Miracles share a lot of characteristics with Christian prayer. One often takes the form of a direct request of Jesus, while the other often represents the fulfillment of that request. And both look exactly like what we’d expect to find in a world without real gods. We’ve talked before about how Christians rationalize unanswered prayer, namely about how they all tend to use the same rationalizations. But miracles divide them in interesting ways.

We set the stage last time by talking about just what miracles even are. Today, let’s look at how different kinds of Christians rationalize their religion’s utter lack of verified miracles.

(From introduction: Dubai Butterfly Garden; Oglaf hot babe transformation potion (click “next” for part 2); WTAF IS GOING ON IN THAT CHRYSALIS; Evolution of metamorphosing insects.)

Yes, miracles are all unverified

First off, yes: there’s never been a single verified miracle by any reasonable definition of the terms verified or miracle. If we use David Hume’s definition of miracles as violations of natural laws, then well, we’ve never once found anything that fits that definition. If we use many Christians’ working definition of it as any coincidence that somehow benefits someone, then everything can fit—and the entire idea of miracles becomes meaningless and useless.

Indeed, years ago I caught a Christian asserting that miracle claims arouse little interest nowadays because Christians are just so incredibly spoiled by their god working constant miracles everywhere for them. It blew my mind, but she was completely convinced.

But every time we look into miracle claims, we discover the same things:

  • Someone exaggerated something bigtime to make it sound super-unlikely or profound
  • Someone completely fabricated something; either the person relaying the miracle to us knows they’re lying, or else doesn’t know that someone lied to them
  • Or someone completely misperceived a real situation’s cause(s) and jumped too quickly to the assignment of “miracle” to that event

Not one miracle has ever escaped those three discoveries, though some—like famous pious frauds like the Turin Shroud, which we’ve known wasn’t Jesus’ burial cloth since the 14th goddamned century—feature all three at once.

Rationalization #1: Christians insist miracles totally DO TOO happen

First and most often, many Christians insist that miracles really happen—but meaniepie skeptics refuse to acknowledge their divinely-worked nature.

This rationalization can be found across the entire length and breadth of Christendom, from Catholicism to the wingnuttiest hard-right evangelical flavors. In 2022, Craig Keener—an evangelical (I think?) who wrote an impenetrable 1100-page book about miracles—expounded at length to Christianity Today about how miracles totally do too happen, especially all those claimed miracles in the New Testament itself. First, he tries—and fails hilariously—to define miracles themselves:

The idea is that such reports must be legends that couldn’t really go back to eyewitnesses. Yet I always found that approach problematic, since I know of many eyewitness reports like this in my own circle and have witnessed some events like this myself. In my two-volume book, I was seeking to challenge the prejudice against eyewitness claims to miracle events of this sort. Unfortunately, that book is 1,100 pages long, so most people never had time to read it.

[. . .] God may use ordinary causes in extraordinary ways. (Exodus says God blew back the sea with a strong wind.) But plenty of events are extraordinary enough that virtually any observer would consider them “special” or “extraordinary.” When God uses such events to draw attention to his message, we usually call them miracles.

Then, he explains why meaniepie skeptics never accept Christians’ miracle claims:

The roots [of miracle rejection] go back to the radical Enlightenment, but the idea was popularized especially by David Hume’s essay against miracles, which took over some deist arguments of the day. Many people today take for granted the assumptions he published without always realizing the historic source of their assumptions.

When I said last time that evangelicals really did not like Hume’s attempt to wrangle miracles into coherence, I was not kidding around. Hume completely pissed in miracle claimants’ coffee cups. He raised the bar for miracles so high that no Christians could hope to clear it. No wonder they hate him!

Catholics tend to take a remarkably similar tack in explaining why there seem to be way fewer miracles these days.

Sidebar: Miracle claims that actually hurt Keener’s case

Of interest, Keener claims that oh-so-trendy past as a totes for realsies atheist, so we can guess right off the bat that he’s a well-seasoned liar-for-Jesus. I’ve run into only one such claimant who could even accurately define atheism at all (and he wasn’t evangelical). Moreover, none of these claimants have ever offered persuasive reasons for anybody else to follow their lead in converting.

