From: International Journal of Philosophical Studies 12, #1 (2004), 61-69.
Philosophy of Religion and Christian Resurrection
Loyola University of Chicago
The Resurrection of God Incarnate. By Richard Swinburne. Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. vi + 224. ISBN 0-19-925745-0. $70.00.
When philosophy of religion turns to the Christian faith, it must face the defining belief of the earliest Jesus movement: the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. The apostle Paul, in one of the earliest writings in the New Testament, summarizes the heart of the Christian gospel, the good news, as follows:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.... If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.... If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:3-8, 15, 17, 19-20, NIV).
Paul thus regards Christian faith as “useless,” “false,” and “futile” in the absence of the resurrection of Jesus. In particular, he links the resurrection of Jesus with the forgiveness of human sins in such a way that if there is no resurrection of Jesus, “you are still in your sins.”
The heart of the “good news” in New Testament teaching is that human sins are forgiven in connection with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What specifically this connection involves has been and remains as a topic of controversy among biblical commentators, theologians, and philosophers of religion. If we understand atonement as the kind of reconciliation that properly deals with human sin, we may understand the heart of the controversy about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a debate about atonement. How, specifically, do the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide atonement? How, specifically, is such atonement to be appropriated by humans? Is such atonement really needed by humans? If so, why? These are just a few of the many pressing questions that emerge from New Testament teachings about the person and mission of Jesus. Such questions have prompted no end of controversy among philosophers of religion.
Resurrection and Atonement
A controversial question that seems appropriate for philosophers, in particular for epistemologists, is: what is the status of the evidence regarding the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? What exactly is the evidence? Is it any good, in terms of what is probably true? If so, how good is it? Such questions occupy Richard Swinburne’s The Resurrection of God Incarnate. The books falls into three main parts corresponding to three kinds of evidence regarding the resurrection of Jesus: (I) general background evidence; (II) prior historical evidence; and (III) posterior historical evidence. Part I outlines principles for weighing evidence, God’s purposes in divine-human incarnation, and the salient indicators of an incarnate God. Part II examines the following: available historical sources regarding Jesus; the life and moral teaching of Jesus; the teaching of Jesus about his divinity; the teaching of Jesus about divine atonement for humans; and the teaching of Jesus regarding the church he founded. Part III offers an assessment of the following: the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to some of his followers; the empty tomb of Jesus and the emergence of Sunday as a day of worship; competing theories of what happened to Jesus; and the purposes of the resurrection of Jesus. Swinburne’s main conclusion is that “if the background evidence leaves it not too improbable that there is a God likely to act [in a particular way that seeks divine-human atonement], then the total evidence makes it very probable that Jesus was God incarnate who rose from the dead” (p. 203). An appendix to the book seeks to establish this conclusion via ascription of numerical values to the relevant probabilities.
Swinburne focuses on “the core physical element” of the resurrection of Jesus: that is, Jesus was dead for about 36 hours and then came to life again in his changed old, crucified body. This is, in the traditional Christian understanding, not only a violation of natural laws but also a case of God’s interfering with natural laws in order to give the divine signature of approval to the person, teaching, and sacrificial death of Jesus. If it’s improbable that there is a God capable of resurrecting Jesus, then it’s also improbable that Jesus was resurrected. For purposes of this book, Swinburne assumes that the generally available evidence of natural theology (e.g., that there is a universe, that the universe exhibits simple natural laws, that these laws and the initial conditions of the universe gave rise to the evolution of human bodies, and so on) makes it “as probable as not” that God exists. Citing his book The Existence of God, rev. ed. (Oxford University Press, 1991), Swinburne deems this assumption “moderate” and “modest” (pp. 31, 211), although many readers will balk at this point. The conclusions of natural theology are still widely controversial. For instance, Swinburne’s key assumption regarding the “simplicity” of his theistic hypothesis invites doubt in many quarters.
Another balking point for many readers will be Swinburne’s assumption that “... if there is a God (and there are humans who sin and suffer), it is quite probable that he would become incarnate (at some time or other)” (p. 211). Many readers will even balk at Swinburne’s weaker assumption that it is “as probable as not” that God would become incarnate (p. 50). They will find little, if any, basis for ascribing firm probabilities here. Indeed, agnosticism about such probabilities seems widespread, at least if we take people at their word. Swinburne owes readers considerably more argument here.
