The Resurrection of Jesus: Why I Don’t Think It’s a Crazy Idea

It seems to be universally agreed upon, whether you are a theist or an atheist, that one of the characteristics of dead matter is the following: it can sometimes come to life.

Let me say it more explicitly. Whether you’re Jewish and thinking of the dry bones chapter in Ezekiel (“Can these bones live?”); a Christian applying the principle to the resurrection of Jesus; or an atheist applying it to the moment on Earth when chemistry, all by its lonesome, turned into biochemistry, all agree that it is in the nature of things that dead matter should sometimes become, out of the blue, alive. It never happens in our experience, but we are all convinced that it can happen, and even that it has happened–that it must have happened.

Isn’t that interesting?

Life resists entropy and reproduces. What we don’t know is how non-organic chemistry ever became organic chemistry (that is, how what was dead became alive). It certainly never happens nowadays. Scientists, at least, have never observed it. And there is no Darwinian mechanism at work, prior to life, to build up complexity, so it’s dumbfounding as to how what had always been dead suddenly came to life.

And yet what was dead became alive at some point. How can one not agree with that if one defines “dead” as what is “not alive”? A rock is dead. Sterilized soil is dead. Once the Earth was dead. It was chemistry obeying entropy. Then what was dead stopped going with the flow of entropy and started exploiting and storing energy for its own purposes and perpetuation; that is, it lived. It became, magically, an information carrying system bearing nano-machines (proteins) behind a cellular wall; a “river that flows uphill.”

This is why the idea of resurrection does not strike me as crazy. If we know that life came from non-life and think that God might exist, then it’s something (S)he could do–something to hope for–something (S)he has already done.

And an evolutionary universe supports this hope. If you take, after all, the evolution narrative seriously, and I do, then you cannot avoid the moments of crossover in evolutionary history. At one moment, for example, something was not living, and at the next moment it was living. When that happened, the whole universe crossed a threshold. You could even call it good news–something worthy of being shouted from mountaintops.

The same is true of consciousness. And of existence itself. These are three big ontological mysteries. They are mysteries of existence. How could they have ever come into being in the first place? Another ontological mystery is the moment in which independent living cells in competition with one another began cooperating in groups, making for the evolution of multicellular life–and, ultimately, beings like us that not only cooperate but love.

Love is an ontological mystery. What’s it doing in a material universe (that is, a universe consisting of blind atoms rustling in the void)?

The movement from nonexistence to existence; dead matter to living matter; competing cells to cooperative cells; non-conscious life to conscious life capable of love: these are stunning “resurrection powers”–epic shifts in the way things had always gone before, until they didn’t.

So here’s my question: why can’t there be similar stunning surprises in the offing–even extending to the resurrection of the human dead? Is the resurrection of the human dead really more implausible than some of the other ontological mysteries that have preceded it? And if God exists, why isn’t resurrection (or, at least, consciousness after death) something worthy to hope for?

If there is no God, the ontological mysteries that have already preceded us (existence to non-existence; non-life to life; competition to cooperation; matter to mind and love) make for an amazing series of coincidences. Given enough time, how powerful chance is! It seems, indeed, to mimic the action of a god intending these things! How odd!

Chance, however, seems a deeply unsatisfying explanation for what is going on around us and in us. That doesn’t make chance an incorrect explanation. It can be unsatisfying and true. But chance does seem to lead one to an idea that is pretty darn implausible: the multiverse hypothesis. Yet the multiverse hypothesis still doesn’t explain the nonexistence-existence transition.

I think, therefore, it’s possible–it’s not an absurd thought–that there is a mental Ground of Being that has brought the material universe into being to some purpose; that what we are experiencing is not just a product of chance.

