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Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 3

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April 25, 2013 Tags: Christ & New Creation
Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 3
Giotto di Bondone, Lamentation over Jesus (ca. 1304-06), fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

This third excerpt from John Polkinghorne’s chapter on “Motivated Belief” is about Jesus. He also sets readers up for a subsequent discussion of the Resurrection (which I will present in the next column), with a brief consideration of what he calls “the theological problem of miracle” (my italics). Just one caveat: everything he talks about in this excerpt—and in the next one about the Resurrection—has been discussed at great length by many authors for many, many years. No one, not even a writer as eloquent and learned as Polkinghorne, can adequately summarize the complexity and wide range of that conversation in just a few pages. Polkinghorne himself has said more about this general topic elsewhere, and others have said a great deal more about it. These excerpts should be understood simply as short, accessible introductions to the attitudes and instincts of a “bottom-up thinker” on this crucial topic.

My editorial policy for these excerpts is explained at the bottom of this post.

Motivated Belief (part 3)

Jesus had a comparatively short public ministry, but it had enormous local impact, drawing crowds who were anxious to hear his words and who often sought the healing ministry that he exercised. Then, on a last visit to Jerusalem, it all seemed to fall apart. The authorities, civil (Roman) and religious (Jewish) acting together, moved in to avoid trouble. Jesus was arrested and hastily executed, suffering the painful and shameful fate of crucifixion, the kind of death reserved for slaves and rebels and seen by pious Jews as being a sign of God’s rejection (“any one hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” Deuteronomy 21:23). Except for a few staunch women, his followers ran away, overcome by despair and disappointment. From the place of execution there came the cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

Giotto di Bondone, The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas)
(ca. 1304-06), fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

On the face of it, Jesus’s death seems a moment of pathetic failure, the final disillusionment of the followers of a rejected man whose grand pretensions had suddenly and definitively been found wanting. If that really was the end of the story of Jesus, I believe that most of us would never have heard of him. At best he would have seemed to be no better than other first-century messianic pretenders whose causes also finally failed. So the first remarkable thing about Jesus is that he is known to all of us. We need to look closer into the New Testament to find out why, against all reasonable expectation, his story continued beyond his death.

Amid the variety of its component writings, there are certain common themes that recur in the New Testament. Three of the most important themes are:

(1) All the [biblical] writers believe that the story of Jesus continued because God raised him from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. We shall have to pay further attention to this extraordinary claim, but the existence of the New Testament, and the character of its contents, are unintelligible without the recognition that this is what its writers are affirming.

(2) In wrestling with what they believe to be their experience of the risen Christ, the writers are driven, in their different ways, to speak of Jesus in a quite extraordinary manner. They know that he was a man living in Palestine in their own times, yet in the accounts they give they often seem driven to employ not only obvious human categories, but also to use language that is only appropriate to deity. The Pauline epistles are probably of the earliest Christian writings known to us, certainly antedating the gospels. Already Jesus of Nazareth is being referred to in remarkable terms. Paul begins almost all his letters with some such phrase as “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; and so on). Not only is Jesus being bracketed with God in a manner that would, for example, have been inappropriate for a pious Jew to use in relation to Moses, the servant of God, but he is also accorded the title “Lord.” While this word (kyrios) had a widespread secular usage amounting to no more than politeness of address, its Hebrew counterpart, adonai, also had a special Jewish religious usage as an acceptable circumlocution in place of the unutterable divine name, YHWH, a particular significance which the religious context of Paul’s greeting could scarcely fail to invoke. The gospel of John portrays Jesus as claiming unity with God (John 10:30, words uttered in a situation where the hostile crowd are shown as having no difficulty in detecting what they see as the blasphemous implication), and it assigns to Jesus the use of images (the bread of life, the true vine, and so on) which carry implications of more than human status. The Writer to the Hebrews proclaims that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things and through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:2). Examples could easily be multiplied.

It is clear that when it comes to Jesus, the New Testament writers cannot rest content with the standard Jewish repertoire for speaking of people with special gifts from God—the categories of prophet, teacher, healer—but, against all their instincts as monotheistic Jews, they are driven to use divine-sounding language about him. Remember that they are referring to a near contemporary, and not to some shadowy figure of a legendary past. The New Testament very seldom out and out calls Jesus God (the confession of Thomas in John 20:28 is perhaps the clearest example), but its pages manifest a continual tension between the use of human and divine manners of speaking about him. The problem thus posed is unresolved in the New Testament itself, but succeeding Christian generations had to address it and eventually the Church was led to the distinctive and extraordinary doctrinal concept of the incarnation, the affirmation of the presence of deity in the life of this first-century Jew, who truly was the Son of God.

(3) Coupled with this recourse to divine language, and fuelling its fire, was a firm conviction among those first-generation Christians that the risen Christ had brought into their lives a new and transforming experience of saving power. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I believe that an adequate Christology (a true understanding of the nature of Jesus) must satisfy the criterion of affording an adequate soteriology (a true understanding of the power of Christ in human lives, to which the Church has continued to give its testimony down through the centuries). The doctrine of the incarnation implies that in the Word made flesh a unique bridge was established between the created life of humanity and the uncreated life of God, and in this meeting of divine power and human nature there lies a way of understanding the fulfillment of the soteriological criterion.

Giotto di Bondone, Resurrection (Do not Touch Me) (ca. 1304-06), fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

These three lines of testimony need to be presented for consideration by anyone seeking to understand the significance that Jesus of Nazareth holds for Christian belief. In the context of science the discussion of the persuasiveness of that belief cannot be conducted satisfactorily without a detailed engagement with these claims. The task is indispensable to honest enquiry and it is made all the more important today by the fact that many people seem to have so little knowledge of what the New Testament actually says.

The pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn is clearly the resurrection. If in fact he was raised from the dead to a new and unending life of glory, then it is indeed credible that he has an altogether unique status and role in salvation history. If, sadly, his life ended in failure and his body was left to molder in the grave, then he seems at best little different from many other prophetic figures who have suffered martyrdom for holding fast to the integrity of their beliefs. The quest for motivated Christian faith has to begin by focusing on the question of the resurrection. I believe that it would be a serious apologetic mistake if Christian theology thought that operating in the context of science should somehow discourage it from laying proper emphasis on the essential centrality of Christ’s resurrection, however counterintuitive that belief may seem in the light of mundane expectation.

As a preliminary one must first face the general issue of miracle. It was as clear in the first century as it is today, that it is wholly contrary to any reasonable natural expectation that a man should be resurrected within history. While there were parties in first-century Judaism which expected a general resurrection at the end of history [for example, the Pharisees], none expected the resurrection of a specific person to take place within history, even if there was some hope that a prophetic figure, such as Elijah, might have been stored up in heaven in order to be returned for a further spell of earthly life at some critical juncture in Jewish history. It is important here to recognize the distinction between resuscitation and resurrection. The former applies to someone like Lazarus, who is portrayed in John’s gospel as being called out of the tomb after an apparent death (John 11), but who was undoubtedly expected by all to die again in due course. Resuscitation is only a temporary reprieve from mortality. Resurrection, on the other hand, implies a transition from this mortal life to a new form of glorified life, lived without end in the presence of God. Resurrection is a permanent victory over mortality. The possibility of resurrection lies wholly outside the context of scientific explanation. If the resurrection of Jesus happened, it could only have been through a special exercise of divine power. In short, resurrection is, in the strict sense of the word, a miracle.

The real problem of belief in miracle is properly a theological issue, not a scientific one, since claims of unique historical occurrences lie outside science’s competence to adjudicate. All it can do is reinforce the commonsense recognition that something like a resurrection does not usually happen. The real challenge to belief in miracle lies elsewhere. It is theologically inconceivable that God should act capriciously as a kind of celestial conjurer, doing a turn today that God did not think of doing yesterday and won’t be bothered to do tomorrow. The theological problem of miracle is that of discerning divine consistency in the face of a claim of radically novel action. How that consistency is understood depends upon a proper understanding of what is involved in speaking of God in personal terms. I have already said that divine action is not to be assimilated to a kind of impersonal and unchanging process, similar to that which characterizes the law of gravity. If personal language is to mean anything when used about God, it must imply a divine freedom to respond in particular and different ways to particular and different situations, including even the rational possibility of unprecedented action in unprecedented circumstances.

Once again we encounter the unavoidable necessity of hermeneutic circularity. Of course, persons are not normally resurrected in history, but if there is something truly unique about Jesus (the Son of God), then his story could conceivably have included unique events. Equally, if he was resurrected, this was surely a sign that he indeed did have an altogether unique status. However, if he was just another prophet, then the story of his resurrection is likely to be no more than a touching legend. Both possibilities have to be considered. To believe in the resurrection rightly requires significant motivating evidence, a question to which we shall turn shortly, but its possibility should not be ruled out absolutely from the beginning, before even considering what evidence there might be for this counterintuitive belief. Moreover, it is important to note that the Christian understanding of Christ’s resurrection is that it occurred within history as the unique seed event from which a resurrected destiny for all people will come about beyond history (“for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ”; 1 Corinthians 15:22). In this sense, what Christian theology sees as unique about the resurrection is its timing, rather than its occurrence. Further consideration will be given to this point in the succeeding chapter.

​Giotto di Bondone, The Last Judgment (detail, ca. 1304-06),
fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

[The succeeding chapter, which will not be part of this series, deals with eschatology. Polkinghorne’s reference in the penultimate sentence to the unique timing of the resurrection can be fleshed out by quoting from the chapter on eschatology: “The eschatological destinies of human beings and of the whole universe lie together in the world of God’s new creation. <SNIP> In Christian thinking, the seed event from which this new creation has already begun to grow is the resurrection of Christ. His tomb was empty because the matter of his corpse had been transmuted into the ‘matter’ of the new creation, to become his risen and glorified body in which he appeared to the first witnesses.” In other words, the resurrected Jesus is “the first fruits of them that sleep,” in the glorious words of 1 Corinthians 15:20.]

Looking Ahead

In about two weeks, we will see how Polkinghorne brings his search for “motivated belief” to bear on the biblical narratives about the Resurrection.

