Even in biblical times, resurrection deniers who hoped for an afterlife took an alternative route. This is what scholars call “the immortality of the soul.” Embraced by Plato and popular today especially among progressive believers (Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, for example) and people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” the immortality of the soul is easier to swallow than resurrection. After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot. This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon. Consolation was not the goal of Plato’s afterlife. Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the “green, green pastures” of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante’s cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run. Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy. [emphasis mine]
Another popular way out of the Easter conundrum—”I want to believe in heaven but can’t get my head around the revivification of human flesh”—is to imagine “resurrection” as a metaphor for something else: an inexplicable event, a new kind of life, the birth of the Christian community on earth, the renewal of a people, an individual’s spiritual rebirth, a bodiless ascension to God. Progressives frequently fall back on resurrection-as-metaphor, for it allows them to celebrate Easter while also expressing a reasonable agnosticism. They quote that great theological cop-out: “We cannot know what God has in store for us.”
The intellectual flabbiness of this approach causes agonies for such orthodox Christians as N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England. “People have been told so often that resurrection is just a metaphor,” he once told my editor Jon Meacham and me in an interview for this magazine. “In other words, [Jesus] went to heaven, whatever that means. And they’ve never realized that the word ‘resurrection’ simply didn’t mean that. If people [in the first century] had wanted to say that he died and went to heaven, they had perfectly good ways of saying that.” The whole point of the Christian story is that the Resurrection really happened, Wright insists. The disciples rolled back the rock on the third day, and Jesus’ body was gone. This insistence on the veracity of resurrection is no less sure in Judaism, where the Orthodox pray thrice a day to a God “who causes the dead to come to life,” or in Islam. “I swear by the day of resurrection!” proclaims the Quran. “Yes, Indeed!”
And so, the paradox. Resurrection may be unbelievable, but belief in a traditional heaven requires it. [emphasis mine] I think often of Jon D. Levenson, a Jewish scholar at Harvard Divinity School who hopes to bring the idea of resurrection back to mainstream Judaism, where it has been lost in practice for generations. I visited him one cold November afternoon because, as a literal-minded skeptic, I wanted him to explain to me how it works. How does God put bodies—burned in fire or pulverized in war—back together again? Levenson looked at me, eyes twinkling, and said, “It’s no use to ask, ‘If I had a lab at MIT, how would I try to resurrect a body?’ The belief in resurrection is more radical. It’s a supernatural event. It’s a special act of grace or of kindness on God’s part.” For my part, I don’t buy it. I do, however, leave the door open a crack for radical acts of grace and kindness—and for humbling ourselves before all that we don’t understand.
Adapted from the forthcoming book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife by Lisa Miller. To be published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Miller. Reprinted by arrangement with the author.