Keener brings up his totes for realsies past atheism to explain that miracles don’t tend to convert atheists. That’s true. But it’s also quite a difference from how Jesus deliberately deployed miracles in the Gospels to induce belief. If modern miracles aren’t inducing belief, then they are failing by Jesus’ own standard.

Also of interest, Keener offers a few miracle claims in that exact article. They are spectacularly and obviously not miraculous at all. One includes seeing a wheelchair-bound woman get up and walk when he was young:

When I was a young Christian helping at a nursing-home Bible study, one wheelchair-bound woman complained every week how she couldn’t walk. One day the Bible study leader, someone from Fuller Theological Seminary, took her by one hand and commanded her in Jesus’ name to rise and walk. To both her astonishment and mine, he led her around the room. From then on she happily walked to the Bible study.

ZOMG, ITZA MEERKUL!! That really impressed him, you can tell.

Yeah, that same miracle happened to me, too, and also when I was young. It also impressed me very much, until a nearby church lady told me he got up and walked like that at every revival, but would be back in his wheelchair soon enough. But nobody did Keener that helpful service.

Like the old guy I saw do the same thing, that lady Keener encountered could always walk without her wheelchair. He was just too naive to understand that point. Someone called attention to her wheelchair use in a dramatic way, so she stopped using it around them. Keener doesn’t mention she never used the wheelchair again, only that she always “walked to the Bible study” after that. (As with every Christian claim, listen for what they don’t say. I bet he saw her in that wheelchair many times after her miracle.)

The scammers who work miracles in crowds love people like that lady and the old guy I saw, or supposedly blind people who can see a tiny bit, or deaf people who can hear some sounds. But whether they’re scammers or sincere, they all know that nobody will ever check up on these miracles’ recipients to find out just how tiny the supposed healing was, nor notice if the recipients revert back to their usual state within a few days.

Such supposed miracle-workers also love gullible, easily-tricked Christians like Craig Keener.

Rationalization #2: Miracles don’t ever happen so STFU

I love this second rationalization. It completely contradicts the first one. Like, utterly and completely. There’s no way that they could ever both be true.

In this rationalization, Christians insist that the age of miracles ended with either Jesus’ ascension into Heaven or the end of the writing of the New Testament’s various books. So any miracle claim made after that is, therefore and immediately, false.

You’d think that very few Christians go this route. Percentage-wise, that’s likely true. Depending on which surveys you look at, about 90% of Christians seem to believe miracles happen. With an estimated 2.6Bn Christians on Earth, though, that’s potentially around 260M who don’t buy into miracles. With 210M Christians in America as of 2021, that could mean 21M Christians not buying in.

You’d also suspect that whoever these Christians are, they’d probably be mainline or super-progressive Christians or something.

But in fact, they tend to be evangelicals.

I’m laughing like an idiot at the mere thought of it. Don’t take my word for it, though. As always, I have a field trip prepared for us—and with full receipts as always.

In the wild: Explaining the lack of miracles in today’s world

Apologetics Press, a very weird literalist apologetics-producing business, leads the charge with a 2013 post asserting that miracles don’t happen at all:

Many people today believe that God is still working miracles like He did in the first century. Many people say that they can speak in tongues or heal the sick, or that they know people who can. But the Bible does not teach this idea.

Shots fired! But gosh, Cas, I hear you asking: What does the Bible teach about miracles? Don’t worry! They’ll tell us:

The Bible teaches that miracles happened in Bible times for a very specific purpose: to confirm the Word (Mark 16:20; Acts 8:6; Hebrews 2:3-4). How did miracles “confirm the Word”?

When an inspired speaker stepped forward to declare God’s Word, God confirmed His Word by having the speaker perform a miracle to show that he was from God. The miracle showed the hearers that God was behind the speaker’s remarks. Miracles authenticated the spoken word as God’s Word. Miracles verified the teaching of God’s messengers, as over against the many false teachers (read John 3:2).

