Objections to Miracles
From the book: I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. By Norman Geisler and F Turek
Since the late 1600s, two major objections to miracles have arisen that we need to investigate. The first is from Benedict Spinoza, and the second is from David Hume. We’ll start with Spinoza’s objection.
Natural Laws Are Immutable—The argument that natural laws are immutable was first popularized in the 1670s by Benedict Spinoza, a Jewish pantheist. Spinoza’s argument against miracles goes something like this:
1. Miracles are violations of natural laws.
2. Natural laws are immutable.
3. It is impossible to violate immutable laws.
4. Therefore, miracles are impossible.
If Spinoza is right—if there is no way natural laws can be overpowered, interrupted, or interfered with—then miracles are impossible.
The problem with this objection is that it begs the question. If you define natural laws as immutable, then of course miracles are impossible. But that’s the very question! Who said natural laws are immutable?
Spinoza, in accord with his pantheistic worldview, illegitimately ruled out the theistic God, and thus miracles, in advance. But if God exists, miracles are possible. And as we have seen, the greatest miracle of all, the creation of the universe out of nothing, has already occurred.
Creation itself demonstrates that natural laws are not immutable. Something doesn’t naturally come from nothing. But here we are.
We also know that natural laws are not immutable because they are descriptions of what happens, not prescriptions of what must happen. Natural laws don’t really cause anything, they only describe what regularly happens in nature. They describe the effects of the four known natural forces—gravitation, magnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Once you introduce intelligent beings into the picture, natural forces can be overpowered. We know that those forces can be overpowered because we do so ourselves every day.
For example, when a baseball player catches a falling baseball, he is overpowering the force of gravity. We do the same whenever we fly planes or blast off into space. In such cases, gravity is not changed, it is simply overpowered. If finite beings like us can overpower natural forces, then certainly the infinite Being who created those forces can do so.8
Unlike moral laws, natural laws are not based on God’s nature and thus are changeable. While God cannot violate moral laws—because he is the unchanging standard of morality—he can change or interrupt natural laws at will. In fact, God could have created physical reality—including natural laws, the natural environment, and living things—with completely different characteristics than what we have now.
Miracles Are Not Credible—A number of years ago, I (Norm) was invited to speak at Harvard University’s divinity school, one of the most liberal divinity schools in the country. My topic was “Harvard’s Premature Farewell to Evangelicalism.” Believe it or not, Harvard, like most other schools of its day, was founded by evangelical Christians in order to train students to know Jesus Christ. Harvard’s 1646 charter states its purpose clearly (original spelling and Scripture references retained):
Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov. 2:3).
How did Harvard get so far away from its charter? Because they bought into one of the most powerful arguments against miracles ever formulated. It wasn’t Spinoza’s argument. Due to the advances in modern science and our better understanding of the natural world, not many today really believe that natural laws are immutable. The argument against miracles that is accepted today—and has been accepted at Harvard—was put forth by the great skeptic David Hume (1711–1776) about a century after Spinoza.
He was the one who said that any talk about God is meaningless because such talk does not involve empirical observation or self-evident truths. We saw that his claim is self-defeating.
But Hume’s argument against miracles is a bit more sophisticated, and not as easily refuted as his argument against God-talk. Perhaps that’s one reason it is still believed today. In fact, Hume’s argument against miracles is one of the pillars of the so-called Enlightenment (that’s where we supposedly became enlightened enough to abandon our superstitious belief in miracles and put our faith in reason and the empirical truths found by the scientific method). Hume’s argument helped advance the naturalistic worldview, which later metastasized with Darwin’s theory of evolution.
What follows is basically the material I presented to the audience at Harvard that day. I began by spelling out Hume’s anti-miracle argument and then moved on to critiquing it. Here is Hume’s argument in syllogistic form:
1. Natural law is by definition a description of a regular occurrence.
2. A miracle is by definition a rare occurrence.
3. The evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare.
4. A wise man always bases his belief on the greater evidence.
5. Therefore, a wise man should never believe in miracles.
If those four premises are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows—the wise man should never believe in miracles. Unfortunately for Hume and for those over the years who have believed him, the argument has a false premise—premise 3 is not necessarily true. The evidence for the regular is not always greater than that for the rare.
At first glance this might not seem to be the case. In the age of instant replay, premise 3 seems to make sense. For example, a football referee sees a play from one angle at full speed, while we get to see it from several angles in slow motion. We have greater evidence seeing a play over and over again (the regular) than does the ref who only sees it once (the rare).
But what may be true for a videotaped football game is not necessarily true for every event in life. To disprove premise 3 we only need to come up with one counterexample. We actually have several, and they are from Hume’s own naturalistic worldview:
1. The origin of the universe happened only once. It was a rare, unrepeatable event, yet virtually every naturalist believes that the Big Bang evidence proves that the universe exploded into being.
2. The origin of life happened only once. It too was a rare, unrepeatable event, yet every naturalist believes that life arose spontaneously from non-life somewhere on the earth or elsewhere in the universe.
3. The origin of new life forms also happened only once. Those rare, unrepeatable events are nevertheless dogmatically believed by most naturalists, who say it all happened by unobserved (i.e., rare) macroevolutionary processes.
4. In fact, the entire history of the world is comprised of rare, unrepeatable events. For example, David Hume’s own birth happened only once, but he had no trouble believing it occurred!
In every one of these counterexamples from Hume’s own naturalistic worldview, his third premise must be disregarded or considered false. If Hume really believed in that premise, he would not have believed in his own birth or his own naturalistic worldview!
So we know by some of these counterexamples that Hume’s third premise, and thus his entire argument, cannot be true. But what are the specific problems with this naturalistic kind of thinking?
