On Miracles 

Is there such a thing as a miracle? Miracles are defined as unusual events that are not explicable by scientific or natural laws and that are assumed to be the result of supernatural intervention. The very concept is so fuzzy that it borders on the unintelligible. Religious believers refer to many things as miracles: the occurrence of something they prayed for, needing something and having that need unexpectedly filled, unexpected recoveries from illnesses, unexplained events, and strange coincidences of all kinds. Believers may reject some reports of miracles and only accept the ones they believe occurred through God’s intervention. In medicine, a “miracle drug” is one that produces a dramatic response. Some claim that divine action can be hidden in plain sight amid the ordinary course of events, so a miracle might not be recognized as such. Others claim that God makes us aware of fully natural events as signs of the divine presence. Some assume that God has planned and predetermined that nature will bring about the event: to me that seems to negate the whole concept of individual miracles. If God has predestined everything, then the events are not miracles, and the only “miracle” is God. Isaac Newton considered all of nature to be miraculous. It has even been suggested that having faith that subverts the principles of understanding is in itself a miracle. “Miracle” claims like these are unfalsifiable.

Miracles are always positive: why should that be? If you survive an accident that killed another person, why should it be a miracle that you survived but not a miracle that the accident occurred and killed the other person? Why posit a God who always rewards and never punishes? What about the flood that supposedly destroyed every human on Earth except for Noah’s family? If anything qualifies as a miracle, the appearance and subsequent disappearance of enough water to cover the entire surface of the globe would certainly qualify.

In their book In Defense of Miracles,[1] Geivett and ask the question “Has God acted in history?” A number of Christian philosophers and one astrophysicist answer the question in individual essays. There is something gravely wrong with this approach. They start with the assumption that God exists, and they only ask the question of those who believe in the Christian God. This is tantamount to asking children if the Tooth Fairy leaves money under the pillow. Children aren’t about to question the existence of the Tooth Fairy, because they want to keep getting that money. These Christians aren’t about to question the possibility of a miracle because their entire faith is based on a miracle: Christ’s resurrection.

If miracles do occur, what causes them? Extraterrestrials? Beings from another dimension? A hiccup of quantum physics? No, the cause is invariably explained as “God did it.” The whole concept of miracles is based on two assumptions, that God exists and that he makes a habit of temporarily suspending the laws of nature for the benefit of certain individual humans. Logical arguments based on questionable premises can only lead to questionable conclusions. Logically, shouldn’t any discussion of miracles first have to establish the existence of God?

There have been innumerable attempts to prove the existence of God through evidence and reason. If any of these attempts had been truly successful, everyone would be able to agree on the same beliefs; instead we have 4200 competing religions; and one of those, Christianity, is divided into 41,000 sects. Since competing religions have different miracle traditions, miracles can’t very well count as evidence for their gods. Every argument for the existence of God has been found wanting; and since believers have been forced to rely on faith rather than evidence, they have made a virtue of faith.

A Confession

Since miracles can’t be discussed without reference to God, and since it’s only fair to disclose conflicts of interest, I should explain my own philosophy and bias. I am not a theist. I am not an atheist in the sense of believing there is no God. I am a non-theist in the sense that I simply don’t believe in any god. Believers in one god don’t believe in any other gods; I don’t believe in all the gods they don’t believe in, and I go one god further and don’t believe in theirs either. I don’t think I should be required to define myself in terms of someone else’s beliefs. I shouldn’t have to call myself an atheist or non-theist any more than I should have to call myself an “a-Santa-Clausist,” an “a-ghostist,” a “non-astrologist,” or a “non-homeopathist.”  It’s not that I reject belief in God, it’s that I reject belief without evidence. My mind is open to evidence, but so far I haven’t seen any compelling evidence of a personal god who intervenes in human affairs. In fact, I have seen evidence that tends to weigh against that hypothesis. For instance, in one Christian faith-healing sect, the Faith Assembly Church, the maternal death rate in childbirth (with prayer and faith but without medical care) is 870 times the death rate in the general population with conventional medical care.[2] As for a Deist God who created the world and then left it alone, I think that concept is meaningless, since there is no way to test the hypothesis, and proving it wouldn’t change anything. I like to think of myself as a Laplacian. Laplace was the French astronomer and mathematician who was asked by Napoleon why he had not mentioned God in his book on astronomy. He answered “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là” (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”) I have no need of that hypothesis either.

I agree with Thomas Huxley that “The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence,” although I would prefer to call it a misuse of the human mind rather than a sin. The existing evidence for miracles is far too flimsy to meet the standards of science and critical thinking. Reports of faith healings and answered prayers are questionable on various grounds, as I will explain.

Hume and His Critics

In his book On Miracles,[3] David Hume wrote that since experience is fallible,

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence… No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle…unless the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates.

Observers have been known to deliberately misreport their observations because of personal motivations. Honest eyewitnesses may report things that never happened, because they misperceive or mis-remember. Things that did happen can be misinterpreted as meaning something they don’t. And supernatural reports are more common from the uncivilized and uneducated.

Some theologians and philosophers have offered objections to Hume. They say he sets the standard of evidence so high that nothing could possibly qualify. He defines natural law as not having exceptions, which would rule out miracles. He requires that a miracle must be more likely than the falsehood of the testimony, but then he denies that any witnesses are reliable enough to rule out falsehoods. He seems to dismiss them as fools or liars.

This appears to be a misreading of Hume. What he actually wrote was “Upon the whole … it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less to a proof.” And he doesn’t dismiss those giving unreliable testimony as fools or liars, he just recognizes that they could be lying or mistaken. Science offers a way around this problem. It uses controlled, systematic formal testing to minimize the effects of human error.

Some of Hume’s critics argue that since miracles are unique events that violate the laws of nature, no miracle could ever be attested to by enough reliable observers to outweigh the far greater number of observations of the consistency of natural laws. They offer the example of an Indian prince who denied the possibility that water could become hard enough to support an elephant, because he had no experience of ice. By Hume’s criteria he was right to reject the possibility of ice in favor of believing in the regular natural laws that he and all his associates had observed throughout their history. (Not true. Hume would not have said he was right, since his knowledge of natural law was defective.) Critics of Hume point out that some apparent exceptions to natural law have been accepted by science and have led to new discoveries; they say Hume’s argument could be used for one scientist to deny the discoveries of anomalies by another scientist, making scientific progress impossible. They fail to understand that science only accepts anomalies that can be verified and replicated and that this is an essential part of the scientific process that leads to better understanding of natural laws.

They even say that historical events are also unique one-time events, so if we reject reports of miracles, we should reject history! Admittedly, historians have biases, but that doesn’t mean the entire discipline can be rejected. History is quite capable of establishing that certain events have occurred; its tools include material and documentary evidence, not just eyewitness reports. It is reasonable to question an eyewitness report of a miracle but it is not reasonable to doubt that World War II happened or that Lincoln was assassinated.

Some theologians mis-apply probability and statistics. When all 15 members of a church choir were late to choir practice for various reasons and thereby escaped an explosion that destroyed the church, they called it a miracle because the likelihood of all 15 being late was only one in a million.  But among the billions of people on Earth, a one in a million event is a regular occurrence. It is not fair to compare the probability of a perfect bridge hand (something rare but possible in natural law) to one-time events that are incompatible with natural law. Some have even claimed that modern science has jettisoned the notions of causality and the laws of nature, which of course is demonstrably untrue. That idea is based on a naïve misunderstanding of quantum physics.

They argue that naturalism itself is just as unfalsifiable as supernaturalism. Perhaps to a nitpicking philosopher; but it certainly has served us well for learning how the world works. It has allowed us to predict the exact times of solar eclipses, to send men to the Moon, to eradicate smallpox, and to change AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic illness with a near-normal life expectancy. What has supernaturalism accomplished?

