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Current Update as of March 26, 2006 

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Edited by HENRY REED, Ph.D.

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Are Miracles Really Possible?

Are Miracles Really Possible?

(Published by New World Library)

Fail not in your function of loving
in a loveless place made out of darkness and deceit,
for thus are darkness and deceit undone.
— A Course in Miracles

National headlines recorded a miracle of deliverance even as I was writing this book in the spring of 2005. Nothing but more death should have followed the slayings by an escaped prisoner at the Atlanta Fulton County Courthouse in March, but as authorities searched for the killer, something remarkable occurred.

Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols: Pancakes at Dawn

On Friday, March 11, defendant Brian Nichols was being escorted to his trial for rape and aggravated sodomy by a female deputy. When they reached the holding cell, the deputy uncuffed one of Nichols’s hands, at which point the former college linebacker knocked her down, grabbed her gun, and beat her unconscious.

Although he could have simply escaped, Nichols instead crossed the bridge to the courthouse, where he hunted down, shot, and killed the judge in his case — Justice Roland Barnes — and the court reporter, Julie Brandau. He then ran back across the bridge and down a stairway to the street. On the way, he shot and killed Deputy Sheriff Hoyt Teasley, who had pursued him as he fled the building. Nichols then carjacked a string of vehicles, murdering a customs agent named Rick Warren in the course of stealing his pickup truck later in the day.

Around 2 a.m. on March 12, Brian Nichols stuck a gun in the ribs of thirty-three-year-old Ashley Smith as she got out of her car in the parking lot of her apartment building. Nichols told her that if she screamed, he would kill her, but he added that if she would just do as he said, he would not hurt her. Smith assured him that she would do whatever he wanted. Nichols made her take him to her apartment, where he tied her up with electrical cords and duct tape.

Smith lost no time in beginning a conversation with her captor. She informed him that her husband had been stabbed to death four years earlier and had died in her arms. She said that if Nichols killed her, her five-year-old daughter wouldn’t have a mommy or a daddy. She told Nichols that she was supposed to meet her daughter at church at 10 a.m. the next day and asked if he would let her go. He said no.

After searching the apartment and taking a shower, Nichols sat Smith down on her bed, and she asked if it would be all right if she read. When he said yes, she selected The Purpose-Driven Life, and she began reading aloud where she’d last left off, at Day 33: “How Real Servants Act.” Nichols asked her to repeat a passage, and they began discussing the role of purpose in their lives, which led to talk of God.

Smith later explained that she had been intent upon reaching out to Nichols at a human level, encouraging him to see her as a real person. Throughout their encounter, Smith talked about herself, her family, and things she had done, in an effort to establish a relationship with her captor. She repeated her request to be allowed to go and see her daughter Sunday morning, and Nichols’s “no” gradually changed to “maybe” and “we’ll see.”

As they talked, Smith quietly exchanged the role of hostage for that of confidant. They discussed their faith, their families, and the massive manhunt going on outside. At some points they watched the coverage of the escape on television, and Nichols said that he could hardly believe that that was him they were talking about. Over the course of the night, Nichols untied Smith, and at his request, she showed him pictures of her daughter, as well as other family photos.

Eventually, Nichols asked Smith what she thought he ought to do. “If you don’t turn yourself in,” she replied, “lots more people are going to get hurt.” Nichols called her “an angel” and his “sister in Christ,” and he said God had led him to her door so that she’d tell him he had hurt a lot of people.

Ashley asked her captor if he believed in miracles. “You got out of that courthouse with police everywhere, and you don’t think that’s a miracle?” Smith demanded. “You don’t think you’re supposed to be sitting right here in front of me? Your miracle could be that you need to be caught for this. If you go to prison, then you need to share the word of God with all the prisoners there.”

As Smith explained to reporters later: “He needed hope for his life. He said, ‘Look at my eyes — I’m already dead.’ I said: ‘You’re not dead! You’re standing right in front of me! You’re here in my apartment for some reason.’”

Before dawn, Nichols told Smith that he needed to ditch the pickup truck he’d stolen from the federal customs agent he’d murdered. Smith agreed to follow him in her car and to bring him back to her apartment after he dropped off the vehicle. Although it might have been possible for her to escape at this point, she said she followed through on her promise because she believed that if she abandoned him, he might have killed her and he would almost certainly have gone on to kill others. Besides, she had an idea that if she hung in there, she would be able to convince him to surrender.

Back at her apartment, Nichols quietly put his guns under her bed as if he were finished with them. He said that he’d rather have Smith shoot him than the people hunting him. Ashley Smith replied that she didn’t want anyone to be hurt, not even him.

When morning came, Nichols was “overwhelmed” when Smith made him pancakes with real butter. He told her he “just wanted some normalness to his life.”

Eventually he asked her, “What time do you have to go?” and Smith told him she had to meet her daughter at their church at ten o’clock, and so she would have to leave by 9:30. She thinks that by this point he understood and had accepted the fact that she would summon police, although nothing was said about it.

“He gave me some money when I was about to leave. Just kind of like he knew. I said, ‘You might need this money.’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t need it. I’m going to be here for the next few days.’”

Nichols asked if there was anything he could do for her while she was gone. She had just moved into the apartment two days earlier, and he offered to hang curtains for her. Significantly, before she left, he asked her to visit him in jail.

“I know he was probably hoping deep down that I was going to come back,” Smith said, “but I think he knew what I had to do — that I had to turn him in.”

Smith called 911 as soon as she got into her car. A SWAT team quickly surrounded her apartment building, and Nichols surrendered peacefully, waving a makeshift white flag.

The police were extremely impressed with Ashley Smith’s handling of the situation. “She acted very cool and levelheaded,” said Gwinnett County Police Officer Darren Moloney. “We don’t normally see that in our profession. It was an absolutely best-case scenario that happened — a complete opposite of what you expected to happen. We were prepared for the worst and got the best.”

“I believe God brought him to my door,” Smith said afterward. When asked why she thought Nichols didn’t kill her, she responded, “Because I didn’t judge him.”

Further Revelations

In late September 2005, Ashley Smith’s personal account

of this incident hit the bookstores, and some readers were shocked to learn that, at the time of these events, Smith was a drug addict. Although she initially didn’t share this detail publicly, Smith admits in her book Unlikely Angel: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Hostage Hero that when Nichols asked if she had any marijuana, she gave him her stash  of crystal methamphetamine, but declined to join him in taking some.

“I chose not to do the drugs and he did,” Smith explained. “It was a huge step for me because it was the first time I had said no to them.” She said, “If I did die, I wasn’t going to heaven and say, ‘Oh, excuse me, God. Let me wipe my nose, because I just did some drugs before I got here.’”

In her book Smith says that she had lost custody of her daughter because of her addiction. However, she’d been working hard to turn her life around for months before her encounter with Brian Nichols. Further, having refused drugs that night, she says she has never had a desire to touch them since.

“It’s hard for people to understand the miracle of the story,” Ashley said when her book came out. “This was totally a God thing, to me in my life. This was God getting my attention, going, ‘I’m going to give you one more chance.’” At the time of the events, Ashley proclaimed, “My life is testimony that God can use us even in the midst of tragedy, and miracles do happen.”

Many in law enforcement and in the media also called Brian Nichols’s peaceful surrender a “miracle.” However, it’s likely that most people used the word as hyperbole. When something really bad is about to happen, and then it doesn’t, it’s handy to say, “It’s a miracle!” It doesn’t necessarily mean the speaker really thinks that divine intervention was involved.

But I think it was.

I’ve been studying miracles for the past twenty-five years, and what I see that others may not is that Ashley Smith did everything a person is supposed to do in order to make a miracle possible. If you fulfill the necessary conditions for making divine intervention possible, and then something seemingly miraculous occurs, you have good reason to suppose that it isn’t a mere coincidence.

Smith’s extraordinarily skillful handling of Brian Nichols may seem absolutely unique, but I will show you many more instances where someone in grave danger did much the same thing, only to have a volatile situation end harmlessly. You see there is a procedure for accessing miracles. I believe that when we do our part, God, and enlightened beings acting on God’s behalf, take care of the rest.

Could This Be a Miracle?

Admittedly, when we see Ashley Smith’s story standing alone like this, there is no particular reason to suspect supernatural involvement. The same thing can be said of all of the narrow escapes we’ll be exploring in this book. Taken individually, each of them appears to represent nothing more than a lucky break. Danger threatens, but things turn out all right. “Big deal!” some may cry. “Why should we drag in miracles to account for something that can be understood perfectly well without them?”

My case for miracles centers on the strange emotional  reactions displayed by people who experience narrow escapes. Like Ashley Smith, they all seem to slip into an extraordinarily peaceful, loving — even carefree — state of mind, behaving as though they were oblivious to danger. Of the people who described their experiences to me, not one said they thought of themselves as fearless or heroic, yet they amazed themselves with their sense of well-being while facing death.