References and Credits

Excerpts from John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009), copyright Yale University Press, are reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts involves breaking longer paragraphs into multiple parts, altering the spelling and punctuation from British to American, removing the odd sentence or two—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] at the appropriate point(s)—and sometimes inserting annotations where warranted [also enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information. Polkinghorne uses footnotes a bit sparingly, and I usually find another way to include that information if it’s important for our readers.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #79542

May 4th 2013


First of all, if the universe is only composed of matter/energy, then truth, ethics, time, space, math, and love do not exist because these entities are not composed of matter/energy.  At best they are subjective, but because everyone is different, their experiences are unique.  However you are not arguing that all of our experience is subjective, just some of our experience is subjective.  That is the weakness and fatal flaw in yourf argument, life is either govern by laws, both the physical and mortal laws or it is not. 

Monod argues that the universe is not rational, and therefore is not rational.  That also rules out the concept of truth, because truth is a rational concept.  If the only rational beings in the universe are humans, then what is rational or true is what humans say is rational or true.  Again I do not think that is what you are arguing either, but that is the logical result of your argument.

Now you also say that we should not argue something is true just because it works.  In other words just because 2 + 2 = 4, that does not make it true.  It seems to me that the genius of science is that it is based on experience.  If we think something is true or may be true we test that theory and if it works we accept it as true, until we find out that it does not work the way we thought it did.

Cold fusion worked fine for a while, or so we were led to believe.  Darwinian natural selection is supposed true but has never been proven to be true.  That is why there was so much furor from Dawkins and Dennett when E. O. Wilson and others demonstrated that Darwinian natural selection was not a sound explanation for how evolution works.

Magellan proved that the world was round by sailing around it.  Now should we say that Magellan could not have sailed around the world because if he did he would fallen off the other side of the earth.  So should we let the facts get in the way of a reasonable theory or reject the round earth theory, because we know that it could not be true? 

We judge the truth of science because it works.  Who are you to say that we should not do the same for ethics?  Christianity says the person, who says he or she loves God and hates other people, is telling a lie.  A tree is judged by its fruit. 

If something is merely expedient, it is a short term “fix,” which makes a long term solution more difficult.  Love works and is a long term solution to the problems of the world, because it is true.  That is what it means to say God is Love.  It is a statement of ethics of the highest order.  If you thank you can prove it is false, please demonstrate.            

Lou Jost - #79544

May 4th 2013

Roger, I have to take a break as I have to travel for my work. But I have to put a caveat on your statement that “you also say that we should not argue something is true just because it works”. An ethical system may work as an ethical system, but that does not mean that its empirical claims are true. For example, it may be that a belief in special creation of humans by a god leads to good behavior. It may also be that a belief in genetic engineering of humans by vengeful spying space aliens leads to good behavior. Both may work  well as ethical systems, but both can’t be true.

More later.

GJDS - #79548

May 4th 2013

Reply to comment #79471 

I do not think that everyone shares the enthusiasm of some regrading the nature of nature and how we may measure and deduce it. Leading edge theoretical work shows us that science is faced with considerable limitations and difficulties, not the least of which is the impact of making a measurement on the ‘state of nature at a quantum level’. It is difficult to argue for some sort of inter-relatedness of ‘laws of nature’ as some may claim based on experimentation, no matter what accuracy may be achieved by these experiments. An interesting statement is given by Heller et al; “By suitably averaging elements of the algebra A, one recovers the standard geometry of spacetime. We show that any act of measurement, performed at a given spacetime point, makes the model to collapse to the standard quantum mechanics (on the group G).” Heller et al, “Conceptual Unification of Gravity and Quanta.”

It is difficult for those like me who have not specialised in theoretical physics, to fully understand the maths dealt with by people such as Heller – nonetheless, reading these interesting papers shows that the basics of quantum mechanics are not violated (e.g. exclusion principle, uncertainty principle, and so on). Yet I recall experiments which seemed provide experimental ‘evidence’ that appeared to violate constants (if memory serves, someone showed the speed of light was exceeded by measuring the time taken for a laser pulse to move through a crystal – but it was later shown the crystal had properties which caused a light pulse to exit from one end, when the other end was excited by the laser pulse.)

Heller discusses the physicist’s desire to reduce all of our scientific ‘laws’ to one or two mathematical expressions or formula. I cannot see how this would ‘lock’ all laws in any way; even if this project succeeds; it means we may articulate insights provided by science in an economical manner. The error promulgated by atheists is in equating divine action with our understanding of nature provided by science – Heller also claims that his maths shows how time may ‘come into existence’. If he is right, how can we do anything else but speak of what we may understand through measurement? It is impossible to extend this thinking into, “if God did this, that science would become that.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79552

May 5th 2013


Please.  To say that something may be true and therefore it must be seriously considered is absurd. 

Again we started out with the understanding that love is a valid basis for ethics.  The point is we need to work through that understanding to the best of our ability until it is discovered to be true or not.  To bring up speculative hypothetical possibilities as objections is purely using distractions to prevent us from establishing what is true.      

