By David Baggett
Easter is the most important holy day for Christians; it’s the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is unapologetically historical. If the resurrection didn’t happen, and happen literally, then Christianity is false; and anyone and everyone is perfectly within their prerogative to heap scorn on Christianity to their heart’s content. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then Christians are of all men most miserable, for their hopes are in vain and their faith vacuous. But if Jesus was raised from the dead, scarcely anything could be more important, more revelatory of ultimate reality, more hopeful for the world and human beings.
When I think of the resurrection, my mind goes to Antony Flew, who had three debates with my friend and colleague Gary Habermas on the resurrection. Flew, perhaps the most famous philosophical atheist of the twentieth century, underwent a huge change of mind near the end of his life.
Having argued forcefully but respectfully his whole career that the evidence led in the direction of atheism, he came to believe that the preponderance of evidence pointed instead to the existence of God—though more the deity of Aristotle than the God of Abraham. On the strength of scientific arguments for theism, especially biological and fine-tuning ones, Flew left atheism behind, but only to become a deist, not a classical theist.
Interestingly enough, he remained unmoved by the moral argument, C. S. Lewis’s variant as the salient example in his mind. Since a deist does not believe in an interventionist God, arguments for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus never quite brought Flew around, despite his having said that, if he became a theist, he would probably become a Christian because of the power of the case for the resurrection.
Flew’s resistance, it would seem, was primarily rooted in his inability to affirm God’s moral attributes, and his difficulty overcoming this challenge explains his resistance to the moral argument for God’s existence. Moral arguments have the distinctive advantage of accentuating God’s moral nature: his omnibenevolence, his impeccability, his goodness. If such arguments work, they make sense of a God who does more than merely contemplate himself; indeed, they dovetail and resonate perfectly with a God who pursues, who would deign to intervene, become involved, stoop to save, die to bring life. Flew could not bring himself to believe this, as far as we know.
Flew was a firm moral realist and, later on, a believer in libertarian free will. Belief in moral regrets, moral responsibilities, moral rights, and moral freedoms, one would have hoped, might have enabled him to see the power of theism to explain such realities. He came to see the inadequacy of a naturalistic perspective when it came to the laws of nature, the existence of something rather than nothing, human consciousness, the efficacy of reason, and the emergence of life. He took all of these to be sound evidential considerations in favor of a divine Mind. Why not moral experience and the existence of a moral law as well?
As far as I can tell, the reasons for his resistance to the moral argument(s) were four-fold. One issue was that he was convinced biblical exegesis led to the view that God inexplicably predestines some to an eternal hell for lives they could not have avoided. A second issue was that if morality were to depend on God, God would be its justification, which would lead, at most, to prudential reasons to be moral, based on the prospects of punishment for failure to comply. A third issue was his concern over the equation of goodness and being, originally deriving from the teachings of Plato. One like Gottfried Leibniz, Flew argued, used this equation to derive a system of ethics on theistic foundations that is irremediably arbitrary. Things not at all recognizably good are to be called good anyway. This concern basically sounds like the classical arbitrariness and vacuity problem rooted in Ockhamistic voluntarism.
And a fourth issue was perhaps the biggest of all, and in a sense the culmination of all of the above: the problem of evil. Flew’s resistance to the moral argument makes good sense thus construed, and it was inevitable that until he thought of God as personal and moral, rather than merely intellectual and impersonal, his resistance to special revelation would remain intact and he would continue to be convinced by the teleological and cosmological arguments but not the moral one. Of course his resistance to the case for the resurrection would persist as well.
Flew’s story underscores the need for moral apologetics, because all of Flew’s worries can be effectively answered. The historical, biblical, and philosophical evidence weighs heavily against the problematic predestinationist soteriology that worried him, and most recent theistic ethicists, especially since Locke, have focused on the ontological grounding of moral facts in God, not the motivational and prudential incentive for morality provided by divine threats. A theistic ethic that avoids Ockhamistic voluntarism can be defended, and moral apologetics and the problem of evil are locked in a zero-sum battle; only one can survive, and I think the evidence for the success of moral apologetics is strong. This is not to say the problem of evil lends itself to any simple solution; certainly it doesn’t. In fact, the way the problem of evil remains a problem for Christianity, though not an intractable one ultimately, is one of the distinctive strengths of this worldview; it’s the worldview that lacks the resources to offer a robust account of evil in the first place that suffers from explanatory inadequacy.
What all of this shows is that the case for the resurrection of Jesus—likely the strongest argument for Christianity (even more so than the moral argument!)—goes hand in hand with moral apologetics. They are not in competition; they are rather two star players on a very talented team.
Moreover, the resurrection shows the inauguration of God’s kingdom life; resurrection living, free from the fear of death and sin, is the sort of life for which we were designed. Resurrection represents God’s work of re-creation; the power that raised Jesus from the dead can be at work within us, renewing us, transforming us, making us into the people God intended us to be. The resurrection shows that our hope is not in vain, that the moral gap can be closed by God’s transforming grace, and ultimately that there is no tension or conflict between the dictates of morality and rationality. The resurrection shows that the grain of the universe is good; that God intends to redeem the entirety of the created order, making it teem with life according to his original plan; that the worst of evils can be redeemed and defeated; that life is a comedy, not a tragedy; that the day will come when all our tears will be wiped away.
Image: “Resurrection” by Luca Giordano. Public Domain.