Swinburne proposes three main purposes in God’s becoming incarnate: to make available to sinful humans a means of reconciliation to God by God’s atoning for our sin (that is, “the life of God incarnate is to be available for us to offer back to God as our atonement” (p. 43)); to identify with us in our suffering in order to show us how much He loves us (p. 45); and to demonstrate and teach us how to live and to encourage us in living (p. 49). Such divine incarnation, according to Swinburne, must be “divided”; that is, God must be able to act simultaneously with a divine nature, whereby divine things are done, and a human nature, whereby human things are done without awareness of being divine (p. 52). This assumption, conveniently, fits with the affirmation of the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon.
Swinburne proposes that “it would be wrong of God to become incarnate in such a way as to be capable of doing wrong” (p. 49). He thus claims, with regard to the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, that “we can be tempted to do things to which there is not the slightest possibility of our yielding.... If Jesus was God, any temptation to do wrong must be of this kind” (p. 111). This invites problems. First, it conflicts with Swinburne’s own assumption that divinity essentially entails being “perfectly free” and God’s incarnation would not relinquish divinity. Jesus would not be “perfectly free” if he were incapable of doing wrong. Second, if Jesus were incapable of doing wrong, he would not be praiseworthy at all in resisting the temptations in the wilderness. The New Testament, however, puts Jesus forth as praiseworthy in resisting temptations in being “tempted as we are” (cf. Heb. 4:14-15). Third, it’s unclear how Swinburne’s understanding of Jesus’s temptation fits with his remark that “people only ever have a temptation to choose the bad, because they desire it” (p. 94). It seems problematic at best to hold that Jesus, while being morally impeccable, desired (to choose) the bad. Swinburne’s portrait of incarnation, in any case, robs Jesus’s temptations of their decisive significance. It involves, from God’s perspective, a morally dubious kind of pretense: God knows that Jesus cannot yield to temptation, but He puts Jesus forth nonetheless to give the appearance of a genuine struggle of Jesus with temptation. This rings of morally objectionable pretense. It has no place in the incarnation of a God who does not stoop to pretense or deception. Incidentally, Swinburne himself makes much of the truth that a morally impeccable God would not be deceptive (cf. pp. 63, 214).
If God is to become incarnate among humans, according to Swinburne, God’s incarnate life must satisfy five “prior” requirements. God’s incarnate life must include: (a) a perfect human life wherein God provides healing to humans; (b) the teaching of deep theological and moral truths; ( c) the manifestation of self-consciousness that God is here incarnate; (d) the teaching that this incarnate life provides atonement for human sin; and (e) the founding a church that preserves and promotes the teaching and work of God incarnate (p. 59). Swinburne contends that if we leave aside Jesus, “there is no known serious candidate in all human history for satisfying even most of the prior requirements for being God incarnate” (p. 61). He notes that, unlike Jesus, neither Moses nor Muhammad nor the Buddha claimed to provide an atonement for human sin. In addition, Swinburne devotes chapters 4-8 to showing that Jesus does satisfy the five prior requirements.
The case for God incarnate in Jesus, according to Swinburne, is not thereby settled. He observes that “it is possible (though not, of course, in my view, probable) that there is no God,” and infers that we must “take seriously” the possibility that someone satisfies the five prior requirements but fails to be God. This inference is unpersuasive, however, especially if the mere possibility that God does not exist need not be “taken seriously.” It’s unclear when, in Swinburne’s account, mere possibilities must be “taken seriously.” He might have said that possibilities should be taken seriously only when they enjoy a certain kind of evidence. Perhaps he should say that since, for the sake of argument, he has assumed that atheism is as probable as not, he will take seriously the possibility that God does not exist. This would be a more plausible strategy than the aforementioned inference. At any rate, Swinburne concludes that God must give us evidence beyond the five prior requirements. God must, in particular, give His divine signature of approval to the incarnate life in a way that could be given only by God Himself. Enter, then, the “posterior” requirement of the “super-miracle” known as the resurrection.
