|Resurrection: Scientific and Theological Assessments|
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Bridging such disciplines as physics, biology,neuro-science, philosophy, biblical studies, and theology, this book offers fascinating reading to anyone interested in this vital Christian belief or in the intersection of faith and scientific thought.
|From the introduction, "What Is to Come," by Ted Peters|
"If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (1 Cor. 15:14). In raising this challenge within Scripture, St. Paul is assuming that the faith of a Christian is in principle falsifiable. Faith could be falsified if the claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead could be falsified. Without Easter, Christian hope, trust, and passion are all in vain.
Such a falsification could come in two forms, one looking backward and one looking forward. Looking backward, we could imagine evidence put forward to claim that Jesus hung on the cross, died, and remained dead. We could imagine a historical argument claiming that the Easter resurrection did not occur in the manner that the Christian faith has presumed. Looking forward, we could imagine a future without a consummation, without the new creation promised by the Easter resurrection. Inextricably built into the Easter resurrection is the proleptic anticipation of the future resurrection of humanity at the arrival of the eschatological kingdom of God. The resurrection of Christ, according to the Christian faith, was not merely an extraordinary event in Jesus' biography; it was the advent of the world's transformation. Without the consummation of this transformatory promise, the Christian faith is in vain.
With the rise of empirical methods in science during the eighteenth century, Western European literati began to doubt the Christian claim that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter. During the centuries immediately prior, with the rise of the Age of Reason, life after death was resolutely affirmed. It is rational to believe in a universal afterlife, said philosophers of religion; any reasonable person can see that this is the case. However, as reason yielded to experiment and no experiments could be conceived that would demonstrate life beyond the grave, doubt gained a grip on the Western mind.
The laws of nature became seen as uniform, everywhere and always applicable. The laws of nature never go on a holiday; they never open a date on the calendar for miracles or other transcendent interventions. And, accordingly, one of these laws is that dead people stay dead. Because every dead person observed has stayed dead, it was easy to argue inductively that all people who die remain dead. None rises. By analogy and by assuming uniformity in nature, the observable finality of death became applied to the unobservable event of Jesus' alleged resurrection. Because nobody else can rise, neither could Jesus. So the argument goes.
|What are we to do? As Robert John Russell points out in chapter one, two basic strategies seemed to present themselves to Christian thinkers, the objective strategy and the subjective strategy. The objectivists found themselves embracing empirical science, accepting the task of identifying universal laws of nature derived from empirical observation. When it comes to the Easter resurrection of Jesus, however, objectivist theologians dubbed this an exception. Some said it was a miracle, a divine intervention that temporarily violated the otherwise uniform laws of nature. More recently some objectivists have said that the Easter resurrection was a contingent historical and natural event, the first instantiation of what will become a new law of nature when God raises all the dead.|
Like the objectivists, the subjectivists accepted fully the empirical advances of modern science; and they ceded to science the uniformitarian scope of the laws of nature. The assumption they adopted was that nothing happens in nature that scientists cannot describe. This rules out any miraculous intervention at Easter; but it does not rule out nonmiraculous workings of God's Spirit. The Easter resurrection, then, is said to be an event in the minds and hearts of Jesus' disciples, an event in the consciousness of what became the church. Jesus' resurrection becomes a symbol of personal transformation; what allegedly happened historically to the body of Jesus on Easter becomes applied to what happens existentially to the spirit of Jesus' followers. Affirming the resurrection, the subjectivist strategy removes it from the objective realm of scientific fact and places it in the subjective realm of interpretation and meaning. One implication of the subjectivist move is that it renders the resurrection nonfalsifiable because no one can falsify what happens in human subjectivity. According to this strategy, Christian faith is immune from the challenge of modern science.
