Can Miracles Happen? 

An Example Immutable God
Cautionary Note The Enlightenment
Benedict de Spinoza Pinball Machine
David Hume Natural Explanations

  • “Indeed no just notion of the true nature of history is possible, without a perception of the inviolability of the chain of finite causes, and of the impossibility of miracles.”
  • (David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Introduction, Kindle location 1712).

Vasily Polenov, Jairus' Daughter

LogoAn Example

An example of what people mean by Bible 'miracles,' or signs and wonders,— is Jesus' al fresco picnic lunch with its multiplication of loaves and fishes:

  • “When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.”
  • But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
  • And they said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.”
  • He said, “Bring them here to Me.” Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

  • (Matthew 14:15-21).

LogoNow this is not the way things normally work, nor is such a feat achievable by unaided human effort. Some have interpreted this as a social miracle: the Lord's urging got everybody fishing in their pockets where they found enough food for everybody. The moral of the story would be that if everyone would just share, there would be plenty to go around, and left over for all. That would be an edifying tale, even inspiring, not an astonishing one. But it is plainly understood as a wonder, and so it does in the end shine forth as a physical miracle, with more left at the end than the original input.

Some people say such a thing is flatly impossible, or at any rate that no respectable scholar would believe it: "Was this a literal historic episode, a miraculous feeding of a multitude by a first-century wonder-worker? I doubt it, and I know of no contemporary New Testament scholar who would treat any version of the miraculous feeding stories as if they were descriptions of objective history." (The Easter Moment, John Shelby Spong, Kindle location 2195). In other words, it never happened. Is this because said 'scholars' have had personal experiences proving there are natural laws unbreakable even to God? No, of course not; one cannot begin to imagine how to delimit any such potential experiences. Experience has not taught mankind there are unbreakable laws. It's a line in the sand, not drawn by nature nor empirical observation, but a dictat. Sense experience does not teach what can't happen, only that some things have not been observed to happen. It is not correct that our experience is bound to occur within a certain a priori conceptual framework and cannot occur otherwise; we routinely have reportable experiences, in dreams, which violate the laws of physics. These 'scholars' have not been taught by sense experience, their own or that of others.

The law of conservation of energy and mass says we get out what we put in; but what was put in here? Five loaves and two fish. What came out? Enough to feed five thousand,— fifteen thousand?,— with plenty left over. So that can't happen, right? Except go back to the beginning; it did happen, just like that, at the beginning of the universe. God's power is sufficient cause.

Our God is a law-giver. He not only enacts ordinances binding upon men, He gives law to nature:

"When He made a law for the rain, and a path for the thunderbolt, then He saw wisdom and declared it; He prepared it, indeed, He searched it out." (John 28:26-27).

However, He who decreed the law can also decree its suspension. If in this case Jesus, who spoke the worlds into being, spoke excess fish and loaves into being, who would be able to stop Him? At this they stamp their feet:

"For this miracle belongs to the class which can only appear in any degree credible so long as they can be retained in the obscurity of an indefinite conception: no sooner does the light shine on them, so that they can be examined in all their parts, than they dissolve like the unsubstantial creations of the mist. Loaves, which in the hands of the distributors expand like wetted sponges,— broiled fish, in which the severed parts are replaced instantaneously, as in the living crab gradually,—plainly belong to quite another domain than that of reality."
(Strauss, David Friedrich; Eliot, George. The life of Jesus critically examined (Kindle Locations 14780-14784).)

Some of the time God works His wonders through ordinary means, there being nothing remarkable or unlikely about each occurrence in the chain by whose concatenation He brings about His providential governance of the world:

"As they were so soon to learn, and as we understand it, all happened in the orderly and reasonable succession of events. But the miracle lies in the Divinely arranged concurrence of natural events, with a definite view to a Divine and pre-arranged purpose. And so - if we would only learn it - miracles are such, because we view God's doings from earth, and in the light of the present and the seen; miracles are the sudden manifestation of the ever-present rule of God; and, if we had but eyes to see and ears to hear, we are still and ever surrounded by miracles."

(Edersheim, Alfred. Bible History: Old Testament: Books One Through Four (The Works of Alfred Edersheim Book 4) (Kindle Locations 16711-16714).

