(For background music while reading, try this)
It is interesting to look at the history of religious miracles. If you look at the magnitude or improbability, it seems to be proportional to how long ago it happened. The bigger the miracle, the longer ago it happened. But that passage of time also corresponds to technology, the more we have, the lesser the miraculous nature of the miracle.
Lets look at some examples. In the Old Testament, we have parting the Red Sea. A miracle in anybody’s book. But it happened over 3500 years ago. Nobody is alive that can remember it. There were no cameras. Nobody had a cell phone. Nobody had a journal that they could write it down in. Other miracles of this magnitude that fit this time period include the sun and the moon standing still (Joshua 10:12-14) Jonah and the whale (Jonah 2:1-10), and many others. The same holds true for the New Testament and the miracles performed by Jesus.
Lets now go to miracles of the restoration. The First Vision can’t be proved one way or another because JS was alone. The Kirtland Temple dedication was seen by a large group of people. But this is where modern inventions gets in the way. Writing with paper and pen was common, so these people could go home and write down what they saw. With these writings, we see several people that affirmed the faithful narrative, and many that say nothing happened. From Joseph Smith:
“Brother George A. Smith arose and began to prophesy, when a noise was heard like the sound of a rushing mighty wind, which filled the Temple, and all the congregation simultaneously arose, being moved upon by an invisible power; many began to speak in tongues and prophesy; others saw glorious visions; and I beheld the Temple was filled with angels, which fact I declared to the congregation. The people of the neighborhood came running together (hearing an unusual sound within, and seeing a bright light like a pillar of fire resting upon the Temple), and were astonished at what was taking place.”Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-1951, 2:428.
In the negative, there is David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses;
“The great heavenly ‘visitation,’ which was alleged to have taken place in the temple at Kirtland, was a grand fizzle. The elders were assembled on the appointed day, which was promised would be a veritable day of Pentecost, but there was no visitation. No Peter, James and John; no Moses and Elias, put in an appearance. ‘I was in my seat on that occasion,’ says Mr. Whitmer, ‘and I know that the story sensationally circulated, and which is now on the records of the Utah Mormons as an actual happening, was nothing but a trumped up yarn…”The Des Moines Daily News, Oct. 16, 1886
With the transfiguration of Brigham Young, there was zero contemporary journal entries that document BY turning into Joseph Smith. In fact with the BY transfiguration, some of the people that claim they saw it were later discovered to not even be in town when it happened. The best study on this can be found here.
Now that approximately 2/3 of the world has a smart phone with a camera, the number of miraculous miracles had dropped to zero. The sun hasn’t stopped lately, there have been no staffs turning to snakes, and no seagulls coming to the rescue of poor farmers.
Even minor miracles, like a boy getting his mission call to the exact area his long lost brother was living in and saving him can get fact checked into oblivion, and then retracted. Elder Paul Dunn would not have lasted one speech today.
So what passes for miracles today, in the 21st century? Does a temple that stays open for three days non-stop constitute a miracle? Elder Bednar thinks it does. When the temple workers called “Almost everyone answered their phone. To me, [this was] a miracle”. While I don’t discount that that very well could have been a miracle, it backs my theses that the more contemporary the miracle, the less miraculous it will be.
So will we every see the sun stop, a sea divided, donkeys talking, or she bears eating 42 children for making fun of a bald prophet? . Or has the time passed for these great miracles, and we’ll have to be satisfied with people answering phones, finding lost keys, and Prophets clearing their calendar months before the COVID lockdown occurred?
 Bishop Bill is follicly challenged, so this miracle it near and dear to my heart!
Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay
Radio Free Mormon and Bill Reel did a great analysis of Bednar’s miracles. Once you look underneath the hood on it, most of the “quotes” from temple workers who talk in an eerily similar way to Bednar seem very suspect.
I don’t want to discredit God’s hand in the lives of humans but I do agree that what passes for a miracle today is fairly benign. I’d be comfortable calling it a provident blessing. But not a miracle.
One definition of a miracle: A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.
So, not just something that is unlikely, or out of character, or a coincidence, or the result of effort on our part, or just really cool.
I was visiting my grandma in Manti, Utah when I was about 10. A man stood up in fast meeting and spoke about how his young son had died in a farm accident the previous week. He said he raised his arm to the square and brought the boy back to life. Then he felt that he perhaps acted rashly by not consulting Heavenly Father, so he laid his hands on the boy’s head and said “Thy will be done” and his son died again. My first reaction was astonishment. Then my pre-pubescent skeptical self said he wasn’t really dead and revived, but that he appeared to be dead and a shocked and panicked father just perceived a miracle.
Ancient miracles most likely have their roots in sacred myths – tales that got taller as the centuries passed. If for sake of argument, they were real stories of divine workmanship, then this time of the restoration of all things would be full of miracles. It just isn’t happening. The temple ceremony even teaches us that seeking miracles can be wicked.
As I listen to Bednar’s talk and tales of so many “miracles” from general conference, I conclude that we are not living in an age of miracles. Maybe an age of marvels of science and medicine and technology and neighborly kindness, but not miracles.
Go ahead and give God propers for designing the “game of life”. But God isn’t rolling the dice and intervening on behalf of one while others starve. A child dies of cancer after numerous priesthood blessings while God finds Sister Jones’ glasses in “the last place she looked”.
Let’s celebrate the beauty and advancement that humans create. And on the flip side, hold ourselves accountable for correcting the evils of the world rather than blaming Satan. Human hands solve human problems.
BeenThere, wondering how the tale about the dead son went down with the man’s wife and other children. Didn’t he want his son to live?
Hume’s view of miracles was that, as an extraordinary event, an alleged miracle required extraordinary evidence to support it. And that pretty much no claimed miracle offers that sort of evidence in support. There’s also the problem, as you allude to above, that it is generally much later sources that are cited as support, while contemporary accounts offer little or no support.
Funny how people cite miracles in their own faith tradition with great confidence, but are easily skeptical of claimed miracles in anyone else’s denomination or faith tradition.
I just finished watching Fatima on Netflix. Talk about a miracle with 100K witnesses. Think about the multiple accounts of Virgin sightings and miracles performed. The Catholic church has highly endorsed 6 Marian apparitions, approved of 11, then the list digresses of official authorization to several hundred. There are lists and lists of Eucharistic miracles.
The seventh-day Adventists tell that every member of their church (20 people) survived the Hiroshima atomic blasts. Or there is Hindu, Deepak Jangra who can survive 1100 watts of electricity.
If you are going to be bold about stating a miracle, be bold ! Most of these miracles happened with children and with regular worshipers, not clergy. The clergy typically doubted the miracle, until later on succumbing to the idea. Then they use the miracle for proselytizing purposes, and keeping the members in the faith tradition.
In the LDS context, our famous miracles mostly happened with JS. After that, only a few occurred, and those are with the LDS clergy, not regular members. Sure, we have heard stories of LDS miracles, but even those are being eroded with historical facts: the seagulls, BY transfiguration, Hollands fantastic missionary stories, Paul Dunn miracles, etc. Since LDS leaders got caught in the exaggeration in the supernatural miracles, they have to redefine miracles as Bednar is now doing.
I have a hope for miracles. However, when miracles happen they happen to individuals for their own benefit. LDS miracles keep wanting to tie people back to the LDS church, more than develop faith in God. Christ never performed his miracles to support the institutional church, to the contrary. Miracles were to bless peoples lives and not to be told for power or wealth.
Miracles are like UFOs: we used to have more of them but now that we have the technology to record and report them they seem harder than ever to find.
See 2006 BOM revision and redefining – Lamanites AMONG the ancestors of the American Indians…
He was devastated by the loss and was very emotional. I presume that he, in the moment and thereafter, wanted his son to be alive. I don’t recall anything to the contrary – but it was seen through my very young eyes.
He said something to the effect that his priesthood power was so strong that God honored it. Then he was concerned that the death was part of God’s plan so he then gave the “thy will be done” blessing so that God could set things the way they should be.
I would imagine that his perception that his blessing killed (again) his son would very much compound the nature of his grief. I wonder how his wife and other family members felt about it. If they believed in the first miracle, then their faith would have to stretch to cover God and Dad voluntarily “killing/sacrificing” the boy.
That would be tough to life with.
Miracles to confirm your faith never amounted to much. But there are miracles all around–just gotta open your eyes. Life is a miracle! A new born baby is an incredible miracle. Compost is a blow your socks off miracle. (sorry, I’m a soil scientist..). It is a miracle that my wife still loves me/ puts up with me after all these years. Miracles are about mysteries, about the ineffable. To be without mysteries and the incomprehensible is a pretty sterile life.
I find it interesting that each religion and even each different Christian denomination (as well as different Muslim and Hindu denominations) has its own sets of miracles that it believes in and celebrates, but rarely do we see the crossover of one religion or denomination celebrating and promoting the veracity of the miraculous traditions of other religions and denominations. I’ve never once heard a Mormon celebrate, let alone talk of, the Virgin Mary’s miraculous apparitions. I’ve never heard Christians talk of Muhammad’s miraculous night journey to Jerusalem let alone use this example to inspire other Christians to believe. Hindus celebrate the miracles in the Vedas and Upanishads. They never talk of Jesus.
