Sunday, August 05, 2012

Why God Would Perform Partial, Gradual, And Other Lesser Miracles

Some of the alleged miracles Craig Keener discusses in his book, Miracles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), involve something like the partial or highly gradual healing of an illness. For example, a person with poor eyesight receives improved sight, but sight that's still less than normal, or the improvement in sight occurs over several weeks rather than instantaneously or within a few seconds. By contrast, miracles in the Bible and common conceptions about the miraculous tend to involve acts of a more complete and instantaneous or rapid nature. Other modern miracle reports fall short of what people commonly expect in other ways. For example, Keener discusses the case of Jeff Markin's resuscitation, which involved shocking Markin with a chest paddle after praying that he would be raised from the dead (577-578). Why would God wait until the paddle was applied before performing the miracle? He wouldn't need medical equipment to perform a miracle, and coordinating a miracle with the use of such equipment would raise doubts about whether what happened was miraculous, so why would God perform the miracle in that manner? What should we make of healings or other miracles that are partial, highly gradual, or of a lesser nature in some other way?

At the outset, we should note that asking why God would perform miracles like the ones described above doesn't address all of the potential sources of a miracle. The event could be a miracle even if it wasn't performed by God. If a partial or gradual healing, for example, seems to be miraculous, then arguing that God wouldn't perform the miracle isn't a sufficient explanation of what happened.

And why think God wouldn't produce miracles like the ones discussed above? There is some Biblical precedent for miracles of that sort, such as the two-step healing of the man in Mark 8:23-25. Not only is the man healed in two steps, but Jesus also applies saliva to his eyes in the process of performing the healing. Why? Or why is Naaman told to dip himself in the Jordan seven times before being healed (2 Kings 5:10)? I'll address potential reasons for performing such miracles below, but for the moment I want to note that miracles of that sort do have some Biblical precedent.

In addition to that precedent, there are some potential independent reasons why God might perform such miracles in the modern world. Keener notes that the two-step nature of the healing in Mark 8 "functions as an acted parable to teach the 'half-blind' disciples (Mark 8:17)" (n. 112 on 728). Similarly, placing saliva on the man's eyes surely was meant to be a teaching illustration, as was the requirement that Naaman dip seven times in the Jordan. Even if we couldn't discern why God would do something like place saliva on a blind man's eyes or require a man to dip in a river seven times before being healed, the possibility would remain that there was some good reason we're unaware of in the original context. Similarly, in the modern world, God could choose to raise Jeff Markin from the dead when he's shocked with a chest paddle for a similar reason. Keener mentions that "For Crandall [the doctor who prayed for Markin and had the chest paddle applied afterward], prayer and medicine work ideally together" (578). Maybe the miracle was meant to illustrate that principle. Or maybe something else was intended. Either way, both the miracle and its unusual context (occurring when a chest paddle was applied) have to be explained. The application of the chest paddle is insufficient as a naturalistic explanation of what happened (577-579, n. 116 on 665). What we need to explain is the combination of an apparent miracle with its unusual context. Simply objecting that the miracle would be more persuasive if the chest paddle wasn't involved isn't enough. Yes, the miracle would be more persuasive without the application of the paddle. But the event still seems to be a miracle. Similarly, Keener mentions a case in which "a dying man's atrophied leg was healed in the sight of witnesses (presumably as a sign) the night before his death" (n. 85 on 725). Why would God heal a person's leg just before the individual died? Maybe as an illustration of the fact that God was in control and caring for the man even as his life came to an end. Or maybe it was meant to be a foretaste of the life to come. Maybe it had some unknown significance to one or more of the witnesses who were there. Or maybe it served some other purpose. Again, the fact that the purpose behind a miracle seems hard to explain or the miracle seems less than ideal in some other way doesn't change the fact that the event is a miracle and could be Divine.

What about partial healings? To repeat an example I used above, why only heal a person's eyesight partially rather than completely? In a sense, all healings in this age of history are partial. Even if a person's eyesight is completely restored during a healing, the typical healing will still leave other aspects of the person's health unimproved. A blind elderly man with arthritis might regain his sight, yet still have an aged body and arthritis. Just as he doesn't have to be healed of his aging and arthritis in order for us to discern that a miracle occurred with his eyesight, we could also discern that a miracle had occurred if he experienced only a partial restoration of his sight. If God has a purpose in allowing the individual to continue to suffer, yet He wants to give the person some relief, a partial healing would make sense.  

There could be good reasons for a gradual healing as well. Earlier, I cited the example of a healing in Mark 8. A gradual miracle could function as a teaching illustration. Another advantage of a gradual healing is that in some cases it allows for more observation of the miracle, allowing more witnesses and more time for a witness to observe the event.

Regarding temporary healings, Keener writes:

"Bishop's dismissal of temporary cures as violating the definition of miracle (Bishop, Healing, 203) begs the question, since there is no agreed-on definition; moreover, even in medicine, when the original cause of an ailment is not removed, the ailment may return (e.g., one with a genetic predisposition to cancer may be genuinely cured and not merely in temporary remission but may succumb to cancer later). Even in some cases of relapses after a few years (such as rarely happen in connection with Lourdes), the original healing remains medically inexplicable (Cranston, Miracle, 185). But temporary cures, while beneficial, are often too ambiguous to function as evidence. Ancient conceptions of some kinds of miracles or magic allowed for reversal (see examples in Bertman, 'Note'), but these were not normally eliminations of benefits conferred and therefore would not be relevant to this case." (n. 8 on 605)

Think of miracle reports involving life extensions. God extends a person's life by, say, twenty years, but the person still eventually dies, perhaps even from the same cause he would have died from earlier if there hadn't been a miracle. The extension of life wasn't meant to be permanent. Or think of individuals who become ill again after leaving Christianity for another religion or after sinning in some other way. If the healings were conditional, the illness would return if the conditions were violated. Keener gives examples of miracle reports that involve such circumstances (303, n. 270 on 303, n. 89 on 519, n. 208 on 531).

Each miracle that's partial, temporary, or of a lesser nature in some other way has to be judged by its own merits. I've been addressing whether God might perform such miracles. I'm not arguing that every such miracle report is probably Divine, nor am I denying that these miracles are in some sense less significant than others. To the contrary, I've referred to them as lesser miracles. But if the evidence suggests that a miracle has occurred, then merely objecting that the apparent miracle is deficient in some way isn't enough to prove that a miracle hasn't occurred, nor does it even prove that the miracle isn't Divine.


  1. I wrote the following after only reading the title of Jason's blog. Having read it, I see Jason said many of the same things.

    Other Biblical reasons for partial or gradual healings/miracles.

    1. Sometimes God heals directly and IMmediately (i.e. without means) by the exercise of His divine fiat power. In such cases, the healings/miracles are instantaneous. But sometimes God may perform signs/healings/miracles and answer prayers mediately through the agency of angels (cf. Ps. 91:11-13; Dan. 6:22; Matt. 4:11;//Mark 1:13). In which case, that can account for the time delay since angels are not omnipotent.

    The classic example is Daniel 10:12-13 where Daniel's prayer took 21 days to be answered because of demonic opposition to angelic assistance.

    2. Often, we receive answers according to (i.e. the degree of) our faith. That's why healings can be partial, gradual or delayed. But, a partial healing should encourage us to continue and persevere in prayer to get the entire healing. See Matt 8:13; Matt. 9:29; Luke 7:50; Luke 17:19; Luke 18:42.

    The Ten Leper's were healed ON THEIR WAY to see the priests. Luke 17:11-19

    It took time for the fig tree to wither (Mark 11:12-22).

    It took Elijah to pray for rain seven times for a small cloud to appear. Only later did it become large enough to become a storm (1 Kings 18:41-45).

    Jesus often prayed for people (sometimes at a distance) and the people were healed in the same hour (implying there was a temporary delay). Compare Matt. 15:28; Matt. 18:13; John 4:52-53; Also Matt. 9:22; Matt. 17:18.

    The healing of Sarah's barrenness (and possibly Abraham's infertility due to old age Rom 4:19) took decades to manifest.

    It took a while for Job to receive his healing.

    It took 3 days for King Hezekiah
    to get healed (2 Kings 20:1-11).

    Naaman had to wash in the Jordan 7 times.


