Are Miracles and God only for the Gullible?

The following article was originally one of the winning essays for the Wishart Bursary Prize at Edinburgh Theological Seminary’s 2017 Awards Ceremony.

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 ‘He Changed the Water into Wine’ Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969)

From Hume to Hitchens, there has been a concerted attack on the biblical accounts of signs, wonders and mighty works.  

REM’s song ‘Losing my Religion’ is a good metaphor for the issue underpinning naturalistic philosophy from Hume to Hitchens and which finds contemporary expression in secularism, naturalistic-science, humanism and the popular ‘New Atheism’. What is the key issue? Quite simply, western-society has come of age. The Christian meta-narrative which underpinned much of western thought, laws, and religious life is now relegated to the realm of superstition, myth and legend and a naturalistic worldview has taken its place. The Western world has lost its religion.

Hume and Hitchens

David Hume’s influence should not be underestimated. His philosophical views on miracles are the foundation upon which much modern scepticism rests. Christopher Hitchens illustrates this point perfectly:

If you meet someone in the street who you yesterday saw executed you can say, either an extraordinary miracle has occurred or you are under a very grave misapprehension. And David Hume’s logic on this I think is quite irrefutable he says what is more likely, that the laws of nature have been suspended in your favour and in a way that you approve or that you have made a mistake – and especially if you did not see it yourself and you are hearing it from someone else?[1]

On the surface, Hitchens’ explanation of Hume appears reasonable. It seems to suggest that we should be committed to a healthy scepticism. That is, when faced with an apparent miracle, we should allow for the possibility that we are in fact mistaken because we know that dead people do not come back to life. However, Hume – and consequently Hitchens, are not simply arguing for healthy scepticism, they go much further than this. The claim is not only that we should be sceptical about miraculous claims but rather we should reject them. Why? Quite simply, we know from experience that miracles don’t happen. Our experience of nature has enabled us to identify regularities and ‘laws’ and consequently we understand that certain things don’t happen. Dead men don’t come back to life. Water does not turn to wine.

Supernaturalist Response

As Hitchens himself acknowledged, his anti-supernaturalism rests upon Hume. This is common amongst many who reject supernaturalism today. Having written an extensive case defending the historical reliability of the New Testament documents and their eyewitness accounts, Craig Blomberg concludes:

It’s possible to be largely convinced of everything this book has maintained and still be sceptical of the reliability of the New Testament for one reason we have yet to address. It’s full of the miraculous. For twenty-first century individuals steeped in the post-enlightenment distrust of narratives about the supernatural, this one issue may trump all others.[2]

Blomberg’s insight is helpful because it identifies that western anti-supernaturalism is cultural, historical and philosophical. In other words, historically it can be traced to Hume whose philosophy of empiricism was instrumental in the development of 18th century enlightenment thought which continues to shape the west. Blomberg bewails the rejection of the miraculous by historians and notes their tendency to “trot out the old arguments classically articulated by eighteenth-century Scottish Philosopher David Hume.”[3] We will discover why Blomberg regards Hume’s philosophical thinking as “old arguments” in due course.

Implications of naturalism

The implications of Hume’s thinking can be seen in almost every sphere of western society today. Hume’s naturalism has been a key factor in shaping the western civilisation. Current trends in secularism, anti-supernaturalism, and the present anti-religious mood has largely been shaped by naturalist philosophy. There is no institution that has been left untouched. Education, the Sciences, the Arts, Government, Health, and the Media, to varying degrees all reflect naturalist values. Theological institutions, denominations, and churches have not been unaffected either. Western Christianity, in many places has been ‘de-mythologised’. Whether it be the sceptical approach to interpreting the gospels in the quest for the historical Jesus – a Jesus stripped of miracles, divinity and death and resurrection, or whether it be the abandonment of historic doctrines, the effects are the same – the paring away of all things supernatural in the pages of scripture and life of Jesus.

