This is a continuation of a series (see part 1) that recounts some of my formative experiences with firmly holding certain beliefs and then realizing these were deeply flawed when placed under careful scrutiny. The aim of blog series is to encourage others to admit that we are fallible, can be wrong, and sometimes, need to change our beliefs. I genuinely hope that we can learn to ask difficult questions and be unafraid of change.
“Signs and Wonders” are Emotionalist Blunders
From the earliest moments I can remember I have always been a Christian who believed in modern day miracles and the frequent incursion of supernatural forces into our realm. I am quite certain that I knew about speaking in tongues and praying for healing miracles before I was aware that there were these people called scientists who invented things like antibiotics and a theory called evolution. If I was sick, I would be more inclined to start praying for healing than to run to the doctors. Once, when I was about 9 or 10, I twisted my back muscles playing with the neighboring kids. As I felt the pangs of pain shoot out from my back, and imagined the horrors of becoming a paraplegic, my first reaction was to start crying and praying for a miracle. As expected, within the next couple of days the pain slowly went away, and I was convinced in my little mind that this was a miracle. I had already experienced confirmation bias but did not know it.
And yet, when I reached my mid-teen years, I began to be somewhat skeptical of many claims put forward by prominent supernaturalists. I remember viewing videos of Benny Hinn purportedly exposing him as a fraudulent charlatan and the wheels of my brain turning; I was agreeing. I was starting to doubt the many proponents of charismatic powers, miracles, signs, and wonders. I even remembered showing some of these videos to my friends some of whom felt equally put off at some of the radically strange things that these televangelists and faith healers did or said, while others tried to defend these “faith healers.”
But this skepticism did not last. Within a few years, I was yet again immensely drawn to the charismatic movement, to its most extreme manifestation (the “Third Wave”), which culminated in me eagerly standing face to face with the great Benny Hinn, to receive an “anointing” from his miraculous touch.
After being a withdrawn and reluctant attendee for a couple of years, I rejoined the Pentecostal church with the eagerness of a new convert experiencing his “first love.” However, very quickly I began to desire an even deeper spiritual experience, I wanted a relationship that manifested the supernatural presence of God through miracles, signs, and wonders. I was not satisfied with only the ritual and emotion, I wanted to see physical results in the real world. I wanted to live out a genuine biblical experience, just like Elijah the prophet, or Paul the apostle, and I was willing to sacrifice everything for it.
Because of my immense “spiritual hunger” I found myself engrossed in a search for “men of God” who operated in the supernatural, and started by reading the biographies of early Pentecostals, often called “Gods Generals” like Smith Wigglesworth, John Alexander Dowie , Jack Coe, William M. Branham, A.A. Allen and Katherine Kuhlman. These people became my heroes, as I read their larger-than-life stories my eyes would gleam with that eager Pentecostal zeal that transcends reason. Whatever these “Generals” had, I wanted it, eagerly, but I was not finding it in the local churches (Slavic or American) that I had visited. I found plenty of amazing Pentecostal stories of immense miracles, but they were always out of grasp, always like a mythical fog, which you think you can see, but when you grasp at it, you discover it is mere air. These tales of genuine supernatural miracles were always found in a different time or a different country, just outside the tangible reality I could touch and feel. They were always just outside my ability to see and verify them. Like the ancient myths of magnificent heroes and faraway lands, these miracles I read and heard about were never palpable.
Inspired by the stories and biographies, I was willing to go outside of the Pentecostal movement, which felt utterly stale and devoid of the memories of miracles, signs, and wonders that were frequently talked about. From 2007 to 2009 my days were spent reading dozens of books/articles and listening to hundreds of hours of sermons by all of the greats in the modern charismatic movement, including: Mike Bickle of the IHOP movement, Rick Joyner of the Morningstar movement, Paul Cain of the Kansas City Prophets, John Wimber of the Vineyard movement, Bill Johnson of the (Bethel Church/Jesus Culture Movement), John Arnott of the Toronto Blessing Movement, Benny Hinn, Reinhard Bonke, and countless others. All the supernatural miracles and wonders I had been dreaming about were purportedly in their midst. Just like that fantastical stories I had been reading, these guys frequently reported such stories. During the day or night, I would be locked in my room, streaming the IHOP prayer rooms and praying for the impartation of spiritual gifts. I devoted innumerable days to watching revival services and purported healing testimonies (though strangely, in the hundreds of hours I did not see even one physical healing, like an amputated limb growing back.) And during church and youth services, I would zealously pray for an explosion of the supernatural. I even received a few prophecies, some from people in the Third Wave Charismatic movement, that spoke of the imminent outpouring. In one the prophet assured me that God was going to blow up my ministry within that year. In another, I was promised the ability to raise the dead. I sincerely expected the radical miracles to come.
