Philosophy of Religion and Christian Resurrection
Paul K. Moser
Loyola University of Chicago
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).
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.
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.
... 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).
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).
That said, wouldn't it be wonderful if conservative Christians would stop trying to prove that a dead man walked out of his grave 2,000 years ago with their weak historical "evidence", but would just admit that their supernatural beliefs are based on perceptions, feelings, and intuition, just as this Roman Catholic theologian suggests?