Jesus and Theism


Thanks very much for your reply. I agree with many of the individual points you make, but I think the discussion is starting to revolve too much around differences in how one uses words. At that point, it’s more constructive to use common sense and employ the human faculty of “seeing what the other person means, and seeing that it’s right, even if the other person uses words slightly differently than I do.”

Remember that this discussion started when Joshua expressed disagreement with a statement by Greg. Greg had written:

“The first ingredient necessary for understanding the gospel is the fact of God’s existence.”

To which Joshua replied:

“I suppose I disagree. Jesus himself is strong enough reason to believe in God. I’ve seen atheists jump from atheism to Jesus, without believing God first.”

I’ve tried to make clear from the beginning that I don’t disagree with Joshua (or you) that a “direct to Jesus plus God” movement of reason is possible, that reason doesn’t have to first prove the existence of God separate from any consideration of Jesus, and then prove the divinity of Jesus. But I suggested that Greg did not mean to say that there had to be a two-step process, first to God, and only later to Jesus. I suggested that he probably meant something much less complex than that – i.e., merely that you can’t understand the Gospel (notice that he wasn’t talking about steps by which one becomes convinced of either Jesus or God, but of understanding) if you aren’t working out of an intellectual framework in which God exists. And that seems to me to be true.

Nothing in how Jesus acted, how he talked about himself and his mission, what he did, makes sense (i.e., can be understood) properly without the background concept of “God”. Without the conception of God, one might find all kinds of things interesting and admirable about Jesus (his remarkable healing powers, some of his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, his courage in facing death, etc.) but one could not be said to understand what he was about; without reference to the existence of God – and not just any God, but God as understood in the Hebrew Scriptures – his story would be a jumble of inexplicable happenings and sayings. But the Gospel writers make sure that his story is not such a jumble; they tell it against a constant backdrop of the Old Testament conception of God. It is understandable because of the “God language” they cast it in.

(Which is exactly Wittgenstein’s point, that mere “events”, no matter how remarkable, don’t have religious meaning; it is context supplied by religious minds that gives them religious meaning. A Martian who watched Jesus heal someone or get up from the dead would never write the Gospels, but a Jew well-versed in Old Testament prophecy and the books of Moses could. The Jew and the Martian, seeing exactly the same event, would tell two different stories, the Martian one a story of disconnected, incoherent, strange events, the Jewish one a coherent story connecting those events to the history of God’s dealings with Israel.)

I trust that you can agree with the above; let me know if you can or can’t.

Now, regarding what phrase I should have used, I trusted my instincts, as someone with something like 50 years of reading philosophy plus formal undergraduate and graduate training in philosophy, that I was using “logically prior” in a sense which most philosophers would not find objectionable. (As an aside, let me say that I am fully aware that both epistemology and metaphysical reasoning use logic. :smile: )

You have suggested that I should have said “metaphysically prior” instead of “logically prior”. But if I had said that God was “metaphysically prior” to Jesus, I might have found myself in a tangle with some other critic of my words, who might have argued, say, that since Jesus is the Incarnate Logos, and the Logos is part of the Trinity, there is no metaphysical priority of “God” over Jesus (understood as “Logos”); they are all part of one Godhead. I might have been accused of a faulty understanding of the Trinity. And I would not have wished to get into the complex question of possible metaphysical priority among the various persons of the Trinity. I was merely indicating a priority between propositions, i.e., English statements that use words. And the field of Logic concerns statements that use words.

If I say, “Donald Trump is The President of the United States of America”, I am implying the existence of a country called “The United States of America” which has an officer known as “The President.” The statement could not possibly be true for a reader or listener who does not accept the existence of the United States of America or who denies that it has an officer known as “The President.”

If I say, “Jesus was God” or “Jesus was the Son of God”, I am implying the existence of God. The statement could not possibly be true for a reader or listener who does not accept the existence of God.

In this sense, the existence of “The President of the United States of America” and “God” are logically prior to the claims that Donald Trump is the one, and Jesus is the other. It is impossible to assert that “X is President” or “Y is God”, unless you grant the existence of “President” and “God”.

One might substitute “Hillary Clinton” for “Donald Trump” or “Krishna” for “Jesus”, and the logical priority would still be the same.

If you insist, I could say that “President” and “God” have “metaphysical priority” over “Donald Trump” and “Jesus”; but since I am talking here about the structure of statements, rather than saying anything about the real entities to which the statements refer, I think “logical priority” is a better term. But let’s not quarrel over words. You surely now, in the light of my explanation above, know what I originally meant, and what I have been saying all along, don’t you? And if so, then I think we have resolved the misunderstanding.