While there are many such instances, where the Divine hand is shown in the coordination of events not in themselves miraculous, there also are cases recorded in the Bible in which, at God's command, things happen in a way other than the way they normally happen. It is these latter, true miracles, interruptions to the normal course of nature, which are here in view. It grates on the ears of believers, to hear that God 'intervenes' in His creation, because:

“Davies adds: 'You cannot intervene in what you are doing yourself. And, say classical theists, God cannot literally intervene in his own created order.'
“. . .A better analogy might be to think of the world as music and God as the musician who is playing the music. Divine conservation of the ordinary, natural course of things is comparable to the musician’s playing the music according to the written score as he has it before his mind. God’s causing a miracle is comparable to the musician temporarily departing from the score, as in the sort of improvisation characteristic of jazz. The musician hardly has to force the music to go in some way it wasn’t already going; every note, including the written ones that precede and follow the improvised ones, is produced by him.”
(Feser, Edward. Five Proofs of the Existence of God (pp. 242-243). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.)

Like He says, "For every beast of the forest is Mine and the cattle on a thousand hills." (Psalm 50:10). He is not 'intervening' in some other god's world; it's all His; it dances to His tune, it follows His rules.


LogoImmutable God

Some people say that, because God is immutable, He cannot change His manner of interacting with the world and thus could never perform a miracle:

  • “To suppose that God should subvert his laws, (which is the same as changing them) would be to suppose him to be mutable; for that it would necessarily imply, either that their eternal establishment was imperfect, or that a premised alteration thereof is so. To alter or change that which is absolutely perfect, would necessarily make it cease to be perfect, inasmuch as perfection could not be altered for the better, but for the worse, and consequently an alteration could not meet with the divine approbation; which terminates the issue of the matter in question against miracles, and authorizes us to deduce the following conclusive inference, to wit: that Almighty God, having eternally impressed the universe with a certain system of laws, for the same eternal reason that they were infinitely perfect and best, they could never admit of the least alteration, but are as unchangeable, in their nature, as God their immutable author.”
  • (Ethan Allen, Reason, The Only Oracle of Man: or a Compendious System of Natural Religion, Chapter VI, Section I - of Miracles).

Logo It is certainly true that God is perfect, and that He is immutable: “For I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” (Malachi 3:6). It is not obvious. however, how His perfection or immutability could 'rub off' onto the creature, much less infinite perfection. God, the Creator, is perfect, God the Creator is immutable, His creation is neither:

“The voice said, 'Cry out!”
And he said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8).

It is a little bit presumptuous to say that miracles violate natural law, inasmuch as so saying presumes that we have an exhaustive knowledge of nature's law, which we do not. Certainly miracles transcend natural law as we understand it.

We too are free agents, albeit in a much smaller way than the Almighty God, so let us try the experiment in our own minds. Any free agent, running back through his actions in his mind, can think of times he did things in the same way, and times he departed from his usual procedure for some special reason. If God, wanting to validate the authority of His prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, proffers to them special credentials in the form of wonders or mighty deeds, thus doing things a little differently, then He is only acting as does any other free agent. What does freedom mean, but the ability to do things differently? God has given law to nature, He is not Himself constrained by the law by which the creature is bound.


LogoCautionary Note

Many of the prophets of the Lord, men like Elijah and Elisha, worked mighty signs and wonders. But miracles are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to judge whether a given wonder-worker is a man of God or not:

“If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has spoken in order to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to entice you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall put away the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).

In the case set forth above, the sign and the wonder do come to pass as predicted, but the prophet is a false prophet; he is teaching doctrine not in accord with prior known revelation.

In other cases, such as Jonah's mission to the Ninevites, the prophecy is valid but not attested with miracles. There are such things as "lying wonders," "The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved." (2 Thessalonians 2:9-10); discernment is still needed, even when evident miracles are taking place before your astonished eyes. What Satan, a deceiver, can achieve is likely only illusion; but no doubt illusion has deceived many. So although miracles are an expected part of a prophet's credentials: "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know. . ." ( Acts 2:22), they are in themselves insufficient to seal the case.

The Marx brothers used to ask, 'Who you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?' Are we not entitled to believe our own eyes? To ask a newborn baby to evaluate his novel visionary experiences by reference to a prior database of what is and is not possible is asking a lot, inasmuch as the baby has no such database, nor can ever compile one if not allowed to take in information. But it is one thing if we ourselves see the empty tomb, quite another if we have heard that others have seen it. On this point, controversy erupts.


