For false-christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.—St. Matthew 24:24
Will the false prophets towards the end of the world be working real miracles or false miracles? Our Lord says they will certainly appear to be “signs and wonders” performed by the enemies of His Kingdom. But they will not be actual miracles. They will be closer to magic than miracles. We will consider the Old Testament and St. Thomas Aquinas to see why magic is not the same as miracles.
When God asked Moses to free His people from the slavery of the Egyptians, Moses works many miracles to convince Pharaoh to “Let my people go” presumably so God did not have to strike down the first born of Egypt during the first Passover. But God obviously knew in His eternity that His own grace and mercy (seen in the miracles worked by Yahweh through Moses) would harden the heart of Pharaoh, leading to the greatest mystery of the Old Testament (Passover) and the greatest miracle of the Old Testament (the splitting of the Red Sea.)
The above picture reflects the following event from Sacred Scripture:
Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.—Ex 7:8-13
Then, in Exodus 7-10, God sends nine plagues even before the Passover. Surprisingly, the magicians of Pharaoh are capable of replicating the first two, just as they imitated the serpent by their “sacred arts” as the above passage explains. The first plague is the water turned to blood. The Egyptian magicians can indeed replicate this sign or wonder. The second plague is God sending frogs upon Egypt. The magicians of Pharaoh can also imitate this one. But the third plague is a swarm of gnats all upon Egypt, and the magicians are unable to replicate this one. Neither are they able to imitate the subsequent plagues (eg flies, livestock, boils.)
Why were Pharaohs magicians able to replicate the wonders of blood and frogs but not gnats or flies? I do not know, but I suspect it was due to the sheer volume of the latter. That is, satan has only limited power over the forces of nature, whereas Yahweh is eternal and almighty in all His works and power. This brings us to to the distinctions made by St. Thomas on miracles versus magic.
Consider what St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his Summa, the Second Part of the Second Part, Question 178. This is found in Article one of that question:
Reply to Objection 2. Our Lord is speaking there of the miracles to be wrought at the time of Antichrist, of which the Apostle says (2 Thessalonians 2:9) that the coming of Antichrist will be “according to the working of satan, in all power, and signs, and lying wonders.” To quote the words of Augustine (De Civ. Dei xx, 19), “it is a matter of debate whether they are called signs and lying wonders, because he will deceive the senses of mortals by imaginary visions, in that he will seem to do what he does not, or because, though they be real wonders, they will seduce into falsehood them that believe.” They are said to be real, because the things themselves will be real, just as Pharaoh’s magicians made real frogs and real serpents; but they will not be real miracles, because they will be done by the power of natural causes, as stated in I:114:4; whereas the working of miracles which is ascribed to a gratuitous grace, is done by God’s power for man’s profit.
Notice that even St. Augustine admits it was a valid debate in his time whether these signs would be “real wonders” or “lying wonders.” In one sense, they are real because Pharaoh’s magicians actually brought (by the power of satan) real frogs. But ultimately, says St. Thomas, these are not going to be “real miracles.” Why? Because satan’s power is really nothing more than the “power of natural causes.” In other words, satan working through his final antichrist and his minions will really affect the physical world, but such “lying wonders” will only be natural, not supernatural. Why? Because only God and His saints and angels work deeds that can be deemed “supernatural.”
Thus, the tricks of the final antichrist will be fake-miracles, not real-miracles. But they will affect the physical world. This also applies to modern day satanists and magicians doing anything more than sleight-of-hand tricks. Again, these natural or preternatural deeds of satan working through humans will indeed have real effects in the physical world (just as the goons of Pharaoh were able to accomplish) but they won’t fulfill the traditional definition of “a miracle.”
In Question 178, Article 2, we read in the Sed Contra and the Respondeo the following on this same topic:
On the contrary, The Apostle says (1 Corinthians 13:2): “If I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” Now whosoever has not charity is wicked, because “this gift alone of the Holy Ghost distinguishes the children of the kingdom from the children of perdition,” as Augustine says (De Trin. xv, 18). Therefore it would seem that even the wicked can work miracles.
I answer that, Some miracles are not true but imaginary deeds, because they delude man by the appearance of that which is not; while others are true deeds, yet they have not the character of a true miracle, because they are done by the power of some natural cause. Both of these can be done by the demons, as stated above (Article 1, Reply to Objection 2).
True miracles cannot be wrought save by the power of God, because God works them for man’s benefit, and this in two ways: in one way for the confirmation of truth declared, in another way in proof of a person’s holiness, which God desires to propose as an example of virtue. On the first way miracles can be wrought by any one who preaches the true faith and calls upon Christ’s name, as even the wicked do sometimes. On this way even the wicked can work miracles. Hence Jerome commenting on Matthew 7:22, “Have not we prophesied in Thy name?” says: “Sometimes prophesying, the working of miracles, and the casting out of demons are accorded not to the merit of those who do these things, but to the invoking of Christ’s name, that men may honor God, by invoking Whom such great miracles are wrought.”