On Tuesday, the 29th of April, 2003, the author of the Danish book “Miracles – Encounters Between Heaven and Earth”, Niels Christian Hvidt, held a lecture in a small church in Southern Copenhagen. The Danish Skeptics were represented by myself and John Ståhle.
Hvidt is a Catholic, a minority religious group in Denmark. Most Danish Christians are of the Lutheran-Protestant persuasion, and Danes are generally hard to convince of anything, so he was definitely in strange waters. His book has created quite a stir in Denmark (Danes are usually oblivious to miracles other than the occasional win by the National Danish soccer team), and has received predominantly positive reviews in the media, a miracle in itself.
Time to get the show on the road
The lecture itself was your garden-variety walk-through of the examples in the book, peppered with recommendations of quite a large number of mostly American books on faith, prayer and healing. He made specific mention of his apparent heroine, Vassula Rydén, who has made a name for herself by practicing the old trick of semi-automated writing. Vassula does not go into a trance when she writes, she is merely “feeling” the presence of God or other heavenly celebrities. She has been quite effective in spreading her messages, mainly that the Churches should unite and that everyone should stop fighting. Not a hint about truly divine information, like a cure for cancer, a practical zero-gravity toilet or the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body. Nope, we learn kindergarten stuff, like “don’t hurt me” and “be nice”.
Apart from those deploringly mundane messages, we heard about substances in sealed glass containers which turns liquid during clerical duties, trees that seemingly do not have any roots, and the apparent positive effect of prayer on women wanting to become pregnant.
In the book, Hvidt also tells the story of Padre Pio, probably the most famous person ever to show signs of stigmata, the Shroud of Turin, weeping/bleeding statues and icons and a very busy exorcist, who has performed more than 40,000 excorcisms since 1984 (up to 15 a day!). The book is certainly worth reading, if only to illustrate the need for critical thinking. Proofs of real miracles are completely absent.
A few points…
Even though Hvidt purportedly describes real miracles, there is no real evidence in the book itself, and, unfortunately, he did not present any at the lecture, either. His method of presenting his case is very similar to what we have come to expect from Writers from WooWoo Land: Grand claims, hints, allegations, appeals to authority, false data, blind belief and a fundamental gullibility.
A few points are worth mentioning about the examples Hvidt uses to persuade us that miracles do, indeed, take place. Let’s take a quick look at some of his claims and the problems associated with them.
Eucharistic miracle in Lanciano
Claim: Around the year 700 in Lanciano, Italy, a monk, weak in faith, witnessed the hosties turn into flesh and the wine into blood. Some moments passed before he turned to those around him and proclaimed that the change had taken place. The flesh and blood were sealed in containers and subsequent investigations showed that the substances were indeed human flesh (a slice from a heart) and blood. The blood type is, incidentally, the same as the Shroud of Turin (AB). The flesh should have deteriorated by now, had it been normal flesh. The blood has coagulated into lumps. It has been claimed that it was not possible in 700 to have cut such a thin slice of a human heart.
- The core of the miracle is the transformation of the bread and wine into flesh and blood. But only one man witnessed it, while nobody else (apparently) was close enough to discover the transformation. Therefore, a simple switch could easily have taken place. Sleight-of-hand, and you have a miracle.
- It is therefore of relatively little importance how well the flesh and blood are preserved. There are many examples of various degrees of mummification and dehydration of flesh, especially if the flesh has not been exposed all that much to the open air or moisture.
- We have no way of knowing if the flesh and blood have been changed to new samples over the years.
- It is absolutely possible to have cut a thin slice of a human heart in 700 – just freeze the heart first, then cut it.
- Hvidt gives two different periods when this has happened, 700 and 750. If he isn’t even sure when it happened, how can he be sure that it happened at all?
Eucharistic miracle of San Gennaro
Claim: A glass container with a coagulated mixture becomes liquid only during church celebrations three times a year, May, September and December. The liquid is presumably the blood of the patron saint of Napoli (Naples), San Gennaro, and only becomes liquid when used in the context of belief.
- Nobody knows for sure that this is actually the blood of San Gennaro.
- The contents of another, similar container, containing the blood of San Pantaleone, actually becomes liquid when subjected to heat. Has anyone measured the temperature in the chapel, where the substance ascribed to San Gennaro is kept? If there are significant changes in temperature, this could explain why the substance becomes liquid.
- The substance does not always turn liquid, nor is it very precise. There is often a span of several hours.
- Sometimes, the miracle doesn’t occur at all.
- Since the church has decided that the container must not be opened, only spectral analyses have been made. This indicates that there is indeed blood in the container. However, we don’t know if there are any other substances that might make the substance coagulate, e.g. when shaken or subjected to temperature shifts.
- It must also be considered a problem that the very people who benefit most from this miracle are the ones who have complete and exclusive access to it.
- Since the present container is not from the time when San Gennaro was killed and his blood was collected, we can assume that at least one other container has been used to save it. We have no idea what this container was made of, but it is doubtful that it would have been possible to create a completely air-tight container in those days. At any rate, when the substance was moved to the present container, anything could have happened – a switch, an addition to the substance, a whole new substance could have replaced the old one. The possibilities are virtually endless.