The Enlightenment

Ever since 'the Enlightenment,'— very energetic product placement; like somebody could be opposed to 'the Enlightenment?'— miracles have been represented as, not a credential or certification, incomplete as indicated above yet still weighty, attesting to God's revelation, but rather a problem for the gospel so dangerous as likely to drag the whole enterprise down, sort of like the cement blocks the Mafia hit-man ties to the heels of those he would destroy. The presence of miracles in the gospel story is sufficient, in their eyes, to invalidate the entire enterprise. Did Jesus heal the blind by a touch? Can't happen:

"For a disease of the eyes, however slight, as it is only engendered gradually by the reiterated action of the disturbing cause, is still less likely to disappear on a word or a touch; it requires very complicated treatment, partly surgical, partly medical, and this must be pre-eminently the case with blindness, supposing it to be of a curable kind. How should we represent to ourselves the sudden restoration of vision to a blind eye by a word or a touch? as purely miraculous and magical? That would be to give up thinking on the subject." (David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Kindle location 12706).

It would be to give up thinking reductively, to be sure. He who made the structure by a word might also find it possible to repair it so: "The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the LORD hath made even both of them." (Proverbs 20:12). Over the years there have been several different lines of attack. They run the gamut from Benedict de Spinoza's theological determinism to David Hume's skepticism. Spinoza's argument against miracles is convincing only to an interlocutor who shares Spinoza's theology, which by definition rules out any atheist. The irreligious Hume is more sympatico to the atheists, although his thorough-going skepticism rules out their Scientism: the naive belief that science delivers to us reality, just as it is,— as well as miracles. No one ever said the atheists were consistent! They industriously saw off the branch upon which they are sitting.


Benedict de Spinoza

First up is Benedict de Spinoza's pantheistic thesis that, because natural law is God's will, which is the same as the contents of God's mind, God Himself cannot override these eternal and immutable laws:

  • “By the help of God, I mean the fixed and unchangeable order of nature or the chain of natural events: for I have said before and shown elsewhere that the universal laws of nature, according to which all things exist and are determined, are only another name for the eternal decrees of God, which always involve eternal truth and necessity.
  • “So that to say that everything happens according to natural laws, and to say that everything is ordained by the decree and ordinance of God, is the same thing. . .
  • “We can now easily understand what is meant by the election of God. For since no one can do anything save by the predetermined order of nature, that is by God's eternal ordinance and decree, it follows that no one can choose a plan of life for himself, or accomplish any work save by God's vocation choosing him for the work or the plan of life in question, rather than any other.”

  • (Benedict de Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, Part I, Chapter III, Sections 13-18, Kindle Location 5947 of 10177).

LogoIf the laws of nature are indeed unchanging, eternal and immutable, then the miraculous feeding of the five thousand didn't happen. But how do we know that they are any of those things? This particular Enlightenment author is a pantheist, who cannot distinguish nature, God's creation, from God Himself; natural law is God's will, period. God cannot now, at this moment, at this opportunity, have any will different from the normal outcome of natural law, because He has been melded into nature. Spinoza has thus, as it turns out, defined miracles out of existence. However, those who do not accept his definitions, do not accept his definitions. Recall, the basis upon which Spinoza's thesis rests is pantheism: unlike in Christian theism, wherein God is the Creator and nature is the creature, and God transcends the world, in this set-up God and the world are one single entity and the laws of nature exhaust the contents of God's mind:

"Our first point is easily proved from what we showed in Chapter IV about Divine law — namely, that all that God wishes or determines involves eternal necessity, and truth, for we demonstrated that God's understanding is identical with His will, and that it is the same thing to say that God wills a thing, as to say, that He understands it; hence, as it follows necessarily, from the Divine nature and perfection that God understands a thing as it is, it follows no less necessarily that He wills it as it is. Now, as nothing is necessarily true save only by Divine decree, it is plain that the universal laws of nature are decrees of God following from the necessity and perfection of the Divine nature. Hence, any event happening in nature which contravened nature's universal laws, would necessarily also contravene the Divine decree, nature, and understanding; or if anyone asserted that God acts in contravention to the laws of nature, he, ipso facto, would be compelled to assert that God acted against His own nature — an evident absurdity." (Benedict de Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise, Part II, Chapter VI, Sections 15-18).

It is certainly beyond controversy that God wills the law of conservation of energy and mass; if He did not will it, from whence would it come? Yet it seems He also desires loaves and fishes, and wills them on occasion. Spinoza's argument against miracles does not accuse them of contravening any physical necessity, but rather the nature of God; God would fall into self-contradiction if He acted counter to the normal laws of nature, which He Himself conceptualized and established. However, no free agent who promulgates laws, a legislator, who then also ordains an exception to the law, by granting a pardon perhaps, perceives himself as having done the impossible. If I tell a story about Solon or Lycurgus, who promulgated the law, and then say that they also pardoned an offender, not applying the punishment specified,— in their own law!— suspending the law's execution in that particular case, it is not obvious to me that I've said anything impossible, self-contradictory, or logically incoherent. This is like saying that God, having established natural law, cannot even imagine any other state of affairs. Why would He not, when human legislators can with no difficulty?


