When Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, he spent some of his spare time going through the New Testament and excising all the references to miraculous occurrences, in an effort to focus only on Jesus’ moral and philosophical teachings. He ended up cutting out nearly half of the text. As former Newsweek religion editor Kenneth L. Woodward explained in “The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam,” Jefferson’s effort was doomed to failure. Woodward went on to say that miracles and the miracle workers who perform them are an integral part of Christianity—and the rest of the world’s major religions as well. Studying those miracle stories is “a way of discovering how each religion discloses the meaning and the power of the transcendent within the world of time and space.”
Here are some of the major faiths’ views about the nature and importance of the miraculous, and some of the key miracles that figure in their beliefs.
Christianity: From the start of Christianity, miracles have been an important part of Christian belief. Jesus performed 30 of them in the New Testament, including healing disabilities such as paralysis and deafness, and in two instances raised people from the dead. He also walked on water, fed a crowd of 5,000 people by multiplying five loaves of bread and two fishes, and transformed water into wine at a wedding feast. According to theologian Barry L. Blackburn, Jesus tended to help those who had faith in him. “He ignores the skeptical,” Blackburn wrote. Jesus also gave the Apostles the power to heal the sick and cast out demons. In the Christian denomination of Roman Catholicism, people believe that saints and the Virgin Mary can perform miracles on God’s behalf, and visit shrines to pray for cures from illnesses. According to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center, more than 90 percent of evangelical Christians believe miracles still take place as well.
Judaism: There are numerous miracles in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians refer to as the Old Testament). In Exodus, for example, God instructs Moses to perform miracles, so that people will believe that he is speaking on behalf of God. The Talmud and Jewish medieval writings also accepted the idea of miracles, as signs of God’s intervention in the world. As Jewish theologian Rabbi Lewis Jacobs once wrote, a modern Jew might be less likely to consider an extraordinary event to be a divine miracle, but the belief in God requires that he or she accept the idea of miracles. “A Hasidic saying has it that a Hasid who believes that all the miracles said to have been performed by the Hasidic masters actually happened is a fool, but anyone who believes that they could not have happened is an unbeliever,” Jacobs explained. "The same can be said of miracles in general.”
Islam: While Christians and Jews see God as sometimes miraculously intervening in human affairs, Muslims see Allah as being much closer to the world, and actually being the direct cause of all events, according to University of Birmingham professor David Thomas, an expert on Islam. “God’s overwhelming closeness makes it easy for Muslims to admit the miraculous in the world,” Thomas wrote in “The Cambridge Companion to Miracles.”
"God’s overwhelming closeness makes it easy for Muslims to admit the miraculous in the world."
“In fact, there has been more difficulty in deciding what is not miraculous.” But according to Islamreligion.com, a proselytizing website, Muslims draw a distinction between types of extraordinary occurrences that might be considered miracles in other religions. A mujizah is a major miracle, such as Jesus’s healing of the sick. It only can be performed by a prophet, using power granted by Allah, as a sign to show people that the prophet is a divine messenger. But an ordinary believer who is sufficiently pious and free of sin can obtain a karamah, a sort of private miracle that only benefits that person.
Hinduism: Miracles are a major part of the Hindu tradition. In addition to the feats of gods and goddesses described in Hindu scripture, many believe that human mystics can perform amazing feats such as healing the sick, levitating themselves, and surviving for years without eating or drinking. In Hinduism, “wondrous acts are performed for the purpose of bringing spiritual liberation to those who witness or read about them,” religious scholar David L. Weddle wrote in the book “Miracles: Wonder and Meaning in World Religions.” Such a miracle “demonstrates the possibility of freedom from the limits of the material world and from the spiritual burden of the past.”
Buddhism: Buddhists don’t worship a deity who performs miracles, but they do believe that the human mind can be trained to unleash “powers not normally apparent, which would be described as miraculous,” according to an article on the website of the Buddha Dharma Education Association. Buddhist scriptures contain accounts of miracles, some of them performed by the Buddha himself.
“Powers not normally apparent, which would be described as miraculous.”
He’s described as having been able to fly through the air, hear sounds from a long distance, and read the minds of other people. Buddhists believe that other enlightened souls can acquire similar powers. The Tibetan branch of Buddhism, for example, is full of stories of mystics who could fly to the tops of mountains, raise the dead, and perform other miracles. According to Woodward, Buddhists view the performance of miracles both as benchmarks of a person’s spiritual progress, and as a means of impressing others and leading them to accept Buddhist teachings.
While the various major religions have differing beliefs about miracles, they also share some common ground. All seem to believe that miracles are more than just amazing feats, but also a way of helping people to become more spiritual and find a moral path in their lives.