Consequently, the Christian faith is left with a perceived credibility problem. If miracle claims are not to be taken seriously; if they are believed to be the domain of deceivers or the deceived, then how can the Christian faith have a credible platform? At best Christians, may be pitied, at worst persecuted for promoting anti-intellectual and damaging ideas. Dawkins and the ‘New Atheists’ illustrate this perfectly. How should an enlightened society respond to those who believe the supernatural claims of the bible? “Mock them. Ridicule them in public. Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion.”[4]

At a societal level, Christians are either viewed as ‘mad, bad, or sad’,[5] in a church context, Christians may lack confidence in the reliability of the scriptures and the ability to engage with contemporary criticisms against Christianity. Consequently, there are serious implications for pastoral care, discipleship and mission. The development of a Christian worldview must be a priority for 21st century ministry. Pastors and teachers must be able to engage and respond to critics, and demonstrate that the Christian faith, and its supernatural claims are not only historically reliable but also intellectually coherent.

Analysing Hume

Hume defines a miracle, and consequently his view about miracles, in the following way:

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.[6]

First Hume asserts that a miracle is a ‘violation’ – a transgression of nature.  Secondly, he claims that the laws of nature are fixed (“unalterable”) and thirdly, our experience of the regularity of nature’s laws is an infallible case against miracles. In short, Hume’s rejection of the miraculous is based upon experience. While there are more strings to Hume’s anti-supernaturalist bow, the underlying thesis is an argument from experience. Blomberg notes, regarding Hume’s emphasis on experience, “Hume made his personal experience the measure of what was and wasn’t possible. If no one Hume knew and respected, including himself, had ever experienced a certain event he could not accept it as having actually happened.”[7]

Whilst experience is used to argue against the possibility of miracles occurring – Hume does make the following allowance:

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.[8]

Hume is arguing that we could perhaps accept a miraculous claim as being true, if the alternative were more miraculous than the claim. Again, whilst it looks like Hume is allowing the possibility of a miracle, what he grants on the one hand he takes away with the other. Nigel Warburton notes, “Hume does not rule out the logical possibility of miracles occurring; but he does suggest that a wise person should never believe a report of one.”[9]

Hume’s argument against miracles is not only an argument against the supernatural, it is also an argument against the reliability of eye-witness testimony. (Which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would force us to reject not only historical miracle claims but all historical accounts. Hume’s radical scepticism, if applied consistently would be the death of historical enquiry.) Hume not only argues that eye-witness accounts of the miraculous are not to be believed, he goes so far to say that no credible testimony of miracles has ever been given.

For 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 us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.[10]

According to Hume, there has never been a miraculous claim in the whole of human history that carries the credibility that should cause us to believe it. He further argues that miracle claims are likely to be made by deceivers, the uneducated, or those who are delusional. Nor, he argues, have miracles been witnessed by such a large proportion of people so as to make the claim unmistakable. Consequently, all miracle testimonies lack credibility.

Hume finds himself on shaky ground here. Blomberg notes, that Hume is making a “mere affirmation” and “not a demonstrable proposition.”[11] Keener highlights that Hume’s reasoning is “a circular argument that excludes the evidence of the claim supposedly under consideration.”[12] Lennox points out that Hume is “simply assuming what he wants to prove.”[13] Keener again argues that “Hume’s language appears to set a default expectation that allows him to claim rhetorical victory without justifying his premise.”[14] In short, “anti-supernaturalism is little more than a presupposition, rarely argued and rarely seeking to marshal evidence.”[15]

Hume develops this point when he assesses the characteristics of eye-witnesses who have made claims about the supernatural, He argues that miraculous claims are primarily found amongst, “ignorant and barbarous nations”. [16] Hume’s point is this: Western society has advanced in knowledge and in civilisation and consequently it should reject miracles as myths and legends that belong to less civilised, uneducated, and unscientific people and periods of history. Blomberg’s response is scathing – he says that Hume’s statement is “directly tied to his overall racism and disdain for the credibility of people in the majority of the eighteenth-century world.”[17] Lennox also picks up this point and develops it further than Blomberg:

What Hume does is to assume what he wants to prove, namely that there have never been any miracles in the past, and so there is uniform experience against this present instance being a miracle. But here his argument runs into very serious trouble. How does he know? In order to know that experience against miracles is absolutely uniform, he would need to have total access to every event in the universe at all times and places, which is, self-evidently, impossible.[18]

Lennox’s observation is enlightening in its profundity and simplicity, Like the boy in Hans Christian’s Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, Hume’s anti-supernaturalism is paraded in public as an obvious ‘fact’ that anyone who is wise can see. Yet the truth comes to us in child-like simplicity – “he’s naked!”. There is no evidence, there is only persuasive language. There is no “irrefutable” evidence against miracles, the claim that there is no credible testimony is a presupposition that lacks strong support.

Lennox’s point can be developed to note a further contradiction. Hume claimed that miracles should not be considered possible “unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.”[19] Following Hume’s own logic we should reject his claim that there is “not to be found, in all history, any miracle” because to accept such a claim would be in fact to believe a greater miracle than simple testimonies of healings and resurrections, since Hume’s own assertion forces us to believe that he is omniscient!

A review of Anthony Flew’s Hume’s philosophy of belief: a study of his first Inquiry, (1969) written by John Passmore states: “Any subsequent discussion of Hume’s secularism will have to begin with Flew.”[20] Yet Flew himself would later claim:

Despite these commendations, I have long wanted to make major corrections to my book Hume’s Philosophy of Belief. One matter in particular calls for extensive corrections. The three chapters “The Idea of Necessary Connection,” “Liberty and Necessity,” and “Miracles and Methodology” all need to be rewritten in the light of my newfound awareness that Hume was utterly wrong to maintain that we have no experience, and hence no genuine ideas, of making things happen and of preventing things from happening, of physical necessity and of physical impossibility.[21]

Flew is confessing his confidence in Hume’s understanding of cause and effect was misplaced. What is it about Hume’s thinking that Flew now thinks is “utterly wrong”? It is Hume’s theory of causality and continuity. In other words, his understanding of the laws of cause and effect. It is here that many scholars have identified “a surprising self-contradictory element”[22] in Hume.

As we have seen, Hume built his case against miracles upon the claim that “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws,”[23] yet John Lennox points out, “Hume denies the very cause and effect relationships that are involved in formulating these laws!”[24] How does Hume deny these laws? He argues, “All events seem entirely loose and separate. One event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them. They seem conjoined, but never connected.”[25] Hume is arguing that what we consider to be cause and effect has nothing to do with causality, but rather the events are only connected in our thoughts, we imagine them to be connected.[26]

Hume’s philosophy is not only problematic for those who believe in miracles, it is problematic for science because Hume denies the very principles that science is built upon. Lennox notes:

Hume explicitly denies the idea of necessary connection. He would thus undermine a great deal of modern science, since scientific laws involve precisely what Hume denies – cause-effect descriptions of the workings of a system.[27]

Whilst Hume’s followers like Hitchens confidently claim that Hume’s logic is “quite irrefutable”, on the contrary, it can be clearly demonstrated that Hume’s position is “self-contradictory”, anti-scientific and “utterly wrong”. Flew shrewdly illustrates the illogicality of Hume’s position:

Hume’s scepticism about cause and effect and his agnosticism about the external world are of course jettisoned the moment he leaves his study. Indeed, Hume jettisons all of his most radical scepticism even before he leaves his study.

Hitchens’ uncritical regurgitation of Hume is neither surprising, nor uncommon.  Blomberg notes,

Hume’s outdated arguments often continue to be parroted by university professors and scholars even today without interaction or even seeming awareness of the devastating critiques they have received over the centuries.[28]

Keener also challenges this “anti-supernaturalist consensus that much of modern academia has inherited from Hume.” in his two volume “monumental study” Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Account which one scholar says “shifts the burden of proof heavily onto the sceptics”.[29]

Finally, in responding to Hume we need to challenge Hume’s definition of a miracle. As we have seen, Hume defines a miracle as a violation of nature. This itself is misleading. It gives the impression that miracles are a transgression. There are several problems with this definition. Firstly it presumes that nature and natural laws are supreme. God would only be violating these laws if he himself were under the authority of nature. On the contrary, theism states that God is above his creation, nature is subject to him not vice versa. Secondly, it ignores the fact that natural laws can be affected by other factors all the time. When a plane takes off to the skies, gravity is not being violated, it is simply being overcome by a higher principle. Likewise, God as creator can override the regularities of nature, for his purposes, any time he chooses. This brings us to one of the main issues with naturalism – at its centre, naturalism is not an argument from evidence, it is driven by a philosophy that claims miracles are impossible.

