The article begins:
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. . . . 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.
Lisa, it turns out, is a skeptic, but as most Americans, she is fascinated about the afterlife. As she states:
While 80 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, few of us have the slightest clue about what we mean. . . . 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.With the popularity of Eastern religions in the West, 30% of people now report believing in reincarnation (2003 Harris poll). She mentions that cremation is also on the upswing with about 33% of Americans opting for that instead of burial. Historically, Christians have eschewed cremation as it was seen as a descration to the human body which they believed would one day be raised.
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."The main alternative to a resurrected body, going back to Plato, is the immortality of the soul. This concept, Lisa says, 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. She continues: 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.
She also has a chapter on the near-death experience (NDE) which has become a "proof" for some Christian apologists of life after death (see Dinesh D'Souza, Life After Death: The Evidence). She refers to the work of
Andrew Newberg an associate professor in the radiology department at the University of Pennsylvania who has made his reputation studying the brain scans of religious people (nuns and monks) who have ecstatic experiences as they meditate. He believes the "tunnel" and "light" phenomena can be explained easily. As your eyesight fades, you lose the peripheral areas first, he hypothesizes. "That's why you'd have a tunnel sensation." If you see a bright light, that could be the central part of the visual system shutting down last.
Newberg puts forward the following scenario, which, he emphasizes, is guesswork. When people die, two parts of the brain, which usually work in opposition to each other, act cooperatively. The sympathetic nervous system-a web of nerves and neurons running through the spinal cord and spread to virtually every organ in the body-is responsible for arousal and excitement. It gets you ready for action. The parasympathetic system-with which the sympathetic system is entwined-calms you down and rejuvenates you. In life, the turning on of one system prompts the shutting down of the other. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in when a car cuts you off on the highway; the parasympathetic system is in charge as you're falling asleep. But in the brains of people reporting mystical experiences-and, perhaps, in death-both systems are fully "on," giving a person the sensation both of slowing down, being "out of body," and of seeing things vividly, including memories of important people and past events.
This sounds like an excellent, easy to read book, which could serve as a good antidote to the all the fluff that is out there such as Heaven: My Father's House by Anne Graham Lotz (daughter of Billy Graham), as well as all the sensational books on the near death experience.
If one wants to make a ton of money, one should write a book on the afterlife. People are fascinated by the subject and many desperately wish to live on in some form after death.
For interesting views on heaven from a lot of different sources, Muslims, Secularists, Fundamentalists, Liberal Christians, and so forth, see the On Faith discussion in the Washington Post. At the bottom of the article, click on previous to read someone else's view of heaven.
Thanks to Cipher for pointing me to this video of Lisa Miller discussing her book: