Death and God: The Case of Richard Swinburne
Cosculluela (Victor)
Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Sep., 1997), pp. 293-302
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

  1. In "Swinburne (Richard) - The Existence of God", Richard Swinburne offers several arguments for the claim that death is not a surprising phenomenon on the assumption that God exists.
  2. I try to show that his arguments fail individually and when taken collectively.
  3. Further, I claim that the kinds of assumptions involved in his arguments can plausibly be used to argue that death would be surprising if God exists and therefore that death counts as evidence against God’s existence.
  4. Finally, I argue that Swinburne’s claims create problems for theists who believe in eternal life after death1 since his arguments seem to entail that God would have good reason for denying us eternal life beyond the grave.

Author’s Introduction
  1. Everyone will die. Death is your fate, whatever your virtues or vices, whatever your hopes, whatever good or evil deeds you might otherwise have committed. Although millions died in Nazi and Stalinist concentration camps, some escaped death - but only temporarily. For in the world at large billions have died and will die, and no one will forever escape the grave.
  2. Universal mortality raises a question for the debate over theism: Is the fact that everyone dies surprising on the assumption that God - an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free, and morally perfect creator of the world - exists? Theists are under pressure to avoid an affirmative answer to this question since an affirmative answer would mean that universal mortality counts as evidence against the existence of God.
  3. Richard Swinburne, one of the greatest theistic philosophers of our time, has taken on the challenge. While developing an inductive, cumulative evidence argument for theism in "Swinburne (Richard) - The Existence of God", Swinburne raises the issue in this way: ‘Does a God have reason to make a world in which either by natural causes or by the action of agents, there is death?’ He answers by arguing that God would have at least five reasons for making a world in which everyone dies. Consequently, universal mortality is not surprising on the hypothesis that God exists, and universal mortality does not count as evidence against the existence of God. In what follows, I will present Swinburne’s approach and show that neither individually nor collectively do his arguments succeed. Further, I will argue that the kinds of claims involved in his arguments can be used to argue that universal mortality would be surprising in a world created by God and, therefore, counts as evidence against his existence. Finally, I will argue that Swinburne’s claims create problems for theists who believe in eternal life beyond the grave.

  1. The Argument from Greater Choice and Divine Trust
  2. The Argument from Supreme Self-Sacrifice
  3. The Argument from Irreversibility
  4. The Argument from Opportunities for New Generations
  5. The Argument from Limiting Suffering
  6. The Argument from Cumulative Reasons

Author’s Conclusion
  1. Swinburne’s arguments individually and collectively fail to show that universal mortality should be expected in a world created by God. Further, given the kinds of considerations which Swinburne himself brings forward, we saw reason for saying that universal mortality would be surprising in a world created by God and therefore constitutes evidence against God’s existence.
  2. The theist must either provide evidence for God’s existence which is strong enough to override the evidence from universal mortality against God’s existence or bring forward better reasons why God would bring about universal mortality.
  3. I conclude2 by noting that Swinburne’s arguments may be troubling for theists who believe in some form of eternal afterlife3. Swinburne’s arguments for the claim that God would be likely to bring about universal mortality seem, if successful, to show that God would be likely to deny people eternal life after death4.
    1. If people enjoy eternal life after death5, then, in Swinburne’s words, ‘there is a certain harm (of a qualitatively different kind to other harms) which agents cannot do either to themselves or to others - they cannot deprive of existence’; ‘In refusing them this power, a God would refuse to trust his creatures in a crucial respect’.
    2. Further, if personal annihilation is the ultimate self-sacrifice, then eternal life after death6 would deprive us of ‘the possibility of supreme self-sacrifice and courage in the face of absolute disaster’.
    3. If free choice and mutual interdependence - highly valuable features in Swinburne’s view - are aspects of the afterlife7, then an eternal afterlife8 means that ‘whatever harm I do, I can always undo it’, which, according to Swinburne, lessens the importance of my actions.
    4. Further, in an endless afterlife9 involving free choice and mutual inter-dependence, newcomers would always be inhibited by the experience and influence of those already in the realm of the immortals.
    5. Finally, if God has good reason to end earthly suffering by arranging for the death of the victim, then God has good reason to end after-worldly suffering by eventually annihilating the sufferer since ‘There need to be limits to the intensity of suffering and to the period of suffering’, and it would be ‘morally wrong for a very powerful being to give limitless power to one agent to hurt another’. Hell-bound souls rejoice!


Review of "Swinburne (Richard) - The Existence of God".

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 2:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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