"Modern Science"
and the Resurrection

December, 1987. I am ... in a highly revealing conversation about the resurrection of Jesus. Most of those present are clergy or theologians, and some of them are trying to convince the rest of us--two or three quantum physicists, an astronomer, a biochemist, and a science historian--that "science" has made it "impossible" to believe in the traditional story, with a risen body and an empty tomb. ... I [can't believe it, and] notice that the other science types are equally incredulous: science, we realize, has done nothing of the sort alleged by our theological friends.
-- E.B. Davis, Zygon 35, 972 (2000) [1]

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.

-- 1 Corinthians 15:14 (RSV)
I have had this discussion a number of times. Occasionally I become angry, as when a liberal theologian informed me that I was living in a dream world: "modern science," quoth he, has made it impossible to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus as described in the New Testament and as traditionally interpreted by the Church. My exasperated rejoinder was, "I am a modern scientist!" I know how science works, firsthand as well as through study of its history and philosophy. Science can only detect events that are reproducible: they must be observable many times, or by many people, and even so run the risk of being ignored if they are not well-precedented or explicable by existing theory.

Science has nothing whatever to say about non-reproducible occurrences.

One of my favorite stories was told to me by a particle physicist in April 1999, at a conference at Calvin College. Not long ago, the best physical theories about the structure of the universe predicted the existence of particles called "magnetic monopoles," which would have been formed as a consequence of the Big Bang and would have survived essentially unchanged. An experimentalist built an instrument to detect them. When he turned it on, he did in fact detect a monopole within a day or two. But in the subsequent two or three years, he detected no more. He could find nothing wrong with the apparatus; everything was working and, according to the theory, should be able to detect monopoles. And then our experimentalist read another theoretical paper that calculated the number of magnetic monopoles to be expected in our universe. The number was... ONE. Was his detection of a magnetic monopole a real event or an equipment glitch?

I know the answer I would give. If I see something in an experiment, then run the same experiment 10,000 times and never see it again, I have to conclude that it was a fluke, or an electrical spike in the recording equipment, or... Scientifically I can conclude nothing else, because science must be reproducible. Without reproducibility science is no longer science; it is history or even hearsay. But we know that history and even hearsay can sometimes be reliable sources of information. [2]

The Resurrection of Jesus cannot be considered scientifically because it has never claimed to be a reproducible event [3]. Jesus is unique, the Man who is also God, and His Resurrection will not be reproduced until the end of history. Nor is the Resurrection a mere bodily resuscitation: Lazarus was resuscitated (John 11), but he died again. The Resurrection brought Jesus, and will bring us, into a new and larger life in a glorified body, and is in fact more believable because of modern science!

Body and/or Soul

Over much of the world, and through most of history, people have believed in a soul that is more-or-less independent of the body. In India, the soul is said to survive numberless bodies and lives--reincarnation is a central feature of both of the great Indian faiths, Hinduism and Buddhism. The Greeks, led by Plato, mostly believed in a soul that would survive death and be rewarded or punished for deeds during life; in Egypt the soul was thought to require an intact body for full life, but nevertheless to have more-or-less independent existence--pathetic as that might be without a body to inhabit. To my knowledge only the Hebrews insisted, first (like the Egyptians) that there could be no substantial life after death without the body, and second that there was no possibility of a soul separate from the body. The older portions of the Old Testament do not appear to acknowledge a "life after death" at all.

In New Testament times, most people of the Roman Empire--pagans and Jews--believed that there was an imperishable soul distinct from the body, and that while the body would decay, the soul would live on to be rewarded or punished for the person's deeds during life [4]. In the teeth of this, Christians insisted on the Resurrection of the Body (as they still do each time they say the Creed), though they could not say why this was reasonable other than the claim that their Lord had in historical fact been raised in a glorified body and ascended with that same body into Heaven. For two thousand years, this has been looked at askance by those who wondered what a risen body was for: wasn't the soul sufficient?

A number of theologians have claimed that the bodily Resurrection was unnecessary, that Jesus' spirit [5] lived on in His disciples and inspired them and the Church. "If the corpse of Jesus was discovered in Palestine, it would make no difference to my faith in His Resurrection." This assumes the mind-body dualism that reigned supreme in theology and philosophy for almost two thousand years, and was Christianized by Saint Augustine of Hippo, among others. [6]

Less than fifty years ago, it was still possible to insist that the mind or soul was a separate thing from the body; the Judeo-Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection of the dead could be the more readily dismissed. What's that resurrected body for, anyhow? But such dualism has been thoroughly discredited by several decades of discoveries about the inextricable links between mental and physical functioning, between thoughts and feelings and particular zones of the brain, between biochemistry and emotional health. The scientific conclusion seems to be that the soul cannot exist without the body's support. [7]

Suddenly the insistence of the first Christians (and of the Pharisees, the ancestors of modern Rabbinic Judaism) that the body would be raised by God seems much more reasonable. If we are to hope for an eternal future with God, modern science indicates that it must be as embodied and therefore resurrected souls: no other is possible within God's own rules, for the soul cannot be separated from the body. We may--as many have--deny Christian hope, and therefore Christianity. But, scientifically speaking, there can be no Christian hope without the Resurrection of the Dead, and therefore without the bodily Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
-- 1 Corinthians 15:16-17 (RSV)

Notes

  1. The thrust of Davis' article is that many "liberal" theologians hold fast to A.D. White's thoroughly discredited metaphor of warfare between science and theology: that one cannot reconcile science with religion. See A.D. White, A History of the Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom (1896) (e-text). (return)

  2. To put it another way, science deals specifically and solely with that which is independent of the identity of the observer. In principle, anyone, at any time, in any place could observe the same thing. If this is not true--or the event is not explicable in terms of things that are observer-independent--it's not treatable by science.

    This last qualification can take you into pretty strange territory. For example, we can say things about the time very near the beginning of our universe--an event which is unique and, obviously, not directly observable--in terms of things that are directly observable by anyone. We can say things about unique events--for example, the 1905 Siberian meteor explosion--in terms of other observations that anyone can make at any time. We can even definitively say what we would perceive if we were traveling at 99% of the speed of light relative to most of the rest of the universe, even though no one has ever done so, because we can rigorously relate the situation to things that can be observed at any time, by anyone.

    However, if an event is totally unique--not reproducible, and totally different from any known reproducible event--we can't use science to say anything about it. Other forms of evidence must be used. (return)

  3. The claim has been made that the Resurrection never happened because we don't see normal people dying and then appearing alive again. But one of the central tenets of Christianity is that Jesus is not "normal people." It is probable that this theological idea, that Jesus is God as well as Man, arose from the brute fact of the Resurrection--an obviously unique event. See Terrance Callan, The Origins of Christian Faith, Paulist Press (1994). (return)
  4. Those faiths, notably Buddhism and Hinduism, which believe in repeated reincarnation hold that one is punished for misdeeds in this life by misfortune in the next. (return)

  5. In a more-or-less literal sense. There are also theologians who take this statement as metaphor, some of whom believe neither in the soul nor in any form of life after death. (return)

  6. The traditional Christian dualist interpretation is that, while the soul and body are separable, both are created by God and therefore good. This goodness is what is affirmed by the bodily Resurrection. (return)

  7. For a discussion of the theological implications of mind-body monism, see N. Murphy, ed., Whatever Happened to the Soul? Fortress Press (1998). (return)

Copyright © 2002 by Daniel J. Berger. This work may be copied without limit if its use is to be for non-profit educational purposes. Such copies may be by any method, present or future. The author requests only that this statement accompany all such copies. All rights to publication for profit are retained by the author.

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