Recently over the Internet I have expressed in a couple of places my belief in God answering prayers and both times I was asked why God never heals amputees. This is my attempt to provide a thoughtful response to this Question, though I do not claim to have a definitive answer.
The Question arises from three apparent observations. The first observation is that there are thousands, if not millions, of claims throughout history, across the Internet, and among personal testimonies, that the Christian God of the Bible has answered prayers and performed miracles. The second observation is that there are thousands, if not millions, of examples where this same God clearly has not answered prayers or performed miracles as expected. The third observation is that the examples of unanswered prayers generally tend to involve more difficult situations than the examples of answered prayers, even though a cursory reading of the Bible seems to suggest that “extraordinary” miracles should be no less prevalent than “easy” ones. The third observation appears to create a contradiction between the first two.
There are two primary methods of reconciling this apparent contradiction. Christians tend to accept the first observation as true and try to rationalize the second; they assert possible theological explanations for why God often does not answer prayers as expected. Atheists tend to accept the second observation as evidence that the first observation is false; they assert possible natural explanations for all of the claimed answers to prayer.
I believe the difference between these two approaches is clear, but the implication of each approach is so important that I would like to risk my reader’s attention span with an elaborate analogy.
Suppose you meet a man who claims to have invented a transporter after watching every episode of “Star Trek.” He claims this transporter will instantly transport him anywhere in the universe, and he has used it to visit dozens of countries across the globe and even other planets. You express skepticism that one could learn how to build such advanced technology merely from watching a TV show, but he says he will prove its power if you come to his house.
You arrive the next morning, expecting a full tour and demonstration of the machine, but the man does not oblige. He claims the transporter is in a room on the second floor of the house, but if you wait here he will go up the stairs and into the room and instantaneously transport himself to the basement, where he will come up the stairs and greet you with a smile. The man goes up the stairs. You hear strange whirrings and accelerating pitches, followed by complete silence. Suddenly the basement door opens, and the man appears.
You are impressed, but not convinced. Perhaps he has some hidden elevator or trapdoor to physically take him to the basement. “If this machine can take you anywhere, why don’t you let me see it? Or why don’t you transport yourself hundreds of miles away? That would prove it once and for all!” But for some reason the man acts uninterested in such displays. “Come back tomorrow and I’ll transport to the basement again.”
Determined to discover the truth, you sneak into the man’s house while he is away and visit the upstairs room. You see a strange-looking machine and are scared to touch it. But you install a tiny camera in the room and another camera in the basement.
Morning comes, and the man again tells you to wait in the front room while he carries out his demonstration. Once again, he appears from the basement after a couple minutes of noise from the machine. “Are you convinced now?” he asks.
You say nothing, but go home and review the footage. You are astonished to watch the man step up to the machine, press some buttons, wait a minute, and then completely disappear from the first screen, instantaneously appearing on the other!
Now you have an interesting predicament. If the man refuses to demonstrate a transportation across the country because the machine does not work at all, there must be an explanation for his apparent transportation across the house. However, if the man has truly transported across his house, there must be an explanation for his apparent reluctance to demonstrate a transportation across the country. Perhaps the machine is not so powerful, or maybe big transportations use a lot of electricity, or maybe he doesn’t want people to find out and break in to take advantage of it, or maybe he’s just an eccentric who wanted you to say please. But – and here is the crucial point – just because we don’t have that explanation, it would be absurd to conclude that the machine must not do anything at all!
We can now relate this predicament back to the Atheist, the Christian, and the Question. If God never seems to provide clear, undeniable and reliably documented evidence of a big and obvious miracle when he is supposed to have the power to do so, there must be a natural explanation for all of his other credited miracles – placebos, coincidence, poorly understood body functions, and the like. But if there is no natural explanation for some of those miracles, and God has truly answered some prayers, then there must be an explanation for the prayers that aren’t answered, and it would be absurd to conclude from a lack of such an explanation that God hasn’t answered any of the prayers.
Unfortunately, there is uncertainty about either resolution. I may find the natural explanations for asserted answers to prayer unsatisfying, but you may find the theological explanations for unanswered prayers unsatisfying. We do not have a complete explanation of either, so we cannot make a truly objective decision. We must accept on faith that one of the explanations is more satisfying than the other, and our existing biases and experiences will play an enormous role in which explanations we consider to be more satisfying.
If you are still with me, I am now ready to make my case. First, I will attempt some feeble arguments to make the theological explanations for unanswered prayers a little less unsatisfying. Second, I will attempt to explain why I am content to have incomplete explanations for them because I find natural explanations for many answered prayers much more unsatisfying.
Theological Explanations For Unanswered Prayers
If we are going to consider explanations to close the “gap” of unanswered prayers, we should start by considering how large that gap actually is, as it is important not to exaggerate its true scope. I don’t know how many amputees, for instance, have never prayed for healing but I suspect the number is greater than zero; many may not expect “major” healing because they have never seen it, which could possibly be a reinforcing cycle. And I do find it interesting that statements like “God never heals amputees who pray for healing” are generally asserted without any accompanying evidence of amputees who have prayed for healing and not received it.