But once the Bible was finished being written, the post tells us, Jesus didn’t need to authenticate or verify any further messengers. They’d all been accounted for. With no further messengers giving divine messages, he didn’t need to do miracles anymore. So people can just read the Bible to find all the divine messages Jesus ever needed to authenticate and verify! As a final parting shot, the site deploys Bible verses to confirm their position:

The Bible teaches that miracles are no longer necessary since we have everything we need to function in this life, to be pleasing to God, and to survive spiritually (Read 2 Peter 1:3). [Link to Biblehub’s verse and commentary]

To me, that’s a real stretch. That verse doesn’t say miracles aren’t needed or done anymore. In fact, it implies that miracles are still very much on the menu:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

Miracles supposedly happen through Jesus’ divine power. They certainly seem to reinforce Christians’ existing beliefs in their god so they can keep living what they call “a godly life.” Making matters worse for OP, we see on that verse’s link in Biblehub that the word “power” comes from a Greek word that definitely implies miraculous power. 24:00

Rationalization #2: Christians today are weaksauce compared to Original Christians

Over on Medium, we find quite an interesting theory about why miracles don’t seem to happen much these days. In addition to the first rationalization above, Ron Whitehead thinks that The Big Problem Here is that Christians today are no longer “usable vessels” for impressive, unmistakable miracles.

Those who performed the miracles were people who were in touch with God. They had a strong relationship with Him and were pliable in His hands. On top of this, God had a task to perform, and He chose to use specific people. There were many others He could have used; however, there were some that were unusable. [. . .]

So, if we want to see God perform a miracle in our lives, we need to be a usable vessel, fully conscious of God’s power and consumed with prayer for His will. He is ready, willing, and able to me, but sometimes I limit His power because I am not walking closely with Him.

So there.

However, he still thinks miracles happen. They’re just smaller and much more easily attributable to chance and effort.

Do we still see miracles today? Yes! God delights in showing Himself strong. In my personal life, I have watched Him do amazing things that could only be chalked up as a miracle.

It wasn’t too long ago that my wife and I were on the highway when a tractor trailer stopped in front of us. We were inches from being sandwiched by another tractor trailer and that would have it. Somehow, miraculously, we were spared. No one will convince me this was not a miracle from God.

What’s so funny is that he does ask two good questions about miracle claims:

Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Why do some people see God do many miracles and others not so much?

And he thinks “only God” knows those answers. But I could easily tell him why: Some Christians like making miracle claims and claims about answered prayers. They get trained in how to do it, and they like the reaction they get when they make a claim. So they keep doing it. Maybe they’re dishonest scammers hoping for lucrative rewards for their stories. Perhaps they’re just very gullible and impressionable. Or maybe they’re deliberately exaggerating in hopes of inspiring their followers to keep Jesusing, or of impressing potential recruits enough for them to want to join up.

There are some extremely good answers to his questions. None of them involve an omnipotent god deciding to plant a $20 bill on the sidewalk for a particular Christian to find today when they forgot their wallet on the way to work.

Incidentally, you can find all three of the same basic explanations over at Blue Letter Bible from a different Christian. And Desiring God.

Rationalization #3: The world is just so different today!

Wayne Jackson started a huge right-wing evangelical site called Christian Courier. It’s hard to get a bead on exactly what flavor of evangelical the site is. He keeps calling Yahweh “Jehovah” in some posts on his site, but he also has a major hard-on for the Original Greek and Hebrew, what Calvinists call sola scriptura, and other such very hard-right, literalist evangelical notions. At any rate, Wayne Jackson offers us an extremely compelling theory: Jesus totally could work miracles. He just doesn’t wanna.

I do not believe that God is working miracles today either. But I do not reject such on the ground that God is powerless to perform them; he can do anything he wills to do, consistent with his character and his eternal purpose.

I do not disbelieve in miracles because the forces of nature are inalterably fixed, and thus cannot be manipulated by the very one who initiated them. God is in control of his own creation, and should he so choose, he could suspend nature’s laws for the implementation of his plan.

I do not reject “modern miracles” because I view God as uncaring for the plight of miserable humanity. No, none of these rationales is a valid measure of current so-called supernatural phenomena.

Then he lays out his reasons for not believing in modern-day miracles. In addition to the first rationalization we got from Apologetics Press, Jackson’s main objection to the critters is that the world is so different today than it was in the first century.

Nothing in today’s world is analogous to the supernatural events that adorn the pages of the New Testament. There is no walking on water (John 6:19), no restoration of an amputated ear (Luke 22:51), no resurrections from the dead (John 11:43-44)—nothing remotely resembling biblical miracles is observed today. [. . .]