They ask: if we can only learn things through our imperfect senses, how can we ever hope to access the truth? We can only hope that some of our thought might happen to agree with reality but we can never know that it does. This objection is easily answered. We know that sensory perceptions can be false, so we test our perceptions against reality through the scientific method; we have ways of obtaining reliable knowledge about the material world we all live in, even if we have different individual perceptions. We can measure things precisely with instruments. We can come to understand natural processes well enough to make accurate predictions. Anyway, science never claims to have The Truth. Philosophers of science have said that science can never really claim to have found reality; it can only try to create a model that will predict the behaviour of our shared material world as accurately and precisely as possible.  Is a quark “real”? Maybe not. Maybe the question doesn’t even make sense. But “quark” is undeniably a very useful concept.

 Although some alleged miracles have been revealed as charlatanism and magic tricks, they argue that that doesn’t rule out the possibility of real miracles. No, it doesn’t; but it doesn’t rule them in either.

Then they point out that the stakes for believing in miracles are high: eternal life. Of course, that assumes facts not in evidence. It’s just a version of Pascal’s wager, a proposition that begs the question and has been criticized as irrational and immoral.

They misunderstand what a naturalistic worldview entails. They claim that value, person, free will, choice, right and wrong are “alien” to a naturalistic worldview; they are not. They argue that it is not logical to say no event in the physical world can be brought about by an immaterial thing, because immaterial thoughts produce material actions. That assumes mind-body dualism, a concept that modern science has rejected. Science may not yet understand consciousness, but it is reasonably certain that “mind” is an emergent phenomenon of physiologic processes in the material brain.

They say science shouldn’t reject God, because it accepts the existence of other unobservable entities. As examples, one of the authors in Geivett and Habermas’ book cites electrons, magnetic fields and black holes. He must be scientifically illiterate not to realize that those entities are observable. Observable, studiable, and quantifiable. “Observable” includes far more than “visible with the naked eye.”

They say that if we accept eyewitness testimony in court, we should accept it in reports of miracles. That’s fallacious reasoning. Law courts arrive at legal decisions according to conventions agreed upon by society; they don’t establish truth or reality.

They say naturalism claims that the physical universe is all there is. That’s not exactly true; definitions of naturalism vary, and scientists only say there is no evidence that anything exists outside the natural world, not that it “can’t” exist. And there’s a conundrum: if something exists outside the box, we have no way to detect it unless it has an effect on something inside the box, in which case that effect would be available for scientific study and would be recognized as part of the natural order.

Modern neuroscience supports Hume. It has taught us that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, memory distorts facts, observations can be mistaken (just think of optical illusions), and even when observations are correct, the interpretation of their meaning often is not. And humans can be devious: deliberate fakery and deception are not uncommon, and are difficult to rule out.

Even if we don’t have a natural explanation for an apparent miracle, we can never be sure there isn’t one. We may not know all the facts, and if we knew all of them a natural explanation might be obvious. And science is a work in progress; events that would have appeared miraculous to Newton appear perfectly natural to today’s quantum physicist. A cure that is inexplicable today may have natural explanations that will be obvious to doctors of the future.

A final objection to Hume is a misapplication of Occam’s razor. They say that if an event is incompatible with natural law, the simplest explanation is that “God did it.” I wouldn’t call that simple, I’d call it simple-minded. An explanation that requires believing in the existence of an omnipotent supernatural being who takes an interest in human affairs is hardly a simple explanation. I think it is far better to have no explanation than to have a simple explanation that is unproven, untestable, and quite possibly wrong. Relying on the idea that “God did it” constitutes a wilful refusal to seek an explanation. If we accepted “God did it” as the explanation for everything we didn’t understand, there would be no science.

If you assume that God exists, God is the best explanation for miracles as well as for the otherwise consistent laws of nature. If you don’t assume that God exists, God is no explanation at all. Using miracles as evidence that God exists is circular reasoning.

Hume was right; his critics are wrong. Hume’s approach to miracles is even more compelling today than it was in the 18th century, because modern science has given us a better understanding of how the human mind works.

What Evidence Would It Take to Establish a Miracle?

Critics of Hume argue that his stance rules out any possibility of accepting even the strongest evidence for a miracle. It doesn’t; it just raises the bar. But are scientists’ minds too closed? If we were confronted with good evidence for a miracle, might we err by refusing to accept it?

What if a man reappeared two years after his death? What if hundreds of people including doctors, forensic pathologists and funeral-goers had attested to his death? What if he was an organ donor whose organs had been transplanted into other bodies? What if an autopsy had been done? What if you had personally seen his body several days after his death and it had already started to smell and show signs of decomposition? What if an exhumation found his body inexplicably missing from its coffin? What if the reappeared person had the same personality, habits, voice, and memories as the dead man; the same fingerprints and DNA; and was identical in every respect? What if he had been a deeply religious man who had prayed to be resurrected to convince others his was the true religion? Cardinal Newman spoke of a “convergence of independent probabilities” from various sources and types of evidence. In a case like this, it would be hard to deny that something had occurred that was outside the possibilities of natural law.

What else might count as evidence? What if Christian Scientists lived twice as long as atheists who got the best medical care? What if advanced cancers frequently vanished after prayer but never did so without prayer? What if pilgrims to Lourdes re-grew entire amputated limbs? What if a much higher percentage of believers than atheists survived every natural disaster? What if a chicken started speaking English, learned to read, and beat a grand master in chess?  What if Ken Ham announced his acceptance of the evidence for evolution and apologized to Bill Nye?

If we had evidence like that, everyone would be forced to provisionally conclude, not necessarily that a miracle had occurred, but that something had happened that was well outside the ordinary course of events and was impossible to explain without appealing to supernatural forces. I say provisionally because that’s the best we can ever hope to do. Even the conclusions of science that are based on the most extensive evidence are always open to revision if better evidence comes along. Absolute certainty is seldom attainable: scientists accept that; true believers don’t.

If we had strong evidence like the examples above, we might be forced to accept that miracles were real; but we don’t have that kind of evidence. The evidence we have is flawed and flimsy.

The Problems with Miracle Claims

All reports of miracles to date have been suspect for various reasons. Craig Keener wrote the book Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts[4] to argue that at least some of the Biblical miracles are not fabrications or copies of pagan myths, but reports of actual eyewitness accounts.  He tries to prove this by showing that most people in all societies believe in miracles, that huge numbers of eyewitness accounts of miracles have been reported throughout history, and that they continue to be reported today. He recounts thousands of miracle reports from all over the world, including recent Western examples, dramatic reports of recoveries from inability to walk, blindness, deafness, terminal cancer, and even death.

His ambitious opus fills two volumes and 1172 pages. If there were credible evidence for miracles, I’m confident his exhaustive research would have uncovered it; but I found the book spectacularly unconvincing. In the first place, even if all people uniformly believed in miracles, that wouldn’t prove they are real. The argument from popularity is a logical fallacy. In the second place, there’s no need to dispute the obvious fact that eyewitness accounts of miracles exist and are common. Keener argues that the integrity of some witnesses is not in question. But no one questions their integrity; we only question the accuracy of their observation and memory, and whether their interpretation of the meaning of their observations corresponds to reality.

Keener says eyewitness reports do not serve as indisputable proof, but they “do constitute evidence that may be considered rather than a priori dismissed.” That’s a slap in the face to the many critical thinkers who have never a priori dismissed anything. He says, “The confluence of multiple, independent, and reliable witnesses [without collusion] increases the probability of testimony’s accuracy.” But eyewitness testimony by itself is never enough to establish truth. Even group eyewitness testimony is unreliable. Crowds of thousands who saw the sun “dance” at Fatima and Medjugorje were fooled by a sensory illusion. Crowds respond readily to suggestion. Psychological experiments have demonstrated that simple perceptions like judging the length of a line are strongly influenced by peer pressure.

Keener understands that numerous possible natural causes might explain many miracle accounts; he provides many examples of proposed explanations himself. But he still thinks there are too many examples of accounts that can’t be explained away. He fails to understand that no matter how many anecdotes he manages to accumulate, the plural of anecdotes will never be data. The most basic principle of science and critical thinking is that every hypothesis must be systematically tested, no matter how compelling it seems, even if everyone believes it to be true.

