Miracles and Falsification: The Myth of Miracles

I had heard about miracles ever since I had been a child. I have heard—and continue to hear—about people being healed of diseases, big, bad, ugly diseases. People pray on many continents asking for a miracle. A two-year-old struck with leukemia—that demon of the blood. A five-year-old run over by a car by his own mother. A twenty-one year old girl, fresh out of college, killed instantly in a head on collision by a drunk-driver. A boy diving during the hot summer season strikes a rock, losing control of his upper and lower body forever. A missionary bitten by a mosquito suffers for weeks on end, fevers paralyzing his shaken body. A terrorist enters a building someplace in the Middle East, blasting hundreds to smithereens; hundreds who either were killed or who would spend the rest of their lives in dark misery. Then there’s the little girl living in Iraq who happened to be in a particular time and place in which a particular foreign empire (read: The United States of America) decided to drop bombs on her place of residence. Her only question, while hospitalized, with her body torn to shreds—yet with breath in her lungs—“Why does America hate me so much?”[1]

I, too, have dreamed of miracles.

But miracles seldom come.

The little girl suffering from leukemia dies, being buried on a damp April night under torrential rain. Her parents huddle closely, aching for death to take them too. They mumble prayers to the sound of raindrops bulleting the last of their hopes. Their god leaves them to their sorrows, offering them not so much as an ounce, a flicker, of comfort; a god who only wears black. The parents listen to the monotonous sermon being preached to the monotonous thunderclaps under a banal sky. “What a eulogy!” they think to themselves. “This, this is what we get for bringing life into this world! An entire two years of manipulative baiting. God, yes God, he baits us with illusions of happiness, of family—then his claws take all that has life away!” But those thoughts, yes, those faint glimmers of truth, remain unspoken. Forever they are silent. The mother goes back to her mundane day job. She goes through the motions. She listens to the repetitive sermons…of hope. Some future kingdom where tears remain fossilized forever, relics of the god-forsaken, fuck-inducing life upon a pathetic planet we used to call earth. It’s only after the sermons end. After all the bullshit stops—the lies, the longing for miracles, the promise of something good—it is only then that she goes home, as Jesus so tactfully recommends doing, and prays behind closed doors. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6 NIV). And still. What is asked in the quiet of the home remains—unbeknownst to the world—in the quiet of the home. It is as if Jesus knew that what she would ask would be impossible. Incomprehensible. Why ask in public if it’ll never happen publicly? Keep your prayers to yourselves! Your hope for the Promised Land is just that: hope. It is wishful thinking. The mother spends her days reminiscing of what could have been. Maybe her two-year-old could have graduated college. Maybe she could have gotten married. Maybe the two of them could have spent time together, sipping coffee under a red-soaked sun.

Maybe.

How many more such maybes will there be? How many more such mothers? Fathers? The prayers never end, along with the problems. The disasters. One disease leaves you the moment two take over. Or maybe it was three? You walk restlessly between states of health and epochs of madness.

God never comes to you. You never hear anything anymore. Not from God, that is. You hear the piercing cries of mothers and fathers in your church, synagogue, mosque, temple—all gasping, as if for the first time, for some miracle.

Then you have the children. The thirteen-year-old girl whose father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She wants her daddy to be there at her wedding. So they throw her a make-believe wedding (almost as make-believe as the miracles, the gods, the hopes of a better world). She walks down the aisle drenched in tears. A day of rejoicing, they said, it would be. Her little hands holding—no, clenching fiercely—the strong arms of a soon-to-be-dead father. She is only thirteen. She doesn’t know what it all means. Not at all. All she knows is that daddy will never be there. There won’t be another Father’s Day for her. There won’t be another walk in the rain with him. There won’t be that excitement, those nights where she runs home to tell him about the boy she just met. There’ll be none of that.

Miracles.

That’s what religion promises.

Miracles.

But all you see, all you really feel and hear is nothing but the hum-drum preaching of the eulogist. But what were we all—really—expecting? Could it really be that God the Healer was a hoax? Is it possible that god wears black, day in and day out, preparing eulogies?

“It’s all too terrible,” they say. “Don’t make us think of it. Stay silent. What you are describing is heart-wrenchingly suicidal.” “Don’t make me sit here and put up with your rants,” someone thinks. “Is it really so?” a thought flashes through another’s mind.

The existential problem of miracles is, perhaps, the most persuasive. One could not but be moved by the stories. I, too, have dreamed of a miracle. However, there is also the philosophical problem with miracles. I turn to this particular issue now.

Religious people—be they Muslim, Hindu, or Christian—claim that their god is capable of miracles. But what is a miracle? By definition, a miracle is a supernatural event. By definition, a miracle is a supra-natural event; it is an event which is “above nature.” It is an event that does not go in accordance with the known (and unknown) rules of physics. It is something that happens which no physical law could explain. A miracle is not the disappearance of a headache. It happens to the rest of us all the time. A miracle is not the curing of cancer—it happens enough of the times. A miracle is not the healing of insanity. A miracle is not the healing of fractured bones. All of these things happen naturally. So what is a miracle?

