Do you believe in miracles?

The other day a very good friend related a miracle story to me, told them by a friend at church who’d heard it from another. As I recall it, a teenage boy had been sectioned and was self-harming by scratching his fingernails into his face. An older Christian friend or pastor had been praying for the lad and had heard God say ‘this kind only comes out through prayer and fasting’. Accordingly he had prayed and fasted, and then when he next visited the boy, he’d prayed and laid hands on him. At this point, the boy flew across the room, and when he picked himself up he was himself again, and instead of scratching his face he was caressing it.

I’d be interested to know your immediate reaction to this tale. I must confess that mine was one of almost total scepticism, which understandably slightly miffed the person who’d told it me. She asked me with just a touch of accusation, ‘So don’t you believe in miracles any more?’. It’s a good question, and I’m not altogether sure of the answer. Do I believe in miracles? In theory, yes, absolutely. In practice, I’m not sure.

As I see it, the story in question really entails two beliefs (on top of a basic belief in God and his ability to answer prayer) – (1) in miracles and supernatural phenomena, and (2) in supernatural agents or powers (angels and demons) that have influence over our everyday lives.

Miracles and supernatural forces

I would say that both (1) and (2) are certainly possible, and I wouldn’t want to rule either of them out. A supernatural God can surely perform supernatural acts, and I’ve little doubt that he has indeed done so on a number of occasions. Whether or not these can be expected to form a regular and normative part of our Christian experience is another matter, and on the whole I’d now be inclined to think not.

I do certainly believe in Jesus’ miracles recorded in the gospels (and those of the apostles in Acts); I have no problem with these at all. On the other hand, what I now think matters most about these miracles is their quality as signs – what they show, reveal or symbolise about God and his message. Yes, Jesus healed people in very direct and dramatic ways, and I’ve no doubt he did this for their sake as much as for what these acts signified and symbolised. But at the same time, these miracles are also profound signs of the coming of the Kingdom – and of the coming of the King.

As for angels and demons, again I think I do believe in them, largely on the basis that fairly substantial chunks of the Bible seem to require their existence. I’m not entirely convinced though that they play a major role in most people’s everyday lives – and on the whole I hope they don’t (at least not the demons).

So why did I react with such scepticism to the fasting-and-deliverance story? I’m not sure, but I think what I found hardest to swallow was the flying-across-the-room detail. I was also slightly sceptical about the source of the story and whether it might have become embellished in the telling, as it must have been about 6th-hand by the time it got to me, and it sounded like it came ultimately from a super-charismatic source. It just seemed to me to have something of the quality of a Christian urban myth.

My own experience

I haven’t always been so sceptical about miracle stories. Indeed, reports of the miraculous were a large part of what initially drew me to Christianity 16 or so years ago. I had some friends who were very involved in Vineyard-influenced charismatic Christianity, and their excited (and exciting) stories of healings, miracles and prophecies were exactly what I was looking for at that time. If these tales were true, they surely proved that God was real – and I was longing for proof before I took the plunge of commitment. Furthermore, they demonstrated God’s active power to heal and transform today – something I felt I desperately needed in my own life.

Part of my desperation arose from my having had some very disturbing experiences with the occult before my conversion (Ouija boards and the like), and for several years afterwards I was convinced that I might be suffering from demonic influences or oppression. This took the form of highly intrusive OCD and blasphemous or cursing thoughts. I also had nightly nightmares of suffocation by dark creatures that would only let go when I ordered them to leave in Jesus’ name. I therefore felt sure that the supernatural was very real and powerful, and that the dark side could only be countered by an at-least-equally active good side. I was longing for miracles of deliverance, healing and protection; a powerful and active God to counter what certainly seemed to me to be a powerful and active devil.

Did I receive such miraculous healing? No, and perhaps yes. Nothing dramatic happened. I didn’t fly across the room when prayed for. I engaged in various secular therapeutic groups and practices, alongside attending church and receiving prayer. My recovery was slow and gradual and in any normal sense entirely non-miraculous.

Yet the circumstances of my conversion itself were full of odd coincidence, and looking back I can see God’s hand in the whole slow process of my recovery and healing. It wasn’t a swift or spectacular miracle, but as far as I’m concerned it was miraculous nonetheless – in the sense that it was a genuine work of God.

