David Hume and Miracles
David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher, was an agnostic, i.e., he did not believe there is sufficient evidence to justify the confident affirmation that God exists. In 1748, the scholar issued his famous volume, Essays Concerning Human Understanding.
In that book is a brief chapter simply titled: “Of Miracles.” In the edition I have before me, this section consists of only twenty-three small pages. This little essay has become, over the past two and one-half centuries, possibly the most influential argument that has ever been made against the miracles of the Bible.
In his outstanding book, The Supernaturalness of Christ (now out of print), Wilbur Smith had a remarkable discussion titled: “Hume’s Famous Argument Against Miracles.” Among his insightful observations, Smith calls attention to four factors regarding the renowned philosopher that certainly are worthy of consideration in evaluating his argument against the supernatural.
Let us reflect upon each of these points.
Hume was a skeptic. Hence, he assumed, from the start, that there could be no such thing as a miracle. No evidence, however strong, can convince one whose mind is closed—who stands firm in the belief that the supernatural simply does not exist.
I recall reading a statement from another prominent skeptic, Ernest Renan. The French scholar suggested that the Gospel accounts were merely legendary. And why would he make that statement? It is simple: they contain accounts of miracles, and miracles just do not occur (The Life of Jesus, p. 6). Case closed! That is not an honest and legitimate approach to examining an historical record.
Hume’s biographers all agree that he was quite ego-centric, and that he wrote his essay to attract attention to himself. He did not possess the motives of an objective historian.
Hume wrote in such a sarcastic way that it was often difficult to discern whether or not he was serious. Frequently he would argue an idea that was the very opposite of his personal belief. His credibility suffered from want of a respectable degree of sincerity.
His work never addressed a single miracle of the New Testament. He discussed some of the bogus “miracles” of later history, but he totally ignored the accounts of Jesus’ miracles. What a telling point that is!
Hume’s main argument went something like this. Miracles are contrary to human experience. Thus, they cannot occur.
There is no logic in that. Prior to the commencement of this century, no human had ever experienced controlled and sustained flight. Such a phenomenon was unknown to Earth. Orville and Wilbur Wright had not yet invented the airplane. And so, according to Hume’s logic, controlled, sustained flight is an impossibility.
Well, as everyone knows, that is a false conclusion. What may be experienced by one generation, may be alien to another.
We do not entertain the conviction Jesus and his apostles performed miracles because we ourselves have observed that miracles can occur. In point of fact, the Scripture itself limits supernatural phenomena to a particular time frame. The informed Bible student, therefore, contends that supernatural works are not occurring today.
Our confidence in the reality of biblical miracles is grounded in our conviction that the New Testament is demonstrably a credible historical document. By that we mean that there is a vast array of evidence that corroborates the Bible’s claim that it is a revelation from God (see the author’s tract, Evidences for Bible Inspiration).
Ernest Renan conceded that the Gospel accounts “date from the first century, and the authors are, generally speaking, those to whom they are attributed” (p. 16). These records reveal that thousands of rational people saw Christ’s wonders.
Moreover, it was not merely the fact that they claimed they had witnessed miracles that is significant; rather, they were willing to suffer, and even to die, for their testimony that they truly observed phenomena that could be described only as supernatural. Even the Lord’s enemies conceded those events, though they sought to explain them on a basis other than divine (Mt. 12:24; cf. Jn. 11:47).
Hume’s argument was not valid. Yet, it has been accepted by many. When men reject Christianity, they do it emotionally, not logically.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.