And yet, all of my devout prayers amounted to very little. Certainly, there were cases where I rejected sound natural explanations and chose to sincerely believe that I was seeing supernatural “signs & wonders,” and plenty of situations where my faith was so strong that even when I didn’t see a healing or miracle, I genuinely believed it was truly occurring, and soon, very soon, we would finally see it. We just needed to hold out and keep the faith; and I did, for as long as I could.
Slowly my earnest flame began to burn out, this great anticipatory longing for authentic miracles and healings was evolving into a series of questions like “why not? what did we do wrong? why was our genuine faith never enough? Why were we not seeing the miracles God promised and we believed for?” I don’t know about anyone else, but my faith was so strong, I would have jumped off a bridge without thinking twice.
Near the end of 2009 I found myself at large conference led by the famed healer, Benny Hinn. It was an exciting couple of days. One of my friends was called out by Benny Hinn, from hundreds of feet away, and Hinn prophetically told him that he would be a supernaturally empowered pastor within a year. At the time this prophecy was profoundly exciting (though five years later, when the prophecy has been unfulfilled it’s no longer as thrilling). On the final day, Hinn called up pastors to receive his anointing, and I, being a minister for the youth, I went up to the front. After being herded into a lineup, and physically pushed down by Hinn as he shouted “Touchhhhhhhh,” I later stood back up feeling only the spirit of disillusionment. As I was shuffled to the side, I began to see things in a different light. Hinn was beginning to “heal” perfectly normal looking people who were being raised from shiny new transport wheelchairs. At the same time, I saw security forcing a severely crippled man, in a well-used electric wheelchair to leave the line. A woman with him was screaming and crying, begging them to allow the man on the stage, so God could heal him, but in the case of this genuinely sick man, Hinns staff refused to bring him on stage. As I watched, I began to feel nausea, they were forcing the genuinely sick/crippled people to leave the lineup, Hinn would not even try to heal those that were deformed, broken, and crippled. Later, I found out that it was common practice for the faith healers staff to seat every person who comes in with a cane, into a wheelchair, so it was not a miracle that they could walk, because they had walked into the building in the first place.
I was heartbroken. I stood in the midst of ten thousand people who were hypnotized by the droning music of a two hour worship session, all of whom genuinely believed the sensationalist tall tales they they were being fed. How could they so earnestly believe in something untrue? As I stood there, feeling sick to my stomach, seeing everything as the theater production that I was, I began to learn and experience how easy it was to believe in something simply because we want it to be true.
After this event, I began to study and analyze the facts behind this grand performance.
As I hungrily read anything I could get my hands on, I learned there were large groups of Christians who believed in the miracles of the Bible, but rejected virtually all of the modern day “faith healing” and “miracle workers.” Their arguments were far more persuasive than anything I had seen before. In fact, there were even Christian ministries that would frequently go out to charismatic meetings and debunk everything that went on there.
I read the life story of Marjoe Gortner, a former child evangelist that traveled all around America performing signs, wonders, and healings in front of cheering audiences of thousands. Except none of it was real, and Gortner was merely using a clever system with his parents to trick people into collecting their money. In his later years, Gortner, filmed a secret documentary in which he led a final series of tent revivals/crusades, spoke in tongues, convinced people they were healed, and knocked them to the ground (“slain in the spirit”) by the power of touch and suggestion, all while being an atheist.
I also discovered other former healers who voluntarily, or inadvertently exposed the reality of the revival movements from the inside. One example was Peter Popoff, who spent years providing very accurate prophecies, until it was discovered he had an earpiece and was receiving radio transmissions, not from Jesus, but from his wife, who supplied him with information from prayer cards submitted earlier in the crusade. After this event, Popoff disappeared into hiding, but as a somber testament to the gullibility of many Christians, Peter Popoff is currently back on Christian television, this time selling debt removal through prayer, and tens of thousands of the faithful are buying it up.
Another former faith healer was Mark Haville who had become enamored with the supernatural and traveled across America purportedly performing supernatural wonders. Today he testifies that because he was so zealous to see miracles, he inadvertently used hypnosis techniques to convince countless masses of people into believing. I also watches documentaries by magicians, like Darren Brown, who was able to train a subject in numerous tricks to fool a church full of people into believing that he was a genuine faith healer. I heard speeches by leading atheists spokespersons like Dan Barker and Jerry Dewitt, who recall many of their experiences using emotion and suggestibility to make people think they were healed (At the time both Barker and Dewitt, genuinely believed in miracles.) There were many more (dozens, if not hundreds) examples of magicians and tricksters like James Randi, who have frequently shown how faith healing tricks can be performed.
