EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD FROM EXPERIENCE: MIRACLES, PART 4
Why doesn’t God heal amputees?
This is a very important question that was made famous by Dr. Richard Dawkins. In a visit to Lourdes in France, Dawkins made note of the great number of wheelchairs and crutches that had been purportedly left behind by the cripples who no longer needed them after having been supposedly healed by the miraculous waters of the grotto. He then made note of the fact that there weren’t any prosthetic limbs among the wheelchairs and crutches. Why, Dawkins wondered, doesn’t God heal amputees? This has since become one of the more popular “Questions for Christians” on atheist websites. Indeed, it’s hard to find a list of such questions that doesn’t include it.
This question is really presenting an argument on the existence of God. If there is a God, the argument goes, then God would perform certain kinds of miracles. Since we don’t witness God performing those miracles, there’s no reason to conclude that God exists. Before discussing the flaws in this argument, however, it’s fair to ask what difference it would honestly make if God healed amputees. Besides the obvious difference it would make in the lives of those formerly disabled, how would people react were God to create limbs where none existed? How would atheists, in particular, react? Would the response be so different than to other miracles? Many would be astounded, certainly. Others, frankly, not so much. In the Scriptures, a man blind from birth is given sight by Jesus (John 9). Some were amazed and believed. Others were incredulous, suspecting some trick or work of the devil. The same was true for all the miracles of Jesus. Why should it be different among moderns?
In truth, even if they witnessed a miracle themselves, many would remain skeptical. Dawkins himself said as much in a 2012 interview with Peter Boghossian. Explaining that he formerly supposed that if he heard a big, booming voice out of the sky announcing itself as the voice of God, he would believe. He’s now convinced, however, that even this must have some sort of natural explanation behind it, such as aliens. One wonders why Dawkins cares that God doesn’t heal amputees, given that he’s made it clear that, even should he witness the most astounding of miracles, he would still not believe. Dawkins dismisses supernatural causes out of hand. They are not to be considered, even if all other explanations fail.
The fact is, as has been discussed above, there are innumerable, well-documented accounts of healings and other miracles performed by God. There’s no reason to think that any particular miracle, such as God healing an amputee, would tip the scale toward faith in God for those who aren’t open to receiving Him. Just as Abraham concluded that Dives’ brothers, whose minds were closed to God’s revelation, wouldn’t be persuaded by someone rising from the dead, those who won’t be persuaded by the well-documented healing miracles God has performed aren’t likely to be persuaded by His healing an amputee.
Now, let’s get to the argument this question is making, and why that argument is unsound. This is how the argument goes:
If there is a God, then God would heal amputees.
Yet, an amputee has never been healed.
Therefore, there is no God.
The amputee question is only one of a variety that fit this argument. There are countless others like it: Why doesn’t God feed all the starving children of the world? Why doesn’t God kill all the tyrannical dictators who oppress so many innocents? Pick anything you care to that God seemingly doesn’t do, and you can fit it into the argument. Regardless of the form it takes, the errors in the argument are easily identified. The first premise is a straw man. The second premise is an uncertain claim. Therefore, the argument is unsound, because the first premise is certainly false and the second premise may be false.
First, how can we make the claim that, if there is a God, God would heal an amputee or, for that matter, do any particular act? If God is God, after all, then no one can oblige Him. No one can demand anything of God. God is God. We are not God. God isn’t obliged to heal anyone. That He does so is evidence of His mercy toward us, not of His obligation toward us. But, isn’t it reasonable to expect that a good God would heal amputees (or feed all starving children, or what have you)? No. It isn’t reasonable to expect anything of God, except what God has promised. He hasn’t promised to heal all illness, or relieve all suffering, not in this world, anyway. To expect a particular act of the One Who created the heavens and the earth, and us as well, as if He owed it to us, is presumptuous in the extreme. We cannot oblige God. God owes us nothing. We, however, owe Him everything, including our faith unconditioned by our expectations.