I don’s know, “…Almost everyone answered their phone.” sounds like a modern day miracle to me.
“We are but visitors on this rock, hurling through time and space at sixty-six thousand miles an hour. Tethered to a burning sphere by an invisible force and an unfathomable universe. This most of us take for granted while refusing to believe these forces have any more effect on us than a butterfly beating it’s wings halfway around the world.”
In terms of belief, I am the least among you, yet two events occurred in my life that were simply and unmistakably miraculous.
I guess I believe in the miracle of human kindness. The cynic in me sees us homo sapiens as mostly self-serving creatures whose base program is to maximize our own comfort at the expensive of others. So I am touched and see it as miraculous when people show kindness and love and self-sacrifice.
As for the miracles of the bible, I don’t think they literally happened, but some are beautiful stories that tell us a lot about what their creators value and I think can inspire us. Some of those miracles, not so much.
Do I think what Bednar called miracles are miracles? No. But his stories do highlight how committed humans can be to a cause they care about. There is a beauty to that commitment. It is of course not limited in any way to the CoJCoLDS, or to Christianity. And that same commitment can do extraordinary harm.
I think developing a vaccine against SARS-CoV2 in less than a year was a modern miracle. Not in the sense that it is unexplainable. But in the sense that it was an extraordinary human effort, that it required sacrifice on the part of many involved to achieve something that profoundly helped better the human conditions. So I thank God for the miracle of modern science.
To quote the poet Bono:
“Beneath the noise
Below the din
I hear your voice
In science and in medicine
‘I was a stranger
You took me in’ ”
In the end, I think the main miracle of Jesus was that he taught radical love for every person and showed by example what it was to love our enemies. That radical love is the only miracle that matters because it has power to transform the world.
My wife’s ancestor has a journal entry on the transfiguration of BY that’s as much or more compelling than anything else I’ve seen written, Church approved or not. And no, he didn’t write it right away, but his entries have every mark of an honest and sincere man, so I have little reason to doubt. As a side note, his most interesting entries talk about members who were regularly willing to die in defense of the Church and their families, but were less inclined to live by Gospel teachings, implying that living for the Gospel, in some ways, is more difficult than dying for it.
I think Moroni 7:37 comes into play here “ . . .wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain.” Our world is full of unbelief, and I think some small measure of it has crept into member attitudes as well. Minister, do your temple work, be a good missionary, and let the small miracles suffice when it comes to faith. I think there are larger ones waiting if we’re willing to see them and live by them. And that’s not to say they don’t happen on some level. I’ve expressed similar sentiments in posts years ago, but I’m often annoyed by Sunday school teachers who start a lesson by asking if anyone has seen the Savior, then use the silence to make the point about how wonderful it is to have prophets who have. I have little doubt there are any small number of people in about any given ward who could easily have seen the Savior, and if they have, Sunday school is certainly not the place to bring it up, or any number of other miracles for that matter.
I also think some of it has to do with our attitude and how wide our spiritual eyes are open. Personally, I have a hard time objectively studying some of the wars of modern times without feeling there was a “parting of the Red Sea” on a number of occasions. I can understand that to many others it would feel like pure coincidence.
Even as a mostly orthodox member of the Church, I’m extremely slow to discount the purported miracles found in other religions. God has too much to do to work solely through His covenant people, and with few exceptions, most of these miracles are designed to make people more like the Savior. Filter out the false prophets and magicians, and I think there is still a lot of good being done outside the Church.
Thomas Jefferson edited the NT and removed all the miracles. He was a firm believer in Christ, but not so much in the supernatural. Marcion is believed to have produced the first attempt at a NT. His version contained Luke (not identical to the current version) and a few of the letters of Paul (again not identical). He believed that Christianity should be separated from the Judaic tradition. Thus, no OT. His beliefs were declared heretical. Jefferson’s bible exists, but not Marcion’s. Although attempts have been made to reconstruct the latter.
It might be interesting to take elements of both traditions. The miraculous Christ is less interesting to me than message he preached. I don’t need the supernatural. I also don’t see any need for an OT (except as literature: Ecclesiastes, Job, etc.). De-emphasizing the OT also gets rid of a lot of the miracle/supernatural problems. But maybe all of this just turns me into a humanist.
