The resurrection of the dead is one of those articles of faith known solely by way of special, divine revelation. The doctrine has historically been understood as teaching that our resurrection body will in some sense “the same” as our earthly body. This obviously raises a whole host of philosophical questions. For instance, how can this be? How is it achieved? Surely there have been millions of people whose bodies have been destroyed. Perhaps they have been cremated, their ashes being tossed into the ocean, and then eaten by various denizens of the deep. Some have been eaten by cannibals, or even the worms. Some were completely obliterated by the atomic bomb dropped in WWII.
To take one popular (at least historically) view: Our numerically identical molecules we had here on earth are what constitute our resurrected bodies, and since it may be the case that those molecules cease to exist (for most people) then, according to this teaching, they "come back" into existence. But this seems counter-intuitive. For example, say I told you that the Sistine chapel had been obliterated by terrorists using a nuclear “dirty bomb.” All that was left was a hole where the chapel once stood. Perhaps a few pieces of rubble remained, and some ashes were carried away by the wind, but for all intents and purposes, the chapel was non-existent - even many of the molecules that made up the chapel were non-existent. This would be front page news. Now, say that sixteen months later I told you that I had been to Rome and had been in the Sistine chapel and saw the Frescos, and, most importantly, I saw the very same ceiling Michelangelo painted. You would no doubt correct me by saying, “You mean you saw a replica of the Frescos and Michelangelo’s painting, right?” If I responded, “No, I saw the exact same paintings. Numerically identical ones to the originals.” (This presupposes that the paintings now there are the originals. Since they have been restored, and parts replaced, one might not view them as the originals anymore. But I don’t need to discuss the history, or different notions and intuitions of identity through time, for my purposes.) So this view seems perplexing to some.
Some people, therefore, think it is impossible to bring back the same thing after it has been completely destroyed. This is debatable. Using only our unaided reason, then, we should say that the question whether it is possible for something to cease to exist and them come back into existence is an open question. We don’t know either way. But as I said at top, the Christian’s belief in the resurrection is grounded in special revelation. So, if the above view is what Scripture teaches (or is the way things will go), then our intuitions would be wrong. There is some support for this reading of Scripture, and it also seems to have been the position of many of the Fathers and Scholastics, so some might be internally rational in holding this view. Those who hold this view would say that even though we don’t know how this kind of resurrection will happen, we know that it will happen.
One popular model in the above vein is the so-called “reassembly of parts” model. Whether this position is true or not is an open question. This deals with the how, and Scripture is silent on the “how” part. This model isn’t without its problems, though. For example, it is not clear that the molecules which make up our bodies will persist until the general resurrection. Secondly, if one were eaten by a cannibal, one’s atoms would become part of the cannibal’s body. And since both you and the cannibal are resurrected, and since one molecule cannot exist in two places at once, who gets the molecule(s)? Furthermore, assume that your molecules did not disappear. If God reconstructed the atoms of your 5 year old body and placed that body next to you, would that child have your body? If not, why assume that the atoms that existed when you died make up your body at the resurrection? Or, does God take the atoms of your body when you were at the “optimal” age of a glorified human, and use those atoms to constitute your glorified body? What if you are a Christian who is also a midget? If your molecules and body must be numerically identical in this sense, will there be midgets in heaven? What of those who die as embryos? Will have been made up partly of embryos in Petri dishes?
As I said above, since we don’t know how the resurrection will happen, we can’t totally discount the above. There have been answers to the above kinds of questions from those within this camp For example, perhaps God resurrects the embryo and then speeds up its natural development process so that what would have taken it 25 years takes 25 nanoseconds. Phenomenologically this would seem to us as if an adult sized body was brought back. Or, perhaps we will have midgets in heaven? Certainly the poor health that accompanies some midgets is not necessary to being a “little person.” And, there are many midgets who do not think there is anything wrong with being a midget. It may seem to them that to say there will be no midgets in heaven is like saying there will be no black people in heaven. Whether all this is persuasive or not, is another matter. Some may be satisfied with these answers, though. It may be the true theory for all we know.