|Entropy and Eschatology|
Like vines on a trellis, these two strategies grew up together when the challenge had to do with looking backward, with the challenge regarding the historicity of the Easter event and related matters. More recently, the challenge is coming from future consciousness, from looking forward. Specifically, the second law of thermodynamics and Big Bang cosmology raise questions for Christian eschatology. The second law of thermodynamics affirms that in a closes system energy flows in only one direction, from hot to cold, not the reverse. If the Big Bang back at the beginning was the hottest moment in the history of the cosmos, and if the universe is open and expanding without limit, then the future we look forward to is one of increased entropy, of dissipation into equilibrium. In short, the universe is destined to freeze itself out of existence. If, on the other hand, the universe is closed and finite, then gravity will cause it to recollapse into another dense fireball; and it will explode again. Either way, the present cosmos will come to an end. Whether freeze or fry, the future of life in our universe is not endless. Like individual sentient beings, the cosmos as a whole is destined for death. At least, this is the picture of the future painted by physical cosmologists.
Does this picture look like the one painted by Christian eschatology? No. Entropy and eschatology appear to be locked in conflict. Christian eschatology does not anticipate a far future at equilibrium that has forgotten its past. Rather, it looks now through a mirror dimly at a bright, shining future, the future of the new creation promised by God in the Easter resurrection of Jesus. The present creation is slated for transformation, and Jesus' Easter resurrection is the microcosm of the promised macrocosmic transformation. "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead," writes St. Paul, "the first fruits of those who have died" (1 Cor. 15:20). As he rose, so will we. And what we rise into is the new creation.
|Rather than consonance, it appears that we have dissonance between physical cosmology and Christian eschatology. If scientists rely on the uniformity of nature, the future they picture must be based on an extrapolation of observations and principles governing the past history of the natural universe. Based on nature's past, no vision of a future transformation, such as Christian eschatology proclaims, can be pictured. Based on our experience with the present creation, no warrant can be given to project a radically new creation. Based on our observation that dead people remain dead, no evidence can be mustered to affirm a future general resurrection.|
In principle, then, physical cosmology as scientists pursue it has the potential for falsifying Christian belief in the resurrection. Because entailed in the very notion of the Easter resurrection is the divine promise for the renewal of the whole of creation, the failure of the creation to undergo transformation would invalidate the Christian claim. If natural uniformity wins--meaning that Jesus remained dead, and so will we--then the Christian faith is in vain.
Although we may say "in principle" that the Christian claim is falsifiable, this is not empirically achievable. The final disproof of the Christian claim would require observing the actual dissipation of the universe in the far distant future. No laboratory of the present generation is expected to last that long, and no scientists is likely to live long enough to see it.
Be that as it may, physical cosmology challenges Christian theology to think methodologically. Eschatology, so it appears, ought not rely upon the present state of natural science for conceptual support. If a future new creation actually arrives as God has promised, then its arrival will have to be due to divine intervention. The natural world will not evolve into a new creation on its own. If such a transformation is to take place, it will have to come courtesy of a creative act of God. No one can predict a creative act of God; hence it will remain invisible to present scientific eyes.
The challenge as we have outlined it here affects mainly the objectivists. Or so it would seem. It belongs to the objectivists because here science and theology share the same domain of inquiry--that is, they both deal with the world of nature and history. Theologians claim that the God of Israel is the creator and redeemer of the very same world that natural scientists examine under microscopes and telescopes. They expect some consonance, some overlap between empirical observation and theological conception. When apparent dissonance appears, so does a challenge.
|Yet the subjectivists cannot fully escape the challenge of science. Their retreat into subjectivity with nonobjectifiable divine activity in the human spirit provides only a temporary oasis. Science is relentless in its hot pursuit. Along with cosmology, evolution and genetics and neuroscience are hot on the trail of human subjectivity, ready to reduce mind to body, spirit to matter. Scientific explanations may simply undercut the relative autonomy we presume for mind or spirit.|
All along, the subjectivist strategy has been leaving a trail of critics challenging its credibility, challenging its attempt to sever the tie between fact and meaning, between science and faith. Its defense has relied upon a Cartesian dualism between body and mind or between object and subject, a dualism that is coming under increasing fire as modernity gives way to postmodernity. Postmodern philosophies emphasize relationality, connectedness, and intersubjectivity. To startling degrees, physicists and cosmologists as well as evolutionary biologists are demonstrating that human subjectivity is deeply embedded in nature's history, in the history of all nature from the Big Bang to the present. Human subjectivity, it is frequently said, is nature becoming conscious of itself. With this as the contemporary context, privatizing religious meaning in an isolated subjectivity is losing credibility.
