Thurman Scrivner and the face of Bible hyper-literalism
Miracles are God’s response to faithful, sinless living. If you have faith and turn from your sins, you’ll have miracles in your life. If you don’t, you won’t. That, according to preacher and healer Thurman Scrivner, is the clear teaching of Scripture.
“Faith is what makes miraculous healing work,” Scrivner explains with quiet conviction. “If you’ve been praying and believing for more than two years and you haven’t gotten your answer yet, then you need to go ask God what’s wrong in your life. Because there’s some kind of a sin that’s blocking his miracle for you.”
Many would argue that there’s no way to predict who will receive a miracle and who will ask in vain. The decision is God’s alone and God’s plans and reasons are beyond our ability to understand. Scrivner disagrees. He has no doubt that the Bible teaches us exactly what to do in order to bring a miracle into our lives. If we do it, we’ll receive that miracle without fail. He will even say that it’s “guaranteed.”
Scrivner says that miracles are a matter of faith, not of need. “If you don’t believe, you’re not going to get anything from a faith God,” he says. Faith, not need, moves God’s hand. “If need moved his hand, he would be following along behind the devil all the time trying mop up what the devil’s done. But God doesn’t follow along behind nothing or nobody.”
As founder and director of The Living Savior Ministries, Scrivner holds healing services around the country. He also teaches a monthly healing school and preaches weekly at his church near Dallas. Far from the image of the polished TV personality engaging packed auditoriums about miracles and money, Thurman Scrivner is an unassuming grandfatherly type with silver hair combed straight back and a preference for dark shirts and light neckties. He has a folksy delivery that complements his soft Southern accent and a tendency to go his own way when it comes to grammar. Though he doesn’t get wound up in the pulpit like his more famous contemporaries, his quiet intensity and confidence in his interpretation of the Bible are unshakable.
Scrivner says he has healed hundreds of people by having them search their lives for the sins that block healing and good health, then admitting those sins and asking God’s forgiveness. If they’re not healed right away it’s because they still have unconfessed sin hiding somewhere. Scrivner believes that since he himself has no unconfessed sin, he can heal others as long as the person who seeks healing is also washed clean of all sin.
According to Scrivner, sickness is caused by sin. Perhaps it’s your own sin that you’ve committed. Perhaps it’s generational sin from your ancestors that’s bringing a curse to your life. But if you’re sick it is because you have unredressed sin in your life. If you want to get well, forget about medicine and doctors. Confess your own sin and root out your generaltional sin. Then God will heal you because that is what the Bible promises.
Scriptures Tell the Tale
One of the authors (BD) hosted Scrivner as a guest speaker in his apologetics classes at a large theological seminary in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area (with the permission of the seminary administration). Most of the students were intending to be pastors and ministers at local congregations.
The author felt it important that students be able to understand Christian leaders who take extreme views on divine healing, especially to be aware of the hyper-literal approach to biblical interpretation that these healers typically display. In this way he hoped that his students, once they were ministers, could effectively advise church members who are influenced by such individuals.
Faith healing, when it becomes extreme, is no longer an academic issue. When faith healers, for instance, say that faith requires throwing away one’s medications or refusing medical intervention for fully treatable conditions, it can turn lethal, even resulting in a charge of criminally negligent homicide. Scrivner never went that far, but others do.
In the apologetics class, about 10 percent of the students embraced Scrivner’s views, while the rest ranged from skeptical to feeling insulted. Scrivner bases his belief on several key Bible verses. Many Christians interpret these verses very differently, saying that they refer specifically to Jesus or his disciples or to specific situations, and that applying them without qualification takes them out of context and distorts their meaning.
Scrivner, by contrast, accepts the words at their most literal face value—hence the reference in this chapter to “hyper-literalism.” To him there is no room for debate or discussion: anything other than his straightforward reading of biblical texts is simply misguided and wrong.
In Deuteronomy 28:1-2, Moses promises the people of Israel, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I commanded you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations and the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you…” Moses then lists both the many blessings in store for those who obey God and the even greater multitude of curses that await the disobedient. According to Scrivner, this passage shows that you have to do exactly what God commands in order to get a miracle.
