I. The Impossible Swan
It takes only one definite exception to refute a general truth. That “all swans are white” is an ancient example of this fact. Juvenal, the second century Roman satirical poet, made the comment that the perfect wife was “a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan”, which assumed that it was impossible for a black swan to exist.1
Countless eyes in thousands of places over millennia of years had seen only white swans. Therefore “all swans must be white because all historical records of swans reported that they had white feathers”.2
Juvenal’s statement was accepted in sixteenth-century London as an expression of something that was impossible. Then the Dutch navigator Willem de Vlamingh in 1697 CE sailed into an estuary in Western Australia and discovered an abundance of black swans swimming majestically by totally oblivious that their existence was deemed to be impossible.3 Vlamingh’s discovery “showed how risky it is to declare something impossible”.4 It led the nineteenth century British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, to observe that “to Europeans, not many years ago, all swans are white, appeared an equally unequivocal instance of uniformity in the course of nature. Further experience has proved to both that they were mistaken; but they had to wait fifty centuries for this experience.”5
“The black swan fallacy” led Karl Popper to conclude that universal statements cannot be inferred from singular ones: “no matter how many instances of white swans we may have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white”.6
The following children’s jingle expresses it well:
All swans are white
I used to believe they were right
But it just goes to show, you never really know
‘Cos I’ve just seen one black as the night
II. Jesus and a Debate about the Resurrection
Some Sadducees decided to show Jesus up by setting Him a question that demonstrated the impossibility of the resurrection from the dead (Mark 12:18–27).7 The Sadducees belonged to the Jewish priestly class and accepted only the five books of Moses as Scripture. This limitation led them “to say there is no resurrection [from the dead]” (v18; Acts 23:8). On the other hand, the lay Pharisees affirmed the resurrection from the dead, and the tenor of the Sadducees’ questioning of Jesus indicates that they knew He agreed with the Pharisees.8 There would be little point in their interrogation of Jesus, if they knew that He agreed with them that there was no resurrection from the dead.
The law required a man to marry the childless widow of his deceased brother to give her progeny within her clan (Deuteronomy 25:5).9 The Sadducees suggested a hypothetical sequence where six brothers of the original husband were obliged to marry his childless widow one after the other. Finally the childless widow herself died. The Sadducees then sprang their trap: “In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her” (Mark 12.23). The Old Testament’s marital ideal was monogamous marriage (Genesis 2:24,25; Malachi 2:14–16). The Sadducees’ point is that if belief in the resurrection leads to an impossible situation in the afterlife, then that belief is flawed.
Jesus refutes the Sadducees’ conundrum by listing some of their shortcomings. First, they deny the power of God to raise the dead, but Jesus affirms it. Secondly, they mistakenly define the future life as merely an extrapolation from this life, but, says Jesus, the truth is that “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25); or as Luke puts it, “they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection” (20:36).
Thirdly, they are ignorant of the Scriptures. For, Jesus reminds them that God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6) as the God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob (Matthew 22:32; Mark 12:26; Luke 20:37). In fact, in each of the five books of Moses to which the Sadducees limited Scripture, God is known as the covenant-keeping God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. Jesus’ point is that such an ascription to the immortal God (1 Timothy 6:16) must always be true. God’s attributes, just as His being, are eternal; He is always the God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob (Matthew 8:11; Luke 13:28; Acts 3:13; 7:32).10 Hence, the necessity of “the dead [patriarchs] being raised” (Mark 12:26), for “he is God not of the dead, but of the living; you [Sadducees “who say there is no resurrection”] are quite wrong” (vv18, 24, 27).
Some interpret Jesus’ declaration that the Lord “is God not of the dead, but of the living”, as “implying that they [the patriarchs] exist in the meantime, present and alive to God’”.11 That is, between death and the resurrection a person’s soul lives on as spirit in heaven with God. However, this introduces a concept that is foreign to the context. Throughout the passage, Jesus consistently argues in agreement with the Pharisees for the resurrection of the dead. Jesus’ hearers “would all agree that God is a God of the living. If this is true and if God identifies himself also as the ‘God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’, logic suggests that someday these patriarchs will again be alive. This will take place through the resurrection.”12
III. The Abolition of Death
A syllogism has a major and a minor premise from which a logical conclusion is drawn. A famous case is the Socratic example: All humans are mortal. Socrates is a human. Therefore Socrates is mortal. All of us will ultimately die. As the wise man noted, the grave has an insatiable appetite (Proverbs 30:15,16). However, if one were to triumph over death, then death could no longer continue its rampage unchallenged. Thus Jesus, in fulfilment of His own teaching, was raised from the dead.