Lou Jost - #79554

May 5th 2013

Either I don’t understand your point or you didn’t understand mine. Can you explain what you are talking about in your first sentence? Thanks.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79558

May 5th 2013

Lou wrote:

 It may also be that a belief in genetic engineering of humans by vengeful spying space aliens leads to good behavior

Lou, do you honestly believe that may be true?  Do you honest believe that I think this may be true?

Why bring some off the wall possibility up if no one thinks that it is a viable option.  If some one thinks that it is then it would be considered.  If course two conflicting concepts cannot be true, just as two conflicting concepts of how nature works.  How is that a problem?

Lou Jost - #79559

May 5th 2013

Roger, I gave two alternatives (to me both equally improbable) which both can lead to ethical behavior. Since both cannot be true, this shows that just because a belief leads to good ethics, this does not mean that the belief is true.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79562

May 5th 2013


The issue is not beliefs.  The issue is behaviour.

Lou Jost - #79564

May 5th 2013

No, the issue is truth.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79567

May 6th 2013


Then you can argue as long as you want with your fellow fundamentalists about what is true while the world goes up in flames. 

Merv - #79574

May 6th 2013

Roger, you are a big proponent of the rationalality and intelligibility of the created world, I believe.  So you probably don’t want to insert a divide between practicality and truth.  If God’s creation is not deceitfully contrived, then truth is an (or ‘the’) issue as Lou says.  Behaviour is important too, but I’m pretty sure the apostle Paul would not have pitted, say, righteousness against truth in order to expedite or draw out some desired behaviour.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79575

May 6th 2013


I think that you are mistaken.  The opponents of Jesus believed that they are righteous in  upholding the holiness of the Sabbath.  Jesus said that God does not want that kind of holiness.  God wants love and compassion.  Amos was speaking for YHWH when he denounced the worship of the Isrealites. 

If you put “the Truth” beyond experence then there is no way of knowing what the truth is.  Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Light, and Jesus is not beyond experience, so we can discuss Who He is, what He did and said, and what Jesus stood for.  The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is experiential evidence that He lives in heaven with God the Father.  Again Jesus is the Logos, not the Mythos. 

Those who claim that God is Simple put their evidence beyond the Bible and beyond experience so there is no way to test this claim which corrupts the gospel.  Lou makes his claim for truth based on the assumption that the universe is composed only of matter/energy and refused to accept any concerte evidence that brings this assumption into question. 

There is no sense in arguing against the Mythos of scientism if people do not want to accept the testimony of their own senses.  There is no sense in arguing against the Mythos the Bibliolatry is people do not want to accept the testimony of the Bible.        

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79576

May 6th 2013



Paul’s argument for the Gospel was that the Jesus saves, while the Law does not.  In other words the God’s Love through Jesus really works, while the Law does not.  He should know.

Then too if the Resurrection was a sham, then Jesus was not the Messiah, and the Gospel does not work at all.    

Merv - #79580

May 6th 2013

Your last line says it all.  Without truth, the persecuted faithful are to be most pitied.

Lou Jost - #79597

May 6th 2013

That’s why truth matters.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79588

May 6th 2013

Without salvation we all would be most pitied.

Again I am not interested in debating competing ideologies.  I thought maybe Lou was interested in the ethics of love.  I was wrong. 

The choice is not really between what is true and what works.  Jesus Christ is both the Truth and the Way.  However if we cannot agree on what is Truth, which we can’t, then we need to try to come to understanding on how to build a better world. 

If Lou is not interested in that, then there is no need for further discussion.      

Lou Jost - #79598

May 6th 2013

Roger, I am very interested in building a better world. I won’t do it by mythmaking. I also won’t sit on my hands while I wait for the resolution of uncertainty about truth. I judge the evidence and make my best judgement about what is true, and go from there.

Merv - #79601

May 6th 2013

That’s good, Lou.  You can join Christians in that very quest.  They aren’t interested in myth making either, and don’t (or shouldn’t) want to follow or preach falsehoods.

Lou Jost - #79602

May 6th 2013

We’ll have to resolve our differences about what constitutes myth-making first…we get to discuss that in Ted’s next post on the resurrection…

Merv - #79620

May 7th 2013

I was, of course, entering into Lou’s use of ‘myth’ with him that regards that word only in the intellectually impoverished pejorative sense that has become common currency among too many modern scientific enthusiasts.  I agree with Jon below that the word bears much more value—I follow C.S. Lewis in that.  But thank you for pointing out that word’s misuse as I probably should have to begin with, Jon.

Jon Garvey - #79609

May 7th 2013


Mythmaking always has been, and still is, a respectable way to approaching truth and an inevitable way of building societies.

Re the former, see a piece I did on scientific mythmaking.

Re the second, only this week a documentary (ironically on the history of Archaeology as a science) was based entirely on the Victorian mythic theme of science as the triumph of heroic free-thinkers against the oppressive obscurantism of a mythic monster called “The Church”. It was actually amusing, if annoying, to see the Church Canon Copernicus and the army of amateur antiquarians (who were, for the most part, orthodox country clergymen) used to bolster the myth, even though they actually refuted it. But I have never yet seen a science documentary based on contemporary knowledge of the history of science, because the myth is more powerful to the scientists involved.

