Does Resurrection Contradict Science?

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March 29, 2013 Tags: Christ & New Creation

Today's entry was written by Matt J. Rossano. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Does Resurrection Contradict Science?

Note: Originally posted on June 10, 2011. This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

The scientific case against resurrection is pretty straightforward: once dead you stay dead -- that's just the way it works. Coming back to life after having been dead (I mean really dead) would constitute a violation of natural law -- a miracle -- and miracles just don't happen. Fair enough. But in his recent book on the last days of Jesus (Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection), Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI) argues that reckoning Resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse is to misunderstand its true significance. Jesus' Resurrection, he contends, was an utterly singular event, straining the very limits of human understanding:

"Anyone approaching the Resurrection accounts in the belief that he knows what rising from the dead means will inevitably misunderstand those accounts and will then dismiss them as meaningless" (p. 243).

In fact, if Jesus' Resurrection were "merely" coming back to life in any way that we might comprehend, then it would be of little significance.

"Now it must be acknowledged that if in Jesus' Resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse, it would ultimately be of no concern to us" (p. 243).

So what then does Resurrection mean? For Benedict it represents a new dimension of reality breaking through into human experience. It is not a violation of the old; it is the manifestation of something new.

"Jesus had not returned to a normal human life in this world like Lazarus and the others whom Jesus raised from the dead. He has entered upon a different life, a new life -- he has entered the vast breadth of God himself..." (p. 244).

Because it is something entirely new, it cannot represent a violation of natural law as understood by science.

"Naturally there can be no contradiction of clear scientific data. The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented -- a new dimension of reality that is revealed. What already exists is not called into question. Rather we are told that there is a further dimension, beyond what was previously known. Does that contradict science? Can there really only ever be what there has always been? Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new? If there really is a God, is he not able to create a new dimension of human existence, a new dimension of reality altogether?" (p. 246-7)

Thus, in this view, Resurrection (as with all true miracles) is not contrary to science, but an indicator that science does not (yet?) describe the full expanse of reality. Indeed, some may argue that science itself contains similar "indicators." The 11 (or so) dimensional universe required by some versions of string theory, the multiverse theory of the universe where ours is but one of an infinite array of universes with variable physical laws, quantum entanglements, "spooky" action at a distance, the mysterious emergence of consciousness from inorganic matter -- all push the limits of human reason and imagination, suggesting to some that reality may be far more complex than the human mind can grasp.

For a moment, let us entertain the possibility that Resurrection is as Benedict interprets it: not a violation of natural law but an indicator of something beyond our scientific understanding of the universe. This has interesting implications for understanding how believers and skeptics approach the issue. If Resurrection does not violate science, then science does not necessarily constitute an impediment to accepting the reality of Resurrection. If the difference between the skeptic and believer is not science, then is it just a matter of imagination? The believer imagines greater possibilities for the universe than the non-believer. While this is possible, it seems questionable. To my knowledge, no research has found differences in imaginative abilities between religious and non-religious people. Moreover, contrarian examples easily come to mind: Isaac Asimov was an atheist but hardly lacking in imagination when it came to science fiction. I tend to think that both believers and non-believers can imagine (with varying degrees of effort, I'm sure) the new possibilities implied by Resurrection.

Thus, if it is neither imagination nor science that prompts skepticism about Resurrection, then what is left? I suggest that it comes down to a question of authority: At what point does one allow imaginative possibilities to have authority over how one lives? To the believer, Resurrection has an authority that science fiction does not. Resurrection is not thought-provoking entertainment. It requires far more than just imagining greater possibilities for the universe. It requires a change of life, here and now. Unlike the microscopic hidden dimensions of string theory, the new dimension implied by Resurrection has "broken though" into everyday reality and demands a response -- even if that response is to actively ignore it.

Now, what convinces the believer that Resurrection merits such authority when other imaginative possibilities such as extraterrestrial life or time-travel do not? The answer here appears to be historical commitment. There's no record of people committing themselves to the point of martyrdom to other imaginative possibilities as they have to Resurrection. The earliest example of such commitment being found, of course, in the dramatic post-crucifixion turn-around of the Apostles. Such an astounding change of heart, followed by an unwavering commitment capable of altering human history demands a categorically unique explanation: Resurrection.

The believer's argument, however, remains unconvincing to the skeptic. However impressive they might be, a change of heart and steadfast commitment do not necessarily add up to a new dimension of reality. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Fair enough. So a key question regarding the interpretation of Resurrection is this: Is the post-crucifixion history of Christianity extraordinary? Does it compel the dispassionate observer to concede that a categorically unique event could plausibly be its best explanation?

It ought to be upon questions such as those above that skeptics and believers respectfully engage one another, rather than the simplistic and often acrimonious sloganeering that has increasingly become the norm.

Matt J. Rossano is Professor of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University and author of Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved.

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Lou Jost - #78003

March 30th 2013

Wow. “There’s no record of people committing themselves to the point of martyrdom to other imaginative possibilities as they have to Resurrection.” Let’s see, just during my lifetime I have seen David Koresh’s followers die, thirty-some people kill themselves for the “Heaven’s Gate” alien cult, Jim Jones’s hundred+, and countless martyrs/suicide bombers willing to give their lives for Allah.

Lou Jost - #78005

March 30th 2013

But yes, it would be great to have honest discussion along the lines you suggest: “So a key question regarding the interpretation of Resurrection is this: Is the post-crucifixion history of Christianity extraordinary? Does it compel the dispassionate observer to concede that a categorically unique event could plausibly be its best explanation?”

“It ought to be upon questions such as those above that skeptics and believers respectfully engage one another, rather than the simplistic and often acrimonious sloganeering that has increasingly become the norm.”

Merv - #78007

March 30th 2013

I’m here, Lou—though I’ll be in and out this weekend celebrating Easter and spending time with family so I don’t guarantee timely replies.  But it sure is an appropriate weekend to have just such discussions!


Lou Jost - #78016

March 31st 2013

I have to write a paper today, so no rush. Anyway Ted and perhaps Matt will soon have posts discussing specific evidence, so we can wait for those. The issue is very complex!

