An elderly woman tosses aside her walker and sprints around a crowded auditorium amidst thunderous applause. Hundreds of congregants gasp as a faith healer lengthens a man’s shortened leg in the name of Jesus. Throngs of worshipers fall backward, seemingly lifeless, as an evangelist breathes the Holy Spirit on them.
These are common sights on Christian television, meant to convince us that God continues to perform signs, wonders and miracles through His anointed servants.
But are these truly miracles? Is God really at work, or is some charlatan playing on our emotions so we’ll pull out our checkbooks and “release” our faith with a generous donation?
It’s not always easy to tell. Thankfully, Christian apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek offer some good advice in their book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. The authors remind us that miracles are possible today – God still deals in the supernatural – but it’s important to separate the miraculous from a host of counterfeits.
Six categories of the unusual
Geisler and Turek say there are at least six categories of “unusual events,” only one of which is a miracle. A brief summary follows.
Miracle. A miracle is an unmistakable sign from God that meets certain criteria. It must be unique, easily recognizable, and something only God can do. God alone has infinite power, supreme design and purpose, and complete moral purity.
In other words, to be miraculous, the act or event cannot be explained naturally. In addition, the act may not be performed for entertainment purposes or personal gain, but to exalt God. Further, there may be no error or immorality or it is not from God.
Examples of miracles are raising the dead, calming the stormy seas, and restoring sight to the blind. These acts are instantaneous, complete, purposeful, and moral.
Providence. God indirectly causes providential events. That is, He uses natural laws to accomplish them. These may be quite remarkable and may stimulate faith, but they are not provable as supernatural.
Examples include answered prayers for healing, deliverance from danger, and protection from natural disasters. The authors cite the fog at Normandy in June of 1944, which shielded the Allied forces from detection by Nazi defenders.
Satanic signs. “Satan can perform tricks better than the best magicians – and there are many examples of these in the Bible – but those tricks fail to meet the characteristics of a true miracle,” write Geisler and Turek. True miracles cause one to think more highly of God, tell the truth, and promote moral behavior. Counterfeit signs do not do this.
Paul writes that Satan masquerades as an angel of light, so we should not be surprised when his minions counterfeit the things of God (2 Cor. 11:13-14).
Psychosomatic. These are psychological cures. To be sure, mental stress often leads to physical ailments, while positive attitudes, faith, and happiness have a healing effect (see Prov. 17:22). The power of suggestion is mighty indeed, and it proves that the mind can have a limited but significant impact on the body.
Magic. We’re talking slight-of-hand tricks or misleading the mind. A good magician can make you think he has sliced a person in half, and a good illusionist can cause you to believe a jumbo airliner has vanished in plain sight.
In a similar fashion, some faith healers seemingly cure crooked backs and wobbly knees, but it’s all for show.
Anomalies. These are unexplained freaks of nature, like the bumblebee. For years, scientists could not explain how the bumblebee flies. Its wings are too small for its body. But they later discovered that bees have a “power pack” that makes up for their small wings.
So, what about the elderly lady who chucks her walker at the beginning of this column? Chalk that up to magic or perhaps a psychosomatic cure. Fully documented cures at faith-healing services are as rare as impoverished televangelists.
The leg-lengthening incident? Pure slight of hand – an old faith healer’s trick with willing participants.
Those slain in the Spirit? The power of suggestion – the religious equivalent of the “wave” at a football game. If you watch closely, you’ll see people fall down only when those around them do the same.
True slaying in the Spirit may be found in Acts 5, when Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Holy Spirit – with fatal consequences. Today’s faith healers would do well to keep that divine discipline in mind when they demean the third Person of the Godhead.
This column first appeared Aug. 12, 2014, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.