The Science of Resurrection

Simon Kuang, Staff Writer

Resurrection is a hard idea, and for Christians it is the hardest of all. Not the purported coming-back-to-life of Jesus of Nazareth after three days in the grave—that is a mere historical fact: it happened or it did not. Yes, it is a magnificent truth—or a magnificent lie!—ample with “consequences.” Yet from a logical standpoint, we can speculate about Christ’s resurrection with detachment, because it is not so hard to entertain a particular claim—event or fantasy—about some person at some time.

But about the resurrection of the deadall of the dead—is something else. “At some point after I have died, I will find myself fully conscious and restored to life in the same body I presently call my own,” Christianity invites me to believe. This is hard because it is about me, and the stakes are high. “Know thyself,” the adage goes—but if I cannot say for sure how I, my very self, will on that day change from dead to living, do I truly know myself? I can hardly even believe I will still be myself.

The existence of God is, without a doubt, the easiest Christian belief. It is the easiest to defend, as evinced by mountainous tomes of all religions purporting to leave man with no excuse but to accept that “God” exists. But it is the easiest to attack. The sharpest intellectual swords of every age have been pointed at the belief that there is more to things than the physical bodies we see and touch, and that one thing is very different from them all. 

The existence of God warrants Christianity; while the resurrection of me requires Christianity. It is possibly the hardest of Christian beliefs, and perhaps for this reason not enormous atheist effort has been expended to convince me that it is false. Marxist philosopher Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach writes that Christians believe in the fullest possible “personal immortality” because it is convenient to them: “To the Christians the immortality of the reason, of the soul, was far too abstract and negative; they had at heart only a personal immortality, such as would gratify their feelings, and the guarantee of this lies in a bodily resurrection alone.” This is of course no rebuttal to the old faith, as there are many beliefs that could have been invented to gratify our feelings (for example, the belief that salt is salty and enhances the taste of food) and are also verifiably true. 

Indeed, verification is the currency of truth nowadays, and science is the broker of verification when it comes to the natural world. “Simon will resurrect,” unfortunately, aims at a one-off event, and is not a claim that can be tested in a laboratory. “It is possible for a living thing to die and later to be alive,” on the other hand, is quite testable. It is the most tested hypothesis in the history of hypotheses. You do not need a laboratory to conclude it is false. Unbroken soil topping every human grave on Earth bears witness. 

But it is commonly accepted that “science” encompasses more than only experimentation. A consequence of our experiment-driven investigation of the natural world is theory. As the etymology suggests, we are not content merely to know what happens in the world; rather we demand to see under and understand the true nature of things. Most things are more than they appear. Moreover, if we train and perfect our sense of sight on what is visible and verifiable, then we are free to focus our gaze to faraway things. We can see into hypothetical worlds; we can see into the future; we can see through the fog of time into the distant past. For example, a theory of spacetime and gravity was stated in increasing fidelity by a series of physicists from Newton to Einstein, each having larger ideas and more sensitive experiments than the last. The theory of Newton could see as far as the extremes of space, explaining and criticizing the mysterious motions of planets. The theory of Einstein sees to the start of time, providing groundwork for a scientific account of the beginning of all things. 

Can the microscope and telescope of science see the resurrection of the dead? Michael Shermer recalls to us of the simple problem of numbers: “to date approximately 100 billion people have lived and died before us and not one of them has returned to life.” The resurrection of the dead is beyond verification, as “any claim that transcends and surpasses history means that science cannot, even in principle, prove or disprove it.” That is, many events that have never taken place, such as a stone rolling up a hill, are not strictly impossible, but merely astronomically unlikely.

Such events, however, are by no means beyond speculation. Shermer omits that science is able to overextend the thin boundaries of verifiability. Science has been invoked to propose possible beginnings and endings of the physical universe as we know it, to study the mathematical physics of worlds that patently do not exist, and to claim that humans and other mammals are alike not only in physical form but also in essence. 

