bookmark_borderSwinburne’s Case for God – Part 1

Richard Swinburne’s case for God can be broken down into five phases:

I.  The Coherence of Theism
II.  The Nature of the Universe as Evidence for God
III. The Nature of Human Life as Evidence for God
IV.  Religious Experience as Evidence for God
V.  The Life of Jesus as Evidence for God

Phase I is presented in Swinburne’s book The Coherence of Theism (revised edition, hereafter: COT).  He argues that the assertion ‘God exists’ makes a coherent and contingent factual claim.  If he is correct, then the question ‘Does God exist?’ cannot be answered by logic and conceptual analysis alone; one must make use of empirical evidence in order to rationally determine an answer to this question. 

According to Swinburne, the assertion ‘God exists’ does not make a logically self-contradictory claim (so this claim is not a logically necessary falsehood), nor is it a logically necessary claim (it is not a logically necessary truth that ‘God exists’).  It is logically possible that ‘God exists’ is true, and also logically possible that ‘God exists’ is false.

Swinburne believes he has shown that the concept of ‘a contingent God’ is coherent. That is to say, if we conceive of God with the various traditional attributes other than ‘necessary being’, then Swinburne thinks he has provided good reason to believe that the assertion that ‘God exists’ makes a coherent statement:

The argument in Part II [Chapters 7-12] has been that it is coherent to suppose that there exists eternally an omnipresent spirit, perfectly free, the creator of the universe, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and a source of moral obligation—so long as ‘omnipotent’ and ‘omniscient’ are understood in somewhat restricted senses.
(COT, p.241)

Swinburne constricts the concept of being ‘omnipotent’ a bit, but does more serious alteration to the concept of being ‘omniscient’. Roughly speaking, God has a difficult time knowing the future, because God is perfectly free, which means that what has happened in the past does not determine what choices God will make in the present. Since God is in control of everything (because of his omnipotence and omniscience), everything that happens involves God choosing to make it happen or at least to allow it to happen, so since God cannot predict his own future choices, God’s knowledge of future events is very limited. 

To the extent that human beings have free will, God is also not able to predict the choices humans will make.  God knows every fact there is to know about what exists now and what has occurred in the past, but that is not sufficient to infer the choices that will be made by perfectly free persons now, or by partially free persons (like humans), because the events of the past do not determine any choices made by perfectly free persons now, nor do they fully determine all choices made by partially free persons.

Swinburne, however, also thinks that traditional theism holds the view that God is a ‘necessary being’, and that it is not possible to give a direct proof that the assertion ‘God exists’ makes a coherent statement, if interpreted this way. On the other hand, if it is possible to give inductive evidence that confirms the existence of such a God, that, according to Swinburne, will give us good reason to believe that the assertion ‘God exists’, where ‘God’ is conceived of as a necessary being, makes a coherent claim:

If this claim of Part III [i.e. that God, conceived of as a necessary being, exists] is to be a coherent claim, the words in which it is expressed have to be taken in an analogous sense.  Given that the words are so taken, I was unable to prove in any direct way either that this claim was coherent or that it was incoherent.  However, I pointed out that there could be an indirect proof of coherence in so far as there was inductive evidence for the truth of what was claimed.
(COT, p.241)

More specifically, Swinburne modifies the meaning of the word ‘person’, stretching the meaning of this word in order to avoid the problem that in the case of ordinary persons, it is always coherent to suppose that a person can lose or gain power or knowledge while remaining the same person.  If God is to be conceived of as a necessary being, then, according to Swinburne, God must be an odd sort of person such that he cannot be coherently conceived of as losing power or knowledge (see COT, Chapter 14, especially p. 283-284).

