In celebration of Easter Sunday, I want to take a look at the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Having already examined some of the historical arguments in favor of this historic event, for today’s show we’ll look at some of the philosophical arguments that bear on this important issue. For the book review, we’ll take a look at “Was Jesus God?” by Richard Swinburne. But first, here’s a quick look at the news.
The first Christian Book Expo, which took place in Dallas on March 19-22, featured a slew of Christian authors as well as… Christopher Hitchens. 1 Hitchens, famous author of the bestselling book “God is not Great,” is well known as an outspoken atheist and virulent critic of theism of any kind.
Hitchens took part in a two hour discussion with a panel of Christian apologists including Douglas Wilson, Lee Strobel, and William Lane Craig. The exchange can be found on Craig’s website, reasonablefaith.org.
I like the idea of having a non-Christian at the expo, to offer a chance for some meaningful dialogue and engagement. However, I frankly find the choice of Hitchens to be unfortunate. Though a skilled rhetoricist and rabble-rouser, I find Hitchens to frankly be one of the weakest, least professional public defenders of atheism today. His book, which I review on the website, actually manages to be the worst of the recent anti-theist books – exceeding even The End of Faith and The God Delusion in literary and argumentative shallowness. There are much better representatives of the atheist position who behave in a more civilized manner and who are able to discuss these types of issues in ways that bring the level of discussion beyond the schoolyard debate level. So while I appreciate the thought of inviting an atheist to a Christian event, hopefully next year they can find someone a bit more intellectually mature.
Hitchens also partook in a debate with William Lane Craig on April 4 at Biola University. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend, and the debate will not be released immediately because they are making a DVD version for sale, which can be pre-ordered at Craig’s site. Also available there are some links to news coverage on the debate for those who are interested.
Many are probably familiar with the Pope’s controversial comments in Cameroon that condoms are not the way to fight AIDS, but rather the widespread distribution of condoms is only aggravating the problem. The Pope has been widely denounced for these remarks, with some claiming that he is putting religious dogma ahead of the lives of Africans. 2
Personally, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with contraception, within the confines of a monogamous marriage, and so I don’t have the same sort of ideological objection to condoms that the Pope surely has. Nevertheless, I think the response to the Pope has been less than fair and have indicated that many critics are simply unwilling to take an objective look at the evidence. Indeed, it may ‘seem’ obvious to people that more condoms = less AIDS, but before spouting off at the Pope for his remarks we should look at the actual evidence of the case.
And, apparently, it seems as though the evidence supports, at least in broad terms, what the Pope has said. Condom distribution has shown marginal improvements in countries where prostitution and sex trade are major contributing factors…however, in Africa, this just isn’t the case. According to Edward Green, director of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project, concerning the case of Africa,
“There’s no evidence at all that condoms have worked as a public health intervention intended to reduce HIV infections at the ‘level of population.’ This is a bit difficult to understand. It may well make sense for an individual to use condoms every time, or as often as possible, and he may well decrease his chances of catching HIV. But we are talking about programs, large efforts that either work or fail at the level of countries, or, as we say in public health, the level of population. Major articles published in Science, The Lancet, British Medical Journal, and even Studies in Family Planning have reported this finding since 2004.” 3
According to Christianity Today, 2008 was a year of study Bibles. 4 The NLT Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, and a Zondervan Study Bible were all released. In my opinion, this represents a positive trend. Study Bibles can be a great tool to allow lay readers like myself the chance to learn some quick literary, historical, and theological insights that would require years of study to uncover, or which I would simply not have access to. Every Christian should have at least one study Bible to help them sort through difficult issues and gain more from their study of Scripture. Obviously, we need to remember that study notes are not infallible, and use them with caution.
The Episcopal Church is again caught up in controversy, this time over two clergy members who are under scrutiny for practicing and promoting other religions, including a Zen Buddhist and a Seattle-area priest who is being forced to decide whether she is a Muslim or a Christian. 5
Redding, the priest who claims to be both a Christian and a Muslim, responding with disappointment on receiving a deadline to denounce her Muslim faith or leave the priesthood. “I’m saddened and disappointed that this could not be an opportunity” for the church to broaden its views, she said. “The automatic assumption is that if I’m one of ‘them,’ I can’t be one of ‘us’ anymore.” But “I’m still following Jesus in being a Muslim. I have not abandoned that.”
Sorry to say, but this type of inconsistent belief is totally out of line with the Christian Church. If you want to claim to be a Muslim Christian, that’s fine, but clearly you do not then have a role in teaching other Christians about the faith. Likewise, I would hope that a Muslim mosque would not allow such a person into their clergy.
