Destroying and Annoying: Why would God create mosquitos, viruses, and bacteria?

‘If God exists, it is certainly within His power to prevent such things. Why wouldn’t He?’ Surely the Prince of Darkness was not co-Creator of our world, but the Prince of Peace. Yet the death and suffering we observe due to a myriad of seemingly evil micro-critters bids us seek an answer to the question. This article will explore the trifecta of organisms most well-known for their destruction and annoyance of the human race; namely, mosquitos, viruses, and bacteria.


Review: The RZIM Academy Core Module

The Core Module will teach you to better answer difficult questions about the Christian faith. Elle Shaw reviews the RZIM Academy’s foundational online course.


Thoughts on the Christmas Child: Myth or Miracle?

‘What Child is This?’ is a favourite Christmas hymn. It is based on the poem The Manger Throne by William C. Dix and sung to the tune of Greensleeves.[1] The combination of religious lyrics and a 16th Century folk tune result in a powerful song evoking a sense of expectancy and awe over the scene of a baby born in a stable in the Middle East more than two millennia ago.

The wonder, the questioning that must have dwelt in the hearts of those who were part of and involved in the birth story of Jesus is expressed well in the words of this song. This was an extraordinary event at the end of a line of extraordinary events that involved angelic visitations, a miraculous conception, prophecy, and a moving star from the east that guided three gift bearing visitors from far off lands.

What Child is This?

What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King!
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The cross he borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So, bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone him.

Raise, raise the song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby;
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

These words are sung with meaning by Christians during the Advent season – a season of expectant waiting. It is during this time we look forward to celebrating the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We also look forward to His promised second coming – the time when He will return to put all things in order including ridding the world of evil and suffering once and for all.

However, why believe any of this?  Unlike the Resurrection of Jesus, an event with an overwhelming number of historical evidences,[2] the nativity is a miracle story that at first looks to have none. Or does it?

By looking closely at the material, we do have and using Abductive Reasoning[3] to get a better perspective of this story, we can deduce if it is merely a myth or if it could possibly be true.                        

First, let’s look at the possibilities found in the stories. These are that either the nativity story is true, including the miracles and belief that Jesus is the Son of God. Or the nativity story is a myth found in a book of myths and that Jesus had a fully human father and grew into a man who was crazy enough to believe he was the Son of God.

Second, we can compare the possibilities against the information we have: The nativity narratives found in two independent sources, Matthew 1 and Luke 2; the likelihood that both Mary and Joseph lied about Mary being a virgin pregnant with a child conceived by a miracle through the Holy Spirit; and the influence Jesus has had on the world.

As a religious book, the New Testament is revered by Christians as much as it is disdained by sceptics. Sceptics have tried to convince us that it is a book of myths. But, is this true?

The New Testament is comprised of letters and accounts created to communicate and preserve eyewitness testimonies of the events surrounding the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the experiences of and encouragement and guidance for the early Church. We see this as Luke reveals his purpose in writing at the beginning of his Gospel account:

1Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. 3It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honourable Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1: 1-4 HSCB)

What is fascinating about the New Testament is that, apart from maybe the apocalyptic language found in Revelation, none of the manuscripts are written using the conventions found in typical mythology.  The literary forms used contain parables, creeds and poetry, however, these are grounded in the reality of time, place and people familiar to their audience. In addition, the accounts were written within decades of the events described, for example, where authors encourage readers to verify what is written with the living eyewitnesses to the resurrection appearances of Jesus.[4]

Another proof of the reliability of the New Testament is the huge number of available manuscripts – over 5800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, compared to, for example 600 for Homer’s Iliad[5] – that allow historians and scholars to examine and compare texts across the centuries. The result has been that most New Testament textual critics, including atheist and textural critic Bart Erhman, agree the accuracy of the New Testament we read today is around 99% of the original autographs.[6]

Next, we can observe Mary’s story. It is notable that Mary did not waiver in her convictions that this was a baby conceived through the Holy Spirit. She did not understand it, but it appears she knew it to be true and we see this in that she kept to her story. Mary did not claim (justifiably if it had been true) that some unknown man forced himself on her or even that she and Joseph had acted consensually outside of marriage. Surely, either of these two ideas would have been more plausible than the story that she was made pregnant by the Holy Spirit – a story less likely to be believed and which would result in a very precarious social position for her at that time. Despite the shame that went along with being pregnant with another man’s child, or simply being pregnant with no husband – Mary took the risk and kept to her story, insisting she was still a virgin and this child was conceived through the Holy Spirit.

And then we can look at Joseph who is described as a good man. He had the turmoil of finding out his betrothed was now pregnant by someone else.  But, something happened to him, that convinced him that this baby was special. He had an experience that meant his obedience to God overrode any feelings or fear he had. In Joseph’s culture men expected their betrothed to be virgins at the time of marriage. For Mary to turn up pregnant was a shameful thing for Joseph and going through with the marriage would adversely affect his standing in the community. It was a terrible predicament and yet again, the Scriptures say he was a good man who had already decided to send Mary away quietly and not publicly humiliate her to keep his own good name. BUT he then had an encounter with an Angel that was so convincing that he went ahead with the marriage knowing the negative effect this decision would have on his reputation for the rest of his life.

And now we turn our focus on who the baby grew into – Jesus, and who he claimed to be. In several places in the New Testament Jesus states that he is equal with God the Father (John 10: 25-33) or working with the Father (John 5: 17 & 18). Or simply when he stated that he was, I AM (John 8: 57 – 59). These claims so enraged the religious leaders at the time that they accused him of blasphemy and demanded he be put to death. These were Jewish men well-schooled in the nuances of the words Jesus spoke and the related prophecies contained in their Scriptures.[7] They understood Jesus was claiming to be God and had him crucified for it.  And that should have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Jesus rose again and his followers were so affected by their experiences with him, their lives were radically changed to the point that they were willing to give their lives to spread his message of hope. Most importantly, unlike followers of mythological gods, Christianity continues to this day.

As we can see, the probability that this story is true is high. This child grew up to have such an impact on humanity that we can never call him normal. His influence for good has surpassed any other. As the popular quote from CS Lewis[8] suggests, we can call him a liar, or a lunatic, but his life does not bear that out, and yet we can’t call him a prophet or merely a great teacher – he did far more than any of those two things.  So we are left with one choice – we must call him Lord, God incarnate. A God so loving and broken-hearted over his creation and the awful mess we make of things when left to our own devices, that instead of stepping  god-like into history, He was born as one of us. 

This, this is Christ the King!
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!


[1] For more information on the hymn What Child is this? please see this Wikipedia page.

[2] For information on the evidences of the Resurrection I recommend the book  The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Garry Habermas and Michael Licona.

