Why won’t God heal amputees?

This is directed at believers who think God performs miracles. Healing miracles. Not a long time ago in land far away, but here and now. In my own life as a Christian, claims of healing miracles were abundant. Everything from colds to cancers were obliterated by the healing power of Jesus. But one type of miracle was always conspicuously absent – the healing of amputees.

The spontaneous regrowth of an amputated human limb, especially shortly after receiving prayer, is probably the one healing miracle that could not be explained naturalistically. Many other sorts of healings involve measures that are elusively subjective, like degree of pain or discomfort. Others involve measures that admit of fluctuation under different conditions, like degree of functionality. Others are objectively verifiable, but readily accommodated by a naturalistic framework. Cancer does go into remission, both for believing and unbelieving patients. MS relapses and remits in the ordinary course of events. Here’s an excerpt from the website of the National MS Society: “Relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS) – the most common disease course – is characterized by clearly defined attacks of new or increasing neurologic symptoms. These attacks – also called relapses or exacerbations – are followed by periods of partial or complete recovery (remissions).” In apologist Craig Keener’s two-volume set Miracles, Keener makes reference to cases of multiple sclerosis remitting. Which, as you just heard, happens to every patient with RRMS, the most common form of MS. Keener, nevertheless, adds these to his list of miracles.

There is certainly the occasional claim to witnessing a miraculous regrowth of an amputated limb. One can find someone claiming nearly anything. Hard evidence supporting these claims is much harder to come by. Lots of strange events are reported – everything from alien abductions to bigfoot sightings to Elvis sightings to reports of amputated limbs regrowing. Testimonial evidence is enough for ordinary claims, like “I own a table” or “My cat is a little shy”. But it’s not enough for extraordinary claims (claims with a low prior probability), like “Elvis is still alive” or “I was abducted by aliens” or “An amputated limb was regrown”. Testimony is more than enough in many contexts. This is not one of them.

There are nuances here to explore, some having to do with the range of beliefs we rationally accept almost entirely on the testimony of others. But hopefully we can agree that the sort of evidence (currently) available to us supporting the spontaneous regrowth of amputated limbs is not enough to convince any minimally skeptical person. Second or third or fourth or fifth hand accounts of a limb regrowing somewhere in Africa (for some reason it’s often in Africa) is not exactly the gold standard of testimonial evidence. Keep in mind, there’s a range of quality within the category “testimonial evidence”. It would be flawed to defend the category “testimonial evidence” with non-controversial cases, and then go on to extrapolate to cases where no one should accept the claim at face value – whether it’s religious or non-religious in nature. (“Here, I have a fifth-hand account of a crowd who saw Elvis somewhere in Africa…”) We can find plenty of hard evidence supporting other healings, including medical records, independent attestation, and video documentation. To my knowledge, all these well-documented healings, without exception, can be explained naturalistically.

Also susceptible to straightforward naturalistic explanation are the innumerable cases of prayed-for patients who passed away or suffered with their affliction until the end. We can’t just remember the hits and ignore the misses, after all. We want our theory to explain all the relevant data. Naturalism does a fantastic job predicting all the data of miracles and healings, which include all the prayed-for patients who languished until the end. 

Not to mention all those patients whose cancer went into remission without any request for intercession from God. Fortuitous healings, gains of functionality, lessened pain, and so on are enjoyed by believers and unbelievers, Muslims and Hindus, Christians and agnostics. A lucky minority from every religious demographic have recovered against all odds. And of course, those from every religious demographic have been disappointed as well. Once again, naturalism best predicts the distribution of healings and non-healings across the population. Healings seem to happen without any concern for your religious affiliation, and the same goes for non-healings. This is best predicted by naturalism.

So, as some have put it, “Why does God hate amputees?” He at least occasionally heals those with cancer, back pain, bad eyesight, and MS. Why won’t he heal amputees? God hasn’t been moved to show one of them mercy? Is he able and willing, but has just coincidentally never healed an amputee?

I am not assuming that every prayer request must be answered, or that Christianity predicts that every prayer would be answered, or that God’s plan requires man’s approval. I am also not assuming that there has never been a case of a limb regrowth. I’m rightly inferring that there haven’t been any such cases because there’s no good documentation of any such cases. Besides, if there was one amazing, undeniable case, every Christian would talk about that case when this subject came up. It is very telling that there is no such case.