Spiritual manifestations and the presence of God

After my conversion I started attending a small charismatic C of E church plant. Here minor manifestations of spiritual gifts were par for the course – some I still think genuine, others I’m now less sure about. People spoke in tongues, gave ‘words and pictures’ from God, and there were fairly frequent healings – usually of minor ailments, but occasionally of more serious conditions. I found all this tremendously exciting and encouraging. Even then though I had slightly mixed feelings, because nothing much ever seemed to happen to me. I didn’t speak in tongues, receive words from God or get healed of anything more major than the temporary relief of some mouth ulcers.

The ‘Toronto Blessing’ struck during the first year of my conversion, and our church was very much taken up with it. Nothing hugely spiritually dramatic happened to me during this time, and I now look back on the episode with some bemusement, unsure how much of what I witnessed was truly the Holy Spirit at work and how much was just human. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t all bad though, and I do believe that I experienced being quietly filled with the Holy Spirit.

Not long after this I also had a brief flirtation with ‘health and wealth’ theology (Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn et al), which again seemed to offer miracles and healing – which I so greatly wanted – if you just had enough faith. Ultimately though, this experience left me more than a little wary of extreme-end charismaticism and of miracle claims.

Nonetheless, one thing which was very powerful and important to me during those early charismatic days was a new, very real sense of the presence of God which I experienced during times of sung worship at church. In all my years of somewhat bored churchgoing as a child and teenager, I’d never felt anything like it. I can’t prove it of course, but it was as real to me as anything I’ve ever experienced, and it had a profound and lasting effect on me. I’ve not really doubted God’s reality since then; I’ve occasionally doubted his goodness, or more often that he really cares for me, but rarely that he’s real. And that’s been more important and helpful to me than any number of spectacular miracles or healings.

Scepticism and ambivalence

These days then I’m much more ambivalent and sceptical about miracle stories. My feeling now, based on my own experience, is that miracles can and do happen, but that most reported stories of the miraculous (whether good or evil) are either Christian urban myths or are at least greatly exaggerated.

Part of my scepticism may simply be that I’ve never really witnessed or experienced anything that I could describe as a ‘miracle’ in this sense – certainly nothing spectacular like people flying across rooms and being instantly healed of self-harming. That’s not to say that I’ve not seen any genuine works of God. I’ve known a number of people who’ve been prayed for and then been healed against all the medical odds. I’ve seen God at work in my life and the lives of friends and family. These aren’t quite in the same category as instant healings and raising from the dead, but I’d still see them as genuinely miraculous.

Maybe I’ve also felt a little disappointed and let down by my charismatic experiences, which raised expectations of the spectacularly miraculous that haven’t been fulfilled. I suspect there’s a degree of envy and sour grapes on my part too – as the miraculous only seems to happen to other people, it’s more convenient for me just not to believe in it too much.

I confess that I’m also still a little fearful and wary of the dark side of the supernatural. Perhaps my heartfelt hope that the demonic isn’t real (or at least isn’t as real and active as I was led to believe in my more charismatic days) has also led to a diminished belief in or hope for miracles.

I do sometimes wonder if much of the experience of miracles comes down to factors of personality, temperament and culture. I can’t help feeling it would be easier for me to believe if I were, say, living in tribal Africa or didn’t have my native English reserve and intellectualism. I’m informed that many more miracles and supernatural events (both good and evil) occur in rural Africa and India, where a belief in spirits and magic is prevalent, and where there is no sophisticated medicine or technology to turn to for non-supernatural solutions to life’s problems.

What are miracles – and why do we want them?

I’ve talked a lot about belief in miracles and supernatural phenomena, but what actually is a miracle; what do we really mean by supernatural? Might we have too narrow a view of what these things look like and encompass? I would like to argue that everything in the world has a supernatural or miraculous aspect, because God is the ultimate source of all of it and is in some way at work in or through it. All of God’s work is miraculous; it’s just that most of it appears perfectly natural and normal and even mundane. You and I are miracles in this wider sense; and every time our body heals itself it’s a miracle.

