What About the "Experience" of a Miracle?

I received an email that asked me what I thought about experiences of miracles. Can I explain them away? What do I think about these claims? Here's the email and my response:
Many people say they have experienced the supernatural - receiving a miracle, hearing God speak to them, etc. Pastors such as Mark Driscoll write about their experience with prophetic dreams, seeing demonic attacks, etc. (His book "Confessions of a Reformission Rev detail these things). I have a friend who goes to a Christian school, and tells of the time they prayed for a girl with a broken foot - the next day, it was healed. She didn't have to wear her cast anymore, she was walking fine, etc.

It would be easiest to say that they are lying, making these stories up - but I know my friend, and have no reason to think he would make up a story like that (He's not charismatic, and has never claimed to have seen any other "miracles"). Additionally, I have verified this story of the "healed foot" - everyone claims it really happened. Still, it's tough for me to fully trust this, as I have never personally seen this kind of supernatural event take place.

Obviously, people from other religions claim to experience this too - it doesn't seem to be limited to Christianity, although the large majority of miraculous stories/healings are found in the Christian faith. Would you tend to believe that most/all of these experiences are fictional?

Honestly, at this point in my journey, I just want to know the truth - which is what drew me to you, as I know you are after truth as well. I'm sure you have thought about the claims of supernatural experience, so if you could offer any insight into this area, I would greatly appreciate it.
In part here is my response:

I'm not an answer man. There are mysteries to life, true, and precisely because they exist there will always be room for faith. So I usually tell them that if I had the same experience they had then I would probably believe too. The question is why I don't? I do know that people count the hits and discount the misses, and that people of faith want to see a miracle, which might incline them to see one. I also tell people that even as a Pentecostal in my former years I never saw a miracle and that's all I can say about my personal experiences, for if God didn't supply one then, why should I expect him to now?

I also ask them why God does these miracles for some people and not for others who die miserable deaths. And then I ask why people of other faiths also report these kinds of things.

On religious experiences read this.

On faith healers you must see this documentary!

On the power of brain manipulation you must see this from Derren Brown (I recommend episodes 2-4 especially).

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I hope this helps, and I hope others who are troubled by these kinds of unexplained phenomena look through each of the links provided above to decide for themselves.

24 comments:

thebeattitude said...

A very good friend of mine is an ardent Christian that gave up his job and devoted his life to mission work.

He sends me a prayer request email about once a week. He is always trying to bring me back to belief in God. In these emails I have read several "miracle" stories of healing.

1. My friend had back problems for several months and claimed to be miraculously healed by prayer. Four days later he severly strained his back.

2. A teenage girl was miraculously healed by Todd Bentley at the ‘The Lakeland Revival’ at Ignited Church. (do a Google search to learn more about this circus) She had a horrible genetic disorder and claimed the symptoms went away after the "healing". One month later she was hospitalized when the symptoms grew worse than she had ever experienced.

I could keep the list going, but every story is essentially the same. A person is miraculously healed by God and shortly after they are apparently "unhealed".

I do believe that faith helps sick people. There is evidence to prove a positive mental state aids the healing process. But I wouldn't call it a miracle.

Vinny said...

My wife once met a woman at an Assemblies of God church who claimed that God had made her invisible. My wife had been invited to a women’s luncheon at the church by a friend and after lunch, the women shared what God had done in their lives during the past week. It seems that this woman had gone to visit a friend in the intensive care unit at the hospital. Despite the fact that hospital rules only allowed relatives to visit in the ICU, this woman walked right past the nurses’ station without being stopped. As she sat and prayed with her friend, nurses came in and out of the room, but none of them even noticed her. She concluded therefore that God had made her invisible so that she could visit her friend.

The problem with miracle stories is not just that the tellers don’t look for natural explanations for events that are unusual or coincidental; it’s that they insist upon embracing supernatural explanations for events that are perfectly ordinary and usual.

David B. Ellis said...

In a forum a couple of years ago Iencountered a christian arguing for miracles with a story basically identical to the healed foot story you describe.

But with further questioning it was revealed that the supposed healing followed the person being prayed for weeks (I can't remember how many) after the original injury---sufficient time for it to have plausibly healed on its own.

Important details like that are often left out in the telling of such stories. Often unintentionally.

David B. Ellis said...

For believers in miracles and the paranormal I suggest a visit to James Randi's website www.randi.org

Brad Haggard said...

John, I don't know why God hasn't given you a miracle (well, there are some verses in the Gospels, but I mean on a personal level), but if I've written down prayers and seen them systematically answered, then why should I doubt my experience?