This surprising equanimity reminded me of the peaceful detachment one experiences in meditation. I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps these fortunate survivors had actually entered a meditative state. This idea was all the more intriguing because I was aware that going into meditation is precisely what spiritual traditions throughout the world say you ought to do if you want a miracle. Again and again, people reported that they had done the very thing mystics claim will make miracles possible, only to find a highly dangerous situation taking an unexpected turn for the better.

I believe that there is a technique for accessing miracles, and that anyone can learn to defuse life-threatening emergencies by doing just what Ashley Smith did. Let’s look at another miracle story. As it happens, this story also involves a “Brian.”

Brian: Showdown at High Noon

Brian had just received his doctorate in psychology and had been working at his first professional job in a maximum-security prison for only a few months when violence broke out. Prisoners seized weapons and hostages, occupied the library building, and began issuing nonnegotiable demands. Tension mounted throughout the day as the National Guard arrived to surround the prison. Everyone waited breathlessly to hear the governor’s response to the prisoners’ demands.

Late in the afternoon, the warden stormed into Brian’s office and shouted, “Goddamn it, you’re the psychologist! You go in there and convince those prisoners to surrender!”

Brian could only conclude in retrospect that he must have been more afraid of his boss than of the rioting inmates. Minutes later, he found himself headed for the library to tell a group of armed and desperate murderers that the governor had rejected all of their demands and that they had just better throw down their weapons and release their hostages, or else!

“Or else what?!” Brian wondered, uncomfortably aware of what traditionally happens to the bearer of bad tidings. “Or else shoot me, I guess.”

Brian was conscious of guns trained on him from every direction as he took that long walk across the yard. The silence was so profound that he could hear the blood pounding in his ears, and it seemed as though everyone in the prison was breathlessly waiting to see what would happen to him. Obviously, whatever occurred, Brian was going to be right in the middle. It seemed largely a matter of whether he would be shot accidentally by the guards or intentionally by the prisoners once the fireworks began.

Unable to see how he could have gotten himself into such a situation, Brian experienced a growing sense of unreality. A few minutes before, he had been a nice, middle-class young man trying to earn an honest living. Now, all of a sudden, he was Gary Cooper in High Noon. How, exactly, did something like this happen?

Despite his overwrought mental state — or possibly because of it — Brian found himself drifting into an amusing fantasy of himself playing this preposterous role in the best Hollywood tradition. He began to see himself as the Gary Cooper character in a Western — the lone figure of justice, warily moving down the empty main street of a frontier town. The prison guards became the townsfolk who watched from hiding as Brian went forth to fight their battle for them. That’s right — Sheriff Brian, who would fearlessly confront odds that could only be beaten in a screenwriter’s fantasy. Because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!

The next thing Brian knew, he had begun to parody himself and his absurd fantasy. Pausing dramatically, he squared off against the library, hands flexing over imaginary six-shooters on his hips. He began to stalk toward the building in a ridiculous burlesque of the classic gunfighter swagger. Feeling the need for a little musical accompaniment, he shattered the tense silence by loudly whistling “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” the theme from High Noon.

For a few moments, guards and prisoners watched Brian’s bizarre performance in stunned silence. Then they began getting it. Brian as Gary Cooper. People acting as if this goofy kid was going to be able to face down a gang of armed killers. Suddenly everyone could see how absurd the situation had become.

Laughter rang out from all sides. Fed by the tension that had been building all day, it rose to hysterical heights. Guards and prisoners alike became helpless with hilarity as their anxiety poured out of them in foot-stomping, knee-pounding guffaws. People laughed until they cried — until they could barely stand up.

When it was over, Brian strolled into the library and explained the governor’s response and the hopelessness of their position to the prisoners, who by now regarded him as a hell of a guy. Minutes later, he presided over their peaceful surrender.

What Are Miracles?

If I’m to make a case for the idea that Ashley and Brian both created miracles, it might be well to begin by clarifying what I mean by that. Author C. S. Lewis defined a miracle as an instance in which a supernatural power interferes in the natural world, and this is the definition I will be using here. But notice that this is not an operational definition of the type required for scientific inquiry. It captures the essence of what we mean when we call something a miracle, but doesn’t specify exactly what observations or measurements would allow one to determine whether an event is miraculous or natural. I believe it is impossible to specify such things, since what truly allows us to differentiate a miracle from a piece of good luck is not anything inherent in the event itself, but rather the inner process of the person experiencing it.

