In my last post, Try Praying?, I argued for something like the following claim:
It’s silly to pray for some unlikely-but-by-no-means-impossible event (say, with a probability of 1%) to occur, and then declare that your prayer must have been answered if the event does, in fact, occur.
I was quite surprised at one of the reactions to this post: quite a few Christians told me that Christians just don’t do that. Well, this is simply not true, and we were provided with an example of a Christian doing precisely this just the other day, when ebola survivor Kent Brantly credited God for his recovery.
According to the article just linked to, someone with ebola has a 10% chance of survival. Actually, this is just the figure for the most deadly outbreak ever – more accurate sources report a figure of around 36% survival for the current outbreak (see the wiki entry on the 2014 West Africa ebola outbreak), but let’s stick to the 10% figure, for argument’s sake. This means that out of 1000 people who contract ebola, 100 would survive – and this includes people with no medical intervention. As it happens, Brantly was the recipient of a blood transfusion from a 14-year-old African Ebola survivor; he was also treated with an experimental drug. As far as medical professionals can tell, the blood transfusion greatly increases your chances of survival. We don’t yet know if the experimental drug is effective (it’s still experimental, after all, and the creators of the drug fully acknowledge this – there hasn’t been an opportunity for a proper study yet). But even if we stick to the blanket 10% figure, it’s just like this:
You roll a ten sided dice and pray to God that you roll a 10. Sure enough, a 10 comes up. You deduce that God must have made the 10 come up.
I don’t think I really need to explain how silly that is, but… In order to make that deduction, you need to know not only that the 10 came up, but also that the 10 wouldn’t have come up if you hadn’t prayed, and if God hadn’t decided to grant your wish. How could you possibly know that? And in any case, how do you think God might have acted? Did God bend the laws of physics so the dice rolled in some strange, unnatural way? Besides all that, if 1000 people performed the same experiment, you’d expect to get about 100 people rolling a 10 – should they all deduce that God made it happen? Would nobody get a 10 unless God specifically made it happen? 1000 rolls and no 10’s happens with about a
chance. Why would it be any different if the outcome “rolling a 10” is replaced with “surviving ebola”?
But anyway, the whole Brantly event got me thinking about prayer again. What does it mean to say that God answered Brantly’s prayer? I’ve answered this question in more detail elsewhere, but: it means that God listened to Brantly’s prayer, as well as the prayers of all the other ebola sufferers; chose to let almost all of the people die (a horrible, painful death); and chose some select few people to be spared (in this case, a guy who had all the medical help he could get). All while there is a reasonable chance they would have survived without any intervention at all. (If a Christian wishes to argue that any survival is due to an act of God in the first place, then I suppose they are accepting that it might have had nothing to do with prayer, after all.)
But even if we grant all these claims – that is, that God really did heal this guy, whether as a direct result of prayer or because he was going to heal him anyway, and regardless of the chances of surviving without any divine intervention – what business does Brantly have to go gloating about it? “Gloating” is probably the wrong word, as I don’t suspect for a second that Brantly had any malice in making his statements (and I understand that he was in Africa working as a medical volunteer, even if his ultimate goal was to spread his religion), but he was certainly making a big public point about the “fact” that God had spared him. Let me use an analogy to explain the problem I have with this:
Imagine your daughter is diagnosed with cancer. She’s admitted to a hospital, where she shares a room with another girl of the same age with the same kind of cancer. You’re visiting your daughter one day, and you see that the other girl has recently died; her parents are there, mourning the loss. Just then, a doctor comes in and tells you that your daughter’s cancer has gone away – she (and you) can now live a normal life. Would you start jumping up and down, screaming “Yes! Woohoo!”? I sure hope not! But even worse would be to say, within earshot of the other parents, that God healed your daughter. To say so would be to say that God looked at both girls, both of whom he (supposedly) could have healed if he wanted, and decided to heal your girl but not the other. Even if it is actually the case that God did this, it is an awful thing to do to say it to the other parents. But far worse if it is not the case (or if you just don’t know if it is the case or not).
But it all got me thinking about another aspect of it all. We often see someone, after they survive some illness, declaring that they were healed by God – and, further, declaring that we can know God exists and that he acts in the world because of their survival. But much rarer is the person who makes such a declaration before the event. Why didn’t Brantly say “Hey everyone, I’ve got ebola, but I’m going to make a testable prediction – if God is real, he will heal me”? To do so is to put everything on the line – it’s gutsy (Pastor Mark Driscoll would probably approve). I’m not saying that Branson’s survival after such a prediction ought to make us all believe in God – don’t forget there’s a 10% chance that he would have survived anyway, even if God doesn’t exist or simply decides not to specifically intervene. But imagine if every Christian ebola sufferer made the same prediction, and they all survived. If 100 Christians made such a prediction and then all survived, there’d be a
chance of it being a fluke. (OK, I lied – I left off about thirty 0’s to make the number fit on one line.) I’d take that as pretty compelling evidence of God’s existence. But things like that just don’t seem to happen. As I’ve explained earlier, I’m not saying such a thing would have to happen for me to believe, but I am saying it’s something that would make me believe if it did happen (and, of course, if I could be sure that those people really did have ebola, really were healed, etc). I certainly don’t think someone surviving an illness with a 36% survival rate, after receiving the best medical treatment possible, counts as evidence of God’s existence or activity in the world. Who on earth would?