Finally, Notre Dame has decided to honor Barack Obama with an honorary degree and welcome him to deliver its commencement address. 6 This has sparked a great deal of controversy at Notre Dame, a Catholic University, especially among those students who take very seriously the Church’s stance on abortion and other ethical issues. Pro-Life students have pointed to Barack’s radical pro-abortion legislation and policies, and they consider the honorary degree and invitation to speak to be a disgrace to a University that holds Catholic values in high esteem.
A petition with over 20,000 signatures has already been signed protesting the visit. However, it seems unlikely that the invitation will be renounced.
This invitation represents, in my opinion, yet a further weakening of the broader Catholic will to oppose abortion. While the arguments against abortion are very strong, in my opinion, Catholics have an even greater reason to oppose the practice because it is official Church teaching. Yet, a majority of Catholics actually voted for Barack Obama, who’s pro-abortion credentials are practically unmatched in the political arena. Nevertheless, a strong number of Catholics still hold this issue in high regard, as evidenced by the strength of the opposition to Obama’s honorary degree and upcoming commencement address. I tend to agree with these protestors that the Catholic Church as a whole needs to stop making concessions and stand strong in its opposition of abortion.
Should these honors, though, really be construed as supporting Obama’s policies on abortion? In my opinion, the honorary degree is much more symbolic of the weak stance taken by the University administration. What exactly has Obama done of significant intellectual or social merit to deserve such an honor from the University, especially when he has taken such a strong stance against the Church’s ethical teachings? These are questions Catholics have to answer, but for my part I think everyone, whether inside the Christian community or not, needs to take a strong stance for life, which at the end of the day is not a Christian issue at all, but one of justice, fairness, equality, and ethical common sense.
Main Feature: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
In honor of Easter day, I would like to take a look at some important issues surrounding the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of the Christian faith and the foundation of our hope. Although a defense of the resurrection certainly involves a detailed look at history, there are also a number of important philosophical considerations that are relevant to this issue. Since I looked at the historical evidence for the resurrection in Episode 12 of this podcast, in today’s show I want to look at some of these important philosophical issues.
The Possibility of Miracles
Before the resurrection can be defended historically, we need to establish both the objective and the epistemic possibility of miracles. The objective possibility of miracles has to do with whether miracles are actually logically possible. Obviously, if miracles are impossible, and Christ’s resurrection was a miracle, then Christ’s resurrection is impossible.
Now, some have taken the tack that miracles, which should be defined as violations of the laws of nature, are in fact impossible. This is supposed to follow because the laws of nature, by definition, simply describe what happens in the universe. Even if it were the case that an individual resurrected from the dead, this would be itself a case that would lead us, perhaps, to revise the laws of nature to allow for such occurrences. Since the laws of nature by definition define what happens in the universe, a violation of the laws of nature, or a miracle, are strictly impossible.
Obviously, there is something quite silly about saying that a resurrection from the dead does not count as a miracle, and it seems equally silly to define miracles out of existence in this crass fashion. What we really need is a more precise definition of exactly what the laws of nature are, and what exactly a miracle is.
There are different ways of hashing out what “laws of nature” really means, and on any reasonable account there is no logical impossibility of miracles. Richard Swinburne details one such formulation. He understands a fundamental law of nature to be a principle which determines what happens, when what happens is determined by law at all. A violation is just an event contrary to the predictions of a fundamental law of nature. The basic idea here is that the law determines what will happen in the natural course unless a higher power intervenes. Thus, for example, in the natural course of things a dead person will remain dead. However, this law can be ‘violated’ by a higher power, such as God, who may decide to raise that person from the dead.
This may sound arbitrary, but it is certainly not. After all, if God really does exist, and God really created the entire universe and sustains it in being, then of course He has the power to cause something to happen which would not happen if the fundamental laws of nature were the only forces at work. This definition also means that we would not be forced to redefine laws of nature every time God acts to supervene a law. For example, the law of gravity is still a law even if God intervenes at one point in history to allow Jesus to walk on water, for example. It would be impractical to remake our laws just because of isolated events that were caused directly by God.
