Jesus vs. Scientists: Who's Better at Miracles?

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Photo credit: Toby Hudson

Much scientific progress has been made in the 2,000 years since Jesus Christ walked the Earth. In all this time, have scientists managed to replicate his miracles, or does the Son of God still have an edge?

Life's Little Mysteries matches up the miraculous deeds of Jesus, according to the Gospels, against scientists' more labor-intensive efforts to achieve the same results.

Born of a virgin

According to the Bible, Christ was immaculately conceived, making him the Son of God and of the Virgin Mary. Today, being born of a virgin is nothing to write home about, thanks to the development of artificial insemination. In this procedure, a male's sperm is either injected into a female's uterus, or is used to fertilize her eggs in a petri dish (after which the fertilized egg is re-injected into the female). Either way, there's no sex required.

The Italian scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani performed the first artificial insemination of a dog in 1786, and the Englishman John Hunter achieved the feat in a human just four years later. Today, it's a popular form of conception for single women and both infertile and lesbian couples.

Turning water into wine

Unfortunately, until the Second Coming of the Lord, we're stuck forking over $10 for a decent bottle of wine. As far as we can tell, no scientists are even working on the problem of how to instantaneously transform water into Cabernet Sauvignon. The closest they've come may be the invention of grape-flavored Alka-Seltzer. Cheers, Jesus. [Did Jesus Christ Really Exist? The Evidence Analyzed]

Healing lameness

According to the Book of Acts, Jesus cured a lame man, enabling him to walk. Can scientists do that?

They have recently taken the first steps. Several research groups are independently developing therapies to help paraplegics regain the ability to stand and walk, anchored in new knowledge of the plasticity of nerves in the spinal cord. An experimental therapy being developed by researchers at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center has, as of last week, enabled two paraplegics to stand and take steps with assistance. In this technique, an electric current is applied to a network of nerves in the spinal cord that are capable of initiating movement on their own, without the help of the brain. Stimulating these nerves gradually re-teaches them how to take steps.

Meanwhile, roboticists at the University of California at Berkeley have built a computer-controlled "exoskeleton," essentially robotic leg braces, which a paralyzed Berkeley student used to walk across the stage at his graduation last May. He was able to stand and walk by inputting commands into a small computer that controls the movements of the braces.

Feeding the masses

No, scientists aren't able to swell a few loaves of bread and two fish into an enormous feast capable of feeding thousands, as Jesus allegedly did at Bethsaida. However, major (though controversial) advances in agricultural and genetic engineering have enabled food production to increase dramatically since the 1960s, and the "Green Revolution," as it is known, has been credited with saving billions of people from starvation. Genetic engineering of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, advances in irrigation infrastructure, and the distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to farmers have all played a role.

A recent case of science's ability to feed the multitudes is, in fact, known as the "Malawi maize miracle." In 2005, the African country of Malawi, one of the poorest and most famine-prone places on Earth, adopted a program that provides heavily subsidized seeds and fertilizer to poor farmers. Greater use of fertilizer led to the biggest maize crop in the country's history during the program's first year — enough to feed the country with tons left over for exporting. The program has since grown each year in Malawi and has been adopted in other African countries as well. [Could Cannibalism Solve Future Food Shortages?]

Making blind people see

Jesus made a blind man  see. Today, scientists do it routinely. Nearly half of all blindness results from cataracts, or degeneration of the eye lens with age that causes it to become opaque. In a 15-minute procedure, ophthalmologists can remove a person's faulty eye lens and replace it with a synthetic lens, restoring their vision.

Thanks to recent advances in laser eye-surgery techniques, scientists have even managed to one-up Christ in the domain of vision improvement. In some circumstances, they are able to correct patients' vision to 20/10, enabling them to see twice as far as most people. Research by David Williams, director of the Center for Visual Science at the University of Rochester, and his colleagues may soon enable laser eye surgeons to achieve 20/10-or-better vision for a large percentage of patients.

Williams and his colleagues use an instrument called a wave front sensor to detect distortions in human vision. They shoot light into the eye and observe how it bounces back through hundreds of tiny lenses in the sensor. The aberrations in patterns created by those lenses serve as a map of the eye's mistakes. Customized surgical techniques are being developed to implement the results of patients' wave front measurements, in order to correct their vision far beyond 20/20. [What If Humans had Eagle Vision?]

Resurrection of Lazarus

In the Gospel of John, Jesus brings Lazarus back to life four days after his death. Have scientists pulled off such a stunt?

Aside from CPR, electric shocks to the heart, and the other tricks that have been devised for re-starting freshly dead people's circulation, scientists have not yet come up with a way to bring people back to life after an extended period.  And because of how quickly human tissue starts to decay without oxygen, Jesus might always have a monopoly on fourth-day resurrections.

That said, the biologist Mark Roth and his fellow researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash., are developing a technique of putting animals  in and out of a near-death state that they call "suspended animation." They've found that most mammals seem to have a dormant gene that allows for the same "metabolic flexibility" displayed by bears when they hibernate during the winter. Roth and his colleagues have discovered that other creatures can be switched off and on simply by altering the concentration of oxygen in the air they breathe.

"We use the term suspended animation to refer to a state where all observable life processes … are stopped: the animals do not move nor breathe and the heart does not beat. We have found that we are able to put a number of animals (yeast, nematodes, drosophila, frogs and zebra fish) into a state of suspended animation for up to 24 hours," the researchers say on their website.

In other words, they can switch animals off for a day and then reanimate them. They hope to develop a way of doing this to humans, too, which would enable doctors to temporarily suspend the animation of trauma patients, "buying time" to make repairs and preventing blood loss.

Summing up, scientists get high marks in regard to virgin births, food production and eyesight restoration, but Jesus still rules when it comes to free wine, paralysis reversal and the undoing of death. Check back with us in another 2,000 years.

This story was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries and join us on Facebook.

Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.