August 30, 2008

Quote(s) of the Day: A Pair of Responses to van Inwagen's "Body Snatching" Account of the Resurrection

Peter van Inwagen famously argued in his 1978 paper "The Possibility of Resurrection" that the only way God can bring a dead person back to life is to raise the very same body. However, if the body has decayed or been cremated, then it doesn't exist to be raised. Therefore, van Inwagen reasons, if Christianity is true, God must, at the moment of death (or immediately prior) surreptitiously remove the dead/dying body and spirit it away somewhere, replacing it with a simulacrum. Otherwise, there could be no afterlife. Unsurprisingly, this has met with some "incredulous stares." Here are a couple of good ones:

[T]he Christian materialist would surely do well to look for a better story than this. I once helped a friend with some of the more laborious steps in the process of taking a human corpse apart. Opening a human skull and finding a dead brain is sort of like opening the ground and finding a dinosaur skeleton. Of course it is in some sense possible that God takes our brains when we die and replaces them with stuff that looks for all the world like dead brains, just as it is possible that God created the world 6000 years ago and put dinosaur bones in the ground to test our faith in a slavishly literal reading of Genesis. But neither is particularly satisfying as a picture of how God actually does business. (Dean Zimmerman, "The Compatibility of Materialism and Survival: The 'Falling Elevator Model'", Faith and Philosophy 16 (1999): 194-212)

For the record, a footnote (which I have omitted above) explains that Zimmerman's friend "was not a mobster, but a student of anatomy." I'm glad that's been cleared up. Here's another:

Since van Inwagen's account has God involved in �body snatching,� family members actually bury or cremate illusions of loved ones and cannibals make virtual rather than real meals out of explorers, missionaries and anthropologists. This seems so bizarre that even the staunchest materialist, if he has any religious leanings, may be tempted to give dualism another hearing. (David B. Hershenov, "The Metaphysical Problem of Intermittent Existence and The Possibility of Resurrection," Faith and Philosophy 20 (2003): 24-36)

It should be noted that, as Zimmerman mentions elsewhere in his paper, that dualism won't necessarily save you, since there is good theological reason for believing that God raises the same body. What dualism does (supposedly) is allow God to raise the same person without having to raise the same body. Meanwhile, the Apostles' Creed affirms "the resurrection of the body" (Gr. sarx, Lat. 'carnis', both of which literally mean 'flesh'). Again, the Athanasian Creed says (v. 41) that "the dead shall rise again with their bodies" (emphasis added), implying that bodies rise. I am arguing from the creeds because I am being lazy right now and it is a little easier than arguing directly from Scripture, but I believe that a careful reading of 1 Corinthians 15 and other relevant passages yields the same result, so while "body snatching" is surely not the answer, substance dualism won't solve the problem either.

Posted by Kenny at August 30, 2008 7:46 PM
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Comments

I think van Inwagen's suggestion is crazy, but to be fair to him he doesn't say that this is the only way God could do this. He says it's a just-so-story to show the consistency of the metaphysical picture he holds and the biblical teaching on the resurrection. He doesn't insist that this is what God must actually do.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at September 1, 2008 7:55 PM

In the original paper from 1978, he DID say quite explicitly that he thought this was the ONLY way it could be done, although he never claimed to have an argument establishing the point, or to be very sure about it: "I take it that this story shows that the resurrection is a feat an almighty being could accomplish. I think this is the only way such a being could accomplish it. Perhaps I'm wrong, but that's of little importance." (p. 121) It's my understanding that when the piece was later included in a collection of his essays he wrote a postscript in which he backs off from this claim, but says that if there is any other way God could do it then the process is literally inconceivable to human beings. (I haven't actually seen the postscript, but that's how it's been presented in responses I've read.)

A semi-popular level paper on his web-site also backs off from the claim.

Posted by: Kenny at September 1, 2008 8:12 PM

I think the paper must have been at least partially re-written rather than just appended, because I don't remember the version I read in the anthology having any indication that he'd changed anything.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at September 1, 2008 8:42 PM

Kenny, you write "...there is good theological reason for believing that God raises the same body... 1 Corinthians 15...yields the same result..."