He provides evidence that the majority of people believe in miracles. In surveys, 74% of American MDs say they believe that miracles have occurred in the past and 73% affirm that they can occur today. 59% of doctors say they pray for patients (but there’s no evidence that their patients do any better than patients of doctors who don’t pray). Most doctors have seen what they classify as either a miracle or an anomaly, depending on their beliefs. 34% of Americans claim to have witnessed or experienced a miracle. Around the world, hundreds of millions of people claim to have witnessed or experienced miracles. Prayer is the most commonly used “alternative medicine.” This whole line of argument can be rejected as a logical fallacy, the appeal to popularity.

Any quack can supply testimonials from his customers swearing that his snake oil cured them. When reports of miraculous cancer cures are investigated, they seldom hold up under scrutiny. It often turns out that no biopsy was ever done, and the patient may not have had cancer in the first place.  Or that surgery had excised the cancer and the snake oil was used only after the cancer was long gone. Or that the patient died of the cancer shortly after the “cure” was reported.

Spontaneous remissions occur, probably more commonly than we realize. Cancers regress, especially small early ones; and there are reports of remission in even the most advanced stages of cancer. It’s possible that the immune system has finally kicked in (for some reason we don’t yet understand) to reject the cancer. Blood tests are subject to laboratory errors; the images on x-rays and CT scans can be misinterpreted. Diagnoses and prognoses can be wrong. Infections can subside without treatment; even before we had antibiotics, a lot of people recovered from pneumonia.

As I said in a chapter I wrote for the book Christianity is Not Great, edited by John Loftus (in press),

The Catholic Church has long accepted medically unexplained healings as miracles on evidence that is far from compelling to the scientific mind. It has validated 67 miracles at Lourdes. But 200 million pilgrims have visited Lourdes since its establishment in 1860, so 67 amounts to a success rate of only .0000335% or 1 in 3 million. Joe Nickell has pointed out that these “medically inexplicable” cases were actually explicable: they were virtually all conditions susceptible to psychosomatic influences or known to show spontaneous remissions. When Anatole France visited Lourdes and saw all the discarded crutches, he said, “What, what, no wooden legs?” No, there are no reports of amputated legs being inexplicably restored.  Now that would be a miracle.

Or would it? If a human re-grew an amputated leg, we might call it a miracle, but lizards and starfish can regrow amputated body parts by natural means. An advance in science might conceivably give us enough control over our DNA to do what lizards and starfish do.

The Catholic Church verified the healing of Monica Besra as a miracle to support Mother Teresa’s beatification, a preliminary step towards sainthood. But Monica’s own doctor disputed the Church’s account; and her own husband denied that Mother Teresa had anything to do with it: he said the doctors cured her.

Doctors like Louis Rose (Faith Healing, 1971) and William Nolen (Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle, 1974) have diligently searched for medical miracles but were never able to document a single one. The late Basava Premanand, (Science versus Miracles, 1994), spent a lifetime looking for miracles among the gurus and godmen of India, but he was never able to find a “miracle” he couldn’t learn to perform himself with magic tricks. It seems that if a believer looks for miracles, he will find them; if a searcher has no preconceived belief that miracles exist, he will not find them.

Keener argues that “a stance critically open to the possibility of miracles allows for the most open-minded stance.” He seems not to understand that science is open to any possibility that can be supported by evidence.

He says, “We do not speak of human actions as violating nature simply because the laws of physics do not predict them.” He says there may be higher laws than natural laws. “Just as helicopters constructed through human intelligence do not contradict the normal principle of gravity, neither is the specific activity of a divine intelligence incompatible with normal principles of nature.” I needn’t point out the fallacies in that argument.