I also discovered the psychology of healing. The brain is a fascinating thing, and we can often experience psychosomatic effects where our thinking influences what we feel. For example, people can feel a reduction in headache severity simply because they first think they it is healed. For this reason, clinical trials for a new medication always include a placebo (a sugar pill, for example) in order to discover whether it is actually the new medication that works, or people’s expectations. This explained why most “healings” were indeed of the psychosomatic type, and not physically tangible. I frequently saw elderly women talk about God curing their headaches, blood pressure, or backaches, and yet, those who were genuinely crippled, deformed, or amputated were never healed.
One of the most difficult periods in my life was the result of eagerly and zealously praying for two young men, both my age, who were confined to wheelchairs. I saw half a dozen healing services in which they would propel their wheelchairs to the front while some guest healer would draw eager crowds forward, during these times I desperately prayed until my veins were ready to pop out. God, I wanted them to be healed more than anything! And yet, they never were, nor will be. It seems that even the healers on stage who prayed for these young men, intuitively knew this, for the healers never expended as much energy, emotion, or time, but only prayed short, lackluster “God if its your will” prayers out of politeness. At the same time, people nearby would report “God healed my headache” to the excitement of the crowd. I wondered, what kind of God comes down to supernaturally heal a temporary headache, but completely ignores the excruciating permanent pain and disability of a young man who’s begging for help?
My emotional nausea was not yet over, I finally learned the most somber fact of all, many of the people who reported themselves to be healed, actually got worse, and many died from the same conditions that they were allegedly healed of. These cases are a closely guarded secret, and the massive healing ministries, worth billions of dollars do their best to obscure the truth. For example, Audrey, who suffered epilepsy was told by healer Morris Cerullo that she was healed. She joyfully stopped taking her mediation, only to suffer a deadly epileptic seizure in the bathtub; she drowned because of not taking her medication. Or Natalia who was reportedly healed of bone cancer according to a faith healer, but sadly died a few weeks later. Tragic cases like these are abundant.
A Christian medical doctor, William Nolen conducted research at a 1967 Kathryn Kuhlman fellowship in Philadelphia, with 23 people who claimed to have been cured during her services. Nolen’s long term follow-ups concluded there were no cures in all those those cases. Furthermore, “one woman who was said to have been cured of spinal cancer threw away her brace and ran across the stage at Kuhlman’s command; her spine collapsed the next day and she died four months later.” Some faith healers have even been sued for this, Benny Hinn recently paid 5 million (donated) dollars because he caused the death of an elderly woman. She was knocked down and fractured her hip as a result of Hinn pushing the man in front of her. Then “when one usher offered to seek medical aid… witnesses said Hinn stopped the usher and said, “Leave her alone. God will heal her. This did not happen, and she died as a result of not receiving medical attention. I also discovered that it was not merely big events where these types of things happened, but dozens of smaller churches and prayer meetings had resulted in the death of eagerly believing children and adults.
These events and many more culminated in me giving up on the charismatic movement. I hesitantly admitted that I had never found a genuine supernatural miracle, only fantastic stories that are always out of our grasp. Every miracle I have investigated has turned out to be (1) a case of genuine placebo by sweet and earnest people, (2) a misdiagnosis by those who are well intentioned, (3) a case of confirmation bias with a disease that has a small change of natural recovery, (4) an unprovable story that has dubious origins, or (5) trickery by charlatans. Unfortunately these are the same kinds of evidence we see for ghosts, witches, vampires, fairies, and alien abductions.
Very reluctantly, against my deepest wishes, I gave up hope for the existence of faith healing, miracles, signs, and wonders. At the time, I sincerely wished I was wrong. Some days, I still hope that I am.
So here I am, I went from convincing others of imminent miracles, to an honest form of skepticism; I am willing to believe any extraordinary claim, as long as it has extraordinary evidence. I no longer think there are genuine supernatural miracles occurring all around us, but I am very open to correction. Knowing how easy it is to believe in a fake, I’m more cautious and skeptical than the average charismatic person. I don’t want hear tall tales or stories of mythical events in different times and impossibly faraway places. I want something real and tangible, here and now. If this is real, I want to experience so closely that I can taste it.
Will something change my mind? Absolutely! I eagerly wish to see an amputated leg growing out, a missing eye fill into it’s socket, or Stephen Hawking rise out of his wheelchair. If this happens, I promise I will be the first person to fall on my knees and admit I was wrong, but not before.
(Continued in Part 3)