First, it confuses believability with possibility. Even if premise 3 were true, the argument would not disprove the possibility of miracles; it would only question their believability. So even if you personally witnessed, say, Jesus Christ rising from dead as he predicted—if you were in the tomb, verified the body was dead, and then saw him get up and walk out of the tomb—Hume’s argument says that you (a “wise” person) shouldn’t believe it. There’s something wrong with an argument that tells you to disbelieve what you have verified to be true.
Second, Hume confuses probability with evidence. He doesn’t weigh the evidence for each rare event; rather, he adds the evidence for all regular events and suggests that this somehow makes all rare events unworthy of belief. But this is flawed reasoning as well. There are many improbable (rare) events in life that we believe when we have good evidence for them. For example, a hole-in-one is a rare event, but when we witness one we have no trouble believing it. We certainly don’t say to the golfer, “Since the evidence for the regular is always greater than that for the rare, I’m not going to believe your shot unless you can tee it up and do it five times in a row!” Likewise, we certainly don’t tell a lottery winner who beat 76-million-to-one odds that he’s not going to get his money until he can win it five times in a row! No, in these cases, the evidence for the rare is greater than that for the regular. Sober, sane eyewitnesses provide greater evidence for a rare hole-in-one no matter how regularly that golfer had missed the hole in the past. Likewise, a winning ticket provides greater evidence that a certain person improbably won the lottery no matter how regularly that person had failed to win in the past.10
So the issue is not whether an event is regular or rare—the issue is whether we have good evidence for the event. We must weigh evidence for the event in question, not add evidence for all previous events.
Third, Hume is actually arguing in a circle. Instead of evaluating the veracity of the evidence for each miracle claim, Hume rules out belief in miracles in advance because he believes there is uniform experience against them. As usual, C. S. Lewis has great insight:
Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely “uniform experience” against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.
So Hume commits the same error as the Darwinists—he hides his conclusion in the premise of his argument by way of a false philosophical presupposition. His false presupposition is that all human experiences have been against miracles. How can he know that? He can’t, so he presupposes it. As we have seen, miracles are possible because God exists. Therefore, human beings may have experienced true miracles. The only way to know for sure is to investigate the evidence for each miracle claim. Assuming that each and every miracle claim is false, as Hume does, is clearly illegitimate.
Finally, although Hume correctly defines a miracle as a rare event, he then punishes it for being a rare event! It’s as if Hume is saying, “If only miracles happened more often, then we could believe them.” But if miracles happened more often, say, regularly (to use Hume’s terminology), then they would cease being miracles (rare events), and we might consider them natural laws or part of unexplained natural phenomena. But as soon as we consider them natural in origin, then they would no longer get our attention as special acts of God. Its rarity is one of the characteristics that distinguishes a miracle from everything else! To put it another way, the reason miracles get our attention is because we know that such an event could not be produced by natural laws.
So by Hume’s logic, even if there is a God who performs miracles, we shouldn’t believe any miracles he performs because they are not regular events. Again, there’s something wrong with an argument that tells you to disbelieve what has actually occurred. And there’s something wrong with an argument that requires that miracles not be miracles to be believed.
The bottom line is that Hume, without justification, simply declares that the only believable events are regular events, and since a miracle is not a regular event, it fails to meet this artificial criteria. As we’ve mentioned above, if we can’t believe in rare events then we can’t believe anything from history, because history is comprised of succeeding rare, unrepeatable events. Such a position is clearly unreasonable.
After presenting this information at Harvard University, I received no questions or challenges to my critique of Hume, just stunned silence. During this same time period (the 1980s) I was challenged by a professor at another Ivy League school, Princeton University, to a debate on this issue. The professor asked for a copy of my presentation before the debate, which is very unusual. The element of surprise at a debate is an advantage that most debaters will not relinquish. However, I was so confident that my critique of Hume was correct that I sent it to the professor in advance. After receiving my critique of Hume, the professor contacted me to say that he would prefer that I lecture to his class rather than debate him, but that he would be there to “lead the charge” during the question and answer period. I agreed.
When I arrived on campus on the appointed date and time, the professor was nowhere to be found. His assistant said that he had some “personal emergency” and that the meeting was canceled. I wound up presenting my critique to a group of students that Ravi Zacharias had brought down from Nyack College. The professor never responded to my subsequent attempts to contact him.
I received a similar response from Antony Flew, currently one of the foremost philosophical atheists. In the late 80s, I asked him to comment on my book Miracles and Modern Thought, which critiqued numerous anti-miracle arguments including his own (which is very similar to Hume’s). Flew agreed to provide a written critique in the next edition of a major humanist journal. But in that article, instead of attempting to refute the arguments I presented, Flew provided a backhanded compliment by suggesting that atheists need to come up with better arguments against miracles if they are going to answer contemporary theists.
The reluctance to deal directly with the flaws in Hume’s argument tells us that disbelief in miracles is probably more a matter of the will than of the mind. It seems as though some people uncritically cling to David Hume’s argument because they simply don’t want to admit that God exists. But since we know that God exists, miracles are possible. Any argument against miracles that can be concocted, including that of David Hume, is destroyed by that one fact. For if there is a God who can act, there can be acts of God (miracles).
So in the end, it’s not miracles that are hard to believe—David Hume’s argument is hard to believe! We might say it’s a “miracle” so many people still believe it.
Most people falsely believe that the more they’ve played the lottery in the past, the greater chance they have to win this time. It doesn’t matter how many times a person has played the lottery in the past; each lottery is a unique event unaffected by previous plays. It’s 76 million to one (or whatever the improbable odds are) every time. Hume would suggest that the repeated past experience of losing should cause you to disbelieve it if you actually did win. But if one day you win, then you’ve really won, despite the fact that you may have lost it thousands of times before. Likewise, a miracle can occur regardless of how many times it hasn’t occurred in the past.