Eli: “his entries have every mark of an honest and sincere man, so I have little reason to doubt.” I would doubtless have felt this way as well at one point in my life (and similarly would have felt that eyewitness testimony was strong evidence against a perpetrator of a crime), but according to many psychological experiments, memory just doesn’t work this way, and it’s not evidence that we are dishonest, just that our current memory of past events is unreliable and is confabulated based on our current beliefs. If you introduce the idea that a specific person was the killer, often, the victim’s memory of the event will suddenly include that person’s face (police are notorious for steering witnesses by exposing them to photos of the person they suspect). If you circulate a story that BY’s face transfigured to look like JS, and this story is important to bolster BY’s authority, the memories of people who were present will be modified to fit the narrative. There was a photograph of me at a very young age stuck in a tree, and I had a “memory” of this photo being taken that didn’t match the actual reality when I checked my story with my siblings decades later. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. I had seen the photo many times growing up, and I was too young in the photo to have a memory of it being taken. My mind created a story to match the image I saw.
This post reminded me of the 1-season show Messiah. It was intriguing to see a Jesus figure walking among modern people performing “miracles,” and yet, watching the show it wasn’t clear if he was for real or if he was a charlatan. It was an eerie thought experiment. Unfortunately, since the show was cancelled, who knows what they intended? Maybe he was a real Messiah. Maybe he was a fraud or a terrorist or a con-man. His actions were subjective.
I’m definitely one who sees the speedy creation of the vaccine as a modern miracle. It’s a human effort, requiring cooperation among the scientific community, but it also involved inspiration in that process, definitely a spark of creativity and intellect above what was expected (maybe that’s divine intervention), and it’s for the good of mankind. That’s far more miraculous in terms of impact than seeing a vision, or finding lost keys (although obviously, we’ve all been there and want to find those darn keys!). Most of the miracles in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, feel more like campfire tales to me. Stories to build camaraderie / national identity. They are more myth than miracle.
And, Angela C, just to give another view into modern sensibilities about miracles, messiahs, and denominational views — Netflix announced a few months ago that it had cancelled its plans for a second season of Messiah. Reading between the lines, it sounds like the religious politics stirred up by the series was just too much to deal with. Very sad, as it was one of the few shows to deal with an explicitly religious story line in a compelling and engaging manner. It makes one wonder — people can’t even deal with a TV show about a Messiah. Imagine how they’d deal with an *actual* Messiah.
I’m well aware of what psychology says about the reliability of our memories, as well as its ability to explain away just about anything of a religious nature in general, but thanks for pointing it out. Although I’m not naïve with regards to how much in Church History may have been exaggerated—maybe even fabricated on some level, I’ll freely admit I don’t go out of my way to explain them away, either. It probably wasn’t right for me to originally neglect the role the Spirit had for me in that journal entry, or the story in general, but I realize psychology can probably explain that away as well.
Reading all these comments makes me wonder how the thresholds vary from individual to individual for what exactly constitutes a miracle, especially if categorized between believer and non-believer. The latter can obviously view some pretty spectacular things, but they can either explain them away or open the door for further belief. Likewise, I think you see faithful Latter Day Saints with firm testimonies also cut themselves of from potentially great experiences because they get too quick to pigeon-hole ways in which the Lord might make Himself manifest.
Elder Oaks once gave a fascinating talk on miracles to CES educators that I felt kind of bridged the gap between cosmic scale and “lost keys” types of miracles. He also didn’t preclude their role in other faith groups, which I found refreshing.
Is a miracle defined by the otherworldliness of the event or how primed witnesses are to see banal events as miraculous? Could go either way. I’m definitely in the former camp. If it’s going to be classified as a miracle, dead people must be raised, seas must be parted, wooden staffs must morph into serpents. Collective human action, just to present an alternative, is not a miracle, however inspiring and joyful it may still be. And therein lies the rub. Joyful believers engaged in inspired collective action to achieve a goal feel a spirit that animates their efforts and makes the whole thing “feel” miraculous. While I can’t deny that experience to a participant, I still think levitation or the like is required for a miracle.
Eli’s last post brings up an interesting point. Oaks may see miracles in cosmic scale events, but I would argue that these are only miracles because a believer see God’s hand in them, working through the laws of science and nature. Before we understood science, everyday events were seen as miraculous because few if any understood how they happened. Many of the visionaries who explained how things actually worked were eventually killed for suggesting God was not the source of all. Is there room for both a full scientific understanding of phenomena and the belief that God’s will moves the universe? Maybe now, but the “God did it” argument also pretty much kills any curiosity about actual causal events.
“The miraculous Christ is less interesting to me than message he preached. I don’t need the supernatural”
Fair enough, but Christ’s teachings are not particularly noteworthy. A lot of religious leaders have said profound things just as significant as those in the New Testament. The only reason Jesus’ teachings are given so much attention is the associated supernatural. Far fewer leaders are known for their miracles and resurrections.
Christianity as a whole has a lot of good, but it also has a lot of bad associated with it. Without Jesus’ resurrection, it doesn’t appear to have a particularly compelling case.
When people say “miracle”, they usually mean
1. Something amazing
2. Something God did
3. Something that violates natural law.
Personally, a true miracle has to combine 2 and 3. Back when I did my post on miracles, I posited that God, as creator of the Universe, doesn’t live in the universe and isn’t subject to its laws. Therefore, when He acts, He temporally disrupts natural law, and then things go back to following the rules again afterwards. I also posited that the reason God performs miracles isn’t to alleviate suffering, but to give us an assurance of His existence which can in turn affect our future choices. I think true miracles are fairly rare, and usually witnessed by only a single individual or a small group. I believe that I personally have experienced a miracle — maybe even a few. But most could be explained away as “amazing”, but not necessarily violating natural law.
Great discussion! @jaredsbrother I like your point about banal things “feeling miraculous.” Those of us who don’t believe in the supernatural can still feel a spiritual sense of awe, wonder, and joy in the absence of religious belief.
I think that attributing complex and wonderful things to the supernatural can actually diminish our curiosity and rob us of opportunities to learn about how the universe actually works. The eye, for example, is often held up as an example of irreducible complexity and intelligent design, but if science had left it at that, we wouldn’t know as much as we do about evolution and ophthalmology. Doesn’t mean you can’t still find joy and wonder in the beauty of the eye.
But if God ceased to obey natural law, she would cease to be God!
(with apologies to Alma…)
What’s a miracle? My mom has said that she considers planes taking off to be miracles. My wife has said that the birth of a child is a miracle. My mother-in-law has attributed not falling and hurting herself after slipping on a wet floor is a miracle. Is a miracle simply something that abides by natural laws that we didn’t understand could abide by natural laws and then discovered? Is a miracle nature itself playing itself itself out in a wonderous and awe-inspiring way such as the birth of a child? Is a miracle something good happening to us that defied our expectations?
I have also heard people say that someone changing their heart is a miracle. Is a change of perspective a miracle?
I also hear people talk about miraculous occurrences in stories told long ago. How do we know that that happened and that it isn’t just a tall-tale and exaggeration?
Much of what people call miracles seem 1) natural or 2) insignificant.
John W illustrates the real problem with miracles: They all have a vexed twin called misfortune. For every miraculous trip I safely might make in a blinding snow storm, there is a someone who died in a tragic accident. For every healthy day I enjoyed over the last year-plus, there is someone who was ravaged to death by Covid-19. The unspoken part for many is that God felt it necessary to preserve them but not others who no more deserved their fate. Anyone who can make sense of that kind of perspective or of a seemingly arbitrary God has more faith than me.
Very true Jared. To put it in simpler terms: when a favorite sports team pulls off an unlikely, come-from-behind victory, I might in the heat of the moment call it a “miracle”. But to fans of the opposing team the same event could be called an upset loss, a fluke, possibly blamed on bad officiating, and otherwise drawing not-so-Christlike judgements and language.
Another reason why the question “do you believe in miracles?” is, at best, a rhetorical one.
To be fair, Smartphones have only been out about 15 years, I couldn’t name a miracle that occurred in most 15 year periods in history. Giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt, Statistically it is less likely that a miracle would have occurred within the last 100 years than say the 5000 years before that. Also, a miracle would either have to be really big or really embellished to still be told thousands of years later.
Mostly though, I think miracles are more about how we choose to explain things. We have moved away from supernatural explanations and toward scientific ones. I think most of the Bible’s miracles are greatly exaggerated, but I do think God’s hand is in our lives. I don’t think a miracle necessarily has to defy explanation or a scientific model. If it does, then I don’t believe in miracles.
The donald said the virus would go away like a miracle. 400,000 deaths his deciples still believe him, thats got to be a miracle.
The definition of miracle has been cheapened. (Finding lost keys shouldn’t qualify.) Just as the definition of revelation has been cheapened by RNM. But since I have a hard time believing in “miracles,” I suppose it doesn’t matter anyway. And I don’t believe that the changes being made by RNM were revealed. Inspired maybe.
I don’t believe that God violates natural law. I agree with Buddhist Bishop. She wouldn’t do that. That makes most, if not all biblical miracles problematic.
But I don’t agree with Martin’s statement: “Christ’s teachings are not particularly noteworthy.” They are to me. There are plenty of nuggets in the NT to inspire me. Christ provided guidelines for personal living. He was a rebel, both with and without a cause. I think He would be shocked at what Christianity (including Mormonism) has morphed into. If we need miracles, how strong is our faith?