1 Like

Yes, good – my how these forums twist and turn and twist again!

Well, now that I feel like one of my students, endlessly quoting others without saying a word, I’ll now make a comment. I would have to say that I think I share a lot of the same class of friends as you do @Eddie. In fact, as a philosophy graduate student, it may have been worse as philosophers tend to be rather abrasive in their argumentative style! Many, many nights were spent (with much alcohol) hashing out the finer points of epistemic theory x and Deen’s weird view y (usually Christianity). I kept using their epistemic and sometimes metaphysical insights to turn the conversation toward Jesus. The other Christian graduate students were much more able to argue general theism, but the problem is my atheist friends stopped talking to those Christian graduate students. The record had played, the arguments mapped, and conversation came to a stand still. However, they kept engaging me… I may have been entertainment to some of them, but they did mention that I am a sheep in wolves clothing. I took that as a compliment.

I took the difference to be something along the lines that my constant pushing of the necessity of Jesus on them, usually working from whatever assumptions they granted, kept the conversation fresh and lively. Now, let’s be clear, I failed just as much as my Christian brethren doing the more traditional philosophical theism conversations. I really have no clue what the fruits of these conversations were and/or are. I still dialogue with some of these people. But I don’t think any of them have “come to Jesus.” So, again, I do not think that we are barking up completely different trees, but living examples of the body of Christ using their gifts to reach their neighbor in different ways.

Absolutely! We usually assume that we are all playing a long game. Although, I need not remind everyone about what happens when one assumes…

Yep – we are all fighting our fights and falling back onto Jesus in our failures.


Just a footnote, Daniel. It’s apparent from this statement that you are unaware of a major ID book, Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer, which is about the origin of life. Origin-of-life research was the subject of Meyer’s doctoral dissertation at Cambridge University. Meyer’s book was discussed at great length on BioLogos, with many TE/ECs weighing in, apparently eager to convince Christian readers that no design was necessary to explain the origin of life.

The origin of life has also frequently been discussed on many web sites related to origins, and ID-favorable commenters in the various conversations frequently use the origin of life as an example of something that, based on our current knowledge of chemistry, would appear to have required intelligent design.

Not in the sense that ID people mean “open problem.” For those scientists working in the origin-of-life field, “It’s an open problem” means, “We don’t yet know which accidental set of chemical events brought or could have brought life into being, but we are working on it and someday we will find an answer”; for ID people, “It’s an open problem” means “We don’t know whether an accidental set of chemical events could have brought life into being, or whether design would have been required.” The ID framing of the question is epistemologically more modest, and scientifically more cautious.

Aquinas argued that higher life forms, including the higher animals (i.e., not maggots but birds, mammals, etc.), and especially man, could not have arisen directly out of non-life, but needed direct divine creation, i.e., “primary” causation as opposed to causation purely through secondary means.

(Aquinas also argued, contra BioLogos and contra some modern “Thomists” given a platform in BioLogos columns, that God’s glory and power are shown more fully when God works through primary causation than when he works only through secondary causation – but that’s an aside.)

You are right to say that for Aquinas, the production of crude life from matter would not in itself pose any threat to Christian theology, but since Aquinas was not an evolutionist and insisted on the special creation of man and the higher animals, that admission on his part does not mean the same thing as it would for a modern Christian scientist who accepts macroevolution from bacterium to man.


This is actually a pretty interesting claim, and more controversial than it sounds, so I would like to unpack it a bit more. For instance, what do you think about Jesus treating Genesis as if it were an accurate historical account? Do you think he actually believes it is a literal record of events that actually happened, or do you think he is just using the mythos of his culture to convey some deeper truth to his audience and the historical accuracy of Genesis is not particularly relevant in his mind?

In general, when Jesus says X, should we take it at face value, or should we metaphorize (new word!) X to fit whatever background information we believe to be most likely true?

I have not forgotten. Still thinking about the best way to explain myself…

The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t demonstrate the divinity of Jesus, or even directly the existence of God - as Eddie has said, plenty of people have found reason to deny the fact of it, and somebody might one day find a way to resuscitate the dead and deny the importance of it.

No, the resurrection fits in a surprising way into the whole nexus of second temple Jewish thought. Specifically (and abbreviatedly) the resurrection was evidence that God vindicated Jesus’s ministry as the promised Messiah, including his ignoble death. Resurrection being the major Jewish hope for the New Age, they could see that God had in Jesus brought in this New Age. But since that hope also included the coming of God himself to save his covenant people, it was very soon that disciples put two and two together and saw Jesus as divine, yet within the pale of Jewish monotheism.