Another view that has prominence is that there is some sort of “body template” or “form” or “entelechy” and it is the resurrected body having that template that guarantees “sameness.” The Westminster Confession speaks of “selfsame” bodies. Again, as is notorious in these debates, and with debates about ‘identity’ in general, this could mean a number of things. G.I. Williamson, in his commentary on the Confession, claims that this means that the same “essence” is resurrected. Are the particular earthly molecules “essential?” Presumably not since they have changed many times during our life and yet we “wear” the “same” body. So perhaps Williamson follows those like Shedd, Berkoff and others, in viewing this “essence” as some sort of “organizing principle” (cf. Berkoff, ST, Eerdmans, 1996, p. 723). Berkoff states that if this is the proper view this neatly sidesteps any debate about the same historical molecules needing to be resurrected. This template is part of our essence and does not cease to exist. This avoids the above questions of a “temporal gap” in the existence of our body and allows it to be “the same.”
Another view might be that we have numerous bodies corresponding to different possible worlds. Right now I have my fallen body. At the resurrection I will be given my unfallen body. The body I “would have had” had the fall never occurred. This view also allows the sameness of body and gets around temporal gap problems.
All of the above are consistent with and allow for the “intermediate state.” The “intermediate state” is that period of conscious time between when we die here on earth and when we receive our resurrected bodies. This position is endorsed overwhelmingly throughout church history, and seems to have the best exegesis behind it.
Some people are unhappy with these theories. Indeed, they are unhappy in general with the dualistic picture that has dominated Christian thought. They call themselves “Christian physicalists” (CP). One should note that they are physicalists about the body, not about everything; say, God and angels. One such CP is Trenton Merricks. In his interesting chapter on The Resurrection of the Body and Life Everlasting in Reason for the Hope Within (ed. Murray, Eerdmans, 1999, pp. 261-286) he defends the CP view of things against one popular line of questioning: "How does it square with the doctrine of the Resurrection.” To his credit he claims that, although he has philosophical problems with dualism, his view is one he thinks he can support Scripturally. He recognizes the difficulty in explaining how something can cease to exist and yet come back into existence, and he is not persuaded by arguments that the atoms fail to cease to exist (e.g., like Athenagoras’s response to the cannibal question answering it by claiming that human flesh cannot be digested!).
He offers an analogy that he thinks makes sense of the notion of ceasing to exist and then coming back into existence. He uses the idea of time travel to make his point. This idea, he admits, is rather “fanciful.” According to Merricks, if you get in the time machine in 1999 and “skip” ahead to, say, 2030, then you ceased to exist at that point in 1999 and then came back into existence in 2030. There is a “temporal gap” in your life. Merricks admits that many do not think it is possible to have said “temporal gap” (also, since you don’t “exist” then his doctrine should not be equated with a heresy known as “soul sleep”). Similarly, then, when we die we “jump ahead” in time and come back into existence on “Resurrection day.”
My purpose in this entry will be, mainly, to interact with some of Merrick’s critiques of the dualist views on death and the resurrection, as well as why he thinks his view answers those critiques better than the dualist, and so I will not spend much time addressing the time machine analogy (the reader can think about it further on his own). But, I will make a few brief points by way of reply. First, many people debate whether time travel is possible. Given the contradictions it generates, many think it is more “fanciful” than Merricks seems to think. At the level of generalities, there is no problem, but once analyzed it is difficult to show how time travel is intelligible. Thus, Merricks may well be using one seemingly problematic thing to explain another problematic thing. Secondly, it is not clear, to me at least, that the time traveler (assuming the notion is intelligible) ceases to exist while traveling to another time. Indeed, many models have the traveler traveling through time at an accelerated rate. Or perhaps going through worm holes, or through other dimensions. Third, if ceasing to exist and then existing is problematic, why think saying that this is what happens in time travel is something that would make the objector satisfied with the intelligibility of it? Surely if he thinks that it is generally impossible to cease to exist and then come back into existence, he will think it is impossible in the particular case of time travel! So, it isn’t clear to me that Merrick’s analogy doesn’t break down in relevant ways, or doesn’t beg the question. I should point out that I have not read any particular responses to Merrick's paper, and so any similarity my thoughts might have to others is coincidental. But, nothing I say is particularly unique. My thinking has been informed by many Christian thinkers, and so I thank them for their work if they see (assuming any are even reading!) any similarities between my thought and theirs.
