A Response to David Hume’s Arguments Against Miracles

For most Americans, the word “miracle” has become synonymous with everyday happenings. Indeed, listen in on the conversation between two people and you will hear about “miracle drugs,” and the fact that it was “a miracle they made it to work” that morning, or if they get a big project finished on time, “it will be a miracle.” Miracles seem to be everywhere!

As one old preaching once said it, “if miracles happened every day, guess what, they wouldn’t be called miracles, they would be called ordinaries!”

Of greater concern, however, is that by casually tossing out the term we actually add credence to the arguments of skeptics to Christianity. As atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie has said,

If miracles are to serve their traditional function of giving spectacular support to religious claims—whether general theistic claims, or the authority of some specific religion or some particular sect or individual teacher—the concept [of miracle] must not be so weakened that anything at all unusual or remarkable counts as a miracle.[1]

By definition, a miracle is a divine intervention into, or interruption of, the regular course of the world that produces a purposeful but unusual event that could not have occurred otherwise.[2] Norman Geisler, in his book, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidence, adds three basic elements to biblical miracles:

  • Power–miracles come from a God who is beyond the universe
  • Wonders–by their nature, miracles inspire awe in those who see them because they are astonishing.
  • Sign–the purpose of miracles: to confirm God’s message and His messenger.

The significance of miracles can be found in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. In his opening sermon in Acts 2, Peter drove home the point:

Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know. (Acts 2:22)

As John MacArthur observes,

Peter describes the means by which God attested Jesus as miracles and wonders and signs. The many miracles performed by our Lord provide overwhelming evidence that He is who He claimed to be. From His miraculous birth to His miraculous resurrection, to all the miracles He performed during His earthly ministry, the miraculous element was central in our Lord’s life.[3]

Because miracles are so central to the very authority and message of Scripture, it comes as no surprise that critics have attempted to rationalize the existence of miracles or disprove them all together based on the lack of empirical experience.

One such critic was David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher and historian, rejected the possibility of miracles. According to Hume “miracles are extraordinary events which infringe the laws of nature and are contrary to daily empirical experience. Belief in miracles means to consider them more probable than the laws of nature.”[4] Hume limited knowledge to what the five senses could perceive.

As Robert A. Morey observed, however, “this position is self-refuting in that it itself is not perceived through the senses. It is a metaphysical view.”[5] Yet, in spite of such a simple answer to Hume’s arguments, Morey points out that Hume’s arguments are still read in most introductory courses on philosophy.[6] Hume’s skepticism has taken root in Western psyche, and as Geisler observes, “His [Hume’s] clear and powerful presentation of skepticism and antisupernaturalism was a significant factor in molding the modern secularistic mind.[7]

For this very reason, Christians must have a credible answer to skeptics who deny the possibility of miracles and, in many cases, the existence of God, based on Hume’s arguments. Geisler identifies several areas of criticism:

  1. It is self-defeating–this is the circular reasoning referred to by Morey above. How can we experience a metaphysical statement? Therefore, the statement is false.
  2. Atomism is contrary to experience–Hume believed that one event follows another, but we can never observe a tie between them. Yet, we do not experience events as separate events. Instead, the world is a continuous flow. [8]
  3. Causality can be experienced internally–Hume rejected intuition, dismissing causal connections we experience in our own consciousness that are not based on external events.[9]
  4. Hume could not live his theory–skepticism leads to an impossible life. A complete skeptic could not eat, walk, or talk.[10]
  5. Hume never denied causality–He never denied that things have a cause for their existence. Hume even indicated this would be absurd.[11]

In the end, Hume leaves open a door that will ultimately lead to circular reasoning. C.S. Lewis rightly observes,

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.[12]

Moreover, Hume begins his argument with the assumption that miracles never existed and begins to add evidence.

He presumes to know that all experience is uniformly against miracles before he looks at the evidence. How can he know that all possible past and future experience will support his naturalism? The only way to be sure is to know in advance that miracles do not occur.[13]

Ultimately, this leads to one of the great conundrums for non-Christians: not believing in the God of the Bible requires more faith than believing the evidence for God in the Bible. The evidence that supports the biblical account of miracles is solid. Yet, Hume is not alone, obviously, in his predetermination against Christianity. Many today are looking for reasons not to believe in Christianity and are ready and willing to believe arguments that are less credible than the Bible. As Geisler and Brooks observe,

We find that Christianity has better evidence and more witnesses writing closer to the time of the events than any other religion. Besides this, no religion offers the kind of miracles that Christianity can claim. No other religion has the record of specific prophecy or divine deliverance that the Bible gives. And no other religion has any miracle that can be compared to the resurrection of Jesus Christ in its grandeur or its testimony.[14]

And yet, in the opening paragraph to the next chapter, they quote Thomas Paine who said, “There is no history written at the time Jesus Christ is said to have lived that speaks of the existence of such person, even such a man.”[15]

This, after all, is the mystery of the Gospel Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians 2. As Paul wrote, “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (2 Corinthians 2:14).

[1] Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman, Why I Am a Christian : Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2001), 104.

[2] Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1990), 79.

[3] John MacArthur, Acts (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994, c1996), 59.

[4] David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996, c1992), 5:1040.

[5] Robert A. Morey, Battle of the Gods : The Gathering Storm in Modern Evangelicalism, 1st ed. (Southbridge, Mass.: Crown Publications, 1989), 69.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999), 344.

[8] Ibid, 342.

[9] Ibid, 342.

[10] Ibid, 342.

[11] Ibid, 342.

[12] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 105

[13] Geisler and Brooks, 79.

[14] Ibid., 98.

[15] Ibid., 98.

Leave a Comment