There is no "science free" zone today where theology can proceed with its business untrammeled by the kaleidoscopic pictures of reality projected by the various sciences. Whether Christian theologians like it or not, contemporary science forces us to ask questions such as: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? And is the Christian faith credible or vain? The question of the present book is this: How should we assess the resurrection scientifically and theologically?
The task of the present volume is not to falsify Christian belief, nor is it to promote objectivist theology; and it is certainly not to defend biblical literalism. Rather, its task is to place Christian theological reflection into dialogue with the relevant natural sciences, to press toward what we at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences call a creative mutual interaction.
|Such a creative mutual interaction was the goal that led to a set of conferences and this book. Faculty at the University of Heidelberg and at the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and from other locations internationally have linked together for interdisciplinary scholarship. Meeting at the Internationale Wissenschaftsforum in Heidelberg in 2001, we gathered a seminar team that included research and teaching faculty in physics, biology, neuroscience, Scripture, Egyptology, church history, and systematic theology. We reversed the normal direction of the conversation between science and religion. Normally, the dialogue begins with a new discovery in science, and then religious spokespersons react. In this case, however, we began with a specific theological question: How should we understand the resurrection of the body? We posed the question in such a way as to elicit contributions from various sciences and various disciplines within Christian theology.|
The theologians senses that the scientists may have something relevant to offer, but it is not clear yet what it is. The scientists also begin gingerly, looking for orientation toward this new subject matter. We are at the state of scholarship that Alfred North Whitehead once called philosophical "assemblage," where we are assembling what we surmise to be relevant material but not quite ready to formulate a hypothesis or establish a system.
The impetus comes from a shared entelechy within science and within theology, namely, the impetus to know what is real, to have confidence that what we know is rooted in what is true. Only knowledge of reality constitutes truth, and only truth can quench the thirst that leads to research. So the faith of theologians here is seeking fuller understanding; and the suspicion is that what scientists know about the future of the cosmos and about the workings of the human body may be relevant for understanding Christian eschatological promises for a new creation and for the resurrection of the body.
The point of departure is difficult. We recognize, as Michael Welker says in his chapter, that we find ourselves in worldwide cultural communication but with multiple rationalities. Neither science nor theology offers a single thought system that encompasses the length and breadth of human experience and meaning; nowhere in the world can we find a metarationality that offers a single, inclusive, comprehensive, and coherent Weltanschauung or worldview.
|Within this pluralism of rationalities, however, science and theology do share something in common. Both are driven by ontological thirst, by the thirst to know reality as it is. Both shun delusion. Both are pursued by truth-seeking communities. Both are willing to subject ordinary knowledge to scrutiny and to humbly accept correction, revision, and reorientation. Oh yes, we are aware of the exceptions. We are aware of the reductionists and the Marxists who equate science with atheism; and we are aware of the religious dogmatists who in fragility defend outdated authority. But when science is at its best and theology is at its best, both are prosecuted by truth-seeking communities open to reorientation by what they learn about reality in a process I call "hypothetical consonance."|
From the Big Bang to the New Creation
What Robert John Russell does in his chapter is create a common domain of discussion for both scientific and theological visions of the cosmic future. Big Bang cosmology as we have come to know it in science has found remarkable consonance with the doctrine of creation arising out of the Bible: the cosmos is contingent, timebound, and historical. But this remarkable consonance deals primarily with the past. When we scientifically project scenarios into the future, we provoke dissonance with theological eschatology. The freeze or fry scenarios for the future do not fit with the Easter promise of a coming new creation. Without resolving the tension, Russell recommends a number of guidelines for follow-up, one of which is that theology offers a reconceptualization that suggests theory choice for future scientific research.
