A miracle is a supposed event that is contrary to the laws of nature.1 The idea is that an event like that can only be explained as the work of a supernatural being like God. But what if it turns out that an apparently miraculous event can actually be explained in terms of ordinary natural phenomena? It may still be amazing, and it may be useful… But there’s no reason to think it’s a true miracle in that case, and it’s not very strong evidence of anything supernatural.
How many of the miracles reported in the Bible (supposing the stories aren’t entirely made up) have possible natural explanations?2
There are a lot of prophecies in the Bible. A lot of them have turned out to be false. A lot of them fail to specify a deadline for fulfillment, making it impossible to tell whether they’re false. Some of them seem suspiciously like they were written after the fact. Some of them predict events that are nothing out of the ordinary. Some of them are so vague that it’s no surprise that something happened that could be considered to fit the description. Some of them have only been fulfilled because people who knew about the predictions fulfilled them on purpose. And a lot of the passages that are considered prophecies weren’t even meant to be predictions at all. That doesn’t leave very many actual impressive predictions, if any.
Jesus and other prophets in the Bible are said to have been able to read minds and demonstrate inexplicable knowledge of other people’s pasts. It’s surprisingly easy to give the impression that you have abilities like that. When people want to believe that you’re psychic, they will perceive your readings as amazingly accurate no matter what you say. They’ll do most of the work for you, interpreting whatever you say as something meaningful and accurate. And they’ll ignore everything you get wrong.
Creation, destruction, and transformation
So, what’s up with that burning bush Moses found that wouldn’t burn up, before he started hearing God talking to him? Maybe it was some kind of Acacia. They can be easily flammable and slow to burn up, and they can even trigger religious experiences.
Moses and Aaron tried to prove that God had sent them by turning a staff into a snake. But the Egyptian magicians were able to do the same thing. So either they were prophets of God too, or that trick doesn’t prove anything. I’ve heard it’s possible to do the stick-to-snake trick by holding an Egyptian Cobra and applying pressure near its head. That makes it go stiff and motionless so it looks like an inanimate stick, until you put it down.
The Bible says during the first of the ten plagues of Egypt, the water turned into undrinkable blood and killed everything in it. That sounds a lot like a phenomenon known as a red tide, where a certain kind of algae causes water to turn red and toxic. That could explain some of the other plagues, as well. Frogs flee from the unhealthy water and die, bugs get out of control because of the lack of frogs, bugs spread disease among the people and livestock, etc. And the remaining plagues could be explained by food poisoning and a volcano.
The collapse of Jericho could have been caused by a convenient earthquake that the Israelites retconned as being a result of their own actions.
Why did the Philistines keep finding the idol of Dagon fallen over in the morning, bowing down toward the ark of the covenant, and eventually broken to pieces? Might one of the Israelites have snuck in and vandalized the idol during the night? It wouldn’t be the first time.
How could a crowd of over 5000 people eat and be satisfied if Jesus’s disciples only had five loaves of bread and two fish to offer them? Well, it never says nobody brought their own food. And why wouldn’t they?
Some branches of Christianity consider the Eucharist ritual to be a miracle. They believe the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus… which just happen to be completely indistinguishable from ordinary bread and wine for some reason. Least impressive miracle ever! No explanation needed.
Is there any natural phenomenon that could make the red sea part? The Bible says it was caused by a strong wind, which might work. But God isn’t a necessary part of the explanation, then. The only really remarkable part of this event would be the timing, reducing it to a “miracle” of improbability. So, not actually a miracle. I don’t think this story is based on any real events, but supposing it was, it sounds rather like just another case of the people who happened to survive a natural disaster giving God credit for saving them, and claiming that all the people who didn’t survive it must have deserved it.
The Israelites were told that “manna” would rain down from heaven for them… though no one ever actually saw it falling. They just found it on the ground. There are actually several kinds of edible substances (of biological origin) that can be found lying around in the desert like that.
The Bible says Elijah challenged another god’s prophets to get their god to send fire from heaven and consume the offering they were making, but they couldn’t do it. Then Elijah succeeded in calling down fire from heaven on his own offering, even though he had drenched it with water first. It sounds like he’s giving himself a handicap… But if “fire from heaven” actually means lightning (since this was shortly before a storm), all that highly conductive water might actually have made it easier for things to be destroyed by lightning.
There’s a story in the Bible where the shadow on a sundial-like device goes backwards. How could it do that? Did the earth suddenly start turning in the opposite direction? That would have a lot more consequences than just a weird shadow. There are better explanations. Maybe there was a meteor brighter than the sun that was moving eastward. Or maybe a cloud went in front of the sun, changing the brightest part of the sky to the edge of the cloud.3 Or maybe Isaiah had an assistant make an artificial light source, or do something to the object making the shadow.
The Bible says when Jesus was being crucified, it got dark for three hours starting at noon. That seems kind of weird, but it’s not such a big deal that a miracle is the only possible explanation. That kind of thing could easily be caused by a volcano, a dust storm, smoke, fog, or just some heavy clouds. 4
How might biblical healing miracles have worked? The same ways modern faith healing “works”:
- Sometimes faith healers use paid shills.
