Again with the Amputee Question

One reason Christians engage in apologetics is to provide answers to serious questions about the faith by relatively honest seekers. Some questions, however, appear not quite so serious. For me one such question is, "Why won't God heal amputees?" Made famous by Marshall Brain, this simple inquiry is presumed by some skeptics to expose the abject absurdity of miracles, of prayer, of God's love – indeed of theism generally – and therefore to send Christian apologists beating a hasty and shameful retreat before the overpowering logic of unbelief. Of course that hasn’t happened. For a sampling of effective, rational responses to the amputee question, consider offerings at Christian Skepticism, at Answers in Genesis, at Triablogue, and by fellow Christian Cadre members Rich Deem at God and Science and Joe Hinman at Atheistwatch.

Now my own immediate response to the question "Why won’t God heal amputees?" is something like, "Because He’s too busy trying to decide whether or not He can create a rock too heavy for Him to lift.” In other words the Amputee Question belongs in the same category as the Rock Question – it's a clever rhetorical device that has almost nothing to do with the substance of the issues (like theodicy or the general efficacy of prayer) it purportedly addresses. But rhetorical questions such as these persist because they provide convenient substitutes for the hard work of constructing serious, sound arguments. That said, the following is my own response to the Amputee Question.

Right off the bat we need to brush past the loaded nature of the question itself. To ask "why God won't" do something is to take it as a given fact that there is something God won't do. It would be like asking "Why won't atheists just admit that they believe in God?" Hardly a matter for serious dialogue. Not all theists, certainly not this one, would take it as a working premise that God won't heal amputees. So to try to answer why God won't do what has not yet been demonstrated that he has not done (or will never do) is to get ahead of ourselves, and concede too much. Also, even if we were to concede that God has never healed an amputee, it doesn't follow that he won't heal an amputee, or lots or all amputees, in the future, including in the future eternal kingdom of heaven. (And it should be noted that it seems a bit calloused to use people with amputated limbs, many of whom firmly believe in God despite their painful physical and psychological experiences, as inanimate props in an argument for atheism in the first place.)

Next we need to consider whether there is an actual argument here. As mentioned the question is almost purely rhetorical on its face. But an argument of sorts is at least implied. According to Upchurch and Galling at Answers in Genesis, the argument can be reformulated thus:

1. An omnipotent God would heal amputees.
2. Amputees are not healed.
3. Therefore, an omnipotent God does not exist.

Metacrock restates it slightly differently (and with tongue slightly in cheek, I suspect), but the idea is the same:

1. The Bible promises to give us anything we want in prayer.
2. This doesn't work.
3. Therefore there is no God.*

In each case the first premise states a theological proposition and the second states an inductive generalization drawn from human experience, followed by the conclusion that God does not exist. But none of the premises have been established, so on the face of it the argument is unsound. Few if any serious theologians would take the statements "An omnipotent God would heal amputees" or "The Bible promises to give us anything we want in prayer" as givens derived from either systematic theology or careful exegesis of particular biblical data. Neither is it a fact that no amputees are healed (though it certainly appears that the vast majority are not); nor that prayer doesn't work. 

As to the second premise: it may seem at odds with experience to dispute the proposition that amputees are not healed. But to achieve its effect the proposition needs to convey that no amputees are healed. That assertion runs afoul not only of the problem of induction, but of specific instances of amputee healings documented by Craig Keener and others, and arguably certain miracles in the New Testament. On the other hand, if the essence of the question is "Why are some amputations, physical ailments, etc., not healed?" then this would be the same question most of us have asked, particularly when we are in pain. God doesn't heal most people with headaches or strep throat or kidney disease, so they take pain relievers and antibiotics and use dialysis. God doesn't heal most amputees, so they undergo rigorous therapy and use compensating devices like wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs. Non-healings have been a painfully obvious fact of life for all people for millennia, long before Marshall Brain first began to ponder the non-healings of amputees. Seen this way the Amputee Question is little more than an observation that there is natural evil in the world. 
The strength of the Amputee Question, then, is that in rhetorically effective and compact form it calls attention to two traditionally popular arguments, the logical argument from evil and the argument against miracles. The weakness of the Amputee Question is that countless philosophers and theologians of all stripes agree that these are no longer considered sound defeaters of theism.

* For anyone who would object that such restatements are straw men, please feel free to construct a serious argument based upon the Amputee Question and present it here.


Anonymous said…
Good post, Don.

Yes, I have come across this guy several times. J.P. Holding did a parody of him on Tektoonics:

Why Does God Hate Deputies?

He also has another site called God is Imaginary. In one of the chapters of his site, he basically says that God wants people who work on Sunday to die (lol). For more humor, I looked at the message board that accompanies that site. Some people talked about the best arguments against God, and one person said that Science, Logic, Reason, and Math would work (lol).
good article man. That's as much seriousness as it deserves. It's not that it's a stupid question I do order, and I can see a kid worrying about it. Form the perspective of an adult life is too complex to base major decision one thing. here is what gets me.

First rather than base disbelief on war, or the holocaust or the biologically driven desire to stay from a commitment, they base it on one unanswered question involving a small percentage of people.

Then when you point other evidence of healing they use this question to negate all other proof. Lurdes? meaningle3ss as along people aren't growing bck limbs.
btw nice mentions I think my cleverest line in answer to this argument "why wont God heal stupidity?"
Don McIntosh said…
Thanks for the kind word JB. Having seen your and Joe H's comments I'm glad I didn't take this more seriously. I don't do much satire in apologetics myself, but I must say, that bit from Tekton was hilarious.
Don McIntosh said…
"...they base it on one unanswered question involving a small percentage of people."

Exactly. An isolated class of non-miracles, when miracles are infrequent by definition in the first place, does very little to advance either an argument from evil or an argument against miracles.
Holding is real funny. Look on my blog "fun filled Fridays" over the last couple of months.
btw one thing on amputee site he goes close your eyes pray for a candy bar, open eyes, is there a candy bar? No? sop there's no God. That in itself is more hilarious as a parody of that's guy's thinking than anything I could make up.
Jake said…
Ah yes I remember going on out of sheer curiosity. I died of laughter when I saw that their extremely scholarly source for their understanding of prayer was "The Purpose Driven Life".
FF said…
At the end of your life their is nothing, but darkness.
yes for you not for those of us who know Jesus. "He is light and in him there is no darkness."

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