5.2 The Miracle of the Sun (April 2016)

I've been thinking a bit more about miracles recently and wondering what would persuade someone to change their mind on the question of miracles happening (either from a believer to a skeptic or the other way around).

I was interested to discover a possible miracle that happened just under 100 years ago with apparently good evidence in support of it. The miracle is known as ‘The miracle of the Sun’, and happened in Portugal in 1917. The reason it particularly interested me is because I think it contains a number of the elements that people use in support of Jesus resurrection.

The Miracle

A miracle was predicted by three shepherd children who had seen visions starting on 13th July 1917 and lead to the miracle happening on October 13th 1917. The children had predicted that at noon a great miracle would happen so that everyone would believe. Estimates of the number of people who were present on the day range from 30,000 to 100,000 and, according to witnesses, after a period of rain the sun came out through the clouds appearing darker than normal and spinning in the sky. It is said to have shone in multi-coloured lights and danced around in the sky for around 10 minutes. During this time wet clothes and the soaking ground from the earlier rain became dry.

The people who witnessed the event included Avelino de Almeida who was a reporter for a Portuguese newspaper and Dr. Joseph Garrett a Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Coimbra. There are even photographs of the crowd that had gathered.


Subsequent Investigation

The most well-known investigation was carried out by John De Marchi who spent seven years where the events happened in F├ítima, from 1943 to 1950, researching the evens and talking at length to eyewitnesses. In 1952, just 35 year after the event occured, he published his report noting that the crowd, “included believers and non-believers, pious old ladies and scoffing young men. Hundreds, from these mixed categories, have given formal testimony. Reports do vary; impressions are in minor details confused, but none to our knowledge has directly denied the visible prodigy of the sun."

Parallels with the accounts of Jesus resurrection
  • Some form of prediction of the event relatively soon before it took place
  • Eyewitness evidence
  • Early testimony and records (35 year gap between the events and the gospels/John De Marchi's report is similar in both cases)
  • Multiple people/witnesses
  • Slightly, but not very, incoherent reports (suggesting they weren't all reading from a prepared script)

It won’t surprise that I am skeptical of this miracle. I expect there are naturalistic explanations for it, and some suggestions can easily be found online. Probably most people who have read about it here or elsewhere are also skeptical, but if you are a Catholic you may be convinced.

I don’t think that belief in this, or any other miracle, is based on evidence. Evidence does not seem very useful in verifying the miraculous – people don’t believe in or deny a miracle because of the quality of the evidence for that specific miracle. There seems to be good evidence of the Miracle of the Sun, but even that ‘good’ evidence isn't convincing to some. If evidence is not useful then it can only be of limited value in turning a believer into a skeptic or vice versa.

My personal view is that the evidence actually shows how easy it is for apparently competent and honest people to be confused and give unreliable testimony. My view would be undermined if the likelihood of confusion were lower than the likelihood of a miracle, but as far as I'm aware human failures are much more frequent and probable events than miracles. Given that this is the case it would seem ill-advised for a deity to use miracles as a key method of self-revelation because even in the unlikely event a true miracle occurs many people will still not be convinced.

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