Elijah Stephens is a former Vineyard pastor and spiritual coach belonging to Bethel Church in Redding, California. Since 2015, he has been working on a documentary about medically verified miracles. Micael Grenholm asked him a few questions.
WHAT is a medically verified miracle?
That is a good question. When it comes to miracles, we are talking about when God enters the world and does something. What makes something a miracle is God’s activity.
This is why you can’t study miracles scientifically, but what you can do is to find cases where people have prayed and there’s “before and after” medical evidence. For example, a person has a tumor, one day there is prayer, the next day the tumor disappears.
What you want to do is to corroborate miracles with medical evidence. So that’s what we’re attempting to do with the movie; finding cases where miracles have been corroborated by medical evidence.
It’s best, if you’re doing it from an apologetic standpoint, to find cases that are known impossibilities. There are things we know cannot occur. If you chop someone’s hand off, you know it’s not going to grow back on its own. So you want to look for cases, if you’re trying to help people that are sceptical but are looking for truth, by finding the more extreme cases.
We need to put forth the best case we can. But we also need to understand that God works in ways that often don’t leave much evidence, and we are still responsible to believe his activity in the world.
How can you be sure that even if a person is cured after prayer, it wasn’t due to a natural process we simply don’t know about?
It all comes down to the nature of knowledge. One of the things that we as Westerners live under a delusion of is that most things fall into the category of 100 percent certainty. And a few things do; there’s mathematical truths like two plus two equals four; there’s moral truths like “torturing babies for fun is morally wrong”, there’s historical truths like “George Washington was the first president of the United States”.
But most of the things that we know fall somewhere on a continuum between zero percent and a hundred percent certainty. For example, I believe that my wife has never had an affair, I’m 99 % certain of that. But it could be the case that something’s happened that I don’t know about. Or when she says that she loves me, she could be a pathological liar or whatever. But knowledge is something you can have without a hundred percent certainty.
So when it comes to prayer, I can think of natural phenomenon for all of the cases that you hear of someone getting healed. You can create such scenarios in your mind. However, often, those scenarios are less likely than prayer itself working. There’s also the case of God using natural processes. When you look at miracles in the Bible, you see that when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, a wind came up and blew the sea apart. Well, that’s God using some kind of natural process.
I don’t think it’s best to think of miracles in the terms of not using natural processes. Let’s say God speaks to you in a dream, well at some point that dream becomes a part of your brain chemistry. So what you’re asking is actually “Is God part of a particular natural phenomenon?”
One of the ways you can answer that question is by eliminating known natural phenomena that people often mistake for miracles: the placebo effect, misdiagnosis, con artists, the mind healing itself psychosomatically. When doing miracle research you want to eliminate those and look for things that are most likely known impossibilities.
Why do you think non-Western Christians seem to experience more miracles than Western ones?
I don’t think that’s the case. One of the things I found in my research was a Pew Survey of 35,000 people in the US, asking them how many had witnessed, or know someone who has experienced divine healing. Over 33 percent said that they had. In the States we have an anti-supernatural bias which means that the supernatural is not talked about very often.
If you think about it, when was the last time you asked a stranger or someone in your life that you didn’t go to church with, “Have you ever seen a miracle?” Has that conversation ever come up in your life? For most people in the West, that never occurs. So we simply never talk about this stuff.
Another issue that I think helps nations like China, Mozambique or Brazil where you’re seeing a lot of miracles is that it’s part of the culture to seek spiritual assistance, whether it’s from Christians or non-Christians. It’s not odd to offer prayer to a co-worker or family member who is sick. I think the more prayer people get, the more likely there are people getting healed by prayer.
What’s your advice to someone longing for a miracle?
People in pain are often desperate. Con artists know that and prey on people in pain. If anyone ever asks you for money to get prayer, stay away from that. Secondly, don’t feel guilty or ashamed of not getting healed. That’s not the heart of God.
Don’t blame yourself for not having enough faith or anything of that nature. I never see Jesus blaming people in the Scriptures. If you’re in need of a miracle, go to healthy, theologically solid people who have seen miracles and ask them to pray for you. A lot of times people want miracles, and they spend their whole lives getting a miracle for a specific area of their life.
Here at Bethel Church in the healing rooms, we have people in wheelchairs praying for the sick. I think that’s so powerful. Their focus is not getting a miracle, their focus is on knowing Jesus and living the calling he has for their lives. I personally have a hernia. Eric Johnson [the son of Bethel Church’s senior pastor Bill Johnson] has hearing aids. There are lots of people with sickness that say “Alright God, I’m going to get prayer for this, but if it never changes I will still serve you with my life.”
I’ve seen lots of miracles, but when I’m getting consumed with getting myself healed rather than consumed with Jesus and seeing his kingdom come with power, we miss out on going on an adventure with God. I can’t explain why my body hasn’t been healed, I know God heals people. But I’d rather be unhealed and follow Jesus, than spend my life desiring a miracle and that becoming my focus.