Understanding the Incarnation I: An Obligation to Share in Human Suffering

“If God wanted to forgive our sins,” complains Dawkins in The God Delusion, “why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed?” I will confess that, before I became a Christian around three years ago, I shared Dawkins’ perplexity. In fact, the Christian claim that, “Jesus died for our sins,” (understanding this to mean that before God could forgive us for wronging him he needed to become a man so we could murder him) was finally as strange as the claim that, “Honi the Circle-Drawer philandered for our monogamy.” If it was not utterly nonsensical then it was so impenetrably obscure that only a religious mystic could fully understand it—and even then he would then be unable to explain it to others. [1]

The Oxford professor of philosophy, Richard Swinburne, would not share this view. In The Resurrection of God Incarnate, he argues that there are good reasons for thinking that, if there is a God, he would become incarnate in order to live a perfect life filled with great suffering that ends in a miracle. In other words, not only is the crucifixion of God Incarnate not incongruous; it is precisely the sort of thing we would expect God to do if God exists.

Swinburne begins his argument with two preliminary axioms. The first is that if God exists God is by nature morally perfect—that is the sort of being whose existence we are postulating. The second is that human sin and suffering is a necessary feature of the universe God has created. Swinburne argues that such suffering is something which God (if God exists) has good reason to allow but is also something to which God (being morally perfect) is also likely to respond in a dramatic way.

In this first post it will be my concern to argue for the necessity of human sin and suffering and then discuss the first of three a priori reasons for thinking that God would become incarnate in response to it. The two remaining reasons that make up the rest of Swinburne’s argument will be presented in subsequent posts.

The Sin and Suffering of Man

Suffering is an unpreventable feature of any world in which virtue and moral self-determination are widely attainable for finite agents. This was a point I discussed in a previous post.  Again, briefly: Free will ensures that we have a choice between doing good and doing evil while humans are so made that when we do good it becomes easier to do good again at the next opportunity and when we do evil it becomes easier to do evil again at the next opportunity. [2] In this way, we gradually strengthen or weaken desires of different kinds and so form a moral character.

Without free will none of this would be possible. And while God is omnipotent, his omnipotence needs to be understood in a way that allows for the constraints of logical possibility. It is logically impossible for God to create agents with free will and ensure that they do no evil. And so human suffering is a potential feature of any world in which virtue is widely attainable.

It is only because God wants us to freely become good people that he permits temporary moral evil and suffering. But it needs to be noted that it is not free will alone, but free will and moral evil together, that provide an opportunity to manifest most virtues. In other words, only if someone eventually exercises their free will to assault or abuse you can I exercise mine to show you empathy; only if you are robbed can I make personal sacrifices to provide for you. The question arises whether moral evil alone would afford adequate opportunities for everyone to form a virtuous moral character. Swinburne suggests that it would not. A world in which opportunities to obtain virtue are universally available must therefore contain natural evil.

Consider a world without disaster, disease and decrepitude; a world in which the only cause of injury and death is, respectively, assault and murder. It is a mathematical certainty that such a world would provide far, far fewer opportunities for compassion, self-sacrifice, courage, forbearance, and so forth, and highly probable that some of us would have no such opportunities at all. Pleasure and comfort are good and our world, of course, includes both. But a life that offered nothing else would make us complacent, hedonistic, idle, selfish and shallow.

The initial conditions of the argument are therefore as follows: Human beings are misusing their free will to do evil. As a result, many individuals and societies are developing a bad moral character. This fact, together with the natural evil necessary to ensure that opportunities to obtain virtue are universally available, causes human suffering that is often widespread and profound. God, meanwhile, is morally perfect. How is he likely to respond? Swinburne argues that God will likely respond by becoming incarnate. Let us now consider the first of the three arguments he gives.

To Fulfil an Obligation to Share in Human Suffering

Parents often subject their children to suffering for the sake of some greater good. Mrs Bell, for instance, may put her overweight daughter on a stringent diet. Mr Wild may ask his son to attend a “difficult” neighbourhood school for the sake of good community relations. Under such circumstances, it is good but not obligatory for the parent to show solidarity with their child by taking a share in the suffering that has been imposed. Thus Mrs Bell may decide to join her daughter in eating a green salad for dinner even though Mrs Bell herself is not overweight. And likewise Mr Wild may present himself at the “difficult” neighbourhood school to enrol in the parent-teacher association or offer to coach the soccer team.

In both examples the suffering imposed is mild. But Swinburne suggests that when the suffering imposed reaches a certain level of intensity the good of sharing in that suffering for the one who imposes it rises to an obligation. In this connection he offers the following example.

Suppose, firstly, that England has been unjustly attacked and the government has conscripted all men between 18 and 30 to defend it; suppose, secondly, that a parent may “veto” the conscription of their son if he is under 21; suppose, thirdly, that older men under 50 may volunteer. Most parents with teenage sons veto the conscription but Swinburne, in view of the gravity of the situation, refuses to do so: He insists that his 19 year old son enlist. Suppose finally that Swinburne is 45 and so himself eligible but under no obligation to serve. “Since I am forcing my son to endure the hardship and danger of military service,” concludes Swinburne, “I have a moral obligation to him to volunteer myself.” And of course in circumstances of this kind the sharing could not be incognito. “The parent needs not merely to share the child’s suffering but to show him that he is doing so.”

The relevance of all this to the doctrine of the Incarnation can be spelled out as follows: Given the amount of pain and suffering which God, though for a good purpose, permits us to endure it is very plausible to suppose that he incurs a moral obligation upon himself to share in that suffering; and given that God, being perfectly good, always performs the morally best available action, it is very plausible to suppose that he would discharge that obligation. This could be achieved by means of an incarnation; that is, by becoming human and, “living a life containing much suffering and ending with the great crisis which all humans have to face: the crisis of death.” And one way to ensure that he has shared in the very worst suffering humans must endure is to live a life that ends in a brutal and unjustly imposed execution.

A moment ago it was noted that the obligation to share in the suffering one imposes on another can not be discharged in secret. Thus an incarnation would not fulfil its purpose unless the knowledge that it had occurred were made widely available to the future human race. And since the human life of God Incarnate would be of limited duration he must also found an institution—such as the Christian Church—to proclaim his message.

Swinburne therefore argues that the terrible suffering of Jesus, including his betrayal and his brutal and unjustly imposed execution, is not incongruous on the assumption that Jesus was God Incarnate; rather, it is precisely the sort of thing we might expect of God given his moral perfection and the great human suffering which, though for good reason, he allows.

The next post in this series will discuss the second of three a priori reasons for thinking that God would become Incarnate: To provide a means of making atonement.

—————————————————

Part II | Part III | Part IV

[1] Here one thinks of Buddha’s famous Flower Sermon. Zen Buddhism is said to have begun when Buddha held up a white lotus flower to his followers and said—absolutely nothing. No one understood the meaning of this, except for one disciple, who smiled subtly and with that subtle smile Zen Buddhism was born.

[2] As Emerson put it, “Sew a thought, reap an action; sew an action, reap a habit; sew a habit, reap a character; sew a character, reap an eternal destiny.”

2 replies
  1. Tom Gilson
    Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks for this, Ben. It’s actually helping me sort through some inchoate, hard-to-articulate thoughts on why there have to be people who resist God.

    Please don’t ask me to try to explain my questions further, I haven’t gotten that far. Nevertheless it’s been on my mind, and this is helpful. I appreciate it

  2. Ben Mines
    Ben Mines says:

    Hi Tom. I am happy to hear that you found the article helpful. Thank you for your feedback. And God bless.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *