Resurrection: Calculating the Probabilities

The end of the Gospel of Mark is, shall we say, indecisive. Mark’s account of the resurrection begins with the women going to anoint Jesus body and discovering the stone rolled away, Jesus’ body gone missing, and “a young man, dressed in a white robe” sitting in the tomb. This man tells them not to be alarmed, as if that’s possible under the circumstances, and announces that Jesus “has been raised.” The young man instructs them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Really? Our dead friend is arranging a meet-up via an angel-gram? I think I’d react the same way the women do in verse 8: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Here is the note that appears in my NRSV Bible at the end of verse 8, which is followed by one more verse, the so-called “shorter ending of Mark”:

Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. One authority concludes the book with the shorter ending; others include the shorter ending and then continue with verses 9-20. In most authorities verses 9-20 follow immediately after verse 8, though in some of these authorities the passage is marked as being doubtful.

I’m doubtful, too, but not because no one seems to know how the Gospel writer wanted to end his Gospel. But because doubt seems to be the reaction du jour. In the longer ending, we find out that the women break their silence, but those who are “mourning and weeping” for Jesus “would not believe it.” Mark tells us Jesus appeared to “two of them, as they were walking in the country.” But when they “told the rest,” again “they did not believe them.” This is completely understandable because resurrection cannot be considered part of normal experience, no matter what century you are living in. And yet the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection want us to believe in the reality of it, that Jesus appeared to them and they could experience his dead-yet-aliveness, normal human beings though they were.

Mystical Experience

In fact, or rather in truth, the Christian claim is that Jesus’ resurrection has made possible a new normal – a new Creation has begun and we are on the inside of it whether we believe in it or not. What might this new Creation be like? A possibility is found in a recent article, A Rationalist’s Mystic Moment, by Barbara Ehrenreich.  Ehrenreich declares herself to be a “hard-core” atheist, a stance “rooted in family tradition rather than adolescent rebellion.” She reports on the modern skeptical view of mystical experiences such as the women reported in Mark’s Gospel:

Of course all such experiences can be seen as symptoms of one sort or another, and that is the way psychiatry has traditionally disposed of the mystically adept… A recent paper from Harvard Medical School proposes that the revelations experienced by Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Paul can all be attributed to “primary or mood-disorder-associated psychotic disorders.”

Here’s how Ehrenreich describes a mystical experience that she was unprepared for: 

Photographer Matt Molloy

Photographer Matt Molloy

But something happened when I was 17 that shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle… Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.

… It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.  It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.

Like the women at the tomb, her experience stunned her into silence. She says that:

Of course I said nothing about this to anyone.

Since I recognized no deities, and even the notion of an “altered state of consciousness” was unavailable at the time, I was left with only one explanation: I had had a mental breakdown, ultimately explainable as a matter of chemical imbalances, overloaded circuits or identifiable psychological forces. There had been some sort of brief equipment failure, that was all, and I determined to pull myself together and put it behind me, going on to finish my formal education as a cellular immunologist and become a responsible, productive citizen.

An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter. It was my scientific training, oddly enough, that eventually nudged me to consider this possibility. Sometime in middle age… I decided that the insanity explanation may have been a cop-out, that I could have seen something that morning in Lone Pine.

If mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, as they have commonly been described, is it possible to find out what they are encounters with? Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena, internal to ourselves, but the merest chance that they may represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation.

What I hear the atheist Ehrenreich saying is that it is her scientific skepticism which forces her not to dismiss her mystical experience as something out of touch with reality. It wasn’t faith in the miraculous but healthy doubt in what passes for normal experience that led her to wonder if reality itself is something we have only barely begun to see clearly.

Perhaps this was the effect of the resurrection on the disciples: the experience of encountering the risen Christ completely altered their perception of what had until then passed for normal. Suddenly, and unbidden, they had their entire perception of reality turned on its head. The everyday became foolishness and appeared as that which is passing away. A new, more “heartbreakingly beautiful” reality had opened up for them and the boring, mundane world they had lived in before would never again be the same.

Quantum Physics

A similar altering of our perception of reality occurred in the realm of physics with the discovery of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics opened up the possibility that reality could be altered by a gaze coming from human eyes, something completely unpredictable starting from classical physics. But it turns out that at the subatomic level, particles exist somewhere is space and time, but that somewhere is, shall we say, indecisive. In the words of theoretical physicist and aerospace engineer Pablo Bandera, from his paper The Physics of a Miracle:

If we use quantum mechanics to calculate the position of a subatomic particle, the answer will be… something like, “there is a 50% probability of it being here, and a 50% probability of it being there.” … These two possibilities (or probabilities) define where the particle actually is at a particular moment in time.

Clearly, the possibility of actually being in two places at one time is outside the realm of our normal experience. This is because we normally operate at the macroscopic level where classical physics explains things perfectly well, the quantum effects being negligible on larger scales. However, here’s Bandera again:

There is nothing in classical physics that would suggest quantum mechanical behavior. The birth of quantum mechanics, therefore, was something unforeseeable, something radically new.

What does this have to do with the resurrection? You will recall that not only was the empty tomb a tough pill to swallow for the disciples, but the resurrected body of Christ was hard to recognize. It seems, as Bandera explains, that the resurrected body was a new type of physical reality that their, and our, normal experiences did not prepare them to see. The resurrected Christ was “something unforeseeable, something radically new.” Bandera offers this helpful analogy:

Imagine a two-dimensional world, in which all physical reality exists on the surface of a flat sheet of paper. There exist the concepts of length and area, but there is no notion of volume. Now suppose the birth of a new form of humanity opened up a third dimension for this world. For the first time it would be possible to observe, for example, a cube. What would an inhabitant of this previously two-dimensional world make of this strange object? In time, after studying its characteristics, the person may learn that, when projected a certain way onto a two-dimensional surface, the cube becomes the old familiar square. In other words, the person may eventually come to recognize the “squarisheness” of a cube. But his first impression of this six-sided object would certainly not be that it had anything to do with a square. The radical otherness of this new dimension would make it, at least at first, unrecognizable.

Bandera points out that the Gospels do not explain the failure of the disciples to recognize Jesus in terms of a changed or disguised appearance. They do not describe his appearance at all. Bandera observes what they do tell us: “It is rather something Jesus does or says that effectively opens their eyes.” What I think Bandera is suggesting is that Jesus had become a new Creation and only by connecting to bits and pieces of the pre-resurrection Jesus through his voice and familiar actions – his length and area, so to speak – were they able to recognize him in this new, unforeseeable manifestation.

A New Normal?

A gospel that ends with probabilities – it could end here or there or even over there – is perhaps the best representation of the new Creation that the resurrection brought into being. When an experience like that of the women at the tomb or Barbara Ehrenreich comes unbidden to us, one that defies the working of the world as we know it, rather than be fearful, or retreat into silence or disbelief, we might wonder if we are having an encounter with a dimension of reality that has heretofore been unrecognizable to us.

This Holy Week let us be filled with doubt in what passes for normal experience. It seems an important exercise for Christians to undertake because we are as tempted as anyone born in this age to explain away the resurrection as the result of a psychological imbalance or as a beautiful metaphor. For what emerges when we question the rational belief that the tomb could not have been empty? And what becomes visible when we doubt the evidence of our senses that universe does not blaze with a living substance? When we look at creation through Easter eyes, the impossible becomes probable, certainty dissolves into indecisiveness and we find ourselves involved as actors in a story that is still unfolding – a miracle truly worth calculating.

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