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I know many people who find the very notion of “resurrection” preposterous, not to mention “eternal life.” Some of them I know in person, some via reading only. Many of them I love and respect. For these people, arguments about the subject are beside the point. Some of them—like the science fiction writer, scholar of nineteenth-century British literature, and irrepressible polymath Adam Roberts—say that, apart from the absurdity of any belief in an “afterlife,” they find the notion of living “forever” extremely repugnant, nightmarish. Others say they’d like to believe but find it impossible to do so.

Among my fellow believers in an afterlife, there are striking contrasts, not only among adherents of different religions—Islam and Christianity, say—but among those who share the same faith. I was stunned when, even before I reached my teens in the early 1960s, I first began to grasp the extent to which my fellow Protestants differed from one another and in particular from the sort of Christians (Baptist, retrospectively “evangelical”) who raised me and with whom we worshipped. I remember reading an article in which a Protestant churchman deplored the emphasis among certain Christians on “going to heaven”! To me, this seemed crazy (as it still does today).

You might be surprised to know what set this train of thought in motion, apart from the obvious fact that we are in Holy Week and about to celebrate the Resurrection. A hodgepodge of books and articles on quite different subjects—the astonishing range of life in the ocean depths; reports of new star-systems, incomprehensibly vast; increasing evidence that there were humans in North America much earlier than had long been supposed; and more—renewed and deepened a sense I’ve long had of the sheer strangeness of our existence.

Do these discoveries, revisions, and such put a special burden on Christians of the small-o orthodox variety—Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecostal, and more? Not in my view. On the contrary. For various reasons, not only the confluence of evidence I’ve just cited but also “personal experience” in my tiny existence, I utterly reject the claim that faith is a retreat from reality. The strangeness I have alluded to—and could prattle on about for hours at a time—imposes no greater a burden on me than it does on the convictions of someone quite certain that belief in a Creator, in the Resurrection, in a life after death is nonsense.

This isn’t a new argument, of course, but the evidence for it today is stronger than ever. Nor is the appeal to “strangeness” a rejection of reason. Not at all. It merely emphasizes the necessity of faith. Neither is it grounded in sentimentalism. Sentimentalism not only brushes over suffering, it also enforces a systematic denial of the sheer messiness of our lives and of reality tout court. I’m reminded of a book I was given by a well-meaning older church member when I was about fourteen years old. I think it was called The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. One bit dealt with seeming discrepancies in the gospel accounts of Peter denying Christ. As I recall, the author concluded that there were no discrepancies; readers had simply failed to acknowledge that in fact Peter denied Christ not three times, but nine! 

Though all of us, created in the image of God, share a fundamental human identity, we are very different from one another, much more so than is generally acknowledged. Some people, reaching old age, attain a certain serenity, and this is a gift not to be despised. Others do not, and between the two poles there is a considerable range. Our merciful God utterly exceeds our grasp, yet he came among us and died for us and was raised from the grave. Can anything we ever learn about history, about the universe, about ourselves compare with that reality in its sheer strangeness and wonderful improbability? He is risen; he is risen indeed. 

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

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