Regarding the resurrection, the actual evidence for myth-making activity as opposed to eyewitness or one-degree removed reportage seems to me hard to find, when compared to modern myths. For example, the Galileo version of the science v religion myth falls apart as soon as the sources are examined. Yet the resurrection remains convincing to many scholars throughly versed in critical scholarship and contemporary history. The difference between believers in the resurrection and unbelievers appears to hinge primarily on controlling worldview, not evidence.

Lou Jost - #79616

May 7th 2013

There is no doubt that many church authorities have in the past, and continues in the present, to obstruct and repress scientists it disagrees with (even if that disagreement may sometimes have been justified). I’ll look at your post, though. (Your link does not work.) I am sure TV programs and some scholars exaggerate and oversimplify and make mistakes. But no one can deny that the Church was in the business of banning books.

Regarding the resurection myth, we will see about that when Ted writes his post on the resurrection. There is evidence that the resurrection is a myth. It is not conclusive, but it is considerable.

beaglelady - #79699

May 8th 2013

Yes, the Catholic Church kept an index of banned books.  It was abolished in the 1960s, I believe.   And Sept 22-28 is banned books week.  Our library observes it, does yours?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79615

May 7th 2013

While I agree that myths and mythmaking are a part of the human situation, I do not agree that mythmaking are something that Christians should endorse.  Mythmaking is part of the human impulse to make sense and give meaning to important events.

It does seem strange that people who say that the universe has no meaning should condemn mythmaking, because if what they say is true, then myths are all humanity has to understand the universe. Humans need meaning to live.

Generally those who condemn religion as mythmaking are trying to set people up for their own set of myths. Those who condemn mythmaking in the name of science are trying to win people over to their own set of scientific myths, whether it be Randism or Scientology or Marxism or whatever.

Events generate myths. I remember the asassination of John F. Kennedy. Many people could not believe that it was the work of one half-baked little guy, so they began to spin all sorts of conspiracy theories involving their favorite villans to give it meaning. Those are myths as far as I am concerned because they do not fit the facts as best we know them that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Of course the 9/11 terror attack also has brought forth mythmaking from those who do not want to believe that Jihadists were responsible, but want to think that it was all the work of “the Jews,” CIA, etc. Again we need to base our thinking on the facts as best we know them.

Another event which has engendered mythmaking is the Creation. As we know there are many Creation stories or explanations for the beginning of everything in the world today. The Genesis explanation was the one that was most meaningful, until it was challenged by scientific explanations of evolution and the Big Bang.

In my opinion for the most part there is no serious conflict between the scientific explanations of evolution and the Big Bang, and the philosophical/theological explanation of the Creation Story in the Bible. The only conflicts are found in Darwin’s myth of Malthusian natural selection, which has not been scientifically confirmed, and the desire of many to found both theology and science on Being mythology.

Science generally tells how the world works, while theology generally tells why the world works. We need both and those who try to have one override the other are doing a disservice to all.

Scientific explanations need to be critiqued as scientific explantions, while philosophical and theological explanations must be evaluated by their standards. There are many who wish to overrule the Big Bang theory because it agrees too closely with Christian theology, so we have the Multiverse myth which is plausible in some sense, but cannot be tested.

Now for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have an event, the birth and rise of Christianity which begs for an explanation. The traditional explanation, the Resurrection, is well documented, but of course some people do not like that explanation and look for one that agrees with their point of view.

Some people claim that only a scientific explantion can explain what really happened, and since in their view science can in no way explain a resurrection, it must not have taken place. However the Resurrection is not a scientific event, but a theological event, so the rules of science do not apply.

When we look at the Resurrection through the rules of theology it does make logical sense and thus it is determined to be a valid theological event, and thus not a myth, which goes against the rules of logic.

Meaning is vital to life. Myth making is a way of trying to provide the meaning needed for life. When we seek to understand by imposing meaning on life we have myths. When we are allow the facts speak for themselves we have truth.


Lou Jost - #79660

May 7th 2013

“if what they say is true, then myths are all humanity has to understand the universe” There you are forgetting the value of truth again. Even if we never get to the whole truth, the search for it does give meaning to life.

Lou Jost - #79661

May 7th 2013

I disagree with almost everything you said, except the last sentence. We’ll get to discuss the documentation for the resurrection in Ted’s next post.

Jon Garvey - #79621

May 7th 2013

But no one can deny that the Church was in the business of banning books.

Lou, for that staement to avoid being mythicalk in itself, it is necessary to state which Church, which books, for what reason and how that relates to the books that the same institutions encouraged. Otherwise, it’s no more informative than the claim that US scientific and educational authorities today ban books they disagree with from school biology lessons (or so I hear).

The essence of cultural myths it that they are seldom contradicted in a society outside specialist sources - indeed, they often seem unquestionable. So for example, some common myths followed by true, if oversimplified, corrections:

Galileo was persectuted for discussing heliocentrism in a book. The Pope commissioned Galileo to write a book discussing heliocentrism.

