Saturday, July 14, 2018


I think we all experienced something of an emotional rollercoaster during the 18-day drama of the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a cave in a remote part of northern Thailand.  We despaired of the boys’ rescue when we first learned that they had been trapped for several days by flash flooding of the cave.  Then on the tenth day we learned that, amazingly, rescuers had found all of the boys and their coach alive and in relatively good health.  But it became clear that their extrication from the cave would be extremely dangerous and could be delayed for weeks if not months because the only way out of the cave would remain flooded.  When rescuers ultimately managed to bring all of the boys and their coach out of the cave over a three-day period, the word “miracle” was tripping off the lips of millions who had been praying for their safe rescue.

But as dramatic, wonderful, and inspiring as this rescue was, it was no miracle.  Its remarkable success was not the result of divine intervention.  Rather, it was the result of science, the technology that science has wrought, and, perhaps most of all, the human courage and ingenuity exhibited by everyone who participated in the operation.

This effort involved hundreds of individuals from all over the world, many of whom had sophisticated knowledge and skills, both in spelunking and in underwater rescue.  The rescue also required a great deal of technology—scuba and other underwater equipment, specialized lighting, communication systems, and medical knowhow, among others.  Imagine the tragic result had this happened even a hundred years ago, before much of this technology was developed.

What I found most interesting in all of this was the contrast between the reactions of many Christians who followed the drama, on the one hand, and those of the boys and their families, on the other.

Many Christians were calling the rescue a miracle and thanking God for his intervention to save the boys’ lives.  But it was obvious that God had nothing to do with it.  Nevertheless, I read, for example, claims that God had intervened by holding off the monsoon rains until after the rescue had been completed.  My understanding of the monsoon season in Southeast Asia is that the rains can be sporadic rather than continuous, so it would not be that unusual for there to have been periods of time when the rains held off.  Regardless, the logic behind such a claim is fundamentally flawed.  Why wouldn’t an omniscient, omnipotent god have held off the rains that trapped the boys in the cave in the first place?  That would have avoided the emotional distress suffered by the boys and their coach, as well as by their families and other loved ones.  It would also have avoided the death of one of the rescuers during the course of the operation.

This Christian “miracle” interpretation stands in stark contrast with the responses of the rescued boys and their families.  About 95 percent of Thais describe themselves as Buddhists, and I would assume that that was the case as well for the rescued boys and their families.  Unlike Christians, most Buddhists do not pray for help from an all-powerful god.  Rather, they pray simply to gain inner peace and a better understanding of themselves and their place in the order of things.  They do not believe in a personal god or in divine intervention.  I saw interviews of several of the boys as well interviews of family members.  In every case they gave thanks to whom it was due—to those individuals who had been involved in the rescue.  There were no thanks to any sort of deity.  I found that refreshing.

© 2018 John M. Phillips

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