Countless clusters of frost and crystal gracefully descend to rest, dressing the trees in white to celebrate the winter holiday. With a warm cup of hot chocolate in hand, a young mother watches her son gleefully shred paper and toss ribbons she placed with care. But as each impractical, meaningless toy is revealed, her grin fades.

Images of blood and gunfire march through her mind as she ponders the fate of her love. It has been two hundred and sixty-four days and this morning since last they savored each other’s presence. Hope and fear have spared her no sleep since she last heard that the helicopter did not return from its mission.

Then a knock at the door.

Hatred boils in her blood. She knows that stoic men with hat in hand stand solemnly on her porch to deliver the news that she already knows. Before she can even set down her cup, her cheeks drip and her heart sinks into her stomach.

“Who’s at the door?” the boy asks.

“Nobody,” she responds, “just keep opening your presents.”

She makes her way to the door, clutching her chest and holding her mouth, ready to hear the words that can set her free from fear and allow her to accept his death. Tearful and trembling, she pauses to look in the mirror before greeting the figures who have haunted her.

As the wooden slab swings open, the fear evaporates and she crumbles to the floor. Every horrid vision melts away as despair becomes a memory. Bliss descends and renders every thought and word insufficient. Her love has come home.

This story is truly a miracle. Or is it?

Most are quick to declare an event a miracle, but before we can agree or disagree with such assessments, it would be wise to define the conditions of a miracle.

Although miracles are considered supernatural by many, it is much more difficult to discern the intent of heavenly beings than to examine the qualities of a typical miracle. For this reason, we will ignore the metaphysical nature of miracles and instead focus on the measurable and observable ingredients required in order for an event to be defined as miraculous.

Based on the common understanding of miracles, there are four possible criteria for the event:

  1. It is beneficial to the recipient.
  2. It is requested by or meaningful to the recipient.
  3. It is extremely unlikely or timely.
  4. It seems impossible or its origin is unknown.

Not all of these criteria are of equal weight. To be accepted by most as a miracle, an event must meet the first requirement. It is obvious, but worth discussing, that miracles must benefit those who experience them. This is because miraculous events often affect those other than the recipient in benign or negative ways.

When someone wins the lottery, it means that many others did not win. When we find money on the street, it means that someone lost it. There’s even a movie called Miracle which documents the triumph of the United States men’s Olympic hockey team in 1980. But this tale is as much about the American team overcoming incredible odds as it is about the Soviet Union team suffering disappointment and defeat – an inevitable consequence of competition. In this story, the Soviet team’s experience met only the last three criteria. Because their experience was detrimental, they likely reached the opposite conclusion as the Americans, declaring the event a curse or punishment. In order for us to experience a miracle, we must be the beneficiary of the event.

There are times, however, when miraculous events don’t benefit us but spare us from harm. Narrowly escaping a calamity, especially a rare or unusual unusual one, or surviving a terminal illness will cause us to feel blessed even though we didn’t gain from the event.

It’s also possible for events to be reevaluated weeks, months or years after they occur. A seemingly meaningless or even negative experience can later be perceived as miraculous. Likewise, a miracle may one day be invalidated in light of new information.

The second criteria for a miracle isn’t quite as important as the first, though some would argue that it is also an essential component. The additional importance is likely a reflection of the belief that miracles are a direct result of prayer or divine intervention. To them, the fact that the event was requested or meaningful reflects their deity’s care and benevolence toward them. To those who do not subscribe to this notion, it is not enough to solidify a positive event as a miracle, though it may enhance the significance of what is already considered a miracle.

The final two criteria are what many identify as the primary cause for their interpretation of an event as a miracle. When explaining the reason why we believe our experience was miraculous, the fact that the event was beneficial is obvious and therefore not mentioned. The request or special meaning is used only between those who share a supernatural view of miracles, but even in such cases, this facet can be considered less credible due to its emotional and subjective nature. For this reason, the last two criteria are much more likely to be offered as proof of a miracle.

There is a good chance that a positive event that is extremely unlikely or timely will be considered a miracle. Winning the lottery, finding money on the street or overcoming incredible odds to achieve victory are all evidence of the significance of the event being unlikely or timely. We do not consider winning two dollars on a scratchcard a miracle because the chance of winning a small amount is high. Likewise, finding money on the street is only considered a miracle in a time of need. And there’s nothing miraculous about a heavy favorite winning a sporting match. Miracles have to surprise us – make us stop and ponder the significance of the event – which leads us to our final criteria.

Similar to the feeling of astonishment brought on by experiencing an extremely unlikely or timely beneficial event, the impossible or unknown origin of such an event also stirs in us the sense that something miraculous has happened. Just as our inability to predict an outcome causes us to declare it random, when we cannot understand or explain how something happened, the natural conclusion for many is that the laws of nature were temporarily suspended by some benevolent force in order to bestow on us a special blessing. Though this idea is more likely to be accepted by those who believe that miracles are divine, the sense of mystery alone retains the power to convince us that we have experienced a miracle.

For those who do not attribute miracles to divine intervention, the source of a seemingly impossible or unknowable event need not be identified in order for them to be amazed by it. However, as science continues to unravel the mysteries of the universe, this criteria becomes less credible. The constant ratification of our understanding of the physical world makes it less likely for us to declare that the origin of an event is impossible or unknowable, which means that we are also less likely to consider such an event a miracle.

The last three criteria we talked about are distinct from one another, but they all perform the same function: the creation of a sense of significance. In order for us to believe that an event was a miracle, supernatural or not, we must be astonished by it. Though some frivolously brand childbirth, sunrises and friendship as miracles, we must know that what we experienced was truly special in order to feel like it was a miracle.

So now we know what factors influence our belief in miracles. We’ve seen that miracles must be beneficial (at least to the one evaluating the event). In addition, we know that an event that is requested or particularly meaningful is more likely to be considered a miracle, especially by those who believe that miracles are supernatural. We also looked at the two most common causes of events being interpreted as miracles: unlikeliness or timeliness and an impossible or unknowable origin. Now let’s try evaluating some events to determine which criteria they meet and whether or not they deserve the title of miracle.

  • A woman is the sole survivor of a plane crash.
  • A man is struck by lightning on his way to work.
  • A child prays for rain and the following day it rains.
  • A man receives an unmarked envelope containing the exact amount of money needed to pay his debt.
  • A woman who is thought unable to conceive becomes pregnant.
  • A child born with a severe disability is abandoned but later adopted into a loving family.

It is certainly possible to evaluate these events, but what if we don’t see the big picture? What about the other passengers who died in the plane crash? What if the man struck by lightning was a serial killer? What if the child who prayed for rain did so without knowing that the weather report already predicted rain? Questions like these raise concern that our interpretations may be oversimplified.

The declaration of a miracle reflects confidence in our understanding (or lack of understanding) of the cause and purpose of an event. Even if we claim that the origin of the event is unknowable, that in itself is a claim of knowledge about the origin of the event. By labeling an event miraculous, we are saying that we know why it happened. Of course, it’s not impossible that we are correct, but the assertion that we understand the cause and purpose of events may say more about us than it does about the event.

There can be miracles when you believe.