For this post I will look at modern Christian popular healers and compare them to Jesus and to the placebo effect. My goal is to find which model (Jesus or the placebo effect) is closer to what we see on stage with popular Christian healers and some church pastors.
My studies have shown that more than any other template, the placebo effect best explains what is going on with Benny Hinn, Kathryn Kuhlman, Aimee Semple McPherson, Kenneth Copeland, and so many other popular Christian healers. It explains better than anything else why so many people are temporarily healed, why only a select few get healed, and why only certain types of diseases find permanent cure.
As usual, I will mention that despite what I say in this post, I believe God does work miracles today, but there is an abundance of stuff out there that is not the real deal passing off as real healing.
TEMPORAL VS. PERMANENT HEALING
Any temporary relief of pain, or temporary relief of symptoms, or the temporary feelings in the body people feel in a worship service such as burning, heat, and tingling – follow the rules of the placebo effect and should not be categorized as miracles. People may believe these are miracles, because they happen within the context of worship, but they are not. If God healed temporarily, His power is limited and He is a cruel teaser. Furthermore, no one believes that Jesus ever healed temporarily.
Temporary healing is nothing more than a few hours of symptom relief and is not a cure. Pain killers, such as Tylenol, Advil, and aspirin generally relieve symptoms but do not usually address the core of a disease. When someone is “healed” at a crusade or prayer service and the healing does not last, that healing is not a miracle, but rather the result of a powerful placebo effect – which is the body’s natural reaction to heightened expectation and trust in an authority (God and/or the healer). Temporary experiences which are so common in healing services are not miracles.
The Bible has no record of anyone miraculously healed temporarily.
FUNCTIONAL VS STRUCTURAL VS PSYCHOSOMATIC
In almost 400 follow up studies of people who claimed to be healed by Christian healers Benny Hinn, Kathryn Kuhlman, Todd Bentley, and Charles Price, only five people were confirmed to be healed for any length of time. There were some who claimed to feel better, but they were not healed. Furthermore, the five people were healed from the types of Functional diseases that could also be healed by placebo effects.
In his search for miracles, Dr. William Nolen described a patient of his who could not speak above a whisper. Doctors could not find any physical reason why this was the case, so after operating in her stomach for an unrelated issue, Dr. Nolen told her a lie claiming that as he was placing tubes into her stomach through her mouth, he saw that her vocal cords were twisted. He told her that he fixed them and that she should be able to speak clearly after a week or two. Sure enough in a week her voice returned. Her disease was what Dr. Nolen called psychosomatic.
Both Benny Hinn and Kathryn Kuhlman (Benny Hinn’s idol) admit that many people on their stages are only being healed of psychosomatic disorders. Benny and Kathryn recognize that many people on their stages are being healed of diseases that physically don’t exist. These types of healing cannot be called miraculous (although if I am healed of some psychosomatic disease, I will give God thanks).
Many Psychosomatic disorders are capable of being cured by most types of medicines, procedures, and quackery throughout the world, because they react very well to the placebo effect.
Today’s medical community is moving away from the term psychosomatic and is now using the words “Functional Disorder or Functional Disease,” because medical scientists are finding that there is so much more to these disorders than some state of mind. Basically, if there is a medical condition that cannot be seen, dissected under a microscope, or the like, it is called Functional.
Diseases / disorders that create an abnormality that can be seen, examined under a microscope, or the like are called Structural or Organic Disorders. So if I have arthritis, x-rays will show my bones scraping on each other without the protective seal between them. My arthritis is a Structural Disease. When I had filariasis in the Congo, a microscope saw small parasites in my blood.
Functional diseases/disorders can be cured permanently by a con-faith healer who has no miracle making abilities, because the placebo can do the same thing, but such healings are not common. In the studies mentioned above, five people were healed in the long run, which is about 1.25% of all the people who are on stage claiming to be healed, and those people were healed only from Functional Diseases. To my knowledge, no Structural Disease has yet been presented and passed medical examination as evidence of miraculous healing.
One magician (James Randi) has promised one million dollars to anyone who can prove a miracle or contact with the other world. He has never had to pay out. Of course, contact with the other world is by faith alone, but real healing should at times manifest itself in more than words or confessions.
This is a far cry from what Jesus did. The Bible tells us in several places that Jesus healed all who came to him from every type of disease. On occasion, as Jesus healed people, entire audiences witnessed body structures physically change. You will never see that in a popular healing crusade. You might hear stories about such structural changes, but it is highly unlikely you will ever see anything.
IS EVERYBODY HEALED?
In most of Jesus’ large group settings, the Gospels claim that Jesus healed everyone in the crowd of every kind of disease. Today’s popular healers have never seen or experienced this. Kathryn Kuhlman used to tell her audiences that God told her that before Jesus came back to earth (the end of this age), she would see everyone in one of her crusades healed. Kathryn died in 1975 and her words never came true.
In some cases, the placebo effect can heal some Functional diseases and can relieve some of the pain or other symptoms of those who suffer Functional or Structural diseases, but medical scientists are still uncertain as to why only some people respond to placebos and others don’t. Many studies suggest that it has to do with one’s DNA.
CAN GOD USE THE PLACEBO EFFECT?
I believe God can and does use the placebo effect from time to time, just as he uses medical doctors. God designed our bodies to heal on their own for many issues. Doctors reset broken bones, but rely on the body’s own healing abilities to do the rest. That is how God made us, so I see nothing wrong with God using a placebo effect to help us recover from Functional Disorders.
ARE THERE REAL MIRACLES?
I believe there are real miracles. There are miracles in how God leads us to the placebo effect or a doctor and there are miracles in that God can heal within the structural realm either quickly or over time. Oftentimes, God uses our bodies to do the work, but on occasion, He may cure beyond the realms of human science; but I have yet to see this on any stage. In my own life, I may have witnessed it on more than one occasion, but the critic could say the particular Structural healing I saw was just good timing, as instant healing took place within minutes after prayer and could have taken place on its own any time anyway as the disease was a major infection and was not permanent in nature.
DID JESUS USE THE PLACEBO EFFECT?
I had to ask it. I had been studying and dissecting modern healers, so I had to ask myself if Jesus may have been like Benny Hinn. I had to ask the same questions I would ask about Kathryn Kuhlman or Kenneth Copeland. So here are the questions I asked:
1. Was the miracle visible to the eye?
In other words, was it clearly structural (and not just functional or psychosomatic)? Examples of structural change are found in the woman in Luke who had a crooked spine or the man in several of the Gospels who had a withered hand. I found no such visibility with modern healers.
After studying and looking through all of Jesus’ miracles, I found only one that is like so many of today’s performances – the woman with the issue of blood is found in Matthew, Mark and in Luke. She is most like today’s performances because no one could see anything happen, so we rely completely on her testimony. If all of Jesus’ miracles were invisible to the eye, I would have to conclude that he may have been no better than modern healing evangelists.
Popular modern healers do not demonstrate structural healing that we can see. That doesn’t mean nothing is happening. I believe many are experiencing the temporary signs of the placebo effect. I also know that many other things are going on up on stage which do not add up to permanent healing but look very impressive to those who believe healing is happening. I have spoken about this elsewhere.
The most visible signs we see are the many wheelchair bound people who walk around on stage, but this visible display is deceiving. Those wheelchair bound people are not wheelchair bound, but prefer using a wheelchair over walking. Notice the quality of the wheelchairs next time you watch Benny Hinn. Rented wheelchairs or inexpensive wheelchairs usually mean the person is able to walk on their own to some degree. Expensive wheelchairs are rarely if ever seen on stage, because the placebo effect has no authority over the body’s structural damage their owners have.
In a BBC documentary, Benny Hinn admitted that there were many people in his crusades that get healed, walk, but return to their wheelchairs later. On camera, he admitted that the placebo effect could be the reason this happens.
Watch carefully in any healing meeting and ask yourself one question: “What am I really seeing?” People could see structural changes take place with many people in Jesus’ ministry, do you see any in these major crusades today?
