Recently I ran a post about the most common miracles that everyday Christians claim their god does for them. But I noticed that a few people wanted to know more about the really big miracles that most Christians only see during major revivals or at third-hand removes: how did those work? Obviously they weren’t real miracles, but what’s really happening behind the scenes there? Are these really instances of That One Weird Thing That Happened Once, or are these so-called miracles just more examples of Christians who are Lying for Jesus? Come join me as I take you on a Big Miracle Safari today.
The Low Christianity House Party.
Miracles belong very firmly to that form of folk religion that I call Low Christianity.
I’ve talked before about the differences I see between High Christianity and Low Christianity. In essence, High Christianity is that very scholarly land of seminaries and grand theology–and fundagelicals aren’t really welcome there (not that they’d want to visit anyway). This is the land where we discover Christians who believe in a form of the Christian god that would be completely unintelligible to most of us. In essence, the Christian god there looks like that “ground of being” so beloved of philosophers in the religion–as far from a personaljesusasyourlordandsavior as it’s possible to get in Christianity while still sharing the same name and general source material. Most of the oldest denominations play here, but not all. Fundagelicals are very distrustful of High Christianity even while they ape its tone in their apologetics materials and cosplay like they’re just that scholarly themselves. People involved with High Christianity often don’t actually even know or understand the beliefs or customs of their counterparts.
In Low Christianity, we find all those wild and woolly folk customs and beliefs that tend to draw our attention–and our criticism. Here we find Creationism, complementarianism (that’s fundagelicals’ sexism-as-the-bonus-plan doctrine), literalism and inerrancy, the Rapture and Tribulation, the push toward homeschooling, prepping, snake handling and speaking in tongues, and the Benedict Option, the culture wars against human rights, and almost all of the miracle claims.
If you’ll indulge me the borrowing of the image from Good Omens, the way that these two groups interact (on those rare occasions when they interact at all) reminds me of how combat veterans might behave around ammosexuals at a Neighborhood Watch meeting. Or to be more on point, it’s the difference between Omega Theta Pi and Delta Tau Chi, without a dean around to give the Low Christians double-secret probation–and, of course, nobody actually knows when the parade is going to take place or if there’ll be one at all this year.
Low Christianity is a rambunctious high-school house party with no parents’ return in sight and the cops on auto-dial for a mile around, and every kid in town thinks David Bowie, Harry Styles, and Miley Cyrus are going to show up sometime before dawn despite the fact that David Bowie is, well, dead.
High Christianity is the respeckable people living next door to that house party, except the cops won’t ever come even when the noise gets out of hand, and all they can really do regarding the neighborhood’s house value is hope that nobody ever finds out what’s happening there. And just like we see illustrated so well by Trevor Moore on “The Pope Rap,” those rowdy neighbors ain’t even on their level–and yet this Animal House is exactly what most of us think of when we think of their ZIP code.
Yes, indeed: the terrible part, for people in High Christianity, is that their counterparts make for much more interesting viewing than they do. When you put 20 UFO enthusiasts in a room, the guy wearing a homemade tinfoil pressure-suit who’s screaming about space aliens probing him is the one the news team is gonna wanna interview. That’s just how humans work. All 20 of them may all believe something that’s silly and demonstrably untrue, but the rest of us are gonna look at the guy in the tinfoil and probably think that all UFO enthusiasts are like that; that one guy is going to single-handedly taint the whole movement.
If those other 19 UFO enthusiasts have no way to shut that one guy down, they’re in deep Bantha poodoo.
Welcome to Our Wild Miracle Tour.
Keep your hands and feet inside the self-driving SUV at all times. Please do not feed the exhibits or shine flashlights in the T-Rex’s eyes (it makes him cheep like a chicken and he gets embarrassed).
Everyday Miracles vs. Big Miracles.
So we’re very firmly in Low Christianity’s territory here today. And within that territory, we have two more distinctions to draw: everyday miracles and big miracles.