Peter accused his fellow Israelites saying, “With the help of lawless Gentiles, you nailed him to a cross and killed him. But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip” (Acts 2:23,24 NLT). Paul mockingly challenges the grim reaper with these questions: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting (1 Corinthians 15:55b)?” and he provides his answer before asking his queries: “Death has been swallowed up in [the] victory” [of Christ] (v55a).
Paul, in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, incredulously asked the sceptical Greeks in Corinth, “how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12)?” If Christ were not raised then believers are dead in their sins, and those who have died in Christ have perished forever (v18). Furthermore, if God did not raise Jesus from the dead then the apostolic witness is a lie (vv14,15).
To Paul, who had seen the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:8), the Sadducees and the sceptical Greeks were wrong for “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (v20) “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (v23). “Death exercised dominion [over humanity] from Adam to Moses” (Romans 5:14), but Moses exacerbated the problem; he did not solve it (vv12, 20a). Hence, sin and death continued to reign over humanity until Christ came (“just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” v21).
Following the crucifixion, the disciples of Christ deserted Him; they were full of fear and uncertainty, and their witness was muted. Then a transformation took place and their witness became bold and they began to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). This radical change in their lives was due to their conviction that God had raised Jesus from the dead to which event they were witnesses (Acts 2.32; 3:15; 5:30–32; 10:41).
The Christian’s hope of resurrection is bound to the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:5) and it is corporate and communal. Believers do not enter the presence of God one after the other like fans going through the turnstiles of a football stadium; no they meet Jesus together. This contrasts with the idea of an immortal soul, which is individualistic and does not connect with the resurrection of Jesus in the way the New Testament links the believers’ resurrection to it (Romans 6:8; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:23; 2 Corinthians 4:14; 1 Thessalonians 4:14).13 The universal reign of death was over, for it takes only one exception to refute a general truth; and that one exception is Jesus, “whom God raised up” (Acts 3:26; 5:30; 13:37) and through whom He “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
When Vlamingh and his crew returned to Europe they bore witness to the fact that in the great south land there were black swans in abundance; the impossible was possible. No doubt many rejected their testimony especially as the black swans they intended to show as evidence had died during the long journey back to Holland.
When God raised Jesus from the dead there were many witnesses who saw Him alive: women who followed Him from Galilee, male disciples who did likewise, 500 brothers and sisters, apostles at large, relatives and doubting Thomases (1 Corinthians 15:5–8). “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). “The Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15). There was nothing about these witnesses to imply they were liars or deceivers or gullible or tricksters. To the contrary, they were honest and reliable and not in any way seekers after wealth, adulation, popularity, position or prestige. They were trustworthy witnesses to the fact that one man, Jesus, had triumphed over death—and it takes only one exception to challenge an otherwise universal fact.
Dr Norman Young lectured at Avondale College (now University) for 31 years (1973-2004). In retirement, he still enjoys studying and publishing the occasional article.
1. Satires 6.165.
2. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, quoted in <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory> (accessed 17/02/22).
3. I grew up in Perth and knew of their existence by observation from childhood. The estuary is now called the Swan River and a black swan features on Western Australia’s flag.
4. Tim Low, “Black Swan: the Impossible Bird,” Australian Geographic, 11 July 2016.
5. John Stuart Mill, System of Logic (8th ed. New York: Harper, 1882) 226.
6. Karl R Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Rev. London: Hutchinson, 1972) 27.
7. Bible references are from the NRSV unless stated otherwise.
8. Paul cleverly uses the dispute between the Sadducees and the Pharisees over the resurrection of the dead to deflect the focus on himself (Acts 23:6; 24:21).
9. This was the only way for a sperm donor to help the childless widow in Old Testament times, but it was limited to family members; no stranger could fulfil the role.
10. Hence such titles for God as the following are eternal attributes: “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:2,3 NIV); “the God of love and peace” (2 Corinthians 13:11); “the God of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33; 1 Thessalonians 5:23); “Father of orphans and Protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5); “God of salvation” (Psalm 68:20); “God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18).
11. John W Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leicester, UK, Eerdmans/Apollos 1989) 122.
12. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol 34B; Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001) 256; see also R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark (The New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI/Carlisle, UK, Eerdmans/Paternoster, 2002) 471–475.
13. The clause “bring with him” is often misunderstood to mean “bring with him from heaven”, but the context is clearly concerning the resurrection of the dead in Christ and the translation of His followers who are alive at His coming. It is truer to the context to interpret the clause to mean “bring the newly raised and the living together with him to heaven”.