April 08, 2010

Easter and Philosophy

APOLOGIA By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, April 8, 2010)

Easter and Philosophy
“After his suffering, he showed himself to [the apostles] and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1: 3)

The traditional Easter gospel or good news is this: God (God the Son) came to Earth in the man Jesus; Jesus took our punishment for sin onto Himself by suffering and dying on a cross; then God (the Father) raised Jesus from the grave (tomb), thereby defeating death. Jesus' resurrection, that is, His return to life in the same physical body but somehow wonderfully renewed, is said to be a glorious sign, which, with the help of God (the Holy Spirit), allows us to believe (accept by faith) the good news of God’s forgiveness, love, and justice—news we are called to proclaim and put into practice.

Of course, this raises the question: Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus actually resurrected? I am convinced that the answer is yes, so I encourage readers to check out the New Testament along with the many good books that set out the relevant evidence gleaned from the New Testament and elsewhere, books such as Lee Strobel’s The Case for Easter and William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith and On Guard.

But not everyone is convinced of the historical occurrence of Jesus’ resurrection. Indeed, many critics attempt to derail the direction the evidence points by setting out alternative non-resurrection explanations—such as Jesus didn't really die, the witnesses hallucinated, a conspiracy occurred, or it's all legend. Significantly, as Strobel and Craig rightly argue, such alternative explanations are weak.

Strobel’s and Craig’s arguments are worthy of study, but I won’t rehash them here. Nevertheless, as a philosopher, I think it’s important to point out that many contemporary non-resurrection explanations tend to be set forth primarily because of a philosophical reason.

How so? It turns out that many contemporary resurrection critics have been infected by a skeptical philosophical view that has been transmitted to us from the Scottish philosopher David Hume.

If your son or daughter goes to university today and takes an introductory philosophy class, he or she will probably run into David Hume. Well, not David Hume in person, but a philosophy professor who is a kindred spirit.

Hume lived from 1711 to 1776. He is famous, rather notorious, for, among other things, his argument against miracles. According to Hume, no matter how good the historical evidence is for a miracle such as Jesus' resurrection—even if the miracle actually occurred—the evidence is never good enough.

Hume argues that a miracle is a violation of a law of nature and that the laws of nature are very well established. The result, according to Hume, is that a miracle's occurrence is maximally improbable, and this maximal improbability counts against any good testimony for a miracle, either balancing the testimony (thereby providing grounds to suspend belief) or outweighing it (thereby providing grounds for disbelief). In reality, Hume thinks the latter is the case. Either way, Hume would have us dismiss miracle testimonies as unreasonable to believe.

Having studied Hume's argument for my master's thesis in philosophy at the University of Windsor and for my PhD dissertation in philosophy at the University of Waterloo, I have come to conclude that Hume's argument fails.

His argument fails because it commits the fallacy of question-begging. It "begs the question" in the sense that it engages in circular reasoning: it assumes as proven that which is at issue, and it sneaks the conclusion into the premises.

As mentioned, Hume takes the violation-of-law-of-nature aspect of a miracle to be sufficient grounds for counting the violated laws of nature wholly and destructively against miracle testimony—to judge the miracle to be maximally improbable.

Interestingly, in the case of Jesus' resurrection, such an event is maximally improbable, given the laws of nature and given that there is no intervention from outside the physical system.

Significantly, this brings to light the fact that Hume makes the assumption that to make a probability judgment all that is needed is our knowledge of the relevant laws of nature.

But, it should be emphasized, we are supposedly talking about a miraculous resurrection (as suggested by the evidence), and so, although we are given the laws of nature, we are not given that there is no intervention from outside the system.

So in assuming that all that is needed is our knowledge of the relevant laws of nature and nothing about any possible intervention from outside of nature, Hume is, in effect, assuming that either God does not exist (and so God never intervenes via miracles) or, if God does exist, God's intentions concerning nature are shown to us wholly by the laws of nature (and so God never intervenes via miracles).

But if, as Hume assumes for the sake of argument, there is good evidence for what seems very much to be a miracle—Hume even allows it to be a real miracle—then Hume's assumption about the background knowledge is at issue.

In other words, in order for Hume's argument to work, it requires the assumption that the laws of nature express either all of the goings-on of a universe without God or, if God exists, all of God's intentions concerning the universe. But the truth of this assumption must be put on hold when a miracle (whether actual or alleged) is supposed to be under investigation.

