We’re coming into that time of year again when trees are lit up in every town centre, seasonal music is being played on the radio and everyone is rushing to get their shopping done on time. Christmas is on the way.
The festivities that we enjoy certainly have their place but, for Christians, the heart of Christmas takes us somewhere very different. Away from the flashing lights, sentimental songs and rich goodies that so many of us enjoy, we are brought back 2000 years to a couple in desperate need of a roof and bed. Mary was heavily pregnant, yet no one saw fit to give up their room. Embroiled in a scandal, those who knew this couple would have shunned them. Not only was the baby conceived out of wedlock but Mary’s fiancé, Joseph, was not the biological father. Cultural sensitivities were very different from today.
There was nothing magical about that first Christmas. But there was something miraculous. The baby born to Mary was not the product of the adultery that people would have assumed, but the divine will of Almighty God. Mary was a virgin. And the baby, Jesus, was Himself fully God, born into this world in order to reconcile sinful humanity to a holy God. If the Gospel accounts are true then there is no news that is more wonderful, nor any message more important. The question is, is it true? In a world in which science has revolutionised our understanding and advanced our knowledge, can the virgin birth, the incarnation, or indeed any miracle claim reasonably be believed by educated people? Research suggests that belief in the virgin birth is in decline in the western world. A 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre concluded that 66% of Americans believe in the miraculous conception. This figure had stood at 73% just three years previously in 2014. The Centre suggested,
Not only are some of the more religious aspects of Christmas less prominent in the public sphere, but there are signs that they are on the wane in Americans’ private lives and personal beliefs as well.[i]
Closer to home, a 2002 survey carried out by the Telegraph of 500 clergy in the Church of England concluded that, “27 per cent privately reject the traditional story of Jesus's birth”[ii] One of the greatest philosophers of the modern era, David Hume (1711 - 1776), pulled no punches when expressing his views. If asked whether an educated person, in an age of science, could reasonably believe in miracles such as the virgin birth, his response would have been an emphatic “No!” Writing in the wake of the scientific revolution, Hume was a young contemporary of Isaac Newton who helped pioneer the view that the universe was a machine operating according to the principle of cause and effect and subject to the apparently immutable laws of nature. Against this intellectual background Hume defined miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature”.[iii]
Hume believed that all knowledge ultimately came from experience, without which it was impossible to know anything. The question Hume wanted his readers to consider was simple. When we encounter a miracle claim, does our experience lead us to believe it more likely that the laws of nature have been violated or that a person’s testimony is false? Let us consider the virgin birth again: what is more likely according to our experience? That Mary genuinely and miraculously conceived while still a virgin, or that either she or the narrator was lying or mistaken? Regarding our experience of the laws of nature, Hume reminds us that “a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws”.[iv] Regarding human testimony, on the other hand, we all have experience of people telling lies, forgetting important details or misunderstanding the facts. For Hume, therefore, our experience compels us to believe that the account of the virgin birth must be false, rather than the laws of nature being suspended, in order for Jesus to be conceived. He believed that only those belonging to “ignorant and barbarous nations”[v] were likely to believe in miracles. Such tales belong to a pre-scientific era from which we have now moved on.
Hume’s arguments have revolutionised the discussion over miracles in philosophy departments around the world. Furthermore, far from being a purely academic issue, they have certainly played their part in the ongoing secularisation of society. More than three centuries later and they have lost neither force nor attraction. The late Christopher Hitchens declared Hume to have delivered “the last word on the subject”[vi] and many have, like Hitchens, considered the matter a closed book.
But are things really as simple as Hume makes out? While many things could be said in response to Hume, space requires us to be selective. As such I’d like to make three points of critique against some key assumptions that Hume makes. These are:
1. Hume is wrong to put belief in miracles down to scientific ignorance
2. Hume’s definition of miracle is false
3. Hume’s appeal to experience is simplistic
Let’s take a brief look at each in turn.
