Lisa Miller of Newsweek magazine has a book out called Heaven: Our Enduring Fascinating with the Afterlife. In a column for the magazine she tied together the notion of heaven with the belief in the resurrection. What I found most interesting is how she ended the article:
“Resurrection may be unbelievable, but belief in a traditional heaven requires it. I think often of Jon D. Levenson, a Jewish scholar at Harvard Divinity School who hopes to bring the idea of resurrection back to mainstream Judaism, where it has been lost in practice for generations. I visited him one cold November afternoon because, as a literal-minded skeptic, I wanted him to explain to me how it works. How does God put bodies—burned in fire or pulverized in war—back together again? Levenson looked at me, eyes twinkling, and said, "It's no use to ask, 'If I had a lab at MIT, how would I try to resurrect a body?' The belief in resurrection is more radical. It's a supernatural event. It's a special act of grace or of kindness on God's part." For my part, I don't buy it. I do, however, leave the door open a crack for radical acts of grace and kindness—and for humbling ourselves before all that we don't understand.”Now I’m not sure if she doesn’t “buy it” because Levenson couldn’t explain how God could resurrect a body after it had been burned or pulverized or if there are other reasons and this is just a favorite question she uses to play stump the scholar. I don’t mean to infer that she doesn’t take the subject seriously. I’ve actually had the pleasure of talking to Ms. Miller on the phone once. She called the store asking about our Shack forum and how the sales of the book were doing. I found her to be knowledgeable and pleasant. Her question simply strikes me as an odd one if we grant the existence of an omnipotent God.
I have been reading portions of Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction by Terence Nichols from Brazos Press. I think this paragraph and the paragraph he quotes from John Polkinghorne are relevant.
"Given what we now know about our bodies, that they are constantly exchanging matter with their environments, it does not make sense to say that every particle of matter that at one time or another has been part of our bodies will be raised and transformed. Origen was right: the body is like a river. And yet if we say that none of the matter of our bodies will be carried over into the resurrection and transformed, then we are in effect saying that the empty tomb in the case of Jesus did not matter; even if his body had remained in the tomb, he still would have been resurrected. But this does not seem right. In the end, we cannot know for sure how the resurrection will take place. Our souls survive death (through their graced relationship with God) and will be ‘reclothed’ in bodies in a transformed state of matter, space, and time suitable to the resurrection. It seems that the matter of our bodies cannot be the principle element of continuity between this life and the next and that, as I have argued in the previous chapter, the principle element of continuity is indeed the soul, the form of the body.
Physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne argues a very similar point:
‘It seems a coherent belief that God will remember and reconstitute the pattern that is a human being, in an act taking place beyond present history. . . . If human beings are psychosomatic unities, then the person reconstituted by the divine act of resurrection must have new bodies to act as the carrier of the soul. It is not necessary, however, that the ‘matter’ of these bodies should be the same matter as makes up the flesh of this present world. . . That is because the material bodies of this world are intrinsically subject to mortality and decay. If the resurrected life is to be a true fulfillment, and not just a repeat of an ultimately futile history, the bodies of that world to come must be different, for they will be everlastingly redeemed from mortality. Science knows only the matter of this world, but it cannot forbid theology to believe that God is capable of bringing something totally new.’”Simply because we can’t know how God will resurrect a body is a poor reason not to believe he can do it. Our finite knowledge is far too inferior an instrument to use as a test for what an omnipotent God can do.
Death and Afterlife is a paperback with 224 pages and sells for $22.99. Lisa Miller's book is from HarperOne with 368 pages and sells for $25.99.
Terence Nichols is professor of theology and chair of the theology department at the University of St. Thomas.