miracle1 The first problem with the notion of miracles is definition. So here's the only meaningful definition of the word "miracle" as it's used today:

mir-a-cle; n., sing. - any sort of mostly spontaneous occurrence that can be interpreted by a sufficiently motivated person as proof of some specific metaphysical belief

You may already have grasped the problem. The definition sucks. Just about anything qualifies as a miracle to someone, and there is no rigorous test for the concept.

Miracles are events in which a higher power decides to intervene in human events, usually to some beneficient purpose, as opposed to magic or witchcraft, in which a human exploits presumed loopholes in the laws of nature to create change according to their own will.

Miracles can occur spontaneously, or they can be urgently requested by groveling for favors from unseen powers, a process sometimes referred to as "prayer." To qualify as a miracle, an event must be either physically impossible, freakishly improbable or extraordinarily convenient. This can include:

  • Spontaneous healing of illness or grave injury
  • Spontaneous generation of illness or grave injury
  • Extreme weather or geological phenomena which have an unusually beneficial or detrimental effect on people's lives
  • Apparitions by major deities or their minions
  • Resurrection of the dead (not to be confused with reanimation of the undead
  • The creation of miraculous pictures or images
  • Particularly colorful or accurate prophecies
  • Speaking in languages you don't know, or speaking to multitudes, all of whom hear the words in their own language

miracle4a In addition to the above miracles, which are pretty widely agreed on, you can find plenty of people who believe in somewhat less impressive miracles. These miracles can easily be explained by simple science, medicine or human error, but people believe in them anyway.

  • Speaking in tongues is sometimes considered a miracle. Although anyone can spout gibberish, "tongues" are thought to have special characteristics.
  • Unusual lights in the skies can be arbitrarily designated miraculous. In the past, comets and meteors were automatically deemed miraculous, but most people know better these days. Some lights which were once considered miraculous are now considered extraterrestrial or otherwise freaky without the need for divine intervention.
  • Sometimes, people will use the word "miracle" to refer to events with religious overtones that are just plain weird, such as weeping statues or bleeding communion hosts.
As you may have noticed, most of these miracles can be explained by science, faked without too much trouble, or dismissed as coincidence. It takes a special kind of mindset to distinguish between a "lucky break," a "freak occurrence" and a "miracle."

You have to want to believe in a miracle, with its necessary implication that God (or whomever) has taken a personal interest in your life. Theologically speaking, miracles can:

  • Prove God exists.
  • Prove not only that God exists, but that one particular religion is the "correct" religion.
  • Prove that God has favored a particular individual, such as a saint or a bodhisattva.
  • Indicate a God-endorsed course of action.
  • Call the recipient of the miracle back to God's straight path.
  • Inspire non-believers to become believers (usually denomination-specific).
miracle5 Miracles play a particularly important role in Christianity, relative to Eastern and indigenous religions. While many other religions encourage believers to develop their own transcendent powers, Christian theology insists that supernatural events can only occur through direct intervention from God himself. This intervention can be encouraged by prayer but it can't be initiated by a human.

(This precept directly contravenes the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Bible. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus said "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you." And in John, Jesus says "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." Of course, if you've ever tried either of these techniques, you already know they don't work, which is probably why miracles are now considered strictly deus ex machina.)

In the Roman Catholic church, miracles are codified much more stringently than in Protestant denominations. The Vatican has to sign off on all supernatural events before they can be considered miracles.

Miracles are also used as part of a bonus point system for officially determining whether someone is a saint or just a nice guy.

The whole concept of sainthood has troubled many Christians over the years. According to Catholic doctrine, certain men and women are so damn good that they attain a special status with God after death. From this exalted position, the saints are able to petition God for favors on behalf of those of us remaining on earth. Many Protestants find this idea uncomfortably reminiscent of pagan practices which gave semi-divine status to prominent heros and leaders of yore.

miracle3 The relationship between miracles and sainthood is arguably even more pagan than the concept itself. Generally speaking, in order to become a saint you have to have at least two accredited miracles attributed to your afterlife intercessions with God (sometimes more, depending on a number of variables).

These miracles must be the result of a tit-for-tat arrangement with a decidedly pagan flavor. Living people must pray for a miracle in the name of the would-be saint, then the miracles themselves must be vetted and certified by the Vatican in a lengthy and mostly impenetrable process that is more exhausting than exacting.

As a result, proponents of a would-be saint have to spend much of their time praying for supernatural events in the name of their candidate. Sometimes these efforts are organized in extraordinarily mercenary efforts, such as Catholic schools forcing students into prayer gangs to continually intercede for something or other on behalf of their not-yet-sainted namesakes.

Outside of the shadow of Rome, miracles have enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, thanks to a witch's brew of cultural influences, including millennial anxiety, a new wave of religious wars, the resurgence of fundamentalist Christianity in America and a broad societal abdication of personal responsibility.

The resulting "miracle fever" has crossed denominational lines and fueled a cottage industry in New Age-Christian hybrid books and movies, such as A Course in Miracles, The Miracle Detective, Miracles: The Series, Miracle Food Cures From the Bible, Miracles Do Happen, The Fifty Miracle Principles of 'A Course in Miracles' (bonus points for using the word "miracle" twice in the same title), Be Careful What You Pray For, You Just Might Get It and something like 200 movies with some form of the word "miracle" in the title. Although, to be fair, Miracle on 69th Street probably shouldn't count.

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