The problem with miracles

One of the great claims of the Pentecostal/charismatic movements is that miracles, especially miraculous healings, actually happen. The claim for the reality of such events sits uncomfortably alongside the understanding of many other Christians who do not belong to these traditions. Many liberal Christians have problems with the exuberance and what they see as irrationality in the large healing gatherings where miracles are supposed to occur. The critics of Christian charisma also hear stories of sick people who go along with great hopes to healing meetings. Many, perhaps the majority, fail to receive anything. The betrayal of their hopes is a serious matter. The faith of these ‘failures’ may be badly affected. Many other Christians instinctively draw back from wanting to have anything to do with healing ministries. They just sense that this whole area is one better kept at arm’s length.

The gulf that exists between miracle believing Christians and the rest can be very wide. Those who do not claim to see healings in their churches will have little understanding about what might occur in events such as healing crusades. If they do get around to thinking about healings and miracles they might mention words like psychosomatic illness or hypnosis to account for what may be happening. From the inside there is also little interest in interpreting miraculous events to meet the queries of a questioning church. The power of God to bless and heal is taken as a given and, in being part of healing events, charismatic Christians believe they are following the example of Jesus’s own ministry and that of his apostles. There are also many among the conservative Christian body who do not practice a healing ministry. Although they read the Bible in a conservative way and take the healing stories in the New Testament seriously, they do not believe that miracles are for today. This apparent rejection of the contemporary healing movement by many evangelicals is known as ‘cessationist’. Miracles were given for the first century but have now ceased.

A strong argument that I would bring forward for taking at least some of the contemporary healing claims seriously is that I believe in the integrity of many who claim to have such a ministry. I interviewed twenty or thirty ‘healers’ thirty years ago in preparation for my first book. Even though I found some of their thinking somewhat strange or even alien, none of them was a power-seeking charlatan. It is also true from my observation that when you gather a group of people together who are motivated by the emotions of hope, expectation and longing, extraordinary things can happen. To say that a crowd of people generates power is an understatement. Power, as I have said before, is in itself a neutral phenomenon. When it is directed or harnessed in a positive direction it can be something of great moment. Crowd energy can also be something thoroughly evil and debased. In crowd situations there is an abundance of power and with it comes the potential to change people whether for good or for evil.

The fact that people sometimes recover from illness or from long-standing disabilities in a large crowd environment should not be surprising. The person upfront, the charismatic leader has learnt or stumbled across techniques for healing which seem to tap the energy and the power of the large crowd for these ends. Healing like the crowds themselves is not necessarily spiritual in nature. Healing becomes spiritual and ‘gospel’ when the New Testament realities of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace with God through Christ are brought into the process. To receive Christian healing (I am focusing only on one type in this blog), one partakes of a transforming spiritual crowd energy which simultaneously ties one into a new relationship with God. Non-Christian healing may also happen, but the long term spiritually transformative aspect of the event will be absent.

I find myself concluding that what passes for charismatic healing is at one level a learned skill or technique. One learns to manipulate, even control, a crowd through a variety of methods. These may include hypnosis, suggestion and using the voice in special ways. The potential for the abuses we have all heard about come through a charismatic leader using these techniques for selfish ends. No longer is the aim to bring people to God but to bring them to a state of vulnerability where there can be controlled to be exploited in some way. Here we can speak about technique without love and without spirit. This is something potentially extremely dangerous. When I speak about the dangers of miracle ministries I am thinking about the situations where people have travelled a long way to see a famous miracle worker. In spite of his reputation he may just be interested in gratifying a desire for significance and money. The consequent let-down for his hearers can be truly appalling. Many people have had their Christian faith shipwrecked by meeting some huckster in the less salubrious parts of the charismatic world. They may have been told that their failure to receive healing is the result of their lack of faith. Something as devastating as being told that your faith is insufficient to receive healing is enough to turn you away from all contact with church in the future.

Individuals like John Wimber and Oral Roberts (particularly in his early days) seem to have understood the way that crowds could be worked to release enormous power in the form of healing energy. People were transformed and sometimes healed. At its best the charismatic movement helped people to find transformation; it certainly never laid great burdens on those who failed to receive healing. When the teaching was sound everyone was enabled to experience something of an intimacy with God through worship.

What I find lacking in the literature is a deep wisdom which can discern all sides of what is going on in these ministries, whether good or bad. Miracles seem to happen alongside trickery and outright exploitation. We could be swayed by the claims of trickery to believe that healing never happens today. That would be to undermine the integrity of the entire Pentecostal/charismatic healing impulse. If this were to be the case that all the writers and pastors within these traditions would be totally lacking in honesty. Without these traditions the church as a whole would be incredibly impoverished. We need the expectation, the faith and the primal openness to God that we see in these congregations. Some of us on the outside value the energy of these movements even if at the same time people like myself want to question, critique and analyse what is really going on. Of course, there is incredible naïveté and other examples of human failing within these movements. Human beings who try to manage the levels of power that you find in large groups are extremely vulnerable to many temptations. Power is seductive and addictive. Anyone who follows my blog will know numerous examples of the evil that occurs when human beings are sucked in to an enjoyment of power. So, I remain a critical friend of healing, miracles and the entire charismatic impulse that exist in our churches. The important word for me is ‘critical’ because I never simply swallow the explanations and interpretations of others. All need to be scrutinised and examined with the application of reason but also with wisdom and humility.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

17 thoughts on “The problem with miracles

  1. It is my personal belief that modern day claims to possess the same Charismata as was experienced by Jesus and the apostles are false.

    The obviousness of this has a forty-year history in my case. This does not mean that I support B Warfield’s position (‘Counterfeit miracles’ Pub: Banner of truth) and that I am a Cessationist, I remain ever hopeful that we will see unimpeachable divine acts in ‘the land of the living,’ I am I hope honest.
    That honesty carries a truthful account of my experience, I have never once witnessed an apostolic miracle.
    I am more than exercised about this, as it has become a cerebral academic discussion, which rarely takes on the damage done to the broken people left in its wake.
    I would also list:
    (And yes Stephen has covered this, but, I wish to add more)

    a) The suicidal depression experienced by those not healed.
    b) The fact that the church has been held to public ridicule.
    c) Healings claimed that have been done as a result of medical care alone, (And the insults to vocational doctors and nursing staff, “That patient says that God did it not us!”
    d) The growing belief that Christians are just plain stupid.

    Lastly, The Illusionist, James Randi, has put up A Million-Dollar reward for any one willing to demonstrate supernatural activity…………… No takers as yet!

    Chris

  2. This is a subject which I have given a great deal of thought to over several decades.

    I do believe in a supernatural God, and I do believe that He is capable of working miracles if He wants to. A miracle is something which transcends the laws of nature, and miracles can include healing. But there is simply no evidence that God is doing such miracles on any widespread basis today.

    Furthermore, there is clear evidence that those people claiming healing gifts or ministries are either deluded or corrupt. There is a total absence of verifiable miracles from them. I remember Morris Cerullo being asked to provide his five best examples for study by a panel of doctors. They concluded that nothing had happened which was outside of normal clinical expectations. And Cerullo proclaimed at least one person healed who went on to die. John Wimber admitted that he had never seen a physical miracle, and that his prayers for children with Down’s Syndrome produced less improvement that medical interventions. The charismatic and pentecostal movements in their entirety have failed to deliver on their promises of miracles.

    That said, I would also add a few points.

    Firstly, the healing and restorative powers of the human body are amazing. Diseases can and do go into spontaneous remission. Modern medicine is also amazing. Psychosomatic factors, including the patient’s mental attitude, play a big part in how the body responds to illness and treatment. Being part of a christian community, including one which believes in healing miracles, can help people to have a positive outlook. But such beliefs can also be extremely harmful, as Chris has set out above (and I am in full agreement with his comment).

    Secondly, I am convinced that praying for the sick, including prayer for healing, is essential as an act of Christian love. The fact that I am sure that miracles are incredibly rare doesn’t negate this.

    Thirdly, tonight (Monday 22 Jan) is the final episode of the BBC 2 series on surgeons. I would encourage people to watch it. The first two episodes have been incredible, about people being treated for very serious conditions which would have been inoperable only a few years ago. To me, it is the medical profession who are doing the real healing work of God.

