Can Miracles Happen?

Modern atheists and skeptics have no better case than that presented by the king of the skeptics, David Hume (d.1776). If we can refute Hume, we have refuted all. Section 10 of Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is arguably the greatest argument ever written against miracles. In paragraph 90, Hume states:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why it is more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

Hume goes on to say that

First, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure against all delusion in themselves . . . Secondly. . .The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience, resemble those, of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought ot give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations. . . Thirdly. It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations . . .

Hume then goes on to conclude in paragraph 98 “Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less a proof . . .” He goes on to conclude that anyone who believes a religion based on miracles does so by believing what is contrary to custom and experience, and a wise man would never do such a thing.

Recall that I said in the beginning that if we can refute Hume, we have refuted the main attack of modern skepticism. Our response:

First, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, Hume’s argument is itself built on a very flawed argument: “Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.”

Second, Hume is adding evidence instead of weighing evidence. It does no good whatsoever to count all the experiences of men who did not observe a miracle. That millions of men never saw an anomaly says nothing of whether the one man who did see the anomaly is credible. So counting people who did not observe something is pointless. I recall visiting Ripley’s Believe it or Not and seeing many odd, weird, unusual anomalies of nature, such as a woman with a nine-inch neck, something that neither I nor anyone I know have ever seen. That I have never seen such a woman says nothing of whether Mr. Ripley’s account is true or false.

Third, regarding the number of eyewitnesses, as Norman Geisler points out about the New Testament witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus, “There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament written by about nine different persons, all eyewitnesses or contemporaries of the events they recorded.” These men claimed to have “seen and heard” (Acts 4:20) the resurrection of Jesus, and claimed to have not written “cunningly devised fables” (2 Peter 1:16). Nine times in the first three verses of 1 John, the apostle claims to have seen, heard, and touched Jesus. As Geisler concludes “There is little argument that 1 Corinthians was written by the apostle Paul around A.D. 55 or 56, only about two decades after the death of Christ. This is a powerful witness to the reality of the miracle of the resurrection. It is a very early document. It is written by an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ. Paul refers to more than 500 who had seen and heard the resurrected Christ directly (1 Cor. 15:6). At the time, most of these witnesses were alive, available for cross-examination.” Therefore we have many witnesses, well-documented witnesses, and first-hand, primary source accounts which were written soon after the events.

Fourth, regarding the quality of the witnesses, Hume’s argument also falls short. Luke, the writer of the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, was a well-educated Greek physician. One can only view the quality of the Greek in the first four verses of his gospel to determine that he was well-educated, for the style and grammar of these verses are of the highest quality. He claims to have “investigated everything carefully and put it in consecutive order (Luke 1:1-4, NASB). Paul was one of the upper-class in Jewish society, having been known personally by the High Priest and council of elders, who were the top-level government of the land (Acts 22:5). Matthew was a very educated tax collector, as the long quotes in his gospel show. The writer of the book of Hebrews likewise demonstrates a very high level of education. Further, Israel was the crossroads of three continents, and was very well-traveled area, in spite of its small size. The resurrection of Jesus happened in a capital city in front of the most educated people of that day. The writers of the New Testament were by no means “ignorant and barbarous” but were quite educated, living in a very civilized country, regularly traveled from the sea and from Roman roads.

Fifth, Hume’s argument proves too much, for if valid, it discredits all anomalies. Any event that is unusual or not able to be repeated must not have happened. For example, in the 1968 olympics, long jumper Bob Beamon broke the existing world record by almost two feet. No time before or since has anyone broken such a record by such a fantastically large amount; breaking world records is somewhat rare, and almost all are broken by mere fractions of an inch. Applying Hume’s standards to this event would force us to conclude that it did not happen, even though we know it did.

Writer Richard Whatley, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, wrote the book Historical Doubts Relative To Napoleon Bonaparte. In this book, Whatley applies Hume’s process to the case of Napoleon in a humorous manner, ultimately concluding that if we follow the skeptical line of reasoning, a wise man would not believe the story of Napoleon.

Sixth, not long after Hume wrote, several writers pointed out the logical blunder of his argument. Thomas Starkie responded by pointing out that Hume’s argument seems to be saying that human experience shows that we cannot trust human experience. In addition to this circularity, Starkie questions whether inexperience of an event can trump the experience of an event. Hume states that we have never experienced a miracle, and therefore our experience trumps the testimony of those who claim to have experienced one. But is it reasonable to conclude that inexperience proves that the thing is not?

Hume’s arguments have been long refuted, as have been the warmed-over leftovers which are presented by today’s skeptics. Longer treatises can be readily found, one of which is in Geisler’s Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics.

We find Hume’s arguments illogical and lacking, and the accounts of Jesus resurrection from the dead to be numerous, credible, and well-documented.

I would urge you to read the New Testament for what it is: eyewitness accounts of people who were writing what they saw.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Skepticism. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Can Miracles Happen?

  1. dwwork says:

    Great post. I am amazed at how often Hume’s argument still comes up as something new.

    • humblesmith says:

      Oh, yes. Hume is repeated very often, even by folks who’ve never heard his name.

      What strikes me as interesting about Hume is the extent to which he went to hold to his skepticism, even to the point of saying we cannot know cause and effect. It is amazing how far people will go to deny God.

  2. Pingback: Why Doesn’t God Routinely Do Fantastic Miracles Today? | Thomistic Bent

  3. Regarding the 500 witnesses who were available for cross-examination: How do we know that?

    In Matthew, we read of many dead rising and showing themselves to many people. That’s a stunning occurrence, one that could hardly escape notice. You said that Jerusalem was a cross-roads of three continents, yet we have no contemporary mention of the re-animations anywhere else in the world — indeed, no mention elsewhere in the NT. Curious, that.

    We hear stories of miracles throughout history yet incontrovertible proof is sorely lacking. Do you have any personal knowledge of miracles which can be proven?

  4. Pingback: The Skeptic Vs. The Miracle….. #Buying a Miracle | The BitterSweet End

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