GETTING RID OF THE BODY
or how Christians dispose of Christ’s mortal remains. Murderers and Christians share a common problem: they have an inconvenient body to get rid of. In the case of murderers, the inconvenience lies in the fact that the discovery of the body may fix the identity of the victim and the time and place of death, and it may bear contact traces, all of which may lead to discovery of the killer. In the case of Christians, the problem arises in the claims made for the risen Christ, namely that he has a physical body(John 20:24) and that body is not mortal in the ordinary way. In which case, why can’t we see him? Why isn’t Jesus still strutting his stuff?The difficulty raised by a living physical Jesus is that he would presumably have the same qualities he had in his earlier life. He would go up and down the world preaching his word and performing miracles, and his immortality would be convincing evidence of his claims with no need for all that “faith” stuff with the risk of getting it wrong and incurring eternal damnation simply because one sincerely finds the arguments and evidence unconvincing. However, this version of Jesus is incompatible with actual history. In the real world, Christians fellout and slaughtered each other for about 130 years in European religious wars over points of doctrine that a physical Jesus could have sorted out in minutes with a few words of clarification. Strictly speaking, a heavenly Jesus could have done the same, but messages from an invisible heavenly messenger that we hear only in our heads as individuals have proved to be more ambiguous than those delivered to everyone on television. And alleged divine revelations delivered by surrogates are ultimately just blokes expressing their opinions and they seem to have contributed to the conflicts rather than solved them. In contrast,it seems that,if Jesus is out of sight, we are less inclined to pose such questions and meekly accept that he is occupied with some other agenda we only dimly understand, whereas, in the flesh, such questions are unavoidable. Can you imagine a physical,immortal Jesus being interviewed before a live studio audience? How could the interviewer avoid asking why he didn’t intervene to stop the murder of six million Jews or,at the very least, state in clear terms that the Holocaust was a Bad Thing?No, it won’t do.An available,physical, immortal Jesus is an embarrassment. It is absolutely essential for Christianity’s survival that Christians get rid of the body.If the physical continuation of the risen and immortal Jesus would cause unacceptable problems, there were two possible solutions for the early narrators of the Christian story. The first was to leave his earthly fate as a mystery. The second was to devise an explanation by which the physical body was removed by means other than death. This second solution is called the Ascension and is the one adopted by most branches of Christianity.Each solution has its difficulties. The “mystery” solution is problematic for those of us who are temperamentally uncomfortable with mysteries, especially when they are capable of clarification –by God in this case –but no clarification is forthcoming. It also invites speculation that Jesus ultimately died in the ordinary way, perhaps of his crucifixion injuries, and so was not divine at all. And, of course, the longer history continues in its chaotic fashion, the more it provokes us to ask why God, through the physical Jesus has not manifested himself to put it right. This question, raised at the beginning of the present essay, was not so acute during the first generation of Jesus’s followers
because it was their expectation that Jesus was going to manifest himself during their lifetimes (John 21:23).However, he didn’t.The “Ascension” solution also has its problems. Conceptually it does not make sense. What exactly are we to envisage? The verb “ascend” means to go up, and it is so understood in Christian art (not least by Rembrandt) which depicts Jesus physically rising into the clouds. However, this image is based on a flat–Earth model with Heaven above, Earth in the Middle and Hell below. But we know that Heaven is not “above”. Indeed, it does not stand in any spatial relationship to Earth. If it exists at all, it is in a wholly different reality. It makes no more sense to talk of “ascending” to Heaven than it does to speak of descending or moving sideways or in a circle. So, if the Ascension is to be understood as an event attended by witnesses, what exactly did they see? Surely it would be more accurate to say that Jesus vanished before their eyes? But that isn’t what the text says.Christianity makes a great play of the significance of “faith”. The full argument on this subject is outside the scope of this essay, but one obvious difficulty is that humanity has “faith” in contradictory religious propositions. By what rules are we supposed to determine which “faith” is superior i.e. more truthful? One much adopted solution, popular to this day, is to kill the other guy in order to stop him from troubling us with doubts. Life has taught us that trying to persuade him to abandon his faith for ours is largely a shouting match and a waste of time.The main instruments we have for determining truth are evidence and logic. They are not infallible, but they are open to testing and correction. Faith nevertheless has a role:it fills in the gaps where, for the time being at least, evidence is lacking or ambiguous. It also applies to the degree of confidence we may have in the inferences we draw from evidence. However, the role of scientific faith is essentially secondary and never infallible. If the state of the evidence changes, the inferences drawn from it also change to be consistent with the new situation. The old notions are modified or abandoned. Only rarely is anyone killed.Faith cannot contradict evidence.Many theological statements, insofar as they are true at all, can only be known as a matter of faith. For example, the statement in Mark 14:19, that Jesus sits on the right hand of God in a reality beyond our own, is incapable of either proof or disproof by direct evidence (always assuming Jesus actually existed in the first place –which is assumed for the present purpose). One can only argue that it is unreasonable to hold such a belief.There are non–theological statements of the same conceptual type. Belief inan invisible Santa Claus is one. It is cultural preference, not logical dissimilarity or the state of the evidence (non–existent in both cases)that makes us treat the first belief as serious and the second as absurd.The Ascension does not fall into the class of propositions intrinsically dependent on faith. It is understood as an actual event occurring in this world at a definite time and place and with witnesses in attendance. It is a classic issue of fact that can and should be decided by consideration of the evidence, applying the same rules as are applied in deciding other issues of fact.In applying the laws of evidence,two points are particularly important. The first is the principle that the more improbable the statement in question, the stronger the evidence must be. An example: If my secretary said that an expected visitor was waiting for me in her office, I would certainly be inclined to believe her. If she said that a fire–breathing dragon was there, I would have a few doubts and search for an alternative explanation: no dragon, just a joke (ha, ha, close the door as you leave). The second principle is that we should examine not only the evidence that is available, but the evidence that should be available but isn’t. We should ask: why is this evidence not provided?