Similarly, does something have to be swift, spectacular or dramatic to be miraculous? I’ve never really understood why the creation of the world would be more wonderful if it took place in six days rather than over the vast majestic sweep of unimaginable aeons of time. In the same way, why should a healing be any less miraculous and wonderful when it takes place slowly and gradually than when it happens in an instant?

I also wonder whether we sometimes set too much store by miracles, signs and wonders. Are we really looking for the miraculous to provide some genuine and lasting good, or are we merely seeking a spiritual thrill? Do we maybe see miracles as a short-cut to the inconvenient pains of growth and change and healing – the waving of a wand to fix our problems instantly? Or perhaps as a way of validating our views and silencing our sceptical opponents? I suspect that I’ve wanted miracles for all these reasons.

As an aside, I’m not sure that miracles often do have the effects we expect of them anyway. Philip Yancey has pointed out that under Moses, the Old Testament Israelite community experienced God’s mighty wonders every day, and yet this didn’t produce any great increase in their faith or righteousness – quite the opposite. And as for silencing sceptics, miracles can always be explained away as hoaxes, hallucinations, freaks of nature or bizarre coincidences.

Signs and blunders

Of course, I’m not saying I wouldn’t like a sign or a miracle in my life – I very much would. In fact, I quite often ask God to show me that he’s present and at work in my life. I’m well aware that this could be seen as both a faithless and a selfish prayer; “it is a wicked and perverse generation that asks for a sign.” But there are very different kinds of ‘signs’ and also very different motives for asking for them.

I think what I’m really asking for is not a spectacular miracle, but just to see; to be given fresh vision or insight  into what I hope is already the reality of God’s presence and power at work in and through my life. Alternatively, I’m asking for some long-longed-for transformation or liberation or healing which is not merely for the sake of show, but is a genuine work of God, a fruit of the Spirit and a sign of the Kingdom.

Sometimes I just get depressed or discouraged; perhaps I’m simply asking for reassurance that God cares about me; that he’s really with me. Maybe I shouldn’t need that. And yet, if we’re really with God and he’s really in us, shouldn’t we expect to see some evidence of that from time to time?

I should report then in closing that I did experience a very small miracle last week. My five-year-old son was desperate to find his lost ‘Beast Quest’ Top Trumps cards, which had gone missing some days before. I prayed out loud that God would show us where they were, not really expecting that he would, and I saw the cards staring me in the face literally within a second of finishing the prayer. Of course, this sounds like a silly, trivial example and perhaps it is; but maybe a child-level miracle is the highest kind I can believe in and experience at this point. Who knows, perhaps I can work my way up to minor healings in a few decades’ time… and then flying across the room…


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Charismatic, Controversies, The faith journey, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Do you believe in miracles?

  1. dsholland says:

    I do enjoy your posts.

    Regarding the miraculous, Christian and other, I was having a discussion with someone a couple of years back and they were describing some telekinetic phenomenon coupled with prophesy. After all if you believe in Christian “wonders” can you discount the non-Christian variety?
    So I asked the teller what the benefit, the positive outcome, the “fruit” if you will, of the phenomenon? They said as they thought about it the person involved was less happy and fulfilled as a result.

    I apply this logic to the story of the boy and ask, was it the Holiness of the Man of God preforming the miracle that facilitated the healing? Is the intent to show me that if I fast and pray I too can cast out daemons (not a typo, I work in software and create and kill daemons regularly in my job)? What is the purpose, is it a method or a relationship?

    By that measure finding the card was indeed a miracle of God.


    • Thanks David – I enjoy your comments!

      Those are excellent points, firstly about the fruit of ‘miracles’ and secondly about their purpose – technique vs. relationship. If a miracle is truly of God, it must reflect his purposes and character, and so should display qualities of love and goodness, relationship and redemption.


  2. Rosie Edser says:

    I’ve not moved in ‘miraclesy’ circles so much the last few years (except when in visiting the 3rd world). Have in the past seen people be healed of various things instantly physically – fellow teenagers of sprained ankles on Youth group holidays and a girl once with luekemia… but have noticed emotional healing generally involves work /care/prayer over a period of time.