Scrivner believes that the message of Romans 10:17 is that the faith we need for healing comes from the teachings of Jesus: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Faith makes it possible to please God, who then rewards us by healing us, as explained in Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
Not only do Scriptures tell Scrivner he can heal, but they also tell him he can do a better job of it than Jesus. He derives this conclusion from John 14:12-14, Jesus’ words to His disciples following the Last Supper: “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”
Furthermore, according to Scrivner, anyone, not just Jesus, has the power to forgive sin. To justify that claim, and thus his own authority to forgive sins, Scrivner points to John 20:23, in which Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection and declares, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”
This verse gives a good example of how Scrivner interprets Scripture and why his approach is controversial. Backing up to verse 21, we read, “‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive … etc.’” To many biblical interpreters, Jesus appears to be saying these words specifically to his disciples or to the Christian church as a whole, but not to you or Thurman Scrivner or anybody else. Scrivner disagrees.
Scrivner’s critics regularly bring up the story of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9:1-3. “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” In this case, the man’s faith came after the miracle.
Scrivner’s response is that later in the chapter the Pharisees describe the healed man as “born in utter sin.” Scrivner says that although the man’s parents had not sinned, there would have been sin in his family going back generations that kept him from experiencing a miracle. For Scrivner, generational sin going back even ten generations can be enough to short-circuit God’s healing power unless there is faith and repentance. As evidence for this point, he cites Deuteronomy 23:3–6:
An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever: because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee. Nevertheless the LORD thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the LORD thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the LORD thy God loved thee. Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever.
But if sins going back ten generations can short-circuit miracles, it seems that miracles are less a matter of faith than detective work to uncover the miracle-preventing sins. There’s also the problem of consistency with the rest of Scripture. The book of Ruth is about a Moabite woman (i.e., Ruth) who comes to Israel, marries the Israelite Boaz, gives birth to Obed, who begets Jesse, who in turn begets King David, to whom the promise of the Messiah is given. So what happened to those ten generations of exclusion commanded in Deuteronomy 23?
Faith Fosters Miracles
Scrivner draws examples from his own healing ministry that he says prove the connection between confession of sin and healing. There was the couple whose daughter, Jena, had a terrible rash that no doctor could cure. After a year and a half of prayer, the mother was convinced that her daughter’s healing was blocked on account of a sin in her life.
What was the sin? It was secretly getting pregnant again (with Jena) after agreeing with her husband to use birth control and have no more children. The mother confessed her subterfuge to her husband and received his forgiveness. After that, as Scrivner explained to her, “Now that the sin has been taken care of, we can cast out those spirits and pray the prayer of faith through your baby and your baby will get healed.” As Scrivner tells it, within two weeks the daughter’s rash was completely gone.
Numerous people who say Scrivner was used by God to heal them have told their stories on his television program, How to Walk in Divine Health. One of Scrivner’s favorite stories is about Johnny Brumfield. Scrivner refers to it often. Johnny shared his experience on Scrivner’s television program in 2009. He was near his home in the small town of Many, Louisiana, cutting firewood from a big tree after a storm. As Johnny drove his tractor under the tree, it fell, pinning him in the tractor cab with the huge trunk across both his legs.
Because of the size of the tree, it took an hour and a half to get equipment powerful enough to lift it off Johnny’s crushed body. He was flown to the LSU Medical Center where he spent more than a month in intensive care. Both femurs were broken, his hips and knees damaged, and his feet badly injured. After a series of operations to insert pins and screws throughout his lower body, Johnny spent his days in a wheelchair even though he was fitted for metal leg braces.
Two years after the accident, Johnny attended a healing service by Thurman Scrivner in Many. When Scrivner invited anyone needing prayer to come to the front, Johnny Brumfield wheeled himself down the aisle.
“Do you believe God can heal you?” Thurman asked.
“Yes I do,” Johnny answered.
“Then take off those braces and get up out of that wheelchair!” Thurman instructed.
Johnny unstrapped the braces and stood. After a few tentative steps, he remembers, “I started running around the room yelling, ‘I can run! I can do anything!’” In his television interview, Johnny bounds out of his chair on the set at Thurman’s request and starts high-stepping with unbridled joy at the memory of his miracle.
Raised from the Dead
A Vietnam veteran, Scrivner, started his professional career as an aircraft engineer, airline pilot, and flight instructor. After retiring from aviation, he had a second career in construction management. Later in life, Scrivner began a healing ministry after hearing God’s voice speak to him for the first time in 1977. For the next two decades, he would give healing seminars at local churches, but he was also busy with his career.
The healing event that made his reputation and that inspired him to pursue ministry full-time occurred over twenty years later. Scrivner describes it in stark, simple terms:
“I raised my granddaughter from the dead.”
In 2001 Thurman Scrivner’s wife, daughter, granddaughter, and another young girl were in a horrific car accident that killed his wife and daughter and gravely injured his granddaughter, five-year-old Katlynn. She had broken bones and a brain injury so severe that doctors told Thurman there was little they could do. He should prepare for the worst.
Scrivner says that three doctors said her skull was crushed in five places, her brain stem severed, bones in her face were crushed and broken, and every organ in her body was damaged. He remembers their final comment as, “I’m sorry sir, but when we unplug the life support, she will decease. There’s not one single chance she could ever live.”
As he had for others in the past, Scrivner prayed for his granddaughter’s healing based on the promises he saw in the Bible and his belief that as a repentant sinner he had the right to receive a miracle. Or, as he put it in an interview, “It was my faith, there’s not two ways about it… God’s word was in me. And He honored His word by bringing that little girl back from the dead.”
Standing beside his granddaughter’s hospital bed, Scrivner recited John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Then he followed with an assurance of his own: “He is my God. He honors faith, and so I’m going to ask Him to raise that little girl up and make her well. And He will.”
If physical suffering is caused by sin, how could a five-year-old child sin badly enough to be in Katlynn’s condition? How could a devoted pastor’s wife and daughter carry unrepentant sin so dark that God’s judgment was for these women to be not only killed but also disfigured and dismembered in a car crash?
Scrivner points to two sins that help explain what happened. First was his wife’s weight due to the sin of gluttony. “She got to where she’d eat more and more all the time,” he recalls. “I said, ‘You need to take control of your flesh,’ but she never would. The day of the wreck she probably weighed 300 pounds. My daughter was getting on the same kick and they were both getting overweight.”
The second sin was a “state of bitterness” between his daughter and her husband after an argument earlier in the day. Scrivner admits he doesn’t know exactly what they argued about, but, he insists, “I can guarantee you there was a sin issue there between all of them. They were not walking in obedience to God’s word, and so it brought forth death.”
The fatal wreck, then, could have been caused by the sins of overeating and marital discord, or some other undisclosed sin—just as in Scrivner’s view all suffering that requires a miracle is caused by sin. This would seem to place an incredible burden on the victim of an accident or sickness because it means the suffering and the lack of a miracle are the victim’s fault.
A Sliding Scale
If Scrivner had enough faith to save his granddaughter, why did his wife and daughter die in the same wreck? And even if they died, why didn’t he simply raise them from the dead? The reason he sees is that he had enough faith to save his granddaughter but not enough for the others. He explains, “If I’d had enough faith, he [God] would have raised them both from the dead. There’s no two ways about it. The promises are there.” However, he continued, “There is some kind of a sliding scale like a slide rule or something and God knows in your heart where your faith is and he does things according to your faith.”
Scrivner did leave the door open for another miracle later on. At the funeral service for his wife and daughter, conducted by his friend and pastor Ben Smith, Scrivner warned Smith, “If God tells me, ‘Now get up and go up there and lay hands on those caskets. I’m going to raise both those girls from the dead,’ and you see me get up and head toward those caskets, you’ll know what’s fixing to happen. God’s going to raise those girls from the dead.” Yet God did not intervene.
Meanwhile Katlynn recovered to the point where she could go home. This seemingly miraculous healing was in spite of the doctors’ dire prognosis and was, Scrivner is convinced, thanks to his prayers. Ten and a half months after a feeding tube was installed because of injuries from the crash, Thurman fed his granddaughter by mouth against doctor’s orders based on his reading of Mark 11:24: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” He prayed that she would be able to eat solid food and then gave it to her. He fed her applesauce and orange juice that day and she has been eating normally ever since. Furthermore, she seems to have recovered completely from her injuries.
