Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Unreasonable Skepticism of David Hume

Shakespeare wrote that, “Modest doubt is call’d the beacon of the wise,” and I agree with him because we can’t just believe everything that we encounter. There is modest doubt and there is the unreasonable skepticism of David Hume, the eighteen century Scottish philosopher, who argued in "On Miracles" that miracles are impossible. A miracle can be defined as a suspension of natural law. The main problem with Hume’s argument is that it is question begging in that it assumes that God doesn’t exist and that if He did exist then He couldn’t suspend the natural laws he established. Since I have shown here and here that God probably exists we can assume that miracles are possible and can be believed if there is sufficient evidence that a miracle occurred.

God Controls Natural Law
When God sparked the big bang 13.7 billion years ago He also set the universal constants such as gravity, as well as establishing natural law. Since God is outside of natural law and established it He can suspend it whenever he chooses. So, we can describe supernatural events as very rare but possible. We can formulate the argument as follows:

Premise 1--God created the universe ex nihilo and governs natural laws.

Premise 2--If God governs natural laws, God can suspend natural laws. (From premise 1)

Premise 3--A suspension of natural laws is a definition of a miracle.

Therefore--If the God Christianity exists, He can perform miracles.*

Human Testimony Can Provide Reasonable Proof That a Miracle Occurred
Hume writes:

For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned goodsense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.

Is this true? I believe that there is sufficient evidence to show that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a true miracle. All Gospel accounts state that Jesus was crucified, stabbed through the side with a spear; and buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. There are also multiple attestations of two women discovering that the guarded tomb was empty about three days later and that Jesus began appearing in bodily form to the apostles and hundreds of other people. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “He appeared to Cephus, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time…Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me.” I think hundreds of people witnessing a formerly dead man walking, talking and eating are a sufficient number of witnesses. This great number also shows that this wasn’t a delusion of a few people. It is important to note that All of Jesus’ 12 disciples but John were executed for proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, so they really believed that Jesus rose from the dead—this was no hoax perpetrated by the apostles. The Apostle Paul, a former enemy of the early church, also suffered persecution for proclaiming the risen Christ.

These were not particularity educated men in the sense the Hume means, but you don’t need to be educated to determine if someone was resurrected. Everyone knows that dead people do not naturally come back to life, so if you see someone executed and buried and then see, hear and touch their reanimated body then it is quite obvious that the person has been miraculously raised from the dead.

Hume writes:

Thirdly. It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions.
The crucifixion and resurrection occurred within the Roman Empire which was a relatively civilized society.

Hume’s second and fourth arguments confuse probability with possibility. Norman Geisler explains why Hume’s argument fails when he says, “[It] equates quantity of evidence and probability. It says, in effect, that we should always believe what is the most probable. What Hume seems to overlook is that wise people base their beliefs on facts, not simply on odds. Sometime the 'odds' against an event are high (based on past observation), but the evidence for the event is otherwise very good (based on current observation or reliable testimony). Hume's argument confuses quantity of evidence with quality of evidence. Evidence should be weighed, not added." [1]

We can see that if an omniscient God exists then miracles are possible since God is in control of natural law. Since miracles are rare but possible we weigh human evidence to see if a miracle has occurred. I believe that there is sufficient evidence that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a real miracle.

* I am grateful to for formulating this argument.

1. -Geisler, Norman "Miracles & The Modern Mind" In Defense of Miracles Geivett & Habermas, Ed.

Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill 1997 p.79 via


  1. If the natural laws were entirely different when the universe was in its infancy, as most scientific who study such things now believe, then what exactly is a "natural law" anyways? By the way, Einstein spent his whole life trying to find a "universal constant" because he wanted the universe to be eternal. If the universe is eternal it can be your god. Unfortunately, the universe does not appear to be eternal and self-existent, which clear rules it out from god-status. The idea of the self-existent God "I Am" who is apart from creation makes more sense. \

    Additionally, those who like Spinoza's idea of the impersonal god I have to wonder if their only motivation is to elevate humans above god, since the idea of a god without a personal consciousness puts humans in the superior position from their creator.

    To me, it is all about putting ourselves at the top of the heap so we can have total autonomy and power.

  2. Who besides Paul attests to Jesus appearing to hundreds of people? Who besides Paul recorded a personal claims that Jesus appeared to him?

  3. Hi Vinny,

    Welcome to Intellectual Feast! Paul is acting as a witness to the testimony of hundreds of brothers who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. Through Paul’s wide ranging travels he came into personal contact with Peter and the hundreds of brothers he mentions. Notice how Paul says that, “Most of whom [the 500+ brothers] remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” The fact that Paul knows that some of the people he talked to are now dead indicates his personal contact with these people. As the New Testament scholar, C.H. Dodd says, “There can hardly be any purpose in mentioning the fact that the most of the 500 are still alive, unless Paul is saying, in effect, ‘The witnesses are there to be questioned.” Interestingly enough, the 500+ brothers that Paul talks about could very well be the brothers that Matthew 28 talks about. Matthew 28 says, “And behold, Jesus met them [the disciples] and said, ‘Greetings!' And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me (Matthew 28:9-10).” Later on it says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).” Since we know that the disciples believed enough in Jesus’ resurrection to die for proclaiming it we know that the brothers who doubted what they saw were part of the brothers whom the disciples invited.

    Although Peter doesn’t have a written account of him witnessing Jesus’ resurrection we do know from the Gospel accounts that Peter went from giving up on Jesus at the crucifixion to later, after witnessing Jesus’ resurrection, proclaiming, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ…According to his great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:1 and 1:3).” Given the prevailing Jewish notion that the Messiah can’t be conquered and that people are not raised from the dead until after the end of the world, something truly amazing must of havened for Peter to regain his faith in Jesus—a faith he died for. The best explanation is that Peter really witnessed Jesus’ resurrection as Paul says.

    In addition to Paul’s account we have the accounts in the Gospels and Acts.

  4. I went to a Catholic grammar school in the 1960's. On occasion, the nuns would tell us stories about appearances of the Virgin Mary like the one at Fatima in 1918. The nuns would have believed that some of the witnesses were still alive, but that doesn't mean that they knew who they were or that they had heard about the miracle from one of them.

    It is possible that Paul knew many of the 500 personally, but it is also possible that he didn't know any of them. He may have heard about the incident from some third party.

  5. Given Paul’s wide ranging travels and all the contact he had with the various churches in the Mediterranean region it is extremely likely that he met several of these men. Did he have extensive interviews with all 500+ people, probably not as that would be quite a time consuming project. The bottom line is that he had enough contact with the early church to have talked to many of these people who testify to seeing the resurrected Jesus.