A Review of Craig Keener’s "Miracles", Part 8

Keener, Chapter 8, p. 265:

“I reiterate that the evidential value of the following testimonies regarding genuine supernatural activity varies, but all illustrate the point that eyewitnesses can claim healings and that the experiences behind these claims are widespread.

…Although not by any means the cause of all church growth, it is widely documented that reported miraculous healings have abetted church growth in much of Asia.”

Keener, and the Asian Christians he interviews, readily admit that not everyone is healed, in fact most are not, when they pray for healing.  So when someone is occasionally healed, how can we be sure that the recovery from illness was due to a supernatural force (the Christian god) and not just coincidence?

Let me give an analogy:

For thousands of years, humans across the globe, in practically all cultures, came to believe that gods controlled the weather.  Due to this belief, human societies created a Rain God, a Sun God, etc. and prayed to these imagined deities to provide them adequate rain and sun for the survival of their crops and ultimately for their own survival.  Why did these beliefs persist for thousands of years if Rain Gods and Sun Gods do not exist?  I believe it is very likely due to a phenomenon known as “random positive reinforcement”.

Today we know that the weather is controlled by natural phenomena such as barometric pressure, etc., not the whims of temperamental gods. But our ancient ancestors did not have this information. Therefore, when they prayed to the Rain God, and it rained, this reinforced their belief that a god controls the rainfall. However, it didn’t always rain immediately after praying for rain, but previous rains in close proximity to prayer had reinforced the belief that prayer to the Rain God would eventually bring about rain, so the people kept praying. And the longer it didn’t rain, the harder the people prayed, the harder they confessed their sins against the Rain God, until finally…it rained…and their belief that a god controlled the rain was reinforced yet again.

Isn’t this possibly what is going on with people praying to gods for healing? Most of the time, the request for healing is “unanswered”. But once in a while, a health recovery occurs in close proximity to a prayer, and voila! “It’s a miracle!” The fervent prayers for healing then increase in number and frequency, improving the odds that another health recovery will occur in close proximity to a prayer for healing, which will again increase the chances that more people, more frequently, will pray for a healing. And when more and more health recoveries occur in close proximity to prayers for healing, more and more people will believe in the efficacy of prayer for healing and the reality of miracle healings.

As I mentioned earlier on this blog, Keener points out in his book the fact that there are far fewer miracle claims in western Europe as compared to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Some Christians on Theology Web have posed the explanation that God doesn’t perform miracles in areas where people do not believe in miracles. While this is within the realm of all possibilities, I suggest we look at another possible explanation.

People in western Europe have better access to healthcare and better access to healthy food and water supplies than does the average person living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Therefore, they will usually be healthier, have a lower morbidity and mortality rate and a longer expected life span than their counterparts in the Third World areas mentioned. They will therefore need “healing” much less frequently than their third world counterparts. Statistics demonstrate this.

We also know that western Europeans tend to be less religious and better educated than their average counterparts in these Third World areas. So when a western European has a dramatic and unexpected recovery from a serious illness, the western European is more likely to credit his medication and his doctors for his recovery rather than a God and prayer, whereas Christians in the Third World who often lack access to medical care will be more prone to attribute a recovery to a supernatural power.

Keener gives statistics that the overwhelming majority of Christians in Asia, Africa, and Latin America believe in the healing power of prayer and regularly pray for miracles. So since the morbidity and mortality rates in these Third World continents are much higher, many more prayers are going to be said per capita than are said in western Europe, thereby increasing the odds that any dramatic and unexpected recovery will be seen as a miracle.

It is interesting to note that if it is true that God rewards regions of the world in which the people believe in miracles by increasing the number of miracles, God does not improve the morbidity rate, mortality rate, infant mortality rates nor increase the average life expectancy in these regions of the world. People on average are more prone to get sick and more prone to die. Statistically, there doesn’t seem to be much if any significant difference in illness rates and death rates among the Christian populations of these regions of the world. Illness and death rates are essentially equal among Christian and non-Christian communities.

Isn’t it obvious, folks: More miracle claims are made in Asia, Africa, and Latin America because there are more sick and dying people, and, since Christians in these regions of the world believe in supernatural healings, they pray for everyone to be healed. Statistics demonstrate that spontaneous health recoveries from severe, life-threatening illnesses, due to all causes, natural or supernatural, are infrequent, therefore the belief that it was prayer that caused the few health recoveries that do occur could very well, and most probably is, sheer coincidence.

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