The Role and Limits of Science
We’ll begin with Hume’s assumption that belief in miracles belongs to those who are ignorant and unscientific. Hume seems unjustifiably dismissive of people’s credulity in a pre-scientific age. He was guilty of what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery. Consider Joseph’s response to the news that Mary was pregnant: “Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19). Joseph, for one, wasn’t going to buy Mary’s miracle claim in a hurry! This is not an ignorant tale for ignorant times: those living in the first century knew where babies come from every bit as much as we in the twenty first century. And he was certain that Mary must have been unfaithful, even though he lacked modern, sophisticated, scientific knowledge.
Furthermore, one feels that Hume has extended the limits of science too far. Science is an excellent tool of discovery when considering how the world operates when the laws of nature are present. We can understand scientifically why water boils at 100 degrees, why objects fall to the ground and how to make an aeroplane fly. The laws of nature enable us to do science. What science cannot do, however, is teach us where the laws of nature come from. Is there a law giver? Is there anything that transcends the laws of nature and is not subject to them? Science is silent on this question, for it cannot comment on what may or may not lie beyond. Michael Ruse, philosopher and atheist, explains that science, “by definition deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by law”.[vii] To suggest that one can know, by means of science, that laws of nature cannot be suspended, is to cease to do science and move into philosophy. This is an important point because many people today do believe that God and the miraculous have been disproved by science. They have not.
Hume’s Definition of Miracle is False
For Hume the laws of nature were, in some sense, necessary. They couldn’t be other than what they were. For that reason, the idea of breaking such laws was inherently contradictory because violations could not occur unless they were not necessary. Let us go back to Mary and Joseph: if a virgin birth really were the violation of a law of nature, then the Christian is put into the absurd position of believing a law which is unalterable has, in fact, been altered. How can one reasonably believe in the face of such logic?
C.S. Lewis provided a strong rebuttal to Hume. He argued that Hume had gotten it wrong: a miracle was not the violation of a law of nature at all. It was better thought of as a new event fed into the ‘system’ by God and incorporated into the laws of nature. Lewis asks us to imagine a scenario in which one leaves six coins in a drawer one night and six coins the following night. The laws of arithmetic would lead us to expect twelve coins to be found in the drawer. If, however, one returned to see only two coins, their conclusion would be, not a violation of the laws of arithmetic, but that a new event had been fed into the system: in this case a thief taking ten of the coins. Lewis explains,
Something will have been broken (the lock on the drawer or the laws of England) but the laws of arithmetic will not have been broken. The new situation created by the thief will illustrate the laws of arithmetic just as well as the original situation[viii]
Apart from one passing mention of the Deity in a footnote, Hume’s whole philosophical system proceeds as though the laws of nature, and not God, were the absolute reality. This seems to imply that the laws of nature have a causal property and are responsible for the way the universe runs. But the Bible says differently: God is the foundation of all reality and the only causal Agent there is. The laws of nature merely describe the workings of His world. And if God so chose to feed a new event into the system it would instantly become incorporated into the natural running of the order. Mary’s pregnancy and birth were subject to all the laws of nature as any other pregnancy or birth. As Lewis explains,
If God created a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born[ix]
It seems, therefore, that Hume’s definition of miracle as a violation of the law of nature is inadequate. It betrays his naturalistic presuppositions by making the laws, and not God, the fundamental fact of existence and the ultimate source of causation. He failed to take seriously the Christian starting point of an all-powerful God who both created and governs the workings of reality.
Hume’s Appeal to Experience is Simplistic
Hume was an Empiricist philosopher, meaning he believed that all our knowledge of the world comes through experience. He thought it unreasonable for a person to believe something for which they had no experience. This poses a clear problem if one believes in the virgin birth, for it is not something most of us have witnessed first-hand! Miracles, by their very nature, are rare. And so Hume is surely correct when he says, “A wise man… proportions his belief to the evidence”[x] The question is, what kind of evidence is enough to satisfy us? Hume’s insistence on the necessity of experience meant that he could not get beyond the uniformity of the laws of nature. This was the only evidence required for assessing miracle claims. Nothing else needed to be said.
Yet Hume’s position, at this point, is surely open to question. Are there no other sources of evidence that can inform our beliefs, which are not based upon empirical observation? There are indeed some important considerations that Hume didn’t entertain in his argument against miracles. Evidence for the existence of God, for example, is all important in evaluating miracle claims, for then there would exist a Creator who is able to input events into the creation. If the existence of God is even possible then miracles such as the virgin birth are also possible. We have already noted the inability of science to tell us where the laws of nature came from, or whether there is a law giver, but there are strong philosophical arguments which make God’s existence not only reasonable but, for many people, compelling.
