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Is the Rescue of the Chilean Miners a Miracle?

A number of clerics of various Christian denominations are claiming that the recent rescue of 33 Chilean miners was a miracle and, therefore, evidence in favour of the particular version of Christianity that they respectively represent. How are we to decide if this, or any other event is a miracle? The first issue to be cleared up is what we mean when we speak of miracles. Some talk of miracle is not meant to be taken literally. When enthusiastic cricket commentators reported that ‘Warne dismissed Gatting with a miracle ball’ they meant nothing more than that they were extremely impressed by a particular instance of Warne’s bowling. No religious connotations were intended. Other talk of miracles does involve religious connotations, however. Miracles are typically invoked in religious contexts as reasons to believe that God exists.


There are two different ways in which particular events might be taken as reasons to believe that God exists. The most straightforward way is to take them to be evidence that God exists. The less straightforward way is to hold that, while not actually evidence of God’s existence, certain events are miracles in that they inspire people to believe in God. This way of talking about miracles was discussed and defended by the Wittgensteinian philosopher R. F. Holland. An example of such miracle talk is the ‘miracle of birth’. People who talk about the ‘miracle of birth’ are not usually claiming that God is directly responsible for any particular birth. Instead they are claiming that witnessing the act of birth inspires religious sentiments in them. The rescue of the Chilean miners surely is a miracle in this sense as it appears to have inspired religious sentiments in many people, including several of the miners who were not religious before being trapped in the mine (See:


The more straightforward and ‘full-blown’ sense of ‘miracle’ is that of direct intervention in Earthly affairs by God. God directly intervening in the natural world by creating a temporary dry passage for the Israelites to walk across the Red Sea would be a miracle in this sense. Several of the clerics claiming that a miracle saved the Chilean miners are claiming that this sort of miracle has taken place. For example, Bishop Quintana, the Catholic bishop of Copiapo, claims that God ‘acted through human ingenuity’ to cause the rescue to take place. Presumably he means something like this: God, seeing that the rescuers lacked the ingenuity needed to conduct the rescue, intervened in their brain processes and enabled them to act with more ingenuity than they would ordinarily be able to draw upon.


The argument for divine intervention being proposed seems to be something like this:



(1) We know how ingenious the rescuers are capable of being.


(2) We know how much ingenuity is required to conduct a rescue in these circumstances.


(3) We know that the available ingenuity of the rescuers is less than is required to enable a rescue.


(4) There is an ‘ingenuity gap’ to be accounted for.


(5) The only plausible explanation to fill the ingenuity gap is via divine intervention.


Therefore, we can conclude that


(6) God intervened to enable the ingenuity gap to be filled.


There are at least three ways in which this argument could go wrong. First, we might be mistaken in our assessment of (1) available ingenuity. Our knowledge of the rescuers is, most likely, quite limited and we may simply be underestimating them. Second, we may be overestimating (2) the amount of ingenuity required. The rescue is an impressive outcome but it is not clear that it required the rescuers to draw on reserves of human ingenuity beyond those that are displayed by other humans in hundreds of other situations. Third, we may be overlooking (5) possible ways in which the ingenuity gap might be filled, other than via divine intervention. For example, it may be that the ingenuity-lacking rescuers were being advised by people who were more ingenious than them and who were responsible for the plan behind the rescue.


There seem to be many possible ways of explaining the rescue of the miners which do not involve divine intervention. It also seems that we should prefer these explanations to ones that involve divine intervention. This is because we believe that divine intervention is extremely rare. Some of us believe that it happens once in a while and some of us believe that it never happens. By contrast, underestimations of the abilities of other people are very common, overestimations of the difficulty of particular tasks are common and failures to consider alternative possible explanations of events are extremely common. Bishop Quintana’s claim of divine intervention looks like it would be extremely difficult to substantiate, given that there are several possible explanations of the ‘ingenuity gap’ that he identifies that appear to be more plausible than appeals to divine intervention.

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11 Comment on this post

  1. Steve,

    I would fill out the miracle claim in a slightly different and simpler way. This is how it seems to work.

    1. X is an event that is highly improbable or apparently impossible in the absence of divine intervention
    2. X occurred
    3. Therefore God exists

    or an alternative version might go

    1a. X is an event that is highly improbable or apparently impossible in the absence of divine intervention
    2a. I prayed that X would occur
    3a. X occurred
    4. Therefore the God that I believe in exists

    In this case the specific argument by Bishop Quintana might be that it would be highly improbable that a mine collapses trapping a large number of miners deep underground, and they are all successfully rescued after spending 2 months underground. He prayed for their rescue, the miners were all saved, consequently his God exists.

    One challenge to the argument from Improbability might be to the first premise – and that seems to be your line of argument. Given our state of knowledge about rescuers and ingenuity perhaps it isn’t so improbable that they were successfully rescued.