After some prompting from the Spirit, the inclusion of the Gentiles within that hope came to be clear - and there was then a need for a different approach to those who knew nothing of the covenant hope, and only the false gods of paganism. The ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus were clearly central to that (because only through Jesus was there a gospel for Gentiles), but it has to be significant that nowhere in the New Testament is the resurrection used as an apologetic tool to persuade people that God exists. In fact the glorification of Jesus, according to John, is his cross, and not his resurrection. The resurrection demonstrates the effectiveness of the cross, within a sin-bearing theology.

On the two occasions in Acts where we have a purely Gentile audience (ie not already associated with the synagogue) and a précis of the preaching, Paul starts with natural theology to point people away from the gods to the God of Israel, and then skillfully grounds that in the recent life of the man Jesus, and the promise of forgiveness of sins and the defeat of death.

Once again, the resurrection is used as vindication of this message from God (and of course the works done in the name of Christ, both charitable and miraculous, in turn confirm the apostle’s testimony).

1 Like

This seems to be a misreading of Acts 17. Did you note how explicitly he establishes the epistemology of his claim? Moreover, he does not point to nature at any point. He points to culture, which is not usually what we mean when we say nature.

Hmm… this sounds really suspect to me. People might deny the resurrection, but why assume that resurrection doesn’t affirm/demonstrate divinity? It seems that this resurrection is part and parcel of second temple Judaism… As you even admit it fits surprisingly well… I am willing to admit that there may be more to the resurrection than only proof of divinity, but why exclude that possibility?

I would grant thus point in the sense that our apologetic landscape is different from theirs… But you go on to state that:

These are strong epistemological justification type words that seem a bit apologetic in nature… Where am I misunderstanding you?

1 Like

Disagree, Josh. In Acts 17 he begins with proclaiming that the “unknown God” they’ve failed to name is in fact the one who is already known to them through his making of the world and all things in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, giving life and breath and every other thing and therefore not confined to temples.

V26 is in the broadest sense about “culture”, in the sense that general antrhopology - the nations of man and their exact times and places on earthy - are in the hands of this same God. I have my doubts that the Athenians would see that he’d changed academic departments, for mankind was seen as much as a part of nature as everything else. Epistemologically, it seems to be the stability given by this whole god-given situation that encourages men to seek out for the God who did it.

His final encouragement that God is not fdar away is grounded in our very existence (living, moving, being what we are - ie our nature) flows directly from him.

There is no evidence from nature being presented here, but a truthful description of reality, a theology of nature, using their culture as a starting point. It bears repeating, this is a theology of nature, not a natural theology.

That is not Paul’s final encouragement. Acts 17:31 says:

He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

This is where he roots the epistemology of his message. The arc is different than you wrote. He starts from their culture (their poets and the unnamed god), explains the true reality of the world (God is judge and He is not far away), and then offers the Resurrection as “proof” that this account was true.

The explicit epistemology is rooted in the Resurrection, not nature. There may be an implicit epistemology that there is truth already in their culture that points to true reality. The full picture, however, is grounded in the epistemology of the Gospel.

This is the key point. Within the Jewish context, final resurrection was promised to all (righteous) Jews by God, who has the power over life and death. But the existence of the God of Israel was never in doubt - only how his salvation would be revealed.

Nobody expected a crucifed and risen Messiah (a dead Messiah looking like a failed Messiah - dead men do not restore nations, but given the apostolic testimony, confirmed by signs and powerful preaching, the “early” resurrection clearly showed God declaring Jesus to be both righteous, and in the context of his ministry, the Messiah. So Paul preaches

“For [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

The claim (to pagans, note) is not about Jesus’s divinity, but about proving his role as Messianic Judge of the whole world.

In Romans 1, this “vindication” is expressed more clearly:

…regarding His Son, who was a descendant of David according to flesh, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

We need to understand that “Son of God” here is not a divine claim, but a Davidic, Messianic one: God’s Spirit raises his faithful servant, thus demonstrating not his divinity, but his Messiahship. So it’s ap[ologetic OK, but it’s an apologetic built around the existing narrative of Jewish covenant, exile, and Messianic promise.

In short, the resurrection proved that the unlikely scenario of national and world salvation coming about through an ignoble execution was, in fact, the fulfilment of all those hopes and promises: the cross was the paradoxical demonstration of glory (as John often points out); the resurrection vindicated that fact to chosen witnesses, declaring that the work had been done as prophesied.

