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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Resurrection in Modern Times

With Easter coming up, the issue of the resurrection of one Jesus Christ is at the forefront of discussion in churches across the world no doubt. While the article’s author suggests that 80% of people believe in heaven, a particular flavor of the afterlife where people are rewarded for eternity in return for their faith and works associated thereof, there is a large array of positions on what the nature of heaven is. The absurdity of this debate becomes clear if you consider this; since heaven is taken on faith, no clear and coherent definition and explanation of heaven should be attempted or said to exist. Theologians would be the ones at fault, though it’s more likely in human nature to inquire and investigate everything, even if we also believe we’re taking such things as real by virtue of faith. Even such things as God’s existence, Jesus’ resurrection or the afterlife are not so mysterious to believers that they can’t push past the veil and question about what each entails; which leads to the myriad forms of heaven and the resurrection that are believed in by the countless sects within Christianity.

The general description in popular culture of heaven embodies our desire for incarnation; that is, a concrete and tangible existence. We can feel, see, hear, taste, smell and overall enjoy the things we did when we were physical vehicles of our souls. Such things as driving your favorite car, eating your favorite ice cream, or speaking with relatives long past; or the more heinous idea of 72 virgins in heaven for martyrs in a particular flavor of Islam. In all these cases, we want physical bodies, albeit the usual idea communicated is that of a perfect physical body. It will never age, it will never suffer illness and theoretically you’d be nigh indestructible. Not to mention other things that would come about with such an idyllic existence. You’d never run out of gas in your Corvette, you’d never run out of ice cream or get fat from said dairy product, and you’d never get bored of talking to grandpa about his war stories. All of this is very well and good, and I could point out the hollow nature of this fantasy, but for the moment, I’ll focus on the discrepancies within the faith itself on this stereotype about heaven.
One issue that has existed since the dawn of said thesis of bodily resurrection is the funerary process of cremation. The problem lies with destroying and otherwise ruining the consistency of what is supposed to be a creation of God, a vessel for your soul and a template for your perfect spiritually resurrected body. If you’re just ashes scattered to the winds or the seas then one asks how you can have a resurrected body. The obvious theological answer, which is just as easily believed as ignored, is that God, being all powerful, could reconstitute you from even a mere atom of your physical body. Or in such a case as your body is vaporized in a nuclear blast or such things, then the problem would be solved in a similar fashion: God can do things humans cannot imagine, so remaking a human body from scratch should be like putting together a child’s puzzle.

Another problem is the complexity of institutions like marriage. The most readily available example is the challenge of the Sadducees to Jesus of the problem of a Jewish marriage practice. If a married man dies and has no heirs, then his brother is obligated to marry his brother’s wife and produce an heir. But the issue that comes up in such a situation is this: if all the brothers don’t succeed and are all married to the woman and subsequently die, then if they are all resurrected, who is married to the woman? All of them, none of them, the original husband? Jesus’ answer is something to the effect that marriage will not be relevant in heaven, so the question is moot.

There is a secondary but equally compelling argument about resurrection concerning the immortality of the soul itself. This one originates in Plato, it seems, and suggests that the body is left behind and the soul communes with God in heaven in some mystical way for all eternity. An objection to this idea lies with how a mere spiritual existence can enjoy such things as driving a car or eating ice cream. But I would imagine a theologian could reply that with the soul encompassing our mental states and memories, it could be easy to make a lifelike simulation of events like enjoying a ride in a sports car or tasting rocky road for the first time.

But either way, there are further problems that can conflict the notion of bodily resurrection in Christian thought. There is the avoidance of the credibility of an actual resurrection of the body by some thinkers today in suggesting that the term resurrection is a metaphor for some change in the worldview or perspective of the believer. I would imagine this is appealing to the majority of people because of the simplicity. One can believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but not have to confront such problems as what a resurrection would mean for you if you happened to be cremated or wrecked beyond imagination in a horrible accident. But people would object to this because Jesus coming back from the dead in the spiritual/physical body that could both be touched and pass through walls is intrinsic to Christian belief. The consensus among believers is that if the resurrection could be proved false, Christian faith would fall apart. Though somehow I doubt this would happen (even though I’m not a Christian myself), the centrality of this belief in a bodily resurrection is undeniable in any investigation into Christian theology. There is a minority position that suggests that when we first die our soul merely “sleeps”, found in Seventh Day Adventist thought, but there is a parallel still with the bodies resurrected, or more precisely resuscitated it seems, and the real difference being that there’s no bodily parallel of hell. Instead, the unrighteous are burned to nothingness and cease to exist.

The problems of bodily resurrection would also persist in considering the flip side of the afterlife. Without a physical body, one cannot imagine the damned suffering in agony and anguish with hot coals being shoved in places you don’t want them, being poked by pitchforks or suffocating in brimstone. But I’ve noticed a general leaning today of believers towards the idea that hell is merely separation from God’s presence and is not necessarily to be viewed as literal physical suffering or torture, but instead the absence of what they believe to be the source of all purpose and happiness. In short, it is a similar idea to the “soul only” idea of heaven where one’s spiritual essence communes with God instead of the body. And I suppose a case could be argued that psychological and emotional suffering are more in line with what the Bible explains about hell and being unsaved, so the objections fall on the same ears that believe in the righteous counterpart to the “lake of fire” (literally speaking, in the opposite case)

In conclusion, however you stand on the issue of the afterlife, resurrection, reincarnation or annihilation, it’s important to understand how diverse the issue can be even within the resurrection crowd. Don’t even get me started on the mistaken association of the term reincarnation with Buddhism (rebirth is more preferable). So, until next time, Namaste and Aloha.

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