The final episode of National Geographic’s The Story of God series (airing May 8), “The Power of Miracles,” suggests how tricky it is to determine what really constitutes divine intervention. We meet a man who survived a 47-story drop from a skyscraper—but the same fall claimed the life of his brother. Host Morgan Freeman talks with a scientist who tells us that some of what we think are “miracles” are simply matters of random chance. He draws six cards from a deck, lays them on the table and announces, I believe, that there’s just a one-in-14 billion chance that those cards would’ve been drawn in exactly that order. The fact that the cards exhibit no order themselves—no pattern—is beside the point.
I get the confusion, the doubt. Miracles, by their very nature, are difficult to buy into. And when it comes to them, I’m more a Doubting Thomas than a Peter. When I hear someone speak of a “miracle,” I want to say, “prove it.”
But I believe in them all the same.
In his essay “Miracles and Modern Civilisation,” G.K. Chesterton wrote:
The historic case against miracles is … rather simple. It consists of calling miracles impossible, then saying that no one but a fool believes impossibilities: then declaring that there is no wise evidence on behalf of the miraculous. The whole trick is done by means of leaning alternately on the philosophical and historical objection. If we say miracles are theoretically possible, they say, “Yes, but there is no evidence for them.” When we take all the records of the human race and say, “Here is your evidence,” they say, “But these people were superstitious, they believed in impossible things.”
Impossible things. My threshold for miracle is not so strict, perhaps. The miracles I’ve seen in my own life are not so dramatic. My water never changes into wine, and the only time I walk on the stuff is when it’s frozen solid. Still, perhaps the fact that water—or anything else, for that matter—exists at all is something of a miracle.
The scientist in “The Power of Miracles” is flipping a coin when Morgan Freeman walks in. He’s looking for streaks. He knows that, if you flip the coin enough times, you’re bound to see some pretty extraordinary streaks. Ask a mathematician, and they’ll tell you that, if you flip a coin 2,046 times, chances are you’ll see a streak where you’ll hit heads 10 times in a row. The odds keep getting longer the longer you try to keep up that streak. The New York Times Magazine suggests that, to be pretty sure of a streak of 20, you’d need to flip the coin about a million times.
In an essay for The Wall Street Journal, author Eric Metaxas argues that the universe itself is far less likely than a streak of 20 heads—an improbability worthy, in fact, of a Douglas Adams novel. According to Metaxas, the universe exists because of four primary forces: gravity, electromagnetics, and “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces. For the universe to be a thing at at all—to ensure that it didn’t collapse on itself and that stars could form and such—all those values had to be exactly right. The odds? Metaxas says they’d be the equivalent of a coin-flipping streak of 10 quintillion heads in a row. (That’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000, for those keeping track at home.) Not exactly sure how many times you’d have to flip a coin to be guaranteed a streak like this, but I’d imagine it’s pretty huge.
“The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe,” Metaxas writes. “It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself.”
But actually, the odds seem equally astronomical that you exist as you do—1 in 10 to the 2,685,000th power, according to author Ali Binazir. We hear so much about the “miracle of life” that it feels cliché. And yet it may be more true than we imagine.
Are these things proof that we are, in fact, miracles? That the most likely explanation for us is that Someone wanted us to? Perhaps not. Some will argue that countless universes have perhaps been created and destroyed, evening the odds. They’ll say that, as inhabitants of an obviously habitable universe, that universe isn’t so much of a miracle as a given. I don’t think that we’ll ever be able to prove miracles—to prove that an extraordinary event was directly influenced, unquestionably, by the hand of God. And I think that’s by design: Believers are called to lives of faith, and intrinsic in that faith is the possibility of doubt.
Still, I find it suggestive. And for me, as a person of faith, I find it encouraging. It makes me feel as though miracles not only exist, but we are living in the midst of them. Every moment is a miracle, and it’s worth marveling over.