Indeed, for one's mind to be actually open to the possibility of the occurrence of an occasional real miracle—a possibility Hume allows, at least for the sake of argument—requires that the assumption Hume makes be suspended—at least when one is purportedly investigating the evidence for a miracle.

In other words, Hume's argument works only if we assume that there is no God who on rare occasions intervenes in nature, but this assumption is at issue when we are considering any alleged evidence for miracles.

Thus, by assuming the above-described background knowledge, Hume mistakenly begs the question which only the (alleged) miracle evidence can answer.

Hume's mind is already made up, then, and not open to what the evidence suggests.

The philosophical upshot is that if your mind is not already closed to the possibility of a God who occasionally does a miracle, that is, if your mind is open to the possibility of God's existence and the possibility of this God intervening in nature, then the facts surrounding Jesus' alleged resurrection may make a miraculous resurrection explanation plausible, and even reasonable to believe.

Easter—it’s truly good news because it’s grounded in reality.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)


poetreehugger said...

"Jesus' resurrection ... is said to be a glorious sign, which, with the help of God (the Holy Spirit), allows us to believe (accept by faith) the good news of God’s forgiveness, love, and justice..."
I have a question. Are you saying that our belief is helped by God?
That sounds reasonable, but I'm concerned with what this implies about the unbelieving or not-yet-believing person, where the responsibility lies for unbelief in those people who just cannot believe, for some reason beyond their control.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello “poetreehugger,”

I think that God is involved in our coming to belief (at least) in the following ways: He woos us by revealing Himself and His love for us (through the creation, i.e., its beauty and design, but especially through Jesus’ life, His suffering on our behalf, and His physical resurrection), plus God draws near to us when we draw near to Him. My experience has been that when I was actually willing to obey God if God exists, it was then that I began to take evidence for God seriously, and it was then that I began to grow in my knowledge of God. In retrospect, I believe that I had a choice in the matter yet, also, God was somehow intimately involved. So I give thanks to God. (In the hereafter, if it still is of interest, I will ask God to explain the relationship between human freedom and God’s sovereignty. In the meantime, I think that we’re called to share the Gospel and do apologetics as if people have the freedom to accept or reject what they hear.)

Whether or not there are people “who just cannot believe, for some reason beyond their control” is a question that, it seems to me, only God can answer. If there are such people, I strongly suspect that God would not hold people responsible for what they are not responsible.

Thanks for your comment, “poetreehugger.” You’ve been a long-time reader of my blog—it’s good to hear from you. Also, I just took a look at your blog—I’ll be visiting more often.

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. V,

I hope you and your family had a meaningful Easter.

In a contemporary philosophy class I am just finishing up, I had the opportunity to read a work by a Spanish philosopher named Miguel de Unamuno (I admit I skimmed the text, I didn't read it).

Unamuno discusses, what he calls, the "tragic sense of life," and when asked to describe what "this tragic sense" is, one commentator says that "either you 'see' the essential human condition or you don't."

So far as I can tell, Unamuno's "solution" to this tragic sense is, in his own words, "the faith that Jesus did not stay dead," and then he notes how this faith is continued in the bread consumed as Eucharist. He finds Tertullian's claim helpful ("and he was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.").

This then leads into Unamuno's articulation of the relationship between faith and reason, and I am finally getting at my question:

Do you know of any good scholarly articles dealing with the believability of the "absurd" or the "impossible," and how that relates to a healthy understanding of reasonableness.

One of my favorite authors (Graham Greene) once wrote, "How often people speak of the absurdity of believing that life should exist by God's will on one minute part of the immense universe. There is a parallel absurdity we are asked to believe, that God chose a tiny colony of a Roman empire in which to be born. Strangely enough two absurdities are easier to believe than one."

At least poetically I find this compelling, and as Unamuno notes, the poet and philosopher are brothers.

So this is a bit of a ramble, but there is a question about three-quarters of the way down.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Kelly Wilson,

It’s good to hear from you—and thanks for your well wishes. Easter was great. My wife cooked a large turkey, and we had family and friends join in the feast. Easter is probably my favourite time of year (the combination of spring’s beginning and the remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection is most appropriate).

