‘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.

Have miracles been made redundant by medicine?

In the First Century, people did not know that bacteria existed and how it affected human health in good ways and bad. So, they had no idea that Mycobacterium leprae was responsible for the condition of leprosy – a fact discovered by 20th C physician Gerhard Hansen who pioneered the work of multidrug treatments in his search for a cure. Which (for me) begs the question:

Did Jesus heal lepers in 1st C Jerusalem because there was no other way they could be cured?

With no hospitals and no multidrug therapies to fight the infection, is it possible that this is why God acted then to heal people but maybe not now? Given that the only way a leper could be healed during this period was for God to remove the bacteria and reverse the degenerative processes that had taken place – it would seem that any viable healing reported would constitute a miraculous intervention.

But why then and not now?

Well, often when Jesus healed people he did so because no other solution was available to them. This was certainly the case when he encountered the woman with the issue of bleeding (Mark 5:21-33) and also Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:36-42), both of whom were healed through the miraculous intervention of God. But if we were to transpose these two incidents into a 21st century context, I am confident that modern medicine would have been able to help the woman and possibly the girl should both conditions be diagnosed and treated much earlier through proactive medical assessment and intervention.

This might also explain for the rare occasions (today) in which miraculous healings are reported in remote parts of the world – for example, accounts from Africa of the dead being returned to life, the blind receiving sight and the lame restored. These miracles often occurring where people live in remote locations that are miles from the nearest hospital or medical centre. That said, many other people live in remote locations and have never experienced such miracles. Moreover, research into the plight of people in the developing world consistently reveals that many continue to live with their physical disability or die as a result of sickness and/or injury without intervention from the Divine being recorded.

Miracles in the future?

My own personal belief is that the greatest hindrance to healings occurring in the developing world rests with the unwillingness of believers in richer nations to reach deeper into their pockets and fund even more modern day miracles facilitated by medicine. Churches and members giving generously to fund clean water projects for communities, eye drops for glaucoma patients, antibiotics for children, to name but a few.

How different is this sort of thinking from the notion that God will somehow bring miraculous healings to those in other countries in ways that does not require sacrifice on the part of the  believer?

(NB The miraculous healing of the paralysed man (Mk 2v1-12) still requires his friends to carry him to Jesus and pay for damage done to the roof when lowering him down)

Perhaps the real miracle that is needed is the one that occurs in the heart of rich believers as God brings about a new perspective – moving people from ‘self-centred’ concerns to ‘other-centred’ acts of altruism. With such generosity God can work many modern-day miracles.

 

‘When is a miracle not a miracle?’ (part 1)

A number of years ago, a Christian friend Sonny (not his real name) recounted an incident that happened in the last days of his father’s life. Desperate because his father was terminally ill,  Sonny asked someone from another church to pray. Assuring Sonny that everything was going to be okay,  a group  from the church arrived to pray. During the prayers, one person asserted how he believed it was God’s intention to heal his father and that this would begin right now as they prayed. Sonny was delighted. So too the group who were spurred into even more fervent praying that extended well into the night. Later, as they were leaving,  Sonny was told to let them know if there was any change in his father’s condition – presumably they hoped for news of a miraculous healing. 

Next day, Sonny returned home to find his father’s health was deteriorating. With no sign of improvement, he decided to phone the church. Aware that his call would be interpreted as a lack of faith on his part, he called and left a message explaining the situation. A short time later someone phoned back instructing him to anoint his father’s head with oil – apparently the prayer team had forgotten to do this. Sonny asked for clarification and was told that he needed to

‘pour some oil into a saucer, pray over it and anoint his head with it, using the sign of the Cross.’

His father’s head anointed, Sonny went downstairs and – having periodically checked in on him – returned to the bedroom to discover his father had died in his sleep. Angry at the realisation that the prayer team’s pronouncement wasn’t true, Sonny phoned the church to let them know and see what they had to say. The person who answered – one of the prayer team who visited that night – listened as Sonny reminded him about what had been said and how he had complied with the instruction to anoint his father’s head with oil. Finally, he asked the person why his father had died when he had been told God was going to heal him?

There was a long pause as the person weighed up everything that had been said. Then, with a voice, less than apologetic, the person at the end of the phone gave his diagnosis as to why the healing had faltered.  ‘The reason it didn’t work is that you didn’t anoint him correctly with the oil. God wanted to heal your father but it wasn’t done properly and this stopped God from answering your prayer.’ Stunned, it took  Sonny a few seconds to respond  – then it rapidly descended into argument and recrimination. Dazed, confused and angry, Sonny ended the phonecall, reeling at what had happened and been said.

Extreme as this incident is, I think it helps to illustrate some of the pitfalls that occur when people pray with a simplistic belief that God will provide a physical healing to every request asked of Him. Thankfully, Sonny’s experience should be considered unusual because most churches do not go round making such claims. Moreover, the way in which blame was transferred onto the grieving person – rather than the prayer team acknowledging their mistake in predicting how God would respond – differs vastly from the many genuine attempts at prayers for healing that happen within and outside of churches throughout the year. Occasions in which it’s possible that prayers made on behalf of the sick, injured or dying person may be seen as answered in some measure through a skilled surgeon who operates or the strength to endure where they couldn’t before or accept death.    Q) When is a miracle not a miracle?        A)When it doesn’t happen!