Scott said...

John, I don't know why God hasn't given you a miracle (well, there are some verses in the Gospels, but I mean on a personal level), but if I've written down prayers and seen them systematically answered, then why should I doubt my experience?

Brad,

When you say systematically answered, what system are you referring to and how is it different than random chance?

For example, what prevents you from visiting a children's hospital and writing down prayers that all of it's patients from to return to health?

Annoyed Pinoy said...

I'm a Reformed (i.e. Calvinistic) and Charismatic believer. I've been a Christian for 20 years, and a Calvinist for 12 years. Among the various "faith healers" (how I hate that term) out there, the one that I find the most respectable (among others) and who (I believe) genuinely has a supernatural ministry is a guy named Roger Sapp. I'd be interested in finding out what an atheistic investigator would think about his ministry after doing observation and research. We all know there are many frauds and con artists out there. But I think he's the "real deal". If anyone actually does do research, I'd be interested in your results. You can email me at bestrong@email.com


www.allnationsmin.org is his website. There one can freely download audio and video files on healing.

There are other websites that freely offer his audios/videos including:

http://www.sidroth.org/site/News2?news_iv_ctrl=-1&abbr=rad_&page=NewsArticle&id=6054&security=1042

http://www.sidroth.org/site/News2?abbr=tv_&page=NewsArticle&id=5978&security=1041&news_iv_ctrl=1192

http://www.jacobswell.org.uk/kingdomhealing/index.asp

http://www.newlifegrandrapids.org/app/w_page.php?type=section&id=43

http://www.nlvb.org/pwsite/page.php?linkID=1861

http://www.jacobswell.org.uk/kingdomhealing/index.asp



By the way, while most Calvinists are cessationists (i.e. don't believe that the charismata are normative in this age), there's a growing number of Calvinist ministers who (like me) are also continuationists. For example, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, J. Rodman Williams, Sam Storms, Vincent Cheung, Johanes Lilik Susanto et al.

Annoyed Pinoy said...

Oh, btw, I forgot to mention that Roger Sapp is definitely NOT a Calvinist. He's clearly an Arminian. I think he went to a Wesleyan seminary. So, I obviously wouldn't agree with everything he says. However, I can incorporate much of his teaching into my own doctrinal understanding if I understand it to refer to God's Revealed (i.e. prescriptive/preceptive will), rather than God's will of decree.

Annoyed Pinoy said...

Apologetically, I'm a Van Tillian presuppositionalist. So I believe that in one sense all things are revelatory of God. All facts testify to the existence of God. YET, from a purely rational and non-Christian point of view, I would say that miracles cannot prove that Christianity is true. At most it can only corroborate or point to its truthfulness. Especially since I do believe that supernatural occurances happen in other religions. Moreover, if I were an atheist, I would readily admit that maybe we don't live in a uniform world. Maybe we live in strange world where contingent things happen for no reason(s) and without cause(s). That's what I find funny about *some* atheists. Sometimes they are more dogmatic about naturalism and materialism than many supernaturalists.

Richard T said...

I have always resorted to David Hume's 1748 requirement for a miracle:

'No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.'

MH said...

He can heal the sick, and he needs to charge? Really?

Brad Haggard said...

Scott,

When I say that I journaled I mean that I wrote down my prayers, which cuts out the tendency to "remember the hits and forget the misses." Of course, it's all personal, which is what prayer is supposed to be, but I'm saying that it isn't haphazard.

Annoyed Pinoy said...

George Muller (alternatively Mueller) of Bristol is a famous example of someone who recorded all his requests and how God systematically answered his prayers. There are many books written about him. He has his own autobiography where he lists all the answered prayers (it's multi-volume). Anyone can find information on him by just doing a google and/or amazon search for him.

Eternal Critic said...

Yes, but did he record all the prayers that weren't answered? Does he have proof that it was divine intervention for the purpose of his benefit?

I could pray every day for enough mundane things and I could make it look like my prayers were being answered. That wouldn't make it true though.

Annoyed Pinoy said...

Eternal Critic said...

Yes, but did he record all the prayers that weren't answered?

No Christian would ever assume that absolutely every one of his/her prayer requests will be answered in the affirmative since not all prayers are according to God's will. Sometimes God has something better in store than what a believer specifically asked for. Muller always wrote down his requests BEFORE they could be answered (i.e. soon after they were prayed). So, surely some of his prayers weren't answered in the way he desired. But many extraordinary ones were.

Eternal Critic said...

Does he have proof that it was divine intervention for the purpose of his benefit?