Joriss - #78008

March 30th 2013

Committed even to the point of martyrdom has nothing to do with the suicide bombers for Allah, nor with the Jones’ followers. These guys killed themselves and - don’t forget! - many others, for some reason, they chose to die out of free will, without being persecuted, or they were compelled or brainwashed by their leaders.
That has nothing to do with martyrdom, it’s self-chosen martyrdom, even although they think so. A real martyr doesn’t choose to die, and still less kill another, he prefers dying above denying Jesus. A real martyr dies out of love for Jesus who is a reality in his life, and prays for his murderers.

Lou Jost - #78014

March 31st 2013

The people I mentioned were so convinced that their beliefs were true that they were willing to give up their lives. That goes to the point made in the post, the power of their commitment to an imaginative belief. Early Christians are by no means exceptional in this kind of commitment. We see it today, every day, for all kinds of crazy beliefs.

As far as I know, there is no primary source to indicate that the apostles were martyrs in your sense either. Nothing at all is recorded about the deaths of most apostles. For the two or three who were put to death, we do not know whether their recanting at the last minute would have spared them. But in any case, my point is that other belief-sets (including some  ridiculously absurd beliefs) have often had such a strong hold on people that they were willing to die for them.

Lou Jost - #78015

March 31st 2013

One thing these kinds of deaths do indicate is that the beliefs were sincerely held.

Ted Davis - #79816

May 10th 2013

Yes. They sincerely believed that Jesus had been raised bodily from the dead. They did not die for something they knew to be false. And, it was probably almost all of the original disciples who were martyred, not 2 or 3 as you suggest, Lou. See

GJDS - #78018

March 31st 2013

But surely this question of belief includes the meaning of the resurrection, the impact this has on the way people live, and indeed are - this is central to the issue of belief. The persecution of early Christians was just that, the authorities and the mob, deciding their pagan beliefs were not been held by the Christians, put them to death. I would add that if the Christians were to have acted like pagans, and live lives of debauchery, idolatry, and indeed take up practices and beliefs that would be crazy, they would not have faced persecution.

I also doubt that anyone pagan would have taken notes on just who and how any Christian had been put to death based on their standing within the Christian communities. Nor is it reasonable to believe anyone, including the Apostles, sought death in any way. Christ came so that we may have life – this is the gospel message.

It seems that atheists overlay their oddly imagines view and belief of what early Christianity MUST have been like, and then proceed from there. On the few accounts of martyrdom in which the victim may have had an opportunity to recant, we can read from thee accounts that they were more concerned with strengthening the faith of other Christians, then worrying about their fate. They also took courage from the example of Christ on the Cross, who forgave His enemies, knowing He died for the sins of all humanity. There are other accounts of the life of Christian communities, their righteous living, and the care they had for the poor and the infirmed – Augustine (if memory serves) comments on the increase in the numbers in the Christian community had as much to do with their conduct and way of life, then perhaps the personal calling they experienced from God (I think this is from either the Confessions or City of God). This is not the story of crazy people seeking death, to others and themselves, because others cynically manipulating them. It is the story of people who embraced life in Christ and all the goodness this brings to them.

Lou Jost - #78022

March 31st 2013

Once again you seem to miss my point. I said nothing at all about what early Christians must have been like.

GJDS - #78052

April 1st 2013

I have not missed your point (it would be great if you could make your point with some clarrity and supporting data, which you fail at every turn) - nonetheless, it is your point that,  “Early Christians are by no means exceptional in this kind of commitment. We see it today, every day, for all kinds of crazy beliefs.” I think ‘crazy beliefs, and early Christians .... not exceptional… seems to be a point you are trying to make. Again, strange and irrational ascertains, little else for someone who has ‘objective truth that explains’? I think you indlulge in self-deception and underpin this by thinking, “all those crazy people out there…”. 

Lou Jost - #78077

April 2nd 2013

You are looking for ways to be offended. I did not imply the early Christians were crazy. I pointed out that people are willing to die for beliefs that you and I would consider crazy, so the existence of Christian martyrs does not provide strong evidence that their beliefs are true. It only proves that the beliefs were sincerely held.

At the risk of offending you, I will admit that I think the whole Christian story does seem bizarre. That there is a personal creator of the universe who set it in motion just to produce us, and that this personal creator was rooting for a particular small team of humans whom he helped massacre everyone in their path, and who demanded to be worshipped and was willing to kill those who disobeyed, and who then had to send down himself, who was also his son, to be killed and raised from the dead in order to atone for something the first people did, and who, in spite of his desire for worship and his heavy-handed past, now is completely invisible, and who promises that his followers will actually have new bodies and live forever some day….well, yes, I think that is a crazy belief. That doesn’t mean it can’t be true; quantum theory or evolution might also sound crazy to outsiders. But we should ask for pretty strong evidence for such a bizarre story, which looks so much like a whole series of other improbable stories glorifying other cultures and gods around the world.

GJDS - #78088

April 2nd 2013

What is both offensive and simply insane Lou, is that you consider it your calling in life to constantly point out areas of Christianity that you do not accept - this shows more interest in Christianity than we would find in the average Christian who may be satisified with their understanding and beliefs.

To continue your bizzare theme; it should be even crazier to you, to believe that a God who is all powerful would allow His son to be brutalised and killed, when He could easily have intervened and also punished the criminals - after all He (according to you) had committed brutal acts in the past, so why was He so impotent on this occasion. Could there be another answer to this (silly) question?

An intelligent and unbiased person may stop and ask himself - why does the Christian faith have such obvious (and easy to interpret in this manner) readings of its basic beliefs? And why would such a wide cross section of Western civilisation accept the Gospel - do you think they were such imbeciles they could not have noticed these matters? Or do you think we have all waited for so many centuries until you popped up to dazzle us with your intellectual insights?