[3] Wallace, J Warner, Cold Case Christianity, 2013. Abductive Reasoning involves taking the most reasonable possibilities you have and comparing those to the information you have and logically working your way to the most likely explanation.  

[4] Example of verses where eyewitnesses are mentioned: 2 Peter 1:16; Acts 1:21-22; Mark 5:16; Luke 1:2

[5] Page 56 of Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life Changing Truth for a Sceptical World by Sean & Josh McDowell, has a table listing the number of surviving manuscripts of major classical works the majority of scholars believe are authentic to the original autographs of the works.

[6] Please see Dr William Lane Craig’s critique of Bart Ehrman’s approach in this video.

[7] McDowells, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Life Changing Truth for a Sceptical World. Pages 175-179 list examples of Jesus claiming equality with God, and where he received worship as God – also see Matt 14:33, John 9:38, Matthew 28:9.

[8] “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. . . . Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.” (C S Lewis – Mere Christianity, 55-56)

A Christian Response to Christchurch, III: The Problem of Evil

Part I | Part II 

In this trilogy of articles I highlighted the key features of an appropriate Christian response to the shooting in Christchurch. My first article focused on the victims; my second article focused on the perpetrator; and my third and final article focuses on the problem of evil. Overall my concern has been to show that Christianity provides a map to understanding and preventing human evil and is also able to meet the philosophical challenge presented by its occurrence. 

1. The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil is one of the oldest and most notorious objections to the existence of God. Its proponent claims that if God exists we should not experience any evil in the world—for if God is all-good, He would want to prevent evil; and if He is all-powerful, He would be able to do so. [1] The fact that evil obviously does exist proves that there is no God. In the aftermath of a tragedy like the shooting in Christchurch, even those with a strong belief in God may feel the force of this argument.

2. The Higher-Order Goods Solution

The most persuasive response to the Problem of Evil begins by exposing and rejecting its hidden assumption: That human beings are God’s pets and the universe a playground created for their unmitigated comfort and pleasure—a surmise which a single toothache suffices to falsify. Pleasure and comfort, to be clear, are good. And our world contains a generous quantity of both. But a world that contained nothing but pleasure and comfort would of necessity lack something of immeasurably greater value: What philosophers call “Higher Order Goods.”

Love, virtue, compassion, forgiveness, patience, courage, heroism and moral self-determination are among the Higher Order Goods that would be unattainable if the possibility of moral evil were removed. For, as I have argued elsewhere, all these goods are attained through the exercise of free will; and God cannot create agents with free will and prevent them from doing evil. [2] It follows that any world of free agents in which the Higher Order Goods are attainable is a world in which moral evil is a distinct possibility. [3]

In responding to the Problem of Evil a theist need not deny that the creation of a world in which humans experience unmitigated pleasure and comfort would be a morally good act. But he suggests that a divine mind may view the creation of a world like ours as a morally better act. It is good to be a contented animal free of suffering and devoid of moral significance; but it is better to be a saint. And God, being perfectly good, gives to the crown of his creation the very best He has to give: He gives us the opportunity to become saints.

The response gains additional force when we remember that suffering is a temporary feature of the created order and the goods it makes possible will endure forever. Those who develop moral and spiritual virtue during this brief period of suffering and probation will be fit for eternal communion with God at the end of time. We do not view the pain of childbirth as a senseless misfortune—it leads to the life-long bliss of motherly love. And nor should the suffering of human beings be viewed as a senseless misfortune if it leads to the eternal bliss of divine love.

3. The Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils

A skeptic who grants the general form of this argument need not completely abandon his objection. He can recognise that the Higher Order Goods are greater than pleasure. He can accept that any world in which these goods are obtainable is one in which suffering will be an unavoidable possibility. But he can nevertheless object that there is too much suffering. In its most formidable formulation, this objection confronts us with a particular horrendous evil. The American metaphysician Peter van Inwagen offers the following example. Unfortunately, this is something that really happened:

A man came upon a young woman in an isolated place. He overpowered her, chopped off her arms at the elbows with an axe, raped her, and left her to die. Somehow she managed to drag herself on the stumps of her arms to the side of a road where she was discovered. She lived, but she experienced indescribable suffering, and although she is alive, she must live the rest of her life without arms and with the memory of what had been done to her.

Inwagen calls this attack “The Mutilation” and asks: Are God’s ultimate purposes dependent on the occurrence of The Mutilation? It would seem not. Then could God have prevented The Mutilation and still achieved his ultimate purposes? It would seem so. It follows, the skeptic continues, that the Mutilation is unnecessary. And since God is all-good, He will want to prevent unnecessary horrors; and since God is all-powerful, He will be able to do so. The Mutilation proves that God does not exist.

4. The Impossibility of a Non-arbitrary Limit

Inwagen, himself a theist, responds to this objection by noting that there are situations in which the imposition of a non-arbitrary limit is logically impossible. And God seems to be in this situation with respect to the number of evils He allows.

After all, subtracting The Mutilation from history does not de-fang the objection from Particular Horrendous Evils. The skeptic could just point to another evil—perhaps the shooting in Christchurch—and ask all the same questions. But nor is a proponent of the Objection from Particular Horrendous Evils denying that the occurrence of some horrors is consistent with the existence of God. The specific assumption underlying the objection is therefore as follows: There is some minimum number of horrors n consistent with God’s plan such that the addition of a single horror (n+1) will represent unnecessary suffering that God, if He existed, would prevent.

In his article on the subject [4] Inwagen shows that this assumption is false. For any n, where the existence of n horrors is consistent with God’s plan, n-1 will be equally consistent. To ask What is the minimum number of horrors consistent with God’s plan? is therefore like asking, What is the minimum number of raindrops that could have fallen on England that is consistent with England’s having been a fertile country? Obviously, if God had stopped one or one hundred or one million raindrops from falling, England would still be a fertile country. And just as obviously, if God had allowed only one or one hundred or one million raindrops to fall, England would be an arid country. The point is this: It cannot be coherently postulated that there is some minimum number of raindrops n such that the subtraction of one raindrop (n-1) results in England being arid and the addition of one raindrop (n+1) wastefully exceeds what is required to ensure that England is fertile. But that is more or less what the Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils does postulate.

Evil is an emotional subject and Inwagen’s talk of arbitrariness may make some uneasy. It needs to be emphasised strongly, therefore, that while there is no non-arbitrary limit to the quantity of evil in our world the fact of evil is not arbitrary. We must remember that evil is an unavoidable consequence of free will and free will confers the profoundest imaginable benefits upon humankind.

