Overview:

Richard Swinburne is a prolific and much-cited theologian. I discuss here his concept of God as expressed in The Existence of God (1991) and Is There a God? (1996).

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In this piece, I will present the views of British philosopher and leading Christian apologist Richard Swinburne, paraphrased by often using his words, in italics. 

The first question is, which god? He says it is that of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Christian god is called God, which distinguishes him from Yahweh or Jehovah, and Allah (though all mean much the same as ‘god’).

In fact, these are not identical, a prime difference being that Christians believe that their god took human form in Jesus. This is rejected by Jews and is a profound blasphemy to Muslims.

Richard Swinburne via YouTube

And Swinburne himself claims that the Christian revelation is unique. God, first of all, is a person, like us in having beliefs, purposes, and the power to act intentionally. But these functions cannot be like ours, since we as persons are intrinsically physical. My power to act, very simply, is constrained by my physique.

More importantly, all our thoughts, feelings, wishes and so on are the product of our evolved bodies and brains, developed in a social and material environment. A human is a functioning totality. The fantasy of transferring oneself to another body, as in many a film, is impossible.  

There is no separate “self” to transfer. God has other attributes. First, God is omnipotent. But there are limitations on his power. He cannot do what is logically impossible. Second, God is omniscient. Again there is a limitation. God has given us (partial) free will, and this means that he cannot know what we are going to do by free choice. If he did it would not be free, but determined. Third, God is perfectly free. He is not constrained by desires, as we are.

Why therefore he is not constrained by his beliefs and purposes I am not clear.  

From these follow further attributes (though I don’t see why). God is eternal. This does not mean that he exists outside of time, as some theologians hold. Rather, he exists at each moment of unending time. This seems to imply that time itself exists independently (of God?). If so how did it come about?

It follows, I understand, from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905) that time is not a medium in which events occur. Rather, it is the sequence of events, or rather the distance between them; essentially, it is a measurement. I suppose one could hold that God is an endless series of events and so equivalent to time.  

Next, God is bodiless. He has no material substance. A problem here is that, apart from God if he exists, we have no knowledge of any purely non-material mental events. An analogy is made with thoughts. Thoughts can certainly be said to exist, and are not to be equated with the brain.  

But there is no evidence at all that they can occur without it. Nor can they be communicated without some physical process. The God theory simply asserts that they can. Next, God is omnipresent. This follows from his being omnipotent and bodiless.  

Next, he is the creator and perpetual sustainer of all that exists. He is not the God of deism, who simply set things in motion and left them. But most of the time he contents himself with keeping things going. Occasionally he intervenes, as we shall see. 

God is perfectly good  

Last comes the most contentious attribute. God is perfectly good. The first problem is what this means. What, in fact, is good? Some theologians have held that it is defined by God. Swinburne sides with others, including Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, who think that there are moral principles independent of God.  

This is a third limitation.  God cannot make something bad, good. The only example Swinburne gives is that it is wrong to torture children for fun (could it be right to torture children not for fun?) Where do these principles originate? If they are independent of God, they cannot somehow be built into the structure of the universe, as that is determined by God.

There seems to be only one other source, the obvious and correct one, that they come from ourselves. It might be said, that they result from free will, which is itself from God. But as we have seen, he cannot know what use we will make of that ability, so he could not know what moral principles we might devise.  

However, being omniscient, God knows the principles (whatever they are) and being good and omnipotent puts them into practice. It would seem that he always chooses to do what is good, his only problem is which of an infinite number of good actions he should choose. Why, since he is omnipotent, he cannot do all of them, again I am not clear.  

Here we come up against the great problem of monotheism, that of evil. How can bad things happen, when God is all-good and all-powerful? Swinburne dismisses three possible answers.   Two are that evil is punishment for our sins, or for “the sins of our fathers”, and one is that natural evils, at least, are brought about by free agents other than humans, namely fallen angels.  

