Reflections on an empty tomb

Resurrection of the body is an incoherent idea. But the immortality of a bodiless soul isn’t much better. What survives of us is the mark we leave on the world we have lived in.

Mike’s right, of course: the resurrection of the body isn’t really a coherent idea even putting aside the somewhat obscene question with which (according to the synoptic Gospels, e.g. Matt. 22:23-30) the Sadducees tried to trap R. Joshua.

Our bodies have been “designed” under evolutionary pressure to survive, obtain nutrition, and reproduce, all of which are pointless after death. Obtaining information, which Mike lists as in some sense the greatest and inexhaustible pleasure, is reinforcing because it helps the three primary goals. But even if the finite size of the brain did not put a limit on the acquisition of knowledge, what would be the point?

In our intellectual as in our material or sensual pursuits, we are like the dog chasing the car: the chase is fun, but what are we going to do with it if we catch it? Hobbes provided the definitive refutation of the idea of attaining, rather than seeking, the good: “Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he, whose senses and imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the later.” (Leviathan, Ch. 11)

So the idea of resurrection of the body doesn’t really stand up to close logical analysis. But the resurrection of the “soul” really isn’t much better. As Aristotle points out, each of the senses has its organ, but the organ of the psyche is the whole body: not only the entire sensorium, but various forms of proprioception, plus the endocrine system that regulates, among other things, emotion. What would a disembodied soul experience, with no body to provide sensation? Mystical bliss, perhaps? But that leads to a rather Zen-like question: what would be doing the experiencing?

The “soul” &#8212 the “aliveness” of a plant or animal &#8212 is (as I think Plato means us to understand) a relationship among its parts that keeps that organism living, as the attunement of a lyre is a relationship among its strings that makes it harmonious. To ask whether the soul survives the decomposition body is like asking whether the attunement survives the burning of the lyre, or where the flame of the candle goes when the wick and and the tallow have been consumed.

It’s natural, in evolutionary terms, to fear death. And it’s equally natural to find comfort in the idea that death is not final. But what survives of us in the world is surely the effects of our having lived: actions taken, children raised, students taught, words spoken or written, art created. As the (probably mythical, but certainly undying) Lao-tse said (Tao-te Ching, 33), “Whoever can die but not vanish may truly said to be immortal.”

If the thoughts of Jesus of Nazareth are alive in the world, then does it really matter whether his tomb was empty? “How shall we bury you?” said Phaedo to Socrates. “However you please,” he replied. “But you will have to catch me first.”

That said: If you are one who will awake tomorrow morning and say, “He is risen,” shalom aleichem.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: