The Necessity of Miracles

Kenneth Woodward in The Book of Miracles makes a distinction among various types of miracles and their significance. In the multiple branchings-out of Hinduism, miracles are taken as signs of spiritual power as well as compassion for others. Miracles of Hindu gods like Krishna and holy men like Shankara and the “poet saints” consist of curing sicknesses and raising the dead. In yoga, as the ascetical/mystical offshoot of Hinduism, high states of perfection became associated with miraculous powers such as superhuman strength and the ability to levitate and traverse great distances in a moment’s time.  Buddhism disavows the importance of miracles, but many miracles were purportedly associated with the birth, life and death of Gautama Buddha. And Buddhist holy men reportedly have acquired a variety of psychic and psychokinetic powers.  In Islam, following the example of Muhammad, no official importance is placed on miracles, although legends exist of holy Muslims curing sicknesses, walking on water, etc. But in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, miracles are ways for God to give His stamp of approval and support for the messages conveyed by Moses, the prophets, Jesus and the missionaries of early Christianity.

Thus, although Jesus complains that “unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe”(Jn. 4:48), and the resurrected Jesus mildly chides Thomas the Apostle for demanding to inspect his wounds, saying “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed”(Jn. 20:29); nevertheless he exhorts the doubters, “believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves,” and “even if you do not believe in me, believe the works” (Jn. 10:38, 14:11).  And in sending out his disciples to preach the Gospel, he promises an extraordinary amount of supernatural authentication: “in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.  They will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.  They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mk. 16:17-18). The Acts of the Apostles accordingly report numerous healings (Acts 3:4, 5:15-16, 28:8-9), a resuscitation from the dead (20:9), and multiple miraculous rescues from prison (5:19, 12:7, 16:26), as signs of God’s providential support of the apostolic initiatives.

But these developments are long ago and far away.  Should we expect any continuation of such miraculous support for the Gospel message?  Or are people now any less prone to require concrete signs of authentication than in the early days of Christianity?  Do “doubting Thomases” deserve any special divine help in our own era?  For some who are not “blessed for believing without having seen,” it would seem that something miraculous would almost be necessary to make possible the leap from unbelief to faith.

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Protestants differ about the possibility and/or the importance of miracles in our day – ranging from the belief of some Evangelicals in miraculous healings and conversions, to the skepticism of many Protestants about miracles as a leftover “Romish” focus on the sensory and the sensational, in lieu of true Biblically-inspired faith.

Catholic tradition is more sanguine.  Pope St. Pius X in a motu proprio in 1910 declared that miracles are “most certain signs of the divine origin of the Christian religion.” Claims of the miraculous are taken into account by Catholicism, and sometimes recognized, although rational and even skeptical inquiry is a prerequisite in dealing with such claims.  For example, before the canonization of a saint, miracles are required, and medical examiners, along with other experts and a “devil’s advocate” are appointed to rule out possible natural explanations of the alleged miraculous development.  At the shrine of Lourdes in France, a permanent medical office which has access to medical specialists conducts meticulous examination of cures, and conveys a final decision to ecclesiastical authorities.

During the twentieth century, the most renowned public Christian miracles include the “miracle of the sun” witnessed by 60,000 persons in Fatima, Portugal, at noon on Oct. 13, 1917. The exact date and time of this miracle, which coincided with the Russian “October Revolution,” was predicted months previously by the Virgin Mary appearing to three peasant children.  Lucia, one of the children, mentioned that the Virgin told her an even greater miracle could have been performed, if there had not been such a lack of faith (manifested by skeptics who harassed the children and even jailed them and pretended they were being taken one-by-one to an execution chamber). Major public modern signs include also the miracles at Soufanieh in Damascus, Syria, dedicated to the promotion of Christian unity, and including miraculous copious exudations of olive oil, and the stigmata of the crucifixion appearing on the body of Myrna Nazzour whenever the dates for Roman Catholic and Orthodox celebrations of Easter coincide; and also the multiple silent apparitions, documented by photographs and videos, of the Virgin Mary in Zeitun, Egypt, during 1968 and 1969, witnessed by tens of thousands of Christians and Muslims, reported by Egyptian news media, and investigated by government authorities as well as religious officials.

It goes without saying, however, that there is an ever-present danger that people with an appetite for sensationalism may hanker after the miraculous for its own sake.  In this case, the desire to satisfy avid curiosity could be detrimental to faith.  Thus Jesus, when the scribes and pharisees asked him to show them a sign from heaven, characterized them as a “wicked and adulterous generation, and refused their request (Mt. 16:4); and in one of his parables Jesus depicts Abraham saying someone who has not listened to Moses and the prophets would not reform their lives – even if someone in hell were to appear before them miraculously and warn them (Lk. 16:24). Contemporary reports of claims of supernatural visions, sometimes with messages, are no doubt often meant to accommodate the sort of prurient curiosity that Jesus warned against.  Randall Sullivan, a contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine, in The Miracle Detective: an Investigation of Holy Visions investigated some of the claims.  The book that resulted covers numerous cases in 450 pages, but spends the most time in interviews and investigations in Medjugorje, in Bosnia Herzegovina, where six young people claimed to have received visions and messages from the Virgin Mary in 1981.  The claims of the six seers have continued since that time, resulting in a total of over 35,000 alleged visions or messages, although all the bishops in charge of Medjugorje have refused ecclesiastical recognition, and have even strongly characterized the phenomenon as “non-supernatural.”  Pilgrims to Medjugorje claim to witness miracles such as their Rosary chains turning a gold color or spectacles of the sun whirling in the sky.  The journal, The Skeptical Inquirer, which specializes in debunking bogus miracle claims, has published critical analyses of Medjugorje and other phenomena, but no in-depth analysis of the three public miracles mentioned above.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in staunch Lutheran fashion distrustful of miracles, declared that faith itself is a miracle, or better –  is the miracle, the great miracle of subjectivity performed by God.  Kierkegaard apparently was motivated to this viewpoint by a misunderstanding of Hume’s chapter on miracles in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, where Hume concludes that, since miracles are completely contrary to the laws of nature, and thus irrational, faith would indeed be the greatest miracle of all!  In view of Hume’s inveterate and unceasing skepticism, this “conclusion” is obviously meant ironically. It is possible, of course, that a conversion experience, although intensely personal and private, could be a springboard to faith. But not every conversion experience is clearly miraculous, like the sudden conversion of St. Paul described in the Acts of the Apostles (9:4, 22:8), or Augustine’s sudden and absolute conversion described in his autobiography.

The faith of an individual may or may not be catalyzed by an external or “subjective” miracle.  But the necessity of miracles is most evident in cases where competing religions are claiming to have divine authorization. One who is making a choice between competing claims is not unreasonable in demanding an official “signature.”  To commit oneself unreservedly to a supposedly supernatural religion which has shown no clear signs of divine approval is like signing a contract without expecting or even requiring a countersigner.

This excerpt is from Dr. Kainz’s recent book, The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (Associated University Presses, 2011)


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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