The beginning and the end of the Thai Cave Rescue were intertwined with religion. When the boys (aged 11-16) were found, they were meditating led by their instructor, Ekapol Chantawong. He had been a Buddhist monk for ten years before he became a soccer coach. Shortly thereafter, some local monks kept a continuous nightly vigil outside the cave, praying for dry weather. After their release from hospital, most of the boys will be sent by their parents to local monasteries to have their heads shaved and to serve as monks for a short period.
Thailand is 96% Buddhist, but prayer alerts were sent out by many Christian groupings as well. After the rescue, various websites claimed success, attributing it to Buddhist deities, to Catholic Prayers, to guardian angels, or to the sheer numbers of prayers which reached God. The word ‘miracle’ was liberally bandied about. In the light of these conflicting claims, we may ask questions like: Does God orchestrate crises and rescues? Is there a single ‘correct’ religion? What is the relationship between divine providence (what God does) and human responsibility (what humans do)? Does God exist?
There does not seem to be any evidence that God in any way intervened or pulled the strings of events like a heavenly puppet master. Chance, serendipity, played its part. The coach did not see the warning sign that it was dangerous to enter the caves this time of the year. Luckily they found a cave above the water level. Life just happened. It also goes against common sense that God would allow a volunteer diver, Saman Kunan (aged 37) to die during the rescue effort just to prove a point. Furthermore, the water pumped out from the caves streamed onto various surrounding fields, destroying them. The poor farmers who own the land earn on average about R2500-R3500 per month. They are facing serious economic hardship. The outcome was not positive for everyone.
The rescue in no way can be described as a miracle in the sense of an event defying natural laws. The total number of people involved in the rescue, from many different countries, came to more than 10,000. The factors involved in this operation were the best of management science, scientific and medical knowledge, teamwork of highly trained people, meticulous planning, and the brainstorming of creative ideas. The human qualities of compassion, bravery, ingenuity and volunteerism made the day. The old theological distinction between God’s providence and human responsibility thus falls away: they are two sides of the same coin.
The effect of prayers, therefore, should not be regarded as begging God successfully to intervene. Its function was rather to raise sensitivity to a crisis, to prod human beings into action—it was more praying to ourselves. This may sound blasphemous to some. It is not. Paul says we are the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). When we do good, it can be seen as God acting through us.
It should also be fairly obvious that no single religion can lay claim to the successful outcome of the rescue. Christians like to quote John 14:6 ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ It is normally interpreted that Christianity is the only true religion. Perhaps the events in Thailand show us, that it is the way of love, of compassion, of self-sacrifice, that is the way of Jesus. Since most religions have it, not a single one can claim to be ‘right’.
Felix Warneken, a psychologist at Harvard, did an interesting experiment. He got a couple of toddlers together. A very tall man was then shown, trying to open a small cabinet. Of course, he couldn’t do it. Warneken made a video of these toddlers stumbling away from their mothers to help the man (they could barely walk properly). God is programmed into us. Perhaps it is meaningful to imagine God, not as a heavenly puppeteer, but as the Ground of our Being. Put differently, God is love (1 John 4:8), and those who love, makes God visible and present. By loving, we ‘prove’ the existence of God. We should respect all religions that promote love. It is love that moves mountains.
What one therefore can learn about God may be that God does not intervene against natural law; that God works through human beings; that no one religion is ‘correct’, but that those who proclaim and practice love, are ‘right’; and that it is meaningful to imagine God as the Ground of our Being, as love, even though God’s existence cannot be proven or disproven.
The Thai chief of the rescue mission, Naronsak Osottanakorn said after the successful operation: ‘Nobody thought we could do it. It was a world first. It was Mission Possible for Team Thailand. The heroes this time are people all over the world … This mission was successful because we had power. The power of love. Everybody sent it to the 13.’ To this I can only say ‘Amen.’