I will not indulge in theological discussion since you have admitted that you lack any understanding in this subject. I again point out that a Christian is expected to examine his/her beliefs and is admonished to accept that which he freely believes is true. That is where your outlook demolishes itself - even God cannot force someone to believe in Christ - it must be freely done and one’s conscience is his guide in the final analysis. This also means a Christian needs to be aware of all opinions and yet be pursuaded only by his own conclusions. This is biblical teaching - we cannot selectively choose sections of the Bible and ignore others - all must be considered and we are admonished to think on all teachings.

This is where you keep getting the discussion wrong - and again I am simply puzzled - just what motivates you to actively put forward such juvenile opinions. It is obvious that you have come to your conclusions and do not accept Christianity (or other religions, as you keep saying) - so why so much energy and time in matters that have ceased to interest you (I mean non-belief)? You have avoided direct answers to these type of questions, and I think you should answer. Otherwise I would have no option but to believe you are simply crazy.

Lou Jost - #78091

April 2nd 2013

“it should be even crazier to you, to believe that a God who is all powerful would allow His son to be brutalised and killed…” Yes, to be honest, that seems like a bizarre belief, and you would probably think so too if some other religion made it. The whole idea of the creator of the universe even having a son sounds odd to me.

“This is biblical teaching - we cannot selectively choose sections of the Bible and ignore others - all must be considered and we are admonished to think on all teachings.” You should consider not just sections of the Bible but also cultures and teachings which reject the Bible. Until you do, you cannot say that you have freely chosen your beliefs. 

“You have avoided direct answers to these type of questions, and I think you should answer. Otherwise I would have no option but to believe you are simply crazy.” I’ve directly answered you every time you have asked this. I don’t have time to answer again. But I’ll add one more reason: People here are discussing my favorite field of science, evolution. I want to participate in that discussion. I like exposing my thinking to challenges, and I like to learn new things if I can, and I want to keep the discussion factual.

“so why so much energy and time in matters that have ceased to interest you (I mean non-belief)?” Unbelief does interest me very much. I want to live in a world where people don’t consult an ancient book to decide things. I think religion tends to cut off rational dialogue about public policy, for example see the controversy about birth control  in the US and the developing world. I want to live in a world where people don’t deny the accumulated human knowledge of the last two thousand years. I don’t want religious zealots filling local public school boards with backwards-thinking people who will try to brainwash our kids.

I have nothing against the private beliefs that help guide people in their personal lives. But I hope even the people who think they need a god in their lives will eventually realize that the strength they think they get from their god is actually an inner strength that comes from themselves. They don’t need to attribute this to a god in order to make it through life.

I am pretty sure that if something happened tomorrow to make Merv realize that there is no god, he would not go out and start murdering people or cheating them or stealing. He is not good because of fear of god, he is good for deeper reasons. He may externalize the credit for this, but that’s just an illusion.

GJDS - #78101

April 2nd 2013

Very well - at least I am getting a glimpse of what it is that motivates you. You want the world to be a better place and somehow you have equated all (or some) religious beliefs with the bad things in the world - yet you seem to ignore the knowledge you rely on, obtained over the past 2000 years, is availabe to you through educational institutions set up by Christian organisations - and in Asia/Indai/China, even more so. This does not seem to you to be a contradiction, but then what can I say. As for the greatest slaughter of human beings by any one man has been done by an atheist called Mao does not bother you in the least (some have estimated Mao was responsible for more deaths than both Hitler and Stalin combined - not to mention the torture and lost generations in China - and off course we forget the killing field in Cambodia - what atheists again!!) Seems you have an odd view of what is good for the world.

You skipped over the bit that Christians are obligated to examine all things and should believe if their conscience dictates this - somehow I do not think that you are the person who can judge just why aother human being chooses his faith, or the link between that and his conduct and character. Yet, as I mentioned on other occasions, atheists such as yourself are convinced that you can do just that. Could you be wrong?

I will add this - what I think is realy crazy and beyond belief is that I or my fellow humans were to rely on your understanding of what is good and bad, ethical, morally sound, and all of the things that make a difference between a good and bad world, from your studies, because you and other Darwinists have convinced yourselves that you will understand this by studying monkeys, ants, birds, crocodiles, flowers, etc.  

And again we have you pontificating from a position of ignorance - you assume that I (and others) have not considered other beliefs and religions to come to a better understanding - or that all of these zealots you fear so much are all of those crazy people who ram their religion down your helpless throats. I do not think that has happened - but once people resit your ideology, then they must be crazy, since you are the sane ones. Again, most of your comments have the sound of idealogical propaganda, and not those of a person who is motivated by what is true and good. I have stated on numerous occasions that the character of every human being is a measure of what is good or otherwise. It is odd that you will skirt around this, and keep on with your obsession with God or gods, and imply you know what is best for all of us ( I have not the time to check all of this for spelling and grammar).

Lou Jost - #78129

April 3rd 2013

Not all things religious are bad, but most of the good could be done better without the added goddiness. You mention the Christian schools in Asia. They would be great if all they did was educate, but I am confident they also indoctrinate kids, and that is one of their main purposes. If they are like the Christian school I went to, they probably spend at least one hour per day in Mass or religion class. To understand why that bothers me, how would you react to the setting up of good Muslim schools everywhere, if those schools spent an hour a day teaching a kind how to be a fundamentalist Muslim?

Yes Mao was an atheist. You may not know this but he was also very anti-science. He sentenced many of the best minds of his generation to hard labor and near-starvation in rural areas as part of his “cultural revolution.” Universities were closed for a decade. Some of the brilliant young physicists he sentenced became good friends of mine when, after Mao’s death, when they were finally allowed to study again and were allowed to attend my university. Their only crime was to be scientists. Mao’s Red Book played the role of the Bible in Chinese culture. No discussion was permitted. Mao was everything that science  hates: authoritarian, dogmatic, beyond reason.

”....what I think is realy crazy and beyond belief is that I or my fellow humans were to rely on your understanding of what is good and bad, ethical, morally sound, and all of the things that make a difference between a good and bad world, from your studies, because you and other Darwinists have convinced yourselves that you will understand this by studying monkeys, ants, birds, crocodiles, flowers, etc.”