Hume might also have considered the religious and cultural context in which the virgin birth took place. For millennia the Jews had been awaiting the arrival of God’s chosen Messiah. As time elapsed more and more light had been shed on who this Messiah would be and what He would accomplish. In the virgin birth we have the fulfilment of God’s promises down through the ages. It is therefore no mere arbitrary claim. Furthermore, it is the necessary uniqueness of the virgin birth, as the culmination of God’s plan, that renders Hume’s appeal to experience redundant. There could only be one Messiah, one incarnation, one fulfilment of the promise. If miraculous conceptions occurred on a regular basis, it would wholly undermine Christ’s own birth story. In this instance, the uniqueness of the event is required for us to believe it.
There is another significant consideration and that is the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus’ birth of a virgin only makes sense when seen in light of what He accomplished upon the cross. The Bible teaches that, while on the cross, Jesus bore the punishment for sin that we deserve - but He could only stand as our perfect representative before the Father if He Himself had no sin. Kevin DeYoung spells out the relevance to the virgin birth:
Every human father begets a son or daughter with his sin nature. This is the way of the world after the fall. Sinners beget sinners… Always. If Joseph was the real father of Jesus… Jesus is not spotless, not innocent, and not perfectly holy. And as result, we have no mediator and no salvation.[xi]
As such, one might consider the historical evidence for the death and resurrection of Christ, which is extensive. This evidence provides further theological context for the virgin birth and additional evidence of the miraculous accomplishment of God’s plan.
Do these considerations prove, beyond any doubt, the truth of the virgin birth? Perhaps not. But they are nonetheless important factors to consider. They help us to understand why God would intervene in the laws of nature in this way. They explain to us why this event could only have happened once. They enable us to see that the virgin birth is so much more than just an arbitrary event with no rhyme or reason to it. In other words, they provide the framework needed to locate the miracle within its proper context. A context in which a living God, not the laws of nature, are in control. Sadly, Hume doesn’t even begin to attempt to grapple with the evidence on this level: his insistence on the uniformity of the laws of nature is all the evidence he deems necessary.
Where does all of this leave us? And what are we to make of the virgin birth? We have only been able to scratch the surface of Hume’s argument - an argument which is far more than academic. Whether or not people have heard of Hume, or encountered his arguments before, the effect they have had on our culture should not be underestimated. But Hitchens was surely premature in saying that no more needed to be said. Hume’s arguments, when thought about critically, do not succeed in disproving miracles. However, there are other reasons why this is of more than mere academic interest: for if what we read in the Bible really did happen, it changes everything. God really has come to visit His people. The twinkling Christmas tree lights speak to us of a greater Light that has come into our dark world in order to bring hope, forgiveness and peace with God. And this challenge is left for each one of us to consider: what will be your response to the baby in the manger this year?
[i] Pew Research Center (2017) Americans say Religious Aspects of Christmas are Declining in Public Life https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2017/12/12/americans-say-religious-aspects-of-christmas-are-declining-in-public-life/ [Accessed 29.11.2022] [ii] The Telegraph (2002) Quarter of Clergy do not Believe in the Virgin Birth <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1416824/Quarter-of-clergy-do-not-believe-in-the-Virgin-Birth.html> [Accessed 29.11.2022] [iii] Hume, D. (2007) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 83 [iv] Ibid. p. 83 [v] Ibid. p. 86 [vi] Hitchens, C. (2007) God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything London: Atlantic Books, p. 141 [vii] Ruse, M. (1982) Darwinism Defended Reading: Addison-Wesley, p. 322 [viii] Lewis, C.S. (2016) Miracles London: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 92 [ix] Ibid. p 94 [x] Hume (2007) p. 80 [xi] DeYoung, K. (2020) ‘Why Does it Matter that Jesus was Born of a Virgin?’ The Gospel Coalition Available at <https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/why-does-it-matter-that-jesus-was-born-of-a-virgin/> [Accessed 02.12.22]