There is evidence to suggest that Hume was influenced by Deism,[30] and deism denies God’s activity in the natural world. Hume’s contemporary supporters tend to be atheists who deny not only God’s activity in creation but his very existence. The denial of divine activity has developed into a denial of divine existence. Ultimately it comes down to the question is there an all-powerful and personal God?[31]and if there is, miracles are not a problem. C.S. Lewis expresses it this way,

If we hold a philosophy that excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled the philosophical question.

Lewis’ statement blows away the smoke that obscures the issues set forth by Hume and those who have followed in his steps. Before we can settle the question of experience we must settle the question of philosophy, is there a God and is there good reason to believe that there is? Whilst the populist atheist confidently declares the death of God, contemporary debates, Christian scholars, scientists, historians, and theologians and countless people from all walks of life claim other-wise. In the end, this is not about evidence-based empiricism versus gullible Christianity, it is rather, naturalism claiming scientific authority for its anti-supernaturalist presuppositions.

Conclusion

The academic fields of theology and science have come a long way since Hume. Those who recycle Hume as if he were the last word on the supernatural are not engaging in contemporary intellectual exploration they are simply regurgitating old slogans.  Supernaturalists and naturalists are both presuppositional. The difference is, super-naturalists will admit this whereas naturalists will not. Craig Keener observes, “Claims about nature and miracles both rest on experience, so claimed experience of the former cannot cancel out claimed experience of the latter. If experience is reliable in knowing that water is not normally turned into wine, why would it not be reliable in recognising when water is turned into wine?”[32]

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, (USA: B&H Academic, 2016).

Flew, Anthony There is a God: How the World’s most notorious Atheist changed his mind, Harper Colins Ed. Roy Abraham Varghese, (Kindle Edition)

Hume, David An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (accessed online http://18th.eserver.org/hume-enquiry.html#10)

Keener, Craig S. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, (USA: Baker Academic, 2011).

Lennox, John God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, (UK, Lion, 2009) (Kindle Edition).

C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, (William Collins, 2011, Kindle Edition).

Videos

Richard Dawkins – Reason Rally 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9UKTuuTHEg (accessed 24/3/17)Hitchens Christopher, Debate, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmxAGhC-gLU

(accessed 25/3/17).

McGrath Alistar, Interviewed on The Hour https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBRKY8Qx9YQ (accessed 25/3/17).

[1] Christopher Hitchens, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmxAGhC-gLU (accessed 25/3/17)

[2] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, (USA: B&H Academic, 2016), 663.

[3] Blomberg, Historical, 668-9.

[4] Richard Dawkins – Reason Rally 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9UKTuuTHEg (accessed 24/3/17)

[5] Alistar McGrath, Interviewed on The Hour https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBRKY8Qx9YQ (accessed 25/3/17)

[6] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,  http://18th.eserver.org/hume-enquiry.html#10 (Accessed 25/3/17)

[7] Blomberg, Historical, 669.

[8] Hume, An Enquiry, (electronic version).

[9] Nigel Warburton, Philosophy: The Classics, (UK:Routledge, 2008), 100.

[10] Hume, An Enquiry, (electronic version).

[11] Blomberg, Historical, 669.

[12] Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, (USA: Baker Academic, 2011), 112.

[13] Lennox, God’s Kindle Edition.

[14] Keener, Miracles, 132.

[15] Keener, Miracles, 114.

[16] Hume, An Enquiry, (electronic version).

[17] Blomberg, Historical, 669.

[18] John, Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, (UK, Lion, 2009) (Kindle Edition).

[19] Hume, An Enquiry, (electronic version).

[20] John Passmore, Review, https://www.amazon.com/Humes-philosophy-belief-study-Inquiry/dp/B0007JTGGS

[21] Anthony Flew, There is a God: How the World’s most notorious Atheist changed his mind, Harper Colins Ed. Roy Abraham Varghese, (Kindle Edition)

[22] John Lennox, God’s, (Kindle).

[23] Hume, An Enquiry, (electronic version).

[24] Lennox, God’s

[25] Hume, An Enquiry, (electronic version).

[26] Hume, An Enquiry, (electronic version).

[27] Lennox, God’s, (Kindle).

[28] Blomberg, Historical, 670.

[29] Craig A. Evans, review of Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.

[30] Keener, Miracles, 119.

[31] C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, (William Collins, 2011, Kindle Edition).

[32] Keener, Miracles, 144-145.