Surely real studies can help tell us what might make the world a better place (and you would be living in a cave right now if scientists were content to just read the Bible). Science can also tell us something about how and why our ethical sense arose. It offers only very limited moral guidance though; knowing how or why does not, by itself, tell us much about what we should do. Neither do ancient mythologies.

I gather from this and your earlier comments that you deny common descent of mammals, evolutionary origin of man, and maybe even an old earth. In another comment, you also refused to even look at the evidence for evolution presented here on the Biologos website. At the same time you keep harping on my craziness and accuse me of not sincerely seeking truth.

GJDS - #78139

April 3rd 2013

At least I appreciate the humour in these exchanges, even if they get us nowhere - an atheist preaching to a scientist about science - simply priceless - and science is now the real religion, if only we all understood what you understood…... Again you seem determined to lable me within your Darwinian outlook, even though I have shown this to be wrong.

Lou Jost - #78164

April 4th 2013

I’m glad I brightened your day.

Merv - #78019

March 31st 2013

Happy Easter, everyone!

Joriss raised a good point, Lou.  Suicide bombers might more accurately be called homocidal bombers.  Martyrs don’t seek the deaths of their opponents, but their salvation instead.  In fact it is a well-recognized blight for the Christian cause that it was the justification for homicidal tragedies (crusades, inquistion, etc.) of its own.  

But your point is still well-taken, Lou.  I’m sure there are many people who have given their own lives (without murdering others) for a cause.  Without even looking any up, I’m thinking of Buddhists who burned themselves publically protesting war or other things—but even there, as Joriss says—they chose that.  They may have been identifying with victims who could not choose; a very noble thing to do.  But they didn’t have anyone there forcing them to die for that cause.  We can all easily imagine risking our lives (e.g. running into a burning house) to save a family member or beloved friend.  “For a good man, one might dare to die…”.   But we aren’t only speaking of death here.  This also involves living one’s entire remaining life for something.  I think you are absolutely right that their beliefs were sincerely held indeed!  I know; this isn’t proof of anything, etc.   But transformed, formerly broken lives are the beginning of that mountain of evidence we Christians hold and retell so dearly.

To continue on the good points raised by GJDS above, I wonder if one thing that might still distinguish Christians is the sustained quality through two thousand years of history of giving their lives in just such ways to Christ.    Even if we can’t verify all the traditions surrounding the alleged martyr deaths of most of the first apostles, it can scarcely be doubted from Paul’s writings at the time that both he and the others suffered greatly and in some cases repeatedly with beatings and imprisonment.  They weren’t seeking death and in fact fled for their lives and appealed to authorities for defense on numerous occasions (when it wasn’t the authorities themselves doing the oppessing).  The simplest way for them to avoid all such danger would have been to simply stop preaching Christ.  But they persisted and the persecution (and the gospel!) spread widely despite the dangers associated with it.  


Lou Jost - #78024

March 31st 2013

Yes, I have no doubt that early Christians were persecuted, and that many were killed. We have Pliny and Trajan’s correspondence about that. My point is that many people even today are willing to give their lives for a belief (and in many cases, everyone here would agree that the belief they died for was truly crazy, e.g. comet-trailing space aliens in the case of the Heaven’s Gate cult). I think those who choose to take their own lives may show an even stronger resolve than those who have it taken from them unwillingly.  But I don’t want to argue about that, I just want to point out that many other cults, including ones which are completely ridiculous,  have had so much impact on people that they were willing to die for them. So we have to be careful about using this as evidence of anything other than sincerity of their belief. That is still an interesting conclusion. The people who knew Jesus apparently were sincerely affected by him. But as I said, he is not the only one who has had that effect on people.

GJDS - #78053

April 1st 2013

I am tempted to reply to this also, but first I want to ask, “What is the point of this comment?” What evidence is it you seek - with the exception that you seem obsessed with cults and odd behaviour?

Lou Jost - #78059

April 1st 2013

I wanted to point out that it is not something special to Christianity that people are willing to die for their beliefs. I also wanted to point out that some people are even willing to die for quite silly beliefs. So just because people were willing to die for Belief X, that does not mean that Belief X was especially profound or true.

GJDS - #78061

April 1st 2013

I am not aware of any claim that has differentiated Christianity and its martyrs, with the exxception that would rather die than renounce their belief in Christ as their saviour, and all that is meant within that phrase. Ca you point out anyone who has claimed otherwise?

Just how does your comment about other (silly) people and their (silly) beliefs add, or is relevant to the discussion about the Christian faith? (Other than your usual practice of finding ways to denigrate the Christian faith).

Joriss - #78020

March 31st 2013

I don’t agree. Do you think an Allah-bomber is sincere? He may think so on the outside, but he denies the inner part of his feelings, denies compassion for his victims, doesn’t let his heart speak, but hardens it, by only focusing on one point; his so-called martyrdom that expells every other thing from his life, and which is eventually horror, hate, terrorism. This is in very great contrast with the loving way christians commit their life to Christ. They don’t seek to die. They are put to death by others. If you read the book of Eusebius’ Church History, you can see that the martyrs of the early church were neither fanatic nor brainwashed and absolutely not insane. They had the loving and meek mind that was in Jesus and Stephen and, although in death agony, were concerned about their enemies and asked forgiveness for them.

So that’s why the point that was made in the post makes sense, because these people were sober and had healthy minds.


Lou Jost - #78025

March 31st 2013

Well, at this distance in time, that is a hard thing to know. Yes, they believed in some things that seem noble to us.

I expect a devout findamentalist Muslim would make a similar assessment of the Muslim martyrs (and they do use that word when they explain their views in English), even though their acts seem hideous to us.  Merv mentioned the brave Buddhist monks who ignited themselves to protest the Vietnam war… I remember how deeply that impressed me as a child growing up during that war. But whether we think the Muslims or the Buddhists are noble or not, we can’t deny they took their beliefs (right or wrong) seriously enough to give their lives.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78026

March 31st 2013

One thing that needs to be pointed out and that Jihadist bombers kill more Muslims than more non-Muslims, so it is hard to understand it as a statement of Islamic faith.  The war between Sunnis and Shittes is often more bloody that the conflict against non-Muslims.

