The topic of physical healing is one of the more contested in the church today. Though scripture is full of accounts of the miraculous, the topic tends to be fairly divisive, and causes tension not only within and between denominations, but also between the church and the scientific community. So earlier this year Barna conducted research in an effort to understand the beliefs, practices and experiences of American adults as they relate to supernatural physical healing. The results are striking, and challenge taken-for-granted notions about supernatural healing as an uncommon and disbelieved phenomenon in America today.
Majority of Americans Believe God Can Heal People Supernaturally
Though often the subject of much debate—both theologically and scientifically—the majority of American adults (66%) believe people can be physically healed supernaturally by God. This majority is made up equally between those who either strongly (33%) or somewhat (33%) agree that it’s possible to be physically healed supernaturally by God. The remaining one-third (34%) are skeptical, comprised of those who either strongly (19%) or somewhat (15%) disagree.
Though there is consensus across the generational groups among those who strongly agree about supernatural healing, when it comes to those who strongly disagree, Millennials are more likely to be skeptical—one-quarter (25%) strongly disagree, twice the amount of Elders (13%). The other two groups fit into a sliding scale based on age (Gen-Xers: 21% and Boomers: 14%).
Education level also impacts likelihood of belief in supernatural healing. A little more than one-quarter (27%) of those with a college degree believe people can be supernaturally healed by God, compared with a little more than one-third (37%) among those who have a high school education or less. The more education one receives, the less likely they are to believe in supernatural healing.
Evangelicals are the most likely of any group to believe people can be physically healed supernaturally by God—almost nine in 10 (87%) agree strongly. Practicing Christians follow suit: six in 10 (61%) agree strongly. At the other end of the spectrum, those of other faiths (this includes Islam, Judaism, etc) are less convinced—two in 10 (21%) believe in supernatural healing. Perhaps surprisingly, 7 percent of those who claim no faith believe in the possibility of God’s supernatural healing, though this group does include agnostics.
Protestants (55%) are almost three times more likely to believe people can be physically healed supernaturally by God than Catholics (19%). This is one of the more significant divides between these two groups that we’ve seen historically in Barna’s data.
When it comes to ethnicity, black Americans (55%) are almost twice as likely than white (29%) and Hispanic Americans (26%) to agree strongly that people can be physically healed supernaturally by God.
Finally, the West (22%) and Northeast (29%) regions of the United States are more skeptical of supernatural healing, while the Midwest (32%) and particularly the South (43%) are more likely to believe people can be physically healed supernaturally by God.
Most Americans Pray for Others to Be Supernaturally Healed by God
Though believing people can be physically healed supernaturally by God is one thing, actually praying for it to happen is another. However, it’s clear Americans put their money where their mouth is, and their actions match their beliefs. Almost seven in 10 (68%) adults have personally prayed for someone to be healed supernaturally by God. This is actually just slightly more than the amount of people who say that people can be physically healed supernaturally by God (66%). One-third (32%) have never prayed for someone to be healed.
Though a significant amount of both men and women pray for others to be healed supernaturally, women (73%) are more likely than men (63%) to do so, and more often than the national average of 68 percent.
Comparing the lowest and highest levels of education that Barna measures, those with a high school education or less (73%) are more likely than those who have a college degree (60%) to have ever prayed for someone to be healed supernaturally by God.
Again, evangelicals are the group most likely to have prayed for someone to be healed. A vast majority (95% to be exact) are serious about healing prayer, followed fairly closely by practicing Christians (86%). About half as many (46%) followers of others faiths have prayed for supernatural healing, and a surprisingly large number of those who claim no faith (38%) have also prayed the same prayer. Though again, this group does include agnostics, which may account for this relatively high number.
The Catholic and protestant divide is not as stark when it comes to healing prayer. The two groups are much closer when it comes to the actual practice, even though the difference is still statistically significant. A large majority of Protestants (84%) have personally prayed for someone to be healed supernaturally by God, compared to around three-quarters of Catholics (76%).
More Than One-Quarter of Americans Have Experienced a Miraculous Physical Healing
Though most adults believe people can be physically healed supernaturally by God (66%), and have personally prayed for such a thing (68%), fewer than three in 10 (27%) have actually experienced a physical healing that could only be explained as a miraculous healing and not solely as a result of normal process, medical procedure or the body healing itself. This is a striking statistic—one-quarter of the American adult population claims they have experienced supernatural healing.
Women have these experiences more often than men. Around one-quarter of men (23%) have personally experienced a supernatural healing, compared to three in 10 (30%) women.
Once again, education level has a predictive impact on the likelihood of experiencing the miraculous. In this case, those with a high school education or less (29%) are almost twice as likely as those with a college degree to experience a miraculous physical healing.
Though evangelicals are the group most likely (by far) to believe people can be physically healed supernaturally by God, and are more likely (by far) to pray for someone to be healed, the experience of that healing levels out to around the same as practicing Christians. However, both groups are still the most likely to claim an experience of miraculous physical healing at around half (practicing Christians: 51% and evangelicals: 48%). Those of other faiths are much less likely at 14 percent, and almost one in 10 (8%) agnostics or atheists say they’ve experienced a miraculous healing—a low number comparatively, but rather striking for a group who claims to have no faith.
Though Protestants and Catholics are much closer when it comes to praying for people to be healed supernaturally, only half as many Catholics (18%) than Protestants (41%) experience a miraculous healing.
Black Americans (42%) are twice as likely as white Americans (21%) to experience miraculous healing. Hispanic Americans (32%) fall in the middle of the two groups.
Again, the South stands out among the other regions in the U.S. In this case, more than one-third (34%) of those who live in the South have experienced a miraculous physical healing. This is almost twice as much as the Midwest (19%). Around one-quarter of those in the West (25%) and the Northeast (26%) have experienced the same miraculous healing.
What the Research Means
“Most Christians have been in a church service where the pastor prays specifically for someone’s health,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna Group. “Sometimes pastors pray for the doctors (“guide the doctor’s in their work”), and sometimes the patient’s and family’s state of mind (“give them peace and a knowledge of your deep love”). But more often than not, the pastor also adds a prayer for the miraculous (“we ask that your healing come”). The vast majority of Christians—especially among Protestants—are familiar with and believe in this kind of prayer.
“The experience of actual physical healing is, of course, less frequent,” continues Stone. “Evangelicals in particular are more likely to pray for and believe in miraculous healing than they are to experience it, though this does not appear to effect their belief in its possibility.
“In a post-religious, scientifically-driven culture, these high levels of belief in the miraculous may come as a surprise to many,” says Stone. “But being sick personally, or having someone you love face a serious illness, is one of the most vulnerable and devastating experiences of a person’s life. It’s a moment that drives many—even those who do not believe in God—to their knees in desperation. Many people seek God in that space when they may not otherwise. This is an opportunity for church leadership to come alongside people and guide them in these spiritual experiences. In fact, when Barna asked Millennials in Sacred Roots (part of our FRAMES series) what, if anything has made their faith grow in the past year, one of the top reasons was the result of a death or illness of a loved one. People need God in these moments.”
About the Research
The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online survey from January 28 to February 4, 2016. A total of 1,011 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points at 95-percent confidence level.
Practicing Christian: Those who attend a religious service at least once a month, who say their faith is very important in their lives and self-identify as a Christian
Evangelicals: Have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believe that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, plus seven other conditions. These conditions include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
Other faith: identify with a non-Christian faith, or identify as a Christian but report beliefs not aligned with historic, orthodox Christianity
No faith: identify as agnostic or atheist, or as having no faith
Millennials: Born between 1984 and 2002
Gen-Xers: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier
About Barna Group
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2016.