In last month's Premier Christianity magazine, Derren Brown explained how he was sceptical regarding miraculous claims. Following the broadcast of the that interview on Unbelievable? a listener challenged Christian physicians to come forward with miracle stories and objective evidence of them.
Well, challenge accepted.
I am a physician and have been treating patients for 23 years. Brown said he would want to verify a miracle healing with objective evidence such as vastly different x-rays. I have seen a number of cases that could be considered miraculous based on this criteria where patients have behaved in ways completely inexplicable with current medical knowledge.
Just this past month I met a middle aged healthy lady who presented with symptoms of sudden onset of heart failure. An echocardiogram of her heart confirmed this. This finding usually prompts a left heart catheterisation to further evaluate the cause. This was done the following day, and to everyone’s astonishment, the heart function was completely normal! Puzzled, a repeat echocardiogram was performed the same day, and was completely normal.
We initially thought there must be some mistake, (the wrong patient, someone else’s test, or some other explanation) and everything was re-examined and the results were verified by multiple cardiologists. The collective 100 years of medical experience of the team of physicians involved had never heard of or seen this. It is absolutely unexplainable in medical terms, not thought to be possible.
This is an example of an objective, carefully measured, verifiable set of advanced imaging studies showing a complete healing of severe heart failure - all in less than 24 hours.
Here’s another story: I regularly visit third world countries as part of medical relief teams. I was once in remote Mexico with a team treating very poor people as best we could. We had a very experienced otolaryngologist with us, and he was evaluating children for cleft lip and cleft palate repair. A young child was brought to him, and upon inspecting his nasal cavity, he discovered an obstructing tumor called nasopharyngeal cancer. These are universally fatal if not treated aggressively, and with the physician’s vast experience, he was certain this was the diagnosis even without a biopsy. The parents were instructed to bring the child back the next day for surgery.
A group of people prayed with the family. The following morning they showed up with the child. Pre-operative checklists were done, and just before the child underwent anesthesia, the surgeon took one last look. There was no tumor. They summoned the parents, and told them they had brought the wrong child, but they insisted it was the same one. There was a great deal of conversation among our team, translators, and the family, but in the end we all bore witness that this was the same child. There was no rational or medical explanation for this; these tumors simply do not disappear overnight.
These are the facts, and different people can come to various conclusions about how to explain the facts. I give these examples not to say to someone like Derren Brown “Here is a miracle. It proves there is a God and you cannot refute it.” I share them because they fit the demand of objective proof of something considered miraculous that’s often put forth.
A challenge for the believer and non believer
I am a skeptic by nature, and with my rigorous medical training everything must be proven. I am not saying these two instances are miracles in the sense that I absolutely believe that God directly intervened in space and time and deliberately did something to alter the course of nature. By nature I tend to not believe this actually happens very often. It’s possible the tests got mixed up or were performed in error, or they brought the wrong boy, or we were victims of a hoax.
We clearly do not have complete medical knowledge. There are always outliers. Maybe there are one in a million people who have the genetic capacity to regrow a limb instantly, or have a widespread cancer disappear, or have some other condition completely reverse or heal in and unthinkably short period of time? In that case, the regrowing of a limb before one’s eyes would not be a divine miracle, but just an ultra-rare natural occurrence!
Most experienced physicians can tell stories of the unexplained and seemingly miraculous
This explanation presents a challenge not just to the believer, but to the nonbeliever. If the ‘rare but naturally possible’ explanation can apply to the above medical stories, then surely it could also apply to the resurrection of Jesus.
Could a skeptic admit the resurrection of Jesus really did happen and that 1 in a billion people have the genetic or physical capability to defy death and have the cells and organs of their body restart after a couple of days?
Miracles in the news
Given that there are clear instances of apparent healings, many Christians have wondered why such stories don’t make the front page of our scientific journals, not to mention national newspapers.
We as doctors do not jump to miracle explanations. It is not within the scope of medicine to speculate on such things, and no legitimate journal is going to publish something as such. That said, there are “case reports” throughout the medical literature of all kinds of things, including the unexplainable. In fact, most are published for that reason - that they are outside the norm of what is known or expected.
Most experienced physicians can tell stories of the unexplained and seemingly miraculous, some well-documented. I think the nature of belief itself in an individual person predicts how they will ultimately perceive a set of facts, rather than the facts themselves.
With regards to purported miracles (defined here as an intervention by a supernatural agent to alter an otherwise natural course of events), it seems that both the believer and denier deal with a probability. If one of the medical examples I gave were perceived as a miracle by a believer, there is an onus on that person to have a threshold of what they consider a miracle versus chance.
Given the billions of people who have ever lived, is it so improbable that just one could rise from the dead as simply a natural anomaly?
For instance, I have heard of a person who prays for mundane things such as a parking spot at the shopping mall. When she does get a great one after praying, maybe she attributes it to God’s intervention, while most of us would ascribe it to chance. The probability did not exceed our limit for what would be miraculous. What then is our limit or criteria? The believer must admit at least a chance that what happened was a natural event, even when statistically improbable.
Given the billions of people who have ever lived, is it so improbable that just one could rise from the dead as simply a natural anomaly? Similarly, it seems to me that the onus is upon the miracle-denier to have some probability threshold that must be eclipsed to be considered a miracle. What proof is enough? What evidence is required? Is it not at least possible that a creator could periodically intervene in it’s creation?
Let’s postulate that a respected medical journal article published a patient case replete with hard, concrete documentation of an extraordinary healing or recovery that seemed impossible and unexplainable by any medical knowledge, and it was reviewed by 1000 independent physicians, and all 1000 agreed that it was a miracle, is that enough? What about 10,000 doctors? If not, then how many? What statistical power does one require to prove or disprove it as a miracle? I find this relation between probability and belief crucial for many topics beyond this, as it seems the basic dividing line by definition is “belief” between the theist and atheist.
Different individuals will look at it the same event or data through a different worldview lens and come to polar opposite conclusions. But there is an entirely different level of miracle that often gets overlooked. This miracle can be found simply by observing “normal” processes in the body that go on unconsciously every second of every day without much celebration or appreciation.
Take any organ system in the body, read how it works, and how multiple systems work together, and how a single enzyme can convert millions of molecules per second.
This is not to even mention the miracle of consciousness from unconsciousness, or as Einstein put it, “the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” If someone looks past all of this without a sense of a miracle, I have very little confidence a limb regrowing before their eyes would ever constitute one.
Dr Brian D Rekus, 45 lives in the Midwest, USA. He has been a practicing physician of internal medicine (M.D.) since 1997