Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Resurrection: Perhaps it's not what you want

One of the central doctrines of Christianity is resurrection. I don't think many people spend much time thinking about it. In a way it's the ultimate placebo. A way to avoid thinking about the reality and finality of death. Do people really believe it? Or is it something they try in vain to convince themselves of? Is it a belief propped up by fear?

I want to explore some aspects of resurrection itself as a concept. For example, how would it even work?

Is the biblical idea of resurrection even something you want?


Before I dive into this article, I just want to point out that I'm not trying to destroy people's hope here. My goal is, as always, to make people think. If it turns out that someone begins to reconsider their beliefs because of something I said (unlikely), then I'd like to think I've given them a chance to enjoy the years they have left. I believe life is too precious to waste on religion. I don't expect everyone to agree with me. But at least you can see that my motives are pure.

So, let's begin...

What happens after we die?

Christadelphians do not believe in an immortal soul that lives on after death. To a Christadelphian, death is final. No identity, in spirit form or otherwise, lives on after a person dies. They simply cease to exist.

Many non-believers would agree with Christadelphians on this point. Where Christadelphians obviously differ is that they believe in a physical resurrection at some later point in the future. That is what I want to talk about here. What happens then? Of course, no one really knows. The Bible doesn't elaborate on details. It just says people will be raised, as if the reader is plainly aware of what that means. But basic common sense reasoning about it leads to some pretty crucial questions. Questions for which the Bible provides no answers. Perhaps there are no answers. Or perhaps they never thought to ask the questions.

Some people did ask questions. As we know, the sect known as the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. So they asked Jesus the following question, in Mark 12:18-25, which I've paraphrased:

Suppose a man dies and his wife marries his brother, then the brother dies so she marries the next brother, and so on for 7 brothers. In the resurrection, whose wife would she be?

Now, perhaps there's more to this story and I'm reading it out of context, but of all the questions one might ask about resurrection, that seems to be a rather pathetic one. In fact it poses no problem at all if one considers that death represents the end of the marriage contract.

Jesus' reply agrees with this, but also gives us some more information about the resurrection. He says that the resurrected people will not get married, but will be like the angels. That would be a whole lot more comforting if there was some evidence for the existence of angels.

But I want to ask some deeper questions. Perhaps these questions stem from more modern ideas and ways of thinking. I'm sure I'm not the first to raise them.

Is resurrection even possible?

This is not as straightforward as it might at first sound. I think it depends on the capabilities one imagines God has.

If your view of God is that he can do magic, and that absolutely anything is possible, then perhaps this article will be lost on you. You're probably already wondering why anyone would bother asking if something was possible for God. Such a powerful magical god could sneeze purple unicorns and create pixie dust with barely even a click of his metaphorical finger. Of course resurrection is possible, you might insist!

While we're here, such a god could heal every sick child and prevent every stillbirth just as easily. I'd like you to spend a few minutes pondering why he does not. Such a god could have skipped this entire first episode and could have created only the righteous in their post-resurrection state. Maybe he wanted to see the others suffer instead. It's not about giving them a chance, because this magical god already knew who would be saved. He knew it all before he even created the universe. Chance doesn't come into it. Besides, what about the millions of children every year who die from preventable diseases. What chance did they have?

Perhaps you see things differently, but I look out at the world and see a lot of things that I would change if I had unlimited power. There is a lot of suffering, and much of that suffering is caused by natural events, not by humans. It just seems unfair. There is so much that someone with unlimited power could do, that would make this world a better place. But if there is such a being, it just sits back and does nothing. Now you might argue that God should not be held to a human standard, and I agree. He should be held to a higher one!

Now to return to answering the question for the rest of you.

So, I could imagine it being possible to recreate a human that shared my DNA. However, this would be barely more than a twin. Let's go a step further. Suppose you could take a snapshot of the underlying cells, and physically recreate all of them in exactly the same state, including all the neurons and synapses in my brain. I don't know if that is possible. I think we're well into faith territory at this point. But even granting that it is possible, that still only creates a replica of a mortal human. That's not enough. And this is where we start to run into problems.

Who are you?

How old are you? Imagine the person you were 10 years ago. It's very likely you have changed. Perhaps for the better, perhaps not. Suppose you died yesterday (By putting the hypothetical date in the past I hope to avoid triggering any superstitious anxiety). In the resurrection, who would you be?

Multiple possibilities arise. Would you be the you from yesterday, identical in every way? Or would you revert back to the you from some previous time? Or maybe you would be recreated as some hybrid combination of your best self, whatever that means? Would it be your best self in your opinion, or God's opinion?

More importantly, would it even be you at all? How would you know?

The answer seems obvious to me. You wouldn't know. That is because you couldn't possibly know.

