Miracles-What Do You Expect Me To Believe? (Part 1)

Posted: January 14, 2011 in Historical apologetics, Philosophy
Tags: , , , , ,

by Matt Lefebvre

Having written a few articles in support of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I have made no secret of the fact, not only that I believe at least one miracle to have happened, but that I consider this event to be open to historical examination.  However, therein lies the rub for many people: either to accept miracles by faith and throw all reason out the window or to accept modern scientific views and be left with a severely minimalized, if not non-existent, Christianity.  Further still, there are those who feel that belief in miracles would undermine science, for one would not be able to do experimentation if the laws of nature fluctuated randomly and without warning.  With these attitudes in place, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to bring attention to God’s action in the world.  C.S. Lewis rightly observed in the first chapter of his book Miracles that if miracles “are impossible, then no amount of historical evidence will convince us.”  So if any credibility is to be granted to any individual miracle account, it must first be argued that miracles are in fact possible.  Then there will hopefully be more of an openness to evidence that could be presented in support of God’s action in history.

The case against miracles

David Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, is well-known for his essay “Of Miracles” in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which happens to be the most widely reprinted piece of literature on miracles.  The impact of Hume’s critique of miracles may be illustrated by how some skeptics of the supernatural defend their presupposition that miracles do not happen: they quote or allude to Hume.  Gerd Lüdemann, for example, denies that God’s intervention in history is an option for historical critics (thinking especially about the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection).  However, his justification for this is simply a one sentence allusion to Hume, who (Lüdemann claims) has demonstrated that a miracle is defined in such a way that no testimony is sufficient to establish it (The Resurrection of Jesus, p.12).  So what difficulties does Hume find in the concept of miracles?  In Part I, Hume claims that

“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… It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.”

This leads him to assert

“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; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.”

So basically, since events that happen in the common course of nature are not miraculous, there must be uniform experience against any miraculous event.  Taking this to its conclusion, that a miracle has actually happened will always be more miraculous than the fact that someone was deceiving or being deceived, so the testimony is not credible.

Part II of his essay gives four reasons against miracles:

1.     “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.”

2.     “The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind.”

3.     “It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions.”

4.     “In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.”

To summarize these quotes, first, the quantity and quality of witnesses to any given miracle has never been sufficient; second, false miracles demonstrate the inclination of people to believe in the miraculous, which in turn makes all miracle claims suspect; third, miracles are many where the intelligent are few or where the intelligent, though many, inherited the miracle accounts from the ignorant by authoritative tradition; fourth, miracle accounts in different religions are contrary to each other and cancel each other out.

For Hume, in theory, even if a miracle could occur, we would have no way of knowing, and in reality, he does not seem to see that a miracle could have happened.  What I endeavor to do is first give what I consider to be a more satisfactory definition of a miracle, and then go through three different aspects of that definition.  The first aspect will answer the crucial preliminary question of worldview when it comes to miracles.  The second aspect will explore objections to Part I of Hume’s essay in regard to recognizing a miracle for what it is.  The third aspect will focus more on objections to Part II of Hume’s essay by dealing with the evidence for miracles.

Click here to see part 2 of the article


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