The obvious question for Scrivner here is whether this is a dangerous example for others, going against doctor’s orders based on a prayer. Scrivner responds, “You better know what you’re doing and you better know your God. If you don’t, you’re going to kill your grandchild.” He adds that he himself has neither seen a doctor nor taken medicine in thirty-five years, though he does sometimes wear glasses.
Scrivner also claims credit for the miraculous healing of Katlynn’s friend Kelly, seriously injured in the same accident. She had a crushed pelvis and brain injuries. Doctors said that if she lived she would be brain damaged and have to use a walker. Scrivner remembers that he prayed John 16:23 over her: “Truly, truly I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”
As Scrivner reports, a week later the girl was out of intensive care; another week and she was out of the hospital. Less than three weeks later, “Kelly was back in school, running and playing like nothing ever happened. All because of my faith.”
It seems that the parents of a child so miraculously restored would be grateful beyond measure for Thurman Scrivner’s prayer on her behalf. Not so in this case. A year later Thurman asked if Kelly could come to a healing school he was hosting near her house. The mother blew up at him on the phone.
“Don’t you ever call me again!” she said. “You act like it was your faith alone that healed my daughter. There were a thousand people praying her.”
“Yes ma’am, there probably were,” Thurman replied, “but there was only one of us praying in faith, and it was me. If it wasn’t for me, that little girl would be dead today.”
When asked how he knew it was his prayers alone that led to healing, Scrivner answered, “I just know that. I just know. Because God speaks to me.” He adds that the sound of God’s voice is “just like a normal man,” just like the interviewer’s (AT).
Scrivner is equally confident that whenever people aren’t healed it is always a matter of too little faith or too much sin. If Scrivner is right with his theology, how can someone like Joni Eareckson Tada—a woman of deep faith who has inspired millions with her ministry despite her disability—spend fifty years in a wheelchair? Scrivner, quoting his friend pastor Bill Gothard, replies, “The only answer I have to that is that she does not believe.” Another reason he gives is that she declined Scrivner’s offer to pray for her, even though, Gothard says, “every human being that Thurman prayed for that I asked him to pray for was instantly healed.”
What follows is a video interview of Thurman Scrivner about the healing of his granddaughter:
The Literal Truth
Thurman Scrivner’s theology hinges on two points. First is absolute reliance on what the Bible literally says. The tricky part here is that people have to accept his interpretations of Scripture without question or variation, absolute and unwavering. Yet from Bible scholars on down, credible people see the meaning of Scripture very differently.
What happens when you take the Bible out of context? We looked earlier at John 14:12-14, where Jesus speaks to his disciples following the Last Supper, “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”
Some Bible students and scholars see these words as specific to the disciples, who were invested with healing powers to demonstrate they were acting in Jesus’ name as human representatives—deputies, if you will—designated specifically and personally by Christ. Of course, other interpretations are possible. What if Jesus, in talking of greater works performed by his disciples, was referring not to healing but to the suffering of martyrdom? Indeed, it’s not clear that Jesus’ miracles have been exceeded by his disciples, but their suffering for his name has in some cases been more extreme than crucifixion.
Writing for Bible.org, the website’s founder, Hampton Keathley IV, says of Scrivner, “It’s possible that Scrivner is casting out demons and that people are being healed when he prays for them. But that doesn’t make his teachings correct. The Scriptures he uses are taken completely out of context. His theology doesn’t work. It doesn’t line up with reality, which is that faithful believers get sick and it’s not always their fault.” Keathley goes on to note that Paul, Timothy, and others of Jesus’ most faithful followers were sick. Paul famously suffered from an otherwise unidentified “thorn in the flesh.” These examples and many others demonstrate, according to Keathley, that God does not always heal.
Yet, ironically, Scrivner’s confident guarantee of healing in response to faith and repentance may be a key contributor to his success. A more nuanced approach to the Bible, which leaves room for God’s unknown will and shies away from offering guarantees, may seem more realistic and grounded, and make better sense to many people. But for those eager for a miracle and ready to embrace an unnuanced theology that guarantees healing, Scrivner may elicit, at least in some, a type of emotional state that ends up being conducive to improved health (such as a placebo effect).
Who doesn’t need more faith, and who hasn’t sinned, and who isn’t willing to back off from sin if there’s a promise of healing? And some physical problems we experience actually are attributable to sin (for example, addictions). Or consider the case of Jena’s seemingly incurable rash, which cleared up after her mother confessed a secret sin. Holding on to family secrets can be stressful, and confessing them can be salutary, even if the healing that follows falls short of a full-fledged miracle. The authors of this book agree with Hampton Keathley that Scrivner’s theology is wrong. And yet in its very simplicity, by promising miracles without endless qualifications, it has a certain strength and appeal.
The second main point on which Scrivner’s views rest is that when people are healed, whatever medical attention they got didn’t matter. This notion is hard to square with the facts. When Jesus healed the sick and suffering, they had not been in the hospital. They had not taken antibiotics for months or had surgery. Yes, little Jena was healed after her mother admitted to sin in her life, but it was also after years of treatment.
Yes, Johnny Brumfield walked for the first time since his accident at Scrivner’s healing service, but he also had nearly two years of medical treatment, extensive surgery, therapy, and leg braces. To ignore that these medical interventions made a difference seems a real stretch, as is to suggest that those years of treatment were useless and the miracles of healing came after modern medicine failed to do the job.
Scrivner insists that he raised his granddaughter from the dead, even though according to his own account she was never actually dead and her recovery came after more than ten months of medical treatment. How much of what he reports about Katlynn’s healing is unassailable and how much is open to question and interpretation?
In the case of Katlynn, we have the chance to get a second opinion.
A Doctor’s Response
To support his case that his granddaughter experienced a miracle thanks to his faith, Scrivner shared his granddaughter’s hospital records with the authors. (It appears that Scrivner assumed guardianship of Katlynn after the death of her mother, thereby giving him access to these records.) To his credit, Scrivner makes Katlynn’s hospital records (over 100 pages) available to anyone interested in the extent of Katlynn’s injuries and trying to determine whether her healing was truly miraculous.
With Scrivner’s permission, we therefore forwarded those records to a senior neurosurgeon on faculty at a well-known state university. We wanted to know how this distinguished doctor’s interpretation of the medical records compared with Scrivner’s own account. Following is a representative sampling of this doctor’s comments.
“His granddaughter had a very severe head injury and severe brain damage. On arrival at the hospital, her chances for survival were small (I’d have estimated 20%), and if she survived she would most likely have profound handicaps… Her course in the hospital was surprisingly smooth, and it appears that her recovery has been quite good, although there may be cognitive issues not addressed in the interview or in the hospital records…
“Twenty percent survival, and about a third of survivors with a respectable recovery, is my sense of the odds. If one defines miracles as events that transcend the probabilistic resources of law, chance, and human agency…, then I wouldn’t call this a miracle, but rather an uncommonly good outcome.
“I believe that Mr. Scrivner is being quite honest about the pessimism of the doctors, but I believe that he was misled in that respect. She was never hopeless medically, though the odds were against her. There is a growing tendency by doctors to give up immediately on such patients—I fight against it all of the time. Patients’ families are often told ‘there is no hope’ when there really is small but real hope. I don’t fully understand the source of this growing invocation of ‘medical futility,’ but it is quite pervasive and deeply disturbing.
“So, I don’t think that this child’s recovery qualifies as a miracle in the sense that it transcended what law, chance, and human agency can accomplish. I believe that the Lord rarely acts so radically… The child’s survival was certainly unlikely, but her survival depended critically on the full efforts of her doctors, who were obviously disposed to give up on her right from the beginning. I suspect that it was primarily her grandfather’s insistence on her survival—which was the fruit of his deep faith—that motivated them to do all they could. I see the Lord’s agency as teaching the doctors that some children like this can be saved, and that they must not abandon them by invoking futility… I would see her survival as less a miracle than as a teaching moment.”
Although this doctor did not regard Katlynn’s recovery as a miracle, he does think he experienced one, and only one, miracle in his own practice. We found it compelling enough to share here and think it meets our definition of a miracle:
“In my own practice, I have only seen one event that I would call miraculous (although I see His teaching everywhere). Five years ago I operated on a child with severe pressure building on her brain from hydrocephalus. It was a holiday, and her mother (a devout and very spiritual Catholic) was waiting alone in the surgical waiting room. During the surgery, the child developed severe bleeding from the major artery at the base of her brain (the basilar artery), which is usually fatal. The bleeding stopped spontaneously a few seconds after it started, although the damage to the artery was such that I didn’t think that she could survive. I left the OR to inform her mother.