(extract adapted from ‘A short book of believer absurdities,’ Bob Eckhard)

In recent years, some churches have alligned themselves with something known as ‘Over-Realized Eschatology.’ The Longmont Pastor website describes it like this:…

A belief that the future hope of Christianity is already here…(and that because)  Jesus has come and the Kingdom has come…there should no longer be evil in the world, everyone should be healed of sickness, there should be no poverty or suffering, and everything should be the way that God designed it to be (because) if you believe well enough, or have enough faith, you will experience it.’  

Okay, that’s pretty straight forward and you may already have come across this type of thinking in things like ‘prosperity gospel’  where christians believe they have the right to ‘name and claim’ anything in their prayer requests to God. The aim of this short series is to consider the rational plausibility of miracles occuring in the 21st Century because just as a belief in God requires an act of faith, so too does believing in miracles, even for those who may have experienced them at first hand.

In the Gospel of Matthew (Ch 3 v13-17), when John baptises Jesus in the River Jordon we are informed that as ‘Jesus (came) up out of the water… heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. A voice came from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Fast forward a few years and John the Baptist is now in prison awaiting execution. Perplexed, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matt 11v3) which suggests John had his doubts even though he was a witness to the event himself. Why? Because the miracle was insufficient in and of itself to garner belief.

Likewise, in the Gospel of  John (12 v28-30) we are told God speaks from heaven reassuring Jesus that “I have glorified My name, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that is present hear it, (but some) think it thundered (while) others said an angel had spoken to him.

So there we have our starting point: by granting each of us freewill, God has given us the ability to believe and/or disbelieve in equal measure. Whatever truth we do or do not witness is affected by human fraility, pride, confusion, fear, doubt etc.. So with this in mind let us consider in the next few posts the problematic issues connected with evidence for miracles and whether these are still relevant in the 21st Century?

The feeder and the fish tank

Developing our fish tank example of recent posts, imagine this environment in which tropical fish are kept – the water is oxygenated, treated and heated to a certain temperature. Now imagine that the tank is created by a person who we shall call the ‘feeder’. The feeder takes care to protect the fish and makes the tank in a unique way so that it is almost a completely sealed unit – the only access into the tank is via a minuscule opening at the top where food and oxygen can be supplied to sustain life. As the fish move around the tank, some of them wonder about the existence of the feeder. Some fish observe the shadowy image that feeds them which is distorted through the refraction of the glass. Others think nothing of it, though a few fish mistake their own reflections in the glass, thinking it the image of their provider.

But the fish are unhappy and wonder why the feeder doesn’t reveal himself. The feeder senses the fishes’ unhappiness and longs that they understand him through the world that is sustained around them. However, the feeder also knows that there is no way that their request can be met, short of breaking into their world, releasing the water and exposing the fish to an alien environment. So the dilemma facing the feeder is that if he obliges them, the fish will have their answer but their world will be irreparably damaged. Conversely, if the feeder refuses their request, their aquatic world is given time to continue for a while with the possibility that the fish might find their answer by some other means.

From this example, it will hopefully be seen how God’s reluctance to be fully revealed in our world may be motivated by a concern that humanity continues and develops unhindered. But this raises the question: why wouldn’t God choose to be revealed in some other way in which the fullness of the Divine presence might be displayed in a different form? Of course, believers are quick to remember instances in the Bible where God has been revealed through a burning bush or pillar of fire. However, sceptics are as quick to point out that these episodes have proved to be exceptions to the rule in that they have not been repeated since. This requires us to question why God might not reveal himself in some sort of acceptable lesser measure – a blazing angel or the like.

One possible answer is that even the smallest measure of God’s presence in the world might be totally overwhelming for humanity. Consider a different example taken from the television series ‘Star Trek’. In this programme, the ship’s crew always take care not to interfere with the delicate balance of life they encounter on other planets. They do this by taking steps to safeguard the environments they visit, keeping inhabitants safe from experiencing and seeing things (particularly technology) that might be in advance of what they can understand and use. The crew’s overriding concern is that nothing happens to cause the people harm or damage the progress they might be making.

Now, in applying such thinking to God’s revelation to humanity, a similar case might be argued that rather than being passively indifferent to our pleas for proof, the Divine might actually be acting in ways which are for our greater good. God might be taking care not to overexpose humanity to the Divine Presence if He knows this would inadvertently cause people to change in the light of this experience. And because the revelation of the Divine would be likely to have a consequence – particularly in regard to the issue of freewill – we become aware of how easily our humanity would be compromised by such an event. This revelation of God would affect both individuals and their communities as people would change in the way they think and act.

This brings us to the end of our initial examination of this series of six questions on proving the existence of the invisible God. Hopefully, you will have gained a better understanding of the problems and objections, though it is just as likely you will have also found that there are no simple answers to these issues – just better questions to be asked and considered. All the best moving forward!