Some investigators try to solve the problem of identifying which events result from divine intervention by confining their attention to experiences so extraordinary and inexplicable that it seems they could not have been caused by any known or suspected natural means and must therefore have been caused by the power of God, possibly acting through  an intermediary such as an angel, prophet, saint, or healer. For example, if the Red Sea suddenly parted when Moses stretched his rod out over it, or a body that was well and truly dead was resurrected from its tomb three days later, it’s hard to see how there could be any “perfectly ordinary” explanation for what occurred. Skeptics can argue that such things never really happened, but if they did happen, they certainly seem like the work of a supernatural power.

One problem with this approach is that wonders of this magnitude do not really lend themselves to verification. First of all, if we call an event “miraculous” only in those rare instances where we believe we can conclusively rule out every possible cause except a supernatural one, we’ll be confining our attention to a set of circumstances so singular that most of us will never have any firsthand experience with it. And can we ever really be sure that whoever undertook to investigate the incident actually did rule out every other possibility? The evidence will only seem “conclusive” to the extent that we credit a stranger’s story about what happened. Take, for example, this account by my friend Hayden and her mother, Doris, of a purportedly miraculous rescue during a family trip to the beach.

Hayden and Doris: The Man Who Wasn’t There

When Hayden was twelve years old, her family went on a vacation to Daytona Beach, Florida. On this particular day, Hayden’s father had gone into town for an hour or so, leaving the little girl and her mother, Doris, to enjoy the off-season luxury of an enormous stretch of deserted sand and sea. Doris paddled around in an inner tube while Hayden held onto the outside. The two chatted contentedly, savoring the delightful contrast of cool water and hot sunshine.

Hayden thinks that they must somehow have lost all track of time because the water suddenly got rough. Looking up, the pair was startled to realize that they had drifted far out to sea. The beach was just a line on the horizon, and the wind was carrying them out into the shipping lanes at a high rate of speed. The next thing they knew, several large swells washed over them from out of nowhere. Hayden was torn away from the inner tube and swamped by the waves.

A poor swimmer to begin with, the twelve-year-old struggled to the surface and fought to get back to her mother and the safety of the tube. Doris was frantically trying to reach her as well, but despite their best efforts, the distance between them just kept widening. Now thrashing around in panic, Hayden began to drown. Wave after wave rolled over her. She was dragged repeatedly beneath the choking surface, only to struggle weakly back into the air.

Finally, exhausted by her unequal contest with the sea, Hayden knew that she couldn’t go on. Her panic went away, and she found herself strangely at peace with the prospect of dying. As she was about to stop her useless struggles and let the waves take her under, a man appeared in the water a few feet away. Although there had been no one in sight the whole time they’d been at the beach, here suddenly was a strong swimmer right next to her!

Doris and Hayden agree that the man was dark haired and seemed to be in his thirties, although they didn’t have time to notice much else or wonder where he’d come from. Hayden lunged for his outstretched hand, but she couldn’t quite reach it. Since she’d missed it by only an inch or so,  she gathered her flagging strength and tried again. Again she missed, but only just.

“What I didn’t realize,” Hayden told me, “is that he was actually towing both of us to shore. Mother and I were trying as hard as we could to reach the guy, and he was somehow pulling us with him while staying just beyond reach. Although we’d been way out in the ocean, and although we never could quite reach his outstretched hand, we were moving toward the beach. And quickly, too! I suddenly looked up and found myself in shallow water quite close to the shore. At that point the man gently gathered me up in his arms and carried me the rest of the way up onto the beach.

“He lowered me to the sand, and I immediately began to vomit up the water I’d swallowed. Mother ran up onto the beach right behind us, and she fell to her knees beside me and held me as I retched.”

Both women think that it took Hayden about a minute to vomit up the water she had swallowed. Then the two of them settled back on the sand and looked around to thank their rescuer. But there was no one there.

“And I mean no one!” Hayden emphasizes. “Just as before, the beach and the water were empty as far as the eye could see. And the eye could see clearly for a good half mile in every direction!

“You’ve got to understand that this was a totally flat and featureless beach flanked on one side by a flat, calm ocean and on the other by a deserted parking lot. I wasn’t vomiting more than a minute at the most, and an Olympic sprinter couldn’t have gotten out of sight in that amount of time. There was simply nowhere he could have gone.