“When I entered the waiting room, before I said anything, her mother hugged me, crying, and told me that she felt so bad for me, and she wanted to reassure me that everything would be all right. I asked her what she meant. She said that she had been praying and that the Lord told her about the bleeding and reassured her that her daughter would survive and heal, and that she should comfort me! I note that I had not told her anything yet about the events in the OR (which were utterly unexpected), and no one else (e.g., nursing staff) had spoken to her either. Yet she described the events in the OR quite accurately—before I said a word. The child did in fact make an excellent recovery.
“The miracle wasn’t the child’s recovery (which was impressive, but not medically impossible), but rather His demonstration of His grace to me and to the child’s mother. This was one of the events in my life (along with several others) that led me to Christ.”
The closer we look at Scrivner’s claims about healing, the more unbalanced they seem. His view that sin causes sickness can burden the sick with a feeling of guilt on top of their illness. Yet suppose we grant that sin can sometimes be a contributing factor to sickness, as by causing stress or addiction, and that confessing and repenting of sins can be good for one’s health. Even then, tracing all sickness to sin as Scrivner does seems misguided.
Fortunately, Scrivner recognizes that not many have his faith, so he doesn’t demand that people refuse medical help. But what if receiving medical help is seen as a denial of faith—as a crutch that keeps people from fully depending on God for their healing. It’s not hard to find proof-texts in the Bible with which to persuade people to skip medical treatment and rely on God through prayer alone. Seeing a doctor would thus betray a lack of faith.
Such thinking has led to tragic cases where sick people, especially children, have died because they were denied medical treatment that would surely have saved them. Between 1971 and 2013 more than two dozen children at the Faith Tabernacle Congregation and First Century Gospel Church in Philadelphia died from pneumonia, measles, hemophilia, and other readily treatable diseases because their parents refused treatment for them. A church representative explained that God promises healing and good health for all who do His will. Charges against parents ranged from involuntary manslaughter to third degree murder.
In another case, a Wisconsin couple, Dale and Leilani Neumann, were convicted of reckless homicide and sentenced to jail after their eleven-year-old daughter, who had clear and dangerous symptoms of untreated diabetes. The Neumanns petitioned the court to allow Thurman Scrivner to testify as an expert witness on their behalf. The court refused.
If minors are admitted to a hospital, the hospital may be required by law or its own guidelines to treat them even if the parents object. The policy of the Department of Bioethics of the Cleveland Clinic is that parents or guardians have the legal right to refuse treatment for children but that “the best interests of a patient who is a minor or ward supersede a treatment refusal requested by parents or guardians when refusal conflicts with the interests of the minor or ward” and “sufficient reason may exist for the health care professionals to disregard the patient’s refusal.”
A Fatal Decision
One of the most publicized cases of death caused by choosing prayer over medicine was a pastor featured in the National Geographic Channel reality show Snake Salvation. Jamie Coots, pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, co-starred in the show along with Andrew Hamblin, another believer in the power of prayer over medicine.
When Coots was bitten by a timber rattler during a service on February 15, 2014, no one in the congregation feared for his life. Coots had been bitten more than half a dozen times before and his faith had, so it seemed, healed him every time. He would likely be bitten again and be healed in the same way.
Bibles of these faithful churchgoers were dog-eared at the passage they all knew by heart near the end of the Gospel of Mark: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18).
To this congregation, these verses mean that all who believe in God can handle poisonous snakes without harm. God will protect them so that even if they get bitten, they will experience a miracle of healing without medical intervention. To accept antivenom would be to deny their faith in God’s power.
As they saw the 2-1/2 foot snake sink its fangs into the root of Jamie Coots’ thumb, the congregation knew that their pastor would stake his life on the miracle of protection promised to the faithful. Pastor Coots and his family had a vivid reminder of that faith. After a snake bite six years earlier, Jamie’s right middle finger turned black and fell off. He kept the finger in a jar at home.
