Chapter 11. Small miracles.
I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. Jesus
If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so entirely out of the course of what is called nature, that she must go out of that course to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such miracle by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is, is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie. Thomas Paine
Crutches only are hung on the walls of the miraculous grottoes [of Lourdes]; never a wooden leg. Dr. Maurice de Fleury
Religious mythology is filled with stories of miracles. A miracle is a fictitious event or fictitious explanation for a real event offered as evidence of the existence of a supernatural power. Religionists insist that belief in miracles is a necessary element of faith. One author explains that Jesus’ birth, life and resurrection are all “miracles,” therefore, “Christianity without miracle is not Christianity. No one who thinks, ‘miracles do not happen’ can be a Christian.” A reported 79% of Americans believe in miracles, and 47% believe strongly.
Reports of modern miracles are rare, since they are subject to skeptical and scientific scrutiny. In the modern day, a teen who claims to see Jesus’ mother and does not capture a photo on her cell phone will not be believed. Similarly, bleeding statutes can be chemically analyzed to establish the substance is not blood, and if it is blood, who it belongs to. However, the men who wrote books like the Bible were not subject to such examination. But even with unfettered ability to create the most fantastic stories, they were limited by their knowledge and time.
A good example of this is demons. The Bible reflects the man-held beliefs of its time that epilepsy and mental illness were caused by demons. Even the more recent books have Jesus endorsing this belief. Here is a Bible story of Jesus performing a “miracle” by exorcizing an epilepsy-causing demon:
When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.
A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
“O unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
For most modern people, epilepsy is a neurological disorder, not the result of demon possession. The passing of a seizure is part of the disorder, not a miracle. Yet the text of the Bible shows first that it was written by men and exhibits the knowledge of the time and second that the so-called miracle was nothing of the kind.
Despite being unfettered by reality, the men who wrote the Bible invented miracles that seem paltry when compared with any recent blockbuster movie. Other than casting out demons, miracles attributed to Jesus include changing water to wine. The changing water into wine was a real attention getter in the Bible. The story ends with the sentence, “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” Perhaps by ancient standards, creating a bottomless jug of wine was a great miracle, but by modern standards it shows a lack of imagination.
The “water into wine” miracle was not the only culinary trick Jesus allegedly performed, he miraculously served an all-you-can-eat buffet to 5,000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. Other alleged miracles had a little more zing, like healing people with various diseases, walking on water and raising the dead. I kind of like the coin in a fish’s mouth “miracle”:
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes--from their own sons or from others?”
“From others,” Peter answered. “Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
Frankly, the coin in the fish story would not make it into a blockbuster Hollywood movie, but in a simpler time when the Bible was written, it was impressive enough to be counted as one of Jesus’ “miracles.”
When I was a child, a plot of the popular Superman television show (the original one) involved Superman flying around the earth to reverse its rotation and turn back time so he could save his girlfriend’s life. Regardless of the scientific basis of this TV plot, I found it a heck of a lot more impressive than walking on water or feeding a crowd.
Since the time men made up the Bible, the best miracles they could dream have been eclipsed by a simple television show from the 1950’s. The Bible, written by men and fixed in time, contains only small miracles that fail to inspire the modern imagination.
Never a wooden leg.
Biblical miracle stories were limited only by the imaginations of the men who created them. Modern miracle stories have many more constraints. In the age of televised news, cell phones that take movies and modern scientific tests, stories seem to be limited to seeing the image of Jesus on a tortilla, or a statue that appears to cry or bleed. Even the Catholic Church is toning down the miracles required to declare a person a “saint.” The Pope has accepted a story that a locket with Mother Theresa’s photo was placed on a woman’s abdomen in Calcutta in 1998 and cured her of cancer. This “miracle” has put Mother Theresa on the fast track to sainthood. However, the Health Minister for Calcutta and the “cured” woman’s husband say there was nothing unusual about the disappearance of the tumor after prolonged medical treatment. Perhaps the real miracle is that the 30-year-old illiterate patient, who speaks only her tribal dialect, was able to produce a statement about the “miracle” in written English including the requisite Catholic references to classify the remission a miracle.
The strongest refutation to the claims of miracles however is found in a truism written more than a hundred years ago about the supposedly miraculous curative properties of the water at Lourdes, France. At that site in 1858, a 14-year-old girl claimed to see Jesus’ mother. Since then, a huge industry has developed selling cures to afflicted believers. Like many shrines, the believers leave behind their walking aids, but “crutches only are hung on the walls of the miraculous grottoes; never a wooden leg.”
The same point is made today in a more high tech manner at the Website, “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?” The “miracles” religionists promote are cheap and tawdry. If prayer makes an amputated limb grow back, atheists will pay attention. Until then miracles are silly myths to help believers keep faith in their silly gods.
“Miracles” are considered evidence of a supernatural power. Yet the “miracles” of the scriptures–like the coin in a fish’s mouth, are the products of the limited imaginations of the men of that time. “Modern miracles” are either so limited in scope as to be laughable, like the image of Jesus on a tortilla, or fail under scientific scrutiny. Small miracles are a large failure for religionists who wish to use them to show the existence of a supernatural power.