- Sometimes faith healers let their audience assume that the disability they’re claiming to heal is more severe than it really is. For example, they might show that a blind person is healed by having them count how many fingers the healer is holding up. Most people who are considered blind aren’t completely blind, and would be able to do that already. But since they said they were blind, everyone assumes they couldn’t do that before, so they must have been successfully healed.
- Some faith healers provide people with props such as crutches to exaggerate their disabilities.
- Sometimes people only think they have a serious condition because the faith healer said so.
- Putting on a show of healing someone in front of an audience can make the person feel pressured to play along. So can asking them if they feel better. So can the idea that not feeling better means you lack faith (and that that’s somehow a bad thing).
- The exciting experience of working with a healer, wanting it to work, and expecting it to work might make people feel better enough to say they feel better. But placebo effects like that don’t last, and they don’t work on more serious conditions.
- Health problems tend to fluctuate, continually getting better and worse. People are most likely to seek help when they’re at a particularly low point. Then when their condition improves again as usual, the intervention will get credit even if it didn’t actually do anything.
- Your body can completely clear up a health problem on its own, even if you don’t intentionally do anything about it. If someone does do something about it, that’s probably what will get the credit for the recovery that was going to happen anyway. But spontaneous remission of health problems is no more common among Christians than anyone else.
- If you’re suffering, you’re probably going to be trying lots of ways to make it stop. Then if one thing works, it will be hard to tell which one it was, and you’ll likely give credit to the wrong cure.
- Sometimes faith healers claim to be remotely healing a bunch of people without specifying exactly who they’re healing. That way if anyone who hears happens to improve the way the healer said, they’ll give credit to the healer. And if no one gets better, no one will notice.
- People who try to get their conditions cured and get no results don’t tend to talk about it so much. Especially if they’re dead. Those who do get better are usually a lot more vocal about it. That can make healing efforts seem more effective than they really are.
- If a person’s condition doesn’t have obvious symptoms, you can just say they’re healed, and nobody will know the difference. Except the sick person, the next time they see their doctor about it. Though if they have too much faith, they may never even bother doing that, which leads to many needless preventable deaths.
- Even when the patients don’t believe they’ve been healed, faith healers sometimes bully them into telling the audience they have been healed.
- When confronted with the fact that their faith healing just didn’t work at all, all the healer has to do is blame the sick person for not having enough faith.
Even if they were real, healings wouldn’t exactly be miraculous. Curing people’s health problems is well within the ability of mortals.
Life and death
The Bible claims that Moses went 40 days with no food or water at all. Fasting for that long isn’t unheard of, but dry fasting for that long is. There are people today who claim to be able to live without ever eating or drinking anything. They’re lying. Could Moses be lying too? Nobody was with him at the time, so all we have is his word…
Why would touching the ark of the covenant kill people? Some people think the design of the ark (with all that highly conductive gold), along with the desert environment, could have caused electric shocks. That certainly makes more sense than God deciding to kill people for trying to protect his ark. Or for looking inside at the things God wanted people to be able to look at.
Apparently some people consider the killing of Goliath a miracle? I don’t know why. There’s nothing miraculous about somebody dying because he got hit in the head with a rock. A rock hurled at 80 miles an hour from one of the most powerful weapons of the time. At close enough range that it would be very easy for an experienced sling user to aim accurately, but not close enough for Goliath to have any opportunity to fight back with his shorter-range weapons.
What about the virgin birth? What could explain that? This one’s easy. It’s obviously a lie to preserve the mother’s reputation of chastity. It happens all the time.
In the past, people weren’t very good at diagnosing death. It was fairly common for people who had been wrongly declared dead to wake up shortly before or after being buried. That would explain all the “resurrection” stories.
If someone experiences an apparent physical-law-defying miracle, that doesn’t necessarily mean it actually happened. It’s not uncommon for people to mistake dreams, hallucinations, or inaccurate memories for reality. And even when people are observing something that actually happened, there may be some kind of illusion involved (intentional or not) that causes people to misinterpret what they’re seeing. People of all religions have experiences that they think can only be explained by their religion being true. They can’t all be right.
Of course, the simplest natural explanation for any miracle in the Bible is that the story was made up, and nobody even witnessed that event at all. What seems generally more likely, that a real miracle happened, or that the person claiming a miracle happened lied? It wouldn’t be hard to lie about these things to people as ignorant as the ancients were. Or to people who think faith is a virtue.
(Not that the writers of the Bible necessarily thought of it as lying. They had this weird idea that history systematically repeats itself, and therefore if they didn’t know enough about the life of Jesus or whoever they were writing about, they could just look at stories about similar people in the earlier scriptures, and assume Jesus must have done the same things. Similarly, people who were convinced that Jesus was fulfilling prophecies probably wrote stories about him based on the Old Testament prophecies, rather than on any actual knowledge of what Jesus did.)
Jesus said he wanted people to believe he was who he claimed to be because of the works he did. In that case, he shouldn’t have been doing tricks like turning water into wine, which left no permanent evidence, and which an ordinary mortal stage magician could easily duplicate. He should have done something really impressive, like moving a mountain, or revealing the value of pi more accurately than anyone would be able to calculate it until thousands of years later. The miracles the Bible says Jesus did are not impressive enough. If a guy was doing tricks like that today, no intelligent person would conclude that he was God.