Attempts to apply scientific reason to questions that transcend the material world are a truly ancient discipline. It is older than Einstein and Newton and the obsession with time, space, and matter; and older than Darwin who, considering a possible explanation for the differences in animals, wrestled with the creation teaching of his faith; and older than Aristotle, who classified the anatomy and physiology of animals hoping to grasp the ultimate organization of all things. It is at least as old as the Book of Job in the Old Testament. 

How can a good, all-knowing god allow bad things to happen to good people? This is the main question of the book, and it is asked by Job, who is a good man who at the start of the story loses everything he has. For much of the book Job’s friends give him reasons for his suffering—punishment for wrongdoing, perhaps?—while Job correctly insists that the cause of his suffering is a mystery that it would be a waste of time to investigate further. 

The book is rich with data about the natural world, concluding with a divine monolog listing the awesome wonders of nature, among them the dark depths of the sea, the lightning and rain of the clouds, and the nauseatingly beautiful theater of stars in the night sky. Heaven and Earth are bridged by science in a dialectical way “I have orchestrated nature to show you what you are not, and by this you will understand what I am.” God challenges Job to report the unreachable (and still unreachable) depths of Earth, or to adjust the heavenly scaffolds binding Orion in its proper way. 

Every impossible dare is sharpened through two species of natural knowledge. First, Job must apply his intuition of the physical world in order to imagine what it would be like to face up to such a task. He cannot imagine what is like to have power over the placement of stars, but he knows the physical feeling of holding something in one’s hand, and causing it to move as one wishes: this is explained by science, and though he cannot move the stars, he can speculate what it must be like to do so.

Second, Job must deduce that God’s dare is indeed impossible. This may be done, for example, by reasoning by proportion. A faraway object is harder to move than a near one, and furthermore is likely to be extremely large; therefore, it must be near impossible to move the stars, etc. (Each such argument has a translation into up-to-date science: we know, for instance, that it is possible to move the orbits of stars; one must only be as massive as the stars themselves.) “Take your best science,” God hence charges man, “and conclude that what you cannot do, I can.” 

Many times Job ponders the futility of this life and abruptly changes subjects—to the only admissible way out―to death and resurrection. Life is bitter—“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble”—and death seems permanent—“He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not.” But a longing for and possibility of resurrection from the dead: 

For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grow old in the earth, and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put out branches like a young plant. But a man dies and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? 

In summary, Job argues: even in nature we witness the strange course of events in which a being passes from life, to death, to life. Can we not expect at least the same for man? Yet, as Aquinas notes, “man is in a worse condition than even those weak creatures which are renewed after their destruction.” Trees, he says, are an especially lucid example of the essential human longing for life after death. He interprets Scripture biologically: if a tree is cut down, then it has “the natural aptitude to renew its existence again”; if a tree dies naturally, the “rottenness of the wood possesses a seminal potency” to restore the appearance of life if the help of water is present. 

Job’s lament exhibits the double signature of this book’s dialectical science-theology. First, he understands that the concept of resurrection is not out of this world: the visceral striving for life renewed after death is as concrete and as certain as the tree I see through my window. Second, he understands—with scientific proof—the sheer vanity of man’s best shot at beating the permanence of death. What a terrible misfortune—Aquinas points out—that man, created by God in native worth, cannot attain even to ambitions of plants! Oh, that he could! 

And as surely as Job knows that he cannot reinspire life to the body after it is dead, he knows God can. 

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God. 

As sure as there is death, so sure—to the believer in God—must there follow life. Death is the closest thing we have to resurrection. To change from that most certain of biological certainties to that mystery of mysteries, we need only play the tapes in reverse. This should not be written off as a mere fantasy of the premodern age. No physical principle is to stop us from conceiving the reversed process of the death and decomposition of the human body. 

Resurrection remains a hard idea. Science won’t soon prove that a historical resurrection happened, and science probably help us bring one about. Feuerbach was right that resurrection is wishful thinking. But a proper application of science helps make it possible to wish such a thing at all. 

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