(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.)