The everyday miracles was what we were talking about last time. These are the car keys found, the parking spots opened up, the acne cleared, the 20-spot on the sidewalk, the bank errors that happen and are never corrected. These are the constant coincidences and strange events, the gifts out of the blue, and the sprained ankles that heal much faster than anticipated. Stories about these miracles inevitably end with some variation of Well you might not see this as a miracle, but I do! And often the people who think these are real live miracles will accuse the rest of us of not being “open-minded” when we reject those many claims as undeniable evidence of a divine hand working its will upon our reality.
But there’s a whole other world of miracles that Christians get bombarded with regularly, and these are the big miracles that nobody (they think) could ever behold and think are anything at all but real live miracles. These are the resurrections commanded, the blindnesses cured and hearing restored,* the crutches thrown aside, the fatal and incurable diseases sent packing into remission.
If you’ve ever seen or heard these claims and you’ve never tangled with Christianity yourself, chances are you knew that these claims were false. But I’ve heard more than a few people wonder exactly why they’re false.
That’s what we’re going to plunge into now: the explanations for these “miracles.”
Come, See a Man Who Told Me Everything I Ever Did.
One of the miracles Jesus performed was a subtle one: during a conversation with a woman at a well, he told her about a number of things she’d done in her life that she didn’t think a total stranger would ever know about, things so specific she didn’t think anybody could ever possibly just guess them. When she rushed off to tell her friends about the event, she told them, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Messiah?”
Christians today often think that they can do the same thing in everyday conversation. It’s not at all uncommon to see one trying to have a similar conversation with strangers or near-strangers. These efforts generally fall into the category of cold reading, like what fortune-tellers and Tarot readers and ghost mediums do. In cold reading, the so-called psychic just uses verbal and non-verbal cues to make educated guesses about the person in front of them. A very good cold reader can be astonishingly accurate in these readings. Someone who tries cold reading but isn’t so good at picking up those cues will fail–laughably so, in many cases.
But sometimes one encounters a big-name Christian evangelist who seems to really make good guesses–like mailing addresses and specific names and eerily on-target medical diagnoses.
What we’re seeing here is a variant on cold reading called hot (or warm) reading. Warm reading is a form of coaching and leading questions; the medium leads the mark through a narrow garden path with questions designed to get to a desired specific place. Hot reading is more of an outright cheat wherein the medium has actually gained real information about the mark through other sources (friends, the internet and social media, cards filled out ahead of time, even the mark him- or herself through earlier conversations that they didn’t realize–or forgot–that the evangelist heard).
The more motivated the mark is to receive magical divination about him- or herself, the easier the medium’s job is. And there aren’t many people more motivated that way than Christians are.
Evangelists who use hot reading can be uncannily accurate in their predictions. They always attribute their success to Jesus, and use it as a sign that the mark should convert to their god.
What’s really happening has nothing to do with Jesus, however.
Peter Popoff is the gold standard of hot readers. For years this evangelist did huge faith-healing shows wherein he hot-read Christians and supposedly “healed” them of stuff. The level of intricate information he revealed to his marks was astonishing–so astonishing in fact that it got the attention of none other than Saint James Randi–who discovered that the esteemed evangelist was getting his “divine” revelations over 39.17 megahertz radio waves–and “God’s” voice sure sounded like that of his wife! Even after being totally exposed in the most humiliating fashion, though, Peter Popoff eventually made a comeback and he’s back to his old tricks as if nothing ever happened.
When you see a Christian trying to tell you all the things you ever did, don’t reach for “Is this the Messiah?” Instead wonder when you accidentally gave that person the information, or if you ever told anyone that stuff anywhere online. Because the more specific that information is, the more likely that the huckster talking to you learned it before opening the conversation.
And you know what’s really bad? I mean really, really, really bad?
Christians often try to reconcile the Bible with reality by insisting that magic healings and divine revelations happen, just obviously they aren’t happening in any service officiated by (insert evangelist’s name here). It doesn’t even occur to Christians like Bryan Drake, who writes about faith-healers sometimes, to wonder why oh why we keep finding charlatans in his religion or why oh why we’ve never found a verified miracle. Obviously they happen, he thinks, even in absence of any evidence that they do!
Leg Lengthening Done Here.