But, didn’t Jesus promise that He would give us anything we asked for? “Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours” (Mark 11:24; see also: Matthew 18:19 and John 14:12-14). Yes, but this must be tempered by God’s will for our salvation. God will not give us something that will be an obstacle to our salvation. Neither will He give us anything contrary to His divine will, which is always directed toward our salvation. It must also be tempered by our own disposition. James 4:3 says, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Even St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, was refused when he prayed to God to be healed of a “thorn in the flesh” that tormented him (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). God told Paul that he would find strength in his weakness. Paul said he rejoiced in his sufferings, having united them with those of Christ for the sake of the Church (Colossians 1:24). Jesus refused to perform a miracle on demand (Matthew 12:38-41; Mark 8:11-12), and He warned Satan in the desert, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test” (Matthew 4:7, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16). Clearly, Jesus didn’t intend this promise of answered prayer to mean that we could manipulate God to do our will rather than His.
The first premise, then, is a straw man. It creates an expectation of God we have no reason to hold, other than from our own ideas about God. But, our ideas about God could be wrong, and our expectations unreasonable. This is where many people lose faith. They create expectations of God in their own minds. When God fails to meet those expectations, they reject Him. Really, they’ve only rejected the God they’ve created in their own minds, not the God Who is God. This is what atheists want believers to do. It plays on our brokenness, our desire to be free from suffering, which is shared by all people. It seems so reasonable to think that God would heal amputees, or feed starving children, or stop tyrannical dictators, or take away my pain or the pain of those I love. What good is a God Who doesn’t take away suffering? Isn’t that what God’s supposed to do? But, God has promised none of this. What God has promised is freedom from the chains of sin, and eternal life with Him in His kingdom. Our disabilities, and even the sufferings we endure in this earthly life, are no obstacles to the kingdom. Our sins are. Jesus came to free us from our sins. He made no promises to take away all illness or earthly suffering. Such was the error of many in Jesus’ own day, who expected a Messiah to lead a military revolt, freeing them from living under the boot of Rome, as the Maccabees had freed them from the Greeks. But, those are man-made expectations, not the promises of God. The first premise fails because it’s a straw man.
Second, how do we know God doesn’t heal amputees? In fact, there are a number of claims of God restoring amputated limbs, from John Damascene’s hand being miraculously restored, to the Miracle of Calanda, to reports today from all over the Majority World. Dr. Craig Keener, in his two-volume set, Miracles, received claims of restored limbs during his investigations. As well, he reports on many well-documented cases of withered limbs being filled-out, gaping wounds closed-up, and of at least one large tumor that disappeared before the eyes of amazed witnesses (OK, this is the opposite of God restoring a limb, but it’s still pretty cool). In 1974, Robert Gutherman, then a 14 year old boy, suffered a severe, bone-dissolving infection in his right ear that doctors said would mean he would be deaf in that ear for the rest of his life. After praying for the intercession of Mother Katherine Drexel, a Catholic nun and founder of Xavier University in New Orleans, Robert could hear. On examination, the two bones of his inner ear that had been destroyed by the infection were found restored. Are these claims credible? I don’t know. But, those who present this argument need to be certain that what they’re claiming God doesn’t do isn’t, in fact, something that God does or has done. It’s certainly reasonable to expect that claims of restored limbs be investigated and substantiated. Just so, it’s unreasonable to say that God doesn’t heal amputees, and expect that this claim will be accepted without dispute. The second premise fails because it’s an uncertain claim, one that can’t be proved.
God’s existence doesn’t depend on His doing what I, or Dawkins, or anyone thinks He should be doing. It makes no more sense to say that God doesn’t exist because He’s never healed an amputee (or fed all the starving children, or killed tyrannical dictators, or what have you…) than it does to say that I don’t exist because I’ve never run for public office. Perhaps an atheist could say, “Well, maybe it doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but it sure proves that He isn’t the kind of God I would believe in, or I would expect to exist!” The atheist could say that, sure, but that only proves something about the atheist. It proves nothing about God. You could as easily say, “Well, if you don’t run for public office, you’re not the kind of citizen I think this country needs, or I expect this country to raise!” That’s very interesting, but it only proves something about you, while proving nothing about me. God doesn’t promise to end all suffering in this life, or heal all people. He does promise to enter into our suffering and redeem it. He also says that we can join our suffering with His, and that by doing so, our suffering can be redemptive.
This argument is fatally flawed. If God is God, then no one can oblige Him, and His existence certainly doesn’t depend on His meeting our expectations of Him. Being disappointed over God not meeting their expectations may explain why, in a study by Julie Exline, psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, published in the January, 2011 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Behavior, atheists reported higher levels of anger toward God than other groups. It begs the question, of course, why so many are so angry at a Being Whose existence they deny.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.