This is part 8 in a 9-part series on the case for the historical reliability of the gospels, and as an extension, of the historic Christian truth claims to which the gospels attest. Although I suppose it’s a 10-part blog post series if you include the introduction post. We’ve seen a ton of evidence for the trustworthiness of the gospels. In part 1, we looked at the traditional history of the New Testament manuscripts and saw that textual critics like Dan Wallace can reconstruct the original text to 99.99% accuracy. That 00.01% of uncertainty that remains has to with only a few Bible passages that don’t really affect any major Christian doctrine or historical report concerning Jesus and the apostles. Ergo, when we read The New Testament today, we can be confident that this is what was originally penned. In part 2, we looked at the external and internal evidence for the traditional authorship of the gospels. We also looked at the most common arguments from skeptics against traditional authorship. We saw that there is every reason to believe that Matthew wrote Matthew, Mark wrote Mark, Luke wrote Luke, and John wrote John, and no good reason to doubt this conclusion. Then, in part 3, we looked at the issue of dating. We saw that there is powerful evidence to suggest that the book of Acts was written no later than 62 A.D, and that the rest of the Synoptics were penned probably in the early to mid-50s, just a mere 20 years after the events the documents describe. Thus, we have early, eyewitness testimony to the life and teachings of Jesus AND we know that we actually have what they wrote down and not a distortion. These three conclusions alone go a long way to establishing the claim that the gospels are historically reliable. But, we didn’t stop there. We went on in part 4 to look at extra-biblical evidence for the major historical claims of the gospels. We saw that secular historians like Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian Of Samosata, and others corroborated the gospels at multiple points. Indeed, the broad outline of the gospel storyline about Jesus can be pieced together just from extra-biblical mentions alone! We also saw some ways in which archeology confirms the truths of certain things in the gospels at various points. In part 5, we looked at internal evidence, the “criteria of authenticity” and saw how they make a cumulative case for the gospel authors’ commitment to truth. Then, in part 6, we looked at even more internal evidence. We looked at the evidence from undesigned coincidences, unnecessary details, and unexplained allusions, all features of genuine eyewitness accounts. Finally, in part 7, we looked at the argument from contradictions and saw a handful of reasons as to why they do not undermine the historical reliability of the gospels.
But, we’re not done yet! Now we need to examine another reason that skeptics find the gospels so difficult to believe; the issue of miracles. Miracles are perhaps the biggest stumbling block to accepting the claims of The New Testament. I wholeheartedly believe that were it not for philosophical and worldview issues surrounding this topic, the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would be unanimously accepted by all historians as the most accurate and trustworthy documents from history rivaling the works of Tacitus and Josephus. But because the gospels contain so many miracles, and especially because those miracles, if true (particularly the one at the end of each work) carry religious implications, the gospels are subject to an intensity of skepticism that you just don’t find in other works. So, before I move on to defending the historicity of the most important miracle in the text, allow me to get some of these objections out of the way. The objections are three in number. Ergo, the subheaders will be numbered.
David Hume was an 18th century Scottish philosopher. He is best known for his argument against the possibility of miracles.
1: Uniform Experience
With regards to that first point, here is what Hume said in his own words;
“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and because firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the case against a miracle is—just because it is a miracle—as complete as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined to be…” David Hume, “Of Miracles”, Section X of “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”
He also wrote “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.” David Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding ‘Of Miracles'” 1748
Put differently, we have ample evidence for the laws of nature through our everyday experience. We observe regularly that seas do not part. Virgins don’t give birth. People don’t walk on water. The dead do not rise. I’ll bet you personally have never observed something that couldn’t be explained naturally. I’m not talking about things that, while having natural explanations, we could still ascribe to God as being behind them. Not all of God’s activity need be devoid of any scientific explanation. There is what theologians call “ordinary providence”. This is God working through naturally explicable means; such as putting a person in your life at just the right time. No, here we’re talking about things that defy any natural explanation. There’s a huge difference between finding $100 on the ground when you’re down on your luck and a man who was dead for three days coming back to life. I’m betting you personally have never witnessed anything like that. I know I haven’t, and it’s clear that David Hume hasn’t either. But does our experience really add up to uniform experience? Just because you and I have never seen something doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t.
