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Do Miracles Really Happen? | An Examination of David Hume’s Philosophy

David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher and atheist, believed that miracles were impossible. In 1748, he published an essay “Of Miracles” that argues against their existence. Hume begins his discussion with the presupposition that miracles are impossible since “a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.” By assuming that miracles are impossible, he tried to prove that miracles cannot exist.

Hume rightly observes that the proof for miracles relies upon the testimonies of those who witness them. He writes:

…we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators […] It will be sufficient to observe, that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses.

But when eyewitness accounts of miracles are presented, Hume immediately rejects the credibility of these accounts because “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle.” The only way a miracle could be proved to have occurred is if “the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous.” According to Hume, a person who claimed to have witnessed a miracle was either “deceived or trying to deceive.” In other words, for a miracle to be believable, there needed to be a greater chance of the miracle happening than that the person reporting about the miracle was telling a lie. Since Hume had never witnessed a miracle and believed that miracles were impossible, it seemed to him that the greater chance was that those who reported miracles were lying. 

For Hume, “barbarous and ignorant peoples” are those who report the most miracles—people who, because they don’t have access to science, can be led to believe in the miraculous as the explanation for phenomena they cannot otherwise account for. Miracles, wherever they seemed to have occurred were just hoaxes. Or if they were not hoaxes, they were simply some psychosomatic effect that could be explained by science or by an unexplained natural law that science had not discovered yet. 

Hume also argued that miracles could not be used as proof that one religion was more true than another, since, as Hume points out, each religion makes miraculous claims. He writes: 

Let us consider, that, in matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary […] Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles) […] has the same force […] to overthrow every other system. […] therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any system of religion.

So, where Christians point to the miracles of Jesus as proof for the truth of Christianity, Hindus and Muslims also claim to experience miracles. These competing claims, according to Hume, cancel out miracles as a proof for the claims of different religions.

Hume’s essay was much discussed in his own time and continues to receive attention from atheists. Like Hume, modern atheists believe that reports of miracles are lies and that those who believe in the miraculous are either ignorant or have been imposed on. They point out that ancient societies attributed anything they did not understand to magic or to a god. For example, the Norsemen believed that Thor caused lightening because they had not discovered the scientific explanation for lightening. But now that science can explain lightening, no one believes in Thor anymore. As scientific knowledge increases, atheists argue that there is less and less room to believe that God is the explanation for what science has left unexplained. 

But the arguments of Hume and the atheists are flawed

1. Hume fails to account for the unusual event. In rejecting miracles, Hume believed that massive amounts of daily experience when miracles do not occur count as far greater evidence against miracles then the occasional report of a miraculous event counted for them. However, his reasoning is flawed because it fails to account for the occasional event that is outside the ordinary. For example, in daily experience, it is exceptional for someone to win the lottery. It is likely true to say that none of us have won the lottery or know anyone who has. Using Hume’s reasoning, we would be justified in disbelieving that someone won the lottery because the event is outside the ordinary. The improbability of the experience would be proof enough that the report of someone winning is a lie. But, no matter how unlikely it is for a person to win the lottery, every week someone does win. 

Another example of an unusual event would be a person being hit with lightening. It is not often that people are hit by lightning, and people who are hit by lightning don’t always survive to tell the tale. But Roy Sullivan, a US Park Ranger was struck by lightning, not once, but seven times over the course of 35 years. To be struck by lightning on average once very 5 years is very unusual. But however unusual, Mr. Sullivan’s experiences were documented and have secured him a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. In the same way, even if it is unusual (based on one’s daily experience) for miracles to occur, it is wrong to completely reject every report of miracles just because they are unusual. 

2. Hume fails to account for the fact that the God who created the laws of nature can supersede the laws of nature. One cannot argue against miracles by pointing to natural law, because miracles (by definition) are supernatural. If there is an all-powerful God, then it is obvious that he could perform miracles. When God does a miracle, He is not violating the laws of nature, rather He is adding a new element to nature. The law of gravity says that an apple dropped from my hand will be drawn toward the center of the earth, but that fall can be stopped if someone else’s hand intercepts the apple. The intervening hand does not violate the law of gravity, it simply adds something new to the equation. In the same way, a miracle does not suspend the laws of nature; it just adds a supernatural dimension to the laws of nature. When God heals a sick man, that man is still subject to the natural process of decay.  

3. Hume fails to account for the truth of experiences he has never experienced. Once there were some Dutch traders who visited a king of Siam. The Dutch traders told the king that in their country, the weather got so cold that the rivers froze solid and horses could walk on the ice. The king immediately concluded the traders were lying to him because he had never seen water freeze. By Hume’s reasoning, the king was perfectly justified in refusing to believe the traders because the experience they related was one he had never seen for himself. But, that the king refused to believe the traders’ testimony had no bearing on the fact that, in cold weather, rivers undoubtedly freeze over. Lack of personal experience cannot be proof that an experience had by others is invalid or untrue.

4. Hume’s argument is meaningless to the person who experiences a miracle. Ultimately, the proof Hume is wrong are the words of the man in John 19:25, “One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see.” No one can take this blind man’s testimony away from him. He will forever believe in miracles because he experienced one for himself. The Siamese king would never be able to convince the Dutch traders that water cannot freeze just because he had never seen it happen. They had seen it happen, and that would be that. 

5. Hume failed to accept testimony, no matter how strong the witness. “There is always more reason to disbelieve the report of miracles then to believe the report” wrote Hume. Such a statement is only meaningful if someone has decided already that miracles are impossible. However, the possibility of miracles must not be judged by belief to the contrary, but by the record of historical evidence. Craig S. Keener, a Christian theologian, professor and author, has recorded thousands of modern-day miracles from all parts of the world. I have witnessed God do many miracles in Gospel festivals that I have led. Thousands of Christians over the centuries have experienced miracles. 

Can all this testimony be wrong? The argument against miracles is like the old story of the conversation between the atheist philosopher and the Christian. One day the two were arguing about whether miracles really occur. The philosopher brought up the miraculous delivery of the Israelites from Pharaoh as an example:

“Remember the children of Israel who crossed the Red Sea? Well, that was not really a miracle. You see,” he explained, “at the point where they crossed the sea, it was shallow. The ‘miracle’ was that Moses found water that was only one foot deep.” 

“Only one foot deep!” the Christian exclaimed, “That makes for an even greater miracle.”

“What are you talking about?” asked the philosopher.

“Well,” the Christian replied, “that means God drowned the entire Egyptian army in only one foot of water.”

In the same way, for the sea of testimony in support of miracles to be all wrong, “an even greater miracle” would be required—one that could make those who had been blind believe they always saw, or make those who had been crippled believe they never needed a cane, or make those who had been sick believe that the sickness had just been a state of mind. No matter what anyone else tells me about miracles, the best evidence I have is my own experience of God’s supernatural power. And my experience tells me: God is THERE!

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About the Author:  Dr. Daniel King is a missionary evangelist who has traveled to over seventy nations in his quest for souls. His goal is to lead 1,000,000 people to Jesus every year through massive Gospel Festivals, distribution of literature, and leadership training. Because of his experience and research on evangelism, he is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in mass evangelism. As an evangelist, he has a deep interest in using apologetics to convince skeptics that God is real.

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