    1. Chris, I’m sorry, I misread your comment – I can’t agree fully with it as I do regard myself as a cessationist. I hold that position lightly and I would be happy to change it if there was ever genuine evidence of miraculous gifts today, but at the moment there isn’t any, and there hasn’t been any since Biblical times. But being a cessationist does not mean a denial that God can do miracles if he so choses.

  3. Nothing I said in my piece implied that I go along with the idea that ‘miracle’ transcends the laws of nature. It is much more likely that the laws of nature are infinitely more complex than we give them credit for. The mind body interaction is barely understood and certainly is largely ignored in conventional medicine. Perhaps we need a new word for miracle, one that does not imply that any laws are being broken. All the healings I have encountered have never once broken any laws!

    1. Stephen, I can’t agree with your definition of miracle. What about Biblical miracles? The feeding of the 5000, the raising of Lazarus, or even the resurrection of Jesus. All these involved supernatural divine intervention and breaking the laws of nature.

      And regarding the medical profession’s appreciation of mind-body interaction, watch this programme from 57:14 onwards:

      https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09p30yj

  4. This is a huge subject and the word miracle these days is regarded with suspicion. In my experience healings unbelievable and extraordinary do happen when prayer and a trust in God’s healing power have been involved.We can’t possibly understand the power and magnificence of God and His laws and how healing works on all His levels. All I know is that I have given thanks continually for answers to prayers for healing, especially in the family in my life time.

  5. I agree with both Peter and Stephen – some events do occur which break (or seem to break) the laws of nature as we know them. But, I also think the laws of nature are much more complex and mysterious than we allow for. Some of what we now regard as paranormal – ghosts, ESP, etc. – may well eventually be explained by discoveries in physics, physiology, or neurology.

    Stephen, your treatment of healing rallies (and, by extension, other large rallies) is nicely balanced and deserves wider coverage. I have myself experienced profound encounters with God in such settings, even though I disapprove of the manipulation and emotionalism which occurred there. And I have had several negative experiences (such as being pushed in the hope I would be ‘slain in the Spirit’ or fall over). Some of the naming of conditions to be healed employs the cold calling techniques exposed by James Randi; this applies to prophecy as well as healing.

    The power healing techniques used and taught by John Wimber are defined by medics as hypnotic. This can be useful if someone is ready to let go of an illness with a strong psychological or emotional component. I used to know a neurologist who occasionally took a patient to healing meetings if she sensed they were ready to stop being ill and move on, but needed an ostensible reason to recover.

    Where people are not healed, however, and/or their disease is not one that would respond to suggestion and crowd dynamics, the collateral damage could be serious. I have avoided such gatherings for years, and am reluctant even to pray aloud with people now, because I have seen and experienced so much bad practice.

    But not all healing, and not all miracles, occur in such crowd settings and amidst such psychological pressure. On two occasions I prayed for patients with terminal heart disease, who were not expected to live long, and they recovered from their illness. I hadn’t actually prayed for healing, I had simply prayed they would be filled with the love of God. Both were Freemasons and talked with me about leaving the Masons; one did leave. Another time I visited a member of my congregation who desperately needed a double transplant. She had been on the list for over a year and become so ill that if she idd not get a transplant within the next 12 hours, it would be too late. I went to hospital prepared to give her the last rites, but she asked me to pray for her healing because her family needed her. I did pray for healing, despite my own misgivings, and within hours she had her transplant. She is still alive 15 years later. This wasn’t a miracle, of course, but it was remarkable timing.

    Not all miracles are healings. I’ve seen a meagre amount of food, once blessed, serve 2 or 3 times the number of people it should have done. As the casserole was served, the amount left in the dish just never got smaller. Something similar happened with Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, when the flour and oil never ran out though the supply was continually being used. I’m guessing it was a similar process when Jesus fed the 4,000 and/or the 5,000.

    An intriguing topic.

  6. I’ve been thinking that there’s a parallel with poltergeist. For centuries poltergeist activity was thought to be a sign of demonic possession and sufferers treated accordingly (shudder). Some 30 or 40 years ago research demonstrated that poltergeists are actually people with a deep internal conflict that they are unable to articulate or deal with. The nature of the phenomena, which appear to be supernatural, are closely related to the nature of the internal conflict.