As Merricks says, he bases his belief in the resurrection of his body on Scripture. It doesn’t depend on the time travel analogy. Merricks thinks that the physicalist view best makes sense of the biblical data regarding the resurrected body. His main argument is that the resurrection and eternal life seem to be tied together in various passages. He finds that it is dead people that are raised, not bodies. He finds that the hope of resurrection is just the believer’s hope of eternal life. This all makes sense because for the CP, “life after death and resurrection are, for physical organisms like us, one and the same thing” (ibid, p. 283). The dualist doesn’t believe, according to Merricks, that dead people are raised. Rather the dualist, according to Merricks, believes that dead bodies are raised and united with people. The CP view is more “natural,” then. If the CP is correct, and a person is identical with her body, then she cannot exist after her body dies. The resurrection is the raising of her, then. Thus, it is “part and parcel” of the promise of eternal life that one’s “original” body will itself be resurrected. Then, the numerical identity of the earthly body with the resurrected body “is just what the physicalist who believes in life after death would expect.”
It should be noted that these are Merricks’s concerns. For example, the holistic dualist would claim that “we” are “soul-body” composites. Thus it is appropriate, and proper, to say that it is indeed we who are resurrected. There is a very real sense that we are “not ourselves” in the intermediate state. It should also be noted that much of Merricks’s view of Scripture seems to be that the writers were speaking in philosophically precise language. The NT writers were not speaking with philosophical precision and the underlying metaphysics is usually underdetermined by the choice of words alone.
At this point in the chapter, Merricks turns his sites on the dualist. He asks why the dualist would expect a numerically identical body for his resurrection body. Won’t any body do? This all trades on what the biblical writers had in mind. One reason might be that it is our body-template that is redeemed. If this is a necessary aspect to our being it would not be possible to give us “another” template. Or, say it is the same historical body, molecules and all, that make up our resurrected body. One reason it could be the “same” might be that complete redemption would seem to be lacking somehow. If it is the case, will it not be redeemed? That is what Paul says (Rom. 8:23). It is precisely my body that is affected by sin, not some body. My infirmities and weaknesses of that surface time and time again in my bodyremind me of the curse of sin and its lingering affect. A full salvation then, it would seem, would require the salvation of my body. Indeed, this is Paul’s point. “[I]t is not until the body has been transformed that redemption can be said to be complete; in this life, our bodies share in that ‘frustration’ which characterizes this world as a whole” (Moo, Romans, p.521). Thus, it is my body that is given to me at the resurrection, all shiny and new, so to speak. Both views could be had by the dualist. So, if “our body” means “our body-template,” it is the “same” because it necessarily must be. If it is the same molecules (putting aside problems of the intelligibility of this), then it still must be because redemption would not be final. Various models are possible, but one thing seems certain, it is “our body” that is redeemed and this is linked to salvation. Thus if the correct exegesis is speaking about “historical molecules,” the dualist would still need to get those same molecules in order for redemption to be complete.
