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!

Following hard on the heels of last week’s fish tank post and avoiding the idea of God’s revelation as understood in the person and work of Jesus Christ, let us focus today on the consequences for humanity should a full revelation of God occur. Or put another way, the outcome for humanity should God oblige our request and enter the space that has been set aside for our temporal universe to exist.

Although we are dealing here with a hypothetical model – prone to human ideas and thinking – it is not unfair to reason that should God enter our universe and reveal the fullness of His Divine Presence, the result would be catastrophic as it would result in the termination of our environment as:

  • Finite things are enveloped back into the infinite reality of God
  • Temporal (physical) things are replaced by a spiritual dimension

More than this, humans would no longer be free to choose and decide for themselves because the unlimited presence and power of God would necessitate that only one reality could occur – namely: God’s will. For the Divine to enter our world any way other than in a limited incarnate form (as in Jesus) is to herald the end of our universe as the space created for humans to live and grow is enveloped back into the realm and control of God.

Of course, God understands this outcome and (we surmise that) He does not oblige our desire for Him to be fully revealed in the way we seek. It is very likely that our human requests are ignored because God understands that at the moment His fullness is revealed to us, everything in our world will be inadvertently assimilated back into the Divine realm. Could this be perhaps yet another reason why God might obscure Himself?

 

 

Imagine God is defined by the dimensions of a living room. Every square inch of this room is enveloped by the presence of God. As a result, there is no part of the room where God’s infinite presence or perfect will are not evident. In fact, in the expanse of this room, nothing can reside other than things that are aligned to His  Divine purpose. In short, the environment looks like God, feels like God and indeed: it is God.

However, one day God has an idea. He decides to introduce something new into the room – namely, human beings. These creatures will have freedom to make their own decisions and act independently. But immediately there is a problem: the Divine’s will is everywhere in the room, which means humans cannot make self-determined choices. In an instant, God lessens His Presence in a small area to facilitate a space where finite realities can happen. In terms of our example we might think of it as something like a fish tank containing our universe and galaxies. By doing this, God ensures that a universe of humans is accommodated even if surrounded by the infinite rule of God.

(NB  ‘kenosis’ (gk)- the idea of God emptying himself as in Christ, Keith Ward et al)

Now, in this fish tank world, humans are able to interact and make choices for themselves while the fullness and ultimate will of God remains outside of their environment. God creates and sustains a space in which the Divine Presence is withdrawn, so that other forms of life may exist and flourish. Interestingly, this model might also explain the necessity for God to become incarnate (in Jesus Christ) because for the Divine to enter our world any other way is to compromise the freedom of humans. It is also a good explanation as to why an all-powerful and infinite God might choose to be revealed in a less extreme form.

So, in summary, the freedom humans currently experience is only made possible because God’s manifest presence and rule has been withdrawn from our world. This possibly also explains why human requests That God reveal Himself in all His Glory go unanswered because for God to do this is to signal the end of our world and our freewill within it.

 

‘Why might God choose to be obscured from us if proof of the Divine would enable people to believe?’

While some people find comfort in a Creator God who keeps watch over us, others may not see it this way – particularly if they think their (mis)behaviour is deserving of Divine judgement.

Of course, our understanding of God and His nature has changed down the centuries. For primitive people who did not understand what caused lightning strikes and thunder, they interpreted these events as indicators that God was displeased with them. Conversely, bountiful harvests, good weather and living to a ripe old age were understood as blessings from God. Thinking which is quite at odds with what followed with the idea of a Watchmaker God who winds up the universe then sets it in motion, never to interfere with it again – which in turn resulted in some believing that God is distant and detached from Creation – rather like the Divine Being encountered in the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ who inhabits a room on the edge of the universe waiting for humans to visit.

But if God is not in hiding, playing hard to get or bashful, why is the Divine obscured from us? Moreover, what might be God’s reason for doing this? One possible explanation comes from the nature of the Divine in regard to the necessity of…

Human freewill 

The thinking goes something like this:

  • For God to truly love humans, He must facilitate an environment which enables them to accept or reject His advances if they so choose.
  • This means God cannot be physically visible or humans wired in such a way so as to be predisposed in their response to loving God.
  • With no trump card to secure human love, God must ‘woo’ humanity through their environment at the risk that some will reject/miss this offer.
  • Although God may not like the outcome of human rejection, He accepts it so that humans can continue to be free in the choices they make.
  • And of course, God facilitates individual decisions even when these go against Him (and put the person at risk) such is the nature of Divine Love.

So, drawing the strands together, one reason why God might be obscured from His Creation is to do with the nature of His Being that facilitates an environment in which humans possess freewill. An environment that allows humans to makes decisions that run contrary to God’s desires for them which (in turn) may have consequence for themselves and God.