Due to the internet and television, most people around the world know what the rest of the world is like even though a lot of us haven’t traveled beyond the borders of our own country, obviously, this was not always the case. 500 years ago, people had nothing but books and living testimonies to tell them about places they’ve never been to. They had no photographs or videos….or TikToks. Suppose it’s 1500 and someone in Fiji meets a man from Antarctica. The man from Antarctica describes how when it gets cold enough the water in the atmosphere freezes and falls from the sky in the form of snowflakes. Water can even freeze entirely and be solid as a rock. The man from Antarctica tells of how he spends his time skating on the ice with his two daughters. Fiji is a very warm climate and has never seen snow. This man has never seen water in any form but liquid and steam. His own personal uniform experience mitigates against the existence of ice. Now, should the Fiji man discount the Antarctican man’s claim to see ice? According to Hume’s reasoning, he would have to. And no amount of evidence would suffice. There could be multiple, independent eyewitness testimony, and let’s say that the fiji government orders that anyone who preaches the existence of ice shall be put to death for some reason. All twelve people who testify to the existence of ice willingly die for their belief. They’re not lying. And based on the details of their testimonies, it seems extremely unlikely that they could be mistaken either. Still, muh uniform experience! Despite that logically, you would come to the conclusion that the people from Antarctica were telling the truth, by Hume’s logic, you’d never be justified in believing that ice exists.
Now, frozen water is a natural phenomenon. The skeptic is likely to point that out in the comment section. Don’t miss the point I’m trying to make here; the point is that uniform experience, while it does set a low antecedent probability for a personally unobserved phenomenon, it does not set that antecedent probability so low that a sufficient amount of evidence can’t overcome it. In the next installment of this series, I will argue for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and show that the evidence we have is sufficient to conclude that the eyewitnesses were telling the truth. Indeed, all of the evidence for the reliability of their written records we’ve examined thus far already makes it antecedently unlikely that they were lying about that, but I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. Just keep this section in mind as you reflect on the evidence we’ve already looked at for the reliability of the gospels as a whole and of the specific evidence for Jesus’ resurrection in the next installment.
Also, I take issue with Hume’s definition of the word “Miracle”. Hume calls a miracle “A violation of the laws of nature”. Today, we understand nature’s laws as descriptive, not prescriptive. The law of gravity tells us that when you drop an object on planet Earth, it will almost always fall to the ground. I say “almost” because things can be impeded from falling. We knock an object off of our desk and we catch it. Was gravity violated? No, of course not. Me catching a falling object doesn’t violate the law of gravity in the slightest.
I think a better definition is the one given by the late Richard L. Purtill, professor emeritus of philosophy at Western Washington University: “A miracle is an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history.” Richard L. Purtill, “Defining Miracles,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove, IL: … Continue reading
So that’s two strikes for David Hume. First, he sets the bar of evidence so impossibly high that no amount of evidence could ever establish a miracle. I am all on board with demanding more evidence than usual for miracles. After all, they’re very rare and things like virgins giving birth and dead rabbis coming back to life just don’t happen every day. I most certainly would demand a lot more evidence if one of my friends said his deceased teacher came back to life than I would if he said he met the local DJ at the dollar store. But it is unreasonable to demand of any type of claim that the evidence be so high that no amount of evidence could ever possibly meet it. David Hume pretty much said “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” He just said it in a way as to make atheists think him to be a very wise and learned man. Miracle claims should be met with a healthy skepticism, but NOT hyper-skepticism. Secondly, the idea that we have uniform experience against miracles is just plain wrong. Hume may have never witnessed a miracle, but the very existence of miracle claims in the gospels and in the modern day testify against that. Perhaps these are only apparent miracles. Whether a miracle is genuine or not would need to be determined by examining each on a case-by-case basis (which I’ll be doing with the resurrection in the next chapter). However, that strange things happen which some cannot explain is a fact. Matthew and John, for example, are people who attest to having seen miracles. New Testament scholar Craig Keener has a two-volume scholarly work called “Miracles: The Credibility Of The New Testament Accounts” in which he documents claims of modern-day miracles. There are lots of them in these two thick tomes! Now, I think some specific examples Keener presents can be explained naturally while others cannot. However, my point here is simply that humanity as a whole simply has NOT had uniform experience against the miraculous. Hume cannot impose his own life experience on the whole world.
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.” Lewis, Miracles, 105.
In other words, we have lots of miracle claims inside and outside The Bible. Humanity does not have uniform experience against miracles. Of course, Hume would dismiss any claim to have seen a miracle on the basis of uniform experience. But how does he know the claim to be false? Uniform experience. But what if the claim mitigates against uniform experience? Well, it can’t because….uniform experience. Hume’s argument is circular, and therefore, fallacious. How it’s managed to impress skeptics for all these centuries is baffling. Hume’s book should have been thrown into the trash heap long ago and a prayer said for the poor trees who had the misfortune of having his shoddy arguments printed on them.