Pinball Machine

Another line of attack posits a pin-ball machine or watch mechanism so tightly intertwined with cause and effect that God, having created it, can't get back into it and is thus locked out. After Sir Isaac Newton had unravelled the laws of planetary motion, certain French philosophes saw ahead of them a Pisgah view of a perfect pin-ball machine which keeps running according to the laws of motion, like one domino knocking down another, forever and ever. This mechanistic world, which science never uncovered, unravelled or revealed,— even three mutually gravitating bodies were too much for Newtonian physics, much less an eternity of pin-ball interactions,— a hypothetical, imaginary world, was so appealing that they preferred it to the actual world.

There was no room left in this world for free-will, either of the creature or of any supposed God; our intuitive certainty that we do have free-will can be naught but an illusion. Nowadays most enterprises which describe themselves as science do not conform to this hyper-deterministic model; quantum mechanics confines itself to probabilities on the larger scale, individual transactions being impossible either to determine or to predict. This deterministic pin-ball world mostly makes a come-back when people want to undermine the possibility of miracles.

Real world pin-ball machines, conveniently enough, leave room for an operator gifted with free will, though the ideal ones may not. One point to bear in mind about the posited pin-ball world: its advocates usually presuppose a reductive scheme of causation: each event can have only one cause. This is not self-evidently true. We say, for example, 'I hopped in the car to go to the store because we were out of milk.' 'You superstitious fool! Don't you understand that the car goes because gasoline is spurted into the internal combustion chambers, and then ignited by a spark from the spark plugs? Can you possibly imagine this machine goes because you want it to go?' 'Of course the internal combustion engine conducts its business as designed, but I wanted it to go and so I turned the key in the ignition and put my foot to the pedal.' The reality of the one chain of circumstances in no way invalidates the reality of the other, and yet this is generally assumed by atheists, who soberly advise us that God does not punish the ungodly with earth-quakes, because earth-quakes are caused by the motion of subterranean plates:


Dan Brown
Lawrence Krauss
Ex Nihilo
Deep Europan Sea
Pray and Do Nothing

LogoDavid Hume

David Hume is a skeptic, whose hostility to religion appeals to today's atheists. His argument against miracles centers, not around God's nature as does Spinoza's, because this would imply that God exists, but rather around the conditions under which we could say with confidence that a miracle has occurred. To revert to our index example, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, I didn't see that and you didn't see that, dear reader; it happened long ago. Certainly it must have been compelling to the eye-witnesses, but what are we to make of the stories of these events as they are found in the New Testament? Hume realizes the scriptures are understood by Christians as self-authenticating, the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the believer's heart recognizing the Spirit in the scriptures, but leaving this aside and treating the Bible account as any other sort of human testimony, would it ever be reasonable to believe a miracle-account, or is it always more likely the account is erroneous or fraudulent? Hume is generally disposed to credit human testimony:

"To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators." (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section 88).

At this point, a bizarre principle comes in, which purports to be a neutral, psychological and historical observation: that the only reason people ever say, 'this is the cause of that,' is because they have found from experience that the two things are conjoined:

It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connection together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction. . ." (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X Of Miracles, Chapter 88).

Because Hume has no concept of causation other than a casual, unexplained and inexplicable, experiential connection between two things not otherwise related, his idea of natural law has no force. 'Natural law' makes nothing in the world happen, so far as we know. This defective understanding of causation found its way into Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, in the form of the discovery that statements pertaining to causes are 'synthetic' rather than 'analytic.' Rather, the bewildered questions about the hackneyed 'translucent sphere' one stumbles across in the woods: 'How did that thing get here?',— show the question to be analytic, there is no element of the translucent sphere's definition which accounts for its actual existence. Properly speaking, the equation that two things conjoined in experience = causation is the fallacy known as 'post hoc, ergo propter hoc;' although the sun invariably rises shortly after the rooster crows, when has any one in the world has ever thought that the rooster's crowing makes the sun rise? This mixed-up account of causation, which gives no weight to the natural order of things more than that of experienced, but arbitrary, linkages between two things which have no "discoverable connection," will play a part in what is to come.

  • “Suppose, for instance, that the fact, which the testimony endeavors to establish, partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in that case, the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual. The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connection, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them. But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains.”
  • (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X Of Miracles, Chapter 89).