Well, part of the problem of "proving" divine intervention due to prayer is that it can always be argued that any argument for answered prayer commits the fallacy of Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc (after this, therefore because of this). Around the world roosters crow right before the rising of the sun. Therefore roosters cause the sun to rise, right? Obviously not. Arguments based on induction can never lead to deductive certainty.

But as Bill Hybels notes in his book "Too Busy Not To Pray"

"Skeptics may argue that answered prayers are only coincidences, but as an English archbishop once observed, "It's amazing how many coincidences occur when one begins to pray." "


Eternal Critic said...

I could pray every day for enough mundane things and I could make it look like my prayers were being answered. That wouldn't make it true though.

Muller wrote down his prayer requests for decades. When he first started his intention was precisely to show that the Christian God does answer prayer. So, he made sure to write down requests for things that weren't mundane (I assume along with some mundan things). When extra-ordinary requests are answered repeated month after month, year after year for may decades, that would seem to suggest that there might be something to his claims of answered prayers.


Here's a Wikipedia article on Muller with links to some of his works on the web.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_M%C3%BCller




Here's a quote from an article by Ron Rhodes where he recounts an example of answered prayer in Muller's life.


Shrouded in a dense fog, a large steamer edged slowly forward off the coast of Newfoundland, its foghorn crying out somber notes of warning. The captain - near exhaustion from lack of sleep - was startled by a gentle tap on his shoulder. He turned and found himself face-to-face with an old man in his late seventies.

The old man said, "Captain, I have come to tell you that I must be in Quebec on Saturday afternoon." (It was then Wednesday). The captain pondered for a moment, and then snorted: "Impossible." "Very well," the old man responded, "if your ship can't take me, God will find some other means to take me. I have never broken an engagement in fifty-seven years."

Lifting his weary hands in a gesture of despair, the captain replied, "I would help if I could - but I am helpless." Undaunted, the old man suggested, "Let's go down to the chart room and pray." The captain raised his eyebrows in utter disbelief, looking at the old man as if he had just escaped from a lunatic asylum. "Do you know how dense the fog is?" the captain demanded. The old man responded, "No, my eye is not on the thickness of the fog but on the living God who controls every circumstance of my life."

Against his better judgment, the captain accompanied the old man to the chart room and kneeled with him in prayer. With simple words a child might use, the old man prayed: "O Lord, if it is consistent with thy will, please remove this fog in five minutes. Thou knowest the engagement thou didst make for me in Quebec on Saturday. I believe it is thy will."

The captain, a nominal Christian at best, thought it wise to humor the old man and recite a short prayer. But before he was able to utter a single word, he felt a tap on his shoulder. The old man requested, "Don't pray, because you do not believe; and as I believe God has already answered, there is no need for you to pray." The captain's mouth dropped open. Then the old man explained: "Captain I have known my Lord for fifty-seven years and there has never been a single day that I have failed to gain an audience with the King. Get up, captain, and open the door, and you will find the fog is gone." The captain did as he was requested, and was astonished to find that the fog had indeed disappeared.

The captain later testified that his encounter with the aged George Muller completely revolutionized his Christian life. He had seen with his own eyes that Muller's God was the true and living God of the Bible. He had seen incredible power flow from a frail old man. . . a power rooted in simple childlike faith in God.

http://home.earthlink.net/~ronrhodes/Faith.html

Eternal Critic said...

That story is in fact not extraordinary. If you know much of fog at sea, coming out of a fog bank, and the burning off of morning fog at a quick rate are not abnormal.

Aside from that it is anecdotal without independent confirmation.

If it had spontaneously disappaered from around them while on deck, that might be extraordinary with independent confirmation. As is, its got the validity of any othe anecdotal evidence.

exrelayman said...

I can list 3 miracles:

1) It is a miracle that God provides some people with miracles while denying the prayers of deacons on behalf of children of their congregation dying from cancer (despite the Biblical promise of healing prayer).

2) It is a miracle that God can create a universe consisting of billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars and desires our love and worship but is unable or unwilling to author a more convincing book.

3) It is a miracle that people believe 'testimonies of miracles' while not experiencing miracles themselves.

Scott said...

When I say that I journaled I mean that I wrote down my prayers, which cuts out the tendency to "remember the hits and forget the misses." Of course, it's all personal, which is what prayer is supposed to be, but I'm saying that it isn't haphazard.

Brad,

I'm still confused. When you used the word 'systematically' in your comment, were you referring the a process of systematically writing down your prayers or seeing these prayers systematically answered?