2: Everyone Who Attests To Miracles Is Unlearned And Barbarous
A way that Hume tried to re-enforce his circular argument above was as follows; “There is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves.” David Hume (1758). “Essays and Treatises on several subjects, etc. New edition”, p.347
In his book “The Case For Miracles”, Lee Strobel conducted an interview with New Testament scholar Craig Keener who authored the two volume work on modern day miracle claims mentioned above. In that interview, Keener said “Pascal’s niece, Marguerite Perrier, suffered from a severe and long-term fistula in her eye that let out a repulsive odor. At a monastery on March 24, 1656, she was completely healed in a dramatic way, with even bone deterioration vanishing immediately. There was medical and eyewitness evidence; the diocese verified the healing. Even the royal physicians examined her, and the queen herself declared it a healing. In the following months, eighty other miracle claims followed. So here you have miracles that were recent, public, and attested by many witnesses and even physicians—all of which met Hume’s criteria for evidence. But ultimately he dismissed all of this as irrelevant.” Strobel, Lee. The Case for Miracles (p. 89). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Keener went on to say “What’s more, Hume felt free to scoff at the entire report about Pascal’s niece because these were Jansenists, members of a controversial sect that both Protestants and traditional Catholics opposed.” Strobel, Lee. The Case for Miracles (p. 89). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
So even when Hume’s criteria were met, he still dismissed the evidence. But, moreover, look at who testified to Marguerite’s healing; the queen, multiple doctors, hardly people Hume would consider unlearned and barbarous. Regarding the gospels, Matthew was a tax collector and Luke was himself a physician. You can slander John and Peter as unlearned men if you so wish, but there is no doubt that two out of the four gospel authors were highly educated. And if you go outside the gospels over to Paul’s epistles, you find a man who used to be a pharisee. Pharisees were basically first-century biblical scholars. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul personally claims to have seen the risen Jesus with his own two eyes. Now, to anticipate the responses from the seething neckbeard anti-theists from the depths of TikTok and Reddit, allow me to say that it will not do to dismiss Paul because he was “religious”. Religious =/= unlearned, as scientists like Isaac Newton and Francis Collins would attest to. With regards to Luke, he was probably a religious pagan prior to his conversion, but still, he’s a doctor! Such anti-religious bigotry will not serve as a successful argument. Here at Cerebral Faith, we do not let ad hominem fallacies pass as good arguments.
Strike three for David Hume!
3: Claims Of Miracles Occur In All Religious Traditions, Thus Nullifying One Another.
Some people argue that the miracle claims in other religions nullify each other. For example, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, if true, would establish the truth of Christianity (see my explanation as to why that would be so in the Introduction to this series). However, if Muhammad really met an angel who gave him the first copy of the Quran, that would prove Islam true, right? And so, if both miracle claims are accepted, then it would seem that both religions are true. But, hold on. That can’t be right. Christianity and Islam make conflicting truth claims. One obvious example is that Jesus claims to be the Son of God while Islam claims that not only does God not have a son, but he cannot, and that is is blasphemy to even say such a thing. So, epistemologically, the two miracle claims cancel each other out. Both cannot be right.
While I applaud the skeptic for realizing that all religions cannot all be true This was something that was a thing among non-Christians in the 2010s and, might still be for all I know. Though I haven’t personally encountered anyone making such a claim, this argument is fallacious. Not all miracle claims are created equal. We’ve seen that the gospels are written by eyewitness sources only 20-30 years removed from the event and that what they report is confirmed on numerous counts of historical evidence, both outside and inside of their reports. In the next installment, we’ll see specific evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in particular, but there is no grounds for rejecting the truthfulness of the gospel records as a whole. We’ll also see that of all the explanations that might possibly account for what the disciples experienced after Jesus’ death, only the miraculous bodily resurrection can account for all of the historical facts. No naturalistic explanation can succeed. However, other miracle claims tend to be poorly attested or they can be explained by a naturalistic theory. For example, the sources telling of the miracles of Buddha and Krishna come centuries after the events the sources allegedly describe! See Edwin Yamauchi, Jesus, Zoroaster, Buddha, Socrates, Mohammad, Revised Edition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1972), esp. 4– 7, 18, 38– 41. That is far enough removed from the events that a legendary embellishment hypothesis can get off the ground. This is totally unlike the gospels which come within a measly 2-3 decades after the miracle-filled ministry of Jesus! Each miracle claim must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. We need to ask; how early are the sources? Was this event public? Can a natural explanation account for the report (like legend or hallucination). If you do this, you will find that in most cases of religious texts reporting miracles, the attestation is abysmal compared to that of the attestation to Jesus’ miracles, and especially his resurrection.
