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Responding to David Hume’s Argument Against Jesus’ Miracles
Understanding Hume’s objections
Perhaps the most well-articulated argument against Jesus’ miracles comes from David Hume, the great eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher.
You’re probably already familiar with it, but in case you need a refresher…
Here is his argument, in a nutshell:
Human experience confirms the certainty of the laws of nature. Since miracles violate the laws of nature, it would take an enormous amount of evidence to confirm any miracle.
How much evidence? An impossibly large amount.
Because such evidence does not exist, belief in miracles is therefore irrational.
Hume supported his primary argument with four supporting claims:
- No miracle has been attested by a sufficient number of educated and rational witnesses.
- There is a human tendency to believe the spectacular.
- Most reports of miracles occur among ignorant and barbarous people.
- Claims of miracles occur in all religious traditions, thus nullifying one another.
How should we respond to Hume?
Whether or not you’re aware of Hume’s argument, you’ve probably encountered objections to miracles that follow a similar line of thinking. Or maybe you’ve wondered yourself about whether it’s reasonable to think Jesus really performed miracles.
Many of these objections can be traced back to Hume and his intellectual descendants.
What’s the proper way to think about Jesus’ miracles in light of these arguments?
How to think about Jesus’ miracles
Two approaches need to govern our thinking:
First, we should not confuse the scientific method with the philosophical worldview of the scientific method.
That is, Hume’s worldview—the worldview still dominant in our own time—assumes that the universe is a closed system of cause and effect. According to this worldview, because miracles are outside the realm of cause and effect, then miracles are impossible.
However, the scientific method has nothing to say about the events that occur outside the material world.
Moreover, as science has advanced, many supposedly inviolable laws have been radically modified and revised. Much that happens in the universe is beyond our expectations or present understanding. Furthermore, nothing in Hume’s argument rules out the intervention of a god to alter the expected pattern of nature.
We should be careful not to place too much weight on the scientific method to answer our questions about Jesus’ miracles.
Second, while miracles may be outside the realm of scientific investigation, they are not outside the realm of historical investigation.
It’s true that miracles are uncommon. They are certainly outside the realm of normal human experience. But can we say with certainty that they are impossible? How many miracles would it take to disprove this hypothesis?
The answer? Only one.
The historian’s role is to find out what happened, not assume what could or could not have happened.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at historical sources.
What does history say about Jesus miracles?
First, let’s examine the Bible itself.
The Gospel tradition is permeated with the miraculous.
References to Jesus’ miracles also appear in a variety of Gospel genres, including miracle stories, pronouncement stories, controversy stories, sayings, parables, commissioning accounts, passion narratives, and summaries of Jesus’ activities.
And the apostle Paul speaks of over five hundred witnesses who saw Jesus alive after his death. Certainly not all of these witnesses were irrational or delusional.
There is almost universal agreement that Jesus was considered by his contemporaries to be a healer and an exorcist.
Second, let’s take a look at extra-biblical sources.
Several sources attest to Jesus’ role as a miracle-worker. Here are a few:
- Josephus states that Jesus was “a doer of startling deeds” (Ant. 18.3.3 §63), a probable reference to his miracles.
- The Babylonian Talmud claims Jesus was executed because he practiced magic and led Israel astray (b. Sanh. 43a). While this passage is a strong polemic against Jesus and Christianity, it admits as reliable the tradition that Jesus performed supernatural acts.
- The early church leader Origen quotes his second-century pagan opponent Celsus as claiming that Jesus worked certain magical powers which he had learned in Egypt.
While this data does not prove that Jesus actually performed miracles, it confirms that he was widely acclaimed as a miracle-worker—even among his enemies.
The Gospels treat Jesus’ miracles not as commonplace or as the expected norm for charismatic leaders but as surprising and astonishing to those who witnessed them.
Looking at each miracle
The question of whether Jesus performed specific miracles recorded in the Gospels must be judged on a case-by-case basis.
If we assume miracles are impossible, then the account will, of course, be rejected.
But if we start by affirming that miracles are possible and that Jesus was an exceptional person viewed by his contemporaries as a miracle-worker, then it is reasonable to conclude that the event took place.
Much depends on the attitude and approach one takes to the Gospels.
Hume’s other arguments against miracles
What about Hume’s two other arguments: human tendency to crave the spectacular, and the assertion that many religious traditions claim the reality of miracles, thus nullifying Christianity’s claims.
While Hume’s argument about the human tendency to crave the spectacular are certainly true, this says nothing about whether miracles are possible.
And Hume’s argument about other religions’ claims to the miraculous doesn’t deny their impossibility in the Christian tradition. Reports of miracles in other religious traditions neither prove nor disprove the miracles of Christianity.
Why Jesus’ miracles matter
For Jesus, the miracles are not showy demonstrations of power or even proof of his identity.
They are rather manifestations of the in-breaking power of the kingdom of God, a foretaste and preview of the restoration of creation promised by God through the prophets of old, now coming to fulfillment through Jesus the Messiah.
Learn more about Jesus’ miracles
You can learn much more about Jesus’ miracles in unit 14 of Four Portraits, One Jesus, an online course about Jesus and the Gospels.
You’ll learn more about the significance of Jesus’ miracles as a whole, as well as the meaning and purpose of each kind of miracle:
- raising the dead
- nature miracles
What you will learn in the rest of the course:
- The genre and function of the four biblical Gospels
- The historical, religious, social, and cultural contexts in which Jesus lived and the Gospels were written
- How each Gospel portrays Jesus, and why it matters
- What the “search for the historical Jesus” is
- Why the Gospels are historically reliable
- The most important themes and events in each Gospel
- A unified overview of Jesus’ life, ministry, miracles, message, death, and resurrection.
The best learning experience possible
The course includes almost seven hours of professionally-filmed video. The video lectures are short—usually 15 to 30 minutes each. Videos are supported with visual material, such as slides, photos, maps, and images, which means you have the opportunity to learn in multiple ways.
Even if you have a short attention span, you’ll be able to follow what’s going on.
Last chance to get introductory pricing!
You have just a few more days to sign up for the online course on Jesus and the Gospels taught by Mark Strauss at the discounted introductory price. The price goes up next week!
The course is self-paced, which means even if you won’t be able to start the course until weeks or months down the road, you can still enroll now and take advantage of the special price.
What are you waiting for? Enroll today, so you can begin to deepen and enrich your understanding of Jesus and the Gospels.
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