It’s Easter—that most pleasant of springtime holidays—when children stuff themselves with marshmallows and stain their fingers with pastel dyes. In reality, of course, Easter is about something darker and more fantastic. It’s a celebration of the final act of the Passion, in which Jesus rose from his tomb in his body three days after his execution, to reside in heaven with God. The Gospels insist on the veracity of this supernatural event. The risen Lord “ate barbecued fish [Luke] and walked through doors [John],” is how a friend of mine, an Episcopalian priest, puts it. This rising—the Resurrection—remains at the center of the Christian faith, the narrative climax of every creed. Jesus died and rose again so that all his followers could, eventually, do the same. This story has strained the credulity of even the most devoted believer. For, truly, it’s unbelievable.
Resurrection—the physical reality, not the metaphorical interpretation—puts everything we imagine about heaven to the test. My new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife, argues that while 80 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, few of us have the slightest clue about what we mean. Heaven, everyone agrees, is the good place you go after death, a reward for struggle and faithfulness on earth. In most of our popular conceptions, we have bodies in heaven: selves, consciousness, identity. We do things. People yearn for reunions in heaven with friends and relatives—and even with their pets. “I want to lay my head on Grandma Lucy’s lap,” the Christian memoirist Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in an essay. “I want to shell field peas with Fannie Belle and listen to Schubert with Earl.” Some people imagine heaven as the place where their most material yearnings are fulfilled. The evangelist Billy Graham once spoke of driving a yellow Cadillac in heaven; the heroine of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones eats peppermint ice cream; suicide bombers in the Middle East fantasize about the sexual ministrations of 72 dark-eyed virgins. In all these visions, embodiment is the crux of the matter. If you don’t have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for?
Despite the insistence of the most conservative branches of all three Western religions on resurrection as an incontrovertible fact, most of us are circumspect. The number of Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has dropped 10 points since 2003 to 70 percent, according to the most recent Harris poll; only 26 percent of Americans think that they’ll have bodies in heaven, according to a 1997 Time/CNN poll. Thanks to the growth here of Eastern religions, reincarnation—the belief that after death a soul returns to earth in another body—is gaining adherents. Nearly 30 percent of 2003 Harris poll respondents said they believed in reincarnation; of self-professed Christians, that number was 21 percent. Reincarnation and resurrection have, traditionally, been mutually exclusive. Among Christian conservatives, a private hope of reincarnation would be seen as not just illogical but heretical.
Cremation, once viewed as the ultimate desecration of the human body, an insult to God who makes the resurrection happen, will soon surpass burial as Americans’ preferred way to dispose of a corpse. Already, a third of Americans are cremated, not buried, and that trend line is headed straight up. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University and author of the forthcoming God Is Not One, believes that the rise in cremation is linked to a growing disregard for the doctrine of resurrection. “It seems fantastic and irrational that we’re going to have a body in heaven,” he says. Even the Roman Catholic Church has softened its stance on cremation: bodies are better, it said in 1997, but ashes will do in a pinch.
Resurrection presented credibility problems from the outset. Who, the Sadducees taunted Jesus, does the man who married seven wives in succession reside with in heaven? The subtext of their teasing is obvious: if the resurrection is true, as Jesus promised, then in heaven you must have your wife, and all the things that go along with wives: sex, arguments, dinner. Jesus responds in a typically cranky way: “You just don’t get it,” he says (my paraphrase). “You are wrong,” he said in Matthew’s Gospel, “because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”
Even in biblical times, resurrection deniers who hoped for an afterlife took an alternative route. This is what scholars call “the immortality of the soul.” Embraced by Plato and popular today especially among progressive believers (Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, for example) and people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” the immortality of the soul is easier to swallow than resurrection. After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot. This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon. Consolation was not the goal of Plato’s afterlife. Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the “green, green pastures” of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante’s cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run. Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy.
Another popular way out of the Easter conundrum—”I want to believe in heaven but can’t get my head around the revivification of human flesh”—is to imagine “resurrection” as a metaphor for something else: an inexplicable event, a new kind of life, the birth of the Christian community on earth, the renewal of a people, an individual’s spiritual rebirth, a bodiless ascension to God. Progressives frequently fall back on resurrection-as-metaphor, for it allows them to celebrate Easter while also expressing a reasonable agnosticism. They quote that great theological cop-out: “We cannot know what God has in store for us.”
The intellectual flabbiness of this approach causes agonies for such orthodox Christians as N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England. “People have been told so often that resurrection is just a metaphor,” he once told my editor Jon Meacham and me in an interview for this magazine. “In other words, [Jesus] went to heaven, whatever that means. And they’ve never realized that the word ‘resurrection’ simply didn’t mean that. If people [in the first century] had wanted to say that he died and went to heaven, they had perfectly good ways of saying that.” The whole point of the Christian story is that the Resurrection really happened, Wright insists. The disciples rolled back the rock on the third day, and Jesus’ body was gone. This insistence on the veracity of resurrection is no less sure in Judaism, where the Orthodox pray thrice a day to a God “who causes the dead to come to life,” or in Islam. “I swear by the day of resurrection!” proclaims the Quran. “Yes, Indeed!”
And so, the paradox. Resurrection may be unbelievable, but belief in a traditional heaven requires it. I think often of Jon D. Levenson, a Jewish scholar at Harvard Divinity School who hopes to bring the idea of resurrection back to mainstream Judaism, where it has been lost in practice for generations. I visited him one cold November afternoon because, as a literal-minded skeptic, I wanted him to explain to me how it works. How does God put bodies—burned in fire or pulverized in war—back together again? Levenson looked at me, eyes twinkling, and said, “It’s no use to ask, ‘If I had a lab at MIT, how would I try to resurrect a body?’ The belief in resurrection is more radical. It’s a supernatural event. It’s a special act of grace or of kindness on God’s part.” For my part, I don’t buy it. I do, however, leave the door open a crack for radical acts of grace and kindness—and for humbling ourselves before all that we don’t understand.