Members of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name had been playing guitars and tambourines while the pastor moved around in front of the small, wood-paneled church, shifting the snake from one hand to the other like a long, slithering length of taffy. He balanced it on his head and danced around the pulpit. After the snake struck, the venom acted quickly. The pastor’s hand started to swell and he sank to the floor, unable to move.
Several men from the congregation picked up the hefty, bald preacher and carried him to a car. There was no sense of panic; to an outsider the scene would seem almost eerily calm. The men drove the pastor, now unconscious, to the family’s modest brick house and carried him to his recliner in the living room.
Soon an emergency medical team arrived with antivenom that would immediately begin to counteract the poison in the pastor’s body and likely cure him completely within a few days. But the pastor had given his family strict instructions: he was never to receive antivenom. His faith alone would save him.
Acting on Jamie’s instructions and on their own faith, the family refused treatment on the pastor’s behalf. The medical team left without argument.
An hour later Jamie Coots was dead.
Even so, the faith of his flock remains unshaken. Within days after the pastor’s death, his son appeared in front of the same church holding the same snake in his bare hands, staking his life on the miraculous protection God promises to the faithful.
Written in God’s Word
Thurman Scrivner, Jamie Coots, and others justify their extreme views about faith and healing from their interpretation of the Bible. Adopting a hyper-literal approach to biblical interpretation, they see what the Bible teaches about faith and healing as crystal clear. God protects and heals Christian believers in a miraculous, never changing way, but only if these believers exercise unwavering faith. The power of God for healing then follows automatically.
Yet what about all the modern medical wonders that helped Katlynn and Johnny Brumfield, and that were ready and waiting to save Jamie Coots? Are these not marvelous gifts of healing from the Creator, even if they cannot be regarded as miraculous divine interventions?
Thurman Scrivner would say that when it comes to miracles, modern medicine falls far short God’s power:
“When I see a child sick, it’s almost always the parents. You have no idea how many times I’ve been to a hospital with a child of ten or twelve or fifteen years old with terminal cancer and the problem is the mother and daddy. The kid ain’t done nothing wrong, but he’s come down with cancer. As soon as I find the situation, I attack the problem with the parents. They say they’re not getting along, they’re having problems. I say, ‘That’s why your kid’s sick.’ If the parents resolve their problems, I’ve seen a child with terminal cancer get healed in twenty-four hours after prayer…
“That’s the way it works. It’s written in God’s word.”
Medical doctors disagree. We turn next to one such doctor who traveled a miraculous path of his own when a medical emergency took him on a journey out of this world.
This chapter is largely the work of AT, who carefully interviewed Thurman Scrivner for it. Yet it was through BD’s direct knowledge of Scrivner that this chapter found its way into our book. I (BD) would like in this addendum to offer some more personal remarks about Scrivner, his appeal, and his offense.
Scrivner came on my radar as our family was living in a small Texas town outside Waco and my daughter was taking piano lessons from a talented, charismatic African-American woman in her sixties. I would take my daughter to her home for piano lessons and often wait outside in the car with my severely autistic son. One day the piano teacher came out and urged that I take my son to Scrivner for healing prayer, saying that Scrivner was the real deal.
Scrivner’s The Living Savior Ministries church was north of Ft. Worth and about 130 miles away from our home. I visited there a few times, with my son alone as well as with my wife. I can’t say my son improved on account of Scrivner’s ministry, but the seriousness of my son’s condition led me to want to give Scrivner every opportunity to succeed in helping my son. My wife, on the other hand, became skeptical of Scrivner much more quickly. Scrivner had shared his granddaughter Katlynn’s hospital records. My wife, an R.N., on looking through the records, saw wild exaggeration in Scrivner’s claim that his granddaughter had been miraculously healed.
I, on the other hand, was more willing to play things out given Scrivner’s apparent record of success in helping people find miraculous healing, even leaving aside his granddaughter Katlynn. Also, I found an endearing candor and immediacy to his faith. For him the Bible was a living book that was directly applicable to the present moment and could be counted on.
