Possibility of resurrection

In an attempt to disprove the Aristotelian notion of reconstitution of a body as life after death, Peter van Inwagen gives an analogy of a burned manuscript. In his analogy, van Inwagen refers to monks claiming to have possession of an authentic original manuscript that was written by St Augustine, even though they also claim that this very manuscript was destroyed by fire many years ago. One of the monks in the analogy explains that although the manuscript was burnt, God collected the matter (atoms) that had originally constituted the manuscript and “reimpressed” it (caused the atoms to assume the same spatial and chemical relationship as they originally had). However, van Inwagen finds that this analogy is imperfect, as the reconstituted “manuscript” is not the original, as the atoms that make up the ink are not in place due to the actions of Augustine, but rather are there due to the actions of God. Van Inwagen likens this idea to a parent rebuilding a house of blocks identical to one that his daughter had built which he had inadvertently knocked down. Although similar (if not identical) in appearance, the new block house is not the one that the child had built.

Similarly, a man who has been destroyed cannot be collected on the atomic level and reassembled as the same man. Van Inwagen gives three arguments to further back this claim against the Aristotelian idea of resurrection. The first two arguments are directed towards Christians who are tempted to believe in the Aristotelian theory, and the third one is set forth to show that the consequences of the Aristotelian theory are impossible.

In his first argument, van Inwagen asserts that the atoms which make up man can be destroyed on the atomic and subatomic level. This would make it possible for an evil man to ensure that the matter that constitutes his atomic particles would be completely destroyed upon death, so as to escape God’s fury. However, according to Christian doctrine, it is impossible to hide from God’s wrath. Therefore, either we are incorrect as to the properties of matter or the Aristotelian view of reconstitution is completely inconsistent with Christianity. In his second argument, van Inwagen points out that the atoms that make up people might be atoms that had previously made up another person. This idea of atoms belonging to multiple people brings forth confusion as to who should be reconstituted when the day of resurrection arrives. Van Inwagen points out that an evil man could easily become a cannibal to ensure that he possesses atoms of many men, so as to cause such confusion that he would escape the wrath of God. However, once again, this idea is completely incompatible with Christian beliefs.

Finally, van Inwagen argues the total impossibility of Aristotelian resurrection by pointing out that it is possible that an adult male might have a completely different atomic makeup than he did as a boy. Thus, under the Aristotelian theory, it would be possible for God to resurrect the boy while the man is still living, which van Inwagen argues is a completely implausible concept.

Although he maintains that resurrection is possible, van Inwagen completely dismisses the Aristotelian concept of reconstitution as a plausible method to attain life after death. He does not offer a concrete answer as to how God accomplishes the feat of resurrection, stating only that perhaps at the moment of death God replaces man’s corpse with some sort of a stunt double, or perhaps God preserves the brain and central nervous system or some other particular portion of the body while maintaining the outward appearance of the corpse. The details, van Inwagen, asserts are not important. What is essential, he argues, is that God is capable of resurrecting the dead in some way or another.
Read “The Possibility of Resurrection“, a 1978 article by Peter van Inwagen.

 

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