Robert Cavin and Carlos Colombetti have written an article raising some significant objections to Richard Swinburne’s case for the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus: “Swinburne on the Resurrection” (Philosophia Christi, Vol. 15, No. 2; hereafter: SOR). LINK
I’m fully on-board with their overall conclusion that “…Swinburne’s argument for the Incarnation and Resurrection…is seriously undermined by the failure to satisfy the requirement of total evidence.” (SOR, p.37) As with other Christian apologists, Swinburne tends to focus on evidence that supports his Christian beliefs while ignoring significant evidence that points in the opposite direction. Swinburne also uncritically accepts certain Christian claims while being much more skeptical about beliefs that run contrary to Christianity. Confirmation bias is a widespread problem in human thinking, and it is particularly a problem when it comes to the philosophy of religion.
While I’m in agreement with the general conclusion of this article, I have my doubts about some of the specific points and objections in it. I will focus on what appears to be the key objection:
Swinburne’s argument for S3, while valid, is unsound. The problem here is that S2 is patently false. (SOR, p.31)
Here is the premise that they reject:
(S2) But God would neither perpetrate nor permit grand deception regarding the Incarnation and Resurrection. (SOR, p.30)
I have a couple of general criticisms of this article. First, there is no effort to clearly define the concept of “grand deception” which is a key concept in this argument, and there appears to be a bit of slipperiness and looseness in the article concerning this key concept.
Second, there is no effort in the article to show that it is possible for a perfectly morally good person to knowingly permit a “grand deception” concerning the incarnation or resurrection of Jesus (or of someone who is NOT actually God incarnate). It is implausible on its face that a perfectly morally good person would permit such a “grand deception”, so Cavin and Colombetti have failed to address this key question, which is significant in relation to the overall question at issue.
I plan to reply to the objections that Cavin and Colombetti raise against (S2), but I’m not fully dedicated to defending (S2). I would like (S2) to be true, because it is useful for some skeptical arguments about the resurrection. Consider the following skeptical argument:
1. If Jesus was a false prophet, then God would not permit Jesus to rise from the dead.
2. Jesus was a false prophet.
3. God would not permit Jesus to rise from the dead.
(S2) could be used to support premise (1) of this skeptical argument.
However, I am inclined to think that Christians have an odd and implausible conception of God as a person who is fanatically concerned with human beliefs about the nature and existence of God and various other metaphysical and theological issues. If there is a God, I doubt that God cares very much about these human beliefs. It seems silly to me that an all knowing, all powerful, perfectly good, eternal creator of the universe would care deeply about such human beliefs. So, I’m somewhat skeptical about the truth of (S2), for that reason.
Cavin and Colombetti give two main reasons for the claim that (S2) is “patently false.” The first reason is that in the Gospel of Mark (13:21-23),
…Jesus is presented as saying: “And then if any one says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. False Christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But take heed: I have told you all things beforehand.” (SOR, p.31)
According to the article, this passage shows that the author of Mark and, perhaps, Jesus himself had,
… a concept of God that was fully compatible with the thesis that God could (and, indeed, would) permit massive deception regarding the true identity of the Messiah–and this, specifically, through the misleading evidence of the signs and wonders of false prophets and messiahs that could even lead the elect astray.(SOR, p.31-32)
I have indicated above one problem with this line of reasoning: Mark’s concept of God might involve a logical or philosophical error. Given the widely accepted view that God is a perfectly morally good person, this might make it logically impossible for God to permit a “grand deception” concerning the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. Mark might simply have held a common misconception about God, and placed that misconception into the mouth of Jesus. While Norman Geisler would not tolerate the idea that the author of a Gospel had a mistaken idea about God and put that idea into the mouth of Jesus, Richard Swinburne might be more accepting of this possibility. Marcus Borg would have no problem with this suggestion.
But there is another problem with this objection that even a Conservative Evangelical like Geisler might point out. The teachings of Jesus are the teachings of a devout Jew, and thus must be interpreted in relation to the Old Testament, which also contains passages about false prophets. If you read O.T. passages about false prophets, you see that there is more than one consideration put forward for determining whether a person is a true prophet or a false prophet. Unless there is strong reason to think otherwise, one should assume that Jesus’ teachings about false prophets were in keeping with the O.T. teachings on this topic, and that the O.T. teachings provide an appropriate background for understanding Jesus’ words in the quoted passage.
In Deuteronomy Chapter 13, it is taught that if an alleged prophet encourages people to worship or obey “other gods” (vs.2 & 6), then that prophet “shall be put to death” (vs. 5), even if some predictions made by that prophet had come true (vs. 1-3). Thus, according to the the O.T. being an alleged prophet who encourages others to worship or obey a false god is a sufficient condition for being a false prophet. It is thus a necessary condition of being a true prophet that one NOT encourage others to worship or obey a false god.
In Deuteronomy Chapter 18, it is taught that if an alleged prophet “speaks in the name of other gods” that prophet “shall die”(vs. 20). So, another sufficient condition for being a false prophet is speaking in the name of a false god. It is thus a necessary condition of being a true prophet that one NOT speak in the name of a false god.
Finally, also in Deuteronomy Chapter 18, it is taught that if an alleged prophet speaks in the name of God, but makes a prediction or assertion that “does not take place or prove true” (vs. 22), then that person is a false prophet (who should be killed). So, it is a sufficient condition of being a false prophet to be an alleged prophet who makes a false prediction or assertion in the name of God. Thus, it is a necessary condition of being a true prophet that one NOT ever make false predictions or assertions in the name of God.
Although miracles are associated with true prophets in the O.T., there is no passage in the O.T. that teaches that performing a miracle is a sufficient condition of being a true prophet.
There is no good reason to believe that Jesus intended to reject or significantly modify these teachings of the O.T. about the differences between false prophets and true prophets. Thus, these teachings from the O.T. should be taken as assumed and accepted by Jesus, and as proper background assumptions for interpretation of the passage about false prophets and false messiahs quoted from the Gospel of Mark.
From the point of view of the author of Mark, and probably also from the point of view of Jesus, the O.T. provides us with appropriate and correct criteria for determining if someone is a false prophet or a true prophet. “Signs and Wonders” or miracles, are NOT sufficient conditions for establishing that an alleged prophet is a true prophet. The O.T. teaches that other necessary conditions must be met:
– Must never (at least as a prophet) encourage others to worship or obey a false god.
– Must never speak in the name of a false god.
– Must never make a false prediction or false assertion when speaking in the name of God.
Since in the view of the author of Mark, and presumably in Jesus’ view, God has provided these criteria for determining whether someone is a true prophet or a false prophet, if someone is “deceived” into believing or following a false prophet simply because the false prophet performs some “signs and wonders”, then God cannot be held morally accountable for the foolishness of such people, for they have ignored the clear instructions that God gave on this matter. Even if millions of people were to be fooled by such false prophets, this would not reflect on God’s moral character, because they are morally culpable for their own deception, at least in part.
In the context of the belief that God has provided some clear guidance in the O.T. for how to determine whether a person is a true prophet or a false prophet, the passage from the Gospel of Mark can be made consistent with the view that God would NOT permit a grand deception concerning false prophets and false messiahs. God would permit people who ignore his guidance on this matter to be deceived into believing and following a false prophet, because those people would be morally culpable (in part) for their own deception. But we could then distinguish such a deception, even if it occurs on a “massive” scale, from a deception in which many people are misled into believing and following a false prophet when those people have diligently followed the guidance provided in the O.T. concerning this matter. It is only the latter kind of deception that a believer would likely count as “grand deception”.
To Be Continued…