For many of today’s sceptics, David Hume clinched it: miracles don’t happen. Miracles (if they occurred) would be violations of the laws of nature, and we know from experience that the laws of natures are not violated.
There are a number of problems with this argument, popular though it is. For one thing, Hume was himself inconsistent regarding the ‘laws of nature’. He argues elsewhere that even though we have observed the sun to rise every morning for thousands of years, we cannot infer that it will rise again tomorrow morning.
For another thing, Hume was tied to a restricted and inadequate view of the ‘laws of nature’. He denied that we can infer causes and effects from the workings of these laws. To give a modern example, though Hume would not deny a connection between smoking and lung cancer, but he would deny a cause-and-effect connection. And that is to undermine a great deal of modern science. It is also to close off any relationships within nature that might involve a miracle.
Accounts of miracles are generally supposed to arise in primitive, pre-scientific cultures, where superstition is rife and knowledge of scientific laws is deficient. But people in New Testament times, despite being pre-scientific, knew that dead bodies do not come back to life, and were incredulous when one did.
The idea that miracles are ‘violations of the laws of nature’ needs to be challenged. The laws of nature tell me that if I drop an apple it will fall to the ground. If someone intervenes and catches the apple the laws of nature have not be ‘violated’, it is simply that the conditions under which they operate have been altered. The laws of the internal combustion engine are not violated if its designer, or one of his mechanics, intervenes to change the action of the engine. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, even a virginal conception does not violate the laws of nature: if God creates a sperm cell within the body of a virgin, the laws of nature are ready to receive it and, nine months later, a child is born.
Christians, then, have a high regard for the laws of nature. They describe what usually happens, when there is no direct supernatural intervention. If we did not respect the laws of nature, we would not even recognise a miracle when one occurred.
Miracles, by any definition, are exceptions to the rule. They are unusual. If they were not, they wouldn’t be called miracles! But it is fallacious for Hume to claim that there can be no exceptions to ‘uniform experience’. Hume seems to assume what he wants to prove, namely that no miracles have occurred in the past, and this therefore weighs against this present instance being a miracle. But how can he know that no miracles have occurred in the past? He is simply assuming what he wishes to prove. It’s a circular argument.
Hume further argued that (to adopt a modern formulation) ‘extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence’. That is to say, the more unusual the event, the greater trust you need in the person reporting it. If someone claims that a dead body has been raised to life, we need to ask if it is more likely that the person was mistaken, than that the dead body was actually raised to life.
Actually, Christians are sympathic to force of Hume’s argument. They are willing to ask: were the witnesses of Christ’s resurrection the kind of people who would concoct a lie, foist it on others, be tortured and imprisoned for it, and go to their deaths for it? No: they were honest and reliable men and women. If we reject their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus, what are we going to put in its place that will explain their changed lives, their courage, and their world-wide influence?
And what of the evidence itself? Hume expects any miraculous claim to be supported by strong evidence, and yet he never seems to have consider the evidence for Christ’s resurrection. He might respond by saying that the alleged event occurred long ago, and so we do not have direct access to the evidence. But we would not think of applying that argument to, say, the Big Bang, which was a very singular event indeed, and one which occurred a very long time ago.
A claim to resurrection needs to be evaluated not only from the credibility of the witnesses, but also by the presence (or absence) of any credible alternative explanation.
Any argument from ‘personal incredulity’ (‘I cannot believe this, because it is outside my sphere of experience’) is at best inconclusive. The theories of relativity and quantum mechanics contain ideas that are not only outside our sphere of everyday experience, but which are very definitely counter-intuitive. We need to deal with the facts, and not rely totally on our previous experience, or with calculations about the probability of something happening.
One of the happy ironies of the Christian faith is that it is the very belief in a Creator (that is to say, a Law-Giver) that gives us a satisfactory ground for belief in law in nature. But we go further than that, and insist that the Creator may from time to time intervene in his own creation more directly than usual, to produce what we call a ‘miracle’.
Based on John Lennox, Gunning for God, 2011, 165-186.