    The classic example was of a woman who was desperately unhappy in her marriage. She would go to sleep with her bedroom windows closed, and wake up to find the walls streaming with water and her wedding ring hanging on a twig of the tree outside her window. This happened again and again.

    I have myself known two poltergeists and a friend knew another. In two of those cases there was a conflict between the demands of a needy and dominating parent, and a job or new marriage. In the third it was a conflict between a new marriage and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. In every case the eerie things that were happening, which defied (or seemed to defy) all the laws of nature, were a physical reflection of that intense inner conflict. In two cases exorcism had been tried and failed – it wold of course, because no demons were present. Poltergeists respond only to counselling.

    Poltergeist activity is a sort of negative miracle, in that it seems to break the laws of nature. The things that happen are impossible by any normal scientific criteria or the laws of physics. But they do happen, and they are caused by the remarkable powers of the human unconscious mind. Windows are smashed; graffiti written on walls; cars and greenhouses vandalised; furniture, crockery and photos fly across rooms; walls stream with tears; when there is no visible agent at all for these events.

    Which raises the question: are we all capable of such feats (either negative or positive), if only we knew how to harness this energy? Or is it only some of us? Do some people have powers which could produce either miracles or poltergeist phenomena? Is it a matter of where and how the energy is channelled?

    I once read an explanation of why, during the Methodist Revival of the 18th century, Wesley saw lots of strange ‘manifestations of the Holy Spirit’ occurring during his meetings. His friend Whitefield, who was an even more powerful preacher that Wesley, did not see such phenomena. Wesley had been brought up in a very pious but utterly chaotic vicarage, with numerous siblings. HIs mother famously used to throw her apron over face when she wanted a bit of peace for prayer. Wesley grew up emotionally repressed and found relationships difficult. Whitefield, on the other hand, grew up in a pub where his parents were the landlords and was converted. He didn’t suffer from Wesley’s emotional repressions – and he didn’t project those suppressed energies onto his congregations. Which raises some interesting questions about modern charismatic phenomena!

    Sorry, this has been very long.

    1. Janet:

      (1) I don’t think poltergeist activity has EVER been scientifically proven to happen. Sorry to be a sceptic but I am not going to treat such claims at face value.

      (2) I think your last paragraph is on the right lines, though. Three comments:

      First, I have often thought that people who have more emotional or extrovert personalities are drawn to charismatic churches, and people who have more rational or introvert personalities are drawn to non-charismatic churches.

      Second, in general, western society does not give people any real opportunities for emotional release. Christians in particular (even charismatics) tend to live fairly repressed lives. Perhaps this explains why there are periodic events when the collective “pressure” in the church gets too high and things “explode”. You could view the Toronto Blessing (1995) and the Lakeland Revival (2008) as classic examples – look at how people flocked to them from all over the world, desperate to receive not verbal teaching, but a “touch from God”, in other words an emotional experience. Charismatic holiday camps like Spring Harvest and New Wine attract tens of thousands – perhaps similarly seeking their annual dose of “ecstasy” that will keep them going for the rest of the year. Again, this is received not during the preaching, but through the prolonged singing of worship songs each night. The non-charismatic equivalents, characterised by rational worship, are far smaller affairs.

      Thirdly, remember Wesley was an Arminian but Whitfield was a Calvinist. Perhaps Wesley’s preaching was more aimed at producing an emotional response.

      1. Hi Peter. Of course poltergeist phenomena can’t be scientifically proved. Scientific proof requires measurable phenomena that can be reliably repeated under controlled conditions. Very little human behaviour submits to that test. For instance, I doubt any crimes could be proved in the scientific sense (unless you include forensic methods which have been scientifically proven to work). Nor could the existence of love. Nothing in history could be proved to have happened, because we can’t repeat it.

        There are other standards of proof, or at least of obtaining strong evidence, such as careful observation. Poltergeist activity has been carefully observed and no direct agency has been found for the objects moving. However, you are welcome to your scepticism. Who am I to discourage a cynic?