A miracle would be a person who walks on water without the aid of any kind of special shoes, footwear, or underwater bridges (you get the point). A miracle would, most simply, be an amputee with their amputated limb appearing, rematerializing, spontaneously. (Notice that I did not say “re-growing.” It will probably be possible, in the future, for us to do that.) A miracle would be such an event which, again, by definition, would convince any person capable of seeing and thinking along physical lines that this is not normal; that the event is strange, unheard of, physically impossible—in other words, simply in violation of natural law. The resurrection of Jesus, for example, would, theoretically, constitute a miracle.

Given such a very loaded, strict, and robust definition of miracle (by “strict,” I mean that it excludes [possibly] every event that has ever occurred in history—excepting the origin of life and of the universe), how is it that people today still speak of miracles? You hear it all the time.[2] I have discovered one of the reasons. It comes from one of Christianity’s greatest liberal theologians, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Schleiermacher defined miracles in an unfalsifiable way. When someone makes something, like miracles, unfalsifiable this means two things: (a) every event becomes a “miracle” and (b) there is no way to prove nor disprove the event. Schleiermacher writes:

“Miracle is simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant. To me all is miracle. In your sense the inexplicable and strange alone is miracle, in mine it is no miracle. The more religious you are, the more miracle would you see everywhere.”[3]

I could not have said it better. Schleiermacher and I agree: religion makes everything a miracle. Because everything becomes a miracle, nothing is miraculous anymore. Because everything becomes a miracle, the term “miracle” becomes devoid of meaning.

People do experience miracles today. Believe me, they do. All of life may be seen as one continuous miracle. From the Big Bang to the evolution of human life, all of this, even by a skeptic, is seen as a miracle. But miracles are not really events that happen; they are not singular events occurring in history on a daily, interventionist basis. Miracles are probably things like the origin of DNA. They are isolated events that appear miraculous. For just a moment. And then the scientific mind—be it religious or secular—finds a way to unravel the miraculous and make it the mundane.

Such is the world we live in. It is full of mystery, of pain, of suffering, and of miracles. While the miracles we experience are probably non-existent, the one miracle we can claim is the miracle of today.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

FOOTNOTES:

[1] This is my own retelling of the story. For this, and other such stories, see Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), esp. 163-175.

[2] I have purposefully used the verb “hear” many times in this article. The reason being that miracles are, in my opinion, non-existent; they don’t happen. This means that nobody has documentation, empirical evidence, etc., of a miracle to date. All you have is hearsay. Hence my use of the word “hear.”

[3] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 88.

15 thoughts on “Miracles and Falsification: The Myth of Miracles

  1. You have to be where they are happening or be a ready agent / vessel to be used to facilitate them. The latter takes the effort to either to receive the anointing to do them or be a part of a fluke. I have been there to see them and taken part in them – course, I’ve been practicing within the realm of this anointing on and off since I was that child faith healer in Ohio. When I was a boy I prayed much in asking for the pneumatic abilities to be useful to others through supernatural acts of elohim. Scholars and philosophers know nothing about this. Nor can they come to grips with it. Nor can they be agents in it. Because their anointing or calling is not in this direction. But I am a rational and educated person who has witnessed and participated in what are generally known as miracles for 50 years. I know the anointed observer can influence the observation, and does far more than can be known.

    • I think you are on to something, Jackson. And I also think we should have that dialogue between philosophers, skeptics, faith-healers, scientists, etc. I was recently involved in a debate regarding demon possession as evidence of the supernatural. I tried to convince the person taking the side that possession is indeed evidence of the supernatural that, by definition, possession was not supernatural since nothing supernatural (beyond laws of physics) was going on. The person failed to see that I was taking my definition of supernatural seriously (as something outside of the laws of physics, which is not the case in demonic possession). For example, as far as I know, all people with diseased brains (“possessed”) are subject to Haldol, Ativan, and Propofol. If the possession were indeed supernatural I suggested that the person would not be subject to these natural medications; rather, they would supernaturally resist all such medications.
      That was just one example, but many more could be found. People have convinced themselves that everything is supernatural; the threshold is set so low that everything becomes “supernatural.”

  2. And I might add, it is healthier for us to take an optimistic viewpoint of our mundane existence whether we are the half-empty type of not. If we will to be optimistic long enough, we eventually become happier in the now.

  3. Psshhh I’m very surprised how little all you people know about God. What he is and who he is most of you don’t even have the slightest clue yet you have all these degrees that don’t mean anything. Here is why revelation and knowledge or wisdom is given from God lol you can’t go to school and learn it. What you people studying in collage for 8 to 10 years is at total waste of money and you should of bought yourself a house with it instead. I’ve been seeking God and his thruth all my life and i know more things then most of you graduates from collage. And guess what i got it all for free. I’ve seen miracles performed by God himself. And you gatta realize that God is alot more bigger then your mind can understand. Here is a easy question for you smart people why doesn’t our mind think with words or letters or numbers but with pictures instead?

