Saturday, March 21, 2009


While in Atlanta recently, I visited the King Tutankhamun exhibit. Sponsored by Emory University and on loan from Egypt, the exhibit featured artifacts recovered from King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Among the thirty-three hundred year old artifacts were boats, statues of servants, and other items useful in the afterlife – all in miniature. The ancient Egyptians believed that when the Pharaoh passed into the next life these miniatures would become full size, function properly, and ensure that the Pharaoh (male or female) enjoyed a quality of life commensurate with the Pharaoh’s divine status. The Egyptians preserved Pharaoh’s viscera (heart, liver, stomach, etc.) separately to avoid destroying them in the embalming process because the Pharaoh would need them in the next life.

Today, hardly anyone holds the ancient Egyptian perspective on life after death. Few people, except highly specialized scholars, read the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Only true literati appreciate crossing the river Styx or meeting Anubis as metaphors about death and another life. Christian teachings that one cannot transmit wealth or quality of life from this life to the next thoroughly shape our perspective.

My visit prompted me to ponder the question, appropriate to Lenten preparations for Easter, how can Christians best understand resurrection?

I have always found the idea of physical resurrection, an idea premised on an empty tomb, unsatisfying. The New Testament witness does not uniformly point to physical resurrection, e.g., Paul writes that people in the resurrection shall receive a new body, a spiritual body. Physical resurrection also seemed morally and theologically problematic: what did this portend if the resurrection body was the physical body, a body the elements, war, disease, age, or birth had destroyed or corrupted? In the extreme, a person with a different brain seems unlikely to be the same person.

For me, science has nailed the coffin shut on all ideas of physical resurrection. Every human now alive incorporates substantial numbers of molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles previously used in the physical bodies of other humans. At the resurrection, to whom will those physical building blocks belong? Giving new or other physical components to those who do not receive the original molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles will mean that those people are no longer the same person as before, an acute difficulty in the case of a person formed primarily from recycled elements. From a scientific perspective, the notion of a physical resurrection in which the body that dies is the body raised is a modern analogue to the ancient Egyptian beliefs.

Consequently, I have sought alternative understandings of resurrection, beginning with the spiritualization of resurrection. Although problematic with respect to the empty tomb narratives, this alternative harmonizes well with other resurrection stories in scripture, e.g., the risen Christ appearing to the disciples in a locked room or the account of the transfiguration.

However, this answer seems unsatisfactory when viewed against the larger scriptural narrative. Spiritualizing the resurrection presumes that people have an eternal soul, a notion introduced to Jewish and Christian thought through Greek and Persian influences. (Remember the generations of children who learned to differentiate between the Sadducees and Pharisees because the “sad you see” did not believe in life after death.) The Roman Catholic Church officially teaches the doctrine of ensoulment, God inserting a soul into human eggs at fertilization. This idea, for which no scientific evidence exists, is the basis of their adamant opposition to abortion, artificial birth control, stem cell research, etc.

The Hebrew belief that a person is her or his body makes more sense to me. If humans have a soul (a notoriously ill-defined term), the soul is an emergent property of the physical body and entirely contingent upon the physical body for existence.

Process theology helped me to integrate theology and other disciplines, especially science. Marjorie Suchocki in her book, God, Christ, Church, suggests that the resurrection life is eternal life in the mind of God, avoiding difficulties inherent in either a spiritual or physical interpretation of resurrection. Her suggestion is evocative of Anglican Bishop George Berkeley’s idealism, while not denying the reality of the physical world.

Describing resurrection as an imponderable mystery provides an alternative to both the physical and various spiritual interpretations of resurrection. That is, resurrection may point to the spirit of Jesus living on in his disciples (as Marcus Borg has suggested), to a life that is radically and qualitatively different than this life, or to something else about which I cannot even speculate.

I find this approach the most and least satisfying. Obviously, Jesus’ immediate followers experienced something in him – during his life, at his death, or afterwards – that dramatically altered their lives. Otherwise, the Christian Church would not exist today. Few if any other humans (perhaps Gautama or Lao Tzu) have left such an impressive legacy. All of my efforts to understand resurrection seem grossly inadequate and the paucity of historical data seems to make the quest for real understanding futile.

Conversely, acknowledging the absolute mystery of resurrection provides no clues about the answer to important questions such as what happens when a person dies, any parousia, etc. Yet honesty seems to admit no other answer.

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