This does not suggest that the scope of unanswered prayers is not very large; it is not difficult to find someone who has earnestly sought healing and not received it, and I have no shortage of first-hand examples myself. I am not denying that there is no gap, but I do think it may be smaller than is often implied.
Now on to the gap itself. Gaetano linked me to a comprehensive essay which lists many Bible verses that seem to indicate God should heal amputees, and responds to many so-called rationalizations of why God seemingly doesn’t.
I agree that some of the rationalizations are weak, though I think some of them in some combination may explain at least some of the unanswered prayers, and I think the author’s subjective rejection is somewhat amusing in its presumption of telling God what he is allowed to do or not do.
For example, the author rejects the idea that God would not do obvious miracles by pointing to examples of publicly reported healings. But how can that be evidence God does no miracles at all? Either the healing was not so obvious after all, in which case it does not support his argument, or the healing really was obvious, in which case the author has admitted he will not be convinced by obvious reports of miracles!
Regarding another point, I have no problem using God’s divine providence combined with his allowance of the consequences of free will to explain a large part of the gap, and some Christians might use it for the whole thing, although I appreciate that atheists find this both unsatisfying and unfalsifiable.
I think it is important to recognize that the Bible itself places limits on answered prayers. Yes, Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive,” but James also said “You do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” I emphatically do not mean to imply that unanswered prayers for healing might be selfish prayers, but I think it is clear that James opens the door for limits on the statements of Jesus that appear to be unlimited by themselves. We also see the disciples being surprised they could not cast out a demon that Jesus could (Matthew 17), which suggests some events may be more complicated than even Jesus’ closest followers expected from some of his teachings. If we are going to argue about whether or not the Bible is reflected in reality we need to consider the entire Bible in context.
Finally, there is one possibly provocative explanation that I have not yet seen addressed. Many Christians may not actually believe those words of Jesus about receiving “whatever you ask for in prayer” or “Nothing will be impossible to you”.
This may seem like an odd accusation to make of millions of people who claim to be following Christ, but it is trivial to find other words of Jesus that millions of Christians do not seem to actually believe in practice, whether they are ignoring those verses, rationalizing them away, or even correctly interpreting them in context. So why should we be surprised if they also do not literally believe “Believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”?
There is plenty of debate among Christian theologies as to what role faith plays specifically in healing, but to be as fair as possible to multiple streams I think the Scripture is clear that at a bare minimum it at least sometimes plays some definite role (e.g. Jesus saying “Your faith has made you well”, or James saying “This prayer made in faith will heal the sick”). If this is true, then perhaps we should not be surprised that we tend to fail to see “big” healings around us. I believe in healing and even I admit I do not think I have enough faith (yet?) to pray for God to heal an amputee and believe that it would happen.
This may seem like a convenient explanation, and it may have a bit of a “no true Scotsman” fallacy that carries an enormous risk of shredding any comfort and compassion (i.e. anyone who doesn’t get healed must not have had enough faith), but I think it is at least a reasonable hypothesis for some situations. Possible evidence in favor of this hypothesis might be that the more you go beyond the “nominal” Christians who have simply layered Christ over their regular lives and find the radicals who live crazy lives devoted to Christ, the more you find more exciting stories of miracles that lack satisfying natural explanations.
Natural Explanations For Answered Prayers
Take the life of George Muller.
Muller’s autobiography is a public domain text available on Project Gutenberg. Muller describes how he was surprised that many Christians around him did not believe the Bible’s radical statements about things like answered prayers, and he decided to literally live a life that would prove it. Muller started an orphanage, and despite never asking for donations or expressing his needs, the orphanage grew and his prayers for provision were consistently answered, often in remarkable ways.
Perhaps the most famous incident is when he gathered the children to thank God for providing breakfast even though they did not have any food available, and as soon as the prayer finished, a milkman knocked on the door because his cart had broken down right in front of the orphanage. There are numerous other incidents of the orphanage repeatedly coming extremely close to having absolutely nothing, with unasked-for provision arriving just in time.
How does one explain this? If these things were happening by random chance, it seems statistically unlikely that they would repeatedly come so close to zero, so to speak, without ever actually crossing it. Perhaps Muller was lying about never asking for help, but it seems unlikely that such a pious humble man who devoted his life to caring for orphans would have such a blatant vice. Perhaps others were keeping an eye on Muller and expressing his needs, but in that case it seems odd that they would repeatedly let him get so close to nothing, and also that no one ever came forward to so easily disprove Muller’s claims, or that no one was ever found doing so.
You can find similarly flavored testimonies from saints across the ages, present-day missionaries to other countries, workers in inner cities, and even (if you go looking) scattered rather thickly among “regular” believers in churches across the country. What intrigues me about many of these occurrences is that they defy some of the natural explanations that might close the gap for many other answered prayers.
First, many of these answers are immune to the placebo effect that can be used to explain some answered prayers, especially those of the headache-healing variety.