Because Swinburne alters the meaning of the word ‘person’ and related concepts, he cannot directly prove that the assertion ‘God exists’ makes a coherent statement:

I cannot now myself prove either that the quoted statement [to the effect that God is a necessary being] is coherent or that it is incoherent.  The stretch of meaning of the words involved has left me without arguments of the normal kind for or against coherence. 
(COT, p.288)

In Chapter 3 of COT, Swinburne clarifies what he means by a ‘coherent statement’ (p.30-38), as well as how one goes about showing that some particular assertion makes a coherent statement (p.38-50).  After describing how to give direct arguments for an assertion making a coherent statement, he also describes how one can give an indirect argument for this:

So although I do not rule out the possibility of useful inductive arguments of other kinds to the coherence of statements, the only kind of inductive argument for which I see much future is one of the above kind from known factual premises p, to a non-analytic claim q, evidence for q‘s truth being evidence that q is coherent.  Such an argument I shall call an indirect argument for the coherence of q
(COT, p.49)

bookmark_borderMessianic Prophecy

Since The Secular Outpost is more focused on naturalism and atheism, and because I’m already making lots of posts here about the resurrection of Jesus, I’m continuing my critique of messianic prophecy on my own blog:

I plan to slowly work my way through the eight messianic prophecies discussed by Peter Stoner in his book Science Speaks.

Those who are interested in the topic should also check out Jim Lippard’s critique of messianic prophecy on The Secular Web:

bookmark_borderArgument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 17

A quick review of previous posts on this topic…

Parts 7-10 discuss the first lemma of a dilemma argument.
The first lemma is based on the supposition that JAW is not the case.

JAW = Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday.

Part 11 (December 17th) summarizes the previous discussion of the first lemma.

I argued that if this basic Christian assumption is NOT the case, then the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is weak and we should conclude that the skeptical view of the resurrection is more probable than the Christian view.

Part 12 (December 23rd) begins the discussion of the second lemma, based on the supposition that JAW is true. I am attempting to show that even on the supposition of this key claim put forward by Christian apologists, the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead is still improbable.

Although I did not stick closely to my initial acronyms, the most recent posts (Parts 13-16) have been about the historical unreliability of the Fourth Gospel and the resulting reasonable doubts about two key claims:

DSW = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus received a deep spear wound to his chest (i.e. the tip of the spear penetrated at least 3” deep, measured perpendicular to the surface where the spear entered his chest).

HAF = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to a cross.

The probability of both of these claims rests in large measure on the historicity and reliability of the Doubting Thomas story in the Fourth Gospel.

Doubting the Doubting Thomas Story

Why doubt the Doubting Thomas story? There are three different kinds of considerations that support a skeptical view of the Doubting Thomas story.1. General Problems with the Gospels – including the Fourth Gospel
It was written by a Christian believer with the purpose of promoting Christian beliefs.
b. It was probably not written by an eyewitness.
c. It was composed decades after the crucifixion of Jesus.
d. It provides no attribution of specific stories or details to named and known eyewitnesses or sources.
e. It was written in Greek rather than Aramaic (the language Jesus and his disciples used).
f. It appears that the words and sayings of Jesus were preserved in oral traditions that failed to reliably preserve the original situations or contexts of those words and sayings, thus opening the door to misunderstanding, distortion, and corruption of the original meaning of Jesus’ words and teachings.
2. Particular Problems with the Fourth Gospel
The Fourth Gospel was probably the last of the canonical Gospels to be written; it was composed about 90 CE, six decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. Other things being equal, when the Fourth Gospel is inconsistent with the Synoptic Gospels, one should prefer the account or details of the earlier Gospels to that found in the Fourth Gospel.
b. Although the traditions used by the author of the Fourth Gospel probably came mostly from a Jerusalem-based disciple of Jesus (not one of the Twelve), the author was probably a disciple of that disciple, and thus not an eyewitness to the events in the Gospel.
c. The Fourth Gospel, unlike the synoptic Gospels, is a very unreliable source of the words and teachings of Jesus. The words and teachings of Jesus in this Gospel are significantly different from the words and teachings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, and they appear to be mostly theological reflections about Jesus from one early Christian community, rather than the words and teachings of the historical Jesus. This does not mean that there is no accurate historical information in the Fourth Gospel, but it does provide a good reason to be skeptical about the other historical details in this Gospel.
d. The Fourth Gospel appears to have gone through at least a couple of significant revisions over a period of several years, and the final revision probably was not made by the author.
e. There are also other significant inconsistencies between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels concerning the life and ministry of Jesus, besides the differences about the words and teachings of Jesus. For example, there are no exorcisms by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, while this is a central activity of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, and there is no Jewish trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, and this Gospel has Jesus crucified at noon instead of nine in the morning, and this Gospel has the crucifixion take place at the same day as the slaughter of the lambs for Passover, while the other Gospels imply that Passover took place the previous day (at the last supper), etc.