The story of Little Audrey Santo
Claim: A young girl, born in 1983, is claimed to be instrumental in many miracles, e.g. oil-weeping icons and statues, as well as people being healed. The girl is multi-handicapped, unable to move, speak or eat without help. The family garage has been converted into a chapel. The miracles started after the girl, her mother and one of the girl’s nurses, travelled to Medjugorie in Bosnia, a modern-day Lourdes. When they returned home, the miracles started. Audrey began to show signs of stigmata, and her body showed signs of red stripes, as if she had been scourged. People visiting the girl claimed to be healed. A eucharistic miracle has even been filmed, where a priest notice a red spot on one of the hosties. The whole place is literally filled with icons, statues, plaques, photos and crucifixes that all drip oil, mostly olive oil. Whether it is virgin olive oil could not be confirmed.
- Even investigators, commissioned by the church, do not accept the events as miracles.
- It is virtually impossible to prevent the possibility of chicanery: The members of the family – those with the clearest interest in keeping this miracle popular – have to have access 24/7 to the handicapped girl. How can you deny them that?
- In the case of the red spot on a hostie, it is very easy for the priest to have palmed a tiny sack of blood, or merely prepared it beforehand.
The Holy Fire in Jerusalem.
Claim: Each year, on Holy Saturday (Orthodox Easter Saturday), people gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, to watch candles being lit by fire from Heaven. The Patriarch enters the tomb with two unlit candles and reappears later with the candles now burning. The fire is used to light the candles held by the people attending the ceremony. Right before the Patriarch enters the tomb, Israeli authorities check the tomb for any lights or methods of lighting a fire. The tomb is then sealed until the arrival of the patriarch. He is stripped of his royal liturgical vestments, leaving only a white alba. He then enters the tomb, alone, and reappears with the candles lit.
- Israeli authorities (Hvidt calls them “civil servants” in the book) may be good at their day-time jobs, but they are hardly authorities when it comes to detecting trickery and chicanery.
- Nobody seems to have realized that the Patriarch should be body-searched. He could easily carry a concealed match, lighter or something else which can be used to light the candles.
- The candles themselves could be chemically prepared in advance to light up by themselves. In favor of this speaks the fact that the Patriarch sometimes has to stay in the tomb for a prolonged period of time.
- No cameras are allowed inside the tomb while the candles are being lighted. The actual lighting of the candles has never been observed by anyone else but the patriarch. We only have the testimony of the patriarch.
The Holy Theodora’s trees
Claim: On top of a small chapel, 17 trees are standing, circa 15 meters tall with trunks that are up to 70 cm in diameter, apparently without any roots. The chapel looks way too small for this task, being only 4 x 6 x 2.5 m on the outside. Inside, there are two rooms, 2.5 x 3 meters and 2.3 x 2 meters. There are no roots to be seen, either on top of the roof, inside the rooms or outside on the walls.
- The roof is designed with an arch construction. The walls themselves are filled with big stones and are from 50 to around 75 cm thick. This makes it a pretty strong structure, which this image clearly shows:
- Nobody has ever drilled holes in the walls to see if there are actually roots there.
- There is a spring right underneath the chapel, making it easy for the trees to get water.
- There are clear signs on the inside of the chapel of both water seeping through, as well as cracks which have been partially repaired over the years. There are also small twigs breaking through the roof.
- The most damaging fact is that the figures regarding the trees are flat-out wrong. In the book, Hvidt does not show the trees at their full height, but at the lecture, he did. Big mistake. Take a look at this:
If the height of the chapel is 2.5 meters, then there is no way that the trees can be 15 meters tall. In fact, I cannot envision any tree being above 7,5 m – half the size that Hvidt gives. Only a few trees could be said to be near 70 cm. in diameter (probably around 40-50 cm), and most are nowhere near the maximum height.
When I questioned Hvidt on this, he actually said that he had no problems if he couldn’t determine this as a supernatural phenomenon. I kid you not:
“To me, it is not the question…”
“I believe that the measurements (of the trees) are reasonably accurate…somewhere between 10 and 15 meters…”
“Roots could very well grow in the walls…”
Niels Christian Hvidt
Excuse me? The whole miracle is based on the size and weight of those trees, as well as the absence of roots, and he doesn’t care that his claims are false?
The miracle on Kefalonia
Claim: Around August 15th every year, small non-poisonous snakes with a black cross on their heads appear near a church in Greece, where they slither into the church and onto the icon of the Virgin Mary. In the church, Hvidt observes a snake appearing at a priest’s hand, holding a staff. The snake crawls up and down the stake, and reaches the priest’s hand again, at which point the priest appears to notice it.
- The snakes are indeed poisonous, a fact on which Hvidt quotes the patriarch, Kalafatákis, on (page 201). Why doesn’t he get his facts straight?
- The snakes do not appear on the icon, but is found around the church and placed on the icon:
“Markopoulo & Arginia: High on the hill top above the resort of Katelios between August 6th and 15th small harmless snakes have been making their appearance for centuries in the church of Panayia of Langouvarda and in the village of Arginia higher up the slopes of Mount Ainos. The original church of Langouvarda was burned in 1945 and completely destroyed in the earthquakes of 1953. From the night of August 6th ‘telescopus fallax’ known as the cat snake appears in and around the church’s courtyard, walls and bell tower. The inhabitants of the villages consider them to be holy, collecting these harmless creatures and setting them in front of the silver icon of the ‘Virgin of the Snakes’. After the festival on the 15th August these honoured guests leave until the same time next year. Some say it’s a miracle, whilst others believe the wet damp route that runs from the fresh water spring in Arginia down the ravine to Markopoulo is a migratory path. Locals consider their presence as a good omen for the coming year. During the German occupation in the second world war and the earthquake of 1953 the snakes failed to appear.”
- The snakes do not appear on August 15th every year, but can vary their arrival by several days, almost two weeks.
- The snakes do not appear at all in some years.
- The snake appearing on the staff could easily have been hidden in the sleeve of the patriarch. Think “Magicians and pigeons”.
- There are many animals with markings that look like something on their bodies:
Why are these animals, when living in or near churches, not seen as miracles?
Niels Christian Hvidt does absolutely nothing to conduct an even cursory investigation. He accepts the most incredible claims of miracles, which are often witnessed by only one person. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that people can have sinister reasons for claiming a miracle. There is not a single skeptical bone in Hvidt. He does not, in earnest, question his sources. He merely reports, sometimes quite starry-eyed, even though he does bring up the issue of proof constantly. He just doesn’t follow through. He expects us to believe that these miracles are real and that science has given up explaining them. What he should know and stress (curiously enough, he seems aware of the importance of double-blind experiments) is that all scientific findings are temporary. And that it is OK to say that, for now, we simply don’t know. He falls into the usual trap that, if we cannot explain it now, it has to be God Who Dunnit. Using his own definitions, electricity should have been declared a miracle 300 years ago. He fails to see this, and that might be the biggest problem I have with his book. His gullibility is only surpassed by his desire to believe.
After the lecture, Hvidt approached us and asked why me and John Ståhle (who had quite successfully questioned Hvidt on his data regarding the women getting pregnant by way of prayer) seemed so intent on ridiculing his claims. During the lively – let’s call it that – conversation, his basic line was that, even though doubt might be cast about his data, to him there seemed little reason to doubt the miraculous nature of it. He tried desperately to paint skeptics (and critics in general) as basing their case on belief also. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to ask him why, if he was dismissing people because they believed, we couldn’t dismiss him because of what he believed in. Why should his belief be the true one?
Instead, he went to the Vicar’s table, while we in turn had very interesting discussions with some young Lutheran Christians.
Niels Christian Hvidt does not take criticism well.
A trinity of reasons
I am not saying that any of these people described in the book are crooks. I am merely saying that there are very good reasons why people want miracles to be true, and that we should be highly skeptical of their claims.
Miracles are Big Business
We cannot ignore the vast commercial aspects of keeping the miracle tradition alive. Hvidt himself often notes that the place of a miracle can often turn into a carnival, or at the very least, become a goldmine. Does he see this as a problem? He does recognize that it can be, he just doesn’t see it as a driving force in his own case stories. Not only does the church itself gain tremendous advantages, the people directly involved, the local communities, the city or even the whole country stand to gain from it, mostly financially but also by reputation. The tourist trade will invariably grow – well, miraculously, once a miracle is even rumored to have taken place, and everyone benefits from it. It’s a win-win situation.
The current pope, John Paul II, has appointed more saints than any other pope in the past 400 years. Almost 500 people have made it to sainthood since he became pope in 1978, as well as over a thousand as “blesseds”, the rank below sainthood. In all, there are almost 10,000 saints. Along with those comes the saint(ly) trade.
Miracles hold the key to a key question
We also need to find out whether it is true or not, simply because it can help answering one of the two most profound questions man has ever asked himself: If there is life outside this planet, and what happens to us when we die. Part of the latter question could be answered, if we knew that miracles really happened. Then we would know that a sovereign deity existed, and we could be one step closer to the truth. The religious questions are by far the oldest ones, and will probably mean a great deal more to people, should the questions be answered. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we learn the whole truth about this.
Miracles can be (and are) exploited
It must also be said that in cases like Audrey Santo, it is not only vital for our world view to get to the core of the matter, we must also know if a multi-handicapped girl is exploited in the name of a deity many people consider good.
Leave no stone unturned. And be prepared to accept the outcome.
A funny thing happened…
Hvidt named three aspects that need to be present, before we can say that a miracle has happened:
- It has to be inexplicable.
- It has to attract attention.
- It has to be viewed as the work of God or happen in the context of God.
During his presentation, his laptop froze several times. If we consider his aspects, this event should qualify as a miracle:
- Nobody was able to explain why his laptop froze.
- It did create breaks in his lecture, causing people to pay attention.
- It happened in a church.
The phone number to the Vatican is 011-39-06-698-83913. Perhaps Niels Christian Hvidt should make a phone call…?
This article is the first in a series of three. The second article can be read here, and the response to the second article can be read here.