Richard Swinburne is the Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford. He talked to Nigel Bovey about why God allows suffering and offers evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
Nigel Bovey: Professor, among your widely published evidence for the existence of God, you point to his all-powerful and all-knowing capacities. The Easter story includes the element of Jesus’ suffering, including his being abandoned by God. Why does an all-powerful, all-knowing God sometimes not answer prayer?
Richard Swinburne: Primarily, God is not interested in us having a comfortable life but in us becoming saints.
Many prayers are for people to get well from disease. If God answered all those prayers immediately, there would be no scope for medical science. There would be no scope for us to help other people or for us to cope with the difficult circumstances of life – because they wouldn’t exist.
It is, for example, a great blessing for us to have serious choices about how we will cope with suffering and death. It is a fundamental truth about humans that each time we make a good choice we make it easier to make a good choice next time. Similarly, each time we make a bad choice we make it easier to make a bad choice next time. So gradually we form our character.
It is only when we are in particularly difficult circumstances that we have a really difficult choice as to the sort of person we are to be. If we take the right choice, we become saints.
Disease, suffering and the possibility of death give us that opportunity. This explains to me why God doesn’t intervene very often – it would defeat the purposes for which he created us.
There is a redemptive element within suffering, then?
There is the availability of a redemptive element within suffering. It is up to us how we deal with suffering. If I have children, I expect to interact with them sometimes. If they ask me for something which might be good for them and they ask persistently, I might well give it to them.
God wants to interact with us and sometimes he will answer prayer. It is good that we should ask him, because this might be one of the occasions when he wants to give. Because God wants interaction, he doesn’t want to give us the good things unless we ask.
I would expect God to answer prayer sometimes, but we often can’t know if it’s a good thing for us to have what we’re asking for.
Many people would agree that Jesus was a great teacher. What is the evidence that Jesus was more – that he was the Son of God?
When God created us he clearly created us, as regards this life, to be subject to a quite a lot of suffering. If, as a father, I make my children suffer for a good reason, there comes a time when I must suffer with them.
Likewise, God gave us free will. We abused it greatly. We need to make atonement for our sins. If we can’t atone for our sins, God might do it for us. For this reason, we might expect God to become incarnate – to take upon himself human nature.
If he does become incarnate, we would expect him to live a certain sort of life: a good life, a life of suffering, a life in which he said he was making atonement for our sins, a life in which he showed that he believed himself to be God incarnate. All these things are true of Jesus.
One might also expect God to put his signature on that particular life to show uniquely that this was God incarnate. The resurrection provides that kind of guarantee because if the resurrection happened as the Bible describes – the coming to life again of somebody who was dead for 36 hours – then it was clearly a setting aside of the laws of nature and therefore something which the author of the laws of nature alone can do. There is enough good evidence as to why God should bring about a super miracle in connection with that particular individual.
The resurrection is the confirmation of Jesus’ teaching. Given that he taught that he was God incarnate, it all fits together.
The validity of Christianity depends upon the resurrection of Jesus. What evidence is there for the resurrection?
We would expect a resurrection to be associated with a prophet who led the sort of life and did the sort of things that Jesus did. There have been many purported ‘messiahs’ who did not claim to be God or to be making atonement for our sins, or who did not lead very good lives, but Jesus is the only prophet in the whole of human history who satisfied all these prior requirements.
There is also no founder of a religion with whom there is associated the kind of evidence that there is for the resurrection. No other founder is associated with an end-of-life miracle. There are two kinds of historical evidence for the resurrection. First, the tomb was empty.
If he were risen from the dead, we would expect his tomb to be empty. That the tomb was empty is sometimes explained as something that was read back into history in order to explain appearances of Jesus to his followers.
That is clearly not so, because the Gospel of Matthew records that the Jews claimed the disciples had stolen the body. By claiming this, they were admitting that the tomb was empty. It seems to me, therefore, that the tomb was empty.
Secondly, a lot of people are reported to have interacted with Jesus after the resurrection. Three of the Gospels report that a number of people had up-close encounters with Jesus. The Gospel that doesn’t – Mark (of which the final verses after Mark 16:9 are probably lost) – still records Jesus prophesying the resurrection. The Gospels, and Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, list various people who saw Jesus after the resurrection.
It is sometimes suggested that the resurrection was a conspiracy – that it was all made up. It would be very difficult to read the Gospels and reach that conclusion. There are many accounts in the New Testament from many sources, and most of Jesus’ followers gave their lives rather than deny the fact of the resurrection.
Could people have been mistaken?
We might say one or two people made a mistake in reporting they’d met Jesus. But the number of people who are said to have interacted with Jesus suggests strong evidence. The primary sources of the New Testament regarded the resurrection as its central message. There is no counter-evidence.
Thinking that that sort of thing just couldn’t happen is not good enough evidence to counter the resurrection.
At what point in your life were you convinced of the divinity of Jesus and the truth of the resurrection?
Through reading the Gospels, I had always believed it in a vague sort of way. But I didn’t crystallise the argument until I did some research about 15 years ago for my book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate.
What does your Christian faith give you?
It gives me great joy. It’s a wonderful blessing to think that I owe my life to a God with whom I can interact in prayer and who has a job of work for me to do. I also have a great hope of an afterlife in which my life will be even more fulfilling.
Richard Swinburne is Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford and author of The Resurrection of God Incarnate.
Interview and photo: Nigel Bovey
This article first appeared in The War Cry and is reprinted with permission