Russell can advise that theology might have some indirect influence on the scientific conversation because he affirms that the two disciplines share a common domain. For Russell, the Easter resurrection of Jesus is the first instantiation of a new law of nature. Rather than a new miracle that violates nature's laws, resurrection is a divinely instituted event that changes nature's laws. In the future all of us will rise, naturally.
|At this point in history, however, we can say this theologically but not scientifically. This places theology in the position of risking falsification by science; and in a sense it places current science in the position of risking falsification by theology. If the future brings new creation, then current scientific prognostications will need correction. If the future brings what scientific cosmologists predict, freeze or fry, then theological hope will be dashed.|
When we turn to the chapter of the cosmic story that deals with the evolution of life on earth, the situation is a bit more ambiguous. On the one hand, evolution over deep time has brought marvelous changes. On the other hand, we cannot understand biological life without its being fed by death, by predation. Can we extrapolate from present biology to a deathless eschatology? Not likely, says Jeffrey Schloss. If we are to trust in an eschatological hope, it will have to rest on the promise of something radically new, a reality that transcends nature as we have known it thus far.
If the dire predictions of the physicist's eschatology are fulfilled, John Polkinghorne argues, we must conclude that "all is vanity." If after billions of years evolving carbon-based life proves to have been but a transient episode in cosmic history, then this puts a very serious question to theology about the ultimate intentions of the Creator. The answers to these questions must be found beyond the simple extrapolation of scientifically influenced expectation. Polkinghorne contends that a faithful Creator is not bound to maintain nature's laws unchanged. That faithful Creator will provide ex vetera an eschatological transformation of cosmic matter. In the process of transforming the material universe, God will draw into the divine memory the pattern of information that constitutes the human soul; and in the eschaton God will reinstate human personhood within the transformed material creation. Note what Polkinghorne is saying here: the human soul consists of an informational pattern that can be extracted from our present earthly bodies and reinstated in a future resurrected body.
Such a discussion reminds us that some materialist or reductionist scientists have proposed cybernetic immortality. These scientists in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) would upload into computers the informational patters of the human brain that are identified with the soul and then transfer them to a new physical platform, perhaps to a robot. Our personal identity would continue carried by the informational pattern that, like software, would be booted up in new and more durable hardware. We could then exist as long as the machine in which we reside exists. We would gain more time than biological organisms normally have. Cybernetic immortality constitutes a scientized eschatology that results from human technological achievement.
|The theologians in this volume would object to visions of cybernetic immortality because resurrection as Christians conceive it will be the result of an act of God, not the achievement of technological advance. Noreen Herzfeld, in her chapter, objects for two reasons. First, cybernetic immortality sounds like science fiction, not science. It is simply not scientifically feasible. Second, although it is materialistic, it reduced the human self or person to informational patterns, to an immaterial form. Herzfeld, in contrast, holds that our finite bodies belong essentially to our identity. Curiously, cybernetic immortality is dualistic even while materialistic.|
Detlef Linke is less likely to permit an exuviation of the soul's information from the body. Even though neuronal activity constituting the interaction of brain and body is not isomorphic with human consciousness or behavior, the stability structure of the neuronal substrate retains memory; and it provides the parameters for conscious activity. When speculating about resurrection, a transfiguration of the body would necessarily change one's consciousness significantly. Does this mean that we cannot disembody the soul's informational patter and reestablish it in a subsequent bodily make-up?
What biblical resources may we rely on for clues here? Returning exegetically to the Pauline corpus in the New Testament, Peter Lampe argues that the Apostle to the Gentiles employed a holistic integration of body and soul. Without a body there is no legitimate usage of "resurrection." The resurrection must be physical. Yet some sort of interim period described as existing "in Christ" describes our passage from the present aeon to the new aeon. Could this be the information pattern or soul remembered by God that Polkinghorne and others describe? Lampe hints that Paul provides no metaphysical elaboration and, thus, no handle for science to gain an explanatory grip.