Moreover, if the Christian worldview really is true, then we need not necessarily explain away all miracle accounts. Even in Scripture, God acted supernaturally among unbelievers, such as healing Naaman’s leprosy (see 2 Kings 5). According to The Bible, demons can perform actual supernatural wonders or counterfeit miracles intended to confound people, such as the magi of Pharoah (in Exodus 7-8), the Anti-Christ (see 2 Thessalonians 2:9, Matthew 24:24), and the fortune teller who harassed the apostle Paul (in Acts 16:16-18), for examples.
Thus, Christians have no obligation to disprove miracle claims in other religious traditions and writings. In fact, I’ve sometimes conjectured whether an actual angel appeared to Muhammad, but that it was a fallen angel. This would be plausible given the fact that The Bible says that Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). Not to mention The Deuteronomy 32 Worldview that Michael Heiser talks about in his book “The Unseen Realm: Recovering The Supernatural Worldview Of The Bible”.
Why Are Miracles So Rare?
At this point, the skeptic might be wondering why miracles are so rare if they do happen? Sometimes, the question has been posed to me as “Why did God do so many miracles in The Bible but then stop as soon as Jesus left?” This hasn’t always come from skeptics, but from some believers as well. It’s understandable why this question would arise. You can hardly flip to any page in any of the gospels and not find Jesus doing something miraculous; raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, opening the ears of the deaf, etc. They’re practically on every page!
The truth of the matter is that miracles weren’t happening on every page in The Bible. In the gospels, sure, but not the whole Bible. The majority of miracles were clustered around the lives of Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, and the apostles. But for most of the historical narratives, most of God’s actions would fall under what theologians call “ordinary providence”. Such as the Canaanite Conquest, David’s victories over his enemies (like Goliath), and The Babylonian Exile. Yes, even David’s victory over Goliath. David slung a stone and Goliath was killed. That’s what happens to people who get hit in the head with rocks that are a certain size and travel at a certain speed. The impact killed Goliath. But while David rightly gave glory to God for his victory, God did not need to interfere with the natural processes of the world to bring it about.
Again, the huge clusters of miracles really only occur in the ministries of Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, and the apostles. When you consider that The Bible covers thousands of years of history, you can see that even within salvation history, miracles were the exception to the norm. Also, when you think about it, these specific men played the most pivotal roles in Yahweh’s plan of salvation. These were milestones on the journey from paradise lost in Genesis to paradise restored in Revelation.
This is why when God announced things he would do, people like Abraham and Mary responded with a little bit of skepticism. Abraham basically said “How can my wife bear me a son when we are both so old?” (Genesis 17:17). Sarah laughed at the prospect (Genesis 18:11-13). They knew as well as anyone that old ladies don’t birth babies. That’s not how nature works. They didn’t have all our modern scientific knowledge, but they knew that much. Even Jesus’ mother knew that virgins don’t normally get pregnant and sire sons. When the Angel Gabriel announced the virgin birth, her response was “How can this be? I am a virgin.” (Luke 1:34). And this is also why Joseph thought Mary was unfaithful until Gabriel showed up in Joseph’s dream and set the record straight (Matthew 1:17-25).
So, this idea that miracles just happened all the time in “Bible times” and then stopped is a misconception.
But, that still doesn’t answer the question of why they are so rare. Why does God seem to be so stingy with miracles? The reason is that miracles are usually meant to serve as signs to validate God’s messengers. In John 3:2, when Nicodemus approaches Jesus, he says to Jesus “Rabbi,we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” And Jesus said in John 10:37 “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my father.” In the Old Testament we also see miracles acting as signs. In Exodus 4:1-4, we read that Moses was afraid that the Israelites would not believe him and say that the Lord didn’t really appear to him.
Exodus 4:1–9 (ESV): “Then Moses answered, ‘But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’ The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?’ He said, ‘A staff.’ And he said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’ So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. But the Lord said to Moses, ‘Put out your hand and catch it by the tail’—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand— ‘that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.’ Again, the Lord said to him, ‘Put your hand inside your cloak.’ And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then God said, ‘Put your hand back inside your cloak.’ So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. ‘If they will not believe you,’ God said, ‘or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.’”
