world – but more particularly, in their church.

 

Which is better – miracles or ultimate healing?

A few years ago I wrote a sermon about two miracles. In the first, Peter heals a paralysed and bed-ridden man named Aenas, then Tabitha who’d just died (Acts 9:32-43). The title was ‘Healing and Hope’ and on the day, having provided an outline of the way Peter healed the two people through different methods, I turned my attention to the issue of hope. Beginning with the observation that healing and hope are not the same thing and explaining that when healing occurs, expectation is realised.

Consider the following: imagine a man is ill in hospital. The medical staff attend him. Others pray for him and he makes a remarkable recovery. Great as this is,  hope goes beyond this because physical healing is secondary to the ultimate plan of God which is to restore humanity and Creation back into relationship with himself through faith in the power and presence of God as made manifest in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We hear something of this in Jesus’ words when he encourages the disciples to believe in him but if they cannot manage this – in other words, if all else fails…

‘… believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves’ (John 14:11 )

In other words, Jesus offers them a concession. The miracles of healing that the disciples had witnessed were nothing more than a bi-product of the larger thing God was doing which ultimately involves the healing of humanity. Too often we tend to get hung up on the need for physical healing when Christ’s resurrection heralds the full healing that God intends for the world – a healing that involves spiritual restoration in all manner of ways, with God and others.

Often, when people ask me my age, I tell them I am 18 but seem to be trapped in the body of a 58-year-old. As I have aged I have increasingly come to realise the physical limitations of my body and the scripture that informs us how the ‘body is born perishable.’ From the moment we’re born, our bodies are dying.

Imagine another scenario – suppose a believer lives to the ripe old age of 100. Reaching this milestone they have a dodgy ankle, a bad back, weak lungs, an ailing heart and a whole load of other medical complaints. Is their desire at this age for God to sort their ankle? Hardly – their desire is for God to draw them home by taking the perishable body and renewing it so that it is imperishable. An eternal body in which all the parts work in whatever way is necessary for life in heaven. A place where sins are forgiven and there is no more suffering or hardship – this is the real hope of the believer!

Is it realistic to expect miracles today?

At the start of this series I outlined how some churches – usually charismatic evangelical – have transitioned to an ‘over-realised eschatology’ where they advocate a return to the spiritual basics of the first century in which the disciples, guided by Jesus, performed many incredible healings. Miracles that were facilitated by God as the disciples acted upon divine authority with the only limitation being on God’s power and a willingness to go and act on Christ’s behalf.

This attempt to ‘recapture’ the early mission context has resulted in many churches finding renewed vigour for healing. However, the theology behind the ‘everyone gets healed’ model is questionable in many regards, not least because of the way it juxtaposes twenty-first century problems with the need for first-century miracles.

A central feature of the ‘everyone gets healed’ doctrine is the idea that a believer need only ‘name and claim’ the healing required from God. Not surprisingly, this theology is more frequently associated with ‘prosperity gospel’ teaching that asserts the frequency of miracles is directly proportional to the level of faith in the praying believer – the assumption being God is ready to  heal but often unable to do so because followers are reluctant or unprepared to respond. A way of thinking that is completely at odds with patterns of miracles seen in the Bible of which philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig observes:

‘There’s no reason to expect [miracles] to be as frequent or as evident as they were with Jesus. Miracles tend to cluster around great moments in salvation history, like the Exodus or the ministry of Jesus.’

Craig’s observation that miracles cluster at certain points of history is useful because it suggests these are not commonplace events that have become absent through lack of faith or disobedience. More importantly, they signpost a specific time in human history where the Kingdom of God broke into the world for all to see and remember. As such, there’s little reason to presume these healings will occur with the same frequency in the present age as adherents of the ‘everyone gets healed’ approach would have us believe. It also suggests miracles are not controlled by the caprice of those who do or do not pray, but by the will of God and His advancing kingdom.

‘How does one safeguard against false claims of miracles?’ (part 2) 

In my last post I detailed how at a conference I was attending, the speaker left the venue believing that God had healed 200+ delegates who had experienced hearing loss prior to the meeting.