  2. Sometimes there might be multiple things that need to be healed.
    Even Jesus had a partial healing where he needed to minister to the sick person twice. He prayed for a blind man and the man was able to see after the first prayer but his vision was blurry. After Jesus' second prayer, the man saw perfectly.

    Some speculate that after Jesus healed the man's eyes through the first prayer, Jesus had to heal the man's brain because it had to learn to interpret the signals it was receiving from the eyes. This actually has happened in modern times after surgery was performed to restore a man's sight. Thus it bears the mark of a genuine miracle healing.

    See this Breakpoint commentary HERE

    While Jesus was fully divine and fully human on earth, and could perform miracles by His own inherent (divine) power, Jesus often performed his miracles in His humanity as empowered by the Holy Spirit (Act 10:38; Luke 5:17).

    That could explain how he might not necessarily know (in his humanity) that two different things needed to be healed for this blind man who originally saw "men as trees walking".

    Jason asks on behalf of others, "Why would God wait until the paddle was applied before performing the miracle? He wouldn't need medical equipment to perform a miracle..." One answer is because God often likes to use earthly means in answering prayer (for symbolic, or secondary causal reasons). For example, God used a fig poultice to heal Hezekiah. Naaman needed to wash in the Jordan 7 times. Jesus made clay with His spit and placed it in a blind man's eyes (John 9:6). Examples could be multiplied.

    With regard to temporary healings, another reason (in addition to the ones Jason gave) is that sometimes people receive a healing on the basis of the faith of the person or persons who prayed while the sick person didn't exercise faith himself to maintain and keep his own healing.

    This often happens more frequently in the cases of Christians who already believe in Christ as savior; but might need to grow in faith in Christ as healer. While healings in the context of evangelism are often more permanent because the people witnessing the healings are not Christians and a regression might destroy the infant faith of the new converts. For them, the healing is a sign. While for Christians who are healed, it's not a sign and therefore they might have greater responsibility to maintain their healing by faith. Sometimes healings are instantaneous like justification, while other healings are progressive and fluctuate like sanctification. It may be that for (some) Christians, what's received by faith, needs to be maintained by faith.

  3. typo correction:
    I wrote...
    Jesus often prayed for people (sometimes at a distance) and the people were healed in the same hour (implying there was a temporary delay). Compare Matt. 15:28; Matt. 18:13; John 4:52-53; Also Matt. 9:22; Matt. 17:18.

    I meant Matt. 8:13, not Matt. 18:13. Also, in the ESV (and other modern translations), some of those passages say the people were healed "instantly". But other translations have words to the effect of "in that hour".

    "then answering, Jesus said to her, 'O woman, great is thy faith, let it be to thee as thou wilt;' and her daughter was healed from that hour." Matt. 15:28 (YLT)

    "And Jesus said to the centurion, 'Go, and as thou didst believe let it be to thee;' and his young man was healed in that hour." Matt. 8:13 (YLT)

    "And Jesus having turned about, and having seen her, said, 'Be of good courage, daughter, thy faith hath saved thee,' and the woman was saved from that hour." Matt. 9:22 (YLT)

    "and Jesus rebuked him, and the demon went out of him, and the lad was healed from that hour." Matt 17:18 (YLT)

  4. With regard to the blind man who needed to be prayed for twice, we know that because of neuroplasticity the brain requires time to reprogram itself to properly interpret the visual signals received from the eyes.

    For example, there have been experiments performed where people were required to wear goggles that caused them to see things upside down. After wearing those goggles non-stop during their waking hours for a few days, their brains eventually reprogrammed themselves so that the people were able to see right-side up while wearing the goggles.

    Then when they took off the goggles, they once again saw everything up-side down. Again, it took time for their brains to reprogram themselves so that the people were able to see right-side up again. Something similar is what might have happened in the case of the blind man.

    Once again, see this Breakpoint commentary by Colson ---->>HERE<<----

  5. Above I said that when God works immediately that miracles and healings can happen instantaneously. I didn't mean to imply that God cannot choose to work immediately but slowly or gradually. NOR did I mean to imply that EVERY time a miracle or healing is slow that it's because God did it mediately (through an angel for example).