Swinburne contends, in chapters 9-12, that Jesus meets the posterior requirement of being raised from the dead by God Himself. The New Testament reports about the resurrection appearances of Jesus exhibit differences, but, according to Swinburne, “the differences are certainly not substantial enough to cast doubt on the basic story” (p. 148). In addition, Swinburne concludes that the earliest disciples of Jesus believed that the tomb of the crucified Jesus was empty on Easter Sunday (p. 163). The bodily resurrection of Jesus, in Swinburne’s view, would be the kind of signature of approval God would need to put on His incarnate life, upon becoming incarnate. Regarding the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus found in the New Testament, Swinburne finds that it “is the sort of evidence (not too much of it, but of the right kind) we would expect to have if there was such a super-miracle” (p. 212). He thus concludes: “... the coincidence of there being significant evidence for a super-miracle [viz., the bodily resurrection] connected with the life of the only prophet [viz., Jesus] for whom there is significant evidence that he satisfies the prior requirements for being God incarnate would also have been very improbable unless God brought it about” (p. 202). Finally, then: “... the total evidence makes it very probable that Jesus was God incarnate who rose from the dead” (p. 203).
Three troublesome assumptions of Swinburne’s merit attention. First, he assumes that the following “principle of testimony” is true: “we should believe what others tell us that they have done or perceived – in the absence of counter-evidence” (pp. 12-13). This principle enables Swinburne to recommend that we should believe much of the testimony in the New Testament regarding the life and teaching of Jesus. Quite aside from the matter of the reliability of New Testament reports about Jesus, Swinburne’s principle of testimony is at best dubious. If a person is not in a position to know or to believe with justifying evidence what he or she is reporting, then we should not believe, on the basis of that person’s report, what that person reports to us, even in the absence of counter-evidence. The mere fact that a person reports something in the absence of counter-evidence does not entail that we should believe what is being reported. The person reporting information must be in a position to know or to believe with justifying evidence the information in question. Otherwise, we may have a mere report of information, and not a report that confers epistemic status on the information reported. Swinburne’s use of testimonial information from the New Testament must be accompanied, then, with argument that the reporters were genuinely in a position to know or to believe with justifying evidence what they reported. This is a significant gap in Swinburne’s case. It results from his reliance on the dubious principle of testimony.
Second, Swinburne assumes that divine incarnation must involve evidence that preserves a kind of “epistemic distance from God which we need for free will and responsibility” (p. 50). This entails that the evidence for divine incarnation must not be too clear, or “obvious.” Swinburne assumes further:
... humans have two natural desires: to be thought well of by the good and the great; and to go on living good lives for ever.... Given those desires, inevitably if the presence of God were known for certain, that would make choice between good and evil impossible (p. 36; cf. p. 172).
It’s less than obvious that humans have the two natural desires in question. I, for one, know a number of people who definitely do not have the desires in question, and they do not seem to be missing anything “natural.” It’s even more questionable whether human freedom and morality would be undermined by our knowing “for certain” that God exists. A person can know for certain that God exists but freely choose to go against God’s ways. Some people have even testified to this reality in their own lives. We don’t, then, need to have uncertainty about God’s existence to pursue immorality freely. Of course an all-powerful could choose to do things that would extinguish human freedom, but conclusive, or certain, knowledge of God’s reality would not necessarily have this result. The case of Moses, for example, seems to illustrate this point. Swinburne, at any rate, has given us no compelling reason to think that certain knowledge of God’s reality would undermine human freedom regarding moral decision-making. At a minimum, the probabilistic evidence for divine incarnation could be much more accessible and transparent than it actually is without extinguishing human freedom. Swinburne needs to explain why this is so.
Third, Swinburne assumes that a compelling account of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus can make do without acknowledgment of the role of God’s Spirit in testifying to believers regarding the resurrection. Thus, Swinburne overlooks the cognitive role of the Holy Spirit in belief in the resurrection. This goes against the grain of New Testament teaching, according to which the God who raised Jesus goes beyond divine revelation as the imparting of information and experience. This God, according to various New Testament writers, offers a distinctive kind of evidence of divine reality and the lordship of Jesus, a kind of evidence widely overlooked in philosophical and theological discussions of God’s reality. The evidence is the imparting of God’s Spirit to humans. Such evidence is reported widely in the Jewish-Christian scriptures, and receives special acknowledgment in the letters of the apostle Paul. It calls for attention in religious epistemology to the human conditions for receiving the Spirit of an all-loving God.
In Romans 5:5, Paul writes: “... hope [in God] does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (NASB). Through the Holy Spirit given to us, our hearts (that is, our innermost centers) receive the love of God and are thereby changed from being selfish to receiving God’s unselfish love. Paul’s insight bears on our available evidence of God’s reality and the lordship of Jesus. Our hope in God has a cognitive anchor in God’s giving His Holy Spirit to us, whereby God’s love changes our hearts toward the character of divine love. Paul expresses a similar insight in 2 Corinthians 1:21 in referring to the God who “has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (RSV). The Spirit given to human hearts guarantees, as a down payment, that God will complete the work of transformation begun in those hearts. Such transformation is by God’s indwelling Spirit is salient evidence of God’s reality.
