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by James A. Beverley
Few people in history can match David Hume (1711–1776) for creating doubt about the possibility of miracles. Hume, raised in a strict Scottish Presbyterian home, lost his Christian faith courtesy of the scepticism that swept Western philosophy after the Reformation.
The conflicts of that era, especially those between Catholics and Protestants over doctrinal truth, led not only to loss of life (most famously in the Thirty Years War, 1618–1648) but loss of certainty about church authority, proper scriptural interpretation, the way of salvation, the nature of God, and the reality of miracles.
Hume touched a major nerve in the tiny 20-page chapter on miracles he wrote in his 1748 book Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding –articles and books written in response numbered in the hundreds. Why? Well, not because of his clarity of thought or coherence, as critics continue to point out.
Hume’s stunning influence stemmed from the power of his basic argument. He argued it’s foolish to believe in miracles since it’s always more reasonable to adopt skeptical explanations. Since alleged miracles break laws of nature, then the wise person should prefer non-supernatural theories that build on obvious human duplicity, gullibility and selfishness.
While Hume’s position is sometimes the correct verdict about miracle claims, there’s no reason to think he’s always right. Let me give you four reasons why I’m a skeptic about Hume’s doubts.
First, I believe in miracles because I believe in the integrity of Jesus and His disciples. C.S. Lewis argued this perspective in Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952) as did Frank Morison/A. H. Ross in Who Moved the Stone? (Faber and Faber, 1930). With millions of Christians through the centuries, I find nothing to convince me that Jesus and His disciples were fools, liars or dupes.
David Hume’s basic argument was that it’s foolish to believe in miracles since it’s always more reasonable to adopt skeptical explanations or non-supernatural theories.
Second, how can anyone doubt the possibility of miracles given the staggering complexity of our planet and bodies we inhabit? Consider the eye, the blood stream, the nervous system, the nature of consciousness, the neurons (all 100 billion) in our brains, and the forces that came together to give us a planet that supports life.
That’s not to mention the complexity of the universe. My wife Gloria and I just had an anniversary trip to Hawaii, where we saw the stars and planets through high powered telescopes on Mount Maunakea. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Yes, miraculous heavens.
With millions of Christians through the centuries, I find nothing to convince me that Jesus and His disciples were fools, liars or dupes
Third, it’s sometimes easier to believe a miracle report than to believe that all of the relevant people are wrong. I thought of this recently when I studied Colton Burpo, the central figure in the book and (less accurate) movie Heaven Is For Real. The son of a Wesleyan pastor in Nebraska, the boy went through emergency surgery in 2003 for a ruptured appendix. He later told his parents about things he saw when taken to heaven during surgery, including details about a sister he had never heard of who had died in utero. So far I find it easier to believe the miracle than not.
Finally, I’m also against Hume because of personal experience.
Here’s an example from early May, when I was on a flight from Orlando to Austin. I struck up a deep conversation with the woman beside me, and she expressed her doubts about God. I was really tired, so eventually I tried to get some sleep. During those restive moments I asked God to tell me something about her that I didn’t know (not my usual kind of prayer request). In my mind the thought came. Her mother’s name is Ruth and her father’s name is David. I figured this was just my tired brain churning away, but I typed a note about her mother’s name on my cell phone. Near the end of the flight, I said, “Liz, your last name is unusual. Where is that name from?” She said, “Oh, my parents are Italian.” I said, “Well, their names must be Tony and Maria.” She said words I will never forget. “No, my dad’s name is David and my mom’s name is Ruth.”
I showed her what I had already put into my phone. I have her contact info and I hope to build on what she admitted was an “interesting” reality. Dare I say miraculous?
James A. Beverley is professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. This article first appeared as a column in Faith Today, Canada’s Christian magazine. Read more of Beverley’s columns here.