The mediaeval Church thought the world was flat and Columbus proved it wrong. The mediaeval Church, like the *early* Church, always knew the world was round, but Columbus uniquely underestimated its diameter.

The Church burned thousands of witches because of its superstitious beliefs. The Catholic Inquisition discouraged belief in witchcraft from early on.

Primitive belief in magic was disproved by the rise of science. Early modern scientists were mainly responsible for introducing the practice of magic in Europe.

Gregor Mendel discovered genetics in his spare time despite the opposition of his order. The science of genetics resulted from a research programme funded and organised by the Augustian Friars of St Thomas Abbey, who engaged Mendel for that very purpose.

As for the resurrection, I’m interested in what evidence there is that it is a myth, rather than a fiction. Those unfamiliar with myth often confuse the two, but they’re totally distinct. All I’ve ever seen in that regard re the resuurection are spurious comparisons with dying-god myths, long since discountenanced. Myths are identified from the literary characteristics of their accounts, not from evidence for or against events. They don’t contain appeals to testimony and evidence, as the resurrection accounts do - so the actual possibilities are really either factual truth or pious fiction. Legend is a slim possibility, but as the time for the resurrection accounts’ development has shrunk to mere decades at most, that has become more and more of a non-starter: Legends take many generations to develop. Myths require an entirely different process.

beaglelady - #79645

May 7th 2013

School boards choose books; they don’t ban them. 

Eddie - #79664

May 7th 2013

School boards choose their books?  You mean, when they aren’t told by courts which books they can use, i.e., the books endorsed by the neo-Darwinists?  And which books they can’t use, i.e., books which question neo-Darwinism?

Lou Jost - #79663

May 7th 2013

Jon, come on. You are going overboard in the opposite direction. Galileo WAS persecuted by important elements of the church. You can nitpick that it was not the whole church, but you could pick that nit for any action of any big group. There WAS an inquisition, and Galileo WAS sentenced, and he WAS prohibited from further teaching of heliocentrism.

Jon Garvey - #79679

May 8th 2013

Lou, I’m not going overboard at all actually - just counterbalancing the simplifications of myth with the messiness of history. I don’t deny the inquisition, for example - but history studies what it actually did, rather than making it an Aunt Sally for a science-religion myth. So my points are certainly oversimplified, as I said from the start, but completely true - an invitation to dig into the historical data itself, really.

There’s plenty of authoritative stuff even on this website about the Galileo affair - Ted’s written some himself as a historian of science - but probably the best overview of the science v religion myth here is Mark Noll’s scholarly essay, which is here (it’s a pdf so may download rather than appear magically). It has the advantage of showing exhaustively how the myth actually arose, so is a good opportunity for truth-seekers to go where the evidence leads, if they so wish.

GJDS - #79739

May 8th 2013


A great deal of what happened at the time of Galileo and others has as much to do with the way States and their instrumentalities operated - thus censorship was widely practiced throughout Europe (well into the a900’s), people could be executed for publications which a king may consider as treason, and churches, as institutions of the state, acted in a similar manner. The difficulties are caused isolating specific examples (such as Galileo) and making such a specific affair foder for atheists in their effort to create a divide between science and faith. 

GJDS - #79740

May 8th 2013

that should read ....(well into the 1900’s) ....

Jon Garvey - #79750

May 9th 2013

Yeah - my point entirely GJDS. You quite rightly point out that what characterised early modern Europe was the cult of individualism, the rise of the national state, tame national churches, the fragmentation of Christendom and a general atmosphere of intolerance (very gradually being forced to accept diversity). In that, the Catholic Church is one player holding on to its waning influence, and individual intellectuals are members of their various churches and states, with varying degrees of commitment.

In the myth, all that is subsumed into one dragon, “The Church” and one St George, “Science” battling it out in an uncluttered landscape.

As an side, it’s vaguely amusing to me that Galileo’s theory of the tides, prompted by his Copernican understanding, was completely wrong and was replaced with the explanation that St Bede had proposed in the 7th century, without offending the Church at all..

Ted Davis - #79735

May 8th 2013

And, Lou, Galileo—an arrogant, aggressive man who took no prisoners and liked to trade insults with his opponents—was perceived to have insulted his old friend, Pope Urban VIII, by the manner in which he treated the Pope’s ideas in the Dialogues. Without that perceived insult, it’s not likely there would have been a trial at all. This was very much of a two-way street, a tragedy of errors one might say. I have brief comments about this at http://biologos.org/blog/christianity-and-science-in-historical-perspective-part-2. There was a lenghty exchange with a sceptic in the comments, but unforunately that’s no longer visible. This isn’t nitpicking, and it’s not blaming the victim; it’s a strongly supported historical conclusion about what actually happened.

Lou Jost - #79737

May 8th 2013

Ted, sure Galileo was outspoken and undiplomatic and did not suffer fools. Are you really saying that this justifies the Church inquisition and the banning of his books?  They also banned everyone else’s books on heliocentric theory, not just Galileo’s. Did all those guys deserve it because of their personalities, or might the Chruch have been doing exactly what it said it was doing, attempting to stamp out heresy?

They banned evolutionary books too, if I recall correctly.