Correlation and Timing

One wrinkle worth addressing here is timing. Sure, cancer goes into remission for the faithful and unfaithful alike, but isn’t it quite a coincidence that the cancer went into remission after prayer? The congregation prayed for healing, and the next time the patient visits the doctor, they find out that their cancer is in remission. To quote Randall Munroe, “Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.” Surely the timing is better predicted by theism than naturalism here.

In these cases, it should be noted that when a loved one or fellow congregant is in need of healing, they don’t receive prayer just once. Prayer is continual; it’s typically not a one-and-done sort of deal. Yes, the patient was healed after they received prayer…over the entire course of their sickness. Praying for the recovery of a sick friend or family member is not something everyone does once, at the same time, before crossing their fingers and waiting, and – oh hey, they were healed the day after everyone submitted their one and only intercessory prayer. The timing is not as suggestive once we realize that if they’re fortunate enough to be healed at all, it’s bound to be after they received prayer.

Hiddenness and Miracles

The odds of spontaneous limb regrowth are spectacularly low on naturalism. They are higher on theism, i.e., Pr(E | N) < Pr(E | T). Thus, our observations (~E) constitute evidence for naturalism relative to theism. This isn’t good news for theism either way, but if it’s really bad news for theism depends on how high the theist puts the odds of miraculous healings in general, which varies from theist to theist. Some are quite conservative and shy away from the argument from miracles, and others are enthusiastic defenders of it. As I said at the outset, this is directed at those who think the argument from miracles is a great argument for God. For them, the question is, “Why doesn’t God heal amputees if he’s willing to perform convincing miracles?” If God’s not willing to perform convincing miracles, then that’s not a theist who’s making the argument to begin with.

So how high does the theist place the odds of miraculous healings in general? Since there is no principled way to distinguish between miraculous healings of other sorts and miraculous healing of amputees, whatever rough estimate assigned to the former is what we should assign to the latter. Whatever the odds are for a prayed-for patient’s cancer going into remission, so should the odds be for a prayed-for amputee regenerating a lost limb.

I can imagine a theist pushing back on my claim about “no principled way to distinguish” the cases of God healing cancer and God healing an amputee. Sure, the supernatural mechanism would be the same in both cases, but maybe they’d want to claim that an amputee healing would be too convincing. The evidence for God in this case would be too good. We can’t have that! Whatever reasons God has for remaining hidden are the same reasons God won’t heal amputees. This problem of “Why won’t God heal amputees?” basically collapses into the problem of divine hiddenness. But if you like appealing to other miracles, this response will come back to bite you. Any theist who takes this line has done so at the cost of the argument from miracles. They will have to abandon the argument. You cannot simultaneously hold that healing miracles are wonderful evidence for God, and that there can’t be limb regrowth because that would be wonderful evidence for God, and clearly we can’t have that. If your reasons for hiddenness imply that God can’t perform really persuasive miracles, then it follows that the miracles we know about are not really persuasive. That means the atheist shouldn’t feel any rational pressure to believe in God based on reported miracle claims. But most miracle-affirming theists I know want to have it both ways when they’re playing the Hiddenness Card. They want to claim that God might not want to heal amputees because that would be such convincing evidence that he would effectively no longer be hidden, and God has reasons for being hidden. Then they want to turn around and say that the miracles we do have are so convincing they don’t know how I go on living in denial and I’m just closed off to the truth etc etc. Well, are the miracle claims we know about convincing or not?

Pandora’s Box

In fact, the problem goes deeper. If God has reasons for hiding – which is why he won’t regrow limbs and thus provide overwhelming evidence for his existence – then those reasons must carry over to other lines of evidence, too. Either there is overwhelming evidence for God’s existence that should convince any rational person who’s not emotionally resistant to theism, or God has reasons for not providing such evidence. It cannot be both. A theist cannot consistently hold that there is any spectacularly overwhelming evidence for God if they decide to play the Reasons for Hiddenness Card. There’s a clear tension between claiming that the evidence for God is overwhelming and that God doesn’t make his existence obvious (for whatever reason).

This is not a problem for all theists – just those theists who say that atheism is irrational, atheists are without excuse, etc. Well, if atheism is irrational, that means, on some level, that God’s existence is apparent. “God is hidden” is another way of saying “atheism is rational.” “Atheism is irrational” is another way of saying “God is not hidden.” The theist who concedes that atheism is rational is in a much better position to play this Hiddenness Card. I mean, I still have questions for the theist who grants that atheism is a rational position to hold. But it’s not as obviously problematic as claiming that atheism is totally irrational…but also, God is hidden and has good reasons for being hidden. I’m granting that point! Okay, God has good reasons for being hidden. That means his existence is not very obvious. He’s withholding evidence that could convince everyone he exists. This implies, among other things, that atheism is a rational position to hold.

This is why I’m skeptical of the Reasons for Hiddenness Card. There’s a tension between claiming that God can’t or won’t provide compelling evidence for his existence, and claiming that there is compelling evidence for God’s existence. By “compelling evidence,” I don’t just mean “evidence that renders theism rationally permissible.” I mean overwhelming evidence – evidence that makes it so any open-minded, rational person should be a theist. And as I mentioned, there are theists who will grant that atheism is a rational position to hold. Many won’t, but some will. Not just technically rationally permissible, or something weak like that. “Rational” as in “A thoughtful, reasonable person who’s open to the truth of theism can consider the relevant evidence and become an atheist.” (At that point, I would want to pursue an entirely different line of questioning having to do with salvation, the afterlife, the resurrection, what it means to have a relationship with God, and so on.)

The appeal to God’s reasons for hiddenness can seem selective and opportunistic, since ordinarily, the theist will probably want to claim that the evidence is such that we should be theists. Clearly, any theist who makes the argument from miracles cannot play the Reasons for Hiddenness Card when trying to explain away the lack of amputee healings. If God won’t heal amputees because he has reasons for remaining hidden, then it follows that the “miracles” he has performed do not constitute good evidence for theism, and atheists don’t need to pay any mind to your miracle claims. So, if the theist is making the argument from miracles, they can’t just turn around and say there are no amputee healings because that would be too revealing for God. In order to take that position, they would have to concede that the miracles we do have are not that convincing. Therefore, atheists are free to ignore them. In other words, you’ve imploded the argument from miracles in trying to explain the lack of amputee healings.

Invoking God’s potential reasons for hiddenness runs the risk of opening Pandora’s Box. If God has strong reasons for remaining hidden, then it seems to follow that there isn’t really great evidence for God’s existence. But theists typically want to affirm that there is really great evidence for God’s existence, so they should keep that in mind when they’re laying out God’s reasons for hiding.

The theist is stuck trying to manage a balancing act, walking on a tightrope, trying to explain how there’s just enough evidence for God so that it’s rational to believe in him, but the evidence is not so good that it should convince any rational person, since that would effectively mean God is not hidden. And if God’s not hidden, then why not perform awesome miracles? Why not be a part of our daily lives, as apparent as me or you or your classmates or coworkers? For some reason, God wants to be hidden, but not really hidden. He wants his existence to be apparent, but not really.

So, in short, there are two reasons that there is no principled way to distinguish amputee healings from other sorts of miraculous healings for the theist who’s making the argument from miracles: (1) the supernatural mechanism is identical in either case, and (2) playing the Reasons for Hiddenness Card is corrosive, at the very least, to the argument from miracles. Either cancer remission and amputee healing can’t be distinguished, or they can. If they can’t be distinguished, then we have evidence against theism. If they can be distinguished, then how? Commonly, by appealing to God’s reasons for hiddenness – this “why won’t God heal amputees” question collapses into the problem of hiddenness. But that move implodes the argument from miracles that the theist was making in the first place! If the reasons for hiddenness imply that God can’t perform really persuasive miracles, then it follows that the miracles we know about are not really persuasive.

In Sum

Christians believe that God (at least occasionally) heals people miraculously in response to prayer. But the afflictions that are usually healed are easily explained within a naturalistic framework. In fact, the total evidence regarding miracles is better explained by naturalism, since fortuitous healings are a cross-religious, cross-cultural phenomenon, which suggests that there’s something deeper (and probably natural) going on here that’s not specific to any one religion. Cancer goes into remission for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists alike. The healing of an amputee – especially if it happened exclusively under the auspices of Christianity – would be spectacular evidence for Christianity, and yet this never takes place. This is exactly what we would expect on naturalism, since there is no known natural mechanism that could account for the spontaneous regrowth of a human limb. But for theists, this would be no different than God’s other miraculous activity (e.g. causing cancer to go into remission). We can find plenty of good documentation for these other healings – none of which come close to requiring a supernatural explanation – yet we have no similar evidence supporting the restoration of an amputated limb. This is exactly how naturalists should expect the world to look.

Listen to CA91 Why won’t God heal amputees?

There’s a thorn in the side of any believer who wants to make the argument from miracles: why doesn’t God heal amputees? If he’s willing to perform healing miracles, miracles that should convince anyone, why hasn’t God restored the lost limbs of amputees?

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