Can We Believe in Miracles?

In Luke 1, Luke tells us a fascinating story: The angel Gabriel goes to Mary and tells her that she is going to have a baby named Jesus. The problem from Mary’s point of view is that she’s a virgin. Though she’s engaged to a stand-up young man named Joseph, having a kid simply isn’t in the cards right now. Mary looks at the angel and asks a fascinating question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”[1]

Mary knew something: Virgins never have children. Thus, when the angel tells her she’s about to be pregnant, Mary immediately senses a conflict between what she’s hearing from God through the angel and her own experience. Though there’s internal conflict, Mary looks at Gabriel and says, “I am the Lord’s servant… May your word to me be fulfilled.”[2]

While we applaud Mary’s remarkable amount of trust, we must admit that we sometimes find ourselves in a similar position. When you read the Bible, you’re told of the sun standing still (Joshua 10), a man dying merely for touching the Ark of the Covenant (1 Chronicles 13), a guy getting swallowed by a fish (Jonah 1-2), a virgin having a son (Luke 2), and a man who had been crucified rising from the dead, folding his grave clothes, and cooking breakfast (John 20-21)! Sometimes it feels as though the Bible is describing a different world! The problem you may sense with each of these reports is the same that Mary likely felt: This ain’t how things happen.

To heighten the problem, miracles are at the very core of our faith. The influential 18th-century deist philosopher, David Hume, wrote: “The Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.”[3] Though not a Christian, Hume hit on something very important: You cannot be a Christian if you don’t believe in miracles. Since we know that miracles fly in the face of our experience and even our common sense, can we rationally believe in miracles?

Hume’s argument against miracles has been extremely influential in the Western world, even if you’ve never heard of him. Though under 20 pages in length, Hume’s “Of Miracles” has shaped the way that we view reports of the miraculous. Hume’s main argument against miracles says that even if we had every reason to believe that a miracle, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ, really happened, we still couldn’t believe it. The reason, says Hume, is that the testimony in favor of a miracle would necessarily be counterbalanced by an equally powerful proof against the miracle. Here’s the bones of Hume’s argument:

  1. Given options, we ought always to believe the option with the most evidence;
  2. A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature;
  3. The laws of nature are established by universal human experience;
  4. Therefore, the laws of nature always have more evidence;
  5. Therefore, we are never justified in believing a miracle.[4]

To explain his argument, Hume uses the example of a miraculous report that a man has risen from the dead. Hume says that upon hearing this report, we must believe either that the man did actually rise from the dead or that the man didn’t actually rise from the dead. Given that universal human consent says that dead men always stay dead, we must consider whether it would be more likely that the report is wrong or that all of humanity is wrong. Hume says we must say that the report is more likely to be wrong; therefore, we cannot rationally believe that any man, Jesus included, has risen from the dead. Hume rounds out his argument by saying, “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle.”[5]

Obviously, this is a pretty threatening argument. After all, if we can’t believe that a man rose from the dead, we can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Further, since universal human consent says that virgins don’t have children, that must mean that your preacher is lying on the 24th of December when he stands in the pulpit and preaches on the virgin birth. Couple all of this with what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15.13, and we’ve got quite a threat to Christianity that has been very influential on American culture. Hume saw the power of his argument and wrote: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”[6]

While I disagree with Hume’s argument on miracles, Hume is a very engaging read and has had a massive impact on western philosophy. Fortunately for Christians, however, many philosophers find Hume’s argument against miracles unconvincing. I mean, after all, a philosophy professor at the University of Pittsburgh wrote a book about this argument and titled it Hume’s Abject Failure.

The first reason I disagree with Hume is that I reject (2) above. Through his definition, Hume has essentially defined miracles into non-existence, which is problematic in its own right. Contra Hume, many Christian thinkers would define a miracle as something that is naturally impossible; this definition, however, leaves open the possibility of the supernatural interfering in the natural world. So, for example, a man walking out of the grave after three days or a virgin becoming pregnant while remaining a virgin are miraculous events because they are naturally impossible. These things are impossible if God doesn’t interfere in the world; however, if God interferes, I see no reason to think that he couldn’t raise the dead. More to Hume’s argument, if God does indeed interfere in the world, I see no reason to think that he couldn’t provide adequate evidence so as to make our belief in the miracle not only possible but rational.

It would thus seem that what’s driving the different definitions of the term “miracle” are metaphysical beliefs: I am a theist while Hume was (probably) a deist. I am committed to the idea that there is a supernatural God who can work in the world through supernatural means while Hume likely believed that the natural world is all there is to reality. If we, following Hume, assume that God does not interfere in the world, then we will almost certainly hold that beliefs in miracles are unwarranted because we will almost certainly assume that miracles don’t happen. I see no reason to grant that crucial assumption, however.

A second reason I disagree with Hume is how he uses (3) from above. One of Hume’s key premises is that there is universal human testimony in favor of the laws of nature. Since Hume defines a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature, Hume thinks that human testimony universally rejects any report of the miraculous. These two claims are like two sides of the same coin. Thus, according to Hume, even if a miracle were to occur, we could never believe it.

I think this is a problematic move because it appears to beg the question. Hume assumes that universal human testimony is against any given miracle. The problem is that the reporters of the miracle in question are a part of that universal human testimony. In other words, Hume would have us believe that a man can’t come back from the dead because universal human testimony says that people always stay dead; however, there are people—even people alive today—who claim that someone came back from the dead! Thus, universal human testimony can’t be marshaled to say that miracles don’t happen because the people who report miracles are part of that human testimony. For some reason, Hume simply ignores John, Peter, Mary, Lazarus, Joshua, Moses, Noah, Adam, Abraham, Andrew, etc. when making his argument. These were real people who claimed that they saw real miracles. At best, Hume’s claim should be: “dead people stay dead in the overwhelming majority of cases.” Christians, however, would readily grant that claim; indeed, if people came back from the dead on a regular basis, we wouldn’t think it was miraculous any more.

Hume’s thoughts on miracles have been formative for our culture; however, Hume’s ideas have their fair share of detractors. We serve a God who has the power not only to change your life, heal your loved ones, and create the world from nothing, but also to raise the dead, make the blind see, and, yes, ensure that Jesus was born of a virgin.

Notes & Sources

[1] Luke 1.34, all scripture quotations are from the NIV.

[2] Luke 1.38

[3] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 95.

[4] Hume, 80-83. Hume has multiple arguments against miracles in “Of Miracle.” This argument is just one example.

[5] Hume, 83.

[6] Hume, 120.

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