He says, “It is not reasonable to dismiss all firsthand testimonies that lack [adequate medical] documentation,” because medical records may have been lost or the facts may never have been written down in the first place.  He is wrong. It is perfectly reasonable to reject hearsay and require confirming evidence. When evidence is surprisingly hard to pin down, that should raise suspicions. Keener interviewed a doctor who had seen so many miracles since he began praying for patients that he couldn’t doubt their reality. For a year he had been keeping notes on patients. But when Keener asked to see those notes, “whether due to time constraints or confidentiality concerns he was not able to provide me access to the notes.” Hmmm…

He admits that most miraculous healings could be dismissed as remissions, but says “it is significant that they happen so often immediately after prayers of faith in Jesus’ name.” No, it’s not significant without a control group to show that they happen less often without prayer, or with prayers in the name of Mohammed, Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

In one prayer study, those who were prayed for had worse outcomes. Keener says, “No one, including skeptics about prayer’s efficacy, would say that prayer itself made matters worse.” Why not? What if they prayed to the wrong god and another god was punishing them? If they deny that prayer could have made matters worse in that study, it would be equally logical to deny that prayer made matters better in other studies.

He says, “A mother does not need to have medical competence to testify that doctors explained that her child had a clubfoot.” No, but she does need to have proof that she understood and remembered what the doctors actually said. Studies have shown that up to 80% of the information provided by a doctor is immediately forgotten, and half of what is remembered is incorrect.[5]

Keener is overly impressed by accounts of medical miracles because his knowledge of medical science is limited.

He attributes the absence of miracle reports in the medical literature to fear on the part of the doctors. He says academic skepticism can be coercive: doctors don’t want to be ridiculed by their peers, don’t want to be viewed as a nonconformist, or think publishing their observations would result in loss of prestigious positions and tenure. I don’t find that excuse plausible. Doctors who make observations in unusual cases are seldom hesitant to write them up as case reports; they are usually eager to share them with their peers.

He says he heard about a woman who supposedly had a baby after a hysterectomy. He doesn’t have the facts, but he assumes that it is impossible. Maybe it isn’t. There is at least one documented case of a baby delivered surgically after an ectopic pregnancy; the embryo implanted in the abdomen outside the uterus and developed normally. And there are women who have a double uterus; conceivably one could be removed and the other remain intact. What’s even more likely is that the report was wrong, since it’s only hearsay. Remember the game “telephone” where a whispered message gets completely garbled as it is transmitted from person to person around a circle?

The father of a girl who regained the ability to walk said that “if her healing was a coincidence, it was surely a miraculous one.” How could he know? Coincidences are coincidences; there is no way to distinguish between miraculous and non-miraculous coincidences.

An epileptic woman had normal EEGs after prayer.  So what? 10% of epileptic patients have normal EEGs, and an abnormal EEG often reverts to normal between seizures.

Tests showed that a woman had advanced uterine cancer, but when the uterus was removed it was cancer-free. Which is more likely – a false-positive test or a miracle? We know that every test has false positives, and we can even calculate the false-positive rates. Even if the test results were accurate, sometimes cancer resolves spontaneously. And if the test was a biopsy, the biopsy might have removed all the cancerous cells. It’s even possible that an area of cancer was present in the surgical specimen but was missed by the pathologist; pathologists rely on sampling because it’s impossible to examine every cell.

An x-ray report said there was an avulsion fracture of the cuboid bone. A week later, another x-ray report said there was no fracture. Which is more likely, a fracture that healed in a week or an erroneous x-ray report? Incidentally, an avulsion fracture means that instead of a tendon tearing, it separates from the bone and pulls a tiny piece of bone with it; this is treated as a sprain. A tiny enough fragment might be quickly absorbed by the repair process or might be missed on x-ray.

An eye lesion was allegedly healed with prayer. The ophthalmologist had seen hundreds of cases; he had never seen one heal naturally and did not think that it was possible. Apparently it was.

An MD told Keener that there are few doctors who have not seen, at least on rare occasions, a recovery so contrary to the usual prognosis and so apparently complete, that the word “miracle” seemed the only appropriate description. But why wouldn’t “unexplained” or “unexpected” be more appropriate?

Keener says that many “miracle” healings involve partial or gradual recoveries. In such cases, it is even harder to rule out improvement through the natural process of healing.

Keener doesn’t report the response of patients in placebo studies as miracles. Why not? How are they different? What about sham surgery experiments like the study of a treatment for heart disease where doctors opened the patient’s chest and either re-routed the internal mammary artery or did nothing? When patients who had the sham operation had less pain and better exercise tolerance, how is that different from the report of a miracle cure?

