Proof From Miracles (1)

September 21st, 1995, was a good day to be a god. Or, alternatively, to own a grocery store.

A worshipper of Ganesha offered a statue of their god a sip of milk. To their surprise, the milk slowly disappeared from their spoon. Word travelled around New Dehli like lightening, and soon other devout Hindus were astonished to find their own statues were just as thirsty. Temples struggled to keep up with the flood of visitors, traffic took all day to recover, and even distant, exotic locales like England saw a marked rise in milk sales. The event was officially sanctioned as a miracle by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, better known as the World Hindu Council.

The Catholic Church tends to use more careful words, like “worthy of belief,” when declaring miracles.

Take the events of Fátima, Portugal, as an example. Jacinta and Francisco Marto, plus Lúcia Santos, claimed to have seen a glowing woman while tending to their sheep on May, June, and July 13th, 1917. Each time, the woman told the children to perform sacrifices and penance, as well as pray regularly. On the July visit, the woman gave them three secrets. The first two were kept quiet until 1941. The third was supposed to be held until 1960, but was eventually revealed forty years behind schedule.[168]

Word spread quickly, especially after that third visit, and by August 13th thousands of pious had flocked in to have an experience. The three children were jailed for that day, on the grounds that religious visions were politically disruptive, and alas no vision occurred. On August 19th, however, they claimed the woman came knocking again while they were alone. There was a crowd around on September 13th, but all that happened was a quiet picnic in the country.

Excitement was building for October 13th, however, which was supposed to be the “big reveal” that would convince even the sceptics. At least 30,000 people gathered in hope of a good light show. The angels didn’t disappoint.

From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundreds of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver, and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place. But at that moment a great shout went up, and one could hear the spectators nearest at hand shouting: “A miracle! A miracle!”

Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws the sun “danced” according to the typical expression of the people.

Standing at the step of an omnibus was an old man. With his face turned to the sun, he recited the Credo in a loud voice. I asked who he was and was told Senhor Joao da Cunha Vasconcelos. I saw him afterwards going up to those around him who still had their hats on, and vehemently imploring them to uncover before such an extraordinary demonstration of the existence of God.

Identical scenes were repeated elsewhere, and in one place a woman cried out: “How terrible! There are even men who do not uncover before such a stupendous miracle!”

People then began to ask each other what they had seen. The great majority admitted to having seen the trembling and the dancing of the sun; others affirmed that they saw the face of the Blessed Virgin; others, again, swore that the sun whirled on itself like a giant Catherine wheel and that it lowered itself to the earth as if to burn it in its rays. Some said they saw it change colours successively….

(“The Immaculate Heart,” quoting from Avelino de Almeida’s article for “O Seculo.” John de Marchi, 1952)

Crack open any holy book, and you’ll find all types of events that are “worthy of belief,” from reviving the dead to candles that burned longer then they should.

Only a god is capable of breaking the laws of the universe. Doesn’t this clinch it?


Before going any farther, we’ve gotta agree on what a “miracle” is. In the Transcendence proof, I defined a miracle as any permanent or near-permanent change in the universe. This is a good start, but there are shades of grey that need to be examined.

Changes are easy to make, after all. I can change this spelling of tis word, for instance, and yet no-one would call that a miracle. The sort of change that qualifies as a miracle has to violate the laws of the universe, in some way. This leads to some awkward situations. If a magician threw down a stick and had it turn into a snake on hitting the ground, we’d clap and think it was a good show; magicians don’t claim to violate the laws of the universe, after all, they just fool our expectations of how the universe works. There’s always a material explanation behind the curtain.

Actually, the stick is a snake at the very start. The trick depends upon a species called the naja haje, or the Egyptian cobra. A peculiarity of this snake is that it can be made motionless by pressure just below the head. Thus temporarily paralysed, the naja haje becomes rigid, like a stick, but when it is thrown on the ground, it is jolted back to action.[169]

(“Secrets of Magic,” by Walter Gibson. 1973)

If Aaron or an Egyptian holy man turn a staff into a snake, however, it’s now a legitimate miracle.

 וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר

(The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,)

כִּי יְדַבֵּר אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר תְּנוּ לָכֶם מוֹפֵת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח אֶת מַטְּךָ וְהַשְׁלֵךְ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה יְהִי לְתַנִּין

(“When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Provide a sign for yourselves,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff, [and] cast [it] before Pharaoh; it will become a serpent.’ “)

 וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל פַּרְעֹה וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כֵן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הֹוָ־ה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת מַטֵּהוּ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וְלִפְנֵי עֲבָדָיו וַיְהִי לְתַנִּין

([Thereupon,] Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did so, as the Lord had commanded; Aaron cast his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent.)