We’ve touched on leg lengthening before, but here’s the big writeup. Basically, there’s this huge number of people in Christendom who were born with one leg perceptibly shorter than the other who think that their god can totally fix the problem for them. What they have is called LLD: Leg-Length Disorder, and it’s quite common (soooo much for that “perfect creation” bullshit!). It’s usually diagnosed in childhood. If the discrepancy in leg lengths is small, the child’s doctor might not recommend any treatment at all. If treatment is recommended, then it’ll depend on just how big the discrepancy is: it might just be a lift in one shoe, or it might involve surgery and physical therapy.
If LLD isn’t treated and it’s a big enough discrepancy, then the child can develop serious back problems later on in life, so obviously it can be an issue. In most Western countries with fully-developed medical-care networks and safety nets, most kids have the situation resolved by the end of their childhood. In countries that lack those resources or where some citizens lack access to them (among them glorious America, I’m afraid), though, there are a lot more people who have problematic LLD in adulthood–and others who grew up with very minimal LLD who wouldn’t mind it being magically healed.
India is the original source of leg-lengthening miracles, I strongly suspect. The earliest accounts I’ve seen came from there. But the idea quickly came to the States and from there got picked up as a super-easy miracle to work by Christian charlatans. They go up on stage and tell their marks that they’re totally going to even out the legs of someone with LLD, and then they have the chosen recipient of the miracle sit down and they apparently pull one leg out an inch or two to make the lengths even! ZOMG!
The first time I heard of a Christian claiming this miracle, it shocked me! But you know the saying: once you’ve eliminated the impossible, then you can get to work examining the improbable explanations. I know that there’s no magical wizard in the sky granting charlatans the ability to grow bones and knit tissues on the spur of the moment, so that meant they were performing a trick of some kind. I just had to figure out how the trick was done.
I visited Jeffrey Shallit’s blog first–it’s one of the first explanations of the trick. He refers to photos and an explanation given all the way back in 1987 by Saint James Randi (him again! Dude beats on these charlatans like it’s his job–oh wait, I reckon it is). In The Faith Healers, James Randi tells us how it’s done. To summarize with the help of Paul Hooson:
This is an old carnival sideshow trick, where the shoe on one foot is pulled slightly off and forward while the leg is pulled forward to give an illusion that a shorter leg has suddenly grown longer. From a forward camera angle this slight of hand [sic] trick looks pretty impressive.
So when you look at the videos that exist aplenty on YouTube of leg-lengthening miracles, look carefully to see the “miracle-worker” gently tugging the leg in a way that makes the mark adjust their hips a bit, or else they’ll tug on one shoe. Here’s professional-debunker Derren Brown to display what’s happening:
There is nothing whatsoever going on that’s supernatural at all. If someone really has LLD and experiences one of these “miracles,” in a few days the euphoria will wear off and those back problems will be coming right back.
And the Blind are Healed, the Deaf Cured.
The loss of an entire sense can be simply devastating. It changes someone’s whole life. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that even in very civilized areas of the world these disabilities are striking more and more people, since so many people are living longer and longer. And in a lot of ways, the loss can be so inexorable and mysterious that someone can be excused for seeking help anywhere they possibly can to regain that functionality.
Unfortunately, Christian charlatans are not actually helpful there either.
There are dozens if not hundreds of accounts of magical healings for blindness and deafness in Christian circles. It’s not hard to find at all. I’ve run into many Christians who might not have experienced this particular parlor-trick themselves, but who’ve seen the trick performed and now use it as part of their testimonies. There’s even a British politician who claims she performed a similar trick on some poor guy.
Thankfully, we have medical resources today that didn’t even exist in the abstract thousands of years ago, but when you see those big miracles of sense-restoration in the Bible, recognize them for what they are: the expression of an ancient person’s terror of a medical malady that could spell their doom.
Here again is the excellent Derren Brown to the rescue:
The “Lord” has a powerful lesson for Andre tonight!
Basically, a charlatan wishing to cure blindness or deafness starts with someone who already has some vision or hearing. Total blindness or deafness is harder to work with, but not impossible; at that point, he just needs a victim who’s willing to say that they’re now seeing a teeny tiny bit.