At that point, the discpiles were left with the task of re-theologizing their former expectations (helped by post-resurrection teaching from the Lord), which at an early date entailed that God’s promised return must have been in Christ, making sense of half-perceieved events like the transfiguration, the calming of the storm, Jesus’s authority to forgive sins, etc. And yet the seeds of Trinitarian thinking were sown by Jesus’s own insistence of the primacy of the Father.

Now, it’s true that we can (and often do) ignore all that context and say that if Jesus rose from the dead he must be God, but then we’re not cutting the biblical text at the seams, and we’re liable to all kinds of problems, like downplaying the fact that Jesus points us always to his Father, that the Resurrection was a forestaste and guarantee of our own resurrection, that the Cross is the key to understanding divine power, and so on. All these themes are the way the NT apostolic doctrine unpacks the resurrection, so ought to mould our own faith - and our own apologetics.

@jongarvey I think you are missing the point we’re making. We are not saying that Jesus was divine because he rose from the dead. By that criteria, Lazarus would be divine too.

A better way to put it:

God reveals himself to the world by raising Jesus from the dead, and this is how we know He is exists, is good, and wants to be known.

The reason the Resurrection brings us to this knowledge is, in many ways, because of the context within which the Resurrection is situated. Without the Resurrection, none of this matters. However, with the Resurrection, the context now makes sense of why and what it means. This context includes the teachings of Jesus, the teachings of the Apostles, the tradition of the Church, and the Messianic promise and prophecy. That narrative we discover to be true because we find that Jesus rose from the dead, and from that narrative we find out that Jesus was God, not just that God rose him from the daed.

This matches closely what we see in Acts 17. Paul tells a theologically true narrative, that includes theology of nature, but then gives the epistemological grounding for this exclusively in the Resurrection. There is, however, no theology of nature here, in the way we usually mean it. Rather than nature, it is the Resurrection that functions like an epistimological beacon to demonstrate the theological narrative is true.

So, let me be clear that many people can feel confident that God exists without having proper grounding. Also many people can have a concept “God” that does not match God. So Jews and Muslims can certainly have confident belief in God, but I’m not sure what that concept is or if it is grounded. I am speaking here in an epistemological sense, not self-perception of certainty, or metaphysical categories.

As both @dga471 and @Philosurfer have suggested, I’m focusing on epistemological grounding, not metaphysical, or logical, or chronological ordering. That is because the fundamental question in a secular context, like science, is: how do we know this is true? What is the evidence? The answer is the Resurrection, not natural theology.

I’ve explained how I read Acts 17…

I also see this put forward by Jesus too:

Matthew 12:38-42

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.

42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

This is the only sign, a proof with evidence, offered to skeptics. The “wicked and adulterous” is well understand as “skeptical” given the larger context that is seen in Luke. They just witnessed miracles, and still asked for more signs. So in that context, where people are pressing us on how we know this is true, the only sign that Jesus offers is the Resurrection. This is the only proof He offers.

I see significance in this, which traces through several passages, and even resolves the old “Paul vs. Jesus” debate. The Gospel of Paul (1 Cor 15:3-7) is precisely the One Sign of Jesus (Matt 12:36-42). They are presenting the same Gospel in different contexts and language, but it remains the same Gospel, and it comes with an internal epistemology.

At this point, I suspect @Philosurfer will be able to explain this better than me, from the context of Lutheran theology.


A quick corrective - the question of Acts 17 is about natural theology, not theology of nature.

We seem agreed now that the context of Jesus’s resurrection is that to which it points. But that context is the whole package, and I’d still not want to telescope the whole knowledge of God into the Resurrection.

God revealed himelf to the world long before in the Exodus (and the Exile) - which is one reason there was such receptivity to the Gospel, for there was a Jewish presence across the world, and many Gentiles interested in this powerful, moral and involved God of theirs.

And Jesus himself revealed God to the world by his way of life, his unique teaching, his unprecedented miracles and the scandal of the Cross. I agree, the Resurrection makes sense of all that - but, as I said before, because it puts God’s seal of approval on all that went before.

Another aspect we’ve barely touched on is that the main way the Resurrection persuades us of God is because the risen Jesus testifies through the Spirit to people today. At the time ogf my conversion, I had little opinion abouyt the Resurrection, but a natural belief in God. The preaching that I was sinner, and that Jesus died to take away my sin, was (as I now theologize) applied to my heart by the Spirit sent by the risen Jesus.

And so it became easy to believe all that was said about Jesus, including his resurrection, and I could begin slowly to see how the Resurrection was necessary in that whole narrative.

That testimony, I accept, would be different from any NT period one, because the apostles were able to stress their first hand knowledge of the Resurrection (and their converts, what they heard from the witnesses) as evidential support - but the support was, I still say, not to do with belief in God, but the message of forgiveness.