His main line is the Free Will Defence. God has created us to worship him and marvel at the natural world, and to have and exercise moral knowledge. For these free will is necessary. But it inevitably follows that sometimes we will do evil, not good. Further, the existence of evil gives us the opportunity to oppose it, and to try to understand its causes and reduce it. It gives us cause to be courageous in adversity, and compassionate to others who suffer.

All these are good. These arguments apply to natural evils, such as epidemics and earthquakes (though these are not the result of free will), as well as to humanly caused harm. And they apply even when the victims are innocent and helpless, for example children. Animals too may die in natural disasters, and often kill each other.  

The answer here is that they don’t suffer very much, at least not as much as we do, and they may also show valuable behaviour, such as a mother protecting her offspring, even though not by choice. What we can be sure of is that God allows just the right amount of evil for us to exercise our desirable behaviour.  

The countless millions who have suffered and died in wars, disease, famine, tsunamis and the rest, were precisely necessary. However, in any case, as our creator God deserves our gratitude, and has rights over us that fellow humans cannot have. Since he creates us, his choice is not whether to harm existing creatures, but what sort of creature to create. He chose to make us, with our unavoidable potential for suffering.

Given that God is thus, how does he operate in the world?  As we have seen, he is responsible for everything existing. This must mean, among other things, that he was responsible for the creation and later destruction of the myriads of species we know only from fossils or other records.  

This must have been good, but I do not see how, and Swinburne does not mention it. God also sometimes intervenes in the world, in four ways. One is when no natural law is affected, for example he could put ideas into someone’s head (this is possible since both God and ideas are non-material).  

Another is by miracles. Swinburne restricts these to cases in which natural laws are violated.   Since these are laid down by God, he is merely varying them, which he does to answer our prayers or meet our needs.  

Swinburne gives two examples. One is in Kings II, when in response to the prayers of the prophet Isaiah, God gave a sign to King Hezekiah that he would recover from illness, and that Jerusalem would be saved from the Assyrians. Rather a trivial occasion, one might think. The sun’s shadow moved backwards ten paces.  

The other is that God occasionally saves individuals from serious illness. He quotes one case of a man in Glasgow who was cured of cancer. But God does not do this too often, as we might think that prayer was the best answer to illness, and thus lose the important choice of putting our money into medical research.  

The third way is by revelation. A revelation must, like a miracle, alter natural laws, but it must also reveal something that is both good and plausible. The meaning however may  be too deep for us to see why it is good.   

Swinburne seems to think that there has been only one true revelation, that of Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection. The good and plausible message was such things as the Sermon on the Mount, the divinity of Jesus himself, the concept of the Trinity, and the principle of atonement for sins.  (In passing, it was a few hundred years before the last three were accepted as part of Christian doctrine.)

Purported revelations he rejects include Moses speaking with God, because it was recorded only long after the event, and Mohammed receiving the Qu’ran, because no natural law was suspended. 

The final way is by participation, and again Jesus is the only example. It was natural that God, like a fond parent, would wish to share the suffering of his children. Admittedly only once and for a very short time, but Jesus also had other functions.  

The second was his mission of preaching. Swinburne does not mention that the main burden of that preaching was that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and that Jesus himself was inaugurating it. Possibly because this did not happen.  

Third, Jesus was a necessary sacrifice, to atone for human sins. Quite how we are saved from sin because God allowed himself to be killed, only to rise again after three days, I have never grasped.  

Lastly there was the function of resurrection, demonstrating God’s existence and message by suspending one of his laws.

In a brief summary I have had to omit the subtle reasoning with which Richard Swinburne presents his views. I hope I have not misrepresented them. Personally, I feel that if God is to be conceived as the sort of mad alien he appears to be from this account, tossing lives and suffering around to see what will happen, and occasionally poking his finger into the world to stir it a little, I am more than ever glad that there seems to be no reason to think that he exists.

Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....