Having selected a mark, the charlatan prays over that person (I originally typo’d that as preyed; make of that what you wish!) and makes big honking deal about everything. He might even pull a Jesus and spit on his hands or something and rub at the victim’s eyes–grody! Then he has the victim open his or her eyes to look at something, or leads the now-hearing person around by the sound of his voice. And by all appearances, the person does now have some use of their vision or hearing! IT’S A MEERKUL–oh wait.
Remember, most of the people claiming to be healed think they are experiencing at most very minor improvements. And even those may be more imaginary than real. Motivated reasoning can be so very powerful. In a faith-healing venue, the mark is under quite a lot of pressure to say that they are experiencing an improvement–and it’s not like any doctors are around to really test their improvement to see if it’s real or imagined. Further, the audience usually doesn’t know the recipient of the fake miracle–and they’re not going to follow up, ever, to ensure that the imagined benefit lasted past that initial euphoria.
The leading-around charade makes me angriest. I’ve heard evangelists confess that sometimes they’re stomping the floor slightly so the deaf person can feel those vibrations through their feet. (Another interesting confession can be found here.) As long as people lose the use of their physical senses, Christian charlatans will be right there to prey upon them with prayer.
Cancer and Other Dreadful Diseases.
Cancer’s scary as hell, and it’s just so endemic–especially among groups of people who are getting older by the year, have lifestyles that put them at much greater risk for cancer, or are living in areas that don’t have great healthcare available to all citizens. Since all of those descriptions apply to Christians in America extra lots nowadays, you can guess that claims of cancer healings are going to be popular among that crowd.
These kinds of healings are pathetically easy to explain. Since audiences of observing Christians tend to be painfully ignorant of biology generally and diseases in particular, these healings can be done in complete confidence that nobody will catch the ruse until the faith healer is long gone.
Often the charlatan simply decides that their chosen mark has cancer. It’s not even a formal diagnosis. Those are the easiest to “cure,” obviously! When a Christian claims to have been cured of cancer, the first thing listeners need to do is ask for evidence of the formal diagnosis of the condition. Chances are that none will ever be forthcoming.
On the rare occasion that cancer has been actually diagnosed ahead of time, the faith healer is taking a dreadful risk. Obviously the healing won’t do jack shit for the recipient of the “miracle,” and it’s going to make that recipient pretty sore when they find out in a week or so that they’ve still got cancer. Worse, if the recipient of the “miracle” throws away their medicine or their braces because they are acting in faith that they were really healed, like Helen Sullivan did, they could die.
The “healing” is easy enough. The charlatan prays over the mark, or even performs psychic surgery of a kind. That term means the person pretends to perform surgery–complete with chicken guts and blood–pulls out the “cancerous mass,” and then “cures” the incision if he pretended one was made. Most charlatans don’t ever go that far, though; they rely only on prayer for their preying.
In the event that a mark gets fussy about not having really been healed of their terrifying fatal disease, faith healers have a variety of strategies at their disposal. They can say that Jesus only slightly improved the person and that more praying (or money) is needed. Or they can blame the mark for having doubt in the outcome, thus blocking their own divine healing (because Jesus is a total dick that way).
Other big diseases run along similar lines–including mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder. Christians will never ask further questions once they see a mark claiming to feel better. I was good friends with a woman who claimed to have received a healing of her lifelong chronic and clinical depression–and claimed this every single time she was “healed.” It’s not like anybody could tell she was or wasn’t, but I wonder how she felt when it returned every single time. I bet that wasn’t awesome.
If the mark has a little functionality, too, then a particularly dramatic touch is for the recipient of the “healing” to get up out of their wheelchair or throw away their crutches or whatever and dance around. I personally saw someone do that very early on in my time as a Pentecostal, and was shocked when a woman nearby told me he did that every revival and he’d be back in that wheelchair next week. I remember being indignant at her lack of faith–and humbled when her prediction turned out to be true.
Really, it eventually became a problem for me–a stumbling block if you will–that Jesus couldn’t seem to permanently remove illnesses or really cure serious conditions.
Death, not space, may well be our final frontier.
It’s so final, so scary, so complete. It’s the brick wall to our lives, and it comes to every single one of us at some point. We don’t understand it that well, and it’s so hard to imagine that the spark of us–the sum total of our thoughts, feelings, loves, hates, memories, opinions–can just be snuffed out like the flame of a candle when our time comes. Little wonder that so many religions make up all kinds of stories about various kinds of afterlives to give false hope and comfort to their millions and billions of frightened adherents.