A more important objection, for Merricks, is that ‘death’ seems to be more intelligible on the CP hypothesis. We were created to have eternal life, so ceasing to exist is a bad thing. But,
It is not clear that the dualist can agree that death is bad. When a Christian dies, according to the dualist, he or she goes immediately to a much better place. Death for the believer, according to the dualist, is glorious union with the Father in Heaven. Death, it would seem, is even better than quitting your job and moving to a beachfront villa in Hawaii. I think this is a problem for the dualist. For I think the scriptures teach that death is a bad thing, a curse, an enemy; and an enemy defeated in resurrection. If physicalism is true, it is easy to see how bad death is and also how death is defeated in resurrection. But if dualism is true, it is hard to see how death is an enemy, and harder still to see how it is overcome in resurrection. (ibid, p.284).The first thing to note, by way of reply, is that Merricks quickly focuses on the believer. If we immediately go to heaven, then how is death bad? But before he focused in on the believer in particular, he was speaking about death in general. And since death for the unbeliever implies judgment and suffering God’s wrath, death isn’t better for them. Indeed, it would seem one could reverse Merricks claim by focusing on the unbelievers. If expediting being in God’s loving presence is good for the believer, then expediting being in God’s wrathful presence is bad for the unbeliever. Thus, Merrick’s claim is a wash. Merricks may, no doubt, reply that since they are, like a time machine, instantaneously ushered to judgment day, it’s not better for them. Recall that he said when we die we “jump ahead” in time and come back into existence on “Resurrection day.” But this undercuts his reasons against the dualist thinking death is bad in terms of the believer instantly going into God’s presence. For if he is correct that we, like a time machine, are transported almost instantly to the next time, then how does he critique not equally apply against him? I will come back to this point below and finish it.
Secondly, even though we will be in God’s presence, this isn’t the best scenario for us. I’ll offer three reason why this is so: (i) The first I already mentioned. As I argued above, salvation is not complete until we have our redeemed bodies (whatever this means). Having a redeemed body implies having the “same body” that was unredeemed. You don’t “by back” something you never had. (ii) There is good reason to believe that we will not be “all that we can be.” For example, Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline has argued (cf. Images of the Spirit, Baker, 1980) that the Bible presents three aspects of the imago Dei: Physical, official, and ethical. All three concerns us. First, our physical body images God, in an analogous way. Scripture tells us, using anthropomorphism, that God “sees.” That he has a hand and an arm by which he “acts” in the world. Our body reflects God’s power, in a finite way. Secondly, regarding the “official” aspect of the image, it is by means of this aspect that we image God in office. We are vicegerents, exercising dominion on the earth. Since the earth is physical, we carry this office out, in part, by using our bodies (we of course use our minds as well). And one could even make a more limited argument from the third aspect. Many of God’s laws are contextualized according to the way he made us, i.e., physical beings. According to how he created everything, there may be some natural laws or goods that are essential to existing in this kind of world and so require our physicality. (iii) Lastly, death is separation. Scriptures speak of death in two ways, spiritually and physically. Spiritually we are separated from our natural relationship with God. We need to be reconciled. This death can be remedied here and now. Regeneration is re-birth. But when we physically die our soul is separated from our body. This is unnatural since God made us to be embodied, and called our bodies good (and I have addressed arguments against why we should expect to have our earthly bodies back at the resurrection). So even though we will be with God, this will not be an ideal state. The ideal state is when we are born again and in glorified bodies. Resurrection ends the separation.
Merricks does not address the first two of these rebuttal points, but he does address the third. I will now turn to his arguments against (iii). Merricks offers two points by way of response. Neither are satisfactory answers, from my perspective. In regards to my final point Merrick’s first response grants that dualists can say that death as separation is bad, but physicalism still has it beat with respect to badness. He says,
To see this, imagine what you would say to a mourner at a Christian’s funeral if you and the mourner knew for certain that dualism were true. You could comfort the mourner by noting that now the deceased is in a better place and with the Lord. She is much happier than she was before death (happier, even, than she would be on a beach in Hawaii . . .). If, on the other hand, you hand the mourner knew for certain that physicalism were true, you would have only one comfort - the resurrection. You might say “For now, there is little to comfort you. But someday the dead will rise again.” Physicalism makes death all the worse and resurrection all the more glorious. This fits very well with scripture’s attitudes towards death and resurrection.This is inadequate as a response on several grounds:
1. Notice, again, Merricks speaks only of believers. And why think this state is ideal? That we are “floating around” in a state of unmitigated bliss. This state certainly isn’t the perfect state. It isn’t the final end, or goal to which we were created. We were created body-soul unities. And it also seems, according to some passages, that the saints in heaven are upset and perturbed as to what is going on here on earth.
