Understanding the Incarnation III: Helping Humanity to Live Morally Good Lives

In this series of posts I have been considering an argument by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne. In The Resurrection of God Incarnate, he argues that, contra Richard Dawkins,1 there are good a priori reasons for thinking that if there is a God he will become incarnate in response to the obvious general fact of human sin and suffering.

In my first post I presented the first of three reasons Swinburne gives: We might reasonably expect God to become incarnate and live a life filled with great suffering in order to discharge a moral obligation to share in the human suffering which, though for a good reason, He allows. In my second post I presented the second reason: To provide humanity a means of making atonement. And in this post I will consider the third and final reason: A morally perfect being may become incarnate to help us live morally good lives if we have seriously failed to do so. My last post will consider whether an incarnation in general, and the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus in particular, are logically coherent.2

The Divine Revelation of Moral Truths

Making atonement helps us to deal with past wrongdoings. But God also wants us to live morally good lives in the present; indeed, God wants us, as Swinburne puts it, “to become saints.” This is something most of us fail to do. It is therefore plausible that God would become incarnate for a third reason: To reveal knowledge and found an institution to help us become morally good.

Swinburne suggests that the knowledge revealed by God Incarnate to achieve this purpose would be of three kinds.

The Nature of God

Firstly, we need knowledge of what God is like and what he has done in order to express appropriate gratitude and adoration. For example, that he is a Trinity and shares in our suffering and wishes to provide us with a means of making atonement. Even if we learned these things through a priori arguments, we would still need to know when and as whom God became incarnate so that we can appropriate that atonement to ourselves. And we also need to know something of his future plans for us so that we can make a right response—for example, that there are serious consequences for those who become incorrigibly bad. All this requires a “propositional revelation” from God—a revelation of certain specific propositions (God became incarnate in Jesus Christ) by a trustworthy source.

Obligatory and Supererogatory Actions

Secondly, we need moral knowledge about which actions are obligatory and which are supererogatory. Humans, the Bible already affirms, have a natural sense of right and wrong.3 But having moral intuition no more guarantees moral living than having a sense of direction guarantees that one will never get lost. It has already been noted that humans have an inherited propensity to wrongdoing. And this can manifest as a tendency to conceal moral truths from ourselves or to interpret them in our preferred way. A parent who sets their child a difficult and risky task (perhaps thinking it is best for the child to learn some things for themselves) may decide to intervene at a critical moment. Seeing that we have failed to live good lives according to what moral awareness is natural to us, it is likewise probable that God would intervene to provide us with moral instruction.

The Commandment of New Moral Obligations

Further, because God is our creator and sustainer he has the right to create obligations for us; that is, to issue commands which, if they had not been commanded, would be supererogatory, but, having been commanded, become obligations; i.e., Keep the Sabbath holy. Why would God burden us with these further obligations? Swinburne suggests there are two reasons.

The first is to ensure coordination of good actions. Consider, by way of illustration, that it is important that drivers travelling in opposite directions agree to keep to opposite sides of the road but unimportant which side they agree to—so long as they do all so agree. Likewise, we have a moral obligation to show gratitude to God as our benefactor through worship, though doing so on a particular day is only obligatory because God commands it—and God commands a particular day to help ensure that the main obligation is fulfilled.

The second reason for creating obligations is to help us form the habit of doing what is supererogatorily good. For this same reason a parent may tell a child to do the shopping for a sick neighbour—making a nonobligatory good action obligatory in the hope that the child will develop a habit of doing good beyond what is obligated and so become a morally exemplary person. “If anyone forces you to go one mile,” Jesus instructed, “go with them two miles.” This command may belong to the kind under discussion.

To Demonstrate the Morally Good Life

This brings us to the third and final way in which an incarnation may help us to live a morally good life. “It would be a lot easier to understand how to live a perfectly good life,” notes Swinburne, “if we have an example of someone doing this.” Thus by becoming incarnate and living a perfect life himself (a life of perfect compassion, pacifism, generosity and love) God provides valuable knowledge and encouragement to his creatures seeking do the same: He not only tells us how to live but shows us—and thereby demonstrates that it can be done and inspires us to emulate him.

Conclusion

Swinburne argues that becoming incarnate is precisely what we might expect God to do if God exists. In this post I have presented the last of three reasons: By becoming incarnate in Jesus, revealing important moral truths and living a morally exemplary life, God provided us with help in living morally exemplary lives ourselves. Since most of us have failed to live morally good lives helping us live morally good lives is something that a morally perfect being would plausibly undertake to do. And again: Since the human life of God Incarnate would be of limited duration, all these purposes would not be realised and continue into the future unless God Incarnate established a worldwide institution—such as the Christian Church—to record, interpret and promulgate his life story and teachings.

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Part I | Part II | Part IV

[1] In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes: “If God wanted to forgive our sins why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed?”

[2] You can read my summary of the entire argument in a single post here.

[3] Romans 2:15

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