2. Was there follow up?
The miracles that Jesus worked stood up to any follow up. In John chapter 9 a man born blind walked around before people who knew him to be born blind, but he demonstrated his ability to see. He was dragged before the religious doubters of that day who examined him and others who knew him. They wanted to know more about his background and the legitimacy of his healing. In the end, they concluded that Jesus did indeed heal the man, but that Jesus was not from God.
From a leader’s point of view and responsibility to their nation, the religious leaders did the right thing in examining the validity of Jesus’ miracles. The Bible condemns them, not because they examined miracles, but because after examining and admitting the miracles were real, they did not listen to what Jesus said and they did not believe in him.
In most cases of leprosy, Jesus sent the lepers to the priests (the doctors) for follow up as a testimony. Jesus encouraged follow up in many of the cases of people who were healed, because real miracles will stand the test of time.
Today when we see a stage healing, we do not usually know the background of the person being healed. We do not know their stories and we do not know how blind the blind really were or how lame the lame were. What we do see are inexpensive wheelchairs that indicate that the person on stage was not a permanent user. If I have arthritis, it can be painful for me to walk, but I can walk. If during a healing crusade my pain disappears, I will be able to walk, stretch, run and do a lot of things I prefer to avoid when I am in pain. Of course, the placebo effect mixed with the emotions and adrenaline of being singled out on stage will allow me to do all those and more on stage, but by the end of the night or by the next day, I will once again be in pain. And no one at the crusade will know that my pain has returned.
The placebo effect can also help legally blind to see better and legally deaf to hear better. But if someone is completely blind or deaf, it would take a miracle to bring sight or hearing. Stage Healers do not tell you that someone can already see, or walk, or hear to some degree. They like the drama of extremes.
Every follow up study of Kathryn Kuhlman, Benny Hinn and others (with names given by the evangelists themselves) have shown that there is no healing that continues afterward. Cancer patients still had cancer. Spinal injuries were only made worse by stomping around on stage, and it turns out that many of the people on stage exaggerated their issues (Kathryn Kuhlman and Benny Hinn both admit that many on stage exaggerate their problems) and were on stage for diseases that did not exist in their lives.
3. Were healings functional or structural?
I had to ask this question about Jesus because I ask it about today’s healers. I found that if I put Jesus through the same filter I use for today’s healers, many of his miracles did not give me enough information to conclude one way or another. Because of my beliefs, I say they were all miraculous; but if I look at the texts through human eyes, I find that there is not enough evidence one way or another for many of the miracles Jesus performed.
I do not know why a woman had an issue of blood for 12 years. I also don’t know why some people could not speak. Was their inability to speak the result of something functional or structural? We don’t have those answers for these miracles. But some cures were obviously structural, such as a man’s withered hand and a woman’s crooked back.
Jesus was met with large crowds from time to time. In most of those events, the Bible says that Jesus healed every kind of disease. Of course, every kind of disease/sickness includes both functional and structural.
Turning water into wine, calming seas and walking on water are all structural in nature, but these miracles were not performed on humans.
4. Was everybody healed?
Modern healers have never seen an event where everyone in the audience was healed. When Jesus started his ministry there were times when “many were healed.” But as his ministry grew, the Gospel writers say that during his gatherings, “all were healed.”
Kathryn Kuhlman used to predict that before she died she would see a crusade in which every person would be healed. That never happened. Neither has it happened for any other modern evangelist or healer.
The magicians of Egypt used their magic, and they, too, turned water into blood. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hard. He refused to listen to Moses and Aaron.
As he stood before Pharaoh, telling Pharaoh to let the people of Israel to leave the land of Egypt, Moses showed Pharaoh and his magicians certain miracles to prove the hand of God was behind him. By the time he was done with his miracles, through Moses, God demonstrated his power over the gods of Egypt.
The first two miracles Moses accomplished did not impress Pharaoh because the same miracles could be reproduced by Pharaoh’s magicians. I need to mention on the side that it doesn’t matter if the magicians’ miracles were not as good as those of Moses (as many suggest) – the fact is, the Bible says Pharaoh’s magicians were able to do the same miracles in a way that convinced Pharaoh that Moses was not accomplishing anything the magicians could not produce.
Famous Christian healers of today would not be able to impress the Pharaoh, because their miracles are no better than what is accomplished in other religions and other forms of medicine.