It might be noted that while the Christians were persecuted by the Romans, it was the Jews who declared war against the Romans which led to the destruction of the Temple and the bloody siege of Masada and other bloody battles.   

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78028

March 31st 2013

The problem is not science versus Christianity, but the failure of philosophy which has fialed to keep pace with the ideas and facts let loose by science and Christianity.

Western civilization is the product of both Christainity and modern science.  If it is to survive, they must work together to produce a new philosophy to keep the civilization in sync.  The success of both science and Christianity has blinded each to the danger of building a system of thought without a solid foundation.      

Merv - #78029

March 31st 2013

Roger, I was recently visiting with my son who was telling me about William Jennings Bryan—an interesting and paradoxical man by today’s political standards.  To loosely paraphrase something Bryan said of himself—he apparently claimed to be a “progressive” in everything except religion because if Jesus is the last and best word in religion, then how is one supposed to be “progressive” on that?   If anything, it seems we don’t need new philosophies nowadays, but maybe a return to some of the old ones that have persisted through most of Christian history until perhaps recent centuries.  I was very impressed with Catholic philosopher Ed Feser (link shared by Jon in another thread); who writes of Classical theism vs. the newer “theistic personalism” (on which most atheists today waste their powder and shot—and understandably so since that seems to be the vernacular so many of us modern Christians also slip into.)  The trouble is, this new conception of God would be barely recognizeable by most of the great Christian thinkers of our church history.  So the big irony is:  militant atheists have spent a lot of serious energy debunking something that it turns out most Christians of history probably don’t (or shouldn’t) believe in anyway.   But I should let Dr. Feser speak for himself:  try this link where he speaks of William Paley’s conception of God:

This should be of interest to you both, Roger and Lou.  (Jon, thank you so much for putting me onto Feser—I’m learning a lot from other of his writings as well.)


Merv - #78030

March 31st 2013

Lou—I agree with you that there are very sincere people who sincerely believe wrong things.  But I’d still like to hear you differentiate between a a true martyr and someone else who is either killing themselves and maybe even others along with them.  If you aren’t yet aware of that distinction that Joriss and GJDS wrote about, then we need to clarify until you are.


Lou Jost - #78031

March 31st 2013

Merv, the argument I made didn’t depend on exactly how the person died, or whether we think it was a noble cause. My point was that all the people I mentioned were willing to give up their lives for their beliefs, even though many of the beliefs were crazy. Giving up one’s life for a belief is no evidence for the validity of that belief, but rather it shows the belief was sincerely held.  That’s all I am trying to point out.

GJDS - #78032

March 31st 2013

Again I find your statements puzzling if not contradictory - just how do you differentiate between the state of a person’s mind, his/her character, way of life, and the validity of their belief? Are we back to some type of capacity (or instrument) your or others may have to ‘objectively’ come to knowledge concerning a persons ‘make up?’

The sensible proposotion held by all people I know is that we judge, or more correctly, comprehend a persons and his beliefs (and their validity, whatever you may mean by this) by their deeds. If their deeds suject they may be metnally unstable, that is the validity of it all - if their deeds show they are of a sound mind, that is the validity - we then try to relate or link their beliefs with their actions.

Merv - #78033

March 31st 2013

And I already agreed with your point.  The point I [and GJDS below]  put before you is that their manner of death (and perhaps even more so their life) is of critical consideration as well.  Are you unable to see any distinctions? 


Lou Jost - #78048

April 1st 2013

I disagree with Augustine’s quote below. It does not matter if his cause seems worthy to us, what matters is that it seemed worthy enough to him to die for. At least that is the way I understand the word, and the way it is ordinarily used; there is no value judgement of the person’s beliefs involved.

Of course I have a higher opinion of someone who lives quietly according to his principles than I do of someone who tries to impose his mythology on the rest of the world by force.

GJDS - #78054

April 1st 2013

Augustine is showing why the word ‘martyr’ would apply as it is related to the cause the person died for; other setting would require words like, hero, soldier, fireman, (or crazy as this is the word you seem inclined to use).

Lou Jost - #78057

April 1st 2013

But the dictionary backs up my use of the word. There is no judgement about the worthiness of the ideals a martyr died for. The top two definitions in the Merriam Webster dictionary are

: a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion

: a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle

GJDS - #78060

April 1st 2013

The dictionary has a number of uses of the term - but I will accept yours on this - does this not at least point to some of the greatest human attributes; that of principle and refusing to renounce one’s faith in the face of great suffering and even death. What do you consider as worthy - human attributes typically indicative of a noble character and principle, or a sterile argument about experiments and measurements that, when considered at an arms length, can be shown to be insufficient against the claims made wrt to their content? And even then, would we not at least consider your position as worthy of comment because you are willing to hold it as a belief (by this I mean both your atheistic outlook and your dedication to Darwin)?

Now if you take refuge in terms such as ‘crazy’ and ‘mentally unstable’, I would be very dissapointed and will respond accordingly.

Jon Garvey - #78040

April 1st 2013

It is the cause, not the death, that makes the martyr.

Napoleon Bonaparte (though I’m pretty sure I saw it in a Puritan author predating that by a couple of centuries).

Jon Garvey - #78041

April 1st 2013

In fact it was Saint Augustine.

liberale - #78047

April 1st 2013

No, resurrection does not contradict science at all.  On the contrary, it was quite common in the past.  Attis, Mithra, Krishna, Dionysus all have done it.

Sean Folly - #78050

April 1st 2013

I think the case of those disciples that we can confirm to have been executed for their beliefs can be differentiated from the jihadist, the heavens gate, and the branch davidian groups he fact that they seemed to believe they had been personal witness to something that went against their understanding of the world.  We can’t confirm that their lives would’ve been spared if they had recanted, but we can be sure that the Roman empire wanted to crush christianity.  It seems reasonable to make a few assumptions here: 1) forcing a movement’s respected leader to recant is an effective way to stop beliefs from spreading, and 2) offering to spare said leader’s life would be an effective means of coercion.

last point: most of the pagan deities mentioned were resurrected once a year. They would die sometime in September and resurrect sometime in March.