I do not doubt that you wrote down prayers for thing to occur, which ended up actually occurring. In fact, I write down many things that I intend to bring about by personal effort, assistance by other individuals, natural forces, etc., many of which do occur. The fact that I write things that I want to occur is not a coincidence as I am strongly motivated to bring them about.

The real question is, was there supernatural agency that actually help bring the things you prayed about to pass?

An exercise would be to write down things you would have normally prayed for, but not actually pray for them. However, since you believe that prayer actually has a supernatural impact, you may feel less capable or have lower expectations. We've documented this sort of behavior with individuals who have lucky shirts, ties, jewelry, people, non-supernatural rituals, etc.

So, to answer your question, unless you actually performed this exercise, and account for possible personal negative influence due to lower expectations, then yes, I would say you do have a valid reason to doubt your experience.

Brad Haggard said...

Scott, the answer to "systematic" is both.

Let me give one example. My then soon to be wife was applying for admission to the school of education at our college. Since she is from Mexico she had to take the ACT once again to score a 21 and gain entrance. The first time she took it she scored a 19, then another 19. So we prayed and prayed and studied together. And guess what happened? She scored a 20.5. Still not enough to get in.

So this is a disconfirmed prayer, right? Well, the next day her advisor calls her in to talk to her about admission, and informs here that they have found a way around the ACT because she is from Mexico and her GPA was high.

I don't think this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy because we weren't working for that end. Two years later a similar unexpected answer came while she was applying for state certification.

And I think the control experiment you propose is a little off course, because God is a personal agent, so there would be no way to remove His agency as a variable.

David B. Ellis said...


Apologetically, I'm a Van Tillian presuppositionalist..... YET, from a purely rational and non-Christian point of view, I would say that miracles cannot prove that Christianity is true. At most it can only corroborate or point to its truthfulness.


One verifiable case of an amputee's limb instantly regrowing at the touch of a faith healer is worth more than a thousand transcendental arguments.

Thomas said...

One verifiable case of an amputee's limb instantly regrowing at the touch of a faith healer is worth more than a thousand transcendental arguments.

David,
Jesus did plenty of miracles in front of people and they didn’t believe either. In fact Judas betrayed him and Jesus’ best friend Peter denied him. The Bible predicted this would happen to Jesus (Isaiah 53:3) and it also says some people willing choose to suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). So I just wonder if your demand for this type of proof would actually convince you. Also, simply because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t automatically prove that it hasn’t or couldn’t have happened.

Actually, atheism does present some pretty miraculous things that you would have to believe: life came from non-life; rationality came from non-rationality; something came from nothing; immaterialism came from materialism; the universe is meaningless yet people are meaningful; disorder/chaos led to order, etc. There was no intelligence behind the formation of the universe, the human body, and animals but there IS intelligence behind aircraft, computers, books, cars, etc. which are not as complex as the universe and the human body. But these are just coincidences, right?

Greg Mills said...

Thomas, I'm atheist (technically I guess you'd call a Theological Non-cognitivist) and I don't "believe" any of those statement you assign to atheist as beliefs.

I believe human cognition has limits and it's entirely possible answers to those question are beyond our grasp.

I could very well be a nonmaterialist atheist. All atheism is is lack of belief in a supernatural creator. It doesn't presuppose or offer opinions on anything else.

I have a sneaking suspicion that my word won't be good enough, however.

Thomas said...

Hi Greg,

Your word is good enough for me. I think our disagreement would be over the term “atheism”. It’s only recently been defined as one who “lacks a belief”. That’s probably a different debate and one I unfortunately don’t have time for.

I believe human cognition has limits and it's entirely possible answers to those question are beyond our grasp.

I’m curious as to why you are not simply an agnostic. Why would you define yourself as “lacking a belief in god/gods” rather than simply saying “can’t know or have a belief in god/gods”? Saying that you “lack a belief” would seem to imply that you are waiting for some sort of convincing argument like other atheists here claim. It doesn’t seem to me that any argument would be able to convince you though since you believe it can’t be known anyways. Am I understanding you correctly?

Greg Mills said...

Thomas -- Certainly for the deepest problems in ontology, I am skeptical that humans have the cognitive fire power to conquer them. We are, after all, animals, with a very specific and limited sensory tools at our disposal.

And there will be fundamental questions about reality that it would never occur to us to even ask.

As for theological questions, I think most of the language we use around them isn't coherent enough to be useful. The idea "God" has no meaningful attributes that I can discern, just relational attributes or negative definitions.

What I'm waiting for is a definition of "God". After that, we can begin theology.

It's an ideosyncratic worldview, I know, but it works for me.