 

 

 

 

Given that human attempts to prove God’s existence have fallen short of the mark over the centuries, this post asks the question:

‘Why doesn’t God reveal himself to humanity?’

Naturally, both atheist and believer have stock responses to this question. The believer states that God has been revealed through Creation but humanity has failed to comprehend it while the atheist states God cannot be revealed because God does not exist. Now, although these two positions mark out opposite ends of the faith spectrum, they unfortunately also polarise thinking into one of two camps – people who believe in God and those who do not. With these positions identified, lets steer a ‘middle course’ between the two by considering a question I seldom hear discussed and yet should be- namely:

‘Why might God choose to be hidden from humans?’

Interestingly, this approach addresses sceptical concerns over the absence of evidence for God while giving scope to the possibility held by believers that God exists within Creation. Consider the following line of thinking:

  • Presently, it is not possible for humans to prove God’s existence (however)
  • If God was so disposed He could prove His existence in an instant (but)
  • God has seemingly chosen not to oblige us by doing this in any scientific or quantifiable way

All of which begs the question: Why?

  • Why doesn’t God reveal himself to humans when proof of the Divine would enable all people to believe?
  • What might God’s thinking be in becoming obscured from his Creation?
  • Or is there some other explanation we are missing that is presently beyond our intellect and/or ability to fathom?

These questions we will tease out in the next few posts as we explore and consider the ‘Invisible God.’

 

‘Is it possible for humans to prove God’s existence?’

 I think it is fair to begin with an observation that although many theologians have set out to establish the likelihood of a Creator God, none of them have ever been truly successful in this endeavour. By that I mean, no theologian or philosopher has ever advanced an argument or formula concerning God that proves the existence of the Divine beyond all reasonable doubt. These arguments being well constructed and covering areas such as

  • The ontology of God (God exists as perfect being)
  • How the mechanisms of the world point to a designer
  • The cosmos
  • Miracles (as evidence of a higher power)
  • Morality

Now, while each of the explanations that have been developed at different periods in history have been convincing for a time, none of them have ever provided conclusive evidence that God exists. At best, their appeal is to an ‘approximate God’ – arguing that the probability that God exists is more likely than He doesn’t exist which lends itself to a ‘guestimate’ about the Divine where people piece together as much of the jigsaw as they can and then imagine God to be somewhere within the gaps that have been left.

Naturally, the requirement of religious experience that requires its adherents to exercise ‘faith’ seems to necessitate that believers are expected to place their trust in something that is presently unverifiable. And of course, if we could proof God as a definite fact, there would be little need for faith – people would make their assessment based on solid evidence.

So, returning to the question ‘is it possible for humans to proof God’s existence?’ I’m going to pre-empt this mini-series with a resounding ‘NO’ because I don’t think God has left us with that option. That said, while humans might be unable to prove God’s existence, this does not mean the Divine is unknowable. Rearranging the question, we might ask:‘Is it possible for God to prove his existence to us?’ and now we are engaging with a set of far more interesting questions which will be teased out in the next few posts…

 

 

As we come to the end of this mini-series on the world of Genesis and natural disasters, we ask the question (again):

So why do natural disasters occur on earth?

Well, the most interesting and sensible answer I have heard to this question was given on a television programme ‘Tsunami – Where was God?’ in December 2005, a year after the South East Asia disaster.

In the programme, interviewer Mark Dowd – having finished his travels around India, Sumatra, Sri Lanka and Thailand – journeys to Vatican City to a conference of Jesuit physicists that are meeting to discuss climate change. Curious to know if the Christian physicists can reconcile a world of natural disasters with the idea of a loving God, he is surprised to discover that none of the physicists share his dilemma. Instead, they explain the necessity of tectonic movement in the world as part of the process by which human life is enabled to occur and develop  – natural disasters creating terra-firma to live on and a correct balance of gases in the world. In response, the Jesuit physicists were unanimous and resolute that without earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions, the world we inhabit today would be totally unsuitable for human existence.

So what does this mean for Christians and Christianity?

Well firstly, we might conclude that the evidence is stacked against any idea that Adam and Eve inhabited a world without danger – the fact that the devil and temptation lay within it should confirm it was no idyll. Now, while the pair may not have expeienced an earthquake first-hand, it is very likely that had either of them tripped or fallen over in the Garden, the same gravity that held them to terra-firma would also cause them harm if they fell awkwardly and scraped a knee or broke a bone. While some might not like this type of thinking, we should all take comfort in the knowledge that without  natural disasters, our world would be wholly different and unsuited to our existence. Moreover, we wouldn’t he here to read and/or rail against such an idea. Yes, Adam and Eve enjoyed the Garden but it was created in ways that we are only just beginning to understand and appreciate.

Extracts and article idea taken from ‘The God of the Cruel World’ (Bob Eckhard)