(In this context note the Philippian jailer, said to have “come to believe in God” through the miraculous earthquake and Paul’s message for him to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved.)

1 Like

I’m confused by this. What do you mean?

I’m not sure anyone here has telescoped the full knowledge of God to the Resurrection. Rather I am emphasizing that the epistemological entry point (not necessarily chronological) is here. Whatever our starting point, it is the Resurrection that calls us to see the context as a trustworthy source of truth.

And that is exactly right, and connected to the Resurrection. That living presence gives testimony to the fact that Jesus is alive. In this sense, the Gospel is a “haunted” story. This, alongside the testimony of the Church, and the testimony of the evidence or the Resurrection collaborate all together to bring us to confident faith.

Paul says that God may be known by them (to a degree) through nature - he doesn’t explain how God works in nature.

And this is exactly right - the whole “haunted” package brings us to confident faith in God (“faith” here having the connotationb of “dependence” and “trust.”) That seems to me different from what was being said further up the thread abou the resurrection, rather than natural theology, persuading us of God’s existence.


Daniel, Joshua, Jon:

A number of important questions are being discussed here: natural theology vs. theology of nature; messianic expectations in the Second Temple period; whether Acts 17 is talking primarily about nature or about human affairs; what Jesus’s resurrection proves about himself and/or the existence of God.

I will limit my remarks – for now, anyway – to the last point. Previously we discussed whether one had to come to knowledge of God first, and then to acceptance of Jesus later, or whether belief in God and Jesus could arise simultaneously, or whether belief in Jesus could actually precede belief in God.

I made the case, and still hold to it, that belief in Jesus – full-blooded belief in Jesus as understood by Christian doctrine – could not precede belief in God. The two beliefs might be arrived at simultaneously, but since the full understanding of Jesus requires an understanding of God, belief in Jesus (as Messiah, Logos, Son, or God) could not possibly precede belief in God.

I granted, and still grant, that someone who had no belief in any God previously, might, impressed by Jesus as a remarkable man of compelling words and personality, and capable of astounding deeds, come around to believing that Jesus was divine; i.e., attraction to Jesus might precede a conviction that God exists. But belief that Jesus was who he said he was, and was what the Church says he is, could not precede belief in the existence of God. At the latest, belief in the existence of God could only be simultaneous with reception of Jesus as divine, not later.

So much for a review of my previous statements. Now, to the present discussion.

I’m trying to figure out whether Daniel and/or Joshua are arguing (a) that the Resurrection proves that Jesus was God, or (b) that the Resurrection could convince someone who had no previous belief in God at all that God exists; or © that the passage in Acts 17 treats the Resurrection as proof of God’s existence to those with no previous belief in any God or gods.

Regarding (a), I’d say that in the Jewish context in which the story of Jesus is embedded, the Resurrection is meant at least to prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah (although an unexpected sort of Messiah); also, I think, to prove that Jesus was the “Son of Man”; whether it also is meant to prove that Jesus was “Son of God” or “Logos” or “Second Person of the Trinity”, or “God”, I’m not sure, and remain open to suggestions.

Regarding (b), I think it is possible that someone with no belief in God or gods at all might interpret the Resurrection as proof that Jesus was divine, or that Jesus was brought back to life by God, and therefore (either way) that a God exists. I don’t think it is a necessary conclusion from the Resurrection, for reasons already given in earlier posts (see my comments on Wittgenstein), but I grant it is a possible conclusion.

Regarding ©, I don’t think the passage in Acts 17 presents the Resurrection as something that proved, or ought to prove, to a complete unbeliever that a God must exist. Rather, I think it presents the Resurrection as proof that God is not what the pagans have taken him to be, and that the pagan conception of God needs correction in light of Jesus and the historical experience of Israel leading up to Jesus. Why do I say this? Because the Acts passage has already indicated that the Greek pagans believed in some God, not no God at all. Acts is not saying that before Jesus was Resurrected, the pagans believed in no God at all; Acts is saying that in light of the Resurrection, the Greek pagan conception of God/gods has been refuted, and a new and better conception of God is now required of them.


I have seen people coming to Christianity a hundred different ways. This dispute has no traction or consequence compared to the mysteries of the human mind.

I have, too. But I haven’t yet seen a case where someone said, “I’m now a Christian, because of Jesus, but I don’t believe in the existence of God.” And I never will see such a case, and neither will you, because it’s logically impossible to believe in Jesus (as any Christian Church has ever understood Jesus) without also believing in God.