About Miguel de Unamuno: I haven’t read his work. But I will admit that (on the basis of your description of his work, a description I may not be understanding fully), I would agree with his tragic sense, but I would not, on this ground alone, make the move to faith that Jesus did not stay dead. It seems to me that more is needed to ground this faith. (For more on the evidential grounds for Jesus’ resurrection, look here.)

About your question of whether I know of any good scholarly articles dealing with the believability of the "absurd"/ "impossible" and how such believability relates to a “healthy understanding of reasonableness”: I don’t know of any such articles. Yes, I’ve been influenced heavily by analytic philosophy. Nevertheless, I think that the “absurd” or “impossible” cannot be believable let alone be understood at all—if we mean logically absurd and logically impossible. (A logical absurdity or impossibility is such because of its violation of the principle of non-contradiction, i.e., the principle that nothing can both be and not-be at the same time and in the same respect; e.g., that I am taller and shorter than my neighbour at the same time and in the same sense is logically absurd, it’s a violation of the principle of non-contradiction.) Of course, something may be “absurd” or “impossible” in a weaker sense as when the event in question, e.g., a miracle such as Jesus’ resurrection, goes against, say, what the laws of nature would predict given no intervention or special action by God. But this simply goes against our expectations given no intervention or special action by God, i.e., this is merely naturalistically impossible (i.e., impossible given naturalistic assumptions), not logically impossible. (For more on the principle of non-contradiction, look here.) Of course, our knowledge of whether the miraculous event occurred in history depends on evidence for it (either historical evidence or God's subjective revelation or some combination of both), not merely on its “absurdity.”

I hope that the above comments are helpful. God’s blessings to you and yours, Kelly.

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

It's hard for me to think that such people have a "logical" impossibility or absurdity in mind, since they ground their faith in such an 'absurd' or 'impossible' event that has really happened.

Such people are writing, in my view, in a poetic way, rather than in the way a logician would. Something more along the lines of a "you can't make this sort of thing up..."

Yet, some have less than optimistic views of reason (which in my mind creates a bit of a logical difficulty, since their 'reason' for believing something is its implausibility...), hence my question whether you were familiar with any writings on the matter.

I'll keep searching.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

I suspect (hope) that they are writing something more along the lines (as you say) "you can't make this sort of thing up," or maybe "it goes against the regular course of events and thus smacks of the supernatural," or maybe "it's contrary to our worldly expectations so it's of God." Let me know what you find.

Anonymous said...

Can I comment on the remark of "poetreehugger" regarding belief? When a person comes to belief, the Holy Spirit is responsible for bringing them to that point.

As for what this means for people who do not beleive in the way that we do, I would like to quote Jacques Dupuis, SJ, who writes, "whereever there is genuine religious experience, it is surely the God revealed in Jesus Christ who thus enters into the lives of men and women, in a hidden, secret fashion." This hinges on the "genuineness" of the religious experience.

But I think we can go further than that. Someone like Karl Rahner (alas, another Jesuit...) talks about the human person's freedom, and how this freedom makes God the object of choice. Upon death, the "yes" or the "no" we have offered to God in our lives becomes definitive. The important thing to remember is that the "yes" or "no" is not determined by assent to propositions (that's not to say truth doesn't matter...), but rather by love. Rahner questions how many people really reject God by not assenting to propositions about him, and Rahner suggests, and these are his own words, "the explicit love of neighbor is the primary act of the love of God." The act of love most fully embodies our "yes" or "no" to God, even if we are not fully aware of the ramifications of such love (parallel this with the Parable of the Last Judgment in Matt. 25). But, as Rahner notes, the way we treat our neighbohr is not itself the determining factor, but rather what motivates us to such love is. For example, if I give 100 millions dollars to a hospital because I want a statue of myself on the lawn, I haven't said "yes" to God.

Anyways, this gives hope to every person, including those who, for a variety of reasons, haven't come to know about Jesus explictly.

The articulation of either Dupuis or Rahner is not perfect, but they point in the right direction.

poetreehugger said...

Thank you, Dr. V, for the encouraging words, encouraging because they do seem to me to echo what Christ's message was/is. I especially like "He woos us by revealing Himself and His love for us", and it is helpful to keep this in mind when in prayer for anyone I am concerned about, that they may be drawn by God's love. It's a bit of a contrast to the "say you believe in Jesus so you don't go to hell" approach which I still hear a lot of people adhering to.