I’ll let Fyodor Dostoevsky ease me out of this blog post. While living in Bern, Germany, Dostoevsky was mesmerized by the Hans Holbein painting below. He saw quite clearly that the painting depicted the pivot between faith and unbelief: one must either believe that God raises the dead, and there is, therefore, hope for humanity beyond this life, OR accept that such an event can never occur because it is impossible. Dostoevsky saw that, if we believe that Nature prevents resurrection, then we are trapped in a mechanized universe in which the dead stay dead. Dostoevsky included the painting in a scene of his novel, The Idiot.

1o-holbein-christ

Below is the portion of The Idiot in which Dostoevsky has his character, Ippolit, write about the painting. I place it in bold and large type because I think it says a great deal about the existential choice we all must make between theism and atheism. It also speaks to the question of how we go on, as vulnerable mortals in the furnace of this world, knowing what we do.

His body on the cross was therefore fully and entirely subject to the laws of nature.  In the picture the face is terribly smashed with blows, swollen, covered with terrible, swollen, and bloodstained bruises, the eyes open and squinting; the large, open whites of the eyes have a sort of dead and glassy glint. . . .

Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up–impassively and unfeelingly–a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being!  The picture seems to give expression to the idea of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated, and this idea is suggested to you unconsciously.  The people surrounding the dead man, none of whom is shown in the picture, must have been overwhelmed by a feeling of terrible anguish and dismay on that evening which had shattered all their hopes and almost all their beliefs at one fell blow.  They must have parted in a state of the most dreadful terror, though each of them carried away within him a mighty thought which could never be wrested from him.  And if, on the eve of the crucifixion, the Master could have seen what He would look like when taken from the cross, would he have mounted the cross and died as he did?”

__________

The above quote from The Idiot comes from the 1955 Penguin translation by David Magarshak, 446-7.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to The Resurrection of Jesus: Why I Don’t Think It’s a Crazy Idea

  1. johan1927 says:

    An interesting perspective. If I may, this could become a very good ontological essay if you work out a way to still make the same points without having to rely on God. As it is, it essentially says that if God exists then reanimation is possible. But I can easily counter, God very well may not exist. Food for thought. At any rate, well written and very intriguing!

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Johan:

      I think the case for resurrection in the future is made in a non-theist way in the same way that all non-theist explanations for ontological mysteries are made: by resort to chance instead of mind.

      One need only posit two key things: (1) that memory is a function of one’s atoms arranged in one’s brain in a very particular way (that is, as synaptic connections of a certain sort); and (2) that there are infinite and proliferating multiverses scrambling the recipe and arrangement of atoms into infinite and different configurations.

      In other words, there are universes where, as odd as it sounds, the atoms are arranged in such a way that a person exactly like yourself in this universe possesses a memory of resurrection as part of his narrative of living in a paradise.

      Somewhere that has to be happening if multiverses are infinite and vary and explore all combinations of atoms.

      The most probable of these worlds would consist, in actuality, of Boltzmann brains. That is, they would be false memory brains consisting of a simulated world in the brain. But there would also be ones which played out (absurdly) in really resurrecting once living things. If atoms explore every possible configuration if given enough time, this has to happen.

      It’s kind of like Nietzsche’s eternal return. The nightmare, of course, is that every other configuration–ones that are dystopian–will also play out (either in imagination and false memory or in reality). Infinite Holocausts and Heavens are entailed in the multiverse hypothesis–including some universes in which life, consciousness, and love emerge but the people in it die and never resurrect, fooled into believing a false hope.

      Imagine those ping-pong ball tumblers they use for lotteries, and imagine each ball as a universe. Each time you reach in, you’re likely to pull a ball that is just atoms rustling without life in it or consciousness or memories or love or resurrection of dead things.

      But every rare once in a while, you will pull out a wildly improbable ball–and the number of balls like it are actually infinite because the ball tumbler is infinite.

      Pretty nervy thought.

      In a sense, the infinite atheist multiverse hypothesis renders resurrections more probable than a general God hypothesis because the atheist universes, being infinite, actually render such arrangements of atoms as certain.

      If atheists are correct, there is some universe where a god named Jesus resurrected and will resurrect his followers. It has to happen because it’s not logically impossible and the resurrection is material. Chance has all the time in the world to land on even the most ridiculous improbabilities. Think about it.