Joriss - #78072

April 2nd 2013


You said:

“But the dictionary backs up my use of the word. There is no judgement about the worthiness of the ideals a martyr died for.”

Yes, but of course we are not discussing the various meanings of the word in dictionaries - which can be very interesting in itself, and which can give a wide range of different shades of meaning - but we are talking about the word martyrdom as used by Rossano in this post.
And then we could know, that in that context the meaning of the word is used for the way the early christians were prepared, and many other christians in the course of time were prepared, and many christians in our days are prepared to suffer and, if necessary, even prepared to give up all their possessions and eventually their life, rather than deny Jesus and denounce their faith. And all this, without fanatism, insanity or brainwashing, just by normal, stable and responsable, right-thinking and loving people. So worthiness is absolutely involved here. It is unique and can only be explained by a belief, founded in reality, the resurrection of Jesus, knowing that death is not the end, and that we shall live with Him.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78074

April 2nd 2013


With all due respect you are mistaken in your criticism of me and your defense of traditional philosophy and theology.

If God is absolutely One, then the Trinity and Biblical Christianity is wrong.  God is a Personal as are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We need a new philosophy that makes this real, not the old philosophy that denies this.

I do not believe that God imposes a design upon the universe, but God the Father and God’s universe are not the same.  That is why the Bible says that God the Father created the universe through the Son, the Logos.  This guarantees both the unity and the diversity of the universe.  The universe is both like God in that it is good, and not like God in that it is physical.

This is the very point that NO ONE, believer and non-believer, seems to comprehend as per John 1.  God is not simply One, which means that everything is God, nor did God create a dualistic reality where God is completely separate from the universe.  God the Father created a complex/one universe through the Logos to which the Father relates though the Son and Holy Spirit.   

If you want to cling to traditional philosophy and theology, say Good-Bye to science and everything else in the world as we know it.      


Merv - #78080

April 2nd 2013

Roger, you wrote:

If God is absolutely One, then the Trinity and Biblical Christianity is wrong.  God is a Personal as are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. which comes the reply (from our Lord, no less who begins with this in reply to the scribes question of what commandment is foremost of all) in Mark 12:29:  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…”

Sorry, Roger, Jesus leads the way on this one, and thousands of years of Rabinnical and now church father tradition uphold this.  Nor does this deny the trinity, which I fully accept.  The trinity does not refer to three Gods, but one, who has revealed himself to us both in Spirit and in the flesh which does not make him one whit less God the creator.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #78082

April 2nd 2013

My brother Merv,

Have you not read John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 

This verse does not deny the unity of God, but it does proclaim the divinity of the Logos, Jesus Christ.  Indeed the Hebrew word for God, Elohim, used in the Bible is a plural form.

No one is saying Three Gods, except you.  The Western formula for the Trinity is One God in Three Persons, which is what I am saying.  I know that this is hard to understand, but this is the very doctrine of the Church which sets it apart from all other faiths, including Judaism.


Merv - #78089

April 2nd 2013

No, I do not claim there are three Gods—read my post again.  I follow the teaching that the Lord, our God is one just as Jewish priests and rabbis would have done, and as Jesus himself affirmed.  Now your last post above makes sense (except the part where you suddenly attributed me with some 3-gods claim).  Of course the trinity teachings do not contradict the one Word—who indeed is Jesus himself.  The classic teaching on this is that God is one, God is pure, God is simple (contra Dawkins) who thinks any God would need to be made up of complex parts like a human body which would make God explainable in terms of simpler things.  But God is the source of all explanation, not in need of it.    None of this contradicts the trinity.  None of this is new.  Nor is it in need of any ‘upgrade’ from science or philosophy or anything else that has cropped up in our lifetimes.


Merv - #78090

April 2nd 2013

... actually I see you weren’t attributing me with any claim (I in my own turn didn’t read your post carefully enough.)  You just thought I was attributing that to you when in reality I was reacting to what I have heard others say (not you) that we stand accused of claiming three Gods.   Sorry I got so testy.

I think we basically agree except that you seem to want to overhaul something about our modern Christianity to cleanse it of Greek dualist thought.  And I even agree that much of our modern thought may need overhauling (maybe transformation is nearer the mark)—but I maintain that our need may be much more of a return to some basics we have strayed from rather than something completely new.  —-that is until God steps in and creates in us that new thing!  When the lion and the lamb can lay down together (these are metaphors, Lou—this has nothing to do with science or the dull literalisms—the short leashes so minds are tied to these days);  then we will have something new!


Roger A. Sawtelle - #78123

April 3rd 2013

Merv wrote:

The classic teaching on this is that God is one, God is pure, God is simple (contra Dawkins) who thinks any God would need to be made up of complex parts like a human body which would make God explainable in terms of simpler things.

Thank you, Merv, for retracting you charge of three Gods.  I appreciate it.

However I perceive that there are some serious differences between us and that is whether God is Simple or God is Personal.  This has always been a sticking point between the Biblical tradition of theology (God as Person) and the philosophical tradition ( God is Simple, Beyond Personal.)  I clearly uphold the Personal view and you the impersonal view.

God created humans as persons, that is a complex/one beings.  The Bible also says that God created humans in God’s own Image, which means on the face of it that God, based on God’s Image, is not simple, but both Complex and One.

In the OT God is portrayed as having a number of aspects.  God is Almighty, but not simply Almighty.  God is Wise, but not simply Wise.  God is Faithful, but not simply Faithful, etc.  This is the basis of God’s Complexity, God is multifaceted and excellent at multitasking. 

Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the perfect Image of God and Jesus was a Person,  Completely God and completely human.  The thoughts, actions, and Person of Jesus were not simple.

As for Dawkins he sarcastically asked the question, “Does anyone still believe in a Personal God these days?”  I do and I know that I am not alone.

I mean what I said above.  God is not dead, but the old philosophy/theology is kaput.  We need a new understanding of the Personal Triune God based on the Bible and not traditional philosophy.       

Merv - #78124

April 3rd 2013

This is a good discussion for me to be having, Roger, since I am a newcomer to this issue of the “classic theism” vs. the newer “theistic personalism” courtesy of some of Jon’s recent posts and especially his link to Ed Feser (which I hope you read, Roger, because so much of this is addressed by him.)  I also hope Jon is following this to weigh in since he has obviously been percolating with all this much longer than I have.

You contrast our views as you believing in a personal God and me—an impersonal one.  But I don’t think that does justice to the classic view.  As Jon pointed out recently, belief in an unchanging eternal God does not bereave anyone (and certainly not God) of expressing and relating in personal ways.  Church fathers were every bit as much aware of all the passages you cite as we are.  Perhaps the important distinction to make is that we relate to God in human ways because we are human—not because God is.  And God allows—no, even invites this.  So when passages speak of God having second thoughts or taking counsel with Abraham or passionately hating or loving his chosen people through all their misdeeds; perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to read too much literalism into this any more than we would when the Bible speaks of God as a rock or fortress or a mother chicken.  I’ve read enough of Philip Yancey to appreciate the personal passions expressed by God, especially through His son, Jesus—that I have plenty of appreciation for God as the source of all our good passion.  But for me to then imagine that the essence of God then, is like me—- impatient, emotionally whimisical, partial and judgmental about people around me; this is to perhaps take too much of the accomodation of the Bible too literally.  God reaches to us.  That doesn’t make him one of us.  When you note that God is ‘multifaceted’ or ‘excellent at multitasking’, you are thinking of God as being a kind of superman who does all the things we do, only better and smarter.  That, according to classical theism, is a serious category error, and I am inclined to agree.  Paley made the same mistake too.


Eddie - #78135

April 3rd 2013


You’ve made a couple of comments against Paley lately.  Let me respond.

I see you are influenced by Feser.  I respect Feser as an intelligent critic of the modern world, and I agree with most of what he says.  I don’t agree with him about Paley.  That’s in part because I don’t agree with him about “classical theism”—I think that Feser’s version of “classical theism” actually diverges from Biblical theism at some points, because Feser, like all Thomists known to me, understands Christian theology much more in terms of systematic than Biblical conceptions.  But it’s also because I think it’s based on a caricature of Paley.

I’ve just finished reading Paley’s Natural Theology, and I’ll make two general observations.  First, Paley is very clear about the limitations of natural theology, and does not equate the Christian doctrine of God with the limited amount that can be known of God through reasoning from nature.  Second, Paley published more in his lifetime on revealed theology than natural theology, and most of his critics seem to be unaware of that fact.  The remarks about Paley I’ve seen on Feser’s blog (I haven’t read Feser’s books) don’t seem to be based on a full examination of Paley’s corpus, but to rest mainly on the reading of the first couple of chapters of Natural Theology.  That would be like judging Aquinas’s notion of God solely on his proofs for God’s existence in the “Five Ways” passage.

I think that Natural Theology itself, despite some excesses in detail (excesses which, by the way, even Michael Behe has criticized), is overall a well-argued book.  I’m not arguing that everything Paley says is correct; but don’t assume that everything Feser says about Paley is correct.  I actually think that the Thomistic “metaphysical” arguments for God’s existence, far from being incompatible with the “physicotheological” arguments such as Paley’s, are complementary to them; God’s existence is argued for in two different ways.

Feser is right to say that ID proponents sometimes wrongly confuse Aquinas’s “teleological” argument with Paley’s, but it doesn’t follow that both kinds of arguments aren’t legitimate in their place.  The problem with Feser’s view is that he thinks that Paleyan arguments are just illegitimate, period, and that they in fact imply the wrong kind of God, not a Christian God at all.  This conclusion of Feser springs from his own interpretation of Thomism, which is by no means the only interpretation of Thomism in the world, and in any case, while I greatly respect Thomas Aquinas, I don’t regard him as the gold standard for Christian theology.  If there exists any such gold standard, it ought to be the Bible; but I don’t find the Bible is heavily discussed on Feser’s blog, in comparison with the views of Thomistic philosophers and theologians.

For an alternate take on Paley and Aquinas, see the writings of Vincent Torley on Uncommon Descent.  Torley, like Feser, is Catholic, and an admirer of Aquinas, and Torley, like Feser, has a Ph.D. in philosophy.  Torley has also paid a number of compliments to Feser for his books.  Torley’s way of writing about theology and philosophy, however, is less doctrinaire and partisan than Feser’s, and he sees compatibility between Paley and Aquinas.  You might want to look at the other side.

Merv - #78171

April 4th 2013

Thanks for this balancing perspective, Eddie.  I will have to look up Torley too.  You correctly perceive that I am somewhat new to this discussion and still have that initial excitement when something new seems to resonate and make sense with what I already know. 


Eddie - #78172

April 4th 2013

That’s fine, Merv.  I’m not discouraging you from reading Feser.  And I understand why Feser would impress you.  He writes with competence and clarity about the philosophical tradition.  I’m inclined to take his side on most things, and probably I should read one of his books.  It’s just that poor old Paley gets dumped on by all kinds of people, from Feser to the columnists of BioLogos, and I wanted to make sure he got a fair hearing.  

This may not apply to you, as a Mennonite, or to Feser as a Thomist, but it certainly should apply to the Haarsmas and other TEs who identify with the Calvinist tradition:  Calvin himself employs Paley-like arguments in the Institutes.  So if Paley, as Feser says, has the wrong conception of God, so does Calvin.  And it wouldn’t surprise me if a Catholic Thomist would go so far as to say that!  But since some TEs teach at Calvin College, and others identify with the Reformed or Presbyterian traditions, I would think the fact that Calvin endorses a limited natural theology should hold them back from quickly dumping on Paley.  Yet I haven’t seen a positive comment about Paley, or about natural theology generally, on this site since its inception, whereas I’ve seen adulation of Barth and Pascal for their rejection of natural theology.  So it appears that a certain kind of fideistic Protestant theology is the ethos of the BioLogos culture.  But fideism represents only one sector of the Protestant evangelical population in the USA.  The non-fideist part, the part open to rational demonstrations of God (not of Christian revelation, but of God), seems to have gravitated mostly to the ID side.  When I notice things like this, I wonder whether the ID/TE divide is really entirely over evolutionary biology, or has a great deal to do with theology.  But be that as it may ...

