By L. Alfred James
We are currently in a series of blog posts that provide an intellectual pathway for moving someone (or yourself) all the way from hardcore atheism to biblical Christianity. We have recently seen that the case for the resurrection of Jesus is quite powerful and stands unrefuted. What I’d like to do this week is deal with one attempt at a refutation that is extremely popular among skeptics. It is simply known as David Hume’s argument against miracles.
It is important to understand that Hume does not argue that miracles are impossible. Rather, he argues that we never have any good reason to believe in a miracle. More precisely, he says we never have any good reason to believe any particular miracle story that we might hear. Why? Because the evidence is never good enough to justify such a belief. In essence, he is saying, “Whether that miracle actually happened is beside the point. You should not believe that it actually happened.”
This is because in all known cases the evidence for the miracle is much weaker than the evidence against the miracle. Listen to Hume himself:
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.1
Our own experience of the laws of nature is absolutely consistent: the laws of nature are never violated. The laws of gravity, electricity, thermodynamics (or any other force of nature) never stop working. Neither do the laws of biology. For instance, when a human being dies, they stay dead. There is no natural force, nothing we’ve observed in the entire realm of biology, that spontaneously makes dead people come back to life. And if this is our own experience, and we’ve never seen a single exception, then this is the most powerful evidence we could ever have. It is conclusive proof that this is how the world always works. No exceptions. Listen again to Hume:
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle.
Our knowledge of miracles is very different from our knowledge of the laws of nature. Our knowledge of miracles comes entirely from the testimony of others who report seeing them. It is all secondhand. And since we get this information secondhand, we should treat it as less reliable than our own experience. After all, we know of plenty of cases in which people have exaggerated things, or observed an event incorrectly, or misinterpreted something that they heard or saw.
Hume says there are two facts that we need to consider:
- There are no reasons for thinking that any law of nature has ever been violated. This is because we have never seen experienced any such violation.
- There are lots of reasons for thinking that any particular miracle story is the result of wishful thinking, exaggeration, errors, etc. This is because we have experienced people exaggerating, letting themselves be fooled, or simply being mistaken.
Therefore, it is always more reasonable to assume that the testimony about a miracle is the result of exaggeration, error, or deception than to believe the miracle story is true. “Hume is in effect claiming that miracles are by definition so improbable that even the most impressive testimony would merely balance the counterevidence provided by the improbability of the miracle.”2
As I mentioned, it is important to understand this argument—and just as important to know how to answer it—because it is the most common objection (even after more than 200 years) made to the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (the evidence that we’ve just reviewed). Indeed, the application of this argument to the resurrection of Jesus is patently obvious. In my opinion, Hume was thinking of Jesus’ resurrection the entire time he was writing this essay. So, how do we respond?
Problem: If Hume is Right, Then I Have To Deny Miracles I See Myself
The first problem that needs to be pointed out is that Hume’s argument makes it impossible to believe a miracle happened, even if I see it myself; even if it happens right in front of my face.
After all, my eyes often deceive me. I am sometimes fooled by optical illusions, mirages, hallucinations, daydreams, and misinterpretations of visual stimuli. This is something I know by experience. I have experienced these things many times. Thus, it is always possible that I am mistaken, even if it happens just inches in front of me. And since, as Hume says, by my experience I know that the laws of nature are perfectly consistent, and a miracle is a violation of these laws, then I must deny what I see. Therefore, Hume’s argument makes it unreasonable to believe in a miracle even if I see it with my own eyes.
Let me illustrate: Suppose you pray for an aunt of yours who has a large tumor protruding from some part of her body. She’s had this tumor for months and doctors have authoritatively diagnosed it as cancer. But you pray for her, asking God to heal her. And then, right in front of your eyes, you see the tumor shrink and disappear, within a matter of seconds. According to Hume you are not supposed to believe that a miracle happened.
- Maybe there is some way the body spontaneously heals itself of tumors, and it did so (coincidentally) right when you prayed.
- Maybe it’s just some new thing doctors haven’t figured out, a condition that looks like a tumor, but is very temporary, and it resolved itself (coincidentally) right when you prayed.
- Maybe the diagnosis was mistaken. It might have been someone else’s lab reports getting confused with your aunts. And she actually just had some minor sickness and was starting to feel better right at the moment you prayed.
I could come up with alternative explanations all day. But here is my point: Even if the best natural explanation you can come up with is totally ridiculous, Hume says you still should not believe a miracle happened. At best, you just say you are unsure about what happened.
Honestly, that seems to me like a severe case of closed-mindedness.
Problem: If Hume is Right then I Have To Deny Unique Events
Hume’s argument has a second serious problem. If he is only going to believe in things that fit in with prior uniform experience, then he is going to reject any report about something that happens for the first time. For instance, there was a first time that human beings created a nuclear explosion. Should everyone (in 1945) have rejected the first reports of a nuclear weapon being tested or being used?
Problem: If Hume is Right then I Have To Deny Credible Accounts
There are plenty of credible miracle reports that are hard to blithely dismiss as Hume advises us to. Craig Keener has gathered together a huge number of credible miracle stories (and analysis) in his two-volume work, Miracles. All of these stand a strong refutation of David Hume’s argument.
1. David Hume, “Of Miracles.” In In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case For God’s Action In History. Eds R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, 29-44. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
2. C. Stephen Evans, Philosohy of Religion: Thinking about Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), 112.