Logo Hume defines a 'miracle' as a "violation of the laws of nature:"

"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." (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X Of Miracles, Chapter 90).

All we are understanding by a 'miracle' here is a rare event, or a seldom if ever, experienced event, in the catalog of experiences to which the judge has access. It was apparent to Hume, and should be apparent to those who wish to evaluate his argument, that it actually applies, not only to signs and wonders of supernatural provenance, but to all seldom-experienced events, including a southern inhabitant's incredulity when faced with frost. Take, for instance, a 'Big Bang,' which we have never experienced, indeed, no human observer could ever experience. Certain other things we have experienced, such as the cosmic background radiation, are neatly and economically explained by the Big Bang. But, you see, Hume does not really believe in causation; to him, it means only two things are linked in our experience, which obviously the Big Bang never is, because it falls outside our experience. So out it goes. It suffers from the same disadvantage as do miracles: it is a one-time thing.

The conclusion Hume draws, and which is oft repeated by atheists today, runs as follows:

"The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), '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 u an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened." (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X Of Miracles, Chapter 91).

Logo The reader will notice a certain asymmetry in the argument. We are weighing two things in the balance; the same term occurs on both sides of the equation, 'other people's testimony:'

"The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience, resemble those, of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of argument, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations." (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X Of Miracles, Chapter 93.)

"[P]ast observations" conducted by whom; by ourselves? No, by Other People. Worse, we have not ourselves gone and conducted a poll of all these people, past and present; rather, we have been told that other people say that. Legal thinking has traditionally sorted testimony into several different bins, depending on whether it is first-hand, eye-witness testimony, or whether it is second-hard hearsay. On the Hume Express, we are not yet consistently doing that, which raises a red flag; rather we are tossing apples into the bin with oranges.

It seems at times that we are going to count heads:

"It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with the assurance which arises from the remainder." (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X Of Miracles, Chapter 98).

Simply counting heads, I reflect that I have heard more people say, 'He is risen indeed,' then I have ever attended funerals and noted that the deceased did not climb up out of the coffin. While this great cloud of witnesses may testify, 'He lives within my heart,' they do not count as eye-witnesses in the same sense as were the "above five hundred brethren" of 1 Corinthians 15:6. However, if we demand the same restriction to the other side of the equation, my personal experience of dead men failing to rise from the grave is based on an extremely small sample. So we augment it: with what?— hearsay, what other people say. Not 'He is risen indeed,' but 'No one has ever seen a dead man rise,' a fact not in the speaker's experience, unless we are hearing the massed voice of every man, woman and child who has ever lived, a voice as of many waters.

Other people's testimony, on one side of the equation, is counted ultimately for nothing; yet other people's testimony, on the other side of the equation, provides us with a magic window into the world; it is simply the way the world is. How, after all, do we know it never happens that a man rises from the dead? Did we learn this from observations conducted at the handful of funerals we ourselves have attended, or are we juicing the results with hearsay, what other people have told us? A row of zeroes adds up to zero, after all. And how, after all, do we arrive at our skepticism of other people's testimony? Because other people have told us to be skeptical of other people's testimony. Realizing this becomes a hall of mirrors, Hume wants to toss us back upon our own experience of the reliability of other people's testimony, which assumes we possess means to check their testimony by our own personal inspection, which we generally do not. Perhaps some people's testimony has conflicted with other people's testimony.

Shall we stroll into the hall of mirrors, doesn't it look inviting? Hume does make an effort to separate the sheep from the goats, the Other People whose testimony we choose to discount from the Other People whose testimony seals the deal that a man cannot rise from the dead. It is however simply intolerable. Guess what: it's based on social status. Can anyone seriously claim the apostles' eye-witness testimony should be discounted because they were not socially prominent? Justice is no respecter of persons, as we learn in the Bible; the poor man's testimony cannot be discarded simply because he is poor. Often in front of Western court-houses a sculptured lady is placed, wearing a blind-fold over her eyes. She is supposed not to notice Hume's criteria, as to the "credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind" of our witnesses, or whether they live in a "so celebrated a part of the world." She is not supposed to let the blind-fold slip and notice that stuff, which are markers for social status, so why should we? The lack of any pertinent first century evidence against the resurrection, like a body, is simply because the right sort of folks, persons of quality, had not yet deigned to notice this new sect:

"In the infancy of new religions, the wise and learned commonly esteem the matter too inconsiderable to deserve their attention or regard. And when afterwards they would willingly detect the cheat, in order to undeceive the deluded multitude, the season is now past, and the records and witnesses, which might clear up the matter, have perished beyond recovery." (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X Of Miracles, Chapter 97).

