The Perils of Faith-Healing 18 February 2018
Charisma Magazine is a leading magazine amongst Christians who identify as “charismatic:” that is, who believe that certain supernatural “Gifts of the Spirit” – such as speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy – are active in the church. The so-called “Word of Faith” movement (see my previous “On Religion” article: http://www.onreligion.co.uk/trumps-prosperity-gospel/) is becoming more and more influential in charismatic circles, and amongst the darlings of this movement are Gloria and Kenneth Copeland.
Charisma recently published an article reporting Gloria Copeland’s claim that flu shots are unnecessary because believers are provided supernatural protection by Jesus. Copeland believes that words have power to claim divine protection for the believer. The Copelands believe that Jesus bore all our infirmities on the cross, therefore no believer need ever get sick, and if they do then they can simply claim healing in Jesus’ name and they will be whole. In a video Gloria Copeland invites viewers to: “Just keep saying that: ‘I’ll never have the flu. I’ll never have the flu.’ Put words; inoculate yourself with the Word of God.”
Interestingly, the article also reports a measles outbreak in the Copelands’ church, exacerbated by a lack of vaccination. One Church member said: “To get a vaccine would have been viewed by me and my friends and my peers as an act of fear—that you doubted God would keep you safe. . .We simply didn’t do it.”
This theology is mind-bendingly naïve, reckless, and potentially life-threatening, particularly given the numbers of very young and very old people who die every year from the flu. It’s irresponsible to the point of making the preachers of this theology complicit in the deaths of those who follow their advice. One wonders would they give similar advice to an elderly person suffering a heart attack or a stroke? Rebuke it in Jesus name rather than call medical professionals? Should cancer sufferers reject chemotherapy and radiotherapy in favour of speaking out the Bible and claiming their healing? It would be a joke if it wasn’t so serious. Make no mistake about it: this sort of theology kills.
Here are some of worst consequences of this theology:
1. Delay in Seeking Medical Appointments
Some people are genuinely afraid of their doctor and what he might tell them. Such fears are often groundless, but unfortunately sometimes doctors do give their patients bad news. Either way it is in the patient’s best interests to go to their doctor. If they are well, their mind will be put at rest; if they are sick, they can begin potentially life-saving treatment. Too many people seek help in all the wrong places and by the time they go to their doctor it is too late. Faith-healing claims fuel this delay.
2. Stopping Medication
People sometimes stop their medication after visiting a faith-healer. This might even be by the command of the faith-healer. Throwing away medication can be seen as a sign of faith. Sometimes people are so assured of their cure that they cease their medication in a bout of holy excitement. Lamentably, some have paid with their lives for doing so. In a BBC programme called “Heart of the Matter,” (first aired in 1992), we see the case of a woman called Audrey Reynolds who suffered an ankle injury, epilepsy, and learning difficulties. After visiting the faith-healer Morris Cerullo, she stopped her medication. As a result, she took a fit and drowned in her bath.
3. Mistaken Healings
In these cases, the person is harmed by behaving a certain way rather than by stopping medication. People are often asked to run around the stage, touch their toes, or walk without their crutches. However, an unhealed person can end up exacerbating their condition, sometimes with lethal effects. Katherine Kuhlman once declared a woman healed of spine cancer, and had her perform on stage. Sadly, the woman’s spine subsequently collapsed and she died a few months later. Justin Peters reports a case he witnessed at a Benny Hinn rally in Birmingham, Alabama in 2002. Beside Peters sat a woman with an oxygen tank and tubes up her nose. Suffering from severe emphysema she hadn’t walked in years. In the euphoria of the service she pulled out the tubes, stood up, and began to walk. As Hinn’s assistants were walking her to the stage she got slower and slower until she collapsed into a chair, absolutely exhausted. She hadn’t been healed at all. Like thousands of others she had experienced merely temporary euphoria that caused an illusion of healing, and a rush of pain-reducing endorphins which can make humans achieve feats they might not normally be capable of. One final case is worth noting. Charismatic Christians in Northern Ireland recently trumpeted the alleged healing of a teenage boy who suffered from an aggressive cancer. The cancer appeared to go into remission and a healing was claimed (it wasn’t so loudly trumpeted that this boy had received months of chemotherapy and invasive surgery). Sadly, this boy died some time later of the very cancer he was proclaimed as having been cured of. I still hear people speak of the healing as a divine miracle, unaware that the boy later died.
4. The Distress of the Unhealed
Millions of people desperate for healing have been prayed for and remain unhealed. Many suffer great anguish when they listen to stories – typically false or exaggerated – of such healings. Faith-healing theology says God heals someone because of his great love, in response to faith (often evidenced by financial contributions to the faith-healer). Where does that message leave the unhealed? They are unloved by God, lacking in faith, too full of sin, and haven’t given enough money. JR Miller, Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership at Southern California Seminary, was born with nystagmus – a neurological condition causing eye problems. He watched the popular faith-healing televangelist Pat Robertson on the famous “700 Club” show and heard Robertson offer healing to his viewers. He called up for prayer, though couldn’t make a donation. He hung up the phone in tears: “My eyes were not healed. I blamed myself, ‘God, I promise I won’t sin anymore if you just heal by eyes!’ I was devastated and was left with the nagging questions. ‘God, why don’t you love me enough to heal me? Why is my faith not good enough?” An 11-year-old boy.
5. Further Psychological Costs
Faith-healers tell the sick to keep seeking their miracle: don’t give up! This is a hopeless endeavour that robs the most vulnerable people of their dignity. It hinders their ability to come to terms with their condition and make the best of the time they have left. One of the most undignified sights I’ve ever seen is watching sick people desperate to be healed and having to “audition” to get on stage at a Benny Hinn rally. One man I knew personally died in hopeless distress – a physical and spiritual wreck – because he didn’t get the miracle he had been lead to expect.
6. Financial Cost
You never meet poor faith-healers. They might not all have pacific view mansions, but they nevertheless do very well. Much of their wealth comes from sick and disabled people desperate for health. Promising miracles robs the sick and disabled of the money they should be using to improve their care and quality of life. Being disabled is an expensive business. Unlike faith-healers, disabled people rarely have a lot of money to spare, and the homes they are trying to adapt to make life a little bit easier for themselves certainly don’t have 20 pacific-view rooms.
7. The Truth
As important as 1-6 are, the most fundamental reason to oppose faith-healing claims and practices is because they are false – and often deliberately faked. There is typically one or some combination of the following at work:
i. The power of suggestion or the placebo effect – such as when a person experiences pain relief in the emotionally charged atmosphere of a healing crusade.
ii. The ideomotor effect – which seems to lie behind certain miracles which involve bodily joints or limbs, such as the leg growing miracle which appears from time to time on the charismatic scene.
iii. The natural healing ability of the human body – millions of years of evolution has equipped our bodies with amazing, and widely misunderstood, defence mechanisms.
iv. Misdiagnosis or faulty self-diagnosis – which leads people to think they have been cured of ailments they never actually had.
v. Misreporting or exaggeration – the temptation to “sex-up” one’s healing story is a strong one, especially when testifying to an expectant crowd of people moments after an alleged healing.
vi. Medical ignorance – which can lead people to have a very different understanding of their condition than a medical professional has.
vii. Plain old fraud, which is well documented.
If truth matters, then it’s important to investigate healing claims; and if those claims don’t hold up to scrutiny, it’s important to say so. In doing so we might just help protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society from false hope, guilt, and crippling debt.
Stephen J. Graham