From the Latin miraculum, a miracle could be defined as any event that inspires wonder.
In Christianity, a miracle is anything caused by God’s spiritual intervention instead of through so-called “natural” laws and powers.
A miracle can be an interior spiritual or external, publically observable event like miraculous healings and apparitions.
Theologians say that supernatural miracles usually have a symbolic importance extending well beyond the actual event, somewhat like a great work of art.
For example, the Bible story of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus from the dead also points to the greater belief in Christ’s ability to transform the spiritually dead and deliver them to everlasting life in heaven. And in the Old Testament, the appearance of the angel to Abraham just when he is about to sacrifice his son Isaac signifies the importance of testing by and trusting in the Lord.
Jesus performs about 40 miracles in the New Testament story. These involve
- healing the sick
- casting out of demons (now called exorcisms), which often but not always involve mental and physical healing
- commanding nature to obey his will
- bringing the dead back to life
The Old Testament contains its fair share of miracles. Some of the more well-known are
- the creation of the universe in Genesis
- the writing of the 10 Commandments in tablets of stone
- the parting of the Red Sea
- Daniel remaining unharmed in the lions den
Many scholars and writers try to explain religious miracle stories through natural and observable causes.
The parting of the Red Sea, for instance, is commonly explained by the notion that the water level lowered because strong winds arose just before Moses and the Israelites were set upon by the Egyptians. And Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of stone is, some say, just a weird story about natural salt formations found near the Dead Sea.
Likewise, the walls tumbling down at the Jericho fort has been variously attributed to earthquake tremors or sound waves and vibration caused by loud war horns and trumpets.
Some depth psychologists see miracles as the timely meeting of supernatural and natural realms. And for those believing in a wholly-other but immanent deity, God authors these apparent coincidences for reasons beyond ordinary human understanding.¹
In popular music, the song “Miracles” (1975) by Jefferson Starship suggests, like the New Testament writers, that we must believe to experience miracles. The idea is that if we close ourselves off psychologically, we’ll remain in the dark, supposing that worldly rationality is the supreme source of knowledge.²
Hindu mysticism has a somewhat different take on miracles. Unlike Christianity, belief is not as important as knowledge. For Hindus, as we become spiritually “achieved” the line between God and nature slowly dissolves. Books like Autobiography of a Yogi relate all sorts of allegedly miraculous events like bilocation (being in two physical places at once), levitation, and spontaneous right speaking (letting the correct words “come to you” while public speaking).
Like any miracle stories, it’s hard to know just how truthful these accounts are. But the book makes for good reading, especially for those just emerging from the mouth of Plato’s Cave.
Later, as we mature in faith, applying reason to such claims or to assess our own unusual experiences becomes an indispensable defense against error. Sadly, not everyone can or is willing to do this. So anyone with a bit of supernatural experience or power is at risk of megalomania.³
¹ When Carl Jung died lightning stuck his favorite tree in Zurich, which some might see as synchronicity, others providential. See https://www.google.ca…Carl+Jung+died+lightning+struck+his+favorite+tree&oq=Carl+Jung+died+lightning+struck+his+favorite+tree
² My favorite Biblical quote here is Isaiah 55: 6-9. Western philosophy has a rich and varied take on miracles. One of the more famous expositions is that of Hume’s. This article does a great job comparing Locke and Paine. This page gives a few choice Berkeley quotes. And Voltaire with biting sarcasm says this of priests: “We even hope that not only will these learned men work miracles, but that they will hang all those who do not believe in them. Amen!”
³ I once had a professor like this. He seemed to possess unusual intuitive abilities. But his callous and authoritarian behavior also suggested that he believed he was the outcome of some warped “survival of the fittest” paradigm. Social Darwinism and spirituality are perfect ingredients for the making of a Darth Vader, metaphorically speaking.