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If Miracles Go, So Does Napoleon

Christianity's veracity rests on the factuality of certain miraculous happenings. If these happenings didn't happen, Christianity is worthless (1 Cor. 15.12–19).

In the 18th century, a Scottish philosopher by the name of David Hume argued that the miraculous happenings undergirding Christianity didn't occur. His argument against miracles has persisted, in various forms, to the present. In philosophy books it's usually found in the chapter on religion to prove that you can't use miracles to substantiate the claims of the Bible; it ought to be placed in the chapter on logic as an example of stupid thinking.

Hume's circular reasoning went like this: (1) only natural things occur in nature; (2) a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; (3) thus, the claim that something miraculous occurred in nature is false. The maxim he formulated from all this asserted that "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" (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 123). In other words, is it more likely that water would flow uphill or that a man who claims such is lying? Most folks would say the latter, which leads to the question: is it more likely that a dead man came back to life or that a man who claims such is lying? Hume affirmed the latter. "When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened."

A good response to Hume is to point out the invalidity of his definition of miracle as "a violation of the laws of nature." The laws of nature aren't absolute rules written down in a codebook, but are generalizations based on regularities observed in nature. Not infrequently, generalizations based on observations have turned out to be false. (A classic example is the old belief that the noble gases [krypton, argon, etc.] were inert, which meant they could not combine with other elements. In the 1950s, however, scientists did combine the noble gases with other elements [A. B. Nieding, Fluorides of Xenon and Radon]. Hume would say that because "there is uniform experience against the noble gases combining, it didn't happen." To which anyone with a lick of sense says, "Baloney!") People who die generally stay dead. But if there is unimpeachable evidence showing that a dead man came back to life, the unbiased will side with the evidence. If it is experience and observation that establish natural laws, experience and observation can also establish any exceptions.

Another way to answer Hume is to turn his reasoning against him. In 1819 Richard Whately, an Anglican bishop, did this in a document entitled Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte. In this pamphlet, he applied Hume's argument against the miraculous to an event of ordinary history by pointing out the unique character of Napoleon's life: after marshalling France, he took the flower of French youth and led them to destruction not once, but five times. "In vain," Whately wrote, "will [one] seek in history for something similar to this" (25). Since nothing like this had ever occurred, Whately concluded, using Hume's reasoning, that Napoleon most likely never lived—at the very time Napoleon was still alive!

This parody was hugely popular and did more to expose the speciousness of Hume's philosophy than all other responses (no matter how astute) combined. Long before Rush Limbaugh used absurdity to expose absurdity, Biblical apologists (including Newman and Chesterton) effectively used this tongue-in-cheek technique to rout the illogic of unbelievers.