With this in mind, philosopher Tim McGrew has a syllogistic argument against those who would use the rarity of miracles as an argument that miracles don’t happen.
1. In religious contexts, miracles are supposed to function as signs.
2. Miracles that function as signs would be impossible unless they took place against the backdrop of a stable natural order since that’s what enables them to function as signs.
3. The existence of a stable order of nature cannot be used as an argument against miracles in religious contexts.
Of course, miracles such as Jesus’ bodily resurrection wouldn’t stand out unless dead men normally stay dead. Imagine if two out of three people came back from the dead. When Christians would try to argue that Jesus‘s resurrection is a sign that he is God incarnate, and is the Messiah, we could expect people to go “How do you know?” with Christians going “Because he rose from the dead!” and the non-Christian going “So? People rise from the dead all the time! It’s no big deal! My uncle Ted rose from the dead yesterday. Now I have to give the inheritance back.” Credit to Frank Turek for this humorous example. I heard him put it this way a few times on his Cross Examined Podcast.
Summary and Conclusion
In this blog post, we have looked at several a priori objections to believing in miracles, given by the famous 18th century, Scottish philosopher, David Hume. We saw that none of his arguments worked in undermining the justification in believing in miracles. While I agree with skeptics that miracle claims should require more evidence than normal claims, what I don’t agree with is this impossibly high standard of proof which would make miracle claims impossible to establish no matter how strong the evidence.
Humes’ first argument is false. There is not uniform experience against miracles. Many people both in the ancient past and in the modern era have claimed to have witnessed at least one. Indeed, the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry are prime examples of people who claimed to have witnessed miracles. Now, we cannot say that these miracles are not true miracles on the ground of “uniform experience” as that would be circular reasoning. Maybe all miracle claims really are bunk and that if we just looked into it, we’d find a natural explanation. However, doing this responsibility would be examining each miracle claim on a case by case basis ( like we’ll be doing with Jesus’ resurrection in the next article). What we cannot do is dismiss all miracle claims with the broad brush of “uniform experience.” We only know uniform experience is against miracles if we already know that all miracle claims are false. And how do we know all miracle claims are false? By uniform experience? But then, how do we know that there’s uniform experience against miracles? Because all miracle claims are false. This is question begging.
Moreover, it is simply not true that only unlearned and barbarous people attest to miracle claims. Humes’ blatant racism aside, there are many well educated and civilized people who attest to seeing things that they cannot explain naturally. Craig Keener’s two volume work contains many examples in the modern day, but there were some even in Hume’s own day, as the interview quote from Strobel’s “The Case For Miracles” shows. Moreover, we know Matthew was a tax collector and Luke was a physician. Would Hume seriously say that Matthew and Luke are “unlearned and barbarous”?
Finally, it’s just not true that miracle claims in multiple religions cancel each other out. We need to examine each miracle claim on a case by case basis. Often, you will find that the historical source material for miracle claims are poorly attested or can be explained naturalistically. But this doesn’t mean Jesus’ miracles are poorly attested or can be naturally explained. I know that the skeptic will dispute this point, and that’s fine, we can debate that, but my point here is that we can’t act like all religious miracle claims are on equal evidential footing.
And finally, we saw that miracles are not all over The Bible. The only cluster around the lives of a small handful of prophets (including Jesus and the apostles), and that the rarity of miracles in “Bible times” is why we read of people being surprised when they happened in the biblical narrative. Miracles serve as signs to validate that a messenger really is sent from God.
And as we turn to the final part of our case, we will examine the case for the most significant sign of them all; the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:39)
|Although I suppose it’s a 10-part blog post series if you include the introduction post.
|David Hume, “Of Miracles”, Section X of “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”
|David Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding ‘Of Miracles'” 1748
|Richard L. Purtill, “Defining Miracles,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 72.
|Lewis, Miracles, 105.
|David Hume (1758). “Essays and Treatises on several subjects, etc. New edition”, p.347
|Strobel, Lee. The Case for Miracles (p. 89). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
|This was something that was a thing among non-Christians in the 2010s and, might still be for all I know. Though I haven’t personally encountered anyone making such a claim
|See Edwin Yamauchi, Jesus, Zoroaster, Buddha, Socrates, Mohammad, Revised Edition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1972), esp. 4– 7, 18, 38– 41.
|Not to mention The Deuteronomy 32 Worldview that Michael Heiser talks about in his book “The Unseen Realm: Recovering The Supernatural Worldview Of The Bible”.
|Credit to Frank Turek for this humorous example. I heard him put it this way a few times on his Cross Examined Podcast.