“No long time of expectation”: Hume’s religious scepticism and the apocalypse

  • James E. Force
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives internationales d’histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 117)


Hume never explicitly attacks the many detailed apocalyptic theories of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries but his arguments against the possibility of certain knowledge about the future implicitly subvert the entire scriptural foundation for any apocalyptic expectation.1 It is the essence of Hume’s religious scepticism to destroy the view that anyone can know for certain either that God has been providentially involved in human and natural history in the past or that He will be again in the future. So sweeping is Hume’s rejection of the “religious hypothesis” and so destructive are Hume’s sceptical arguments regarding certain knowledge about the future course of events to the rooted apocalyptic expectation among the Millennialists of his (and of our own) day that it is quite surprising to discover an important basic affinity of outlook between Hume and the Millennialists.


Federal Communication Commission Sceptical Argument Mental Disposition Real Presence Sceptical Doubt 
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  1. 1a.
    James E. Force, “Hume and Johnson on Prophecy and Miracles: Historical Context,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 43, 1982, pp. 463–475CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 1b.
    James E. Force, “Hume and the Relation of Science to Religion Among Certain Members of the Royal Society,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 45,1984, pp. 517–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 1c.
    Richard H. Popkin, “Predicting, Prophecying, Divining and Foretelling from Nostradamus to Hume,” History of European Ideas, Vol. 5, 1984, pp. 117–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 2.
    I have taken this Bacon quotation from Vol. I of Bishop Thomas Newton’s Dissertation on the Prophecies, the first volume of which appeared in 1754 and which was one of the strongest statements of the argument from prophecy in the eighteenth century. Following this volume, in 1758, Bishop Newton was appointed Boyle Lecturer and his lectures formed the basis for two more volumes. All three were published in 1758 under the above title. Bishop Newton clearly sees his work as the fulfillment of Bacon’s research project. See Thomas Newton, Dissertations on the Prophecies, Which have been fulfilled and at this time are fulfilling in the world, 3rd. ed., 3 vols. London: 1766, 1:1–3.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
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  6. 4.
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  8. 6a.
    Richard H. Popkin, op. cit. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  10. 7.
    John Dury, “An Epistolical Discours, from Mr John Durie to Mr Sam. Hartlib, concerning this Exposition of the Revelation By Waie of Preface thereunto,” in Clavis Apocalyptica: Or, A Prophetical Key: By Which the great Mysteries in the Revelation of St. John and the Prophet Daniel are opened; It being made apparent That the Prophetical Numbers com to an end with the year of our Lord 1655. London: 1651, pp. 11–13.Google Scholar
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    John Dury, The Reformed Librarie-Keeper, London: 1650, p. 21.Google Scholar
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    See Richard H. Popkin’s introduction to John Dury, The Reformed Library-Keeper. Los Angeles, Augustan Reprint Society, 1983, pp. iii–vii.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    Margaret C. Jacob, “Millenarianism and Science in the Late Seventeenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 37, 1976, p. 339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 10.
    The Los Angeles Times, May 23, 1983, pp. 1 & 20.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    Hume does begin his essay “Of Miracles” with a reference to Archbishop John Tillotson’s argument against the Catholic doctrine of the real presence which he adapts to the refutation of the possibility of believing any miracle whatsoever. Tillotson, whose son was tutored by Whiston at Cambridge, was also a Millennialist who wrote apocalyptic sermons with such titles as “Of the Certainty of a Future Judgement,” “The Uncertainty of the Day of Judgement...,” “Of the Happiness of Good Men, in the future state.” See The Works of the Most Reverend John Tillotson, ed. Ralph Barker, 2 vols., London: 1712, Vol. 2. It seems likely that if Hume was familiar enough with Tillotson’s writings to know of his argument against the doctrine of the real presence, then he very likely knew also of Tillotson’s Millennialism.Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    According to John Leland, the goal of the deists is simply “to set aside revealed religion,” a goal actively promoted by Hume. See John Leland, A View of the Principal Deistical Writers that have Appeared in England in the Last and Present Century, London: 1754, Preface, p. iii.Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge, rev. P.H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978, pp. 86–87. Cf. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947, Pt. IX, where this argument becomes the basis for the destruction of Demea’s a priori argument for the existence of God.Google Scholar
  18. 14.
    Hume, Dialogues, p. 227.Google Scholar
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    David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge, rev. P.H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 115–116.Google Scholar
  20. 16.
    Ibid., p. 130.Google Scholar
  21. 17.
    Ibid., p. 146.Google Scholar
  22. 18.
    Hume, Dialogues, pp. 134–135.Google Scholar
  23. 19.
    Hume, Treatise, p. 265.Google Scholar
  24. 20.
    Ibid., pp. 268–269.Google Scholar
  25. 21.
    Ibid., p. 183.Google Scholar
  26. 22.
    Ibid., p. 218.Google Scholar
  27. 23.
    Hume, Dialogues, p. 128.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • James E. Force
    • 1
  1. 1.University of KentuckyUSA

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