2. Merricks seems to be switching subjects. He seemed to have been arguing that death was bad for the one who died. But his story seems to ask which view would be harder for the friends and family of the one who died. But this is oversimplified:
a) The cases may vary. Say that an elderly Christian woman dies. She has outlived most of her family. There’s not much left here for her. To be sure, we will mourn when she dies, but this is more so for us than it is for the believer. But we are also happy that she is with the Lord and possibly other family members. But, there may be times when the death is untimely. The person was taken “before his time.” Perhaps an infant dies of SIDS. This is devastating for parents. It isn’t realistic to suppose that you can just tell the parents “your child is with Jesus now” and the pain vanishes. As someone who has been through a wife suffering miscarriage, I can attest to this.
b) With respect to an unbeliever, if I were a friend or family member I would rather know (perhaps sinfully) that he or she was currently non-existent than to know that he or she were consciously enduring God’s wrath. In this sense, the dualist view offers the least consolation.
c) Perhaps Merricks switches subjects because the only people death could be “bad” for is living people? Since those who die are non-existent, then death isn’t bad for them. If this is so we have seen that once the question is analyzed, the dualist case is better. The reasons why death is bad for friends and relatives of believers can be had on dualism (e.g., their presence is still gone, we miss them, it was before their time, etc.,), and death is much worse for friends and family of non-believers on the dualist score because this comes with the knowledge (if we know them to be un-saved) that they are not enjoying things right now, to put it lightly.
3. If Merricks is not switching subjects, but only trying to show us his intuitions behind why it is in fact worse for the one who died, then this claim is likewise suspect. I give two reasons:
a) I would rather hold-off punishment as long as possible. So, death is worse for the unbeliever on the dualist picture. I deal below with the response that there really is no "holding off period" since the very next thing experienced is either blessing or cursing.
b) Why think death is supposed to be bad for the believer? I did make an argument showing how we could view death as bad for the believer. But if Merricks must have his “bad/badder” criteria, then death for the believer is still worse on dualist assumptions, even though it was never meant to be as bad as Merricks seems to want to make it. Given that I showed how death for the believer does not represent an ideal state of affairs, then this makes it worse for the believer than does non-existence.
On the “no-believer-exists” (NBE) model, how is death bad for them? What makes death bad for the individual? He doesn’t exist. How is he harmed? What is the nature of this harm? Who is the subject of this harm? Can one have harm without a subject? When does the harm take place? After the subject ceases to exist? If this is bad, then does physicalism have “more” evil in the world than the dualist?
Epicurus wrote to Menoeceus:
Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience, … Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer” (Epicurus’ “Letter to Menoeceus,” citied in Stephen E. Rosenbaum’s chapter “How to be Dead and not Care,” in “The Metaphysics of Death,” ed. John Martin Fischer, Stanford, 1993, p.121).Rosenbaum offers this argument on behalf of Epicurus:
[A] A state of affairs is bad for a person P only if P can experience it at some time.
[B] P’s being dead is bad for P only if it is a state of affairs that P can experience at some time.
[C] P can experience a state of affairs at some time only if it begins before P’s death.
[D] P’s being dead is not a state of affairs that begins before P’s death.
[E] P’s being dead is not a state of affairs that P can experience at some time.
[F] P’s being dead is not bad for P.
(ibid, pp. 121-122).
Thus, if the “badness” of the believer’s death was a (say) 1 out of 10, that beats the “badness” of the NBE’s death by 1. Therefore, if one must have the “more bad” death, the dualist has it.
4. Lastly, the dualist position seems to fit certain passages of Scripture better. For instance:
II Cor. 5:6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
CPs like Merricks have to view this as speaking phenomenologically. This is out of touch with most commentators and seems to be quite the stretch.
See also Daniel Block’s The Old Testament on Hell (cited in Hell Under Fire eds. Morgan and Peterson, Zondervan, 2004, pp 43-65) for exegesis of OT texts supporting the idea of an intermediate state.
The doctrine of the invisible church seems to imply the existence of many dead saints.
Heb. 12:22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
It is certainly odd to view this as saying the “spirits of righteous men made perfect” are non-existent while all the being surrounding this phrase are certainly existing! Indeed, it’s not clear how we “have come” to non-existent men. If something doesn’t exist, you can’t be there.
Phil. 1:20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Notice that in Philippians 1:21 death is called gain for the believer. This would seem to undercut Merrick’s idea that it must be “bad” is some kind of major sense.
In response, Merricks notes that passages like Philippians 1:21 “seem to support dualism over physicalism.” How does Merricks respond to this? He ventures that an answer might be “found in the story of the time machine.” His answer is that if he knew he was about to get in a time machine and the very next instant he would be at resurrection day, then he “would be quite excited.” Merricks claims that this gives him great comfort in knowing that the “very next thing” he experiences will be “death’s defeat.” Thus to die is to “jump ahead” to the Resurrection day, and so death is gain in a very real sense. In a very real sense he could think to himself “this day” you “will be with the Lord in paradise.”
Again, I find this answer unpersuasive. I will list a few reasons:
5. This response makes it unclear as to whether he thinks death is “bad” for the believer or the family members and friends. Much of his critique against the dualist is based on the idea that “death is bad.” But how did he mean this? It seems his answer to Philippians may support the notion that he doesn’t think death is all that “bad” for the believer. Indeed, he claims he would be “quite excited” about his death! So, perhaps he only thinks death is “bad” for the believer because it is “bad” for the believer’s friends and family. I have addressed this above. The reasons it is “bad” for friends and family are reasons that can equally be had by the dualist (I’m assuming certain tenants of Catholicism are wrong and the friends and family aren’t in “communication” with their dead family members!).
6. This answer seems to undercut one of his arguments against dualism. Recall that he had claimed, “It is not clear that the dualist can agree that death is bad. When a Christian dies, according to the dualist, he or she goes immediately to a much better place.” But his answer to Philippians 1:21 doesn’t seem much different. For all Merricks knows, he is immediately at a much better place. Phenomenologically, there’s no difference, then. What is the relevant difference, then? Both the dualist believer and the CP believer “experience” God’s presence “immediately.”
7. Indeed, one might claim that Merrick’s view is “better.” We can all remember what it was like to be children waiting for Christmas morning (some of us still may experience this!). Being conscious was almost torture. Waiting until that “glorious” day was more than we could bear. For me, I would try to get to bed early so morning would “come sooner.” If I had to wait for Christmas morning minute by minute, I might have burst! Likewise, assuming time is the same (!), waiting for our full salvation, perhaps for thousands and thousands of years (apologies to the Left Behind theologians), will be worse than “falling asleep’ and waking up to the Glorious morning! I don’t think Merrick’s view is better, this answer only seeks to answer him on his own grounds.
There is obviously much more that could be said in this debate. I do not suppose that I have shown that the CP position is false. I do think that the weight of the Scriptural evidence is on the side of the dualist. And, Merricks claims that the scientific and philosophical claims to the effect that dualism is “irrational or demonstrably false,” “are unjustified.” There is obviously much more that can (and will!) be said in this debate. For example, it seems particularly problematic to hold to both the Incarnation and a physicalist view of the person. It is not at all clear that Christ “ceased to exist” when he died. I Peter 3:18 “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” Given the unity of Christ’s person, and the constraints of orthodoxy, this seems like a tough hill to climb (though I am aware Merricks has written on this subject, interacting with his arguments will take us too far off course). So, my aim in this entry was not ambitious, I simply aimed to offer some dualist answers to Merrick’s critiques, and to offer some reasons why this dualist finds his program unsuccessful. Like Merricks, I also heartily recommend John Cooper’s Body, Soul & Life Everlasting as a good place to start studying this subject.