"[P]erished beyond recovery"; well, isn't that a shame. This argument: that the wrong kind of people witness miracles, whereas the right kind despise them, is not worthy of serious consideration.

Notice further that Hume's argument against miracles would destroy, not only the church's miracles, but much of modern 'science' as it is practiced today. Quite frankly, Hume's broom would sweep out a good bit of rubbish, unfortunately alongside of good things like the Big Bang. Modern evolutionary biology purports to tell the story, based on various lines of evidence, of one-time, non-repeatable events. These events are conceded to be inherently unlikely; we have not ourselves seen them, nor could produce them at all. In David Hume's terms, we have no warrant for believing in these events; we judge what happened in the past only by what commonly happens today.

  • “The good news is that we can specify an experiment to decide between the conventional and the radical interpretations of extinction. . .The bad news is that we can't possibly perform the experiment.
  • “I call this experiment 'replaying life's tape.' You press the rewind button and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened, go back to any time and place in the past — say, to the seas of the Burgess Shale. Then let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original. . .”
  • “I believe that the reconstructed Burgess fauna, interpreted by the theme of replaying life's tape, offers powerful support for this different view of life: any replay of the tape would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken. . .But the diversity of possible itineraries does demonstrate that eventual results cannot be predicted at the outset. Each step proceeds for cause, but no finale can be specified at the start, and none would ever occur a second time in the same way, because any pathway proceeds through thousands of improbable stages. Alter any early event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time, and evolution cascades into a radicaliy different channel.”
  • (Stephen Jay Gould, A Wonderful Life, pp. 48-51).

Logo Thus modern evolutionary biology is a tale of inherently low-probability events, which we can neither observe nor reproduce; and we must weigh in the balance which is likelier: that the evidence misleads, an occurrence very commonly observed, or that these things no one living has ever experienced actually happened. You know, I'm glad to be rid of it, because I never liked evolutionary biology anyway. It seems to me a middle balance should be established, where Hume's over-estimation and uncritical acceptance of hearsay evidence in establishing natural law is corrected, yet we understand you are not doing science when you talk about non-repeatable, non-predictable events which are alleged to have happened.

As to the Indian who denied the existence of snow and ice, Hume thinks him a very sensible fellow:

"The Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost, reasoned justly; and it naturally required very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, that arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted, and which bore so little analogy to those events, of which he had had constant and uniform experience." (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X Of Miracles, Part I, Chapter 89).

Certainly he should not believe "the first relations," because human perversity is such that some people amuse themselves by telling travelers' tales, just to see what absurdities they can get other people to believe. However, there is snow and ice; he should not persist in denying facts. Ancient geographers often err by believing traveler's tales, but they also err by an excessive skepticism. Strabo could not believe that the Cimbri abandoned their ancestral home on account of a storm-surge:

"As for the Cimbri, some things that are told about them are incorrect and others are extremely improbable. For instance, one could not accept such a reason for their having become a wandering and piratical folk as this — that while they were dwelling on a Peninsula they were driven out of their habitations by a great flood-tide; for in fact they still hold the country which they held in earlier times; and they sent as a present to Augustus the most sacred kettle in their country, with a plea for his friendship and for an amnesty of their earlier offenses, and when their petition was granted they set sail for home; and it is ridiculous to suppose that they departed from their homes because they were incensed on account of a phenomenon that is natural and eternal, occurring twice every day. And the assertion that an excessive flood-tide once occurred looks like a fabrication, for when the ocean is affected in this way it is subject to increases and diminutions, but these are regulated and periodical. . .Indeed, the regularity of the flood-tides and the fact that the part of the country subject to inundations was known should have precluded such absurdities; for since this phenomenon occurs twice every day, it is of course improbable that the Cimbri did not so much as once perceive that the reflux was natural and harmless, and that it occurred, not in their country alone, but in every country that was on the ocean." (Strabo, Geography, Book VII, Chapter 2:1).

Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, Defeat of the Cimbri

Logo Strabo is presciently following Hume's instructions: he has never seen a wind-driven storm surge, like the Katrina-driven catastrophe which inundated New Orleans, so he huffily wonders why the Cimbri had never noticed such a thing cannot happen. But it does happen, though rarely; similar events have occurred in the Netherlands and Bangladesh, or so Other People say; I only know what I read in the papers. (I've seen the pictures of course, but as every conspiracy theorist knows, those can be photo-shopped!) Whether something similar happened long ago in Jutland, if that is where the Cimbri lived, I can't say, but ruling out the possibility simply because it is outside our personal experience is not helpful nor fruitful.

