A Defense of the Timing of the Incarnation

When discussing Christianity, one objection that sometimes comes up is the timing of the incarnation. This timing objection relates to broader objections both from the problem of hiddenness and the problem of evil. This article gives a fine-tuning defense.

If Jesus had come much earlier, ostensibly more evil could have been prevented. If Jesus had come much later, ostensibly his life would be better documented, observed, and verified. We could have miracles on video!

One moderately traditional defense is an appeal to Old Testament scriptures. I think this defense is not necessarily wrong but it is weak, for two reasons:

  1. The fulfillment of prophecy is actually a red herring with respect to this specific question.
    1. Suppose God communicates a prophetic chain of A events to begin with event B in C years. We then confirm that event B occurs in C years; that is, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, to a virgin, and so on. We now have good evidence that:
      1. God exists
      2. Prophecies through God are a thing
      3. The remainder of event chain A is expected to proceed
      4. General support for the Christian religion, that ultimately sufficient to outweigh the objection from timing, albeit indirectly and only after added cumulatively to other arguments. We can do better.
    2. What point 1.1 does not give us is an answer to the question, “Why C years?” We can do better.
    3. As a side point, many people have made many predictions by adding up prophetic years in the Bible, and many of those predictions have failed, so there’s good reason to question an apologetic derived from prophetic timing.
  2. The Old Testament scriptures themselves are subject to more or less the same timing problems for more or less the same reasons.

So my solution to this is to propose a fine-tuning argument. Notice that I don’t need to give a definitive answer, just a reasonable possible answer. This kind of fine-tuning argument uses a pincer move with respect to time. Some factors make a later incarnation ideal and some factors make an earlier incarnation ideal, so the actual optimal time ends up being an empirically-determined point between temporal extrema.

In principle, an apologist might propose any number of factors on either side. My list here is simply what originally first came to mind. It’s certainly not exhaustive, and it doesn’t need to be. As long as there are some factors on either side then the principle has been demonstrated, albeit without a calculation of the exact empirical matter. The exact empirical calculation is also something I am precisely not interested in doing at this early stage in developing the argument.

The great-making factors I point to include exactly those brought by the objectors and a couple of others. Great-making factors for a late incarnation include:

  1. Verifiability of the life of Jesus. For example, crowds watched him when a few thousand years earlier only a few people may have been available.
    1. Twelve disciples is a peculiar number and may also reflect critical mass or fine-tuning. Twelve disciples lead to four gospels. Would Christianity have spread so well with six disciples and two gospels? Biblical Scholars would certainly be more critical of the Christian story if there had only been two gospels, and that’s assuming the unlikely scenario that a similar number of Biblical Scholars would exist in such a world.
  2. Verifiability of the text of scripture. The activities of Jesus and the writings of scripture are surely two different considerations. Importantly, written language would need to exist.
  3. The virality of the message of scripture.
    1. The mere existence of written language may contribute to integrity, but it won’t contribute much to virality or spread until the written language becomes widespread and normative.
    2. Improvements to communication and logistical improvements also help here, which occur later in history.
    3. Finally, civilization helps here. Humans settling, forming social networks, and living with many people in relative proximity, allows a message to propagate to many people, in contrast with something like a very early appearance of Jesus to a tribe of roving hunters.
  4. Some kind of actual punishment for Adam and Eve.
    1. Here, let’s just consider: Why not make Jesus the firstborn of Adam and Eve? One reason is that God wanted to carry out actual punishment throughout their lifetimes, besides the theological implications it might include having God incarnate as the son of the two people that initiated the fall of man.
  5. The universe implementation option of heritability.
    1. God could have made a universe with humans that had zero heritability across all traits.
    2. If he did that, then zero of the sin nature, behavioral patterns, and so on, from Adam and Eve would have been spread from parent to child.
    3. However, the concepts of parenthood, fatherhood, motherhood, childhood, family, and similar concepts would be grossly mutated in such a non-heritable universe.
    4. God considers such concepts net goods, and perhaps considers heritability per se a good, and so created humans with heritability.
    5. As a result of the existence of heritability, a sinless human is at least very unlikely to be born early, if such a human is even possible in principle.
    6. Please don’t label this an argument from original sin, because it’s not.

Great-making factors for an early incarnation include:

  1. Decreased human evil and suffering.
  2. In a very early incarnation, the message of Jesus might quickly spread to a greater percentage of all humans.

We can also consider the inverse of each great-making factor. For example, the flourishing of the message is associated with a late incarnation. Let’s test the validity of this factor by considering the inverse. Would an early incarnation be associated with reduced message virality or flourishing? This seems very likely on the grounds that arguing for the integrity of the written gospel is difficult enough under present conditions, and would be easier under an appearance in the modern age.

So, we initialize a trend over time where older stories are more difficult to preserve. This trend is plausible already, and now further consider the discontinuous increase in difficulty should Jesus have appeared before the invention of written language. In fact, we can plainly see such difficulty because the Exodus recorded in the Old Testament is purported to take place before the invention of writing, and criticisms of the historicity of the Exodus are far more widespread compared to criticisms of the historical Jesus.

We can also speculate that some amount of time between the Old and New Testaments were required:

  1. In order for prophecies to become impressive. Forecasting something that occurs next week is much less interesting than forecasting an event in the far future.
  2. For the development of a community with general corrupted tradition.
    1. When the law was revealed to Moses it was fresh, perfect, and holy.
    2. Early on, religious leaders may have been afraid to edit the law as revealed. Over time, certainly by the time of Jesus, we know that many corruptions not revealed to Moses had been added into the religion and community as obligatory norms. This created an opportunity for correction that would not be available, say, the day after the law was revealed to Moses.
    3. This situation allowed the creation of a higher good and demonstration of greater ability on the part of Jesus. For Jesus to restore a fallen community is more impressive than, say, if Jesus had been born the day after the tablets of Moses were revealed. In the latter cases, Jesus is merely the best student of a given set of rules. In the former case, Jesus has to do something far more difficult than following given rules: He has to transcend bad social rules, find the right rules, and ultimately influence his community to swap the bad ones for the good ones.
    4. In completing 2.3, Jesus takes on a role describable as a teacher, a healer, a redeemer, and so on, rather than a mere student of Moses, which is a description that is harmonious both with the typical Christian concept of Jesus and also with someone who would be able to eliminate sin and provide eternal life.

Waiting too long, however, traps the Jews under a suboptimal set of laws and a covenant that was intended to be temporary from the beginning.

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