Since moving to _____, which is actually a seminary disguised as a small town, I have been in frequent (almost exclusive) contact with theologians and missionaries. Tonight was dinner with a nice couple who have spent portions of their lives ministering (their term) in India.
I do a lot of listening during these meetings. The anecdotes are interesting, not only for their content but for their implications. I’ll give two examples in the order they were related to me, and I’ll try to represent them as accurately as possible.
The first story was about an older woman who was in a coma at a Christian medical center. When the missionary couple arrived, the nursing staff were all gathered around praying for her. The woman said she was “of little faith,” but her husband said a prayer over the woman and left. About a month later, they got a call from the center saying that just a week after they had prayed, the woman came out of the coma, finally accepted the Lord as her savior, sang a song with the nurses, and then passed away.
But this was the conclusion of the story: she said, “This taught me so much about the love of Jesus. That woman didn’t do anything for his kingdom. She was only awake for a couple hours. But he loved her so much that he woke her up and led her to accept him before she died so that she could go on and spend eternity with him.”
This is a great example of a story that, given a certain religious context, sounds nice until you think about agency. When you make the assumption, even for one anecdote, that Jesus is both willing and capable of altering life circumstances to accomplish some goal (such as bringing someone out of a coma for their “salvation”) it makes him a monster for every other case where there were circumstances that weren’t altered and people died as unbelievers — to spend eternity without him. Even if I shared the religious perspective of the people who told this story, I would have been depressed by its message instead of encouraged.
The second story was told by the husband regarding an incident that occurred when he was washing the feet of church planters in India. One of the men in the circle stopped him and asked to wash his feet instead. As he got up to change places, a massive tree branch fell down and crushed the seat where he had been sitting moments earlier. This was interpreted as a divine blessing, but it creates a complex problem in the realm of cause and effect.
I can sum this up by asking a simple question, which I did not actually ask the man who told the story: if Jesus could influence you to stand up at that time, could he also influence the tree branch not to fall, simultaneously leaving a smaller footprint on human free will? And if he can make you stand up, couldn’t he also have saved the lives of other Christians who have been hit by tree branches and died? Is he not then responsible for those other deaths?
I believe that both of these stories happened, more or less as presented, but I am shocked at how readily the spiritual “explanation” jumped to the minds of the storytellers, free of further critical analysis. If you’re going to tell a story about something as weighty and significant as supernatural intervention in a human life, you at least have the responsibility to examine your logic and theology along with your facts.