    Re the fruit question, short term yes everyone’s v happy and grateful but longer term, they drift off again.

    Reckon the emotional stuff is far more profound, lasts into eternity.

    It’s a quibble, but I wouldn’t equate ‘more extreme charismatic’ with prosperity/ health and wealth teachings.


    • I agree, emotional healing can be far more profound than physical – just not so immediately noticeable and dramatic. I’d much rather be made whole emotionally and psychologically than healed of most of the physical complaints that have ever ailed me… though I might revise that if I ever have a stroke or some serious illness.

      I do still maintain that there’s a link between extreme-end hyper-charismaticism and dodgy health-and-wealth theology, but I may well be wrong!


  3. Pingback: Do you believe in miracles? | The Evangelical Liberal – Charismatic Feeds

  4. Ray Shoop says:

    The human brain is an amazing organ and capable of producing miraculous feats. If anything, it is worthy of being a god. In reality, it should get credit for most, if not all, the perceived miracles and miraculous happenungs that believers give praise to their God for doing.
    I studied hypnosis some years ago and learned much about what one is capable of doing while in or out of a state of hypnoses. Whether you or someone else manipulates the brain, it makes little difference between an actual event and a perceived event. For instance, you can convince your brain/yourself that a part of your body has no feeling. Thus one can have and operation without administering anesthetics. I knew a doctor once who had dental work done without having the dentist poke needles into his jaw. I have experimented on myself enough to convince me this was possible. But, like my religion, I never had enough faith to go further. Through hypnoses, whether induced by another or by one’s self can perform many seemingly unbelievable things.
    I have witnessed enough and experienced enough to convince myself, what religious zealots call miracles is nothing more than their minds working overtime. This is further proof to me that God, the god perceived in the Bible, does not exist.
    Replace hypnoses with faith.
    To begin with, one must have faith or belief to go into a hypnotic trance/sleep/get into the spirit. A willing subject/Christian and a practiced hypnotist/preacher/healer can put one into a trance with a snap of the finger or the putting on of a hand. Upon awakening, the subject will believe what the hypnotist, etc, suggested to them before or during their trance. This works without salting the audience with fakes. The important thing is one must have faith, whether religious oriented or otherwise. Besides, in a crowd there are always those who are good at putting on a show and desire to be in the limelight.
    Our eyes deceive us at times. Who of us has, at one time or another looked at something and saw it as something other than what it actually was.
    It’s been proven many times over a placebo medication heals one’s ailments just as quickly and thoroughly as the real thing. Doctors give their patients sugar pills to heal there perceived ailments. Some people will believe anything and are easily lead down the primrose path whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.
    There have been accounts of people who died because they thought a poisonous snake had bitten them, when in actually, a non-poisonous snake had bitten them, or nothing bit them. They merely thought a deadly snake lurked somewhere nearby and a thorn pricked them. How many times had someone pronounced dead come back to life?
    No, I do not believe in miracles. They are cute and not harmful, so what the hey.


    • Hi Ray, I agree that some reported ‘miracles’ are just humans seeing what they want to see, or misinterpreting natural phenomena (I’d put UFO sightings and alien abductions in this category).

      I also agree that others can be the results of the human mind’s and body’s amazing abilities to heal themselves or to do unbelievable things under the power of suggestion. But this doesn’t answer the question for me, just puts it a step further back. Why do the human mind and body have these amazing abilities? How did they develop? How do they actually work? Some people have apparently done things under hypnosis which are normally physically impossible. If so, it seems to me that there’s something else going on here, something which doesn’t seem entirely explicable within a merely scientific, material understanding of the world.

      I also agree with Eric that not all reported miracles can be fitted into the placebo/mind-over-matter diagnoses. Some really do seem to defy normal physical explanation. Either we have to discount these as made-up or misreported, or we have to at least acknowledge the possibility of phenomena which can’t be completely explained by standard science.


  5. EricEric says:

    “It’s been proven many times over a placebo medication heals one’s ailments just as quickly and thoroughly as the real thing.”