Thank you, kellyjwilson, for your words also. "...the "yes" or "no" is not determined by assent to propositions... but rather by love"- that does sound to me like what a God Who defines Himself as "love" would be about. I will be rereading your quotations as I continue to mull over this question.

Both these answering comments, I find, are both encouraging and frightening: encouraging to me on behalf of those who do not yet (seem to) believe, and frightening because if the act of love is the best embodiment of our "yes" or "no" to God, I need to be more careful to reflect or live out the love I have received.

I also "give thanks to God", for what I have received, humbly ask to receive more, and continue to be concerned and sad and praying about those who do not yet believe or have lost their faith.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

For some additional discussion on topics related to the above conversation, see Kelly Wilson's blog entry titled The Real Litmus Test.

Unknown said...

Okay, so you've covered two ends of the spectrum: those who believe were helped by God to believe; those who don't have simply not recognized God's wooing. There is a missing category here, however: what about those who have had "genuine" religious experiences but can no longer believe? People who have fallen away from the faith but are beatific in their love and magnanimity for others? Someone like, say, Bart D. Ehrman? Or Karen Armstrong?

Hendrik van der Breggen said...


I think that some people resist God even after they've gotten to know Him. I include myself in this category, though I haven't resisted to the point of disbelief. But I have a friend who has resisted to the point of disbelief (or at least he claims disbelief), and he displays a lot of love of others in his life. I trust that God loves my friend -- and Bart Ehrman and Karen Armstrong -- but some things are deeply personal and beyond me. I think it's wise to leave it up to God to determine where their hearts are at.

Nevertheless, I can say this about my friend's arguments: His reasons for rejecting God aren't good from the point of view of evidence and good reasoning. Also, I think we can say this about Bart Ehrman's reasoning: He has succumbed to David Hume's argument against reasonable belief in miracle reports, an argument that's weak philosophically, an argument I know well because it's been the focus of my academic work. (For more on Ehrman's case against belief, see the debate between Ehrman and William Lane Craig, Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?; see too Timothy Paul Jones' book Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus.)

I haven't studied Karen Armstrong's work yet, so I won't say anything here other than this: If she truly is, as you say, "beatific in [her] love and magnanimity for others," then that's good.

Best regards,

poetreehugger said...

Abou Ben Adhem,
by James Henry Leigh Hunt(1784–1859)

ABOU BEN ADHEM (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw—within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich and like a lily in bloom—
An angel, writing in a book of gold.
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’—The vision raised its head,
And, with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said, ‘I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.’

The angel wrote and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Dear Poetreehugger,

Thanks for the poem -- I like it a lot. Having said this, I still think it's important to keep in mind that Jesus made reference to the two greatest commands, the first of which is to love God, and the second of which is to love our fellow human beings. Love for people is super important, to be sure, but there is yet a greater love: love for God. I know that the commands are interconnected. Nevertheless, I think it's important to realize that one is more important. I suppose it's possible to commit idolatry when the order of the commands is reversed. Of course, God will be the judge of who actually loves properly.

Best regards,

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Dear readers of Apologia,

Here is a book that provides some interesting insights into some of the roots of unbelief (of the atheistic sort), insights that arise from psychology, ethics, and Scripture: James S. Spiegel's The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief.


Hendrik van der Breggen said...

An afterthought: In our wondering about how God works in His judgments of our hearts and the hearts of others, we shouldn't lose sight of the good evidence for Jesus' resurrection and the fact that it provides historical grounds -- a sign -- for taking Jesus' claims about metaphysics seriously. It seems to me that the Gospel story is a major part of this metaphysics.

poetreehugger said...

I am already firmly convinced to take anything Jesus says seriously. What do you see as being his claims about metaphysics?

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello Poetreehugger,

Jesus' claims about metaphysics would involve all that He says (directly or by implication) about God and spiritual reality (e.g., His Jewish theistic worldview), which also includes the Gospel message. (For more on Jesus' metaphysics, see chapter 4 of Douglas Groothuis's book On Jesus.)

The point of my afterthought is that the historical evidence of Jesus' resurrection serves as a sign that points to the truth of the Gospel (hopefully to be accepted by faith) even if the one who is investigating the evidence for the sign is not (yet) convinced of the truth of the Gospel.

Best regards,