June 8, 2011

Let Me Be More Explicit ... (Part One)

You’ve probably seen the cartoon of two scientists standing at a blackboard full of equations, in the midst of which are the words “then a miracle occurs …”  Pointing at these words, one scientist says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

On June 8, 2003, I was a witness to an extraordinary event that many people have called a miracle.  At about 10pm that evening, my wife Vonna, who had been deemed “permanently disabled” from a highly aggressive and rapidly advancing form of crippling Multiple Sclerosis, felt a sudden surge of heat through her body, a few hours after being prayed for at our church by a so-called “faith healer”.    She woke up the next morning to the astounding realization that that the disabling symptoms that had plagued her on a daily basis for the previous four years, were suddenly nonexistent. The day that I'm writing this marks eight years since every trace of an incurable and incapacitating disease instantly vanished, never to return.

Upon hearing of this story, the authors of a new book (to be released in October) called "Miracles are for Real" decided to investigate, and have included a chapter on what happened.  That's remarkable in itself, because I’m always skeptical of stories like this.  My first inclination is to wonder how much of the story is fabricated, distorted, or just delusional.   So how did I handle it when I suddenly had to deal with the evidence on a firsthand basis?  Did a skeptical, scientifically-minded person like me have to resort to a “then a miracle occurred …” explanation?   Well, in response to the cartoon, let me be more explicit …

In Part One, let me list some of the physical evidence I had to confront (for more details, you can go to the full version of the story at http://walamn.com/Vonna’s-Story.php)  

The situation up until June 8, 2003:   

Vonna had begun noticing occasional numbness on the left side of her body in 1999.  Within a year, the numbness had become constant, her left leg was failing to respond, and she was wearing a leg brace and walking with a cane.  Optic nerve inflammation began causing double vision and eye pain.  Fatigue became debilitating.  Her MS specialist was concerned at the aggressiveness with which Vonna’s condition had rapidly advanced to what is known as “secondary progressive MS”.

Over the next two years, things continued to deteriorate.  Halfway through the process of becoming licensed as a marriage and family therapist, Vonna was forced to close her office and give up her practice.  The local newspaper did a story on Vonna's illness, which can be read here:  http://walamn.com/documents/Article.pdf 

As her condition worsened, the cane was more and more frequently giving way to a wheelchair; we had to sell our split-level house and move to single-level home that could be made handicapped accessible.  The number of different drugs being tried to get some of the symptoms under control was now up to a dozen or so.  Eventually, Vonna was approved for treatment with the chemotherapy drug Novantrone – at this point, a treatment of last resort.  When that didn’t help, it was discontinued – and Vonna’s condition continued to deteriorate.

The events of June 8, 2003:

Vonna and I went to church to hear a special speaker.  Since he was known as something of a “faith healer”, we were both highly skeptical.  As we listened to him, our skepticism increased.   At the prayer time, Vonna very reluctantly agreed to let him pray for her – and, as we expected, nothing happened.  We came home, and Vonna went to bed.

As she lay in bed at about 10pm, Vonna felt a sudden surge of heat on the left side of her body, beginning at her head, and moving down to her feet.  It was so unlike anything she had ever felt before, that she called out “I think God’s healing me.”   I skeptically said something like, “that’s nice, dear,” not knowing what I’d have to deal with in the next few days.

The situation after June 8, 2003:  

The morning after the “event”, Vonna woke up realizing that she suddenly had feeling on the left side of her body.  Her left leg, which she had been dragging around for four years, was responding, and she had the disorienting sensation of having to rethink how to walk with two working legs.   Several days later, she had flown to Seattle to visit her sister, and I listened in stunned silence as she called to tell me how she had gone hiking and kayaking in the San Juan Islands.  After returning from the trip, I felt tears filling my eyes as I watched her playing an active game of volleyball with the church youth group on our front lawn.  The leg brace, cane, and wheelchair were never used again.

A couple weeks later, Vonna’s MS specialist was in total shock as he saw her walk briskly into his office.  After years of closely following her deteriorating condition, he had no explanation for why he suddenly couldn’t find a single trace of any of her “permanent” symptoms other than “it’s a miracle”.  (Actually, his first explanation was wondering if it was a prank being pulled on him, possibly by a twin sister.)  After admitting that nothing in her medical treatment could even remotely account for the stunning disappearance of every symptom, he saw no reason for her to continue taking any more medication.

Vonna returned to her counseling practice, completed the process of earning her license as a Marriage and Family Therapist, and now works a very demanding full-time schedule.  She works out at the gym and swims regularly.  After giving away her wheelchairs, we’ve moved to a house with lots of stairs.  And after eight years, not one symptom has ever returned.

That about sums it up.  As objectively and succinctly as I can describe it, we have a victim of a rapidly advancing, incurable, and crippling condition, who is prayed for by a faith healer and is instantly, completely, and permanently healed of that incurable condition to the utter bafflement of medical science.  How’s a scientifically-minded skeptic like me supposed to deal with that sort of evidence?

This story may raise all sorts of questions in your mind.  Let me hear them.  I doubt that there's one I myself haven't already asked, but I'm willing to be surprised.  Add your comments and questions, and I'll try to address them in a future post.  And watch for Part Two on this topic, as I get more explicit about how my skepticism became a positive force in coming to terms with the events of eight years ago, and some thoughts on integrating the natural, the supernatural, and maybe even the "miraculous" into a scientific understanding of the universe.


  1. I never get tired of hearing this story. It is a miracle!

  2. Conceding that there is no known mechanism for a phenomena does not mean "I know what the mechanism is". SS

  3. Good point. Automatically jumping from "no known mechanism" to "therefore, the mechanism must be this" is the classic "God of the gaps" fallacy (the one the "intelligent design" advocates are always falling into). Of course, a presupposition that just as automatically rejects certain mechanisms is another fallacy -- what I would call the "cynical fallacy". The path between those two extremes, blind faith and blind cynicism, is what I call "healthy skepticism". Anyway, more about that in Part Two. Part One was just about laying out the observable evidence as a basis for thinking about the "phenomenon" itself, and what potential mechanisms might be involved.

  4. When nine signs say go left and one sign says go right, you could say that the correct way is not clear and therefore the right path is inconclusive and decide not to follow any signs in fear of getting lost. However, the indecisive person who chooses to ignore all signs will certainly be lost as much as the person who follows the incorrect signs. My point is that it pays to do the homework and study the map, and then make a decision based on what makes most sense. Proof is relative but faith is part of every decision you make.

  5. What a great story, Phil. I only wish I had one like it. It would be so faith-affirming!

    FWIW, as I see it, there's no reason to think that this instance of faith-healing couldn't be both from God and a product of natural processes. But I suspect you probably feel the same way!

  6. What a tremendous testimony. Praise God!

  7. The interesting thing about this situation is our ability to come to our own decisions. For example, if I was walking along the street one day and the sky went black, the clouds parted, and a giant bearded figure of a man descended from the clouds and pointed at me and said, "I am God. Stop doubting my existence!", I could shake my head and ponder what I ate that made me hallucinate such a thing. Conversely, I could stop doubting God and live my life as though there was one. There is always a choice, and one I believe we are always free to make. I believe that God intended it to be so.

    This is an amazing story and I am glad that I had the privilege to hear it!