This coming Sunday is Easter which commemorates the day when Jesus rose from the dead. Or so I’m told.
Looked at dispassionately, the whole Easter thing is a bit over the top. The idea of vicarious atonement when it comes to things like sacrificing children and virgins to assuage the gods who unleash natural disasters is something we are now horrified about and yet the idea of Jesus having to die to save the rest of us from sin does not seem odd. In fact, many Christians seem to positively relish all the gory details of Jesus’s suffering and death, as can be seen in the commercial success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which I did not see since I am not a fan of gratuitous violence.
The other problem with Easter is the whole rising-from-the-dead bit. Now this clearly violates basic laws of biology and so poses a dilemma for those Christians who think their beliefs are compatible with science. Some try to find ways to lift the event out of the realm of the miraculous by postulating naturalistic explanations (Jesus being in a coma or his disciples staging some kind of elaborate hoax) but these don’t really wash. The whole point of the story is the real death and miraculous resurrection. Take away that and there is nothing left.
But that is not the most difficult aspect of the Easter story to believe. True, rising from the dead boggles mind but all it requires is a slight adjustment in one’s thinking. We know that people who have died a peaceful death often look like they are asleep and signs of irreversible bodily decay do not become obvious until a considerable time after death. There are people who have been brought back to life shortly after they have ‘died’ in that their hearts have stopped beating. So the idea that someone could come back to life after being dead for several hours requires just the ability to lengthen the period between death and resuscitation, which is not that hard to do for a determined believer.
But for me the really difficult puzzle to understand is what happened to Jesus’s body after the resurrection. We are told in the Bible that his was a physical resurrection, that his disciples touched him and that he ate food with them. But then, after forty days of hanging around with his disciples, he rose up and disappeared into the clouds.
This physical rising of Jesus’s body has spared us the search for traces of his body, like we have with Noah’s Ark. But this raises the question of where his physical body is now. Is it still floating somewhere in space? Christians believe in a heaven to which their souls go after death and is not part of the same physical universe that we live in. They also believe that Jesus is there and they will meet him after they die. But is he there in his physical body, unlike everyone else and unlike even god? Wouldn’t it be awkward for just Jesus to have a physical body when all the rest were spirits? And how would his physical body have made the transition into the spiritual world?
Catholics have compounded this problem by postulating that Jesus’s mother’s body also did not decay after her death but that it too was assumed into heaven. This was asserted by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950 on one of those rare occasions where he was exercising papal infallibility thus making it rigid dogma, but some Christian traditions believed in it even before that.
So now we have two missing physical bodies to be accounted for. But if somehow Jesus and Mary ditched their bodies later in order to be able to enter heaven, where are the bodies now? After going to all that trouble to resurrect Jesus’s physical body and preventing Mary’s body from decomposing, why would god later abandon the bodies to presumably disintegrate in space? What would be the point?
When I have discussions with Christians, I sometimes ask them this question of where Jesus’s body is now. It is interesting to note how the question never seems to have struck them and they are at a loss for a response, usually resorting to some version of the answer that “God took care of it somehow”. I can understand this. When I was a Christian, this question never occurred to me either. In fact it is quite amazing how questions that seem obvious to me to ask now never even crossed my mind then. The habit of probing a theory for its weakness, so natural to me when I was studying science, seemed to desert me when it came to my religious beliefs. Such is the power of compartmentalization.
Interestingly, this seemingly trivial issue of what happened with Jesus’s body was one of the ones that finally pushed me over the edge to abandoning Christianity and becoming an atheist. My disbelief had been growing for a long time for a variety of reasons but it was simple questions like this one that convinced me that Christianity and science were irreconcilable.