The Spirit of God brings new power to a person, and this power is felt by its recipient and is even observable by others. It can be observed by someone looking for the power of unselfish love in a life. This power is from God’s indwelling Spirit, the Spirit whereby Jesus was raised from the dead. So, belief in the resurrection is compelling, cognitively, because the Spirit responsible for the resurrection of Jesus is received and experienced by people open to God’s Spirit. This Spirit empowers people to love as God loves, even in the self-giving way exemplified by Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. Evidence of God’s reality and the lordship of Jesus arises from the power of divine self-giving love present in a human life. Our appropriating such evidence firsthand calls for our welcoming and being moved by such power. Eduard Schweizer has thus characterized the Spirit of God, in Paul’s writings, as “... the power which involves [a person] in the saving act of God in Christ, ... and lays him open to a life of love (agape)” (“Pneuma,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6, eds. G. Kittel and G. Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-76)). So, resurrection belief depends, for its persuasiveness, on one’s becoming “involved in the saving act of God in Christ” by means of the Spirit responsible for that saving act. Swinburne’s account omits this central New Testament teaching.
We may easily overlook the power and evidence of God’s Spirit if we are looking for a kind of power or evidence foreign to an all-loving God. Indeed, the power of God’s Spirit may even seem to be foolish pseudo-power to people out of tune with an all-loving God. To know God aright is to be volitionally united with God in the power of God’s Spirit, and this is to be united, in love, on the cross with God’s crucified and risen Son. Schweizer thus remarks:
At the very place where Paul writes about the demonstration of the Spirit and of power, he states he has nothing to preach but the Crucified [Jesus], which is a stumbling-block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23, 2:2). Thus the power of the Spirit is demonstrated precisely where normally nothing is to be seen but failure and disintegration. What no eye has seen nor ear heard God has revealed to his own through the Spirit which “searches everything, even the depths of God”: salvation in the Crucified [Jesus].... Thus it is above all the Spirit that reveals ... that the “power of God” is to be found in the Crucified [Jesus] (2 Cor. 13:4; cf. 12:10) ( “On Distinguishing Between Spirits,” Ecumenical Review 41 (1989), 411).
Evidence of the divine Spirit’s presence, then, involves a kind of manifested power foreign to natural expectations. This is the power of self-giving love, as manifested in the crucified and risen Jesus and in his true followers. The Spirit of God is thus the Spirit of Jesus, the one who gave his life in self-giving, servant love.
God’s Spirit, according to Paul’s writings, reveals God and our relationship with God. In 1 Corinthians 2:12, Paul remarks that “... we have received ... the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God” (NASB; italics added). Only the Spirit of God knows the things of God; so, ultimately, only the Spirit of God can reveal God to us. Paul thus concludes that we are given the Spirit of God in order to know God and God’s ways of self-giving love. By giving his Spirit, God shares himself and knowledge of himself with others. In Romans 8, Paul comments that “... you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”, it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God....” (Rom. 8:15-16, RSV; cf. Gal. 4:6-7). God’s Spirit thus confirms to an individual’s spirit that he or she is a child of God, a child called to filial relationship with God. The same Spirit testifies to Jesus as the risen Lord.
The Jewish-Christian God is inherently personal. So, the personal Spirit of God is the best source, including the most direct source, to confirm God’s reality and our standing before God. Indeed, given God’s being inherently personal, God’s personal Spirit is the only self-authenticating source of evidence of God’s reality. If God’s own personal Spirit cannot authenticate God’s reality for us creatures, then nothing else can either. Certainly nothing other than God can. In picking something other than God to authenticate God’s reality, we can always plausibly ask: What is the cognitively reliable connection between that thing and God’s reality? This question will leave an opening to doubt the authenticity of the supposed witness to God’s reality. So, God’s Spirit authenticates God’s reality directly, with unsurpassable authority and in agreement with God’s character of love. This kind of cognitive inspiration yields knowledge of God and of Jesus as risen Lord, according to the New Testament. If we omit this theme, we overlook a central theme of the New Testament good news: the news that the resurrection of Jesus includes the availability of God’s Spirit to people here and now, and that this Spirit supplies the cognitive foundation for knowledge that Jesus is the risen Lord of Heaven and Earth.