Ted Davis - #79754

May 9th 2013


Your questions are appropriate, but to talk about this fully would take a long time—and less than fully would leave you and everyone else reading this with (IMO) an inadequate basis to draw conclusions. Hundreds of books have dealt with this, at least a few of them excellent books, and we can’t cover all that ground here. For a reliable short summary embedded in a reliable treatment of the larger historical question of the alleged “warfare” of Christianity and science, see this account by two of the top historians of science in the world, David Lindberg & Ronald Numbers: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1987/PSCF9-87Lindberg.html. I’ll quote their overall assessment of what lots of historians call “the Galileo affair.”

“The Galileo affair was a multi-faceted event. Certainly it raised serious questions about the relationship between reason and revelation and the proper means of reconciling the teachings of nature with those of scripture. Nonetheless, it was not a matter of Christianity waging war on science. All of the participants called themselves Christians, and all acknowledged biblical authority. This was a struggle between opposing theories of biblical interpretation: a conservative theory issuing from the Council of Trent versus Galileo’s more liberal alternative, both well precedented in the history of the church. Personal and political factors also played a role, as Galileo demonstrated his flair for cultivating enemies in high places.”

Lou Jost - #79758

May 9th 2013

Ted, I completely agree with you that it was a complex affair and not precisely a war between science and religion. But the fact that it was complicated doesn’t erase the fact that the Catholic Church authorities did try to suppress the Copernican view (not just Galileo’s version of it). And the Catholic Church tried to do the same to evolution. And still today, fundamentalist Christian and Islamic churches are fighting evolution for the same kinds of theological reasons that they fought heliocentrism.

Ted Davis - #79810

May 10th 2013

We agree, then, Lou, and I agree with your assessment of the parallel between opposition to Copernicanism in the 17th century and opposition to evolution now. I wrote about aspects of this last year for BioLogos: http://biologos.org/blog/series/science-and-the-bible-galileo-and-the-garden-of-eden.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79626

May 7th 2013


Do not try to convince me that the atheist totalitarian culture of the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, and North Korea was a boon to science and scientific thinking. 

Lou Jost - #79659

May 7th 2013

That’s silly Roger, and you must know it.

GJDS - #79677

May 7th 2013

Some points relevant to emotive arguments that include terms such as truth, myth, evidence, and who seeks the truth of all things. A distinction between sincere Christians and sincere atheists is not based on how each values the truth – I submit that both place equal value on it; the distinction is that the Christian also adds – prove all things, hold fast to what is true, as God has provided these for our salvation. In this sense, the Christian further emphasises the value of truth, as seeking it becomes part of the faith and important for his/her salvation.

When I read the reliance on mythology as a ‘way out’ for some atheist’s position and nonsensical remarks regarding the Gospel, and indeed the Bible (to insinuate that these are untrue), I remind myself that myth is so entwined with art and literature that removing myth, metaphor and simile would destroy virtually all of the arts. If we destroy the arts, we destroy language – just where does this approach take us?

I have already stated my displeasure at so called scientists conscripting the sciences in their anti-religious propaganda, and will say no more on this. 

Lou Jost - #79725

May 8th 2013

Neither I nor anyone else I know has a problem with mythology per se. And as literature, myythology can give us insights into the human condition. The problem comes when people start thinking Zeus really is throwing those thunderbolts.

beaglelady - #79729

May 8th 2013

Wasn’t that Thor? 

GJDS - #79741

May 8th 2013

This comment does not make sense.

GJDS - #79742

May 8th 2013

The reply button got me again - #7941 is a reply for #79725 - by the way, Thor had a hammer that came with thunder and stuff, while Zeus threw thunderbolts; The Greeks did not want their top-god dirting his hands with impliments (!?) We need to sudy these myths to truely understand what atheists are trying to tell us about Christianity (an attempt at a chuckle or even perhaps a laugh?)

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79693

May 8th 2013


Of course I know.  In fact this is a reducio absurdium argument which demonstrates that your argument is silly.

Lou Jost - #79726

May 8th 2013

Which part of my argument?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79722

May 8th 2013


You are right.  There is much confusion between myth and truth.

I prefer to go back the original distinction between Mythos and Logos.  Mythos is an idea based on the authority or tradition rather than rational experience and discussion.  Logos is an ideas based on rational experience and discussion, rather than authority or tradition.  

Many people what to classify Christianity as Mythos, but the Bible calls Jesus Christ, the beginning and the end of our faith, the Logos.  I stand with the Bible.

After the death of Jesus the decisions of the Church were not made by fiat, but by Councils were the leaders of the Church met to determine which books to include in the Bible, and the creeds concerning the Trinity and two natures of Jesus.  Of course now these rational Councils or Conferences, much like scientists have, are portrayed as efforts to silence intellectual discussion.  

Myth is meaning not based on speculation and not verifiable sources.  Logos is meaning based on logic and verifieable sources.  Of course Christians maintain that the Bible is a verifiable source, at least for spiritual meaning and truth.  We can discus that as well as whether non-Biblical thought is verifiable or not.