Scrivener’s approach to the Bible, because it was hyper-literalistic, contrasted with the endless qualifications one often encounters in academic biblical interpretation. Scrivner would ask rhetorically, “Do we really believe this book?” He implied, and I tended to agree, that many Christians don’t take Scripture seriously and are all too ready to flout its clear teaching to suit themselves (among these Christians I needed to included myself—hopefully a past version of myself).
I was a the time teaching at a large Southern Baptist seminary, and I recall talking to one of my fellow faculty members, whose wife was seriously ill and who likewise went to Scrivner for prayer. This colleague remarked how so much of contemporary theology had “gutted the faith,” and how he saw in Scrivner a promising antidote. Scrivner was offering an immediacy and power to faith that was largely absent from organized Christianity as we knew it.
This was the appeal. But there was something simplistic, ignorant, and even hard-hearted about Scrivner’s faith, and therein lay its offense. As noted in the chapter above, when I had Scrivner speak to my apologetics class at seminary, most of my students were offended at him. Everything had to fit into his cookie-cutter mold: have faith and live free from sin, and miracles are there for the taking; otherwise, miracles will elude you. Your failure to witness a miracle was therefore in the end your fault.
I had Scrivner speak to my apologetics class two or three years in a row, and would take him out to lunch afterward. I recall the last time we had lunch together, his wife (he had remarried) accompanied him. Scrivner’s approach to Scripture is, as noted, literalistic. So when the Bible says that “the man” is head of “the woman,” he takes this to mean that the husband has authority in all matters over the wife, and that a God-ordained marriage is one in which the wife looks to the husband in everything for divine guidance and blessing.
So at the lunch, Thurman said a blessing over his wife’s food. And when she experienced some indigestion from the food, he rebuked the spirit of infirmity connected with her indigestion. It became clear at the lunch that her indigestion was a long-standing problem. And so here was Thurman Scrivner, continually praying for his wife’s digestion.
What struck me most in this incident was the pained expression on his wife’s face, experiencing both the discomfort of her ill health and the disappointment in her husband’s continued failed efforts to win back her health by acts of faith. Nor could he, as God’s man of faith and power, admit that his wife’s stomach problems were not submitting to his faith. Perhaps I misread the situation. Hopefully his wife eventually gained the relief she desired. But this is how things appeared to me.
The more I got to know Scrivner, the more he seemed to engage in endless rationalizations. He described to me being bitten by a brown recluse spider, which delivers a particularly nasty bite, leading to necrosis, if not quickly treated with strong antibiotics. Scrivner described to me that he was looking to divine healing rather than the doctors, but that after two weeks of suffering with the bite, he finally took a knife and painfully cleaned out the bite. The problem was thus solved without the help of doctors, but also without the help of miracles.
Give Scrivner this: whatever the faults of his theology, he has tried to live it out as consistently as he could.
This chapter was posted in December 2019 just before Covid hit. It wasn’t until 2022, after I had moved back to Texas not far from where Thurman Scrivner was active that I learned he had died at the age of 82 on September 20, 2021. It had been on my mind to get out to see him again now that I was in his backyard, but it was not to be. For all my differences with him, I enjoyed his straightforwardness and transparency. I wish his family well.
 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations and information about Thurman Scrivner are taken from an interview with co-author (AT) February 11, 2016.
 See Johnny Brumfield’s testimony on YouTube (click here).
 Katlynn’s story is from co-author (AT) interview, op. cit. Scrivner’s account in an interview with Christian television personality Sid Roth is available on YouTube: youtube.com/watch?v=ckh8wHNsCZM.
 See https://bible.org/article/review-thurman-scrivner’s-teaching.
 All quotes in this section are from a 2012 correspondence between BD and a pediatric neurosurgeon who holds a professorship in neurological surgery.
 “Wisconsin Couple Sentenced in Death of Their Sick Child,” The New York Times, October 8, 2009, p. A16; Scrivner’s involvement from co-author (AT) interview, op. cit.
 “A Child’s Death and a Crisis for Faith,” The Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2008.
 “Rev. Jamie Coots, Co-Star of ‘Snake Salvation,’ Dies After Snakebite,” The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2014; see also abcnews.go.com/US/snake-handling-pentecostal-pastor-dies-snake-bite; original Snake Salvation episode not currently available.
 Interview with co-author (AT), op. cit.