Second, many of these answers to prayer are too specific to be explained by statistical coincidence, unlike more simple “binary” prayers. You pray for rain, and sometimes it does but sometimes it doesn’t. You don’t pray for rain, and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Someone may be convinced that God answered a prayer for rain, but what if it was just statistically bound to happen and their selective memory forgot the unanswered prayers for rain? But thanking God for food right before a milkman knocks on your door – that’s a whole ‘nother level of probability. For that to be likely, you would expect many other instances of milk carts breaking down farther up the road, or other carts breaking down in front of the house when they didn’t need its contents, or carts breaking down the day after they needed it, etc, etc. That answered prayer was like hitting a very small bullseye, and if it was all random you would expect a lot of near-hits in the outer rings as well. Perhaps if we knew more about nineteenth century Germany we could say that some of those near-hits were common but ignored by Muller. But in my opinion, there are many testimonies of prayers where an answer hit the bullseye without any statistically expected near-answers along the way.
Third, many of these answers to prayer are too big to be explained by statistical coincidence. The essayist seems to think all claims of answered prayer can be explained this way; I simply disagree. You might say even the most specific answers would not be surprising if we also examined all the similar prayers that were unanswered – though I find this unconvincing. But some answers are so remarkable that the statistical occurrence should be zero. I don’t care how many examples you can find of someone unsuccessfully telling a cripple to get up and walk; the fact that it has actually happened once to someone I know makes all others irrelevant. To attribute stories like these to the body’s “remarkable” powers of self-healing is to stretch the credulity that the atheist does not have some unfalsifiable beliefs himself.
An atheist might still reject these testimonies by claiming they are not reliably documented. This is a valid strike against many, but I would caution the atheist against deceiving himself into exaggerating his own objectivity. In theory, documentation objectively proves things, but in practice it is subjective. While my bias may set a threshold of proof too low, an atheist’s bias may set a threshold of proof too high. It is always possible to demand higher thresholds of proof for historical events if you are highly suspicious for other reasons that, in your mind, remain more important than the evidence presented.
There may be no possible threshold to convince a conspiracist that NASA landed on the moon, because no matter how convincing the evidence you offer, it is no match for their belief in a deceptive and propagandist government and/or their belief in the unassailable difficulty of the feat. In the analogy of the transporter, it may be impossible to convince a friend who thinks the man’s refusal of a big presentation is so suspicious that it counters all other evidence. You offer your video evidence, but he might question how you know the man didn’t tamper with it before you retrieved it, or suggest that the recording mechanism hiccuped right when he disappeared, or ask if you’ve analyzed the house for hidden trapdoors. Your friend may believe he’s only asking for objective evidence, but his existing bias affects the level of evidence that will satisfy him.
Similarly, many atheists sincerely proclaim hypothetical examples that would convince them that God answers prayers, but like a hypothetical political philosophy that can always argue its imagined world would be better then practiced realities, I wonder how they would react were such events to occur in the real, messy, complicated world we live in – if they would not request yet higher thresholds of proof because the real events were not quite as clean as what they had in mind. As we have seen already, even newspaper accounts are no match for what I can only presume is an appeal to a “nature of the gaps” that allowed the girl to recover in ways medical science does not yet understand. Perhaps God has healed an amputee somewhere, after all, and he just didn’t feel like waiting for someone with a camera to show up.
Many atheists seem to approach prayer as a “science,” looking for ways to test and measure and reproduce it. I think it may be more useful to approach it as “history,” in the sense of analyzing the evidence for many claims of historical events, and what thresholds of proof we need to decide whether or not they actually occurred. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” as they like to say – but who gets to decide how extraordinary the claims are, and how much do existing biases affect how extraordinary a claim seems? Besides, any one claim of answered prayer might be extraordinary on its own, but what if God is answering prayers every single day?
After all, I do believe such events have occurred many times over, and even when you strip away the overwhelming numbers of coincidences and placebos and completely undocumented hearsay, the only explanation I see remaining is outright fraud, and in my opinion there are still far too many significant evidences presented by pious people who had no incentive to deceive their listeners and no incentive to continue their often difficult and thankless lifestyles if they knew they were lying (which, incidentally, is parallel to some compelling arguments for the resurrection of Jesus and the initial growth of Christianity).
We return to the initial observations that began this overlong essay. If there are too many stories out there of “small” miracles and too few stories of “big” ones, it might suggest that the small ones are irrelevant coincidences and the big ones are misunderstandings, frauds, or fakes. But if any of the big ones are legitimate historical events that cannot be naturally explained, then answered prayers are a reality, and it doesn’t matter how much you don’t like the theological explanations for all of the un-answered prayers because reality doesn’t care what you think about it!
In my opinion, the lack of compelling natural explanations for the strongest stories of answered prayers is a bigger gap than the lack of compelling theological explanations for the strongest stories of unanswered prayers. Of course, I may have arrived at such a conclusion through a faulty maze of assumptions, generalizations, and overlooked considerations, and as such I invite any challenges to the ideas presented herein (just please do not expect me to respond in a timely manner).