At best God could (hypothetically - again I don't know if it's possible) create a person who looks like you, is recognisable by others as you, and who shares your memories. Great. How would you determine that you weren't someone else with implanted false memories of an elaborate past. Would you know? The short answer is no, you wouldn't know. Maybe this is irrelevant, because you can barely answer these questions about your identity now. Perhaps the same argument could apply to when you wake up in the morning. Now there's a worrying thought.

But there's more to think about. We're not done yet. Your current self has faults. What to do about those?

Who does God want you to be?

Supposedly there needs to be some change, whether physical or mental, or both, when you are resurrected. Your post-resurrection self must not sin, and should therefore be morally perfect. How much of what makes you you needs to change in order for that to happen?

Will you still enjoy the same things? What if some of the things you enjoyed were sinful? What if some of the things you didn't enjoy were righteous? Will God override those attributes? Would you be ok with that? Most importantly, would you still be you?

Obviously these questions have no correct answer. I pose them just to make you think. I wonder if most Christadelphians never think about this sort of thing. I can understand why it's probably best to avoid such questions. The thought that what the Bible offers might not actually turn out to be desirable, could be rather troubling.

God might have a plan for you that, if you had known about it now, you would not strive for. Of course, God could recreate you in such a way as to make you enjoy what he has done regardless of whether your current self would approve. Ultimately you have no say in the matter. That frightens me a little. Does it bother you? I think the part that bothers me isn't so much that God has that kind of power and might use it. I think what bothers me most is the idea that what I had been looking forward to may not match what was being promised. It's worth thinking about.

Obviously I no longer believe any of it to be true anyway, but even if you do believe it, do you really want it? Would you still want it if the reward isn't what you imagine it to be?

It is tempting to think God would make everything better, but what if he made things worse?

But God wouldn't do that

I understand the temptation and the desire to believe God wouldn't do that. Many people have said the words, "My spouse/child/parent would never do that", only to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, people do sometimes betray our trust. They sometimes tell lies. They are not always honest. You know this.

But what about God? Surely you can trust God, can't you?

This is a tricky one I think, because at some level we cannot trust anyone. Not even God. And yet in order to function as people in this world we need to trust other people. That is, we need to trust other people who we know may not be entirely trustworthy. After all, no one is. If we trust other people, it makes no sense to not trust God. But realise that just as other people could (and do) lie to you, so it is with God.

Yes the Bible says God cannot lie. I wonder what it would say if he could. Stop and think about that. The Liar Paradox applies to deities too.

You trust God not because he said he is trustworthy, but because ultimately you have no choice. Also, if you follow the chain of logical argument, you wouldn't want to spend eternity with a dishonest god, and so if you believed he was honest but it turned out he was lying and you were not saved, it would still be the result you wanted. That is, except for the fact that you just wasted the only life you had worshipping the wrong god. Congratulations, you've just discovered the flaw in Pascal's Wager.

However, trust should still not be given blindly. It must be earned. So also with God. I'm going to be extremely generous here and ignore the fact that we have no way to determine whether any event in the history of the universe was an act attributable to God (and therefore no way to build trust). For the purpose of this exercise, I'll even grant that what we can deduce about God from the Bible is factual and true.

Should you trust God?

Should you trust a god who lied to Adam and Eve?

Have you ever been challenged about the problem of evil, and answered that God may have had entirely valid reasons for creating or allowing some evil event, but that we mere mortals do not know what those reasons are?

Perhaps God likewise has a very good reason to lie to you, too.

Should you trust a god who hardened Pharaoh's heart, and then punished all the Egyptians for it? (Exodus 9)

Should you trust a god who encouraged King David to number Israel, and then murdered 70,000 people for it? (2 Sam 24)

I could go on, but I think you get the point. It is my view that the biblical God, if he exists, is not trustworthy, and is not worthy of our worship.

I do not think it is possible to rescue God as a morally good being without engaging in an elaborate dance of apologetics. There are many morally good people in the world who we can endorse without having to do such a dance. Again, I think God should be held to a higher standard than those people.

Or perhaps I could turn it around and say that if you can use apologetics to claim that God is morally good, then I can do the same and claim that all humans are morally good too. There are few malevolent acts performed by people that have not been exceeded by God according to the Bible.

Does it matter?

I think in the end it all boils down to whether or not you implicitly trust God.

If you fully trust that God has your best interests at heart, then you'd probably be happy with whatever he gave you, no matter what. You wouldn't care if God made you into someone your current self would despise, because ultimately if he thinks it's for the best, then you'd be inclined to agree. If that works for you, then let me just say I'm pretty surprised you made your way here. I guess I feel honoured that you stopped by.

For the rest of you,

Good luck with the zombie fantasy.