      –Santi

      • johan1927 says:

        Interesting that you consider the multiverse. Just for some background, I work with the multiverse and quantum mechanics in my research as I am a student of string cosmology. I just want to clarify that the multiverse idea is far from fact. While I appreciate the concept of the multiverse, there are still a lot of issues with it and so there are quite a few in the field who do not agree with it. Because of these issues, I would not recommend supporting any philosophical argument on it. Again, just a suggestion.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Johan,

        Fair point. I’m an agnostic. I don’t consider myself in the atheist or theist camp, but on the fence. But if we drop God from the equation, it’s hard to see where we get the amount of time and chance to make the universe we actually find ourselves in (unless we posit a vast, perhaps infinite, multiverse).

        Do you have a middle-ground position for hitting the target (that is, getting to us absent mind or God)?

        –Santi

      • Even the multiverse would not propose a universe where all the laws of nature apply to everyone (every living being) except one person. This would necessarily mean that the laws of that universe are unstable and would not be predictable enough to support continuing life (as an example of one counter argument).

        That said, the entire concept of gods still lacks evidence. If one is to stoop so low as to accept the bible stories as evidence, you’ve skipped over an important step, actual evidence that gods can exist. By saying that it is merely possible you have not presented evidence of any type other than circular. This is not valid or useful.

        Note: given our penchant for science fiction, any person that presents themselves as god and can resurrect themselves from death does not imply they actually ARE the god of the Christian holy texts. The entire thing becomes a mess. If someone claiming to be the Christian Jesus returned were accepted without stringent evidence then there have been many such returns, and two living beings on this planet right now who fit the bill. I say this because while you will ask why I require evidence I assure you that you too will require evidence and as such, the bible story is nothing but circular evidence if it even qualifies as evidence. I don’t think it does. So the question of a resurrection is mute.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Myatheist:

        You might want to look into the issue of “Boltzmann’s Brain” in relation to what is or is not possible if the infinite multiverse hypothesis is correct. There would be universes where the laws of physics go funky and brains where false memories arrange themselves in such a way that the mental simulation is indistinguishable from reality.

        In a deck of infinite atoms spawned and shuffled infinitely, sooner or later every Alice in Wonderland world must show up, however improbable or absurd. If it’s logically possible for the atoms to be arranged in a particular fashion so as to evoke the experience in the physical brains of conscious beings, then it must arise in actuality (given infinite atom shuffling and time).

        And our world will repeat again and again as well if the infinite multiverse hypothesis is correct (as will worlds very near to ours in all but, say, one detail).

  2. Santi Tafarella says:

    A Boltzmann’s Brain science article from the New York Times for the curious:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/science/15brain.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  3. pauladkin says:

    The multiverse universe theory becomes absurd if it’s taken to the absolute infinite degree, for if that is the case then there would have to be universes that were capable of visiting other universes, and capable of dominating and distorting the rules of other universes, and so, infinitely speaking our own universe and world should be full of these people from other dimensions and universes. I think the idea of the multiverse was to explain how finely tuned laws in the universe could exist without the need of a God to have tuned them so finely, because a single universe could not have created suche fine tuning by accident. But even if multiverse reality is real, it wouldn’t be infinite.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Paul,

      An infinite multiverse would include, by definition, universes like ours not impeded upon by other universes. We could be one of these.

      But, to my mind, entropy is a key problem with the multiverse hypothesis. Where does the low entropy state of the beginning come from? Presumably, it was a perfect symmetry possessing unbelievable energy that is now fanning out, dissipating, and eddying in the form of (perhaps infinite) big bang universes. But is this really any easier to believe in than a first mental principle; a ground of being; God?

      No matter which way we turn, we come up against an ontological mystery that seems absurd: either a super-duper symmetry that just was and broke somehow or a God of extraordinary mental capacity that just is. Either way, it’s crazy.

      –Santi

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