5. The Conversion of the Hard-hearted

Inwagen shows us why Particular Horrendous Evils are unavoidable. But this leaves us to speculate on whether there is any positive reason why God permits them to occur. In Providence and the Problem of Evil, Richard Swinburne suggests one such a reason.

God loves evildoers and wishes for them to repent and be reconciled to Him—as discussed in my previous article. This fact, as Swinburne notes, provides a positive reason for God to allow particular horrendous evils: They make possible serious moral choices for people normally too timid or too hardhearted to make them.

This is a principle we see operating on a small scale in our everyday experience. A man too timid to defend a coworker from verbal abuse may be moved to defend him against physical abuse; a man too lazy to help an elderly neighbour struggling up the stairs with her shopping may be moved to rush to her aid if she takes a bad fall. But there exist people who, through the exercise of their own free will, have become hardhearted. And they may view physical conflict or an old lady falling down the stairs as an entertaining spectacle. To such people Particular Horrendous Evils offer the possibility of redemption.

Here Swinburne has in mind a prison guard who is moved to disobey orders by the terrible suffering of his captives; or a citizen who helps his neighbours to escape a death squad by hiding them in his basement—something which both men do at great personal risk despite being people who, in the normal course of life, were unmoved by the more moderate suffering of others. Some, while having no direct exposure to a horrendous evil, may be moved to make sacrifices in support of the victims or to campaign for reform; many others may be moved to discover and abandon their own subtle prejudices. And it is certainly plausible that some people of each type were caught up in the public outpouring of sympathy and solidarity that followed the Christchurch shooting.

6. Conclusion

This, I repeat, is an emotional subject and Swinburne’s argument needs to be read in its proper context. It is not here being claimed, simpliciter, that God is pleased to allow horrendous evils so that hardhearted people might be moved to compassion. My concern in this post has been to show that free will makes possible Higher-Order Goods which are more valuable than pleasure; that evil is an unavoidable consequence of free will; and that there is no non-arbitrary limit to the amount of evil God permits. Particular horrendous evils are therefore consistent with the existence of God. And when we think carefully about what further reason God may have for not preventing them, we find that they may also offer the last hope of moral redemption for the hardhearted.


[1] The objection goes back as far as the Greek philosopher Epicurus who asked: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

[2] As I argue here, omnipotence needs to be carefully formulated to allow for the constraints of logical possibility.

[3] In this post, for the sake of brevity, I am ignoring natural evil. However, I think that there is also a coherent solution to this problem which I discuss here.

[4] Inwagen’s fascinating article is available here: The Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils.

A Christian Response to Christchurch, I: The Victims

Part II | Part III

In this trilogy of articles I shall be highlighting the key features of an appropriate Christian response to the shooting in Christchurch. My first article shall focus on the victims; my second article on the perpetrator; and my third and final article on the problem of evil. Overall my concern shall be to show that Christianity provides a map to understanding and preventing human evil and is also able to meet the philosophical challenge presented by its occurrence. 

1. Christian Teaching Illuminates the Connection between Hatred and Violence

In 1 John 3:15, we find these strange and startling words: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” The verse does not stand alone. It fact, it is a paraphrasing of Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew 5:21-22 where insulting or even being angry at others is set next to murder in terms of moral seriousness. [1] 

On its face, all this sounds like an absurd exaggeration. On what reasonable assessment is an insult, let alone an unkind thought, approximately equivalent to murder? But Jesus’ teaching actually demonstrates his profound knowledge of human moral psychology; knowledge which helps to illuminate the specific causal mechanism by means of which hatred in thought and speech can escalate to violence—so salient a feature of the tragedy in Christchurch.

To properly understand this we need to first consider how people develop a moral character. Richard Swinburne, the Oxford professor of Philosophy, is helpful here. Humans are so made, he says, that when we freely choose to do good, it becomes slightly easier to choose to do good again at the next opportunity; and when we freely choose to do evil, it becomes slightly easier to choose to do evil again at the next opportunity. In this way, over time, we strengthen and weaken desires of various kinds and so form our moral character. [2] [3] This is a view that goes right back to Aristotle (“A man becomes brave by acting bravely, just by acting justly”) and appears to be confirmed by modern neuroscience. [4]

Murder, I therefore suggest, cannot be adequately explained by proximate causes—malice, motive, means. It needs to be traced upstream to its point of origin: A secret unchecked fear or hatred that may have gestated for decades before culminating in actual violence. And while I hasten to add that hatred is not a sufficient condition of violence, it is a necessary condition: Not every unchecked hatred leads to a massacre, that is, but every massacre begins with an unchecked hatred. It is therefore wisdom, and not prudishness, which moves Jesus to warn us so solemnly against unkind thoughts and words. In front of the man who indulges even petty hatred opens a path which, should he continue along it, terminates in suffering, bloodshed and sorrow.

2. Theism in General, and Christian Theism in Particular, Provides the Most Coherent Metaphysical Framework within which to Affirm the Dignity of Persons and Condemn Hatred and Violence

To understand this, first note a precept familiar to every theologically literate Christian. The universe is not like a house which God built and from which he can then withdraw his attention. Rather, the universe and its inhabitants stand in the same relation to God as the piano sonata to the pianist. He sustains each of us in being from moment to moment with painstaking care and, at each of those moments, observes and monitors us with an intensity of perception next to which Ireneo Funes with his passion flower is but a pale approximation; anxiously bends over us, so to speak, and holds us in his abyssal gaze—waiting with a heart ablaze with divine love for us to turn to him.

For now it does not matter whether any of this is true; it matters only whether it has relevant entailments for human behaviour among those who believe it is true. And so it does. For it entails that human relations have the profoundest imaginable moral and spiritual importance.

Most of us would approach an ancient artefact of immeasurable value in an attitude of quiet reverence—especially when under the gaze of the museum curator. But on theism every person you meet exists under the burning gaze of God and is of immeasurable value to him; the thrice-holy God who, in the person of Jesus Christ, literally died for love of them. For any rational and sincere Christian, abusing or even insulting another human being (let alone murdering them) should be as unthinkable as entering a church and desecrating a holy relic. 

It is also a fundamental principle of Christianity that humans are made imago dei or “in the image of God” inasmuch as we have a God-given capacity for reason, spirituality and moral awareness. To express this sightly differently, something of what God is exists as an essential part of each person—meaning that each person is intimately associated with the most tremendous and holy thing at the heart of Ultimate Reality. In contrast to atheism, which reduces man to a concretion of atoms shaped by mindless natural processes, Christianity affirms and vouchsafes the eternal mystery and sacredness of persons. [5]

3. Christianity Provides the Strongest Possible Reason and Motive for Treating Others with Self-sacrificial Kindness

To understand this last claim you will first need to note the distinction between an obligatory act and a supererogatory act. 