Now – before I realised the speaker’s intention to ‘tally’ up the numbers of those healed – I was pleased that so many delegates had been healed. However, as the totals were called out, I found myself troubled by the speaker’s lack of judgement in presuming everyone who had raised a hand had actually been healed. There was no way he could know this and no medical professionals  present to validate these positive outcomes.

Instead, my sense was of an incredible weight of expectation on the delegates to provide a positive verdict to those who had prayed for them. After all, they had prayed in faith and it would be a brave delegate who would disappoint so many by telling them the healing had not occurred. I also reasoned the speaker’s ministry might be sorely embarrassed if no hands went up – an outcome he might be less than keen for his team to collate, let alone take with him and share at the next conference.

A few weeks after the conference, a different issue began to bother me as I wondered how feasible it was for delegates to provide a reliable self-assessment that they had been healed without access to medical resources. I also wondered how many still considered themselves healed three weeks after the emotional rush of conference was over. Speaking with many believers over the years, some consider God to be bringing about a kind of partial healing to their physical disability, even when there is little or no medical evidence to support such a claim other than the ability to endure.  I am also aware of how a fair number of believers may raise a hand at the speaker’s request for no other reason than to not do so is to be construed as lacking faith.

I left the conference sad and disappointed. Not because healing had not occurred – I am quite certain it did for a small number of delegates. My sadness came about because of the reluctance of some to bring their work into the light and test the number of healings against the hard evidence of medical assessment. My own opinion is that when people with a hearing impairment believe they have been healed by God, then the church has a responsibility to have these verified by medical professionals. When leaders avoid doing this – perhaps because they think it will disrupt the ebb and flow of the conference – it is as if we cocoon ourselves in an environment in which we can say and believe whatever we like without fear that we will be challenged.

People are healed by God – but probably not as many as we would like to think. Yet, when leaders and speakers are encouraged to continue in their own self-deception we become like the characters in the children’s story who allow the Emperor to believe he is wearing a special cloak, when in reality he is wearing nothing at all. The bottom line is believers need to act responsibly and be willing to challenge the claims of healings borne out of emotional response and untested against hard evidence. Until this sort of challenge occurs, people inside and outside the church will consider our reports of healings as little more than the ludicrous ramblings of those without integrity – a position neither honouring to God nor the commission he has placed upon those who are his followers.

How does one safeguard against false claims of miracles? (part 1)

A few years ago I was a delegate at a conference where the charismatic speaker – who subscribed to the belief that ‘everyone gets healed’ – asserted God’s miraculous power to heal was constantly evident and available in the present day. Although sceptical, I decided to make the most of the opportunity. Arriving at the conference there was a great sense of expectation from the 2,000+ leaders gathered there. Aside from a few theological objections voiced by some delegates in the first session, the conference went well and I felt buoyed by the end of the first day.

The next day, the speaker decided to give a practical opportunity for delegates to pray for any who person there who had a hearing problem. Informed that at the last conference, the speaker and his team had witnessed hundreds of people healed from their physical disabilities, expectation was great. And so after guidance as to how to pray – namely an instruction to periodically stop and test the person’s hearing by speaking to them at a range of distances to ascertain if they had been healed or not – the speaker encouraged us to gather in groups around people who had raised a hand to indicate that they were in need of prayer.

Around the conference centre, people began praying in earnest. I was part of a group praying for a middle-aged leader. As the session drew to its close, it was clear no immediate miracle was likely to occur for the person we had prayed for. Drawing the activity to a close, the speaker asked delegates to raise a hand if their hearing had been physically restored during the session. To my amazement, hundreds of hands went up in the air to indicate a healing had taken place. At once, a team was dispatched, who ran around the conference centre, counting the raised hands and shouting back numbers to the stage area.

As the total number of people that were reported as healed was read out to the crowd, the conference delegates exploded in rapturous applause. People were shouting and cheering. Caught up in the moment, I also applauded though several things were now troubling me. Not least my cynical observation of how fortuitous it was for the speaker who could leave for his next conference with another impressive number of healings to feed to a different set of eager delegates – leaders who’d be as equally amazed (in the same way we had been) to hear how hundreds of people had been healed at the previous event. I was also bothered by another issue as I was unconvinced of how many healings had occurred in those ten minutes before coffee but more of that in the next post where I will suggest an alternative explanation for what really happened that day and some safeguards we would do well to have in place.