Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In their response to me , Robert George and Patrick Lee argue that

some form of material continuity, indeed, a partial identity with respect to the material aspect of the human person, is part of what it means to believe in the resurrection.

As I understand them, what they mean by "partial identity" is that some parts of the old body must be identical with (i.e., "one and the same as" or, in philosophical jargon, "numerically identical" with) the corresponding parts of the resurrected body. They grant that it is problematic to suppose that the relevant parts are subatomic particles. They suggest instead that it may be some "parcels of matter, or parcels of matter-energy" or some other material components that get "reassembled" to make the resurrected body. I fear that this does not solve the basic problem with their position.

Suppose a person’s body were to be resolved into its constituent particles, perhaps by being blown to smithereens in a thermonuclear blast. Or suppose it were completely dissolved in an acid bath. Or suppose it were cremated and the ashes scattered to the four winds or dissolved in the sea. Or suppose that by more ordinary means, such as predation and decay in the ground, the same result were achieved more slowly. Then it might well be¯and, indeed, doubtless is for countless people who have died in the past¯that nothing remains of their earthly bodies beyond atoms and molecules. In such cases, any "material continuity" of the kind envisaged by George and Lee would have to involve the "numerical identity" of or "one and the sameness" of particles. And this runs into, I think, fatal difficulties. (I should note that this applies not only to "subatomic" particles but to atoms as well.)

Either "material continuity" in the sense of composition from some of the "same" bits of matter is a necessary condition of "resurrection" or it is not. I don’t see how it can be a necessary condition for some people and not for others. However, since it seems to be a condition impossible of fulfillment for some people, it cannot be a necessary condition for them, and therefore it cannot be necessary for anyone. George and Lee say, "Our concern in our forthcoming book is to show that belief in bodily resurrection is not incoherent (that it is not self-contradictory, which is not the same as to show that it is true or even intrinsically possible), . . . " I obviously agree that belief in bodily resurrection is not self-contradictory¯indeed, I hold it to be true. However, I think the ideas of "same electron," "same atom," etc., in the sense seemingly required by their position, do involve self-contradiction.

If we ask "what it means to believe in" an article of the Creed, such as "the resurrection of the body," something that is binding in faith, we must attend carefully to the distinction between what is " de fide " or at least " proxima fidei " and what is a matter of opinion or theological speculation. That we have bodies after death and that these bodies will be "ours" and somehow the "same ones" that we have now are de fide teachings of the Catholic Church. However, Catholics are permitted by the Church to conceive of that continuity in ways other than as the continuity of bits or parcels of matter, as George and Lee themselves admit when they write:

One [way] is that the persistence of the concrete, immortal human soul, with its same act of existing, provides sufficient continuity for the risen to be the same human being with the one that died. As we indicated in our earlier posting, we think this view might be true¯that is, it is neither self-contradictory nor clearly incompatible with the data of faith.

This leads me to wonder why, if this alternative idea is "neither self-contradictory nor clearly incompatible with the data of faith," it would not serve "to show that belief in bodily resurrection is not incoherent (that it is not self-contradictory)," which George and Lee profess to be their aim.

The present pope, at least when he was still just Joseph Ratzinger, had some interesting things to say about the resurrection of the body in his book Introduction to Christianity . I am indebted to Rudy Bernard, professor emeritus of physiology and neuroscience at Michigan State University, for calling my attention to the following passage from that book:

To recapitulate, Paul teaches, not the resurrection of physical bodies, but the resurrection of persons, and this not in the return of the "fleshly body," that is, the biological structure, an idea he expressly describes as impossible ("the perishable cannot become imperishable"), but in the different form of the life of the resurrection, as shown in the risen Lord.

The reference is, of course, to chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, where St. Paul says, "And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel," and "I tell you this, brethren; flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." As I noted in my previous post, the "resurrection of physical bodies" conceived of as the "return" of the same "biological structure" (to use the Ratzingerian phraseology) is fraught with numerous severe difficulties. Indeed, I pointed out as one of those difficulties the very problem of perishability noted here by Ratzinger.

At the very least, this passage and others from the present pope’s writings, not to mention St. Paul’s, suggest that we might have to expand our imaginations very greatly if we are to conceive of resurrected life, and, indeed, that our imaginations are just not equipped for it. Perhaps the great reticence of St. Paul, who speaks on this subject only in the most general and paradoxical ways, should be our model.

George and Lee assert that our having "bodies" at the resurrection "means at least this much: We will be able to walk and talk, see with our eyes, gesture with our hands, etc." It may mean that, but it may mean something else. I personally am not at all sure that all those elements of our "biological structure" will exist. Yes, we will be able to communicate with each other and thus have communion with each other, "talk" to each other, "touch" each other, "see" each other. Will one person see another by means of photons being reflected off the other’s bodily integument, entering his eyeballs, stimulating nerves in his retina, and sending electro-chemical signals up through his optic nerves into the lateral geniculate nuclei and on to the primary visual cortex of his brain? Maybe¯and those who are happy to conceive of heaven as almost a duplication of our present physical universe (with some extras, such as people being able to go through whatever locked doors are around in heaven) are welcome to do so. However, I personally find such an image of heaven very hard to swallow. If, as St. John tells us, there is no light in heaven of the kind that the sun or candles give, but our sole "light" will be that given us by the Lord, then we will have no more need of retinas and optic nerves than we will have of gonads and immune systems. We will be "changed." We will put on incorruption. How? I cannot say and dare not try to say.

George and Lee have one very strong argument. They note that our resurrection must be in some way patterned on that of Christ’s. And they note that we have some data about Christ’s resurrected body from the gospels. However, that was Christ’s body before he "ascended into heaven." To be seen in this world by those who were to be witnesses to his resurrection, Christ’s body had to retain much of its earthly character and appearance. I do not think that Christ’s "ascension" consisted simply of his moving in space farther away from the center of the earth while remaining really in this physical universe. I think it was a translation of Christ¯not within the three-dimensional space of our world, but into a very different realm whose connection to this physical universe is impossible for us to conceive at present. Perhaps it is this impossibility that is suggested by the "cloud" that enveloped him.

I do not see why it is not enough to say what we all must say: that we are inherently corporeal beings, that we will be corporeal beings in heaven (or hell), and that we will be the same persons we are now, so that our corporeality will not be borrowed or extrinsic to us. To go beyond this, to attempt to imagine the unimaginable, is not only futile but I think very dangerous. For the images that are plausible to some may seem absurd to others. There was a time when people thought that hell was at the center of the earth. (Indeed, if one consults the old Catholic Encyclopedia , one will find that that idea persisted among some theologians until very recently.) Just as I find the idea of a hell at the earth’s core unbelievable, I find some aspects of the eschatology of Profs. George and Lee unbelievable, and for many of the same reasons. I don’t begrudge them their conception; I just cannot share it.

(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles