Debunking the Sun Miracle Skeptics

Scene from The 13th Day


THE rain pelted the ground and drenched the crowds. It must have seemed like an exclamation point to the ridicule that filled the secular newspapers for months prior. Three shepherd children near Fatima, Portugal claimed that a miracle would occur in the Cova da Ira fields at high noon that day. It was October 13, 1917. As many as 30, 000 to 100, 000 people had gathered to witness it.

Their ranks included believers and non-believers, pious old ladies and scoffing young men. —Fr. John De Marchi, Italian priest and researcher; The Immaculate Heart, 1952

And then it happened. Or something did. According to eyewitnesses, the rain stopped, the clouds broke, and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disc in the sky. It cast a rainbow of colors across the surrounding clouds, the landscape, and the people who were now fixated upon the solar spectacle. Suddenly, the sun seemed to become unhinged from its place and began to zigzag toward the earth casting the throngs into a panic as many believed it was the end of the world. Then, all at once, the sun returned to its original place. The “miracle” was over… or almost. Witnesses reported that their soaked clothes were now “suddenly and completely dry.”

Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws—the sun ‘danced’ according to the typical expression of the people. —Avelino de Almeida,writing for O Século (Portugal’s most widely circulatedand influential newspaper, which was pro-government and anti-clerical at the time. Almeida’s previous articles had been to satirize the previously reported events at Fátima).

From another secular newspaper:

The sun, at one moment surrounded with scarlet flame, at another aureoled in yellow and deep purple, seemed to be in an exceedingly swift and whirling movement, at times appearing to be loosened from the sky and to be approaching the earth, strongly radiating heat. —Dr. Domingos Pinto Coelho, writing for the newspaper Ordem.

Other eyewitnesses reported much the same, emphasizing one aspect or another of the phenomenon that was witnessed.

The sun’s disc did not remain immobile. This was not the sparkling of a heavenly body, for it spun round on itself in a mad whirl, when suddenly a clamor was heard from all the people. The sun, whirling, seemed to loosen itself from the firmament and advance threateningly upon the earth as if to crush us with its huge fiery weight. The sensation during those moments was terrible. —Dr. Almeida Garrett, Professor of Natural Sciences at Coimbra University.

As if like a bolt from the blue, the clouds were wrenched apart, and the sun at its zenith appeared in all its splendor. It began to revolve vertiginously on its axis, like the most magnificent firewheel that could be imagined, taking on all the colors of the rainbow and sending forth multicolored flashes of light, producing the most astounding effect. This sublime and incomparable spectacle, which was repeated three distinct times, lasted for about ten minutes. The immense multitude, overcome by the evidence of such a tremendous prodigy, threw themselves on their knees. —Dr. Formigão, a professor at the seminary at Santarém, and a priest.



In my long and ongoing debates with an atheist, he sent me an article from titled Miracle of the Sun. It was his attempt to show that science can explain away every single miracle—including what occurred at Fatima. Now, what happened there may be considered one of the most remarkable public miracles since the time of Christ. Given that three children predicted that it would occur, as they were allegedly told by the Mother of God herself, the stakes are high. Add to that the fact that atheists, socialists, the secular press and opponents of the Church were present, this would really seem to be the créme de la créme miracle to debunk.

I read through the article and the “critical evaluation” of various “experts” and their explanations of how this miracle could have simply been a natural phenomenon and nothing more. Here are their comments followed by my responses:


C. (Critique)

Joe Nickell, a skeptic and investigator of paranormal phenomena, rightly notes that the “Sun Miracle” has also allegedly occurred at various Marian sites throughout the world. During one such instance in Conyers, Georgia in the mid-1990s, a telescope outfitted with a “vision-protecting Mylar solar filter” was pointed at the sun.

…more than two hundred people had viewed the sun through one of the solar filters and not a single person saw anything unusual. —Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 33.6 November / December 2009

R. (Response)

While one can assume that the observation in Conyers was only a test of the alleged “Sun Miracle” in that location, the question begs as to why use a telescope in the first place, given the reported nature of “the miracle of the sun”? At Fatima, eyewitnesses described the sun spinning, revolving “vertiginously on its axis”, and then zig-zagging toward the earth as if it had become unfixed from the heavens. Any amateur astronomer can tell you that this is impossible. While planets and moons move in an orbit, the sun itself is “fixed” in its place. It would be impossible for the sun to change positions. Therefore, the people in Portugal saw something else, something that is outside the boundaries of the law of physics and beyond the lens of a telescope. [As a sidenote, was the miracle of the sun a portent not so much of what may happen to the sun some day, but to the earth and its orbit?]

It is worth noting that at other Marian sites, the miracle of the sun, while reportedly witnessed by many, is usually never witnessed by all. This was also the case at Fatima.

…the prediction of an unspecified “miracle,” the abrupt beginning and end of the alleged miracle of the sun, the varied religious backgrounds of the observers, the sheer numbers of people present, and the lack of any known scientific causative factor make a mass hallucination unlikely. That the activity of the sun was reported as visible by those up to 18 kilometres (11 mi) away, also precludes the theory of a collective hallucination or mass hysteria.. . Despite these assertions, not all witnesses reported seeing the sun “dance.” Some people only saw the radiant colors. Others, including some believers, saw nothing at all. No scientific accounts exist of any unusual solar or astronomic activity during the time the sun was reported to have “danced”, and there are no witness reports of any unusual solar phenomenon further than 64 kilometres (40 mi) out from Cova da Iria. —

Why only some see this “miracle” is a mystery. Is it a “gift” for some for a particular reason in their lives? Some people I have spoken to, who have claimed to have seen the miracle of the sun in modern times, have tried to record with a camera what they were witnessing. However, the sun appeared normal on film or video tape. Eyewitness accounts are pretty much all we have to rely on, it seems. This usually presents a problem of subjectivity.

However, in the case of Fatima, the sheer number of witnesses bolsters the case that something extraordinary took place. The fact that not everyone in Portugal that day witnessed the event adds to the evidence in support of a miracle, since, a solar phenomenon passing over the country could and should have been witnessed by all present at the site.

The… solar phenomena were not observed in any observatory. Impossible that they should escape notice of so many astronomers and indeed the other inhabitants of the hemisphere… there is no question of an astronomical or meteorological event phenomenon… Either all the observers in Fátima were collectively deceived and erred in their testimony, or we must suppose an extra-natural intervention. —Fr. John De Marchi, Italian priest and researcher; The Immaculate Heart, 1952b:282



Professor Auguste Meessen of the Institute of Physics, Catholic University of Leuven, has stated that the reported observations were optical effects caused by prolonged staring at the sun. Meessen contends that retinal after-images produced after brief periods of sun gazing are a likely cause of the observed dancing effects. Similarly Meessen states that the colour changes witnessed were most likely caused by the bleaching of photosensitive retinal cells. —Auguste Meessen ‘Apparitions and Miracles of the Sun’ International Forum in Porto “Science, Religion and Conscience” October 23–25, 2003 ISSN: 1645-6564


It has long been established by ophthalmologists that to stare into the sun can cause permanent eye damage. It can take as little as seconds before temporary or permanent damage can begin to occur.

In the reports from eyewitnesses in Fatima, the miracle of the sun lasted not seconds, but minutes, and perhaps as long as “ten minutes.” Eyewitnesses stated that the clouds had broken and “the sun at its zenith appeared in all its splendor,” and so onlookers were staring directly at the sun. To stare at the bare sun at noon for even a minute—if that were even possible—would likely have been enough to cause permanent eye damage in at least a few people. But out of tens of thousands of people, there were no reports of a single person having incurred eye damage, let alone blindness. (On the other hand, this has occurred at some alleged Marian apparition sites where certain people have gone looking for a miracle).

Professor Meesen’s logic further falls apart by stating that the dancing effects of the sun were merely the result of retinal after-images. If that were the case, then the miracle of the sun witnessed at Fatima should be easily duplicated in your own backyard. In fact, to be certain, the thousands gathered that day would have looked up at the sun later that afternoon and in the days following to see if the miracle would repeat. If the “miracle” that October 13th was only the result of retinal images or “the bleaching of photosensitive retinal cells,” the skeptics and secular newspapers who had earlier been ridiculing the three shepherd children would surely have pointed this out. The aftermath of excitement would have quickly dissipated as people began to readily duplicate “retinal after-images.” The opposite is true. Eyewitnesses described the sight as a “prodigy,” something “incapable of describing,” and a “remarkable spectacle.” What is remarkable about something that one could easily duplicate an hour later?



