Resurrection: Who Are We After We Die?

As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in
the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know
the work of God who makes everything.
– Ecclesiastes 11:5
With all your science can you tell how it is, and whence it is,
that light comes into the soul?
– Henry David Thoreau
You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.
– Mark 16: 6

This year in our part of the Midwest, the Christian liturgical celebration of Holy Week and Easter fell exactly in rhythm with the emergence of the new life of Spring all around us. I spent the days attending services and consciously watching as new green leaves popped out of bare tree branches in the nearby woods, daffodils turned their friendly, trumpeted faces to the sun, hyacinths unfolded their fragrant petals, magnolia trees became magnificent floral displays, and forsythias turned into eye-catching flames of bright yellow against the deepening green grass fed by soft rain showers. Signs of resurrection were all around us as we pondered once again the Christian stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

I also was aware that for many of us who were formed within the Christian tradition, the meaning and significance of the Easter miracle has been thrown into question by the 13.7 billion year life story of our Universe. I have read a number of authors and theologians attempting to rethink the Jesus Story and its theological meaning alongside the new Universe Story – Diarmuid ÓMurchú, Cletus Wessels, Michael Morwood, and Judy Cannato are a few. For the most part, these authors still attempt to place Jesus in a unique category – as human and divine coming together in a once-only event that for me increasingly carries too much exclusivity as I come to know more and more of the historical experiences of the global human community.

This year, I also read during Holy Week and Easter a book by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, entitled, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem. Borg and Crossan met through their work as part of the Jesus Seminar.  In their book, they note that even the four Gospel writers, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, offer disparate pieces of the Resurrection story, with no story of Jesus’ being seen by his followers after his death appearing in more than one Gospel, which is in complete contrast to the many other stories taken from Jesus’ life that appear in similar form in at least three, and sometimes all four Gospels.

This year, as I thought about writing this post, I began to try to pull together some of the pieces of evidence around the concept of resurrection that have come to me over the years. It is a bit like pulling together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle without access to the picture of the scene on the cover of the box. I have no idea what I am making. I only have pieces that seem to fit together and point toward something new.

The first of these pieces has to do with the fact that the concept of resurrection seems to have made its way into human consciousness and religious culture in very ancient times. An explanation of resurrection on Wikipedia draws a connection between views held in ancient Greece and the teachings of one of the early Christian writers, St. Justin Matyr:

In ancient Greek religion a number of dead mortal men and women were made physically immortal as they were resurrected from the dead. Asclepius was killed by Zeus only to be resurrected and transformed into a major deity. Achilles after being killed was snatched from his funeral pyre by his divine mother Thetis and resurrected brought to an immortal existence….The parallel between these traditional beliefs and the later resurrection of Jesus was not lost on the early Christians, as Justin Martyr argued: “when we say … Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus. (1 Apol. 21). [http://www.answers.com/topic/resurrection. Accessed 4/17/10]

A number of years ago, my roommate became a hospice chaplain, and accompanied the dying in their final days in their home. She often returned from a workday with intriguing stories of dying patients being visited by their deceased parents or other relatives, and of care-giving children relating profound experiences as they accompanied their parents in their final days. We both began to wonder if the resurrection story of Jesus was not unlike the experiences of families in hospice – that somehow love is sometimes powerful enough to transcend death.

In recent years, we both became fans of the hit television show, Medium, based on the psychic experiences of Allison Dubois. Then one day, I saw the real Allison interviewed on a television talk show, and was profoundly moved by her comments. She spoke of coming to know that the deceased people with whom she interacts want most of all to continue to be present with those they loved in life and continue to love.  The insight triggered the title for one of Allison’s book, We Are Their Heaven, which I recently read. It is filled with compelling and heartwarming stories of Allison’s ability to see and communicate with deceased persons who want her to relate messages of love and care to their living relatives and loved ones.

A significant realization I had in reading Allison’s book was that the people who die remain in proximity to their living loved ones and also connect with deceased family members, and generally not with people they didn’t know. It gave me great comfort to know that perhaps after death we are not thrown into a great mass of humanity, made up of all the individuals who ever lived, but instead only connect to those who somehow were a part of us in life.

This realization reminded me of what today’s physicists say about experiments with particles at the quantum level. According to the scientists, if subatomic particles interact locally and then subsequently move very far apart, they must, no matter how far the distance between them, be conceived of and treated as one. The rules of quantum physics are such that even if the particles end up on opposite sides of our Universe, if something affects one of them, for example, by changing the direction of its spin, the other is affected in the same way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that the same thing that happens for quantum particles happens for people who come together in love?

Here are links to two of Allison’s interviews on YouTube which you may find of interest:

Allison Dubois: Communicating with the dead – YouTube Video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPO3T9DhQNc&NR=1

Allison DuBois “Are spirits bound to us?” – YouTube Video

http://www.youtube.com/watch#!v=bcLndHTNL_s&feature=related

In the end, we have only, as Michael Morwood suggests in his book, Praying a New Story, the knowledge that we have no knowledge at all of what happens to us when we die in a Universe billions of years old and unfathomably large:

Human death is the greatest mystery we face.  As Christians, we look to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus to throw light on the mystery for us. Death for Jesus was, as it will be for us, a dying into God: a transformation into a way of existence for which we have no images and no clear ideas of how it may happen (p. 78).

Morwood offers this observation on how we are to understand “heaven” in an unfathomably ancient and expanding Universe:

Our understanding of Jesus’ resurrection must be freed from the dualistic images in which Scripture and traditional Christian teaching have presented it.  God does not reside somewhere else, in a place called “heaven” that is above us somewhere.  In fact, there is no up or down any more when we consider our planet’s place in the universe (p. 78).

I have no reason not to believe in the resurrection, nor have I any reason not to believe that Jesus, who was obviously deeply emotionally connected to his followers, might “appear” in some fashion to those closest to him. It may be true that ancient humans gave rise to the concept out of their own experiences, fleeting though they might be, of the presence of their deceased loved ones. It may also be possible that Allison DuBois and others like her somehow have a talent, perhaps naturally embedded within the structure of their brain, that if taken seriously and developed intentionally can actually cross the divide between the living and dead.

As I continue to watch Spring’s new life emerge around me, I take great solace in the knowledge that the Earth and its generative powers will outlast me and, perhaps, somehow carry me and those I love to eternity.

Borg, M.J. and Crossan, M. (2006) The last week: What the gospels really teach about Jesus’s final days in Jerusalem. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Dubois, A. (2006).We are their heaven: Why the dead never leave us. New York, NY: Fireside.

Morwood, M. (2004) Praying a New Story. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

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