Hume and Miracles Today

By Craig S. Keener

David Hume argued that we cannot trust testimony for miracles because uniform human experience is against their trustworthiness. Eyewitness experiences of miracle existed already in Hume’s day, but he denied their credibility. He insisted that this testimony always came from unreliable sources.

Yet one wonders whether Hume himself would attempt such an a priori argument against miracles today. Hume’s access to information about miracle claims was fairly limited, but surveys today provide a fuller picture. A 2006 Pew Forum Survey of just ten countries on four continents suggests that about 200 million Pentecostal and Protestant charismatics in those countries alone claim to have witnessed divine healing. Perhaps more surprisingly, some 39 percent of Christians in those countries who are not Pentecostals or Protestant charismatics also claim to have witnessed divine healing.

Nor do all those who claim eyewitness experience of miracles begin with Christian premises; some, in fact, abandoned centuries of ancestral traditions to follow Christ after witnessing what they believe are miracles. China was not one of the countries surveyed in the 2006 study. Nevertheless, one source from within the state-authorized church suggested that half of all Christian conversions there in the final two decades of the twentieth century stemmed from “faith healing experiences.” House church sources often suggest even higher figures. Likewise, Dr. Bal Krishna Sharma, principal of Nepal Theological College, shared with me that 80 percent of Christian conversions in Nepal are due to healings or deliverance from spirits. Keep in mind that in 1950 we knew of no Christians in Nepal; now there are more than half a million.

Globally, healing and deliverance are among the leading factors in conversions to Christianity—even among peoples with their own indigenous traditions of religious healing. I have personally interviewed a number of such converts, though my interviews barely scratch the surface. The stats indicate millions of people convinced to change ancestral allegiances, often in socially costly ways, because they believe they witnessed healings too dramatic to be explained merely in terms to which they were accustomed.

No one would claim that all of the hundreds of thousands of claims of divine healing are actually miracles, still less that they could be explained only as such. But neither could David Hume, if he lived in our day, get away with appealing to uniform experience against miracles as an a priori. With hundreds of millions of cases potentially challenging his assumption of uniformity, one must explore cases rather than dismissing them. Today a significant number of claimants meet Hume’s criteria for credible witnesses: educated people with something to lose. (A number of my interviewees have doctorates, and a number of cases are medically documented.)

These observations may not convince all skeptics. Worldview assumptions always play a part: if one holds inflexibly to atheism or deism, what others perceive as miracles must be explained differently, even if they include experiences such as instant healing of blindness or raisings from the dead (both noted in my book). But those insistent on appealing to an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher’s argument against miracles may wish to begin looking elsewhere for their case.

I address these and other matters in Miracles Today (Baker Academic, 2021), which follows up on my longer earlier work (Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Baker Academic, 2011) with many newer cases.

Craig S. Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.  Several of his many books have won national or international awards.  His works include commentaries on several New Testament books, and his recent defense of the Gospels as reliable ancient biographies, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels.  

Image: Jan Verhas - The raising of the widow's son in Nain

The Defining Features of a Miracle

by Richard L. Purtill

I propose to define a miracle as an event in which God temporarily makes an exception to the natural order of things, to show that God is acting. Each part of the definition is important.

First, the exception to the natural order is temporary: the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are exceptional events. They do not in any way affect our practical certainty that dead men stay dead. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, once a miracle has been performed, the subsequent events follow natural laws. “If events ever come from beyond nature altogether she will [not] be incommoded [inconvenienced or distressed] by them. Be sure that she will rush to the point where she is invaded as the defensive forces rush to a cut on our finger, and there hasten to accommodate the newcomer. The moment it enters her realm it will obey all the natural laws.”

Second, it is an exception to the ordinary course of nature. Since it was Lazarus's nature to die in the circumstances of his illness, his resurrection was, in the strict sense, supernatural, going beyond what was natural for him. It was, therefore, a miracle. Some writers prefer the term resuscitation for miracles such as the raising of Lazarus. There are some good grounds for this; the person restored to life must eventually undergo a natural death, and certain effects of resurrection seem to be absent. . . . [But] the idea of the raising of Lazarus as a prophetic forerunner of Christ's own resurrection is lost. So I prefer to speak of such events as “resurrections,” not “resuscitations.”

Third, unless we have the idea of a way things ordinarily happen—the natural order of things, some idea of “laws of nature”—then the idea of a miracle cannot be made clear. It is basically a “contrast idea.” Without the idea of natural law to which miracles are an exception, we cannot explain the basic idea of a miracle in this sense. If nature were chaotic, if “anything could happen,” then miracles could not be contrasted with what we ordinarily expect.

Some authors have suggested that the Hebraic worldview had no formal notion of “laws of nature” and that defining a miracle as a “temporary exception to the natural order of things” is anachronistic, especially if we explain the “natural order of things” in terms of natural laws. But that is precisely why I have used the phrase “the natural order of things.” The Hebrews at the time of the crossing of the Red Sea knew perfectly well what naturally happened to the sea. The fact that the Red Sea parted to enable the children of Israel to cross dry shod could be seen by them as exceptions to the way things naturally occurred. Similarly, the miraculous healings and the raising of the dead people accomplished by Christ could be seen by the people who witnessed them not merely as unlikely events but as events that were contrary to all natural expectations. They did not need a sophisticated concept of a law of nature to see this.

Fourth, a miracle must be caused by the power of God. If for some reason we find that some apparently wonderful event can be accounted for by some power less than the power of God, then we withhold the designation “miracle.”

The fifth part of the definition addresses the purpose of miracles. Even if we could imagine God simply “showing off” his power by temporarily suspending a law of nature, if this suspension caused no effects on the human witnesses we might not be willing to call it a miracle. We must include within our definition, then, the idea of miracle as a sign of God's action. One possible purpose of miracles is to take a hint from our wider sense of miracles and say that miracles are intended to “create or confirm faith.” This, however, may be a little narrow: some miracles may not confirm faith since the people with faith at the time of the miracle may not need it confirmed, and it may not create faith because those nonbelievers on hand during the miracle may refuse to believe, despite the miracle. So perhaps a wider sense of the purpose of miracle is needed: I suggest “to show that God is acting.”

Once again, then, a miracle is “an event in which God temporarily makes an exception to the natural order of things, to show that God is acting.”

Clearly, no attempt to define a miracle can be deemed satisfactory if it does not seek to clarify the relationship between miracles and laws of nature. Certain long-standing conceptions of miracle falter precisely because they depend on misunderstandings of this relationship. And this has led to a facile acceptance of altogether irrelevant objections to belief in miracles.

Excerpted from Richard L. Purtill, “Defining Miracles,” in R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, eds., In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (InterVarsity Press, 1997).

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