I would also note in passing that words are only useful in so far as we use them practically. The term ‘miracle’ clearly identifies something intelligible and coherent – it is the idea of a supernatural being acting in the world to do something that would not have happened had the being not so intervened. And unless you believe it is literally logically impossible for there to be a supernatural being – which is a very strong statement that would need some powerful arguments – there is nothing wrong with this at all. It makes good sense to use the word miracle to describe this kind of event. If we, by linguistic fiat, declare that miracles are impossible, then the content of the idea expressed will merely have to be taken up by another word. Since miracle seems to work fine, I say we stick with it.
The epistemic possibility of miracles has to do with whether or not it is possible for us to know that miracles have occurred. Epistemic comes from the word ‘epistemology,’ which is simply the philosophical study of knowledge. Granted that a miracle can occur, is there any way we can know that one has occurred?
Traditionally, this is where some of the strongest attacks against miracles have been lodged. David Hume famously argued in his book “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” that it is never rational for somebody to believe in a miracle based upon testimony. His basic argument was that miracles are, by any definition, extraordinarily unlikely. If a stranger came up to you and told you that he saw a man levitate, you would be very skeptical, because it is very unlikely that this man violated the law of gravity. There are many ways that the stranger could be wrong – he could be lying, could be crazy, could have been tricked, could have bad vision, and so forth. It is way more likely that the stranger is wrong than that he is correctly reporting a levitation.
Hume’s general principle thus states, “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.” 7
Given that miracles go against the grain of fundamental laws of nature, they are quite extraordinary indeed. The fundamental laws of nature have held up in thousands of experiments again and again. No matter how much evidence witnesses provide for the occurrence of a miracle, at the end of the day it will simply be more likely that they are in some way wrong.
Hume’s popular argument has several fatal flaws, however. The first mistake Hume makes is that he fails to take into consideration all of the probabilities that are involved. When we are trying to find the probability of a certain event occurring, we do not simply analyze the probability of the event against the probability of the witness reporting truthfully. We must also consider the probability of the evidence (in this case, provided by testimony) occurring even if the hypothesis is false. In other words, in the case of Jesus, we want to know how probable the relevant evidence is to have occurred even if the resurrection were not true. To establish this probability, we need to establish the probability of the resurrection’s alternatives. To flesh this out a bit, let’s put some arbitrary numbers in place.
Let us say that the chance of a resurrection occurring is 1/1,000,000, given all the background information we have and given the evidence provided by the New Testament testimony and so forth. Now let us suppose that the likelihood of an alternative hypothesis, for example, the apparent death theory is 1/10,000,000. Even though the resurrection is very improbable, against the naturalistic competitor, it turns out to be quite probable. As Sherlock Holmes stated, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” 8 A low initial probability of the resurrection is just not all there is to the story. If all of the naturalistic competitors are even less plausible, then the resurrection might still come out on top.
Hume could counter by saying that, despite all this, the probability of resurrection is just so low that any naturalistic hypothesis, however outlandish, will trump the resurrection. In order to refute this potential stance, now I want to address Hume’s major flaw.
Swinburne states this objection eloquently; “But Hume’s worst mistake was to suppose that the only relevant background theory to be established from wider experience was a scientific theory about what are the laws of nature. But any theory showing whether laws of nature are ultimate or whether they depend on something higher for their operation is crucially relevant. If there is no God, then the laws of nature are the ultimate determinants of what happens. But if there is a God, then whether and for how long and under what circumstances laws of nature operate depend on God.” 9
If God exists, then miracles do not seem nearly so improbable. And, as long as there is at least some positive evidence for the existence of God, this evidence must be included among the background knowledge when we assess the probability of miracles.
As I have argued in this podcast and website, there are several strong arguments for the existence of God. As long as at least some of these hold up, we must include among our background evidence a non-zero probability that a supernatural being exists, just the type of being that is able to violate a fundamental law. Note that we do not need to prove with absolute certainty that God exists before this factor must be included in the probability calculation. Virtually all of our background knowledge in the way of natural law is also possibly wrong, yet we do not hesitate to include the likely operation of such laws in the background evidence. Obviously, the greater the likelihood of God’s existence, the greater the likelihood for miracles.
However, the existence of God by itself only establishes the possibility of miracles, not the likelihood of their occurrence. The likelihood of miracles given the existence of God will depend a great deal on the likelihood that God would decide to perform a miracle. This point will be argued a little later in the podcast, where I will try to show that we have at least some reason for thinking that God would decide to intervene in the universe in a miraculous fashion. I would like to note here, that even without any reason whatsoever to think it likely that God would intervene, a high probability of God’s existence will still make a specific miracle much more likely given specific evidence for that miracle.
