Isn’t it weird that faith healers aren’t curing COVID-19? Isn’t it weirder that their flock isn’t calling them on it?
From Oral Roberts’ sweaty tent revivals in the 1950s to Benny Hinn’s slick five-hour productions today, faith healers have been busy. Kenneth Copeland, Pat Robertson, Peter Popoff, and other big names are faith healers or started that way. A healing revival has lots of practiced emotional manipulation, but there is clear biblical support for healings of this sort. Jesus did public healings, and we see a first-century promise to the sick in James 5:14–16:
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
If faith healing worked, and healing revivals were the place to see them, what would that look like? How could we tell that it was for real? Here’s a list of some of the things we should expect to see (contrasted with what we actually see).
Use of money
Donations given by sick people to the ministry that provided real faith healing would either be refused or used for conventional good works (food, clothes, and housing for the needy, for example). Instead, God would provide money, equipment, or whatever was necessary to run the ministry. After all, God “will repay each person according to what they have done” (Romans 2:6), and Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38).
What we see instead: the big faith-healing ministries take in roughly $100 million per year, and sick people in the audience, who probably have better things like medical expenses to spend their money on, are encouraged to give money repeatedly. Desperate people giving money they shouldn’t part with to rich people who make big claims with paltry evidence? Though it may be done for the best of reasons, that certainly looks from the outside like a scam, a modern-day version of the patent medicine salesman.
Relationship to evidence
If faith healing worked, the focus would be on evidence and science. Scientists and doctors would be given easy access to evidence supporting claims of miraculous healings and would be encouraged to evaluate the claims and publish the results. They’d be encouraged to examine people before and after healings by prayer.
You would see statistics showing the efficacy of faith healing, just like with a conventional medical treatment. The ministry would show that it could reliably access the supernatural by winning a public, transparent test like the James Randi Education Foundation’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. (The JREF Challenge retired in 2015 after fifty years with no winners.) If faith healing worked, you’d see people going there first instead of conventional medicine.
What we see instead: instead of evidence and science, we see anecdotes, emotion, and faith. The focus is on quantity rather than quality, and if you debunk the claims of one anecdote, they point you to others. No one won the JREF million-dollar prize, and no big-name psychic or faith healer ever tried. The 2006 STEP experiment, often known as the Templeton Study because of the foundation that funded it, showed no value in third-party healing prayer.
Relationship to faith
It may be faith healing, but it’s claimed to actually work. Faith may be the key to unlock the miracle, but the results should be testable. It should work as reliably as a car or light switch works—otherwise, “faith healing works” is a meaningless claim. If a sick person stays sick despite treatment, the medicine (the faith healing procedure) would be faulty.
What we see instead: We see sick people who don’t recover blamed for their lack of faith, adding guilt to their burden and making faith healing unfalsifiable. We see sick people told that using conventional medicine admits a lack of faith. We see people pushed because of the limitations of conventional medicine to a desperate, “Well, I can’t take it with me” attitude toward their life savings, preyed upon by faith healers eager to provide snake oil in return for all they can take.
I remember one televangelist who used the line, “The bigger the need, the bigger the seed”—that is, the bigger your problem (and a life-threatening disease is a pretty big problem), the more money you must send to God to the televangelist. It’s hard to imagine more reprehensible advice to give to a vulnerable person.Lourdes, France became a destination for the sick shortly after a claimed visitation by Mary in 1858. Today it receives six million visitors per year, though the Catholic Church recognizes a total of just 67 miraculous cures. How many more people are killed or injured just traveling to Lourdes than are imagined to be healed?
Kinds of cures
A real faith healer would be able to cure anything, including healings that anyone could see, such as limbs restored, burns healed, and chromosomal diseases like Huntington’s or Down syndrome cured.
What we see instead: we see only claims for invisible “cures” like cancer or some other internal illness that we can’t check on the spot. We must take the results on faith.
The battlefield would be the perfect place for faith healing. Imagine a wizard would could conjure injured soldiers back to health or even raise them from the dead. Such a military would be invincible.
What we see instead: chaplains in the military can be helpful with matters of conscience (“Is it wrong to kill people?”) or as a therapist in an extremely stressful environment. But they have no medical mojo to offer medics and doctors.
Real faith healings wouldn’t need to be elaborate public events. Real faith healers would take their show on the road. They wouldn’t be in churches but rather in hospitals or on street corners. The goal wouldn’t be showmanship but simply healing people. There would be no interest in a big audience, and a private hospital room would be as good a venue as a stadium.
What we see instead: we see a performance. We see emotional manipulation. We see tricks like those performed by a stage magician—think of Peter Popoff’s use of wireless messages to magically “know” someone’s name or ailment. We see frauds like putting someone who normally needs only a cane into a wheelchair. The patient is then wheeled onstage so the faith healer can do his thing and then marvel when the patient gets up and walks.
With the public spectacle, we have the solitary person put on the spot and all the emotional issues that brings: the placebo effect that can simulate a cure, adrenaline that masks pain, peer pressure to encourage you to play the role you’re expected to play, and so on.
Negative results? Just blame them on demons.
Faith healing wouldn’t need a special personality or great training. There would be no need for intermediaries like Benny Hinn. Jesus himself makes clear that it’s as simple as, “Ask and you will receive” (John 16:24).
What we see instead: faith healers are apparently anointed by God. They may or may not have great learning, but they have the gift. Communicating with God is so tenuous that only a very few can do it. Nevertheless, even their performance isn’t very reliable, so don’t expect a guarantee.
Here again, the presence of an intermediary with his hand out makes faith healing look like just another scam.
Televangelists always conclude their infomercials with two requests: to pray for them and to send lots of money. But why ask for money? If prayer works and God responds to it, then the prayer is far more potent than my twenty dollars. Televangelists asking for money means that they know what I know: that money has value but prayer is just a placebo. Prayer does nothing whether I’m at home praying for their ministry or they’re on television praying for my health.
Am I too hard on faith healing? Televangelists handwave about the comfort provided by a god that’s not there or a heaven that doesn’t exist, but this may provide hope for the hopeless.
I’m in no position to criticize what someone in a tough position must do to get through life, but we’re not talking about a sugar pill. We’re talking about taking poor people’s money in return for witchcraft or encouraging them to shun conventional medicine. In the West in the twenty-first century, when we know something about disease, neither is acceptable.
[at both pagan and Christian shrines]
were remarkably the same.
There are, for example, many crutches hanging
in the grotto of Lourdes,
mute witness to those who arrived lame and left whole.
There are, however, no prosthetic limbs among them,
no witnesses to paraplegics whose lost limbs were restored.
— John Dominic Crossan
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 2/22/16.)
Image credit: Jay Trinidad