Could faith healing just be a placebo effect?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: What is the proof that faith and prayer are not a psychological placebo? The mind is a powerful thing so anyone who believes that they have received peace or strength could just be experiencing the placebo effect and getting it from the power of their minds. Mark 11:24 says that if we just believe that we received it then it will be ours... this sounds like the placebo effect.

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries — and thank you for submitting such a deep question. The placebo effect is well-documented, and prayer for physical healing is an important part of our Christian faith. But they are different phenomena… or are they? Since both apparently (and/or purportedly) originate outside of the physically verifiable, how can we prove which is which?

Although Christians throughout time have experienced healings in response to prayer, these are — and by definition — supernatural interventions. Now, we can lay out the data and report on these events all day long… and they are powerful testimonies to the immanent care of God! But testimonies are not proof of anything. In fact — and again, by definition — these types of healings are beyond the scope of what we can prove with scientific rigor. This is why I dodge the word “proof” in Christian apologetics.

Furthermore, the scientific community doesn’t give full credence to any findings until they are peer-reviewed and until the results are verified as repeatable by experts in other locations. But God’s interventions are neither regular nor repeated. So his purported healings can’t be verified with scientific methodologically… and I hope that this wasn’t your expectation coming in.

We can cite several examples of people who received naturally unexplainable healings, and many of these have empirical data like medical tests and imaging from before and after the event. But even these would be considered mere anomalies by the skeptics. In fact, such outliers are expected in legitimate data…. and especially in such a diverse group as the human population.

Skeptics come in many flavors, though, but often they are physicalists (aka materialists, determinists). These are (as the name suggests) persons who believe that only physical things exist and that therefore, only physical causes exist… and that spiritual realms do not exist. But this is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. Physicalists are weighing-in on what they believe doesn’t exist — which is decidedly non-verifiable. But ironically, this is an analog to our having faith in God. Each side has its data and its cumulative cases… but none of us has sampled the extra-physical world about which we believe certain things.

But what do skeptics say about these healings… these data? They would understand what the data seemed to say, but since they are committed to the presupposition that spiritual entities don’t exist except in people’s imaginations, they would have to live in tension with the data until they resolved it in their minds. Phycologists call this cognitive dissonance… but I call it faith. What else do you call it when people risk their futures by betting on something unverifiable… like whether nothing (or no one) extra-physical exists?

But let’s be fair here. We do the same thing when we step out in faith and pray… and yet a loved one dies. We know God can heal, but the fact that he didn’t (and usually doesn’t in response to petitions) tests our faith. But I think that we are better adjusted to the tension (the Christian version of cognitive dissonance)… because the world usually doesn’t go like we think God should make it go (Luke 18:31-34). But when a physicalist sees a miracle that he can’t explain, he must steer around the phenomenon as if it were an iceberg… and that’s our edge. We fear no data because we see the big picture.

My point here is that both we and the physicalists have faith… and that both these faiths — by definition — get tested. The question is, which worldview best explains all the world’s data… including the “disappointments” in faith that give us mental and/or emotional tension? In my opinion, it’s the Christian worldview.

Now, we can discuss this and make pro-and-con lists all day. But we can prove nothing to the satisfaction of a diehard physicalist… because faith is the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, KJV)… and they cannot even consider that which is definitively unseen and remain congruent.

In my opinion, the placebo effect should make the physicalist nervous… but it should not trouble us. The effect is so ubiquitous that medical trials do everything they can to adjust for it. But why is that? People get “better” all the time… but without ingesting a drug that was supposed to make them better… and statistically, these are significant effects without physical causes. Apparently, a person’s attitude about getting well can affect their outcome for the better significantly. But an attitude has no extension in space, so it is not in the physicalists’ purview.

This is why I see the placebo effect as powerful evidence for the existence of God… and I don’t think that it damages the prayer/healing paradigm. What it might damage is an inflated sense of that paradigm where some claim that miracles have occurred… but under insufficient warrant. People throw the M-word around quite a bit… and this cheapens it. So, I can’t blame people for when they are suspicious of the whole prayer/healing enterprise.

Most of the time we just heal ourselves while our medical teams watch it happening. God made us self-repairing, so the miracle-of-healing is on-going… well… sort of. If self-healing is our normal condition, then it’s no miracle per se… although it does point to a beneficent Creator who was proactive in our healing. But it’s only when a disease overwhelms our ability to self-heal that we need professional help, and that’s the threshold for when overt miraculous healings can come into play.

But note this well: true miracles are rare… while placebo-driven healings are relatively common — and why not? They are different phenomena! So, we don’t have to choose between them or blur their boundaries to explain various healings. They both have their place… and you are wise to explore this.

All healing takes time, and I’m not surprised when our bodies cash-in on the placebo effect as part of God’s design. Therefore, if we recovered from a disease through the agency of what everybody would understand as the placebo effect, isn’t that God answering our prayers anyway… but before the foundations of the earth? (Ephesians 1:4). What’s God up to then? Why does he want us to pray?

Prayer is about fellowship with God; it’s not about the results of petitions… although petitioning is a natural part of communicating with God. He wants intimate fellowship with him to be our lifestyle, not the exception (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) … just as miracles are the exception and not the rule — and this is my main point: defending miracles is not our job. Declaring them is (Matthew 12:38-42).

You had cited Mark 11:24 as an example of what could be construed to support the placebo effect — and indeed, this speaks to the power of having a good attitude in prayer. But there is more at play in prayer, so remember to do your comparisons. Jesus, the man who spoke the words of Mark 11:24, also prayed that he would not go to the cross (Luke 22:42) … but look how that turned out.

Again, prayer is about fellowship and communication. It is not about results… or it is not about the expected results, anyway. God heals on his terms, not on ours… and these include aspirin, placebos and miracles.

God bless you.


(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20180212 The placebo effect vs faith healing ).

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