Today I celebrated Easter in a churchless fashion.
To commemorate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, I read a fascinating chapter in Steven Cave's book, "Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization."
The chapter, St. Paul and the Cannibals, dealt with one of the four paths by which immortality is sought: Resurrection. Cave describes it as, "Although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life."
(The other three paths are Staying Alive, Soul, and Legacy.)
Cave related the familiar Biblical tale of Christian-hating Saul becoming Jesus-loving Paul after he had a divine vision on the road to Damascus. Paul then spent the rest of his days preaching the glory of "Christ is risen!" even though he never met Christ.
For believers back then, resurrection was entirely bodily.
There's nothing in the Bible that suggests we have souls which go to heaven. This is a new-fangled belief, made necessary by the two thousand year wait for the Second Coming, which never comes, notwithstanding all the predictions that it's right around the corner.
Cave points out that Jesus was afraid of dying. The Bible says he was "agitated and distressed," "deeply grieved," and cried out on the cross "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Not the behavior of someone who knows that he has an immortal soul.
Indeed, it is only if death ordinarily means dread and extinction that we can make sense of the Jesus story at all. If we all have immortal souls that by nature live on after our deaths, then there would have been nothing special about Christ subsequently appearing to his apostles. The belief that people live on as spirits was common in the time.
...In other words, in its early days Christianity needed a belief in death and resurrection -- as opposed to belief in an immortal soul. That was, in modern marketing parlance, it's unique selling point.
Of course, there's no demonstrable evidence that Jesus, or anybody else, ever has come back from the dead in a bodily form (or a soul form, for that matter). So Christian theologians have spent a lot of time and effort in trying to make the evident absurdity of resurrection seem less absurd.
A basic problem is that once dead, the human body soon disintegrates. Possibly, though, God gathers up all the bits and pieces (atoms) of which you're made and reconstitutes them like gluing together a broken statue.
This, says Cave, is the Reassembly View of resurrection. It has at least three major challenges:
The first of these is what I will call the Cannibal Problem. Imagine that before you had a chance to repair your broken statue, I grabbed a bit and used it for a statue that I was making. If you wanted to make your statue whole again, you could only do it by breaking mine and taking your bit back.
...during the Roman persecution, many Christians were fed to wild beasts in the arenas. Some of those beasts -- wild boars for example -- might then have been served up for the post-circus feast. So people would have been eating animal flesh that was in part made of human flesh and that in turn became part of their flesh.
Or simpler still is cannibalism. If a cannibal comes to be made up of bits that once belonged to another human, then even God could not re-create them both whole on the day of the resurrection.
Here's the next challenge.
I will call this the Transformation Problem; like the Cannibal Problem, it is almost as old as Christianity itself. The argument runs like this: on the one hand, resurrectionists claim that your resurrected body is made of the same bits as you, put together in the same way. This, after all, is what makes the old you and the new you one and the person.
But on the other hand, when you die, you might be old, withered, arthritic, senile, and riddled with cancer. Yet this is not how believers imagine the inhabitants of the resurrection paradise... Indeed, most Christian resurrectionists are convinced there will be no sickness in paradise, nor any need for eating and drinking, and everyone will be beautiful and perfect.
Lastly, there's the Duplication Problem.
We have just seen that we replace roughtly 98 percent of our atoms every year. It is indeed entirely possible that, through this process of replacement and renewal, you now do not have a single atom in common with yourself as a five-year-old.
But if that is so, then God could not only reassemble the current you, were you now to die, but he could also simultaneously reassemble the five-year-old you. And the reassembled five-year-old you would have just as much claim to be you as the reassembled adult version: both would be made of atoms that composed you at a certain time and would be put together just as you were.
Well, these problems don't bother me, because I don't believe in bodily resurrection. Or any kind of resurrection. If I die and find that somehow I'm still me, then I'll believe.
Until then (and "then" is extremely unlikely) resurrection strikes me as just a weird religious notion. Interestingly, Stephen Cave says that most Christians in this country agree.
One 2006 survey showed that, although 80 percent of Americans belong to one of the three Abrahamic religions, only just over 30 percent of Americans believe they will be resurrected. This means a majority of believers -- totaling half of all Americans -- do not believe one of the core dogmas of their faith.