Hans-Joachim Eckstein draws our attention to the Lukan corpus and the strange concern of Luke to stress physicality in the resurrection. For Luke the grave is empty, and the risen Jesus is portrayed as so physical that he can even eat fish for breakfast. Eckstein is puzzled that the exaltation of Jesus to become the "Lord and Messiah" (Acts 2:36) in glory seems to bypass the need for a return to the physical body. He contends with a pun that the Lukan concern for how full Jesus' grave was risks emptying faith in resurrection.
|Frank Crüsemann also uses Scripture to discuss Jesus' resurrection, but his goal is to emphasize the continuity, rather than the discontinuity, between the treatment of resurrection in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Crüsemann thus highlights the importance of interpreting the resurrection of Jesus in a much larger historical and cultural context, which includes the faith of Abraham and the promises of God that define and shape the history of the Israelites. He concludes with two important theses. First, that the resurrection of the dead is a predicate of God the creator and thus cannot be developed exclusively on the basis of a Christology. Second, the appearances of the resurrected Jesus actualize God's promise to the Gentiles and give the impetus for their inclusion in the disciples' commission to preach and baptize in Jesus' name.|
Where Polkinghorne, Herzfeld, Lampe, Eckstein, and Crüsemann leave us is with the question of personal identity. When it comes to the paradoxical dialectic between continuity and discontinuity as Jesus or as we pass through death to resurrection, who is it that rises? How is the Easter Christ the same Jesus who was crucified? If we are to rise, what aspect of us rises so that we know it will be we and not something or someone distinct from us? What continues beyond death? Our body? Our mind? Our soul? Our pattern of information? Nothing? Everything?
Enter Nancey Murphy. Murphy is an advocate of nonreductive physicalism--that is, she denies substance dualism with its concept of an independent immortal soul. A human self is always an embodied self. Therefore, identity in the resurrection must retain continuity with our bodies, with our individual biographies while living our earthly lives. If we are renewed in the resurrection, what remains the same? The physical elements of our present body? Our consciousness? Our memories? What decisively maintains continuity is our moral character, she argues. Our identity as persons is as much dependent on our character as it is on memory, consciousness, and body. So, if God were to replicate us out of different "stuff" according to our information patter, we would not be ourselves unless we continued to possess our virtues (and vices?), our affections, and our moral perceptions.
|Who controls our identities? Does the self? Does God? When we die, we lose control over our identity. We may be remembered, but which memories live on our beyond our control. We tend to think that subjective immortality is a way of containing our identity in our self, whereas objective immortality is an identity that resides in the memories of our heirs or in God's memory. Objective immortality belongs to someone else's subjectivity, not to ours. Andreas Schuele weighs these matters and concludes that resurrection requires us to work on understanding the relation between contained and uncontained identities. Already in this life this side of death, our identities can grow in Christ. Identity in Christ now is like earnest money, a down payment, a prolepsis, or first fruits (1 Cor. 15:20) of what is to come in the resurrection. Losing control of our identity in death does not mean we lose our identity, especially when God promises resurrection.|
Finally, why has the Christian doctrine of resurrection appeared in the history of human culture? Does it function as a political opiate to legitimate hereditary kingship, as Jan Assmann suggests it did in ancient Egypt? Does it function as an ethical opiate to inoculate us against ecological responsibility, an issue that Ernst Conradie addresses? Does it function as encouragement by promising triumph for the church militant, as we seen in Bernd Oberdorfer's exposition of Schleiermacher? Does it function as a beacon of shalom, an eschatological rest for us who are anxious over the transience of time, as Dirk Evers avers? Or, finally, is the concept of resurrection a theological explication of the historical event of Easter, a reflection on the apostolic experience with the risen Lord who promised that we would in the future feast with him in paradise? If the latter, then one question to pose it this: Can we trust in the truth of this promise? The dialogue between science and theology is an attempt to provide critical appraisal and to gain intelligibility regarding the content of this eschatological promise.
|Our assembled team of scientists and theologians begins with faith and then seeks to expand and deepen our understanding. Here we have taken what might turn out to be the first step down a long road. This is the faith.|
Since One, for love, died on a tree
And in the stony
Tomb has lain,
Behold I show a mystery:
Are sealed in vain!
John Richard Moreland, 1880-1947
The understanding still lies on the horizon.