An obligatory act is one which it is wrong not to do. People have an obligation to feed their children, for instance, and under normal circumstances are morally culpable if they do not do it. A supererogatory act, on the other hand, is one which is good but not obligatory. It is good in this way to volunteer at the local soup kitchen but you are not morally culpable if you do not do it.

Importantly, obeying a reasonable command from an authority is an obligation—particularly when significant benefits have been received. A teenage boy, for instance, has an obligation to mow the lawn when his father instructs him to do this because his father is an authority from whom he receives important benefits. Something interesting therefore happens when an authority commands us to perform a supererogatory act: He or she elevates it to an obligation. And when the benefit received is life itself and the command comes from the Ultimate Authority—that obligation is very serious indeed.

The question is whether God has commanded us to perform supererogatory acts for our neighbour. And the answer is yes: In the clearest and strongest possible terms.

When Jesus was asked the Greatest Commandment, he replied that there are two. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” It follows from John 14:12 (“Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me”) that loving your neighbour is a necessary condition of loving God—the two commands are mutually inclusive. Jesus himself insinuates this when he says the Second Greatest Commandment is “like unto” (i.e. synonymous with) the First; and 1 John 4:20 explicates the point: “If anyone says ‘I love God’ but hates his brother or sister he is a liar.” 

And there is no possible doubt that “loving one’s neighbour” here means performing supererogatory acts. To the man with two coats in his closet, Saint Ambrose of Milan said, “One belongs to you and one belongs to the man with no coat”—a gloss on Jesus’ teaching in Luke 3:11. This is a very challenging admonition (it is rightly said of the gospel that it is, “a comfort to the afflicted and an affliction to the comfortable”) but it is also an inescapable requirement of obeying Jesus. If my neighbour is in need and I have the means to help him but prefer to let him suffer to avoid a diminishment of my material goods, then I cannot be said to love him as I love myself. I have failed to obey the Second Greatest Commandment and, ex hypothesi, I have failed to obey the Greatest Commandment also. 

Nor can there be any doubt that our neighbour is any fellow human being—for the question was put directly to Jesus in Luke 10:25-29. After teaching the Greatest Commandments, a lawyer asks,  “But who is my neighbour?” And in response to this question Jesus narrates a parable in which a Jew is saved from peril by a passing Samaritan. 

The Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ time hated one another—to such a degree that the Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim and the Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover. For this reason the message of the parable is clear. “Jesus,” explains Swinburne, “is commanding us to show love to our fellow humans of whatever race or creed, just as the Samaritan showed love to the wounded Jew” [6]—which is perfectly consistent with Jesus’ famous command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 

Christianity, therefore, does not simply forbid a hatred of others by divine command and under pain of eternal loss; nor does it simply recommend treating them with kindness. It imposes a solemn moral obligation to treat others—Muslim, Jew, Hindu or atheist—with self-sacrificial love.


[1] “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

[2] Emerson made the same point more pithily when he wrote: “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.”

[3] See Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil.

[4] See The Brain That Changes Itself by Normal Doidge and neuroplasticity and hypofrontality generally.

[5] I am not denying that atheists can and do abhor violence and value persons. In fact, I claim that there will be no outward difference between a Christian response to the massacre in Christchurch and that of a morally normative atheist—both will be united in shock, heartache and condemnation. What I am suggesting is that the Christian response here will differ in being undergird and intensified by a coherent metaphysical foundation—something “secular humanism” is conspicuously lacking.

[6] See Swinburne’s Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy.


It is often suggested that the Christian doctrine of Hell is morally unconscionable. Understanding this doctrine to be that the nonbeliever is sent to a physical location where for his non-belief he is burned for all eternity, the skeptic makes the point that this is incompatible with the moral perfection of God. The claim that God is all loving and the claim that God punishes his creatures eternally for finite offences seem at odds. In what follows it will be my concern to show that this objection is based on a crude caricature of Hell that is quite different from what the church actually teaches. And we shall see that when that doctrine is properly understood there are no indefeasible moral objections against it.

The Problem

How will a morally perfect and all powerful being deal with those who by the end of their life have become incorrigibly bad? Let us first understand “incorrigibly bad” to describe a person who has exercised his free will to do evil to such a degree that he has finally developed an evil character. His natural desire is to perform bad actions and in particular to hurt and dominate others. God has good reason to allow moral evil while people form their moral character in this world. But there is no good reason for God to allow people to continue hurting others forever. I will now briefly discuss two alternative views about the fate of the incorrigibly bad before defending, but carefully qualifying, the traditional teaching of the church. My conclusion will be that while we may reasonably hope that Hell is empty its possible existence must be affirmed in view of human freedom.


Why does God not simply force upon such people a good moral character? Some hold that God does just this—including Origen, an influential Church Father, and several contemporary theologians. [1] This view, because it entails that all people go to Heaven, is called Universalism. But forcing a good moral character upon an evil person is forcing upon them a character which they have persistently and knowingly chosen not to have. And if God is to respect the free will of persons in choosing their own moral character he must finally respect the moral character they have chosen. To do otherwise would be to rescind the free will he had originally given: God would then be a sort of moral totalitarian who ensures that, in the end, whatever choices people make, they become the sort of people God wants them to be with no ultimate freedom to determine the sort of person they want to be.

I have argued elsewhere that incorrigibly bad people are a possible outcome of any world in which all people enjoy significant moral self-determination; and that naturally good people will be naturally happy in loving communion with a morally perfect being. By contrast: Allowing oneself to become a collection of evil desires whose fulfilment is eternally frustrated by an all powerful being would be a deeply unhappy state. The question arises: If God will not force a good moral character upon such people, what is he likely to do with them?


Christian theology holds that all things are sustained in existence by God from one moment to the next. Each one of us therefore stands in the same relation to God as the piano sonata to the pianist: The moment God ceases to consciously and deliberately sustain us in existence is the moment we cease to exist. This doctrine helps to introduce a second view on the fate of the incorrigibly bad: Annihilationism. Annihilationism holds that at the end of the world God simply ceases to sustain the incorrigibly bad in existence; and the incorrigibly bad, as a result, simply cease to exist.

Proponents of this view suggest that Bible verses which speak of evildoers being thrown into a lake of fire in fact symbolise their annihilation. “If talk of fire is to be taken literally or even as an analogy for the destiny of the wicked,” writes Oxford Professor of Philosophy Richard Swinburne, “the consequence of putting the wicked in such a fire would be their speedy elimination.” We have just noted that having all one’s desires frustrated by an all powerful being would be an inherently miserable state. And so perhaps God would eliminate evil people—particularly if that is what they wanted. It is this fate, annihilationists insist, that Jesus warned us to avoid in many places in the New Testament, such as Matthew 10:28,

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

However, others have objected to Annihilationism on the grounds that, much like Universalism, it puts God in the role of a moral totalitarian. God does not force a good moral character upon those who have freely chosen evil; rather, he refuses to allow them to exist at all. And so, in the end, whatever choices people make, they either become the sort of people God wants them to be or God destroys them.


Let us consider finally the traditional teaching of the church that the incorrigibly bad are in danger of Hell. How can we understand this idea in light of the moral perfection of God? We can begin to do so by first recognising that Hell is not a physical location to which people are sent and actively tormented by God. It is, rather, an existential state that results from freely rejecting the divine love. Indeed, Augustine believed the suffering of Hell is compounded because God continues to love the sinner who is not able to return the love. “The massive beauty of an opera,” writes Peter Kreeft, illustrating the same point, “may be torture to someone blindly jealous of its composer. So the fires of hell may be made of the very love of God; or rather, by the hatred of that love among the damned.” Whatever the torments in Hell, the church emphatically teaches that, “they are not imposed by a vindictive judge.” [2].

Recall our three operating assumptions. One: In Heaven naturally good people freely submit themselves to the will of God; two: God, being all loving, wishes for all people to be happy in so doing (happy in reverencing what is holy, loving those who were formerly enemies, selflessly cooperating with others and so forth); and three: All people are given radical freedom in determining their own moral character. It follows from all this that at least some people may eternally resist the invitation to participate in the divine love, preferring instead to hate their enemies and the God who enjoins them to let go of that hatred. As Dallas Willard expresses it, for some people, “the fires of Heaven, we might suspect, are hotter than the fires of Hell.” C. S. Lewis before him made a similar point. “The gates of Hell,” he wrote, “are locked on the inside.”

It should also be kept in mind here that any person who finds themselves in Hell was not thrust there suddenly upon death; Hell, rather, is the ultimate logical consequence of the pattern of choices an evil person made throughout his earthly life. God provides each of us with a conscience and countless opportunities to exercise our free will for good or evil. An incorrigibly bad person therefore owes his character to his prolonged and decisive refusal to heed the deliverances of the conscience which God gave him in preference for evil. Lewis understood this too. “There are only two kinds of people in the end,” he said. “Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’” and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”


Understood in this way, Hell has a surprising, ironic but entirely logical entailment: It pays deep respect to persons. Faced with the incorrigibly bad, God does not force upon them a good moral character and he does not destroy them. God accepts the person they have chosen to be and provides a place in his created order for them to live out the reality of being that person. Only in Hell can the free will and so the personhood of the incorrigibly bad be preserved. “Hell,” as Willard puts it, “is God’s best for some people.” And it was the unhappy possibility of finding ourselves forever in this state that Jesus is warning us of when he speaks of the eternal torments of Hell.

In discussing the possibility of Hell it is important to remember that it is no part of Christian doctrine that any particular person, or that any person at all, is actually in Hell. Not many people, I would think, allow themselves to become incorrigibly bad and only God can know what transpires in a human heart in the final moments of life and in the first moments of the afterlife. A private moment of redemption in extremis or even in articulo mortis is always possible and no one knows what opportunities are available beyond that.

Reflections similar to these led the twentieth century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar to say, “We may reasonably hope that all people will be saved.” Balthasar’s position thus draws right back from the deep pessimism of Aquinas and Augustine, who both held that the mass of humanity will be lost, without quite affirming the Universalism of Origen and others. Balthasar instead suggested that we entertain Universalism with a cautious optimism. Why?

The optimism was justified, Balthasar said, in view of the radical expression of divine love manifest in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—that God should send his Son all the way to the limits of God-forsakenness in order to bring back into the divine life all those who had wandered far from it. But the caution was necessary in view of the radical freedom God entrusted us with—a freedom which, if it is to be honoured and upheld by God at all, must include at least the possibility of eternally rejecting God. The Catholic author and theologian Bishop Robert Barron agrees. A Christian, he says, must accept the existence of Hell as a possibility because of human freedom. “But” he adds, “we may pray, and may even reasonably hope, that all people will be saved.”


[1] See Love Wins by Rob Bell for a contemporary defence of Universalism. Origen, for the record, taught that even Satan and the demons would be reconciled to God—a view known as apocatastasis.

[2] See The Creed: The Apostolic Faith in Contemporary Theology by B. L. Marthaler.

Understanding the Incarnation IV: The Coherence of Christian Doctrine

In this series of posts I have been considering an argument from The Resurrection of God Incarnate by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne. Swinburne disagrees with Dawkins that the idea of an incarnation is incongruous and improbable on its face;1 in fact, Swinburne thinks that there are at least three good 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 the first post we saw that God would plausibly become incarnate and live a human 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 the second post, we saw that living a perfect human life would allow God to provide humanity a means of making atonement for moral wrongdoing; and in the third post we saw that God would plausibly meet humanity face to face to help us live morally good lives by instruction and example.2

If Swinburne’s reasoning is sound, he has shown that an Incarnation is not only not incongruous but precisely the sort of thing we would expect God to do if God exists. However, no matter how good the reasons why God would become incarnate, the argument will be of limited force if we cannot make any sense of how he became incarnate. For this reason, we also need to consider whether the Incarnation of God as spelled out in Christian doctrine is logically coherent. Swinburne’s account of this is the subject of my last post.

The Incarnation

God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal. He has these and other properties essentially and this means he cannot cease to have one and remain God any more than a square can cease to have four sides and remain a square. How could God become human in the person of Jesus and so limited in agency, knowledge, space and time?

“To be human,” explains Swinburne, “is to have a human way of thinking and acting and a human body through which to act.” To become human God would therefore need to acquire a human way of thinking and acting in addition to his divine way of thinking and acting. Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, showed how a person can have two independent systems of belief; and how, while all the beliefs of such a person are accessible to him, he refuses to admit to his consciousness the beliefs of the one system when he is acting under the other.

The Freudian account is derived from cases of self-deception: a pathetic state of which that person needs to be cured. But it helps us to see the possibility of a person willingly keeping a lesser belief system separate from his main belief system and performing different actions under different systems of beliefs—all for some very good reason.

In becoming incarnate God allowed himself to develop a second and separate system of human-beliefs acquired through the sensory experience of his human body. The separation of these two belief systems would be a voluntary act—known to his divine mind but not to his human mind. Thus we have a picture of a divine consciousness that includes a human consciousness and a human consciousness that excludes the divine consciousness.

It is important to emphasise that God would not have limited his powers by becoming incarnate. He would simply have taken on an additional limited way of operating. And in so doing he would remain divine while acting and feeling much like ourselves.

