Over the last Memorial Day weekend I turned on 700 Club to see what Pat Robertson was up to and got a repeat show, I decided to watch it anyways. There is a formula to the 700 Club which doesn’t seem to have changed much since I watched it in my twenties. It goes like this: Sinner’s story, has to be something more than a white lie or cheating on taxes or squabbling with your spouse. Best topics are crime, drugs, alcohol and porn. Then we take the viewer from the sin to the redemption and show how the redemption healed the sinner for the rest of their life (or their life up until now). After that one of the hosts does an altar call to the viewing audience because we are at an emotional breaking point.
This episode was pretty standard fare along those guidelines. First story was about a man in prison regretting his crime and finding Jesus behind bars (seriously, how many criminals behind bars find God?). The second story was about a stripper on drugs who finds Jesus and is now in a stable marriage. I’m happy for both of these people (well, I wish more could be done for the guy in jail as I believe strongly in rehabilitation) but maybe these people need the illusion of Christ to save them from themselves? The majority of us are not criminals or strippers. Even with strippers what I find is usually the reason their life is a mess is hard drugs, not the taking off of one’s clothes. I don’t necessarily advocate being a stripper, I prefer sexy nerds myself, but if you need to pay for text books for college…
The third story in the 700 Club formula is a “miracle.” In this case, it was about Bruce Van Natta who was pinned under a truck while trying to inspect it. As a result his mid-section was crushed including his intestines. Bruce claims angels saved him and that God either healed or grew back his small intestines. You can read the entire story at the 700 Club website, the article is a near transcript of what they broadcast. What I want to do is question the miracle because I think it’s essential that freethinkers do this with public claims, especially since Bruce Van Natta is now selling a book about his experience called Saved By Angels as well as running a ministry called “Sweetbread Ministries.” From what I can tell, Bruce is a decent family guy and is completely sincere about what he believes so this isn’t intended as an attempt to bring him down like I would with Benny Hinn or the late Falwell (power hungry con-artists speaking for God). What I would say is that because of his strong beliefs Bruce reconstructed his pain into a spiritual experience in order to deal with it. We may criticize the miracle, but Bruce Van Natta is an admirable example of someone determined to live despite the odds.
Let’s start with being saved by angels. Bruce, while attempting to diagnose a leak, says the moment the logging truck fell on him it was the worst pain he had ever felt–agreed! The next thing he did was call out, “Lord, help me!” and all of the pain instantly left him and he went unconscious. This is where I disagree that this was the Lord. The writer of the 700 Club article tries to make a time distinction between the pain leaving Bruce and Bruce going unconscious. I would argue that Bruce felt the pain go away because it was so bad he blacked out. I’m not going to claim medical expertise here as this is a layman’s exercise in critiquing a miracle (feel free to comment), but from what I understand fainting can be caused by extreme pain which prevents oxygen from reaching the brain. The same effect can even be caused by extreme fear. A logging truck falling on you would be unimaginably painful and frightening.
What I’m saying is that we may not know the exact physical reason why Bruce went numb and blacked out, but it is reasonable to say it was a physical reaction to the trauma and not the Lord’s work. Here’s an even better argument why this is not a miracle. If a truck fell on me and I’m a Christian and I call out to God and the best he can do is leave the truck on my mid-section and knock me unconscious? That’s not a very “awesome” god. Fact is, I would say that is a very weak, imaginary god. An all powerful and compassionate God would have either prevented the incident (it wasn’t like Bruce was being careless as far as we know) or have lifted the truck up in mid-air and healed Bruce’s stomach (reinflate it like a Looney Tunes’ character).
This brings us to the angels. When Bruce went unconscious he said he floated out of his body and looked down upon himself. This is a typical near death experience. I can’t argue about what Bruce saw or felt in that state, but I would suggest that what he remembers he saw is a reconstruction. Bruce says he saw two angels : “The man I had been working with was on his knees above my body. I can hear him saying things like, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ But on each side of him, also on their knees were huge angels. They would have been about eight feet tall. They didn’t have wings, just very, very broad shoulders. Between the two angels and him, it took up the whole truck.” I’m not quite sure how you estimate an angel’s height while they were on their knees?
What of the angels though? Bruce says they were not lifting the truck up “…but they had their arms angled in toward my body.” Apparently this brought Bruce great peace–as he is still blacked out–and he had to make a choice to enter his body again. I have to ask, what was the point of the angels? To touch him and give him peace? Again, worthless. If we’re talking about miracles let’s have the angels lift the truck and use their powers to undo the damage to Bruce’s body. Instead, Bruce is told by a voice if he wants to enter his body to live he is going to have to fight and fight hard. That’s called human effort and it is impressive how much we can survive in a bad situation, no divine intervention needed.
Putting aside Bruce’s angelic contact, the real offense to our intellect comes down to the small intestines and the medical report. You’ll notice the 700 Club article doesn’t back itself up with the testimonies of the doctors. I would bet some of them were even Christian and might have given testimony. Chalk this up to lazy journalism or the doctors didn’t agree with all the claims of their patient. Growing up, one of the things my dad told me as a Christian and a doctor is that every patient thinks they’ve undergone a miracle and their results have confounded the medical establishment. In other words, when we survive a tragic event or a disease we tend to exaggerate the results and make unsubstantiated claims. Medical science is not a miracle. Medical science is necessary because of the absence of miracles.
Bruce claims the following: “…they can’t find anyone else in the world that has ever lived with five major arteries being severed.” The problem is, he doesn’t name the arteries. I had wanted to, as a layman, look the arteries up for any clues to verify the claim. We do know the arteries would have been in the mid-section and they would not include the femoral artery or the carotid artery which if cut cause a quick death so what are the other major arteries he’s referring to? I just named 2 that were not touched? Could one of them been the abdominal aorta? Are there 5 arteries that in theory could be severed and a patient could survive? My point here is that the writer of the article doesn’t care enough to establish the miracle with medical research. If there was a miracle concerning the severing of 5 major arteries how would we know if someone could survive or not? If you tell me that someone got their jugular vein cut open and lived long enough for an ambulance to arrive I think I might be impressed. It’s specific and allows me to see that something spectacular did happen. Bruce’s claim here doesn’t do that and I bet even his book doesn’t contain the medical particulars. He says that 5 major arteries were severed and he knows of no other report of another person who has survived this. That tells us very little.
Let’s go to the small intestines, because if Bruce’s small intestines grew back, as far as I understand it, that would be miraculous. And this is what the TV episode and the article lead you to believe, unless you’re careful to notice the choice of wording.
After Bruce was rescued and in the hospital he says this: “An adult has 18-20 some feet of small intestine. I was down to less than 100 cm of small intestine. Someone came in and told us that [article’s wording] didn’t expect me to live much more than a year, that I was going to starve to death. I was losing weight very rapidly; they were feeding me intravenously.” Mind you, according to Bruce, this was after five major surgeries as God was too incompetent to heal Bruce before the surgeries.
While still in the hospital with his 100 cms of small intestines, Bruce says a man he had met once on vacation came to him and laid hands on him in prayer (because Bruce’s prayers were not enough as God is a little hard of hearing). The visiting man said, “I command you to supernaturally grow back length in the name of Jesus Christ.” Bruce’s reaction was that he felt like 220 volts had gone through him as well as his intestines moving around. That would lead you to believe they were growing back right there and then, huh? That the claim is the small intestines actually grew back.
BUT let’s go to the next paragraph: “After long nine months of surgeries and hospital stays…” That is when the doctors told Bruce he had nine feet of intestines; Bruce says they had doubled in length. The doctors also told him the intestines the Lord had given him back were twice as good as normal. Okay, so first let’s convert 100 cms to feet which is 3.28083 feet or rounded down is three feet. Nine feet is not double that of three feet. Double would be six feet? As for twice as good as normal, well, that obviously is an exaggeration which I can believe a doctor might say to reassure a patient, but the phrase is nonsense unless Bruce is suggesting he has “super intestines.” Anything twice as good as normal would be mean super normal as in the intestines of Superman.
The part about his intestines doubling in length is what bugs me though. When I was watching the TV show I actually said out loud, “So you’re claiming you grew back your small intestines?” No, Bruce never actually says that nor does the article say that, it only leads you to believe that because Bruce says he has 100 cms left of small intestines and the prayer of the visiting man (correct me if I’m wrong). I don’t believe anything grew back, his existing small intestines were surgically repaired and healed up. In other words, he originally had 100 cms of viable small intestines but six feet or more of potentially repairable small intestines or possibly they were able to literally replace the damaged tissue (though I believe replacing the small intestines is a more complicated explanation). Either way, the focus is on the countless surgeries which led to nine feet of now healthy small intestines–it didn’t miraculously grow back within a day after the prayer of the visiting man that made him feel like 220 volts went through him. Otherwise, what was the purpose of all those surgeries and the time span of nine months? That’s one hell of a dumb miracle and so much bull it’s hard to stomach (sorry for the pun). We’re not being given all of the information. And can God not heal all 18 feet or so of small intestines?
There you have it, my exercise in questioning a miracle because most Christians like to believe miracles happen through God’s agents on earth: they’re called doctors. This isn’t a miracle, it’s medical science at work and while Bruce is an amiable guy he’s been duped by his faith, exploited by the 700 Club and gotten a book deal out of it (which CBN sells on their website). The miracle sounds nice until you break it down and start asking questions. Once you do that it really is an offense to the intellect and dilutes the world with pseudo-miracles because how are we to find the real miracles (if they exist) when we’re drowning in this nonsense?
You may be wondering why even bother to examine 700 Club miracles, isn’t this really a futile exercise? I believe it’s time to question every miraculous claim. Some of them are obviously personal interpretation (I saw an angel, I heard the voice of God), but others do make claims that either are misleading or do not fit the definition of a miracle (an event of divine intervention that defies the laws of nature). We’ve allowed the term “miracle” to be overused by the media, especially in reference to disasters and accidents where the real saviors have been medically trained doctors–a human effort with no divine assistance. Let’s start to give credit where credit is due. To Bruce I say, your small intestines are back because of science.
SIDENOTE: I have emailed Bruce Van Natta at Sweetbread Ministries and simply asked which 5 arteries were severed or if the information was in his book? I guess I couldn’t blame him for putting it in the book only, but before I find a used copy for sale I want to know it’s in there. In addition, I posted the question on the 700 Club and Amazon.com. Five severed arteries may indeed be a medical survival feat, it does not necessarily mean a miracle for many of the reasons I’ve mentioned above. Still, it would be nice to have a reference point, or possibly for the physician, these arteries would be common enough that all you have to say is 5 major arteries in the mid-section?
UPDATE: Bruce Van Natta responds. Thankfully, he is sincere. The first response was to my simple question on the arteries:
According to the trauma report the Superior Mesenteric artery was completely transected as well as other unnamed mesenteric arteries. In addition the Superior Mesenteric vein and numerous other blood vessels were damaged and bleeding.
The second response was to another person’s comment on Amazon.com questioning the miraculous claim including this, “However, nothing you mention attests to your having survived being anything but a very remarkable and rare case of someone’s surviving because everything fortunately worked in the person’s favor.”
Bruce replied with this:
The University Southern California study was done in 2001. Every single Doctor who has looked at my records (some of which who believed in God and some who didn’t) has said that there is no way I should be alive. 2 hours and 40 minutes elapsed from the point the truck fell on me until I was operated on and from what they found when they opened me up I was told I should have died within just minutes after the accident. There is no medical reason I should be alive, the facts speak for themselves, which validates what I experienced when my spirit left my body and I saw the 2 angles God sent to save me. Every person who hears this testimony is forced to contemplate the reality of spiritual things-such as heaven and hell and life after death or they can believe that they are smarter than some of the best trauma Doctors in the world and there must be some other reason I am alive that these Doctors weren’t able to figure out.
Further comments on my part? I don’t know if any are needed beyond many of the points I already made. Without a doctors panel or actually interviewing the doctors who worked on Van Natta how would we really know? I would say that I think most any doctor who read a case about someone having a logging truck fall in their mid-section would instinctively say, “You should have died within minutes.” It’s a natural reaction. That is different than a doctor proclaiming a valid miracle (again, why all the surgeries for this miracle to happen? Why the need for human effort and medical science?) The question is, when you study what happened (if that’s even possible after the fact) do we really think it is the explanation of angels stopping the blood flow or the more rational explanation of the arteries in question being pinched off by the weight of the truck so he didn’t bleed out immediately (just a guess on my part).
I remember as a kid seeing an old episode of what I think was the show Emergency featuring the lives of paramedics and their rescues at accident scenes. In one episode a husband is teaching his wife to shoot a bow and arrow. He goes to grab the arrows from the target and while out of sight of his wife she stupidly decides to shoot an arrow thinking he’s no where near the target. You guessed it, an arrow to the heart. Now he didn’t die immediately even though any doctor witnessing that scene would say he should have. Instead the arrow somehow kept him from bleeding out as long as they didn’t remove it and waited for the paramedics to arrive. That’s an instance of where commonsense would make you say, “He was shot in the heart with an arrow? He should have died immediately,” but actual examination would show you what actually happened that prevented him from dying–and it wasn’t a miracle.
Miracles should be more obvious. I would say, in fact, they should only involve doctors to the extent to provide a witness to the miracle, but the doctor should not be involved in the miracle. Otherwise, the rational assumption is the healing work of a doctor and the natural healing abilities of the human body were the cause of the supposed miracle. When I see blind man have mud put on his eyes and then washed off and he can see again, then that’s certainly something to boast about. When a faith healer can cure someone with advanced multiple sclerosis and the doctors are there just to note it? Then again, something to boast about. Bruce Van Natta’s miracle is too speculative and there’s far too much human effort involved. I’m glad he’s okay, though, for his family’s sake.