The means for the reception of supernatural powers, at least as depicted in the New Testament, are unavailable in this age. There is no outpouring of the Holy Spirit as such occurred on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

That second bit refers to the way that Jesus’ divine spirit led his followers to speak in understandable foreign languages that day. And yes, Jackson’s right: Along with the Bible’s miracles never happening anymore, that also never happens anymore. In fact, his site ran a much longer article of his on the topic of miracles that follows the same line of thinking.

Rationalization #4: Well AKSHULLY, everything’s a miracle

At The Gospel Coalition, a hard-right evangelical Calvinist site, we find yet another way that Christians rationalize their lack of miracles. Its writer, Greg Phelan, is apparently a church elder, which means he’s one of the management team at his church under their pastor(s). In his 2021 post, he describes two totes for realsies ZOMG MEERKULS he experienced:

  1. When he was feeling really down about Jesus’ apparent lack of care for him, he told a church friend and wife of another elder, Elizabeth, about it. She responded by making a real effort to act friendly toward him afterward, informally counseled him, and gave him all kinds of books to read about his concerns. That all made him feel much better!
  2. When he was in great pain in many parts of his body, another friend, Julie, saw him in person. She told him his current physical therapy exercises were all wrong. Since she was a physical therapist herself, she gave him new ones to try. And wouldn’t ya know it? They worked great!

These are two actual, bona fide miracles that Phelan claims to have experienced thanks to the love and power of his omnipotent god. He attributes these two women’s direct earthly help to his god for three reasons:

First, God’s provision through Elizabeth and Julie built community. If God had healed me in my bedroom, my family wouldn’t have deepened our friendships with these two women we admire and respect. God’s natural provision strengthened our church.

Second, God didn’t only provide for me, but for them as well. Elizabeth and Julie received the gift of using their talents to build up God’s body.

Third, God provided beyond what I had prayed for. Elizabeth’s counseling showed me more was going on than I knew, and she equipped me to handle more than just church conflicts. While following her advice, God spoke to me in a quiet moment about how to parent my son. Now my relationships with my wife and kids are better off, too, not just my relationships at church.

That second one in particular is just WTAF on the cosmic scale. Yes, Jesus really did those two women a solid by significantly cutting into their limited personal and family time so they could offer lengthy, unpaid professional services for a church leader!

We see much the same rationalization going on in a 2014 post from the same site. And we’re gonna spend the rest of our time here today talking about this one post. As you’ll see, it’s a lot.

When there are no miracles

As I said earlier, this definition of miracles makes them essentially meaningless. If Jesus works entirely in ways that look exactly the same as no gods being involved at all, then he and his followers don’t get to pitch fits about “scientism” and the like when nobody believes that any gods are behind his deeds.

Nor do they get to snipe at or criticize people for pointing out that nothing that, say, Phelan writes is actually PROOF YES PROOF of his god’s existence and divine power. I’ve had purely secular experiences that are quite similar, and pagan ones as well.

When WereBear (the Way of Cats lady and a beloved Roll to Disbelieve commentariat member) helped me and Mr. Captain figure out what was going on with Bumble, Bother’s littermate, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, no. But it was true. More importantly, it was what Bumble desperately needed his people to know. He was getting more and more aggressive with Bother after our third cat, Lord Snow, died. WereBear helped us understand exactly why.

That knowledge helped us find our sweet boycat a solution that truly helped him and got him out of a terribly stressful situation. With shocking quickness, Bumble found a new forever friend who sounds like he formerly owned his sire, so he’s well-equipped to keep Bumble busy and happy. Bother, meanwhile, gets to be the only squawky pink princess of her home.

Oh, and I paid for her help and was glad to do so. I didn’t consider it a huge favor I was doing her by asking her to spend her own time to help my family.

What WereBear did for me is not a divine miracle. I could name a hundred other similar things besides this one that have helped me enormously, and not one of them are divine in nature. They’re all just people doing what they’re good at for other people and animals.

That guy’s just locked into a Christian worldview, which makes it hard for him to perceive how his god failed him so much

You know what would have pushed my thrill buttons in Greg Phelan’s two miracle claims?