“Mother and I are both certain that there had been no one anywhere near us before I started drowning, and it was clear that there was no one anywhere near us now. The man had appeared out of thin air and then vanished back into it. He somehow towed both of us to shore against the wind and the current without touching either of us, carried me out of the water, and then simply dematerialized.

“I’m sure that some people would say we were just distracted and confused, but we both saw what happened and we both know beyond any possibility of mistake that this was not an ordinary human being. Mother and I both believe that we were rescued by an angel.”

Given the prevalence of reports about angels rescuing humans, I think that an unbiased individual must at least consider the possibility that such things really happen. Nevertheless, it’s clear that they don’t happen every day. And unless they happen to you, how do you know what to believe?

If this rescue really occurred the way Hayden and Doris say it did, then it certainly seems as if some supernatural power intervened on their behalf. How could an ordinary human being materialize and dematerialize? If they were mistaken in thinking that he did this, we are still left to explain how an ordinary man could have towed them both to shore without physical contact. And if he were only a hallucination and they really swam in under their own power, who lifted Hayden out of the water and carried her up onto the beach?

It’s also difficult to see how the impression of these events could have resulted from either mental confusion or an honest mistake. If they had been experienced by only one person, we might write them off as an aberration induced by stress. But both Hayden and Doris agree that they saw the same things. And while we psychologists sometimes toss around terms such as group hallucination to account for inexplicable events witnessed by more than one person, the term has no real explanatory value. Psychology knows of no mechanism that can explain how two or more people could hallucinate the same thing at the same time.

The simplest explanation is, of course, that they are both lying. However, I know these women personally, and to me the idea that they would make up such a story and stick to it all these years seems no less incredible than the possibility that they were really rescued by an angel. Of course, you don’t know them, so what convinces me may not convince you.

And that’s precisely my point. If the argument for miracles rests upon tales of impossible occurrences told by strangers, it will never be truly convincing. Who knows whether the witnesses are at all credible? And even if they are, how far does that take us?

Most people today are aware of the inherent limitations of eyewitness testimony. Even jurors watching a crime enacted before them on videotape often can’t agree about what they’re seeing, despite an opportunity to review the material dozens of times. If that is so, then how much confidence can we place in the eyewitness testimony of strangers who claim to have experienced divine intervention? However convincingly miraculous this aquatic rescue may have seemed to Hayden and Doris, those of us who hear of it at second hand are entitled to be skeptical.

Even the best scientific research on miracles involves this same limitation. For example, there is an International Medical Commission that has been studying miraculous healings associated with the Shrine of the Virgin at Lourdes, France, since the 1940s. At this point, sixty-five cases out of the thousands of reported cures have survived rigorous investigation and been declared miraculous by the Catholic Church.

However, the commission’s conclusions still leave you and me in the position of having to take someone else’s word for what happened. Scientists have biases and make mistakes just like the rest of us. And there will always be equally qualified authorities arguing for the other side of any really interesting question. Even if we are prepared to accept what “experts” have to say about miracles, how are we to decide which experts to believe?

Believing the Improbable

But the study of miracles need not revolve around impossible wonders that happen to others. If there really is a supernatural power that intervenes to heal and rescue humans, it seems unlikely that its activities would be confined to situations outside the realm of everyday human experience. Once we know what to look for, I think we’ll find smaller, “garden-variety” miracles blooming in our own backyards, where we can look at them up close and form our own opinions about the way they work.

These surprising but by no means unbelievable reversals of fortune cannot be identified as miracles through their apparent impossibility. Nevertheless, I think you’ll see that before each one occurs, the individual experiencing it does something rather extraordinary. In the face of grave danger, she or he releases judgment and emotional conflict to retreat into a detached and loving state of mind some might call “beatific” or “fully surrendered.” It is this surprising shift in consciousness we’ll be using to distinguish actual miracles from ordinary lucky breaks.

I believe in miracles because I’ve experienced them. I figure that when you experience them, you’ll believe in them, too.

Things to Think About

1)       Miracles may be found in situations where a positive outcome is surprising, but by no means impossible. Can you think of any such instances from your own life or the lives of people you know well?

2)       Individuals who experience miracles seem to first enter a peaceful altered state of the kind traditionally associated with meditation. Have you ever meditated?

3)       Miracles may already have happened to you, or to people you know, without anyone having recognized them as such.

*Copyright c 2006 by Carolyn Miller. Reprinted by Permission of the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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