Most defenses of the resurrection of Jesus have focused on historical questions, for example:
Q1. Was Jesus crucified in Jerusalem by Roman soldiers around 30 C.E.?
Q2. Did Jesus die on the cross on the same day he was crucified?
Q3. Was Jesus buried in a stone tomb on the evening of the day he was crucified?
Q4. Was the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed found empty on Sunday morning, about 36 hours after his body was removed from the cross?
But the belief that Christians hold is not merely that some Jewish man died, remained dead for about 36 hours, and then came back to life. Christians believe that not only did this happen, but that it was a miracle. That is to say, Christians believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.
To establish this stronger claim, a defender of the resurrection belief must show that (a) it is likely that God exists, and also that (b) God would be likely to choose to bring Jesus back from the dead. These background beliefs are essential to showing the Christian belief in the resurrection to be true.
In The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford Univ. Press, 2003, hereafter: ROGI), Richard Swinburne points out the importance of these philosophical/theological background issues:
Clearly, if there is an omnipotent God, there is a God able to bring about a miracle such as the Resurrection of Jesus. I shall argue that, in so far as the evidence is against the claim that there is such a God, then the occurrence of such an event as the Resurrection is improbable. If the evidence suggests that there is such a God, then it will give some probability to the occurrence of such a miracle in so far as God has reason to bring about such an event. I shall argue that he does have such a reason.
(ROGI, p.2, emphasis added)
As with Swinburne’s other arguments for the existence of God, a critical role is played here by God’s perfect goodness and by the purposes and motivations of God that Swinburne infers from God’s perfect goodness. Swinburne argues that a perfectly good God would have good reasons to become incarnated as a human being:
…a perfectly good God who saw the sin and the suffering of the human race would want to do something about it. He would want to help us to know which actions are good and which are bad…so that we might do good actions and by living good lives could begin to form characters suited to enjoy him forever. He would want to help us to make atonement for our past sins in a serious way, And above all, if he has subjected us to suffering…for the sake of good purposes, he would nevertheless want to identity with our suffering by sharing in it….Any serious reflection on how a good creator God would react to a race of suffering and sinful creatures whom he has created must give considerable force to the claim that he must become incarnate.
So, God’s perfect goodness makes it somewhat probable, according to Swinburne, that God would become incarnate for the above purposes. Assuming that God were to become incarnate for these reasons, Swinburne argues for some criteria to identify a person who is God incarnate:
If God is to become incarnate in order to fulfil all the purposes for becoming incarnate listed in Chapter 2 [summarized in the above quote], we would expect his life to show these five marks. His life must be, as far as we can judge, a perfect human life in which he provides healing; he must teach deep moral and theological truths (ones, in so far as we can judge, plausibly true); he must show himself to believe that he is God incarnate; he must teach that his life provides an atonement for our sins; and he must found a church which continues his teaching and work.
Swinburne makes one more claim in order to tie these purposes and criteria to the Resurrection:
If God became incarnate as a prophet and lived such a life, he would need to put a divine signature on that life, to show his acceptance of any sacrifice, to confirm the prophet’s teaching and the teaching of the resulting Church, and thereby to confirm the divinity of the prophet. To raise from the dead the prophet killed for his work would be exactly the kind of super-miracle which would provide such a signature.
It is breathtaking how Swinburne infers so many very specific purposes and criteria that involve obviously Christian theological concepts from the meager abstract notion of God as a perfectly good person. Nevertheless, I think Swinburne’s approach to miracles and the resurrection is very insightful. I also believe that it opens up the Resurrection belief to a line of skeptical objections that can be added to the usual ones.
Some of the usual skeptical objections:
O1. If we assume that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified, and that he died about 36 hours prior to the first Easter sunrise, then the evidence for the claim that Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter is too weak and dubious to establish that Jesus died and then came back to life on that Easter morning.
O2. If we assume that Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter, then the evidence that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified about 36 hours before the first Easter sunrise is too weak and dubious to be used to establish that Jesus died and then came back to life on that Easter morning.
O3. The evidence on the existence of God makes it very unlikely that there was a God who existed and who could have raised Jesus from the dead.
To these usual suspicions we can add another objection that is based on Swinburne’s point that we need to take into account the purposes of God, given that God is a perfectly good person:
O4. If we assume that God exists, given the life and teachings of Jesus (as described in the canonical Gospels), God would be unlikely to have raised Jesus from the dead.
In the recent series of posts, I have argued that Jehovah was a sexist, and therefore Jehovah was a false god. Since Jesus taught his followers to worship Jehovah and pray to Jehovah, Jesus was a false prophet, and thus the life of Jesus is clearly NOT the sort of life that a perfectly good God would want to “put a divine signature on” and thus “confirm the prophet’s teaching” and “the divinity of the prophet”. It would be a great deception for God to perform the super-miracle of a resurrection on a false prophet who taught his followers to worship and pray to a false god.
So, based on the purposes and criteria that Swinburne outlines, we have very good reason to believe that God would NOT raise Jesus from the dead, because to do so would be to confirm the mistaken teachings of a false prophet and to validate the worship of a false god. So, we have at least one good objection of the fourth type to belief in the Resurrection.
Furthermore, if new and powerful historical evidence is one day discovered that makes it very likely that Jesus died on the cross the same day he was crucified, and that Jesus was buried in a stone tomb that same evening, and that Jesus remained dead for about 36 hours, and that Jesus was alive and walking around on the Sunday morning (about 36 hours after being placed in a stone tomb), then this would not only NOT give us a good reason to believe that God exists, and it would NOT give us a good reason to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, but it would, instead, give us a good reason to believe that there is no God.
A perfectly good God would not permit such a grossly deceptive miracle to occur, even if the miracle was caused by some being other than God (say, a stupid angel with good intentions, or by the devil with less honorable intentions). If God cares as much about humans having correct moral and theological beliefs as Swinburne claims, then God would not permit the resurrection of a false prophet, especially a false prophet who taught his followers to worship a false god.
Since we have good reason to conclude that Jesus was a false prophet who taught his followers to worship and pray to a false god, the resurrection of Jesus would be strong evidence AGAINST the existence of a perfectly good God, at least on Swinburne’s view of what a perfectly good God would be likely to do, and to allow.