That is what we should be discussing, not these general ideas based on ideology that fundamentalists of all kinds love to argue about.    

Lou Jost - #79733

May 8th 2013

Roger, again you are saying the Bible is true because the Bible says so:

“Logos is an ideas based on rational experience and discussion, rather than authority or tradition.  

Many people what to classify Christianity as Mythos, but the Bible calls Jesus Christ, the beginning and the end of our faith, the Logos.  I stand with the Bible.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79753

May 9th 2013


To say that I agree with the Bible does not mean that I agree with what it says because it claims to be the word of God.  I fully believe that something is true not because it is scientific or Biblical or whatever, but because my knowledge and experience indicates that it is true.  It means that I agree with the Bible because I find that it provides the best and truest understanding of life. 

Now I have asked you to tell me what you think is a better understanding of life or how to best understand life and you have not done so. 

The truth about life is not some idea in your head, although it should be in your head.  It is the basis of how you live.  I have found that life is rational, even though people like you and Monod say it is not.  I have found that the rational basis of life is best based on the Logos, Jesus Christ.      

Again what is your understanding of the truth about life?   

Lou Jost - #79757

May 9th 2013

OK, I may have misunderstood your argument in my comment 79733.

I thought I had answered your question about life, but I’ll try again. The evidence shows that humans are not special in kind but in degree, and all forms of life today (including humans) are the result of natural causes acting with no pre-ordained purpose or goal. According to our current knowledge, that is the truth we must face, whether we like it or not. And it is actually a much grander and more inspiring view than the silly anthropocentric views of the major religions.

We humans find our own reasons for life. Love is as real for me as it is for you, and I don’t have to be coerced by imaginary beings to treat my fellow man with love. That is the kind of society I want, and therefore the kind I help build.

Merv - #79771

May 9th 2013

The evidence shows that  ...  all forms of life today (including humans) are the result of natural causes acting with no pre-ordained purpose or goal.

Where is this evidence that there is no pre-ordained purpose?

Lou Jost - #79779

May 9th 2013

First and foremost, we see no evidence of unseen hands in physics. Someone could answer that the miracles guiding evolution are so subtle and rare that they would not be detected in physics, but the burden of proof for that claim would be on the person who makes it, rather than the person who claims that evolution is based on known processes. 

Then we have the random walk that is hominid evolution. Lots of branches and dead ends, not a direct path. All of evolution’s history is like that.

Asteroids appear to have been critical in the diversification of mammals. Someone who suggests evolution was planned and guided would have to attribute the asteroid collisions to miracles as well.


Eddie - #79837

May 11th 2013

Lou wrote:

“The evidence shows that humans are not special in kind but in degree, and all forms of life today (including humans) are the result of natural causes acting with no pre-ordained purpose or goal…. that is the truth we must face ...”

This immodest statement of what is known could be made less dogmatic by adding some qualifications, e.g.:

”While I am aware that there are scientists as well as other thinkers with training as advanced as mine (in biology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, etc.) who would disagree in their interpretation of the evidence, in my view the evidence shows that humans are not special in kind but in degree, and all forms of life today (including humans) are the result of natural causes acting with no pre-ordained purpose or goal.  This conclusion, though unpalatable to some, may be a truth we must face…

Little prose adjustments like this would help debate to proceed more constructively, as they do not generate prickly defensive reactions in the way that the first, unqualified statement does.

Ted Davis - #79756

May 9th 2013

The fourth part of this series is about to appear, but before it does I want to announce that many lectures by philosopher Robin Collins are now available from Robert Kuhn’s web site, Closer to Truth: http://www.closertotruth.com/participant/Robin-Collins/23. We’ve talked about Robin’s ideas a bit in earlier threads and they will probably come up again when we get into Polkinghorne’s chapter on natural theology later this month. Readers are invited to explore Robin’s ideas more fully on their own.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79759

May 9th 2013


Thank you for your response.

As I have said I agree with you concerning love.  Whether we need God to coerce people to love is not the question.  The question is whether love is the best basis on which to build a life and a society.  There are many, if not most people theists and non-believers, who would disagree.   

As far as I can see you have not offered a rational argument as to why love is the best way to live, except that is the way you want to live.  Does that mean that those people and those societies should be free to live in the way they want to live, even though that might imperil the safety of others?

Humans need laws and rules to provide order to society.  Laws and rules are not about coercion, but about order.  The Ten Commandments are not about coercion, but about order.  Laws and rules do need to be enforced when necessary to maintain order, but the best rules are self-enforcing.

Love cannot be coerced.  That is why the good news is that we have a loving God and God is love.  However there are negative results when people do not love as well as positive results when we do love, as we well know.  These are moral laws which govern the world, just as physical laws do, but more subtly. 

If there were no results to our actions, there would be no moral law, and it would not make any difference what we do and what we think.  I observe that people need to love and need to be loved, just as gasoline powered cars need gas.  God does not coerce us to love, but God created us to love and be loved, just as the traditional auto needs gas.

Some scientists do not recognize the reality of love, because it is composed of neither matter nor energy, and is outside the rules of physics, which does not mean that it does not exist.  If it does not, then we are wasting our time and energy.             

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