[Published 11/22/2016. Updated and Revised: 2/8/2019]
In 2016 I had the opportunity to chat with Elijah Stephens. Stephens is a film maker from the U.S. who, at the time, was filming a documentary on medical miracles for which there is evidential justification.
After Stephens read articles on this blog he decided to communicate with the hope of comparing “research notes.” He explained that he was “an online Biola grad student in apologetics making a documentary about miracles and medical evidence.” He managed to raise “$130,000 on Kickstarter,” and that he had “been featured on fox news.” Indeed there is a brief Fox News preview of his work. Stephens’ website is available too.
Stephens and I chatted for roughly 45 to 50 minutes over Skype. However, prior to the discussion I had looked at some of his work, and found (to my personal jealousy!) that he had interviewed notable individuals and academics within the supernatural-miracle discussion. These include, although are not limited to, Craig Keener, Heidi Baker, Candy Brown, and others. As such, I was initially nervous that I would add little value to Stephens’ efforts. However, the dialogue was, I think, mutually beneficial at the end.
Stephens’ driving motive for producing his film is to bridge a gap between evidence and claims of miracle healings. He wishes to challenge the common bias inherent within the anti-supernatural sentiments within the consciousness of the academy, particularly within medical science. Stephens says that he has “seen a lot, too much stuff” to deny that miracles of healing really do occur. He claims he wishes to show the evidence because if God really heals “there should be a trail of medical evidence.” He explains to me that his film stems from his own questioning of his Christian beliefs. He takes supernatural healing to be a good evidence for God, or at least the intervention in the natural order on the behalf of a deity. So, naturally, he intended to go out and see if such things really occur.
As far as I can tell, Stephens is convinced on the basis of his research he and his team have conducted. He says that many dramatic events take place within “Charismatic churches” but that these churches often tended towards being “unintellectual.” This is another gap Stephens intends to bridge: that one can be fully rational in holding to a supernatural worldview often rejected based on naturalistic worldview presuppositions. He wants to demonstrate that believing in the supernatural does not somehow divorce oneself from reality and reason.
I agree with Stephens that there is anecdotal, testimonial, and medical evidence in favour of, what I shall call, the “supernatural healing hypothesis.” I think that, despite the well-known frauds and quackeries, the data points strongly enough in the direction of the supernatural healing hypothesis to make it a topic worth looking into. This has been done by Keener and Brown, both of whom discovered surprisingly results. I informed Stephens of several cases I thought would fit well within the documentary: the case of Chris Gunderson, former professional rugby player Jaco, and the atheist anthropologist Bruce Grindal, and the evangelist Heidi Baker, to name a few. At this point I also wondered what Stephens would do with the “big P” of philosophy. Miracles and the supernatural are inextricably bound to philosophical worldviews, so much so that to one person everything constitutes a miracle while to another nothing could ever possibly qualify as miraculous no matter how strong the evidence. Stephens would have to follow the footsteps of Keener by engaging with enlightenment skepticism of miracles and supernatural claims stemming from David Hume up until what is now an entrenched anti-supernaturalism within contemporary western philosophy.
Nonetheless, I discovered that Stephens has already looked into some of the evidence I presented to him. In fact, I was very surprised to learn that he had recently been in my home country (South Africa). He was on his way back from interviewing Heidi Baker in Pemba (Mozambique), and I assume that the only international route to that location is via one of South Africa’s major airports.
I further inquired if Stephens had dealt with two common anti-supernatural critiques of miracle healing. Firstly, on the assumption that the miracle healing is from the Christian God, why doesn’t he heal amputees? Moreover, why don’t people with purported healing gifts from God go to hospitals and empty them out? When I asked these questions Stephens says that he “should have asked Heidi,” but that he hadn’t thought to do so during the time he was in Mozambique.
However, Stephens sees what to him is a limitation of such critiques: that someone like Baker has not gone to hospitals to empty them in the name of her God says nothing about her medically and scientifically confirmed healing of 24 people with visual and hearing impairments. Further, on the assumption that God never heal amputees says little about the purported medical evidences showing remarkable healings elsewhere, which. although not involving amputees, show healings from terminal illnesses, broken bones, and so on. On a relevant side note: I am aware of [unverified] accounts of purported healings of amputees, some of which I learned from simply asking pastors questions on the topic.
On an important end note: personally, I cannot (yet) vouch or oppose Stephens’ claim to objectivity in the process of filming his documentary based on his purported investigations, and viewers would need to decide that for themselves. However, that Stephens was a student in a course on Christian apologetics seeking to affirm the rationality of holding to a supernatural worldview might raise eyebrows concerning his approach, as well as his possible biases concerning data collection, research method, and produced results. It is also clear that a documentary does not qualify as an academic study (or even a thesis), but can be produced by anyone with the right budget. These insights are not intended to undermine Stephens or his documentary but rather to note that they should be kept in mind.
I have no doubt that Stephens has put his full effort into producing the documentary, and that this shows in the lengths (and distances) he went to obtain his information.