Twice in the history of warfare have atom bombs been dropped in anger, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To determine whether such an event did in fact occur, or whether the newsreel footage was faked as can easily be done, how helpful would it be for me to walk around my neighborhood with clip-board in hand an poll my neighbors whether they have seen, personally and at close range, an atom bomb go off? Certainly if atom bombs were going off at all places all the time, human life would be unsustainable upon this planet. Those people who are so unfortunate as to witness an atom bomb exploding locally no doubt thereforth have a lower life expectancy than do the rest of us; like the gangster who says, 'Dead men tell no tales,' these devices tend to clean up after themselves. The fact that most people have never seen one proves what, exactly?

To avoid comparing apples with oranges, we must distinguish between first-hand, eye-witness testimony, second-hand hear-say testimony, about what?— repeating what the eye-witnesses saw, or didn't see? Or passive testimony repeating that most people, not so situated as to witness the event if it indeed had happened as alleged, never saw? Just walking around my area, I could collect scores of first-hand, personal accounts from people who never saw the Rwandan genocide; proving what? No doubt most people never saw the holocaust either. Aggregators who bundle large quantities of such accounts are providing what, exactly?: natural law, or irrelevant testimony from people who weren't there? Counting heads leaves us with many more people who have never seen an atom bomb go off than who have, even adding military witnesses, from the era when they still did above-ground testing, to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And, of course, we know that people lie: not any of the good folk who never saw such an event, of course, but the riff-raff who saw the bomb go off and lived to tell the tale, they lie.

Events of infrequent occurrence, like tsunamis, lunar landings, atom bomb detonations, might more productively be rebutted by those who desire to deny them by adducing eye-witness testimony from witnesses who were there, but saw either nothing or saw something different from what is alleged. For example, testimony from witnesses who saw the Lord's dead body still in the tomb after three days would be meaningful rebuttal testimony. Explaining that the disciples stole the body concedes it isn't there! Although, dear reader, if you are numb enough to believe what you hear on the Discovery Channel, then you have discovered the previously unfound body, and not only that, but the heretofore unknown Cousin Matthew:

Logo Alas, the high and mighty were engrossed with their very important tasks at the time, and neglected to gather the evidence:— a body, say,— that would disprove the resurrection. Hume's "learned" company came too late to his assistance to render any useful aid. But he believes, with the unshakeable conviction of a fanatic, and we are supposed to believe, that IF THEY HAD, that would have nailed it!

Christians of course do not believe that men rise from the dead all the time; we have not yet heard the final trump. A rule of thumb that will always deny that rare events have occurred is plausible only if accompanied by a explanation why rare events cannot occur, which Hume, with his very weak understanding of causation and natural law, lacks altogether. An Aristotle, for instance, with his conviction that nature is what happens always or for the most part, can make an a priori case against singularities, as Hume cannot. This gap in his argument is plastered over with a copious flow of trash-talk against the people who believe in miracles, whom Hume dislikes.


Natural Explanations

These various arguments against miracles have not always been understood as arguments against scriptural truth, because the way out of ascribing a 'Mickey Mouse' explanation of the miracle remains. For example, in our index case of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, some people posit a 'social miracle,' where the boy's example inspires other people to share their food as well, and when everyone shares, what had seemed to be scarcity and deprivation is suddenly found to be abundance. But this is not what is described; the simplest and best interpretation is that the Lord, by His mighty power, created what was wanted, by the same act according to which He created the world in the first place. In some cases, the 'Mickey Mouse' explanations are potentially legitimate interpretations, in other cases they are absurd, laughable and destroy altogether whatever point the event described might have had.

Some suggest that miracles do not violate the laws of nature, but obey and reveal a higher set of laws hitherto unknown. While in some cases there may be some legitimacy to this view, it runs off the tracks in the case, for instance, of Mary Baker Eddy and her 'Christian Science,' who perceived in the healing miracles of the Bible a demonstration that matter is unreal, and death and sickness errors, mistaken beliefs:

"Jesus strips all disguise from error, when his teachings are fully understood. By parable and argument he explains the impossibility of good producing evil; and he also scientifically demonstrates this great fact, proving by what are wrongly called miracles, that sin, sickness, and death are beliefs — illusive errors which he could and did destroy." (Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, with Keys to the Scriptures, Chapter XI, Kindle location 4349).