In his essay, Hume goes further than this argument. Though he believes his argument strong enough to establish the epistemic impossibility of miracles, he goes on to claim that, in actuality, the case for religion is even weaker, with four arguments;
1.) In the actual cases, the witnesses are too weak. They are not enough in number, they are not sufficiently educated, there is not enough evidence of their integrity, and so forth.
In the case of the resurrection, I think that these objections are spurious. Even if we reject the claim that the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Matthew were written by eyewitnesses, we have plausible reports of several eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ, including the women at the tomb, the disciples, James, and Paul.
As for the lack of education, I think this is an unfair charge. One does not need to be particularly well educated to realize that dead people don’t rise, and to note that one has encountered an individual who has apparently been risen from the dead. But in any case, it is not true that all of the witnesses were uneducated, in fact, Paul was an extremely well educated man.
When it comes to the issue of integrity, I must mention the argument, commonly made, that the followers of Christ in the early Church had no motivation for deceiving others or for trying to start a new religion. Anachronistic treatments of the New Testament evidence often imagine the disciples getting together to concoct a fanciful tale of Jesus resurrection. But why would they do this, given the great hardship it created for them in their lives?
Here, I am not relying on the claim that the disciples and others were martyred for their faith. Critics may deny the testimony of the early Church in this regard. However, what cannot be denied is that the early Christians faced tremendous hardships as a direct result of their faith. Not only did they face persecution from Jews and Romans, they also faced rejection from their families, disgrace in the eyes of society, and all sorts of other hardships. No disciple gained great wealth for preaching the faith. The plain fact of the matter is this – the disciples and early followers of Christ had absolutely no advantage to gain from their newfound faith. We may therefore have a high degree of confidence in their integrity.
2.) There is a general propensity of men to incline towards believing fanciful tales, so we ought to be even more suspicious of such claims.
If we grant Hume’s premise here that humans have a tendency to believe in miracles and supernatural occurrences, we still don’t have a good explanation for the origination of the Christian faith. If the disciples were so obsessed with believing in miracles, then they would have been much more likely to believe that Jesus Christ had been transferred to heaven in glory. The idea of a physical resurrection of a single individual before the end of the world was most likely unknown to Jewish people. Enoch and Elijah were two Old Testament examples that the disciples might have drawn on. It simply isn’t the case that the disciples were waiting with bated breath for a resurrection of Christ after His crucifixion. Indeed, the crucifixion of Christ – called by the Jewish historian Josephus ‘the most wretched of deaths’ – would likely have squelched any messianic pretensions from Christ’s first followers. But even if they were to come to believe that Jesus had overcome such dishonor, why would they believe He rose from the dead, in contradiction to their expectations and experience?
Indeed, if we take the Biblical witness at all seriously, we will find a great deal of skepticism many of the early followers had when they heard of the resurrection, or even when they witnessed the risen Christ. In general, I think the idea that the ancients were willing to easily accept every sort of superstition is overplayed. Nevertheless, we see on this point that even the propensity of men to believe the marvelous would not likely have resulted in the resurrection faith.
3.) These claims tend to come from among ignorant and barbarous nations, where rampant superstition runs wild without the constraining force of science.
On this point, Hume continues his snobbish attitude of assuming that the ancients were a bunch of barbarous ignoramuses, compared with the moderns who are enlightened and rational. This type of cocky attitude pervades his essay on miracles, and once again is entirely unfounded. But as with the last point, even if we grant that the first followers of Christ were prone to believe any old superstitious nonsense, we still want to know why they would believe this particular form of superstition.
4.) Testimony for miracles for each individual religion is opposed by the testimony of miracles from other religions, so they tend to cancel each other out.
Hume’s point here is that different religions testify to different miracles, and since all religions cannot be true, the evidence for one miracle cancels out the evidence for the others. However, this argument makes several unjustified assumptions, in my mind. First of all, it assumes that there is not one religion which has particularly well-justified miracle claims, whereas the claims of most other religious traditions are spurious. In fact, I think in the resurrection we find just such a case, for I can think of no other miracle so well attested among religions, and I think a particularly strong case can be made for believing the resurrection. However, perhaps an even greater problem is that Hume discounts the idea that, even if a particular religion is true, miracles are still possible to some extent within other religious traditions. For example, Christianity affirms that in addition to God, there are other disembodied personal agents – commonly referred to as angels – who exist and who participate in the universe. It is entirely possible that angelic or demonic forces could allow false religionists from other traditions to perform miracles in their own contexts.
To this response it might be returned that, if this is the case, then even the resurrection of Jesus could have been a demonic accomplishment. This issue will be discussed shortly.
In any case, I think we have seen that Hume has not made a solid case against the epistemic possibility of miracles, nor in his handwaving arguments has he shown that the particular miracle claims of all religions are dubious. We have seen that in the case of the resurrection of Jesus, his arguments hold very little sway.
Evidence for Resurrection
We saw earlier that reasons for believing that God exists also provide us reasons for thinking first of all, that miracles are possible, and second of all, that miracles are likely, if in fact there is at least one case of a well-attested miracle. This is because, if God exists, then there is an agent in the universe with the power and ability to do an action that violates a fundamental law of nature. When confronted with a miracle that would seem to require such a violation, we then have three choices, it seems to me.
1. We can deny that the evidence is strong enough.
2. We can revise the law of nature to comply with the miracle.
3. We can affirm that God caused the miraculous event.
Now, in the case of the resurrection, it seems patently obvious that the second option should be eliminated. Resurrection from the dead so contradicts the laws of nature that it would be excessively difficult to revise our laws to accommodate such an event. Moreover, even if we did, the fact that this happened particularly to Jesus in the context of his radical life and ministry, to ultimately culminate in an extraordinarily influential and widespread religion, really stretches credulity. So we must choose between the first and third options.
How strong, then, does the evidence have to be for us to conclude that a miracle has occurred? This depends. There are two ways we could demonstrate the likelihood of a particular miracle occurring. The first and rather obvious way is by giving good historical evidence for the occurrence. This will inevitably involve down-and-dirty historical research, the kind of which I have decided to largely ignore in this podcast episode. The second way, however, that we can demonstrate the likely occurrence of a particular miracle is if we demonstrate that God is likely to do it. Although some might balk at the idea of presuming to know what God is likely to do, in fact this is obviously a coherent notion.
Suppose that we want to know whether a particular event occurred, in which a man named John performed a great act of valor by sacrificing himself for his comrades and jumping on a grenade to save them. If we want to know whether this occurred, we could look at the actual evidence of the case, such as the testimony of his comrades. However, we could also consider John’s character. If we know that John was a brave man who consistently performed acts of heroism, then we will be more confident that he jumped on the grenade. If we knew him to be a weasily and cowardly man, we would require much stronger evidence before assuming that he had done such a selfless act.
In order to argue in this way, we must assume that at least some aspects of God’s character can be known. If God is entirely mysterious and aloof, we could never have any idea what He would be likely to do. However, I do not think we are in such a desperate situation. Many of the arguments for God’s existence also provide reasons for believing that God is perfectly good. It is impractical at this point to go into a detailed defense of this premise here, but we will proceed from here with the very basic theistic conception of God as a good being, a conception widely shared even by non-theists who point to the existence of evil as evidence that God does not exist.
Just like John’s honorable character made it more likely that he would jump on a grenade to save his comrades and less likely to betray his friends, God’s perfect character makes it more likely that He will do certain good things rather than others. This fact is recognized whenever a critic points out that the problem of evil makes God’s existence improbable – what they are saying is that, given the supposedly impeccable character of your God, it is unlikely that He would create a world with so much evil and suffering in it. I argue for various reasons in episode 15 of this podcast that this argument has several weaknesses. However, the general thrust of the argument is certainly valid. If we assume that God is perfectly good, then we will consider certain actions undertaken by Him more likely than others.
So, do we have any good reason to think that, if a perfectly good God exists, then He will become Incarnate and resurrect? As a matter of fact, the Church has a long tradition of offering rational reasons for God to Incarnate, which is the doctrine that God took on human nature and lived among us. Thomas Aquinas lists ten such reasons in his Summa Theologae, all of which with supporting quotations from the much earlier Church father Augustine. Swinburne helpfully boils this list down to five in his book “The Christian God.” 10
1. Human nature is such a good thing that it is a fitting nature for God to adopt. God evinces solidarity with His creation by taking on the human form, which is a unique mixture of the rational, sensual, and physical.
I would like to note here in passing that the Incarnation demonstrates in a vivid fashion that the physical world is not evil. Many religious traditions and philosophies throughout history have deemed the physical world evil, but this line of thought is in contradiction to the Jewish and Christian view that the created world is very good. The Incarnation is a devastating refutation of the pernicious idea that the physical is evil.
2. We are taught that the human nature has a great deal of dignity through the Incarnation. Although we should be ashamed of our sin natures, the human nature in and of itself is a tremendously good thing.