Best wishes, as always.

Jon Garvey - #78126

April 3rd 2013

Very nicely put, Merv. Nil to add.

I find my disagreements with Roger largely hinge on his disparagement of philosophical and theological contamination of Christian truth, without apparently realising the large doses of very specific and questionable philosophical and theological commitments he has bought into himself.

Regarding theistic personalism, whether or not Roger Identifies with it, it would seem not to be able to bear the weight put upon it, for a “person” of the same type as me who is busy running an entire Universe just isn’t the same kind of person as me: we can’t do that. Some kind of accommodation to my weakness is going to happen whatever I think about his nature - unless he’s the same kind of person as a physicist or Marxist dialectitian who doesn’t realise I’m not..

I was thinking of your reference to the parables on the other thread. For the first time I noticed how many of those in which there is a “God” figure picture him as in some sense incomprehensible (usually by comparison with royalty). So he is the employer who pays some too much, the king who reaps where he does not sow, the bridegroom who turns half his guests away because their torches die - and as you said, the sower seems to be a very wasteful chap. That of course balances him as loving Father etc - but there does seem to be an aspect of teaching his transcendance along with his imminence.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78144

April 3rd 2013

Merv and Jon,

Thank you for your comments.

Let us start at the beginning.  The question is not whether God is similar to us, but whether humans are similar to God.  The Bible is clear, God created humans (male and female no less so God is the first feminist) in God own Image.  Interestingly enough this bit of poetry is considerably older than the Genesis 1 narrative, according to scholars.

Most commentators on Genesis say that the Image of God is the human ability to think, create, and love.  These qualities are also what makes humans “persons.”  Certainly one cannot deny that God is a Person using this definition. 

Merv picked up on my use of the concept of complex/being for God and humanity.  He and Feser oppose the complexity of humanity with the supposed simplicity of God.  However it is exactly the complexity of humanity that enables it to think, create, and love.  Simpler beings are unable to do this.  Thus it is the complexity of humans which gives them them the Image of God.

Jesus taught in parables, because His mesage was not simple, but complex.  The message of Pharisees was legalism, do this, don’t do that.  Simple and easy to understand.  The Gospel fo Jesus was about love, faith, justice, equality, all of which are complex and not easy to comprehend.    

The message of the Scientism is simple and easy to understand.  So is the message of Fundamentalism.  Christianity is not simple and easy to understand and to indicate that it should be because God is Simple is just wrong. 

God does not play games with us.  God is not simple, but pretends to be complex.  God is not simple, but then creates complex humans and says that we are created to be like God.  

Human philosophy says that God should be Simple.  It is right in that God is One, but God is not Simple, God is Complex.  There is nothing wrong with being complex.  Humans are not sinful because they are complex.  We are free and thus capable of sin because we are complex.

The Bible says that God is Personal.  This does not mean that humans created God in our image, but because God created us in God’s Image, just as the Bible says.          

Merv - #78147

April 3rd 2013

Roger, you have a mix of things above—some of which I agree with, and some of which I just find incoherent, and other bits in which you are clear, but you don’t make a compelling case for your conclusions.  Let me just pick up on one aspect, out of your ‘think, create, love’ list of human activities.

No Christian, modern or historical is going to argue with the ‘create’ and ‘love’ activities of God (though to say that humans do these in the way God is debatable at best.)  Let’s just talk about the ‘think’ aspect. We think in a more-or-less linear fashion with brains and electrochemistry being mechanically involved in such activity.  I can in very limited ways multi-task and have several things on my mind at once.  Now imagine a creator who listens to billions of prayers having a mind like mine—-we can even imagine it is a ‘souped-up’ mind that can process a trillion times more things than mine, a trillion times faster and with no mistakes.  With all this raw processing power we now have some god-like entity that would be fearsome indeed!  Throw in omniscience and omnipresence through all space and time (now there is a whopper of an input system for our processor!) and you have overload.  (Think Bruce-almighty and his post-it note solution for listening to everybody’s prayers).  None of this comes close to describing the real God of whom David says “If I ascend to the heavens, you are there ... if I make my bed in the deep, you are there” or of whom we are told that God knows our innermost thoughts (on 7 billion people today!)  This is no mere “super-person”, Roger.  This is wholly “other”.   Complexity will not rescue your conception of making this super-person a realistic candidate for God.  It confounds it even more.

Now—you CAN take the complexity angle and apply it to the body of Christ (God) as manifested here on earth in the fellowship of believers.  That is a body made of many different parts which must work together.  And it is very complex indeed, some of which may be by God’s leading and design, and other complexity there may be due to our fallen natures.

But regarding God’s simplicity, I don’t think you yet grasp what classic theologians were claiming in this.  You seem to be regarding simplicity in some pejorative sense with an implied diminishment of capability.   They are claiming simplicity in an absolute supremecy:  that God, by classic definition, must be the highest reality there is with no other being, or system, or complexity (which of itself means there is an explanation of God’s ‘inner workings’  that transcends God or that God is subject to).  Perhaps God actually is all these things—we can’t prove otherwise in these philosophical discussions, but if that is the case then that entity is not God in the classical theistic sense.  You seem willing to assume that this is the case, and so much the worse for classical theists.  But on balance I think you have to ditch far more Scripture to part company with them than you will find to stand on in a new path.  They didn’t just pull these conceptions out of a vacuum.  

One thing at least, you are very right about:  Jesus IS the Word of God (and the Word was God…)  Cling to that (to Him, rather)  and all our doctrinal discussions here can fade into joyous laughter at ourselves and about ourselves on that day in glory when we discover we didn’t have a clue what we were talking about but got some of it right by sheer accident anyway (if ‘accident’ we call it).


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