    A second challenge would be to the form of the argument. So the mere fact that an improbable event occurred doesn’t prove divine intervention. While it is individually highly improbable that a particular mine collapse would yield the favourable result seen in Chile, there are thousands of mines across the planet, and numerous mine collapses every year. (for example 37 miners died today in a mine collapse in China . In fact there are 20-40 coal mining deaths in the US per year, and more than 2000 deaths per year in China.)
    Consequently we would expect that very occasionally a serious mine collapse would trap miners underground without killing them, and, if appropriate machinery/expertise were available, that rarely a successful rescue would be made. It is highly likely that any mine collapse would lead to some local religious adherents praying for a successful rescue. Sooner or later a Bishop Quintana would be ‘successful’ in their prayers.

    Of course, the fact that the Chilean miners could have been rescued successfully without divine intervention, does not mean that God did not intervene in this case. But if we think that God did intervene, there is another thorny theological problem to deal with. Why, (given that God is capable of intervening in earthly affairs to save the lives of miners), did He permit the mine collapse in the first place? And why didn’t He save the Chinese miners?

  2. This is of course none other than the “problem of evil”, which has been raked over by Christian theologians for centuries. I was never convinced by their answers, which is one reason why I no longer believe…

  3. Thanks both for your comments.

    Dom, I have no objection to your generic formulations of miracle claims. I was trying to spell out a specific and somewhat idiocyncratic miracle claim, where God is supposed to work through human agency than directly intervening in the world. I don’t see your formulations as being inconsistent with mine.

    Peter, I understand the problem of evil to be a related but distinct problem from the problem of telling whether a miracle has occurred or not. The problem of evil is the problem of explaining why God doesn’t intervene regularly to prevent evil acts occurring.

  4. Thanks Steve. My comment was in reaction to Dominic’s point about why God permitted the mine to collapse. I agree with both your arguments (and also with you that they appear to be consistent) as to why there is no irrefutable reason to see this case as a miracle. My only problem with it is that it seems to be shooting at a rather easy target.

    The problem of evil is in some ways (to my mind) more interesting, not least because it really would (again from my perspective) be nice to believe in some kind of omnipotent, benevolent, personal Being in charge of the universe and our own destinies, and the problem of evil seems to me to pose a more serious obstacle in this context than the lack of evidence per se.

  5. Here’s how the miracle issue and the problem of evil are connected I think: any highly localized miracle claims must, to be convincing, also give a credible story about why just there? Why not intervene to stop all the other harmful and terrible thing that happended elsewhere simultaneously, many far worse and involving far more humans in peril? Is chilean miners god’s favorites? Why? Highly localized miracle claims fits badly, to say the least, with the notion of an all-loving that this God happens to intervene just there but let millions die elsewhere.

  6. Sorry for the incomprehensive last part. It should just read:

    Highly localized miracle claims fits badly, to say the least, with the notion of an all-loving God.

  7. By the way, one approach to all this is to distinguish between two possible meanings of the word “God”, both of which can (if we so wish) refer to a person (even if arguably an imagined one) rather than an impersonal entity:

    1. God as the creator and director of the universe, and the ground of our being;
    2. God as the embodiment of all that we consider pure and good.

    Imo it is the second God, rather than the first, that is worthy of our unconditional worship. We can be grateful to the first for our existence, but this gratitude must surely be tempered by our reaction to evil and our determination to do something about it (and sense of responsibility for doing so, rather than just leaving it to God).

  8. Just to play devil’s advocate, why do we believe that divine intervention is very rare? If divine intervention can occur through making the leap of an ingenuity gap, couldn’t we argue that every invention, or subsequent improvement on said invention was divine intervention? The iphone was divine intervention, as were its subsequent interations (although the antenna fiasco was not part of the divine intervention).

    I have many students in my classes whose abilities range from bad to excellent. When bad students do modestly well on an exam, that could be divine intervention as well. The whole idea behind “everyday miracles” where a poor student does better than any would expect of them to is cause for religious conversion…. Or perhaps something less like reinforcement of existing belief.

  9. I would say it is a miracle. Pardon me for not justifying this by different analogies because I simply go with my faith. I have strong faith in God and I believe that everyday is a miracle.

  10. Chilean miners matter tell us that if humen being try for good he can do good if he did bad result will be bad. it is a matter of religious or hopless person who do not want to do but desire evey thing should be in favour of his will and wish. how cilean saved this is due to using technical thought which he has in his mind if they simply wait for some mrical then never could see any marical except dead bodies. So please do not tell any other person that save rescue of chilean if a act of God or marical. it ia act of humen being that is good. Saad Shibli Advocate

  11. This argument looks no more than the simple claim that some events of low probability exist, such as the particular Chilean miners being rescued, and then concluding that the god that the author wants to believe in must exist in order to bring about this event of low probability.

    I can understand how the particular Chilean miners who were saved might think that they had a personal ‘good’ deity looking after them, on being saved, just as all those miners who were not saved might think that they had a personal ‘evil’ deity giving them the evil eye.

    So yes, there must be lots of good gods and lots of malevolent gods in existence.

    Hang on…

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