3. Specific Problems with the Doubting Thomas story
The first post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus to a gathering of his disciples probably took place in Galilee, as implied by Mark and Matthew, not in Jerusalem. If so, this implies that the Doubting Thomas story is either fictional or is unreliable in terms of historical details (e.g. of time and/or place).
b. No other Gospel corroborates the Doubting Thomas story, and even Luke (which has an Easter appearance of Jesus to his gathered disciples) contradicts the Fourth Gospel, because the Easter Sunday appearance is to the eleven remaining disciples (Luke 24:33-40), which would include Thomas, while the Fourth Gospel states that Thomas did not see the resurrected Jesus on Easter Sunday (John 20:24-25). Also, Luke says nothing about the Jesus having a wound in his side nor about the disciples seeing or touching a wound in his side. c. The skepticism of Thomas and of the other disciples about the resurrection of Jesus creates a dilemma for defenders of the resurrection: either the stories of doubting disciples persuaded by appearances of Jesus are fictional (created for apologetic purposes) or else the disciples of Jesus did not actually observe the alleged amazing nature miracles by Jesus (turning water into wine, walking on water, feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and a few fishes, calming a raging storm with a command, raising Lazarus from the dead, etc.). It is completely implausible to suppose that devout followers of Jesus would doubt his resurrection if they had previously seen the amazing miracles described in the Fourth Gospel (see The Atheist Debater’s Handbook, p.119-120). So, it is probable that either the nature miracle stories in the Fourth Gospel are fictional or else that the Doubting Thomas story is fictional. In either case, one has good reason to conclude that t
he details (at least) of the Doubting Thomas story are historically unreliable.
d. The historicity and reliability of the Doubting Thomas story depends in part on the historicity of the spear wound incident. There are various good reasons for doubting the historicity of the spear wound incident (e.g. it is inconsistent with the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels, and various details of the spear wound story are not corroborated by the Synoptic Gospels, plus the author of the Fourth Gospel sees the spear wound incident as a fulfillment of OT prophecy, so the event may have been generated by the prophecy).

For the above reasons, I doubt the Doubting Thomas story. It is probably a fictional story, and if there was an actual event concerning Thomas expressing doubt about the resurrection of Jesus, the details of that event have not been reliably preserved by the Fourth Gospel. Since this is the only passage in the Gospels that specifically mentions the use of nails in Jesus’ crucifixion, the evidence for HAF is very weak, and it is probable that HAF is false. Also, there is no mention of nail wounds in Jesus’ feet in the Doubting Thomas story, so it only provides (very weak) evidence of the use of nails to secure Jesus’ hands or arms to the cross, not evidence for the use of nails to secure his feet to the cross. Since we are supposing JAW to be true, JAW provides a powerful reason against the claim that Jesus feet were nailed to the cross, because someone who had his feet nailed to a cross on Friday would not be able to walk around unassisted on the following Sunday.

The Doubting Thomas story is one of only two passages (both in the Fourth Gospel) that provide evidence for Jesus being stabbed in the side with a spear while on the cross, so skepticism about the Doubting Thomas story also weakens the case for DSW.

INDEX of Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts: