Miracles: Reviewing the definitions

What is a Miracle?

Photo by Ismael Paramo on Unsplash

Look around you, it is very unlikely that you would have come this far in life and never heard at some point stories of miracles, especially those narrated by ecstatic believers who were the recipients of said miracles. Over the many years there have been series of contradictions about what a miracle is or should be. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a miracle as “an extraordinary and astonishing happening that is attributed to the action of an ultimate or divine power.”

Christianity holds a top position as a religion with possibly the highest number of claims of miraculous events recorded throughout history. While some people believe that a miracle is nothing short of an unnatural, and otherwise impossible arbitrary act of the divine, there are others who hold a contrary view.

St. Augustine, a theologian, philosopher, and a saint of the Roman Catholic church once said:

“Miracles are not contrary to nature but only contrary to what we know about nature.”

Oskar Ernst Bernhardt, a German writer more popularly known by his pen name — Abd-ru-shin, in his book “In the Light of Truth: The Grail Message”- a collection of lectures first published in 1926, opines that it is erroneous to say that a miracle is an unnatural, arbitrary, and otherwise impossible act of the divine.

“God’s work is perfect, without flaw or gap. Perfection implies a strictly logical sequence of events in every respect. The only difference being, that in a miracle a natural process that would ordinarily take a longer time, develops with such unparalleled rapidity, either owing to some individual’s special gift or to some other cause, that it is called miraculous, in a word a miracle…Every miracle is an absolutely natural process, only that it proceeds with exceptional rapidity and with concentrated power. It is quite out of the question that anything unnatural can ever happen. When diseases are healed, that up till now were considered incurable, it does not mean that a change in natural law has taken place, but only shows up the gaps and deficiencies in human knowledge.”

It has been a very widespread belief that miracles must be contrary to nature, as that would be the proof that they were performed by God who is the all powerful creator. If you believe that God put in a lot of work to realize perfection in His creation, why would you believe that He breaks them just to prove his power? If you do believe that however, you are indirectly implying you believe it is possible for God to break His own laws, His own promises or go against His own self.

Do Miracles Really Happen?

Miracles happens to be one of the topics that skeptics thrive on. If an event can be well explained by science, then what does it have to do with the divine? Believers may counter this argument by stating the other facts about such miraculous events, such as the timing and the fact that it even happened at all, possibly in an event to help a person out of a given situation or avoid a misfortune. However, there is still the consideration of coincidence or probability, a subject that does not debunk entirely the possibility of miracles happening.

Professor Daniel M. Oppenheimer a professor of psychology at the world renowned Carnegie Mellon University in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania U.S.A on his appearance on the National Geographic Documentary “The Story of God: with Morgan Freeman” had this to say:

It is important to understand that both events of divine or supernatural agency and events of chance take place concurrently but independently in reality and the presence of one does not rule out the other. Recognizing and sieving out events of chance in order to ascertain what is and what isn’t a true miracle may prove to be difficult for the average person, but an event that occurs in a such way that it can not be replicated {even with scientific explanations and known techniques} under the same conditions it happened could only be described as inspired by the divine.

Miracles Vs Magic

It is also worth mentioning that over the years religious believers have often regarded reports of mysterious occurrences from outside their faith acclaimed to be miracles as either fraudulent or of the devil. For example, many Christians believe that since only the one true God is capable of performing miracles, anything of such nature done outside the faith— whether good or bad, is held as contrary to His will and is therefore Magic, but is this really the case?

John Calvin, a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation says: “We must remember that Satan has his miracles, too.”

Looking closely at this perspective, it shows that there is a consideration of the possibility that the devil and other ethereal beings; whether good or evil, are able to perform supernatural acts that could be considered as miracles.

Where can we now place the distinction between miracles and magic?

The definitions of magic are very much imprecise, but it is important to draw a distinction between magic(Supernatural) and magic tricks(illusions). Magic tricks are acts performed to audiences by tricks or illusions of apparently impossible feats using known practical knowledge. These are very much different from paranormal occurrences believed to be real events of magic. To elaborate the distinction between magic and miracles, in magic, one can clearly observe that the magician seems to have some control over the events and by his application of practical knowledge, he is able to facilitate mysterious occurrences unlike a miracle that seems to not be an application of any practical knowledge.

Simply put, one can learn to wield magic, but cannot learn to perform miracles.

It is interesting to note that in the Bible, in the book of Exodus chapter 7, when God sends Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh to convince him to release the Israelites, Pharaoh's magicians were able to replicate the exact same ‘miracle’ that he performed with his staff;

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake. So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” (NIV)

From the above it is easy to see that there is a clear distinction, but would you really describe what Moses and Aaron did as a miracle?

Miracles vs Signs and Wonders

A miracle can double as a sign/wonder, but signs and wonders may not necessarily be miracles.
Using the the excerpt from the Bible above, we can see that the actions of Moses and Aaron did not really prove much purpose other than to spectacularly manifest the character and power of God to the Egyptians as well as in Israelite slaves. This is typical of a sign or wonder, and the Old Testament books of the Bible have a number of these events recorded.

Miracles vs Divine Intervention or Chance

Supposing you stepped out of your house heading to a club or party and unfortunately you get knocked down by a car. It’s a minor accident that just involved some massage, pain relief medication and rest, but then you find out later that a bomb went off at the party and everyone died. Would you regard the car accident as a miracle? Or would you rather consider it divine intervention or perhaps chance?

In Conclusion: Re-defining a Miracle

Many general definitions of miracles to me appear inadequate as we have seen from the above.

I propose therefore that a miracle is a positive or advantageous event — occurring neither as a manifestation of statistical probability nor chance, but of supernatural agency — which follows natural laws and may or may not be currently explainable by science, but impossible to replicate -by any other means- under the specific conditions it occurred.

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