The Virgin Birth

The doctrine of the Virgin Birth claims that God caused Mary, the mother of Jesus, to conceive Jesus without that conception involving any sperm from a male human. It is not difficult here to give an account of how this occurred; for, “it would not have taken a very large miracle,” notes Swinburne, “for God to turn some of the material of Mary’s egg into a second half-set of chromosomes, which, together with the normal half-set derived from Mary, would provide a full set.” But is there any reason why God would choose to become incarnate in this way?

Yes. “It would mean that Jesus came into existence as a human on Earth partly by the normal process by which all humans come into existence and partly as a result of a quite abnormal process. It would thus be a historical event symbolizing the doctrine of the Incarnation: That Jesus is partly of human origin and so has a human nature and partly of divine origin and so has a divine nature.” In this way the Virgin Birth would help those who learnt about it later to understand the doctrine of the Incarnation.

The Ascension

Christian doctrine claims that at the end of his life on Earth Jesus, “ascended into the heavens.” Just as, “coming down from the heavens” is clearly to be understood as, “acquired a limited human way of operating,” so “ascended into the heavens,” should be understood as, “abandoned his limited human way of operating.” In the New Testament this event is symbolised by his body rising upwards into the sky until covered by a cloud—something which readers of the Old Testament (in which God manifests as a cloud) would understand as a return to God. Thereafter he remained, “seated at the right hand of the Father”—a phrase which must be understood as, “honourably united to his Father,” since God has no spatial location. The Ascension, like the Virgin Birth, helps those who witnessed it and those who learn about it later to better understand the doctrine of the Incarnation.


We have seen that there are three good reasons for thinking that God, if He exists, will become incarnate in response to human sin and suffering and we have seen that the Incarnation of God as spelled out in Christian doctrine is logically coherent. Because the life of God Incarnate would be limited in time and space, the fulfilment of all three purposes outlined by Swinburne further requires the establishment of a worldwide institution—a Church—both to tell future generations what God Incarnate has done and how they can avail themselves of it. And, of course, the Christian belief in the Incarnation of God comes down to humanity through the worldwide Christian Church which fulfilled this purpose after it was established by Jesus and promulgated by his followers at his command.3

In closing it is worth pointing out that Swinburne’s a priori argument for the Incarnation has important implications for other areas of the philosophy of religion: It gives us grounds in advance of any historical evidence for thinking that an event like the Resurrection will occur. In other words, if it can be shown that there is good historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, the coincidence of the two lines of argumentation (a priori and a posteriori) will make it very probable indeed on the total evidence that there is a God and that Jesus was God Incarnate.4


Part I | Part II | Part III

[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] It may seem unlikely that anyone would develop an a priori argument for the Incarnation unless they had had some contact with the Christian tradition. Swinburne concedes this point but then adds that, “Unless I had been brought up in the tradition of Western mathematics, I would be unlikely to believe that there is no greatest prime number; for I would not even have the concept of a prime number.” But, “once I have derived from tradition the relevant concepts, I am in a position to assess the proof that there is no greatest prime number.” And likewise, “we need first to be taught what a religious system claims; only then are we in a position to assess whether or not it is true.”

[3] See The Great Commission, Matthew 28:16–20.

[4] You can read my summary of Swinburne’s a priori Argument for the Incarnation in a single post here. See next the Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus. Of course, before presenting these arguments one would first need to establish the rational warrant for Bare Theism. See the Modal Cosmological Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Ontological Argument, as well as the arguments from Cosmic Teleology, Biological Teleology, Consciousness, Adequation, Moral Experience, Desire and Religious Experience.

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.


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.


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

Understanding the Incarnation II: A Means of Making Atonement

The biologist Richard Dawkins suggests that the Christian claim God became incarnate and was crucified is incongruous and improbable on its face. [1] The Oxford professor of philosophy, Richard Swinburne, takes the opposite view: In The Resurrection of God Incarnate he argues that 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 other words, not only is the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Jesus not incongruous, it is precisely the sort of thing we might expect God to do if God exists. [2]

In my previous post I presented the first of three reasons Swinburne presents in support of his view: Given two preliminary axioms (the moral perfection of God and the sin and suffering of man) Swinburne argues that 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 this post I will present the second reason why an incarnation follows naturally from these same axioms: To provide humanity a means of making atonement

Obligation, Guilt and Atonement

Swinburne first divides good actions into two broad types. Obligations are good actions that we owe to others: It is good in this first sense for you to feed your children and tell others the truth. Supererogatory actions are nonobligatory good actions: It is good in this second sense to volunteer at a soup kitchen. We do not wrong others when we fail to perform supererogatory actions but we do wrong others when we fail to meet our obligations—to respect each other’s property and personhood, for example, or to keep our promises. For wronging others we are blameworthy and so incur guilt. And in order to remove our guilt we need to “make atonement.”

Atonement, Swinburne says, usually has four components: repentance, apology, reparation and penance. If I have stolen your watch I must return it to you or give you something of equivalent value. Such reparation deals with the effects of my wrongdoing but it does not deal with the fact of my wrongdoing—that I sought to harm you. I must also therefore distance myself from my wrongdoing by a sincere apology and repentance.

Often this will suffice to remove my guilt but in cases of serious wrongdoing something extra may be required: a small gift or service as a token of my sorrow. Swinburne calls this “making a penance.” The process is completed when the victim agrees to treat me, insofar as he can, as one who has not wronged him: And this is to forgive me.

All Humans Have Wronged God

It is an obvious general fact, claims Swinburne, that all humans have wronged God. We have wronged God directly by failing to show reverence and gratitude to him as the holy source of our existence and we have wronged him indirectly by wronging each other. If I hit my wife I abuse the free will and responsibility entrusted to me by God and I also hurt a creature he created—just as I wrong you if I hit your child because I hurt someone upon whom you have lavished your loving care and attention.

In addition to incurring guilt through our wrongdoing we inherit a general propensity to wrongdoing. This is partly social (you are more likely to abuse your children if you yourself were abused) and partly genetic: Evidence has emerged that what a person does and has done to him at an early age affects the genes he hands on to his children.

Swinburne suggests that we also inherit something analogous to guilt: We are indebted to our ancestors for our life and for many benefits that come down to us through them; our ancestors, in turn, are indebted to God for their own wrongdoing. We therefore incur an obligation to help atone for their guilt. “Even the English law,” notes Swinburne, “requires that before you can claim what you inherit from your dead parents you must pay their debts.” Thus while the guilt itself is not ours, the obligation to atone for it is, and our failure to meet this obligation can be a further source of guilt.

It would seem, then, that human beings have a serious obligation to make atonement and are in a poor position to do so—owing to both the size of the moral debt and the propensity to continued wrongdoing. How might a morally perfect God respond to this? Swinburne suggests that God would likely respond by helping us to make a proper atonement.

The Appropriate Reparation to God

Earlier I made the obvious point that if I steal your watch I owe you a watch—or something of equal value. The question arises: What is the proper reparation for a wrongdoer to offer God? What has gone wrong, says Swinburne, is that we have failed to live good lives. One proper reparation would therefore be a perfect human life which we can offer to God in repentance. And while that one perfect human life may not morally counterbalance all the wrongdoing of n number of morally bad human lives, it is up to the injured party to determine when a sufficient reparation has been made. And one truly perfect human life would plausibly enable a merciful and morally perfect being to justifiably make that determination.

Making Sense of a Reparation Received from and Offered Back to the Wronged Party

Here the skeptic may still object that a third party cannot make restitution for the offences of another. No one would consider justice done if a judge were to have an innocent man seized off the street and thrown in jail for the crimes of the murderer who himself remained free. Correct. But the problem lies not with the argument but the analogy. Consider a more helpful one.

Suppose Mrs Hall hires a man, John, to paint her house. John is paid in advance but procrastinates providing his services and finally spends the money on a ski trip during which he breaks his leg. Ideally, he would either return the money or find someone else to paint the house on his behalf. But if he is incapable of doing either of these things (because, say, he is broke and and doesn’t know anyone prepared to paint the house) he finds himself in the position of having an insoluble debt.

Plausibly, Mrs Hall could dismiss the whole matter with an airy wave of her hand and hire a new painter. But now suppose the following: That Mrs Hall is a morally conscientious woman who thinks it important that John should take his wrongdoing seriously; that she is very generous; and that she knows someone who is prepared to paint her house on John’s behalf. No one would consider the matter resolved if she were to call this third party and engage him to paint her house without John’s knowledge: By every reasonable assessment John would still be in her debt. But she might consider the matter resolved to her satisfaction if John himself were involved in the arrangements—if, for example, he were to express remorse for the situation and then, having been provided with the contact details, were to call the third party in order to explain the problem and ask for his help.

In this analogy, needless to say, Mrs Hall represents God, John a human wrongdoer, and Jesus the third party whose assistance we must solicit. As Aquinas noted, confession and contrition must be shown by the sinner himself but, “satisfaction has to do with the exterior act and here one can make use of friends.”

Two final points.

The first is that there could by chance appear many prophets falsely claiming to be a divine offer of atonement for human wrongdoing. A prophet making the claim truthfully would therefore need the “signature” of God upon his work—an effect that only God can bring about and which can be taken as a mark of endorsement. This would show us that God, the injured party, was willing to accept the reparation. One obvious way God could do this would be to violate the laws of nature—such as by raising the prophet back to life three days after his death. [3]

The second final point is that the means of atonement God offers makes no difference to us unless we associate ourselves with it. Just as John, in my analogy, needs to both repent and himself solicit the assistance of the third party in order to discharge his debt, so a wrongdoer needs to ask God to accept the life of Jesus as a reparation for his sins. And this again entails the necessity of a worldwide institution to announce that God has provided a means of atonement and to enjoin us to avail ourselves of it.


Swinburne suggests that the Christian claim that Jesus saved us from our sins is to be understood in the above way. By becoming incarnate in Jesus and living a perfect life, God provided a means of atonement. Thus, “God was both the wronged person and also the one who, thinking it so important that we should take our wrongdoing seriously, made available the reparation for us to offer back to him.”


Part I | Part III | 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] See the Resurrection of Jesus.

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.”

The Possibility of Miracles

One of the skeptic’s most familiar complaints about Christianity is that it asks us to believe in a lot of mythological nonsense that has been scientifically falsified—such as parting seas and virgin births and men who walk on water. It is certainly true that the Bible contains accounts of miracles. And it true that a Christian is committed to taking at least some of these literally. Indeed, Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the claim that Jesus rose miraculously from the dead—a point realised by the Apostles themselves.1 But can the skeptic justify his claim that it is absurd and irrational to even entertain a belief in miracles? In this post it shall be my concern to show that the answer to this question is: No.

Let us begin by defining a miracle. A miracle is a claimed event which, if it occurred, would constitute a violation of the laws nature. By this definition it is not even certain that all of the extraordinary claims in the New Testament are miracles. In Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, for example, the American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga includes a Quantum Mechanical account of the transformation of water into wine—sportingly provided by the atheist physicist Bradley Monton. GRW, for what it is worth, refers to the Ghirard-Rimini-Weber approach—one of a set of collapse theories in quantum mechanics. Morton says,

The wave function for each particle is spread throughout an unbounded region of the universe at every time except perhaps momentary instants of time. This means that for each particle there is at most a finite region where it couldn’t be localised by a GRW hit. Some, probably even most, particles could be localised anywhere. So for changing water into wine, it’s not a big deal—you’ve got a bunch of individual particles that are composing the water, and they can all have GRW hits such that their positions are redistributed to the locations that would be appropriate for them to compose wine.

Monton’s final assessment is that, “all of the other miracles are unproblematically compatible with quantum mechanics.”

Morton helps to show that even the most extraordinary claims in the New Testament are not in principle beyond the purview of science but such speculations are, in the end, beside the point. And this is because the Christian claim is not that the miracles recorded in the New Testament are Quantum anomalies—even ones orchestrated by Jesus. Christians claim that the miracles of Jesus, and in particular the Resurrection of Jesus, did violate the laws of nature. This is the precisely the point of the miracle: Since violating laws of nature is something which only God can do, the Resurrection constitutes a divine signature on the life and teachings of Jesus.

I will now briefly discuss three standard objections to the belief in miracles and show that each one is ultimately without warrant.

The Objection from Scientism

The first objection holds that the scientific method is the only valid source of true beliefs about the world. Its proponent claims: If something cannot be empirically measured and quantified, or proven by means of a repeatable experiment, then we cannot hold a justified belief in it. And since miracles, by definition, lie beyond the scope of the scientific method (i.e., are unquantifiable, untestable, etc.) we cannot hold a justified belief in miracles.

The problem with this view, dubbed “scientism” by its critics, is that it is self-referentially incoherent. Consider: The claim that the scientific method is the only valid source of true beliefs about the world is a metascientific claim—a belief about the world that cannot itself be empirically measured and quantified, or proven by means of a repeatable experiment. Perhaps one could attempt to demonstrate the validity of scientism with a philosophical proof. But since any such proof would both advocate the scientific method as the sole source of truth, and originate outside the scientific method, it would invalidate itself.

In recent times scientism has enjoyed an unselfconscious resurgence in the writing of the New Atheists but it can be traced back to a mid-twentieth century movement in Western philosophy called Logical Positivism. Logical Positivism held that the only meaningful statements were those capable of being verified through sense experience or (as in pure logic and mathematics) those that are true by tautology. All non-tautological claims were subject to the “verifiability criterion” championed by A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book, Language, Truth and Logic. The existence of God, interestingly, was not rejected outright; it was simply excluded from the conversation. Ayer said that it was just as absurd to be an atheist as to be a theist. The statements, “God exists” and “God does not exist” simply had no meaning.

By 1945, Logical Positivism had been abandoned by its own founders. The first problem with the verifiability criterion was that it forbade the metascientific precepts necessary to formulate a theoretical framework for scientific inquiry. The second problem was the fatal one already noted: The verifiability criterion is itself neither tautological nor verifiable. As the mathematician David Berlinski puts it, “All such arguments, when self-applied, self-destruct.”

The Objection from Hume

A second influential objection against the belief in miracles goes back to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume claimed that the inductive confirmation of natural law in everyday experience is so overwhelming that no eyewitness report of a violation of natural law could ever outweigh it. For instance: The fact that heavy objects are always and everywhere observed to fall to the Earth is overwhelming background evidence against a report that, say, a marble bust of Mozart had levitated into the air. Whether this miracle had really occurred or not, a rational person would be compelled to reject the report of its occurrence on the basis of his everyday experience of gravity.

Contemporary philosophers of religion identify two flaws in Hume’s argument, both of which are discussed by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne in his influential book The Existence of God. Swinburne first notes that, even granting Hume’s assumption that the only relevant background evidence is our experience of the laws of nature, there is no reason to suppose that this evidence always counts decisively against the report. “Maybe,” Swinburne writes, “so many careful witnesses report very clearly what happened that their evidence can outweigh the evidence from the normal operation of laws of nature.”

You might object that people lie, hallucinate and are easily deceived. But in support of his point that, very occasionally, we may be rationally compelled to accept evidence for a miraculous event from multiple, credible witnesses, Swinburne appeals to two fundamental principles of rationality: The Principle of Credulity and the Principle of Testimony. 

The Principle of Credulity states: If to a subject S it seems that x is present then, in the absence of special considerations, probably x is present. If Mr Green has the experience of it seeming to him that there is a German shepherd on his lawn then that is good evidence for his believing that there is a German shepherd on his lawn. “The principle of Credulity,” Swinburne asserts, “is a fundamental principle of rationality and unless we allow it to have considerable force, we quickly find ourselves in a skeptical bog in which we can hardly know anything.”

In ordinary experience we also use a wider principle: Other things being equal, we believe that what others tell us is probably true. “Most of our beliefs about the world,” observes Swinburne, “are based on what others claim to have perceived—beliefs about geography and history and science and everything else beyond immediate experience.” Swinburne argues that such beliefs are justified even when (as per usual) we do not personally vet witnesses for their reliability. Thus the Principle of Testimony: The experiences of others, in the absence of special considerations, are probably as they report them. In his book Swinburne enumerates and discusses various special considerations and shows that none of them can be universally applied to religious experience.2

Contra Hume: On these two principles of rationality detailed reports of a miracle from several credible witnesses may outweigh the inductive evidence of natural law from everyday experience—even without including the evidence of natural theology in our total background evidence.

“But Hume’s main mistake,” continues Swinburne, “was his assumption that in such cases our knowledge of what are the laws of nature is our only relevant background evidence.” Equally relevant to our assessment of a purported miracle is any background evidence for the existence of God.For if on the total background evidence it is plausible or even probable that there is a God, then it is plausible or even probable that there exists a being with the power to violate the laws of nature. Evidence that there is a God is evidence that laws of nature can be violated—which will have particular relevance in cases where the reported event is of a kind that God, if God exists, would have good reason to bring about.

What reasons might God have to cause an event that violates laws whose regular operation he usually ensures? Swinburne suggests that there are reasons of two kinds. The first is to answer human prayer. “A world in which everything occurred in accordance with natural laws,” he notes, “would not be a world in which God had any living interaction with human beings.” The second kind of reason why God might violate natural law is, “just occasionally to put his signature on the work or teaching of some prophet in order to show that that work or teaching was God’s work or teaching.”

Swinburne argues elsewhere that, on the assumption that God exists, an Incarnation authenticated by a divine miracle has a certain likelihood given the moral perfection of God and the obvious general fact of human sin and suffering.4 And when this consideration is combined with the evidence for the existence of God from natural theology, a multiply and independently attested miracle of the right kind under the right circumstances may outweigh the inductive evidence that, when natural laws operate in the usual way, such things do not occur. Hume’s attempt to show that a miracle is always unworthy of credit fails.

The Objection from the Laws of Conservation

The third and final objection to miracles is the claim that special divine action in the world would violate the laws of physics. Plantinga asks us to consider this example of a miracle: God creating an adult horse ex nihilo in the middle of Times Square. During such an event the laws of conservation of energy, momentum, and so forth, would all be violated. Physics, meanwhile, tells us that this is impossible. The objector concludes miracles are impossible.

However, the laws of conservation apply to systems that are causally closed—closed to causal influence from without. But as Plantinga reminds us it is no part of standard physics that the universe is causally closed and whether or not it is depends on whether or not God exists. For consider: If God does exist then there exists an omnipotent being who can act upon the universe from without. Evidence for the existence of God is therefore, equally, evidence against the causal closure of the universe. And likewise: any system in which a miracle occurs is, ipso facto, not constrained by the various conservation laws. One cannot reject a miracle on the unproven assumption that God does not exist and therefore the universe is causally closed; indeed, the reported miracle may be evidence against the assumption on the basis of which the skeptic is rejecting it.

We have seen that there is no indefeasible objection to the possibility of miracles and so no way for a skeptic to prevent at the outset a rational inquiry into their occurrence. Whether it is rational to believe in the foundational miracle of Christianity—the Resurrection of Jesus—cannot be settled a priori. It needs to be settled in the court of historical analysis.4


[1] Paul writes, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” 

[2] See my summary of his argument here.

[3] See the Modal Cosmological Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, as well as the arguments from Cosmic Teleology, Biological Teleology, Consciousness, Adequation, Moral Experience, Desire and Religious Experience. All nine lines of evidence for the existence of God are also lines of evidence for the possibility of a being who can violate the laws of nature and so for the possibility of miracles. They must therefore be included in our total background evidence for a purported miracle. 

[4] There is no space to detail the argument here. See his book The Resurrection of God Incarnate. I summarise the relevant part of that book here.

[5] See the historical argument for The Resurrection of Jesus.