We know many you are looking toward Easter—and some of you are even preaching on it. Here’s a gem from my interview last November with Oxford mathematician and philosopher of science John Lennox (lightly edited, by the way). I didn’t include it in my previous newsletter because it’s more timely now. Incidentally, you can also watch the full interview.
Question: I’m interested in your thoughts about the resurrection. I was part of a panel for the American Association for the Advancement of Science about science and Christianity, and we were given a question from the audience: In the scientific world, it makes no sense to believe in a resurrection. You cannot accept science and believe in the resurrection, which is the center of your faith as a Christian.
What do you say to that? I have my answers, but I’d love to hear your answer as a scientist. Do you believe, and can you believe, in the resurrection of Christ?
On the Resurrection of Christ
“This objection really is often traced back to David Hume, who said that miracles are violations of the laws of nature. Roughly speaking, we know the laws of nature through the natural sciences. So miracles are out. That’s a confusion of thought.
Lewis’s book Miracles is extremely helpful. There’s one analogy in it that I use all the time. I find it simple enough that even professors can understand it. Imagine I’m staying in a hotel tonight and put $100 in the drawer by my bed. I do the same tomorrow night. That’s $200, but I wake up on the next morning and find only $50. Do I conclude that the laws of arithmetic have been broken or that the laws of California have been broken?
The point is, I conclude that the laws of California have been broken because I know that the laws of arithmetic have not been broken. That’s the important thing. The confusion arises as to what we mean by the word “law.” You know, on the sidewalk in many American cities, you’ll see “Violators will be towed,” and that is not the idea when it comes to a law of nature. What are the laws of nature? They are descriptions of what normally happens. Newton’s law of gravity will say that a dropped apple will fall towards the center of the Earth, but that can’t prevent you catching it midair and stopping it from hitting the ground.
If I was claiming as a Christian that Jesus rose from the dead by some natural process going on in the grave, then it would break laws of nature. But I’m not claiming that at all.”
- Here’s the video of the AAAS panel I mention above that included Walter Kim, Elaine Howard Ecklund, Geoffrey Mitelman, and Praveen Sethupathy.
- C.S. Lewis takes up Hume’s criticisms of miracles.
- Here’s a link to Lennox’s book, Can Science Explain Everything? and the full interview.
- Not directly about science, one of my favorite poems about Christ’s Resurrection was penned by the Karl Barth-influenced writer, John Updike. (I’ve used it in sermons.)
- A sermon on Resurrection from priest/biologist Lucas Mix.
Beyond a closed system (John Lennox continues)
“I’m claiming that God, the Creator who built the regularities into the universe that are described by the laws of nature in the first place, can feed an event into the system. You see, there’s nothing in science that can prevent that.
The real problem behind this is the common view that this universe is a closed system of cause and effect? Well, that was my false belief in connection with my hotel bedroom and the drawer. I thought it was a closed system, but it wasn’t. A thief was able to get in and put his hand in and take $150.
That analogy can help us to understand. You cannot argue against miracles in principle. Science doesn’t stop miracles from happening. But then you have to go to the other side because I’m not going to accept every claim for a supernatural event—statues weeping, and all this kind of stuff.”
In Can Science Explain Everything? Lennox leverages Francis Collins, who has written: “It is crucial that a healthy skepticism be applied when interpreting potentially miraculous events, lest the integrity and rationality of the religious perspective be brought into question. The only thing that will kill the possibility of miracles more quickly than a committed materialism is the claiming of miracle status for everyday events for which natural explanations are readily at hand.”
“So, we need now to have a look at the positive evidence for the resurrection. Are there grounds to believe that it actually happened. Interestingly enough, in the last two chapters of my book, Can Science Explain Everything? I took on David Hume, both at the level of what I’ve just told you about miracles being violations of the laws of nature, but also in his discussion of criteria for valid witnesses, which is a very interesting way of approaching it. Those last two chapters of that book are really my attempt to encapsulate how I would go about talking about the resurrection.
I’ll close with these words by Professor Lennox from the book:
“The existence of the Christian church throughout the world is an indisputable fact. What explanation is adequate to explain the transformation of the early disciples… What could have been powerful enough to set all of this going?”
“If we were to ask the early Church, they would answer at once that it was the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, they maintained that the very reason and purpose for their existence was to be a witness to the resurrection of Christ. That is, the church came into existence not to promulgate some political programme or campaign for moral renovation; but primarily to bear witness to the fact that God had intervened in history, raised Christ from the dead, and that forgiveness of sins could be received in his name. This message would ultimately have major moral implications for society; but it was the message of the resurrection itself that was central. If we reject the first Christians’ own explanation for their existence, on the basis that it involves too big a miracle, what are we going to put in its place that will not involve an even greater strain on our capacity for belief? To deny the resurrection simply leaves the church without a raison d’être, which is historically and psychologically absurd.”