    Actually, all or almost all drug testing is conducted via double-blind methodology where neither doctor nor patient knows whether they are getting a placebo or not. Given this, any drug that shows an effect in trials has been shown to be more effective than a placebo (provided, and this is not always true, that the experiment was designed properly). Placebos work well on a specific set of ailments. They (and hypnosis) are limited by one’s nervous system. Your body must be able to effectively execute the required actions to have any effect. Deadening nerves, for instance, is an easy one. Pain is all in your brain anyway. But what about regenerating a limb? No amount of nervous command can force you to do that, your body lacks the ability to do so. It certainly lacks the ability to regenerate, say, the thumb you cut off in the table saw rapidly.

    A number of reported miracles could potentially be replicated psychosomatically. However, other reports would require the human in question to have a radically different physiology than any human ever examined.


  6. Theothedog says:

    As always, immensely thought-provoking in a positive sense. I’ve found myself thinking most about your questions ‘What are miracles – and what do we want them?’. The first one is, I suppose, unanswerable, so much so that one probably has to remain agnostic about where most ‘miracles’ come from. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Ray says about the alternative origins of many of them, for example, though without drawing his conclusion about God not existing. Indeed I think I’d find God easier to believe in if he didn’t do miracles occasionally – because, in answer to your second question, I DON’T want them! That God can do things that transcend the normal laws of nature seems to me easy to believe in; that a good, holy God doesn’t intervene miraculously more often than he does to prevent the most appalling injustices, illnesses, cruelties, even natural disasters, is for me a very real problem. If I had the ability to do miracles, I’d certainly do an awful lot more than he does! I know there are good theological answers to this, of course, some of them halfway convincing. But my gut instinct has always been that I’d find my faith actively strengthened if I could believe that God had made a decision never to do miracles. As it is, the evidence has always seemed to me to suggest that he does do some, but just desperately seldom and desperately arbitrarily. So why can’t he do either a lot more or none at all? There’s no answer to that one either, of course.


    • Thanks – that’s very interesting. I can very much identify with the desire for miracles never to happen, on the basis that occasional miraculous divine interventions inevitably seem arbitrary and raise more questions than they solve. I too wish that God would either intervene to heal and help everyone, or else not intervene at all.

      Nonetheless, I do still believe that at times God has intervened in ways that we would probably have to class as miraculous. I don’t know why he’s chosen to do that, nor why he apparently doesn’t choose to in the majority of cases. As always, and perhaps as a cop-out, I have to come back to my bottom line that God is good and God is love, and that other than that I don’t really have a clue.

      Oh no, after all these fascinating comments I feel a follow-up post coming on… someone stop me, quick 😉


  7. EricEric says:

    So when I first went to comment I had intended to comment on something entirely different than double-blind drug testing. So here’s my initial thought:

    When the story-teller says, “So don’t you believe in miracles any more?” she is trying to force this down to a single issue: do miracles occur at all? However, this is a specific story. As such, it can be specifically disbelieved.

    If someone reported a sea monster sighting to me and, when I doubted it, said, “So you think we’ve discovered every large marine animal?” I would have to reply that no, I do not believe this. In fact, as a zoologist, I’m probably better aware than most people of how frequently new large animals are discovered. However, as a zoologist, I also have a pretty good idea what constitutes a plausible story and what is obviously a made-up, impossible creature. If someone tells me that they saw something which, when described, matches no known species, flopping at the surface of the water that’s more plausible than an account that identifies the species in question as some sort of plesiosaur whose actions are clearly drawn from “Walking with Dinosaurs”.

    Partly this is because I’m aware of a bias – the plesiosaur is a favorite claim for a particular group of monster-believers. People who report an odd sighting without interpretation are simply much more likely to be giving me an honest report. This is also partly because it matches details better – we’re most likely to discover new large deep sea species and deep sea species at the surface are generally in deep trouble. A distressed unknown animal sounds more like the sorts of things we expect to find in the future.

    The same should be true of miracles. Just as I’m aware of what constitutes a plausible animal Christians should be, generally, aware of what constitutes a miracle. We’re also aware of the weird narratives that some people are trying to push. When we see a story with odd details that fits a known narrative there’s reason to be suspicious even before we get to the questions about whether we believe in the supernatural.


    • Eric, thanks, I definitely take your point. So what would you see as the hallmarks of an authentic Christian miracle?

      I’d say a genuine miracle would serve God’s purposes (redemption, healing, liberation etc), would accord with his character and would possibly carry a deeper level of spiritual meaning or significance.

      Most of Jesus’ recorded miracles in the gospels do have these hallmarks. One I slightly struggle with is walking on water , as at first sight it could be seen to be ‘just for show’ rather than serving any deeper redemptive purpose. I’m sure that’s not the case, but I don’t have a clear idea of what it really was about.

      Also, given that you do (I think) believe in authentic miracles, do you have any take on why their occurrence often seems to be so random and arbitrary?

      The person who reported the miracle story to me is someone whose intelligence, discernment and experience I respect; I just disagreed in this case about the probable veracity of the story in question. She had found it interesting and helpful, and it chimed with some of her own experiences and beliefs; I had a more sceptical reaction. But I think the ‘don’t you believe in miracles?’ question was about more than just our differing takes on this particular story, and was more to do with whether or not we can expect to see acts of healing and deliverance as a normal part of our Christian experience.


      • EricEric says:

        I agree with the hallmarks you cite. I don’t think we can draw any sort of definitive list but that’s a good start. (Partly we can’t draw a list because of the “would accord with his character” element which obviously requires some thinking beyond a checklist.)

        We could also define some reasons to be suspicious. For instance, the person reporting the story is responsible for the miracle and is trying to use it to show how spiritual they are (spiritual pride). Maybe the story pushes a certain viewpoint quite strongly (a crazy example, perhaps it’s really about how Calvinists never do miracles). Maybe (a caveat that goes back to the Didache) the person uses the story to try and get money. Of course there’s also the usual reasons to doubt the story – “I think she was limping before I prayed for her but I couldn’t see her very well.”

        I don’t have any idea why miracles do not follow some more discernible rules.


  8. Theothedog says:

    Just a thought that’s struck me over the weekend. I suppose I’ve always thought that Jesus’s miracles were occasions when his divinity as it were transcended or overruled his humanity. But what if, actually, they were expressions of his humanity? If, in other words and by extension, the ability to do miracles is (also?) a human ability on a similar level as, I don’t know, the ability to compose like Beethoven or run like Usain Bolt? – inspired, gifted by God, but not necessitating the belief that God transcends the laws of nature that he himself has put in place? Might make life easier if one could belief this. Not that I’m sure one can.


    • Hi ‘Theo’, that’s another interesting and plausible suggestion. My own provisional belief is that Christ’s miracles were performed by him as a human, drawing on the power of the Holy Spirit.

      Of course, the charismatic view is that this is something that all Christians can do – we can all be filled with the Spirit and receive spiritual gifts, operating in aspects of God’s power and wisdom. There’s still enough charismatic left in me to hope for this, though now with a lot more reservations and provisos.

      So, very cautiously, I think that I think that we may all potentially be able to exercise gifts of the Spirit in different ways and to differing degrees. However, that doesn’t mean we can (or should) all speak in tongues, prophesy, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons or whatever. I suspect we’ve all been given different ‘spiritual’ gifts or abilities much as we’re all given different natural abilities and talents. Some of these spiritual gifts can be fairly dramatic, others much less so (Paul lists gifts like ‘administration’ and ‘hospitality’ alongside prophecy and healing). And as Paul also pointed out, none of the gifts of the Spirit are as important as an attitude of love.


  9. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    You have a lot of great stuff in this post. It is interesting how similar some of your observations at the beginning of the article are to those in my post today. Thanks for directing me here; I always appreciate your views.

    I had not seen this post before, as I was unaware of you blog in 2011. I think the issue of miracles is one that many people take to extremes, and I agree that many current miracle stores are likely urban legend or exaggeration. I do think healings do occur, but not as often, or as prominently, as some think.

    My experience was more Pentecostal than charismatic. When the health and prosperity movement came along, I did not accept it; the same was true for the Toronto blessing. So I was not much affected personally by those, except that I opposed aspects of their teaching from time to time.

    Regarding demons–I don’t think they exist at all, and my very next post will address that issue.


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