March 27, 2016

Easter Thoughts

Filed under: Life,Philosophy,Philosophy of Religion — camcintosh @ 6:20 pm

Christianity, unlike most other religions, is a religion grounded in a particular historical event that either did or did not happen. That event—resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—is susceptible to historical investigation just like any other. Attempts to place the resurrection beyond the reach of falsification by taking it out of the messy, gritty realm of concrete, objective, investigable fact and putting it into the “safer” realm of subjective, spiritual, internal experience is dishonest in the extreme.

If Jesus didn’t actually come back to life with a body that could be poked and prodded by skeptics or embraced and kissed by friends, I don’t give a damn what heart-warming lessons can be drawn from the story. But if he did, nothing else could have more profound existential ramifications. The following passage from Wright’s magisterial book on the resurrection is worth quoting at length:

The early Christians saw Jesus’ resurrection as the action of the creator god to reaffirm the essential goodness of creation and, in an initial and representative act of new creation, to establish a bridgehead within the present world of space, time and matter through which the whole new creation could now come to birth. Calling Jesus ‘son of god’ within this context of meaning, they constituted themselves by implication as a collection of rebel cells within Caesar’s empire, loyal to a different monarch, a different kyrios. Saying ‘Jesus has been raised from the dead’ proved to be self-involving in that it gained its meaning within this counter-­imperial worldview. The Sadducees were right to regard the doctrine of resurrection, and especially its announcement in relation to Jesus, as political dynamite.

Once again we must not confuse ‘meaning’ in this sense with ‘referent’. Just as ‘Jesus has been raised from the dead’ does not refer to the fact that ‘my sins have been forgiven’, even though it means that within its wider world of implication, so that same sentence does not refer to the fact that the true god disapproves of brutal tyranny, even though it means that. Some recent books, eager to bring out the political implications of the resurrection, have allowed this political ‘meaning’ to take over entirely, and have supposed that this argument is strengthened by suggesting that nothing much happened on the third day after Jesus’ death. Get rid of the original referent, and (so it appears) you allow the implication to take its place. But this misses the point the early Christians were eager to make, the point that brought them quickly into confrontation with the authorities both Jewish and pagan. To imply that Jesus ‘went to heaven when he died’, or that he is now simply a spiritual presence, and to suppose that such ideas exhaust the referential meaning of ‘Jesus was raised from the dead’, is to miss the point, to cut the nerve of the social, cultural and political critique. Death is the ultimate weapon of the tyrant; resurrection does not make a covenant with death, it overthrows it. The resurrection, in the full Jewish and early Christian sense, is the ultimate affirmation that creation matters, that embodied human beings matter. That is why resurrection has always had an inescapable political meaning; that is why the Sadducees in the first century, and the Enlightenment in our own day, have opposed it so strongly. No tyrant is threatened by Jesus going to heaven, leaving his body in a tomb. No governments face the authentic Christian challenge when the church’s social preaching tries to base itself on Jesus’ teaching, detached from the central and energizing fact of his resurrection (or when, for that matter, the resurrection is affirmed simply as an example of a supernatural ‘happy ending’ which guarantees post-mortem bliss).

…The resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true sovereign, the ‘son of god’ who claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation. He is the start of the creator’s new world: its pilot project, indeed its pilot.[1]

That being said, as a Christian doing graduate work in philosophy, I often wonder what non-Christian philosophers would make of arguments for the resurrection, whether the historiographical treatments of Wright[2] and Licona[3] or the more philosophically rigorous formulations of Swinburne[4] and the McGrews[5], especially in light of how the standard Humean objection to miracles has been shown to be demonstrably fallacious.[6] Philosophers read and think about stuff all the time. It is their job, after all. Given the monumental significance of the resurrection, if true, don’t non-Christian philosophers owe it to themselves to read at least a few good books on the topic, and to devote some honest thought to how good of a case there is for it?[7] Some have done that, to be sure. But they are few. Most non-Christian philosophers are, I imagine, blissfully unaware that serious arguments for the resurrection even exist. But I suppose their lot is understandable. They’re no doubt too busy tackling the really important questions, like whether the principle of substitutivity of identiticals holds when substituting codesignators within the scope of temporal and modal operators.

[1] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), p. 729-731.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP, 2010).
[4] Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford, 2003).
[5] Timothy and Lydia McGrew, “The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth,” in Craig and Moreland (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp. 593-662.
[6]  Even by non-Christian philosophers. E.g., John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (Oxford, 2000).
[7]  In addition to the aforementioned works, see here for other excellent treatments of the case for the resurrection.



  1. “…don’t non-Christian philosophers owe it to themselves to read at least few good books on the topic, and to devote some honest thought to how good of a case there is for it?”
    Perhaps not. Presumably, if they’re academic philosophers interested in philosophy of religion and they are an atheist, chances are they have reasons to think that there is no God who would cause a resurrection for the reasons offered by Christianity. Thus given that background belief (and a host of other along the lines of naturalism), a resurrection as described in the Bible is a nonstarter.

    Comment by Bruce W. — March 27, 2016 @ 8:08 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the comment, Bruce. But isn’t that just the old fallacious Humean line? Even if some hypothesis h (e.g., a miracle claim) has an extraordinarily low prior probability (on certain background beliefs) it doesn’t follow that h will have an insuperably low posterior probability (i.e., be a “nonstarter”) given a sufficiently good body of evidence for it. It may even be that the posterior probability of h is so great, given the evidence, that it strongly disconfirms the background beliefs on which h had a low prior probability.

      Now assume h is a hypothesis that, if true, has monumental existential significance. Even a philosopher who has good reasons for thinking h has a low prior probability may owe it to himself to look at what has been offered as evidence that raises the posterior probability of h to the level of live hypotheses.

      Comment by camcintosh — March 27, 2016 @ 9:57 pm | Reply

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