2017-12-06

On Physics, Possibility, and Resurrection


Recently I was in a discussion about the Resurrection of Christ in which someone posted that "classical theism allows for the possibility of such contravention of the ordinary laws of physics". This raises the most commonly voiced objection I hear to the Resurrection, which was popularized by philosopher David Hume: The resurrection cannot occur because it is a miracle, and miracles are violations of natural laws, and since natural laws are universal, then we know a priori that miracles cannot violate them. For Hume, physical laws govern causality and what can, and cannot, happen to matter and energy within spacetime. This is further complicated by Hume's insistence that we can never "prove" causality, we can only note a correlation between two events. So for Hume, physical laws govern causality, while at the same time causality is a mental inference and not objectively part of the universe.


Thus, what I find interesting here is the concept of the "laws of physics" and what constitutes a "contravention" of them. It assumes we have a more or less exhaustive knowledge of both what is possible in these "laws", as well as a good idea of how a "resurrection" must work vis a vis these "laws". It seems to presume these laws are actual prescriptive apodictic norms for how matter and energy must work, rather than descriptions of how physical phenomena have worked in past observations. This is curious. Because if the laws are prescriptive, who or what prescribed them? Would they then be able to be "hacked" the way a video game designer hacks their own "code"? If, however, the laws are merely descriptive, then there is no grounds to say they have been "contravened". It's just that observation didn't follow the pattern that time. Since it is very hard to arbitrate whether "physical laws" are prescriptive or descriptive without some prior metaphysical theory as to the nature of "Ultimate Reality", and since either way it would be impossible for finite beings to claim exhaustive knowledge of them, I would err on the side of epistemic humility. 

Given any particular claim to a "miracle", there are really three possible options. First, it could be a "contravention" of physical laws as implied by Hume-inspired critiques of miracles. But the reasons I give above make this a very problematic concept, and Hume's own deconstruction of causality renders his own critique of miracles nonsensical. If causality is a myth we project onto physical correlation (as Hume implies), then causality does not exist in an objective sense, and thus nothing can count as a contravention of causality. 

Second, a miracle could be a "misperception". The miracle-- in this case resurrection-- could have been a faulty perception from the observers, or they could have been tricked into thinking something was the case that was not true. We could then line up competing hypotheses for explaining away the Resurrection as some sort of misperception or deception, as many have done with varying levels of probability and believability. Given the actual evidence we have to work from-- textual descriptions, temporal and geographical distance from originating event to textual recording, the sociology of the spread of information, etc.-- I don't find the hypotheses of misperception or deception particularly convincing. Perhaps I'm missing something. I mean we can say "dead bodies tend to stay dead", and that is true. But it is also true that ancient Galilean peasants tend to die and leave no trace of their existence, whether in literature or archaeology. So the Christ event is wildly improbable for many reasons even without the resurrection. 

Third, we could look at a miracle as the action of a rational mind working with the laws of nature to produce an almost infinitely improbable event. In this case, a miracle would be technology we don't understand yet (cf. Arthur C. Clark's dictum "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"). Like how a person from 1000 years ago might look at smartphones or jet planes or microwave ovens or hearing aids or antibiotics. Or how we might look at human technology 1000 years from now (when our current understanding of the "laws of physics" will look almost laughably naive and simplistic). In this view, the resurrection is the result of an Infinite Intelligence expressing itself through (not against) the laws it created in the field of space and time, in a particular person, to reveal that Divine Love conquers death and evil. That person is then the embodiment of that Infinite Intelligence's effort to reveal itself and to draw us into itself, hence the epicenter of salvation. And this action need not be seen as a negation of how the Infinite may be glimpsed in other religious traditions, but rather the embodiment and fulfillment of what is implicit and partial in them. 

I have found that faith in the resurrection is typically rejected on three grounds: First, some have a prior commitment to another religious faith-- such as Muslim or Hindu or Jewish or Secular-- and this prohibits them from deeply engaging the claims and evidence surrounding Christ's resurrection.

Second, some reject it because they find the concept to be impossible or incredible as a violation of their sense of what can happen in space and time. As I have shown above, I do not feel this is a particularly strong objection. 

Third, some reject it on the grounds that it implies exclusion. Those who accept it are "saved" and "loved" by God, while those who don't are damned. This seems inherently unfair to many, and I would generally agree. That's why I follow the Eastern Orthodox tradition of seeing Christ's resurrection as the foretaste of universal resurrection and reconciliation for all who have ever lived. Although I don't have time to explore it here as I have elsewhere, there is a strong history of teaching Universal Restoration in Christ from voices as diverse as Catholic Theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?), Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware (Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?), and Evangelical Gregory MacDonald (The Evangelical Universalist: The Biblical Hope That God's Love Will Save Us All).

Given the nature of the world I live in, and the data found in the evidence we have regarding this event, I find the most probable explanation to be that God acted in a special way in that dead body to raise Jesus from the tomb, and that this event not only changed history, but gives us a foretaste of what is destined for all persons. As Paul said to the Corinthians: "As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive".
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.