Reformed Articles

Credulous Christians and knee-jerk skeptics

This post was originally published on this site
Recently I posted a report about Francis Chan healing the sick:

I didn’t vouch for his claims, but I think they merit respectful consideration. On Twitter, Phil Johnson, of JMac’s operation, chimed in on the same report:

The miracles of Jesus and the apostles were routinely public, undeniable, & well-attested by multiple eyewitnesses. Even Jesus’ most determined adversaries couldn’t argue that the miracles were faked. They therefore raised doubts about the source of his power (Mt. 12:24).

Miracles such as those done by Jesus and the apostles are NOT occurring in charismatic circles today. Simple honesty SHOULD compel even the most doctrinaire continuationists to admit that no one today is doing what the apostles did in Acts 5:12; 9:33-42; 19:11-12; etc.

Yet unverified and unverifiable claims are routinely made by charismatics. Tales are regularly told that, when investigated, turn out to be false.

That’s why spiritually sane people don’t automatically swallow stories like the one Francis Chan told last week at Moody.

When someone tells a fantastic tale like “Everyone I touched was healed!”—asking for evidence is NOT sinful unbelief. (Especially when the person telling the tale is a theological drifter.)

Jesus commanded us to have that flavor of skepticism. Mt 24:24; Lk 21:8.

Yes, I saw it: Francis Chan going full faith healer at Moody Bible Institute’s Founder’s Week—on the platform of Moody Church.

I used to live in that part of Chicago. There’s a hospital close by with a full ward of terminally ill children. Do you think he’ll pay them a visit?

Several issues:

1. There’s some history between Francis Chan and JMac’s outfit. Francis is their most famous and popular graduate. But he’s become a disappointment and embarrassment to them, so they disassociate themselves from his ministry

2. I agree with Phil that there’s lots of chicanery in the charismatic movement.

3. I agree with him that we should ask for evidence and not “automatically swallow” every report. 

4. Speaking for myself, I find Francis’s recent testimony credible. That doesn’t necessarily mean I believe it. There’s a difference between saying something is believable and saying you believe it. I think it’s more than possibly true. It’s plausible or probable without being compelling. I’m very open to what he said. 

I’d like to have more background information about the folks he allegedly healed. Where these persistent, clearly-identified conditions? What about follow-up studies?

5. That said, Francis’s testimony is evidence. Prima facie evidence in its own right. And there were multiple reported witnesses. To be sure, that’s different than have separate accounts by different witnesses. It would be useful to hear from other members of his team. It would be useful to interview the folks who were said to be healed. Or their friends and relatives. 

6. Francis is somewhat lacking in theological judgment. That doesn’t disqualify him as an eyewitness. There is the danger of gullibility. Maybe he’s too eager to see divine signs. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss his firsthand report out of hand. 

7. As William James classically stated, there are two opposite errors to avoid:

“Believe truth!” “Shun error!”—these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may color differently our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance. Clifford, in the instructive passage which I have quoted, exhorts us to the latter course. Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense for ever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true…For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped. But I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world…

8. Although Francis may be credulous to a fault, Phil and Jmac are incredulous to a fault. Phil isn’t consistently skeptical. He’s oblivious to his own double standard. Debunkers like Michael Shermer, Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan, James Randi, and Paul Kurtz (to name a few) don’t think NT miracles are undeniable. It’s not as if we can use modern scanning technology to diagnose the preexisting medical conditions of individuals in the Gospels and Acts. We don’t have case-histories or before and after scans. We don’t have identifiable skeletal remains to examine. 

Many dominical healings involve possession and exorcisms, but certainly possession and exorcisms can sometimes be faked. And that’s even assuming the Gospels and Acts are trustworthy accounts, which sceptics deny. Phil is playing with a double-bladed sword.

9. Did Jesus visit leper colonies and cure all the lepers? For that matter, isn’t Jesus still alive? But he doesn’t pop into cancer wards to heal everyone in sight. It’s reckless when cessationists like Phil raise objections which, if taken seriously, discredit biblical miracles.

10. Phil’s objection is circular: “Miracles such as those done by Jesus and the apostles are NOT occurring in charismatic circles today…When someone tells a fantastic tale like “Everyone I touched was healed!”

On the one hand, Phil seems to be saying that when Jesus and the apostles healed people, everyone they touched was healed–yet that’s a “fantastic tale” if someone today makes the same claim. What makes that a fantastic tale now but not back then?

And how does he know that “Miracles such as those done by Jesus and the apostles are NOT occurring in charismatic circles today”? His denial seems to amount to the claim that they can’t be happening today because miracles like that don’t happen today. I don’t believe it because I know that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore, and I know that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore because it only happened in the past. 

But that’s circular. It begs the question. What would count as evidence that it still happens? If it still happens, we’d expect to hear reports of it happening. Which is, in fact, what’s going on. 

Phil’s attitude is like saying we know a species went extinct because there are no contemporary sightings of the species. As such, we should discount all contemporary sightings because we know the species went extinct. All contemporary reports must be false. 

I’m by no means suggesting that we accept every reported miracle. But I do object to Phil’s blanket preemptive dismissal. To reject every report is just as mindless as accepting every report. 

11. I believe Phil’s paradigm of a healer is that God delegates the ability to heal. That’s an autonomous ability which a healer can perform on anyone at any time at any place. Hence the taunt about failing to clear out a cancer ward.

But that’s a very mechanical view of healing. What if God occasionally empowers a Christian to lay on hands and heal. It’s not a permanent or even regular endowment, but  temporary endowment. It might only be once or twice in the lifetime of the Christian. BTW, we have examples of that in the OT, where the Spirit of God temporarily enables someone to do something extraordinary or supernatural. 

Proof of miraculous healing doesn’t require a 100% success rate. The only proof necessary is a patient with a naturally incurable condition who is cured by the intervention of a Christian who, let us say, prays over them.