3. By becoming one of us, God shows us how much He loves us. This is particularly true given the fact of the great suffering that exists in this world. A parent who calls his child to do something difficult and painful, such as adopting a strict diet for their health, may quite appropriately share in the difficulty by also adopting the diet, thereby showing his love. A great deal of Christian liturgy centers around this fact, that the Incarnation showed God’s great love for us.
4. God can show man how to live a good life. Such a demonstration might be a further source of inspiration and knowledge beyond mere propositional revelation.
5. Incarnation gives God a particularly good opportunity to provide propositional revelation. This can be done in other ways as well, such as through prophets who receive miraculous confirmation of their teachings, but obviously the teaching is even stronger, more authoritative, and more compelling if it is actually delivered by God Incarnate.
And of course, this leaves out what Christian tradition has always affirmed as the most important reason for God to become Incarnate – to provide atonement for our sins. However, defending this point requires a rather detailed account of the atonement and how it works, and in any case there are many criticisms of this doctrine which would have to be answered, so I will proceed forward without the advantage of assuming this doctrine is coherent and applicable to the case.
Given these five brief points, why should we think that the Incarnate God would die and resurrect? First, a general point must be made about miraculous confirmation. It seems that revelation from God, in order to be credible, must be accompanied by some sort of miraculous signature. A miracle, as an event beyond the productive capacities of nature, will offer public and objective evidence that a messenger from God is speaking the truth. It is notoriously easy for someone to claim that have a special message from the Almighty, it is much more difficult for them to produce any sort of public, convincing miracle to substantiate their claim that God endorses their teachings or actions. For God to send prophets and messengers without accompanying miracles would be less than ideal, for several reasons.
First of all, if there were no need for messengers of God to demonstrate convincingly that their message is really endorsed by God, then humans would likely be led astray by all sorts of nonsense. In the Old Testament, a prophet who spoke of something that did not come to pass was to be executed. Being a false prophet is no big deal, because the potential to deceive others is massive. Witness other false prophets like David Koresh, who cause a great deal of suffering because of their false claims. Without any sort of requirement for evidence or consequences for being a false messenger, it is much more likely that lying or deceived would-be messengers of God will convincingly preach messages that are destructive or false, to the detriment of those who listen.
Second of all, one of the intents of some divine revelation is to present a moral choice to the listeners. Since we are obligated to obey God, we are also obligated to obey His messengers, who are merely the vessel through which the message is transmitted. However, if there are no miraculous divine signatures to accompany prophets and messengers, then God could hardly hold us responsible for believing that the would-be messenger is spouting nonsense. Without a reason to believe that the messengers are teaching God’s message, we would not be as morally culpable for failing to heed their advice.
So, if God is going to send a divine messenger or prophet, then we should expect that they would be validated with a miraculous signature. This case will hold for the Incarnate God as well.
Now, what reason do we have to expect that God, if He Incarnates, will die? Note that the third reason for Incarnation would be for God to show us how much He loves us by partaking in our suffering and hardship. Perhaps the greatest hardship faced by man, however, is death, so that if God wants to truly fulfill such a mission, then the Incarnate God must die. So even apart from the contentious doctrine of the atonement, we have some reason to believe that God will Incarnate, taking on human nature, and die.
A few minutes ago I mentioned the importance of a miraculous signature to confirm the credentials of a prophet or messenger. These points would obviously apply, as well, to God Incarnate. Since the Incarnate God will die, a resurrection seems one of the best ways for such a miraculous signature to be placed upon His life. Moreover, a bodily resurrection from the dead may a plausible way to teach other important things. For example, it teaches that God is Lord even over death, that the physical body is good, and that we can similarly hope for God’s miraculous resurrection of our bodies after our deaths. These are all plausible doctrines given the existence of God, and a resurrection is a plausible way for God to dramatically emphasize these truths. Although I think the divine signature obviously accompanying a resurrection is the most important reason to expect a resurrection from the dead, these further points give us additional reasons for thinking it plausible that God would do such a thing.
Now notice that points 2,3,4, and 5 will be of little use unless we have reason to believe that the Incarnate God really was the Incarnate God, and to remember this fact. In other words, it would certainly be possible for God to take on human form in an Incarnation, live a perfect life, die a sacrificial death, and rise from the dead in a miraculous confirmation, and nobody realize this fact. But if nobody knows that a certain person is God Incarnate, then we will have no reason to think that His life was a paradigm moral example, that He has suffered with us and thereby shown His love for us, that the propositions He revealed during His ministry were true, and so forth. Therefore, it is plausible to suggest that the Incarnate God would demonstrate convincingly to His early followers that He was the Incarnate God, and establish a Church to proclaim, remember, and spread His message. Without such a Church to carry on the message of the Incarnate God, the whole enterprise would be rather futile and pointless.