I just checked 1 Corinthians 15:35-44 and unless this translation is off base, it pretty plainly says just the reverse: you don't get the same body, not even the same kind of body.

In a more general argument, I reject theories that posit "God switched the body with a duplicate" or "God put fake dinosaur bones in the earth" or "God made light that only seems to come from distant stars". Deceiving isn't what I look for from God.

Posted by: Craig Ewert at September 12, 2008 1:47 AM

1 Corinthians 15 uses the image of a seed. A seed is, in one sense, the same organism, the same thing, as the plant it grows into, yet it is really radically different. For instance, it says in v. 44 "sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body." It does not say that the dead are 'sown' with natural bodies and raised with spiritual bodies, but rather that some implied 'it' is sown a natural body and raised a spiritual body (that's how the grammar works in the Greek; you could easily translate this verse in that way: "it is sown a natural body, but raised a spiritual body;" it could also be read as "a natural body is sown, but a spiritual body is raised," but even if we do this, the plant in the metaphor is still the body and not the person). Again in v. 53 he says "this corruptible must be clothed with incorruptibility and this mortal must be clothed in immortality." This, again, implies that the same body is raised - that the corruptible body is transformed into an incorruptible body.

In another example, when in 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul says "if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come," he doesn't mean that someone who becomes a Christian literally becomes a different person - if this was the case, then why should I care so much that that person goes to heaven if I am annihilated and replaced by him? Rather, he means that a person undergoes a radical transformation. Although 1 Corinthians 15, and other Bible passages, sometimes speak of a "new" body, it is difficult to interpret them in this way consistently throughout. It works better to suppose that a figure of speech similar to 2 Corinthians 5:17 is intended, and this is what the creeds also suppose.

Finally, I absolutely agree with your point about God as a deceiver, and I absolutely reject all of the theories you mention for this reason.

Posted by: Kenny at September 12, 2008 2:08 AM

I see we read Corinthians differently. A seed is the plant it grows into, in a sense, but in another sense it plainly is not. Much material is added to the acorn to make the oak, and some of the acorn was sloughed off.

As I see the metaphor, the seed in that passage is the soul, which is the important part, and the old body is sloughed off, and the new body made (or given).

Epistemically, I'm wary of trusting the creeds as you seem to. They can guide understanding, but they can't substitute for, nor countermand, direct reference to scripture.

Posted by: Craig Ewert at September 12, 2008 9:44 AM

The Creeds were developed with great effort and difficulty over a period of centuries by some of the best minds in Christian thought and were ultimately agreed upon as a "least common denominator" of the Christian faith. So, for me, it's not a matter of them substituting for direct interpretation of Scripture, and certainly not countermanding it. Rather, it is simply that I am very wary of interpreting Scripture in a way that disagrees with them for the simple reason that they were developed by the long, hard work of theologians and exegetes more talented and intelligent than I, and have subsequently been accepted by generations and generations of Christians, many of whom have again, been better theologians and exegetes than I. So their authority is not absolute, they are not infallible, they are only interpretations, but I'm not comfortable disagreeing with them without the very strongest of evidence from Scripture.

Returning to the actual interpretation of the passage, the seed cannot be the person. This is contradicted by Paul at several points beyond the ones I have already mentioned. For instance, v. 37 reads: "And as for what you sow - you are not sowing the future body, but only a seed." This implies that what is sown is the seed of the future body, not of the future person (mind-body composite).

Another point that should be made is that the context of this passage is the argument that the claim that we will be raised is credible if and only if Christ was raised - our resurrection is to be like Christ's. Christ's body was certainly radically transformed after his resurrection. Nevertheless, it is enormously important to the NT writers that (1) his body was not left in the tomb - the very same body got up and left - and (2) he still had his wounds. Both of these imply a very strong concern with Christ's resurrection body being numerically identical with his natural body.

Posted by: Kenny at September 12, 2008 12:33 PM

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