Keener objects to critics who can’t explain a cure but attribute it to natural causes that have yet to be discovered. Why isn’t that reasonable? Unexplained does not mean unexplainable. If the most obvious common factor in unexplained healings is prayer, that doesn’t mean the explanation is prayer; it may just mean that less obvious factors have not been ruled out.

Do the Dead Ever Return to Life?

 The most compelling “miracle” reports Keener cites are the ones claiming dead people have returned to life. He asks,

If a number of recoveries in such cases follow prayer for the person to return to life, and such recoveries occur far less frequently in the absence of this factor, might we not be justified in exploring further a possible relationship between the prayer and the restoration? In some sorts of cases, a supernatural explanation might prove the most plausible explanation available.

Only if those recoveries really happened, and only if we had studied such recoveries systematically, comparing all those that followed prayer to all those that didn’t.

After Mark Twain’s obituary was mistakenly published during his lifetime, he wrote, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” So have the reports Keener cites.

Do dead people come back to life? Yes and no, depending on the definition of “dead.” Clinical death is something of a misnomer. It is defined as cessation of heartbeat and respiration, which is more properly called cardiac and respiratory arrest. After cardiac arrest, a patient who is technically clinically “dead” may remain conscious for 15-20 seconds. Clinical death can be misdiagnosed: if an EKG is not done, even a trained observer can miss a faint heartbeat and shallow respirations. There have been cases of patients waking up in the morgue after doctors mistakenly pronounced them dead. Conditions like narcolepsy and cataplexy can mimic death, as can comas from barbiturate overdoses and other conditions. Clinical death is reversible, either spontaneously or with medical intervention. I recently read an account of a “miracle mom” who was “dead for 37 seconds” after a complication of childbirth. That was no miracle, it was CPR.

Death is not instantaneous; it is a process. After clinical death, if CPR is not started within about 6 minutes, brain cells start to die from lack of oxygen; if damage is severe, brain death ensues. If the patient is hypothermic, for instance from a cold weather drowning, the brain can survive considerably longer. A Swedish woman who was trapped under the ice in a skiing accident was revived after 40 minutes with no heartbeat and no blood flow to the brain.[6] Hypothermia is sometimes medically induced and the heart and lungs stopped for up to 30 minutes to allow intricate heart or brain surgery; full recovery follows when the temperature is restored to normal. A patient can be declared legally brain dead even when the heart and lungs are still functioning; strict legal criteria for brain death have been devised to allow organ transplants. Brain cells are the first to die, followed by other organs; bone, tendon and skin cells can survive for as long as 12 hours. Brain death is irreversible; no truly brain dead patient has ever regained consciousness, much less normal function.

Miracle reports do not properly document brain death. One typical report described a patient with leukemia who prayed and was healed instantly during prayer, not of the leukemia but of another condition that “could have been chronic.” Near the end, he “briefly died and revived” while his mother prayed, “astonishing the watching nurse and respiration therapist.” But he “died again” soon afterward. This shouldn’t have astonished anyone familiar with the dying process.

The Bottom Line

We would do well to remember Ray Hyman’s maxim: “Don’t try to explain HOW something works until you find out THAT it works.” There is no need to explain unusual occurrences as miracles. There is no convincing evidence that the laws of nature have been violated.

The laws of nature allow for plenty of awe-inspiring wonders. Every atom in your body was forged in the heart of a star somewhere out there in the universe; every lungful of air you breathe includes some of the same molecules that were inhaled by Socrates, Napoleon, and Shakespeare.

Miracles? Like Laplace, we have no need of that hypothesis.


[1] Geivett, Douglas R. and Gary R. Habermas (Ed.), In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History. IVP Academic, 1997.

[2] Stauth, Cameron, In the Name of God: The True Story of the Fight to Savve Childen from Faith-Healing Homicide. Tomas Dunne Books, 2013.

[3] Hume, David. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding,Section X “Of Miracles,” (1748), Bobbs-Merrill, Library of Liberal Arts edition.


[4] Keener, Craig, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2-volume set). Baker Academic, 2011.


[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_B%C3%A5genholm

This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine..

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.