It is a circular argument, but it has been made often, from David Hume down to present day sceptics. There is no believable evidence for genuine miraculous healings, they say. But what about all the stories of people being healed? We know they can’t be true, they say, because no-one has ever shown scientifically that healing can occur.
So New Testament scholar Craig Keener decided to break the circle.
Hume argued that we can know that miracles cannot occur:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as firm and unalterable experience has established those laws, the proof of a miracle … is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.
And what have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events, which they relate? And this surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation.”
Hume’s argument held sway for several centuries, but has been strongly criticised more recently, as being (1) circular (i.e. assuming what it attempts to prove) and (2) being incorrect logically and statistically. But it is still commonly quoted.
Craig Keener is a New Testament scholar who felt that his New Testament study required him to address the question of the historical credibility of miracles, and the logical validity of Hume’s argument. So he set out to see what evidence there was for modern day miracles: to see if they threw any light on the Biblical miracles, and if it was true that there was “firm and unalterable experience” against miracles.
Keener’s first and main objective was to gather plausible accounts of christian healing miracles from around the world, to see how numerous were the claims. Assessing whether they might be genuine miracles then followed as a second step. His book Miracles, outlines the evidence he found.
We hear many stories of healings, but it is hard to be sure they are not urban myths, exaggerations or fabrications. So Keener briefly recounts hundreds of plausible miracle stories from a number of countries, principally in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He obtained the stories from books, his own interviews, personal correspondence or interviews of people on his behalf, and their plausibility comes from their sheer number and his personal contact with many of the accounts. Keener conducted about a hundred interviews and had personal correspondence with more than a hundred more witnesses. He says:
…. most of those whom I interviewed struck me as deeply sincere”
Keener and others have found that large numbers of christian around the world claim to have experienced a miraculous healing or observed one. The numbers seem to come to something like 300-400 million people. Assuming many have observed more than one (as Keener’s studies suggest), the total number of claims of christian healing miracles in living memory could easily come to more than half a billion.
He makes very clear that many of these stories may not stand scrutiny or may have other more natural explanations, and most lack medical verification. He just makes the point that the evidence shows that it cannot be claimed that “firm and unalterable experience” is opposed to miracles without detailed investigation.
But how reliable are the accounts?
That is the second question Keener examines in the book. I will report on his conclusions soon.
The take-home message
Christians don’t have to worry too much about Hume’s objections. Millions of people claim to have experienced divine healing. No-one can reasonably say that there is “firm and unalterable experience” against healing miracles, nor say that every one of the claims is false. It only requires a few of them to be plausible and we can reasonably believe God has been acting in his world.
Come back soon to hear some of the stories and see if they are believable.