Miracles, in the biblical sense are signs and wonders, the extraordinary
events that inspire awe and open the world of the
divine. By the Middle Ages the differentiation between the natural
and supernatural had been made and miracles were redefined
as the invasion of the supernatural into the world of the
natural. As the concept of natural law and an orderly universe
developed, the word miracle gradually took on the meaning it
has had for the last three centuriesan event that occurs outside
the laws of nature as we know them. Christian theologians
tended to view a miracle as an event caused by God laying aside
one of his own laws out of his concern for humanity.
David Hume (171176), the great Scottish philosopher, defined
a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature. The idea
that nature follows certain laws and the consideration of whether
or not those laws can be violated set the issues of a modern
debate. Alfred Russel Wallace, prominent nineteenth-century
scientist, in his book On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1881),
assumes the existence of natural law and objects to Humes
skepticism by arguing that since we do not know all the laws of
nature we cannot rule out the possibility of an unknown law
overcoming a known one. He suggests that a miracle is any act
or event necessarily implying the existence and agency of superhuman
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Miracles
Contemporary observers of the progress of science have developed
a different approach to the question of miracles. They
note that the idea of natural law is a concept imposed upon nature
by scientists, who have observed its regularities. A miracle,
they say, is a religious affirmation in the face of an extraordinary
event that affects the individual positively. Calling an
event a miracle is but one evaluation among several (e.g., coincidence,
trickery) that can be made about the occurrence.
According to Hume, no amount of human testimony can
prove a miracle. Humes philosophy created a scientific environment
in which the evaluation of an anomalous extraordinary
event could only be explained as a phenomenon already
understood. It is on this basis that, in spite of a popular belief
in the paranormal, many scientists generally refuse to investigate
the nature and evidence of so-called miracles. This resistance
is odd since the history of human progress demonstrates
that, as Charles Richet stated, the improbabilities of today are
the elementary truths of to-morrow. The truth of his statement
was amply demonstrated in the lives of great scientists,
many of whom had to fight an entrenched scientific community
for recognition of their discoveries in an era in which the process
of accepting new facts was very slow. Galileo (15641642)
was persecuted and declared ignorant of his ignorance; the
evidence of his telescope was rejected without examination; Sir
Isaac Newton (16421727), born the year Galileo died, had to
fight for so long for recognition of his theory of gravitation that
he nearly resolved to publish nothing more and said; I see that
a man must either resolve to put out nothing new, or become
a slave to defend it. Modern science is replete with stories of
people who were ridiculed by their contemporaries for their
extraordinary ideas and discoveries and otherwise outstanding
scientists who thought the ideas of their younger colleagues to
be mere ridiculous flights of fancy.
Belief in the reality of miracles has always been a cornerstone
of religion. In former times it was sufficient to have faith
that the divine power that created the universe of matter could
also transcend its laws either directly or through the agency of
particular humans. However, the religious skepticism of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuriesbuilt in large part by the
emergence of science and later sustained by its obvious success
in changing the world through technologythrew doubt on
the reality of all miracles, sacred or secular.
Part of the present-day opposition to claims of the paranormal
is based on the brilliant achievements arising from applied
scientific laws, reinforcing confidence in the logic of the material
world. From this viewpoint, many agnostics and atheists deny
the possibility of either religious miracles or secular paranormal
happenings, claiming that both are the result of malobservation,
superstition, or fraud. Meanwhile many religious authorities
have upheld the validity of biblical miracles as
indicating Gods omnipotence and intervention in human affairs.
For example, Vatican Council I (187071) denied that
miracles are impossible. However, many theologians, responding
positively to the world of natural science, have taken the
view that miracles are no longer necessary in modern times as
evidence for religious faith. Even the Roman Catholic church,
informed by its own experience as much as by modern scientific
worldviews, champions the idea of caution in evaluating apparent
miracles in modern times, since it would be foolish to ignore
the possibility of misunderstanding or deception. Ever
since the claimed miraculous healings associated with pilgrim
centers like Lourdes, the church has been careful to insist on
satisfactory scientific and medical evidence over a prolonged
period of time before placing official confirmation on any
Through the twentieth century a spectrum of approaches to
the question of miracles have been put forth. Older supernatural
worldviews have survived and are still championed by conservative
Christians. Paranormal events are judged to be either
godly miracles (within the context of the Christian community)
or devilish deceptions (occurring elsewhere). More liberal
Christian leaders have suggested that while miracles are possible,
they are rare, and tend to occur spontaneously.
A growing body of believers, members of metaphysical,
Spiritualist, ancient wisdom, and other occult religious
groupsas well as many parapsychologiststend to accept the
existence of genuine paranormal events, but define them as
purely natural events that science is slow in defining. Some
would accept basic ESP, but not take the additional step and
offer a positive evaluation of evidence for spirit communication
or human survival. Of course, a small but vocal group deny the
existence of all paranormal or supernatural events.
The problem of the distinction between religious and secular
miracles remains a matter of polemics between conservative
Christians and other religionists. Parapsychologists, Spiritualists
and liberal Christians may point to the many reported
miraculous events in the Bible as descriptions of paranormal
events that also occur in modern times. Conservative believers
accept as miraculous only those events with a clearly established
religious purpose and reject all other claimed paranormal happenings.
Some conservative Christians claim that all psychic
phenomena are mere simulacrum of the miraculousthe work
of devils or deceptive spirits counterfeiting real miracles. Of
course, non-Christians resent such accusations.
Extraordinary eventsmiracles to the believerare the
common property of all religious traditions and the nonreligious
alike. Every religious community can produce accounts
of extraordinary occurrences to strenthen the faith of their believers.
Most religious traditions also de-emphazize miracles as
secondary to the development of a mature relationship to the
transcendent and the performance of spiritual, moral, and social
duties within the human community. In such a context, miraculous
events may be helpful signposts or motivators at some
point, but they do not take the place of spiritual development.
In fact, too much attention to the miraculous (or long-term
focus on psychic events) may actually be a hindrance to spiritual
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Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata,
Visions & Healing Cures. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus
Réginald-Omez, Fr. O. P. Psychical Phenomena. London:
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Stemman, Roy. One Hundred Years of Spiritualism. London:
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