        I agree with you that we westerners often are emotionally and psychologically repressed, though in England at least that has improved over the last 20 years or so. I’m not so sure about the introvert/extrovert divide for charismatics and non-charismatics though. I have known a number of highly introvert and rational charismatics, and an equal number of emotional and non-intellectual non-charismatics.

        Wesley saw the emotional responses as directly cause by the working of the Holy Spirit and encouraged them – to Whitefield’s concern (and that of others). I don’t think that had anything to do with his theological differences with Whitefield though. It’s a long while since I read up on this, so I don’t want to pursue the discussion too far. Suffice it to say that the expert on Whitefield from whom I quoted was well aware of differences in theology and preaching style, and didn’t attribute the difference in the crowd’s reactions to either.

        Fainting, sobbing, screaming, etc can occur when the sermon and service are as devoid of such incentives. Jonathan Edwards’ style of delivery was distinctly dull and off-putting, but the results were dramatic.

        I have seen such reactions occur when the service and environment were structured to produce them – and when they were not. As I’ve said above, the techniques used by Wimber and others were medically classed as hypnotic. But I’ve also see them occur when no such techniques were used.

        The human mind and the Holy Spirit are alike mysterious in their ways.

        1. Janet,

          “Scientific” wasn’t the best word for me to use, for which I apologise. I was thinking more of moving objects being caught on CCTV. It’s strange that the “spirits” that supposedly do this are scared off by a camera! Without this sort of evidence, we only have someone’s word that they saw something, which I don’t regard as sufficiently reliable. There is a saying that “extraordinary claims require exceptional proof”.

          My view on introverts and extroverts and the sort of church they prefer is obviously a generalisation. But if you compared the congregations of, say, Holy Trinity Brompton and St Helen’s Bishopsgate, I am sure you would find far more people that fit these stereotypes than go against them. From personal knowledge, introvert / rational people are repulsed by charismatic services, and extrovert / emotional people are repulsed by non-charismatic services.

          I don’t know much about Wesley and Whitfield so can’t comment. But I am very familiar with charismatics and Pentecostals and totally agree that hypnosis is heavily involved (often without them realising it). I am curious about emotional responses occurring otherwise, as that’s outside of my experience.

          In general, Christians tend to know very little about psychology (including hypnosis) and spiritualise the things they don’t understand. My view is that you cannot claim the Holy Spirit is involved when things have a natural explanation.

  7. I agree that the human body and the nature of reality are full of surprises and mystery. I am certainly not from a scientific background, so I must leave it to others to discuss this topic.

    I would like to humbly ask however, where that leaves the concept of “Spiritual –Warfare” that St Paul spoke about so passionately, St Paul assumed the existence of a personal Devil? I hope that doesn’t sound too old fashioned? I think it was the former bishop of Liverpool David Sheppard, who went on record saying, “I believe in a personal Devil”.
    I worry that new converts and the poorly educated can get tangled up in words.

  8. The poltergeists I knew were before CCTV was commonly used, but there were witnesses to some of the incidents. I can’t say more about them because I’m bound by pastoral confidentiality, but the people involved were genuinely very distressed.

    It would be interesting to know if any cases had been recorded on CCTV – though in a genuine case being dealt with by counsellors, I suspect CCTV would be unhelpful to the person causing the phenomena. There have been some notable frauds but they were people in it for the sensationalism and publicity, or just the fun of fooling people. The ones I met were very different.

    Peter, I suspect your charismatic involvement is of more recent date than mine. When I was on the staff of a big charismatic church in hte late 80s, we had quite a lot of introverts including the vicar (who practically defined the term). Some of the early leaders in the Anglican Church were also introverts – or at least pretty buttoned-up. In fact several of them had come from the Iwerne camps and top public schools, which would rather support the theory of repressed emotion being transferred to others. But that was in the days when ‘charismatic’ meant exercising the charismatic gifts listed by St. Paul, whereas now it tends to denote a very noisy style of worship – even where none of the ‘gifts’ are being used or displayed.

    I was once at a frankly boring service of evening prayer with no music. The liturgy was ASB (surely the most pedestrian ever put together). Then we offered to lay hands on people for healing, and before we had a chance to utter a prayer people were going down like ninepins. Maybe no coincidence that that was at a retreat for single people? There was so much repressed hurt and longing there.

