The following is a review of David Hume’s “On Miracles.” The words of past skeptics display truths that many skeptics overlook today because they do not know what they reject. David Hume’s “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” (1748) is an echo of John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690). Though referring to Cause and Effect without using causality as Locke did to find God, Hume used Cause and Effect to separate himself from the God of Jesus. In Hume’s essay “On Miracles,” he argues for one’s own personal experience for knowing truth over the the experiences of others and so Hume rejected the resurrection of Jesus (Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. P. 52).
David Hume praises the human experience as one’s primary perception of truth. Hume expressed, “Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors” (P. 50). Hume added that the modern claims of miracles of his time are contrary to his experience, and therefore any testimonies of past miracles must therefore be be fraudulent. Hume did define a miracle as that which is contrary to nature (P. 52).
However, Hume knows the standard of evidence unlike many skeptics today. Hume confessed,
A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. (P. 50, emp added)
While one using past experiences as witnesses to know truth, Hume also affirmed that eyewitnesses affirm facts. He described this standard as “necessary to human life.” Hume observed,
To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. This species of reasoning, perhaps, one may deny to be founded on the relation of cause and effect. I shall not dispute about a word. It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses (P. 51, emp. added)
David Hume expressed, “It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature” (P. 58). With Hume acknowledging the standard of evidence to be “necessary to human life,” he noted that this standard is for those who are “the judicious and knowing,” and yet this only escapes the person who is “vulgar.” Furthermore, Hume confessed,
No means of detection remain, but those which must be drawn from the very testimony itself of the reporters: and these, though always sufficient with the judicious and knowing, are commonly too fine to fall under the comprehension of the vulgar. (P. 58)
Hume’s profession of evidence is the same as the claims of the Christian Scriptures. The Gospels contain the reports of eyewitnesses as vital to know facts. Hume had affirmed, “[T]he authority either of scriptures or of tradition, is founded merely in the testimony of the apostles, who were eye-witnesses to those of miracles of the Savior, by which he proved his divine mission.”
This is very true. The whole of the Christian Scriptures and the claims therein of the Apostles rely on their word. Within the Gospel of John, John presented Jesus proving Himself as the Messiah, the Christ, upon the legal evidence of two or more witnesses (John 5:30ff, 8:14ff). Refute these claims of Jesus and the Apostles, and Biblical faith falls. However, what skeptic has done this? This does not appear to be Hume’s goal, but rather to dispute miracles. David Hume noted,
The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. (P. 54)
Observing Hume’s confessions of evidence, he reached the conclusion that the miracles of the Bible were false contrary to the evidence of the testimonies, but upon his own experience (P. 52). Hume overlooks that God can act upon His creation, and that by definition, miracles are rare and uncommon to common experience. However, Hume did admit that, “this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors.” David Hume confessed this very important and overlooked the examination of the Gospel witnesses. He even admitted, “For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony” (P. 58).
While admitting that miracles are possible, Hume is very much inconclusive, but that is why he is a skeptic of miracles rather than a staunch unbeliever. What would be necessary to prove miracles? Hume recognized that eyewitnesses were necessary to human life. Hume’s conclusions are indecisive. While Hume disregarded the eyewitness reports in the Gospels because of his own experience, he presented experience as the “species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators” (P. 51). However, Hume missed that his experience is simply one testimony among many, and that people should not trust their own observations without confirming testimony.
This must compel the honest skeptic to reconsider that the eyewitnesses of the Gospels, and that the honest student should critically examine the Gospels for consistency and contradictions. By which standard, two or more witnesses confirm events with consistency, and yet they must also observe that two or more major contradictions prove such accounts unreliable.
David Hume is right about the Scriptures having a foundation upon the testimony of the apostles as he described them as eyewitnesses to the miracles of Jesus. Jesus did seek to prove His message this way. In the Gospel of John, Jesus referred to the witnesses of John the Baptist, His apparent miracles, and scriptures that include Moses showing that Jesus is the predicted Christ, the Messiah (John 5:30ff). These are predictions of the Messiah include Deuteronomy 18:15–19, Psalm 22, and Isaiah 53. In the Gospel of John, Jesus also affirmed, “It is also written in your law that the testimony of two men is true” (8:17). Jesus declared that He would give His Spirit to His apostles to remind them of all things (John 15:26–16:13).
The apostle Peter confessed, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pet 1:16). The apostle John noted,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us — that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. (1 John 1:1–4)
Within the Christian Scriptures, the Book of Acts records the apostles standing before the Judean supreme Court and Council. Peter and John reported, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20), and they again told the court, “And we are His witnesses to these things” (Acts 5:32).
The skeptic must also consider the predictions of Jesus. Before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, Jesus predicted this event in detail. No doubt the Book of Acts was finished before the Apostle Paul died about AD 64. Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke where Luke records all of Jesus’s predictions before Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70 (Jesus’s Predictions Did Come True!). Hume confessed,
What we have said of miracles may be applied, without any variation, to prophecies; and indeed, all prophecies are real miracles, and as such only, can be admitted as proofs of any revelation. If it did not exceed the capacity of human nature to foretell future events, it would be absurd to employ any prophecy as an argument for a divine mission of authority from heaven. (P. 60)
At last, David Hume’s conclusions about miracles are confusing and contradictory. He did leave some truth for skeptics to honestly examine the converts who experience appearances of Jesus’s resurrected. The skeptic and the doubter must examine the Gospels for themselves and consider the sincere experiences of doubters and opponents who experienced Jesus’s resurrection and thus believed.