Jesus, in her view, was the pioneer Christian Scientist:

"He proved Life to be deathless and Love to be the master of hate. He met and mastered on the basis of Christian Science, the power of Mind over matter, all the claims of medicine, surgery, and hygiene." (Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, with Keys to the Scriptures, Chapter II, Kindle location 615).

She did not believe in miracles: "Miracles are impossible in Science, and here Science takes issue with popular religions." (Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, with Keys to the Scriptures, Chapter IV, Kindle location 1100). The result unfortunately was neither science nor Christianity. 'Christian Science' is often misunderstood; what it is not, is faith-healing:

"Atheism, pantheism, theosophy, and agnosticism are opposed to Christian Science, as they are to ordinary religion; but it does not follow that the profane or atheistic invalid cannot be healed by Christian Science." (Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, with Keys to the Scriptures, Chapter II, Kindle location 1804).

What it is, is cleansing the mind from the illusion that there is disease: "To the Christian Science healer, sickness is a dream from which the patient needs to be awakened." (Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, with Keys to the Scriptures, Chapter XII, Kindle location 5282).


Logo Prophecy

Prophecy is a standing miracle in the scriptures. By our own sources of information, we can only guess at the future:

  • “What audacity of church and priestly ignorance it is to impose this book upon the world as the writing of Isaiah, when Isaiah, according to their own chronology, died soon after the death of Hezekiah, which was B.C. 698; and the decree of Cyrus, in favor of the Jews returning to Jerusalem, was, according to the same chronology, B.C. 536; which is a distance of time between the two of 162 years.”
  • (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Part II, Chapter I - The Old Testament).

Isaiah Deuteronomy
Dividing Line Track Record
Copernican Revolution Joseph Atwill
70 A.D. Selection Bias

Logo It has plausibly been suggested that the credibility of witness accounts varies with the distance of the witness from the event reported (was he an eye-witness, or is he relaying others' testimony at second-hand, or third-hand, or further?), as well as his known character for truthfulness. Do we have any information respecting the authors of the New Testament? Were any of them eye-witnesses, or, for those who were not, would they have had opportunity to interview eye-witnesses?:

LogoIt is a given in modern secular Bible study that miracles are impossible, and that 'the Enlightenment' established this 'fact.' However, the cost of accepting either Spinoza's theistic argument or Hume's skeptical argument is actually rather high; are these people willing to pay it, or are they assuming someone else has already picked up the tab?:

LogoSince atheists are opposed to miracles on principle, they are bound to deny any miracle reports they encounter. Beyond that, they will often deny that the gospel account can possibly be historical to any extent. Why, the gospels describe miracles! Since no miracle can possibly happen, they say, therefore Jesus did not exist. This approach worked out real well for the 'Enlightenment' types when they said there was no Troy and no Trojan War. After all, the Iliad has all these gods running around; and no Christian reader, anymore than the atheist, is disposed to give credit to that aspect of it. Nevertheless, there was a Troy-town, and a Trojan War. Is this 'deny everything' approach any more plausible in this instance?

This is a secondary, halo effect: not only do the atheists deny that miracles took place in first century Palestine, an assertion to which arguably they have a prior commitment, but they will also argue that the miracle-worker cannot have existed, and not only that, but those people who reported the miracles cannot have existed either! It all can only be a later fabrication. This is as if a modern-day newspaper reader were to say, 'Although the newspaper reports on the activities of Benny Hinn, and reports that thousands of people attend his rallies, and some of these people report that they have seen miracles occurring there, such as wheelchair-bound people rising up and walking, nevertheless I say that Benny Hinn does not exist, and not only does Benny Hinn not exist, but the thousands of people who attend his rallies do not exist, and not only that, but the 'Daily Sun' does not exist either, because they report these inanities.' Isn't that 'scorched earth' approach wasteful, unnecessary and unconvincing? After all, it is not miraculous in itself that people report miracles: "If a person does not believe that miracles are possible, he or she has no grounds to argue that someone else could not say that one took place (unless, of course, it took a miracle to claim a miracle took place!)" (R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, p. 55). A more parsimonious approach for the atheist to take would be to say, 'These people report miracles, but they have erred.' Nevertheless, in spite of its overblown wastefulness, and the fact that it requires disbelief in well-documented fact, they often do go overboard in just this way. Miracles are so dangerous to the atheist that they cast a shadowy penumbra all around, obliterating historical fact:


The Thesis Tacitus
Celsus Suetonius
Mara Bar-Serapion Euhemerus
Talmud Atoms and the Void
Gospel of Thomas Osiris et al
Mutual Annihilation Embarrassment
Jesus Denial Today Little Gods
Zeitgeist, the Movie