Nickell also suggests that the dancing effects witnessed at Fatima may have been due to optical effects resulting from temporary retinal distortion caused by staring at such an intense light. Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 33.6 November / December 2009


In no cases do we read of any eyewitnesses reporting lingering optical effects. The prodigy seemed to simply end when the sun, after appearing to zig-zag to the earth, resumed its normal course; eyewitnesses reported that the phenomenon lasted only so long and then abruptly ended. However, if Nickell’s explanation were true, the retinal distortion should have continued as long as people continued to stare at the sun… an hour, three hours, all day long. This contradicts reports that indicate that the miracle had a definitive ending.

Furthermore, eyewitnesses specifically noted that the sun did not appear as an ‘intense light,’ but rather it appeared “pale and did not hurt my eyes” and “enveloped in… gauzy grey light” and began to emit “multicolored flashes of light, producing the most astounding effect.” It is worth noting that during an eclipse of the sun, or when the sun is under thick cloud covering, it can be looked at without any perceived discomfort. However, in these cases the sun is blocked by another object, and in fact, can still cause serious and permanent harm.



Steuart Campbell, writing for the 1989 edition of Journal of Meteorology, postulated that a cloud of stratospheric dust changed the appearance of the sun on 13 October, making it easy to look at, and causing it to appear yellow, blue, and violet and to spin. In support of his hypothesis, Mr. Campbell reports that a blue and reddened sun was reported in China as documented in 1983. —Fátima’s dusty veil”, New Humanist, Vol 104 No 2, August 1989 and “The Miracle of the Sun at Fátima”, Journal of Meteorology, UK, Vol 14, no. 142, October, 1989


Once again, this hypothesis contradicts eyewitness reports. Not everyone present at Fatima that day witnessed a miracle in the sky. If this was a solar anomaly, a “cloud of stratospheric dust” that lasted several minutes, surely it would have been in plain view to everyone. Campbell’s assertion also falls short of explaining the third aspect of the spectacle that day: the sight of the sun zig-zagging and appearing to hurl toward to the earth. Lastly, such a stratospheric dust cloud would surely be an event that no one could predict months in advance in that time period, let alone three sheep-herding children.

Neither does a cloud of dust explain how everyone’s clothing, which had been drenched by a downpour of rain that only ended just minutes before, were now “suddenly and completely dry.” Something outside of the normal laws of physics and thermodynamics took place that day producing not only an optical, but physical “miracle.”



Joe Nickell claims that the position of the phenomenon, as described by the various witnesses, is at the wrong azimuth and elevation to have been the sun. He suggests the cause may have been a sundog. Sometimes referred to as a parhelion or “mock sun.” A sundog is a relatively common atmospheric optical phenomenon associated with the reflection/refraction of sunlight by the numerous small ice crystals that make up cirrus or cirrostratus clouds. A sundog is, however, a stationary phenomenon, and would not explain the reported appearance of the “dancing sun”… Nickell concludes that there was likely a combination of factors, including optical and meteorological phenomena (the sun being seen through thin clouds, causing it to appear as a silver disc; an alteration in the density of the passing clouds, so that the sun would alternatively brighten and dim, thus appearing to advance and recede; dust or moisture droplets in the atmosphere, imparting a variety of colors to sunlight; and/or other phenomena). —


There comes a point where a skeptic turns into a fanatic. That is, one who refuses to face the truth despite the overwhelming evidence.

Here in Canada, I witness regularly the solar effect known as a “sun dog.” It appears, not within the sun, but quite far off to the left or the right or sometimes above. However, at Fatima, observers described the sun itself—not objects close to it—as putting on a spectacle. Besides, as pointed out, sundogs are stationary. They are bright refractions of light that appear like small, vertical rainbows. They are pretty, no doubt. But seeing them myself on a frequent basis, they look nothing like what has been described as the “miracle of the sun,” and no more inexplicable than a rainbow after a storm.

