Modern miracles: Belief endures

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence

Americans continue to believe in miracles by a wide margin, despite a growing understanding of the science behind what were once often considered supernatural events. Polls show that more than eight in 10 Americans believe in divinely worked wonders, and nearly two-thirds say they know someone who has experienced a miracle. In fact, miracle stories are so fascinating — to the public and to the media — that reports of miracles make up a significant portion of religion coverage, be they studies on prayer and healing or reports of apparitions. In June 2007, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on stories of an image of Jesus in a car window in Texas, the name Allah seen in a sliced tomato in Britain, and the face of God that appeared on the ceiling of a Tennessee church. In May 2013, the Huffington Post reported on a story of an apparition of the Virgin Mary that appeared in a photograph of a child with lukemia.

Then there are stories of healings and recoveries that are unique or can’t be explained well by modern medicine, which many attribute to miracles. And in the face of desperate odds, such as miners trapped underground, families cling to the hope for a miracle.

Miracles have a long and important place in religious traditions. But are miracles central to claims for proof of the divine? And if today’s science can explain so-called miracles from ancient times, does that mean those were not miracles — and are meaningless? What really constituted a miracle then — and what constitutes one now, in this day and age?

Background

General background and history

Scholars note that in earlier times, miracles were often what are called “nature miracles,” that is, large-scale public wonders worked by God (or the gods), such as making the sun stand still in the Hebrew Bible, or by prophets acting in the name of the divine. In modern times, and especially in recent years, the trend has been toward smaller-scale, private miracles, such as healings or personal visions or messages. Such miracles can be harder to verify, explain or debunk.

Experts also say that the term miracle has become so popular that almost anything inexplicable or coincidental is considered a miracle. Appearances of faces or figures in various objects are commonplace, and popular culture abounds with reference to the miraculous in television shows, movies and sports. There are innumerable books on miracles and miracle experiences.

Classically, a miracle is always considered the work of God, who may operate through a holy person. But a miracle is not wrought by that person’s own power. Experts also note that although it is common to describe miracles as a suspension or violation of natural law, proponents of miracles prefer to say that miracles actually restore the natural order, such as when a sick person is healed.

While all major religions feature miracles stories, a belief in the miraculous is most prominent and prevalent in Christianity. Because miracles are an integral part of the canonization process for saints, the Catholic Church has the most elaborate and rigorous process for verifying or explaining miraculous claims. Especially newsworthy are current miracle claims associated with the late Pope John Paul II and the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, both of whom are being promoted for sainthood. But experts say that at the grass-roots level, miracles, especially healings and related phenomena, are integral to growing nondenominational communities, such as Pentecostal churches.

Why it matters

For many believers, miracles are potent signs of God’s existence for a skeptical world. Miracles are also a hallmark of some of the fastest-growing religions. For other believers, most of today’s miracle stories are little more than titillating glimpses of the supernatural or simply superstition and have little to do with true faith and mature spirituality. In the wider culture, miracle stories are often the flashpoint in the fierce debate over God and religion between believers and today’s neo-atheists. Also, proving or disproving miraculous events is a principal arena for investigation by experts exploring the border between science and religion.

Surveys and resources

News reports

Other resources

National sources

  • Michael L. Budde

    Michael L. Budde is chairman of the political science department at DePaul University in Chicago and a frequent lecturer on religious studies. Budde can discuss the growth of churches that believe in miracles.

  • Jon Butler

    Jon Butler is emeritus professor of American studies, history and religious studies at Yale University. He co-edited Religion in American Life, a 17-book Oxford University series that treats religion as an academic subject for children and young adults.

    He can discuss Americans’ belief in miracles.

  • William Dinges

    William Dinges is a professor of religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and an expert on American Catholicism. He says the growing divide between what is “religious” and what is “spiritual” has resulted in spirituality that lends itself easily to supernatural and paranormal phenomena. He is a co-author of Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice (2001) and can speak about the views of teenagers and young adults toward the Catholic Church.

    He says belief in miracles stems from the fact that Catholicism is a very sacramental tradition that takes the supernatural seriously. He says it believes that divine reality is not passive, but works through the world in extraordinary ways.

  • Eitan P. Fishbane

    Eitan P. Fishbane is an assistant professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the intellectual center of Conservative Judaism. Fishbane is an expert in the history and literature of Jewish mysticism, including medieval Kabbalah.

  • Marcia Hermansen

    Marcia Hermansen is director of the Islamic World Studies Program and a professor in the theology department at Loyola University Chicago. She is an expert on Islamic spirituality and Sufism.

    She wrote the entry on miracles for the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World.

  • Todd Klutz

    Todd Klutz is a graduate of Wheaton College, a senior lecturer in New Testament studies at the University of Manchester in England and editor of Magic in the Biblical World: From the Rod of Aaron to the Ring of Solomon.

  • Vanessa Ochs

    Vanessa Ochs is the author of The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices: CLAL’s Guide to Everyday and Holiday Rituals and Blessings. She is a professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She can talk about the role of the Internet in the contemporary Jewish dating scene, life cycle rituals for single people and the creation of rituals that acknowledge the place of single people in the community.

  • Dr. Margaret Poloma

    Dr. Margaret Poloma is Professor Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Akron in Ohio. She wrote about miracles as supernatural/ paranormal phenomenon in Main Street Mystics: The Toronto Blessing and Reviving Pentecostalism (Alta Mira Press, 2003). She describes herself as a Pentecostal Christian who has experienced paranormal phenomena within the framework of her religion.

  • Koichi Shinohara

    Koichi Shinohara is a senior lecturer in the department of religious studies at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. She wrote the entry “Changing Roles of Miraculous Images in Medieval Chinese Buddhism” for the publication Images, Miracles and Authority in Asian Religious Traditions.

  • Frank J. Tipler

    Frank J. Tipler is a professor of mathematics and physics at Tulane University and author of The Physics of Christianity and The Physics of Immortality, which argues that basic Christian miracle stories such as the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth can be consistent with the known scientific laws of the universe.

  • L. Michael White

    L. Michael White is a professor in classics and religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins. He is an expert on house churches in the first century.  He is also a frequent media commentator on biblical archaeology and appeared in the PBS series From Jesus to Christ.

  • Seung Ai Yang

    Seung Ai Yang is an associate professor of sacred Scripture at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. She wrote the entry on miracles for the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Paula Kane

    Paula Kane is an associate professor of Catholic studies at the University of Pittsburgh and teaches American religious history. She has been studying stigmata and Marian apparitions.

  • Robert Bruce Mullin

    Robert Bruce Mullin is a history professor at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City. He has written about miracles and religious imagination and wrote the entry on miracles for The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought.

  • Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

    Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is the Chauncey Stillman Professor in Practical Ethics in the philosophy department and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University in Durham, N.C. His essay “Overcoming Christianity” is included in Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (2007). His books include Morality Without God? (2009) and (as co-author) God?: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist.

In the South

  • Delbert Burkett

    Delbert Burkett is an associate professor of New Testament and Christian origins in the department of philosophy and religious studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He has written on the miracle stories in early Christianity.

  • Danny E. Burton

    Danny E. Burton is an associate professor of history at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Ala. He co-authored the book Magic, Mystery and Science: The Occult in Western Civilization.

  • Barry G. Hankins

    Barry G. Hankins is a professor of history and church-state studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is an expert on Christian conservatives and their interaction with American culture. He wrote the book Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture.

    He can talk about miracles, particularly in the tradition of conservative Protestantism.

  • Julie Ingersoll

    Julie Ingersoll is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and can discuss religion and popular culture. She has written about faith and values among Jimmy Buffett fans.

    She can discuss the place of miracles in American religious history and culture.

  • S. Brent Plate

    S. Brent Plate is a visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He has written about religion, art and visual culture. Religions, he notes, discuss the creation of the world, and films work on re-creating the world. He’s interested in how film has “come down” off the screen and infiltrated rituals. His books include A History of Religion in 5-1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses; Religion and Film; The Religion and Film Reader; Blasphemy: Art That Offends; Re-Viewing the Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics; and Representing Religion in World Cinema.

  • Stephen J. Pullum

    Stephen J. Pullum is a professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He wrote “Foul Demons, Come Out!”: The Rhetoric of Twentieth-Century American Faith Healing.

In the Midwest

  • David K. Clark

    David K. Clark is vice president and dean at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and has written about miracles in world religions.

  • Wendy Cotter

    Wendy Cotter is a Sister of St. Joseph and an associate professor of Scripture at the department of theology at Loyola University in Chicago. She has written about miracles in the Greco-Roman world and in the New Testament.

  • Richard Kieckhefer

    Richard Kieckhefer is chairman of the religion department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and can discuss the history of miracles, magic and sainthood.

  • Paul Plenge Parker

    Paul Plenge Parker is chairman of the theology department at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill., and has written about miracles and healing.

In the West

  • Richard L. Gorsuch

    Richard L. Gorsuch is a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. He wrote the article “The Development of a Scale to Measure Forgiveness” in the 2001 Journal of Psychology & Christianity. He has also done research on religion and prejudice, religion and substance abuse, and miracles.

  • Richard Peace

    Richard Peace is a theology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and can discuss belief in miracles. He is the author of Contemplative Bible Reading: Experiencing God Through Scripture, which describes Lectio Divina from an evangelical perspective, and Spiritual Journaling: Recording Your Journey Toward God.

  • Daniel Stout

    Daniel Stout is a professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is co-editor of the Journal of Media and Religion. He can speak about miracles, including the Mormon perspective.

  • Daniel Wojcik

    Daniel Wojcik is a professor of folklore studies at the University of Oregon. He is interested in contemporary American apocalyptic movements and groups, especially those focused on UFOs.

Related source guides