So, based on some fairly plausible assumptions about what a perfectly good God might do, and some further plausible assumptions about how He might go about accomplishing those feats, we have arrived at the possibility of God Incarnating in a perfect human life to teach mankind a number of important truths, show us how to live our lives, and share in our suffering, culminating in His death and subsequent miraculous resurrection, confirming via that miraculous divine signature that He was indeed God Incarnate, and establishing a Church to carry on and preserve this message and teaching. I must at this point make two caveats.
First, as Swinburne points out, none of this should mean to suggest that man, unaided by revelation, using his powers of rationality alone, should necessarily be able to come to this remarkable conclusion. Familiarity with the Christian tradition may be necessary to draw out this line of reasoning. He writes,
“Inspector Lestrade and the bumbling police of Victorian Scotland Yard often saw everything which Sherlock Holmes saw. But they could not see its inductive implications, what it made probable. It needed Sherlock Holmes to suggest a theory to account for the data; and once they heard his theory, then they came to see that the background evidence and historical evidence supported that theory. But the evidential relations were there, whether or not they saw them.” 11
Second, I have only intended here to provide in broad outline some reasons for thinking that a resurrection might be a plausible thing given the existence of a perfectly good God. I am painfully aware that this type of argument lacks technical or mathematical precision, and it depends fundamentally on some assumptions that, while I have tried to argue are plausible, are certainly not set in stone. For my part, I still think that a strong historical case needs to be made of the particulars of Christ’s resurrection if we going to rationally accept that doctrine on the basis of evidence. However, the analysis I have provided briefly here is very useful for one particular reason.
There are all sorts of objections to the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Some examples of objections include; the Gospels contradict eachother, the Gospels are written too long after the events, and the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. Even granting all of these objections, however, it is hard to deny that, as far as historical evidence goes, we have a remarkable amount of material about the resurrection. Much of this evidence was presented in podcast 12, as I mentioned earlier. There are all sorts of objections to all of these lines of evidence, and this debate can get quite complicated.
However, at the end of the day, I think it is plausible to say that the main reason for the rejection of the resurrection is its miraculous nature. For imagine that we had the exact same evidence, in quantity and quality, that Jesus had done something non-miraculous, such as survived the crucifixion for a few days and then died. Even though this is a relatively improbable physical occurrence, it involves no violation of a law of nature. Given the relative strength of the evidence, most historians would probably accept at face value the report of the four Gospels and so forth that Jesus briefly survived the cross.
As a matter of fact, despite the opposite testimony by the New Testament writings and the early Christians, many critics have accepted just such a theory, that Jesus survived the cross and died a bit later. If such a theory was supported by the same quality and quantity of testimony confirming the resurrection, historians would likely have no problem accepting it.
Once we sweep away the logical and epistemic impossibility of miracles, the resurrection becomes much more probable. And if at least some of the general considerations I have offered demonstrate that it is even marginally probable to expect that God might do something like the resurrection, then the problem of the miraculous nature of the resurrection sweeps away. Thus, the importance of the philosophical case provided here is to clear away the idea that the resurrection, as a miracle, is by far the least likely explanation of the evidence. Once we recognize that the existence of God and the resurrection are at least somewhat probable on other grounds, we need rely much less on a strong historical case to make it overall probable that the resurrection occurred.
Was Jesus God?
In his book, “Was Jesus God,” the philosopher and theologian Richard Swinburne attempts to demonstrate that the foundational elements of the Christian faith are rational. In this short treatise, essentially a sequel to his book “Is There a God,” Swinburne tries to show that philosophical arguments and reasoning do not merely demonstrate that a generic “God” most likely exists. Such arguments, he maintains, can actually lead us very plausibly to a Christian conception of a Trinitarian God who incarnated in the man Jesus of Nazareth.
This goal may seem audacious, since the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are commonly criticized as not only unproven, but simply irrational. How can God be three and one? How can an infinite God inhabit a finite human body? Yet, Swinburne does not trip up when confronted with these difficulties. He shows that, not only are these doctrines plausible, but that we have good reasons to think they are true. He tries to do this all within the confines of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds, trying to show that his arguments line up very well with what the vast majority of the Church (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant) has taught for centuries.