  וַיִּקְרָא גַּם פַּרְעֹה לַחֲכָמִים וְלַמְכַשְּׁפִים וַיַּעֲשׂוּ גַם הֵם חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם בְּלַהֲטֵיהֶם כֵּן

([Then,] Pharaoh too summoned the wise men and the magicians, and the necromancers of Egypt also did likewise with their magic.)

וַיַּשְׁלִיכוּ אִישׁ מַטֵּהוּ וַיִּהְיוּ לְתַנִּינִם וַיִּבְלַע מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן אֶת מַטֹּתָם

(Each one of them cast down his staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs.)

(Torah, Shemot 7:8-12, English translation by Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg)[170]

While both situations look identical to any witnesses, only the second is claimed to be a miracle, because only it broke the laws of the universe. On the surface this seems to be no problem, since both the magician and prophets have made the situation clear. But what if the magician lied, and claimed their own work was a miracle? A witness has no way of spotting the lie, and would happily believe a false miracle. Conversely, what if the magician is mistaken, and there really is no material explanation? Our witness would falsely agree that no miracle happened, when in fact one did.

It all points to a simple conclusion: it doesn’t matter if something is declared to be a miracle or not. We need to examine the evidence, in every case, and cannot take it on faith.

This story of duelling snakes is not the first ever miracle; a few people claim that the very existence of the universe counts as a miracle. That’s already covered by the Fine-Tuning proof, which is examined in another chapter.

However, the creation of everything and the creation of the Earth are two separate things.

That Agni, when in loftiest heaven he sprang to life, Guardian of Holy Laws, kept and observed them well. Exceeding wise, he measured out the firmament. Vaisvanara [Agni] attained to heaven by mightiness.

Wonderful Mitra[171] propped the heaven and earth apart, and covered and concealed the darkness with his light. He made the two bowls part asunder like two skins. Vaisvanara put forth all his creative power.

The Migbty [?] seized him in the bosom of the floods: the people waited on the King who should be praised. As envoy of Vivasvan[,] MatariSvan[172] brought Agni Vaisvanara hither from far away.

(Rig Veda, Mandala 6:8.2-4,  translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith)

Declaring who came first is a bit of a challenge. The followers of Jainism point to the birth of Rishabha, the first Jain “Tirthankar” or enlightened person, as miraculous; the wind became perfumed, the sky had a warm glow, and a good vibe flowed over the land. According to legend, that was about 10224 years ago, which puts it roughly 10224 years before the Big Bang. Worse, Rishabha is only the first Tirthankar in our own epoc; Jainism believes there were an infinite number of cycles before then, so that year represents the first known miracle, but nothing [HJH: looks like I forgot to write a part back then. Whoops! Please accept this crude approximation…] in their religion states there was ever a first miracle, full stop.

Un-shockingly, there’s no evidence to support any of that. The source of Rishabha’s legend, the Adipurana, was written between 941 and 1000CE by the poet Adikavi Pampa. In contrast, Jewish tradition states the Shemot was revealed to Moses by God around 1312 BCE; no written copies existed until after 600 BCE, however, and some evidence suggests it was created at that time.[173] By historical standards, Judaism can claim to be earlier.

Hinduism has both of them beat. Thomas Oberlies estimates the last Mandala of the Rig Veda was composed in 1100BCE.[174] The earliest Mandalas, which includes the one I quoted above, were crafted between 2000 and 1400BCE, with the second date being the most widely accepted. While the Rig Veda itself wasn’t written down until about 10BCE, the text gushes on and on about holy rivers. By comparing their descriptions within the work to the historic paths of rivers, archaeologists can estimate when the oral versions of the Mandalas were first written. Some claim this adds an additional millennia or two to their age; others dispute this.

There may be earlier records of miracles. Imhotep was an advisor to several Pharaohs, and one of the few commoners to be declared divine by the ancient Egyptians. His skill as an architect, physician, and sage were long celebrated, and most likely he could perform some sort of “magic.” Alas, no record of his tricks have survived, and without details I can’t declare him to be a true miracle worker. It’s too bad, since he could have easily stolen the crown; he lived from 2655 to 2600BCE, after all.

[168]  Maybe. There are a lot of sceptics who claim the Catholic Church forged or altered this prophecy, pointing to oddities like the number of pages (the official release had four, yet previous reports claimed there was only one). The Church has continually denied this.

[169]  I’m sceptical of Gibson’s explanation, but my point survives even if he’s wrong. You’ll see why shortly.

[170]  This passage is also in the Christian bible, filed under “Exodus” in the same location.

[171]  This god was named after contracts, but also influenced friendship and honesty.

[172]   Vivasvan is the name of a sun god, while MatariSvan is the person who brought fire to the rest of the world.

[173]  “Exodus,” by William D. Johnstone, an essay published in Eerdmans Bible Commentary (2003).

[174]  “Die Religion des Rgveda,” Wien, 1998.