And even less wonder that the ultimate claim for a faith healer is a resurrection. This is their equivalent of a Golden Gloves win–a NFL Bowl ring on their finger–the Pillsbury Cook-Off printing their name in their annual contest cookbook.
Most of these faith healers don’t even get the opportunity. They won’t even get near an actual dead person. Most folks die where they get the benefit of the full engine of modern medicine, and most families know perfectly well that resurrections aren’t something that happen and they just want to mourn in privacy without that circus of fundagelical posturing and flailing and screaming happening around them. Even when the dying person or family is Christian, even fundagelical, they put way more faith in modern medicine’s ability to bring a person back than they do in religion. Often these desperate loved ones will even push a team of doctors to go way further than is advisable or necessary to try to revive a dead person, when the medical team knows very well that that person is gone.
I’m thankful that full-on resurrections of the dead are so vanishingly rare nowadays. Robby Dawkins, an American fundagelical preacher, claimed to Charisma News in 2015 that he totally did a resurrection while doing some guest evangelism in England, and Christians got super-excited about it for a while and then apparently forgot all about it. Not even the mark’s sister writing a debunk of the account on Facebook could stop them while they were in full throat (the mark had just suffered an epileptic seizure; he never came close to dying). Indeed, one can see sporadic claims of resurrections in the media–here’s one about one such claim from 2011 that comes pre-debunked. There’s also an entire genre of Christian lit called heavenly tourism that is basically written-down Near-Death Experiences from Christians who think they’ve been brought back from the dead and now want to tell everyone else (for a fee, of course) what Heaven or Hell were totally like.
Other than in a context of faith healing blowout revivals, even most Christians look askance at cultists in their religion who make those kinds of claims after they’ve murdered their children through medical neglect or physical abuse.
When I was Christian, resurrection stories usually only came out of visiting missionaries, who tended to have no evidence whatsoever of their numerous miracle claims. They didn’t worry about not having it, either; most of us thought of places like Africa as so godforsaken primitive that we wouldn’t even think about how advanced those countries really were. They could also count on us not wondering why “God” was pouring out miracles only on areas like that; if we asked at all then we got told that people there, being so primitive, put more trust in divine power or that these miracles went along with tons of major new revivals as happened in the Acts of the Apostles. These were explanations I personally heard as a Christian; I don’t think much has changed since I deconverted.
You won’t see a faith healer usually even try a resurrection, for various good reasons, but you’ll hear the claims made occasionally or someone will wave Heaven is For Real at you like it’s PROOF YES PROOF that miracles of that nature happen.
What you will never, ever see is real evidence that it has.
Your Tour Has Come to an End–For Today, For Now.
So those are the big-name miracles that you’ll see in Christianity–hopefully explained and made more clear!
Little wonder that after I began noticing the chicanery I’ve outlined for you here, back when I was Christian, I began wondering exactly why it was that this totally honest and true religion had so many fake miracle claims going on in it!
I’d like to stress one last thing, on that note:
I have never, ever, even once, even a little, even a bit, ever run across a miracle claim credibly supported by objective evidence. There is always a perfectly natural explanation for what Christians claim happened.
Even when I was married to Biff, who was really tight with our denomination’s biggest names and friends with all the favored evangelists, I never once saw a real live miracle occur. And I ached to see one. Ached. I just never did. Every time, I’d realize what was wrong with what I was seeing and I’d get a little more dismayed that another dishonest huckster had fooled everyone around me.
I can already hear the objections of Christians about these hucksters and how they drive away TRUE CHRISTIANS™, so I hope you’ll join me next time as we plunge further into the murky world of Bad Christians.
Please exit through the gift shop for all your bobblehead needs. If you hear loud cheeping coming from the left there, just look away–that poor T-Rex is so self-conscious by now…
* I used to know a guy whose eyesight was so poor that his friends literally called him “The Blindness.” For some reason he didn’t mind. Mine’s not much better, but at least nobody thinks I’m the living embodiment of blindness. At least, I don’t think anybody does.