As for Nickell’s other conclusions, they are obviously a potpourri of guesses. I suppose when one single answer doesn’t fit, then several single answers thrown together might be enough to dazzle the uncritical mind. Ultimately, I think the people—including the scientific observers present that day—deserve a bit more intellectual credit than Nickell is giving them.  Besides, he still hasn’t answered how the children could have predicted the “perfect storm” of anomalies that Nickell has conjured up. So it is with other scientific guesses that have been made:

Paul Simons, in an article entitled “Weather Secrets of Miracle at Fátima”, states that he believes it possible that some of the optical effects at Fatima may have been caused by a cloud of dust from the Sahara. — “Weather Secrets of Miracle at Fátima”, Paul Simons, The Times, February 17, 2005.

Odd that no one present that day commented on dusty weather. On the contrary, it was pouring rain—which tends to dampen a dust storm quite quickly.

Kevin McClure claims that the crowd at Cova da Iria may have been expecting to see signs in the sun, as similar phenomena had been reported in the weeks leading up to the miracle. On this basis he believes that the crowd saw what it wanted to see. But it has been objected that McClure’s account fails to explain similar reports of people miles away, who by their own testimony were not even thinking of the event at the time, or the sudden drying of people’s sodden, rain-soaked clothes. Kevin McClure stated that he had never seen such a collection of contradictory accounts of a case in any of the research he had done in the previous ten years, although he has not explicitly stated what these contradictions were.



Many years after the events in question, Stanley L. Jaki, a professor of physics at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, Benedictine priest and author of a number of books reconciling science and Catholicism, proposed a unique theory about the supposed miracle. Jaki believes that the event was natural and meteorological in nature, but that the fact the event occurred at the exact time predicted was a miracle. —Jaki, Stanley L. (1999). God and the Sun at Fátima. Real View Books, ASIN B0006R7UJ6


Here, it must be said, that the idea that some sort of natural phenomena contributed to what is known as “the miracle of the sun” is not incompatible with the miracle. Just as God saved mankind working through nature—the incarnation of Jesus Christ in the womb of a virgin— so too, miracles do not necessarily eliminate the “participation” of nature. What makes a miracle a miracle is that some aspect of the event is inexplicable and can only be explained as supernatural in origin.

Catholicism is not opposed to science. It is opposed to atheism that makes science into a religion and the answer to all things existential. And neither has the Catholic Church, to her credit, historically been in a hurry to declare something a miracle. She often takes years to study events and eliminate the possibility of a hoax.

Regarding the miracle of the sun, a declaration finally came some thirteen years later…

The event was officially accepted as a miracle by the Roman Catholic Church on 13 October 1930. On 13 October 1951, papal legate Cardinal Tedeschini told the million gathered at Fátima that on 30 October, 31 October, 1 November, and 8 November 1950, Pope Pius XII himself witnessed the miracle of the sun from the Vatican gardens. —Joseph Pelletier. (1983). The Sun Danced at Fátima. Doubleday, New York. p. 147–151.



While some scientific explanations have been proposed as to what happened that October day, none completely satisfy logic and the overall picture: that three small children were told by the Blessed Virgin Mary, months in advance, that at noon on the 13th, a miracle would occur. An extraordinary and inexplicable event occurred as predicted.

It was a miracle.

But there is another prophetic aspect to this event that, unfortunately, is often overlooked. It is one of the central messages that accompanied the Blessed Virgin Mary as part of her apparitions to the children. She warned, shortly before Vladimir Lenin stormed Russia and began the Marxist revolution there, that the world was at a turning point:

When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. —Our Lady of Fatima, Message of Fatima,

As it turned out, a great light did illumine the sky on January 25, 1938 followed a year later by the outbreak of World War II—but the consecration of Russia was delayed with no small consequences:

Since we did not heed this appeal of the Message, we see that it has been fulfilled, Russia has invaded the world with her errors. And if we have not yet seen the complete fulfillment of the final part of this prophecy, we are going towards it little by little with great strides. If we do not reject the path of sin, hatred, revenge, injustice, violations of the rights of the human person, immorality and violence, etc. —Sr. Lucia, one of the three Fatima seers, Letter to Pope John Paul II, May 12th, 1982;

If the atheist refuses to believe in a supernatural event he was not alive to witness, perhaps he is able to recognize that a prophecy made by the Mother of God last century is being fulfilled right before his eyes.

God exists. He loves us. And He is intervening in our times in the most extraordinary, miraculous, and soon, definitive ways…



A recent Marian miracle?

A “miracle of the sun” testimony: The Eclipse of the Son

Fatima, and the Great Shaking


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