    As a priest I’ve also been called to deal with hauntings or house blessings, though these didn’t involve poltergeist phenomena. That’s a distinct and separate thing. I know huntings and such occur, and think one day we’ll have discovered the physics behind them. Which is not to say, of course, that they don’t involve some evil agency or ‘personality’. Some seem to, some not. I do know they usually respond to prayer – and have done for millennia.

    Chris, I wouldn’t worry whether what you believe is fashionable or not. Fashions come and go and are often suspect. I believe in spiritual warfare and the Bible certainly does give evil a persona. I found Walter Wink’s writing on the subject helpful. Rupert Sheldrake’s research is also interesting.

    1. Janet, my experience of supposed poltergeists is nil. However, I know that people can be convinced they have seen something, and react accordingly, when in reality they haven’t. Our eyes and brains are not perfect and they do get confused or play tricks on us. It has happened to me, and I am an intelligent man with a science-based degree. I was shocked when I realised that my supposedly rational mind and senses had actually come to a totally wrong conclusion. Policemen will also tell you that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable and can’t be trusted. Hence I am sceptical of such claims.

      My charismatic involvement actually dates from the early 1980s, when the style of the music was folk rather than rock. I’m fully aware that many early leaders had come up through the public school / bash camp system, which dominated evangelical Anglicanism. So yes, releasing repressed emotions is definitely part of the picture. You’ll note I wrote quite a lot about this in an earlier comment.

      I concluded some years ago that the “gifts” claimed by the charismatic movement are actually fake. I also have noticed that they have fallen out of fashion, and this doesn’t surprise me. I think the movement is realising that they don’t actually achieve anything and so exercising them is pointless. This is probably the result of subconscious processes rather than active decisions.

      Regarding your interesting story from an ASB service, the phenomenon of people falling over is complex and depends on many factors. Whilst hypnosis is an important one which was probably absent in this case, prior conditioning, learned behaviour, peer pressure, and personal expectations also play a big part. And as a single person, I think your comment about repressed hurt and longing is totally correct.

      I am fascinated by the “Toronto Blessing” with the associated crazy behaviour. It is interesting that it began in the UK at HTB, a charismatic but very respectable church, with Eton-educated clergy – Sandy Millar was a key promoter. The trigger was Eleanor Mumford sharing her about her visit to Toronto – again, she comes across as posh and respectable. Her talk is available online and is basically anecdotal, but it is almost as if she is giving people permission to release all their repressed emotions.

  9. Peter, I think you and I are largely in agreement.

    I wondered whether the ASB service reactions were due to the expectations people brought with them. I certainly didn’t expect it, though I was leading the retreat. It wasn’t what usually happened in that retreat house either.

    However, the poltergeist phenomena were real enough and so was the damage caused to physical objects. The casserole for 6 actually did feed 9 people twice over, and there were leftovers. The charismatic gifts can be real too, though they are sometimes faked. And where would we be without the gifts of teaching, preaching, evangelism, and administration?

  10. Corrie Ten Boom, “No Hiding Place”. The bottle of vitamins that lasted until the camp was liberated.
    I have known of two miraculous healings. A friend of mine who had a growth in/on her uterus. She was facing a hysterectomy at the age of 21. The day before she was taken (dragged!) to a healing meeting by her mother. Someone told her, after prayer that she had been healed. (Bad technique, that). She herself felt that she had been given strength, but no more that that. They opened her up and found a pink and healthy womb with no growth. When she was pregnant with her first child, the surgeon who had operated on her ran down two flights of stairs to say, “I never thought this was possible”!
    My aunt who had lung cancer. She had a lot of prayer from a lot of people. And the tumour disappeared. The surgeon was so excited that my aunt expressed surprise to the nurse. “Well,” said the nurse, “It doesn’t happen very often”!
    And a story from Paddy Ashdown’s biography. He was being chased down a road and his pursuers were close. Somehow, jumped over a wall. He didn’t even remember doing so. He went back later and that wall was more than six feet high. Yes, the human body is capable of strange things. In the war, there were several cases of pilots staggering out of a crashed plane and collapsing dead. Their necks were broken, and they shouldn’t have been able to move.
    I agree with the “critical friend” definition, Stephen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.