    • Since you are so unapologetic about how close to God you are and about how much smarter you are than the rest of us, I assume that God has also enlightened you with the ability to produce erudite scholarly work. Along with your claim that those of us who are scholars (or who aspire to be) are “wasting” our money, I suggest the following experiment. I assume you believe that the Bible is God’s word, correct? If so, I would like to modestly make this proposal to a fellow human being in contact with the Almighty (contact which, I humbly admit, I have not yet had the privilege to experience). I would like you to go home and get rid of all things tainted by us “stupid folk” at the universities. While in school we “waste” our time learning biblical languages so that we could produce good translations of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. You are correct: God did not come down and give us the gift of linguistics; we had to work hard for it ourselves. But now you are here to solve our problems, I assume (almost as if you were a godsend!). Go home and throw away your English translation. Those pathetic losers from Cambridge, Princeton, Yale, whatever, translated it. You need to do things without being encumbered by the scholarly type. Once God gives you a revealed text – shall we call it a miracle? – then come back to the rest of us “stupid” folk and allow us to compare translations.

    • As for your comment that God is bigger than our minds, I refer you to an article I wrote on Schleiermacher which deals with this issue. Frankly, since we live in a post-Kantian world, that’s usually the assumption of neo-orthodox theologians (Barth, Tillich, Schleiermacher, etc.). So, yes, we are acutely aware of how limited we are in our capacity to think about the supernatural…

    • You’re very dogmatic. I don’t know if you realize that many people who simply choose not to be religious is simply due to the fact that they were raised in an extremely religious environment that was unhealthy and there was nothing “Godly” about it. Their entire childhood was about following the bible and repenting for everything. Their parents used fear to brainwash and manipulate. Nothing about this is healthy at all. So instead of being arrogant and stating that people who pay for education are stupid be a little more excepting…I’m sure that’s what Jeaus would prefer anyways…He did take in the prostitutes, the broken, the damaged. All of you who think you’re “holy” and know everything is the reason people turn away from God in the first place.

  4. We seem to have a hot topic here. While I agree with the tone of the lead article and with much of its observations and opinions, I offer a somewhat different point of view. The most vigorous scientific inquiry by the some of the best scientific minds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries CONFIRMED beyond any reasonable doubt the existence of what we might call miraculous things: talking to the dead, faith healings, apparitions, out-of-body experiences, foreknowledge of catastrophic events, etc. Thousands of pages documenting this stuff, in painstaking and meticulously-researched detail, are contained in the offices of a UK outfit called the Society for Psychical Research, which was originally formed to debunk the spiritualism that was popular around the turn of the century.

    For more modern evidence (although the work of the SPR continues), Chris Carter has a three-volume trilogy on a the paranormal which does a beautiful job in summarizing the voluminous findings, some the products of recent triple-blind scientific studies in major universities. After immersing oneself in this stuff and reading the overwhelming evidence amassed, one cannot help but conclude that yes, RARELY, at least some sort of miracles occur, which the author of this article himself acknowledges.

    But how do we process this stuff, especially since it seems so random, so sporadic, so entirely out of our ability to control or harness? At this point, I use William James’ theory of pragmatism to help with this. Parenthetically, William James himself was convinced of the existence of the paranormal through decades of work with Leonora Piper, the most validated medium who ever walked planet earth. James has a splendid essay about how everything he thought he knew about how the world works had been shattered by his work with Mrs. Piper, and yet, characteristically, he refused to jump whole hog into speculations about what the paranormal might mean.

    Anyway, to get back to James’ pragmatism, his view of the world is that it is not of one smooth interconnected piece. Things are, they link up here and there, they stick out here and there; they are an aggregation, not a system. Some of it we can make sense of and piece together, some of it we simply can’t. Along with specific occurrences and events, I think there are two obvious limits to human understanding that illustrate James’ point. The one he was aware of, in his time, was paranormal experience. The other, of more recent vintage, is the absurdity of quantum physics, where most scientists have abandoned any effort to comprehend it in conceptual terms and just proceed to “do the math.”

    Thanks to the host of this site for opening up a Pandora’s box from which come shrieking out all of these marvelous, maddening, mind-blowing mysteries that dissolve the edges of ordinary human understanding. Children get this stuff much better than do we adults…even those little angels dying from horrors like pancreatic cancer. “Truly I tell you, the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to little ones like these. Unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter it.”

    • Thanks, newtonfinn, for your always thoughtful comments. I must have missed it before. I’ve done some James’ readings. I have to say that I do agree, modestly, with his essay The Will to Believe. I guess he’s right in a sense. However, I also remain persuaded by William Clifford’s essay The Ethics of Belief. It seems to me that Clifford is more right, if that’s the correct word for it! I am not in any way afraid of God or miracles – in fact, on my better days, I wish they all were true! However, on my more sober days, I think that the threshold is set too low for things qualifying as “supernatural.” A robust definition, one which, ironically, I really didn’t offer in retrospect, would exclude virtually all inexplicable natural occurrences. Of course anything inexplicable but beyond nature (rematerialization of amputated leg) would qualify…

  5. Dear Mr Mikheyev

    I really enjoyed your article and thought of it to be deeply insightful and simultaneously intriguing. It possessed the reality of the world we live in and clarified the definitions of each persons everlasting term of a miracle. A truly stunning piece of literature.

    Kind Regards
    Muhammad Mota

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