In order to support his claim that Christian theism is most likely true, Swinburne draws upon two forms of reasoning- a priori arguments and a posteriori evidence. A priori arguments are made on the basis of very general facts about the world and the human condition. With these types of arguments, Swinburne tries to show that, purely from considering the nature of God and the human condition, it is plausible to suppose that God would become Incarnate and live a human life. If good a priori arguments can be made, then less evidence is required to accept that belief. For example, if we know from the beginning that there is a high probability that God will become Incarnate in a human person, then we would require less evidence for supposing that Jesus really was God Incarnate.
Swinburne offers several reasons to suppose that God would become Incarnate and live a human life. Most of these reasons are backed up with plausible analogies from a human perspective. For example, Swinburne offers a case example of a 45-year-old father who is not required to serve in a military campaign, but could do so if he should volunteer. Since the war is a just one, the father decides to forgo his ability to veto the drafting of his son to serve in the military. Swinburne notes that, “Plausibly since I am forcing my son to endure the hardship and danger of military service, I have a moral obligation to him to volunteer myself.”  Similarly, since God calls us to suffer quite a bit in this world, it is plausible to expect that He may decide to join us in our suffering. Using similar arguments, Swinburne attempts to show that we could rightly expect God to become Incarnate to allow us to atone for our sins, to teach us by example how to live a good life, and to give us important teaching about God’s nature and the afterlife. Most of these arguments are very creative, though at times it seems that Swinburne is stretching credulity a bit too far. For example, is it really likely to suppose a priori that God would become Incarnate in order to atone for sin? The doctrine of the atonement is by itself a very complicated and subtle doctrine, and it is hard to believe that anything like such a doctrine could plausibly be dreamed up before any revelation of such a doctrine was made by God. It should be mentioned that he has written an entire work on the subject of the atonement which I have not had a chance to read, and this work may indeed strongly supplement his argument. Nonetheless, it is important to note that Swinburne provides several a priori lines of reasoning for supposing that God may decide to Incarnate, several of which I have drawn on for this podcast.
For the A posteriori evidence, Swinburne quickly runs through some of the broad themes of the evidence provided by the New Testament for believing in the Incarnation and resurrection. He also looks at the evidence provided by the existence and continued operation of the Church, and he takes a look at the Bible and how it should be interpreted. I wish that Swinburne would have spent more time and discussed in more detail the historical evidence for the Resurrection, but given the nature of the book, it is understandable that he only offers a brief overview.
Also to his credit, Swinburne does not shy away from talking boldly and clearly about his views concerning these Christian doctrines. His analysis of the Trinity and the Incarnation are jarringly precise. Swinburne’s refusal to retreat to mysterious, imprecise, and vague language gets him in a lot of trouble, however, with those who are quick to lay the charge of heresy.
In defending the Trinity, Swinburne adopts a broadly “Social Trinitarian” perspective, which emphasizes to a certain degree the distinction between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and their relationship to one another within the Holy Trinity. Swinburne lays out a subtle and powerful argument for the necessity of God being a Trinity. He claims that the argument “depends on two very simple moral intuitions: that perfect love requires total sharing with an equal and requires cooperating in spreading that love further, that that anyone you love has someone else to love and be loved by.”  Using these two premises as starting points, Swinburne attempts to demonstrate that a sole divine person could not be perfectly loving, thus that person would need to create an equal with whom love could be mutually shared. Hence, the Son. Nor would a two-person divine being be perfect, for it would lack the very good thing of cooperating in spreading that love further. A third person would need to be created with whom love could be shared. Hence, the Holy Spirit. These divine persons, in order to be divine, would have to exist from all eternity.
When it comes to the Incarnation, Swinburne defends the thesis that the Second Person of the Trinity took on, in addition to the divine nature, the human nature, and allowed Himself to operate consciously largely within the domain of the human nature. His creative and powerful solution to the problem of the Incarnation manages to stay within the realm of Orthodoxy, as he labors to maintain, while also demonstrating that Jesus Christ truly felt our pain, endured our sorrows, and can empathize with the human situation.
Whether or not you agree with Swinburne and his often controversial positions, it is hard to deny that this book is a tour de force that covers a vast array of important issues for the Christian faith. We should be thankful to have such a bright and lucid writer and thinker numbered among the faithful. Like all of Swinburne’s works, those who want to digest this book had better bring their thinking caps. However, unlike some of his more technical works, I thought that “Was Jesus God” was a real page turner.
My rating for this book: 4.5 stars out of 5
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