If the suffering had not happened in the first place.

His god’s supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. That means he is ultimately the most powerful force in the entire universe, and he loves his lil human pets more than we could ever dream possible.

So why did he let his beloved church elder, Greg Phelan, suffer so much before extending a miniscule bit of help that looks exactly the same as not giving him any help at all?

Every single time I hear a Christian claim a miracle, I am always asking that in my mind: Why did this situation happen in the first place? A truly loving, omnipotent god would not ever have allowed one of his children to get into danger or deep distress in the first place. He’s not supposed to be like a Southern daddy seeing his toddler and going “Aw, no, jus’ let ‘im stick a knife in the light socket! ‘E won’t do that a second time.” Well yes, because that could electrocute the kid to death. That’d be a really quick way to make sure he doesn’t do anything a second time.

As it was, we can read between the lines of Phelan’s account to see that his misery and pain was making him an unbearable asshole to his wife and son, too. Why would this loving god want innocent people to suffer for so long?

Now we’ll criticize some miracles

In the first so-called miracle, Phelan relates that his church community was tearing itself apart over two always-divisive topics in evangelicalism: Covid and racism. The hostility had serious effects on his mental and emotional health.

Why did Jesus not step in immediately with an absolutely unmistakable set of instructions for this church full of Christians? Why did Jesus let things get so out of hand that Phelan was no longer even sure that Jesus was, as he put it, his “friend” anymore? Once a human found out about Phelan’s suffering, Jesus then needed that human to spend a lot of time soothing Phelan’s distress. Even Phelan himself concedes that Jesus could have accomplished the feat much more easily.

In the second so-called miracle, Phelan was in enormous physical pain. We don’t know why, but multiple body parts were screaming their pain at him for a long time. The pain had lasted so long that he was feeling hopeless. Then, another human noticed how he was moving and realized, thanks to her professional training, that he needed real help.

Here, too, we must ask why Jesus allowed his beloved servant and “friend” to suffer like that for so long. An omniscient god would know that Phelan was suffering and hopeless, of course. But this god apparently let it go on for a very long time before apparently setting a human in his servant’s path to view his movements. Why? And why didn’t Jesus prevent the injuries from occurring in the first place? Or lead Phelan to a physical therapist who gave him the right exercises to start with?

Phelan, of course, comes up with a whole lot of after-the-fact rationalizations to explain their divine nature. None are persuasive, because those same results could have been gotten without making Phelan suffer so much, or forcing these evangelical women to spend so much time helping him for free.

I’m not even a god, and I can easily come up with a bunch of scenarios that would have done the job without Phelan suffering so much.

It’s just so funny to me. Phelan has no idea that he’s made his god sound like a jerkass boyfriend. You know, the kind who starts fights to get makeup nookie.

When Christians accidentally make miracle claims meaningless

If both of Phelan’s examples qualify as miracles, then miracles themselves lose all potential meaning. There’s no way whatsoever that a Christian can differentiate them from non-miracles. Phelan tries hard to make his miracle claims sound like Jesus’ doing. He relates both of them to massive boosts in church camaraderie, his family’s functionality, and his personal faith. Then, he asks us to believe that without these boosts, his two experiences would not be miracles at all.

But these attempts irreparably hurt his case. All earthly favors could be related back to those same results. Worse, though, is this: Using such evaluation, miracle claims dangle from subjective opinions. And Christians already have that. The people who reject miracles already won’t accept this rationalization instead. It’s just the same rationalization.

And then we come back around to miracles not being miracles at all.

If any gods ever did hand out miracles, I’d have wanted a divine soothing of Bumble’s distress while keeping him in our home. I’d have considered joining such a god’s religion, for sure!

But there are no miracles. There are just people doing what they can. All too often, what we get is just the least bad choice out of a sackful of shit-tastic choices.

Sometimes, that’s the best we can do. Sometimes, that has got to be enough.

And somehow, it usually is.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

1 Comment

The shape of miracles—and where the religion rubber meets the reality road - Roll to Disbelieve · 01/27/2024 at 3:13 AM

[…] theirs is a very weak little godling. His most devoted followers know it well. So they set the bar for miracles as low as they possibly can—so low, in fact, that it’s […]

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