Richard Swinburne is a British philosopher who has specialized in defending theism and Christian truth claims. Appealing to common human experience, biblical writings and the church’s tradition, Swinburne argues that it is more likely that God exists than that he does not, more likely than not that God is triune, more likely than not that the Second Person became incarnate, more likely than not that his teaching is true, since it corresponds to what we would expect from God Incarnate, more likely than not that he intended to found a church, more likely than not that he was raised from the dead. In short, it is more likely than not that all the articles of the Creed are true. The only article that might not be so probable, on the basis of scriptural texts, is the virginal conception of Jesus. Nevertheless,
given that there is a significant prior possibility of the existence of God, and that the historical evidence about the life and Resurrection of Jesus which was God’s signature on his teaching (and that of the Apostolic Church) is as strong as I represented it, any other doctrine taught by the Church (over many centuries over the whole Church as central doctrine) will be made much more probable by the very fact of its being taught by the Church.
And this includes the virginal conception.
Swinburne is keenly intent upon showing the reasonableness of Christian belief. Like a number of his other writings, Was Jesus God? is an exercise in apologetics. It is intriguing to watch him work his way here through biblical texts, harmonizing them, resolving discrepancies and arguing the case that Jesus is God. Although Jesus “proclaimed his divinity more openly after his Resurrection,” Swinburne argues, he made implicit claims during his life. Jesus could never have openly claimed to be God during his ministry. Swinburne quotes from the work Jesus the Jew, by the Jewish Scripture scholar Geza Vermes: “It is no exaggeration to contend that the identification of a contemporary historical figure with God would have been inconceivable to a first-century A.D. Palestinian Jew.” A little earlier in the book, Swinburne writes that “in his human thinking God Incarnate was not always conscious of his own divinity, but he would clearly need to be conscious of it some of the time in order to show his followers that he believed himself to be divine.” And why this need? Because Jesus wanted to give his followers “good reason to believe that God had identified with their suffering.”
That God identifies with victims is central to the Gospel story, but it is really Easter—God’s raising the crucified one—that brings the mystery of the Incarnation into full view. I do not follow the logic of Swinburne’s point that Jesus did not directly claim to be God during his earthly life in order to avoid being misunderstood, and yet he could do so without misunderstanding after the resurrection. The problem for the disciples, it seems to me, was not about Jesus’ identity but about the meaning of being raised from the dead: “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mk 9:32). Moreover, if personal identification with God was inconceivable to a devout Jew of Jesus’ time, wouldn’t it have been inconceivable for Jesus as well? And does it make sense to speak of Jesus’ being conscious of his divinity “some of the time”? I do not believe we will ever really know what consciousness of divinity might have meant. We do know, however, that Jesus spoke of himself as “one who serves” (Lk 22:27).
Miracles, Swinburne states, are violations of the laws of nature, and the resurrection (upon which Christian faith hinges) was such a violation—thus a miracle by definition. But surely there has to be a more effective way to approach the miracle stories in the Gospels than in terms of God violating the laws that God himself set in place. To call something a miracle is to interpret an event through the eyes of faith. After all, many people see without perceiving and hear without understanding, as Matthew and Isaiah remind us. Still, I wonder whether it is appropriate to refer to the raising of Jesus from the dead as a miracle. Miracles are meant to be seen, and no one was present at the tomb on Easter morning. Besides, even if some of the disciples had stationed themselves nearby, they would not have observed anything out of the ordinary. Resurrection was not resuscitation; it was not an empirically observable event. The empty tomb was an ambiguous sign; an angel was required to interpret it. We presume that the resurrection occurred on the first day of the week because that was the day when the first Easter apparitions reportedly took place. But apparitions are not usually classified as miracles.
Perhaps the resurrection, like the act of creation itself, was not an event human beings were intended to observe. Only when we contemplate the world through the eyes of faith can we perceive it as having been fashioned by God, that is, as the work of “creation.” The same thing could be said about Jesus’ resurrection. “Resurrection,” we might say, is how the disciples interpreted their experience of Jesus after his death. Jesus could be seen by his disciples and not by those who killed him because his adversaries were people who literally could not recognize the work of God in the world.
Swinburne is attempting to do an apologetics “from below” but with an a priori understanding of Jesus as God. I do not think that the early followers of Jesus came to believe in his divinity as a matter of deduction, however, but on the basis of their experience of the risen Lord. Swinburne seems to press the resurrection appearances themselves too far as historical evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead. Might it be that the entire Gospel, including the Easter narratives, gives evidence of a different sort, namely, the religious experience of the early church? In other words, the major evidence we have of the truthfulness of the Gospels is the religious experience of the communities that composed them. I agree with Swinburne that it is highly improbable that those communities were intent upon deception, and I would draw three conclusions from their writings. First, that the Gospel writers had a life-giving relationship with Jesus risen. Second, that there is an intelligibility about their experience that makes it possible to give a reasoned defense for the hope that we have (1 Pt 3:15). And third, the only way to verify the claims made by the Evangelists is to get inside their narratives and encounter the risen Jesus, as the Evangelists themselves did, by putting Jesus’ teaching and example into practice.