On the Plausibility of the Resurrection

Perhaps the central miracle in Christianity is the death and resurrection of Christ. At first glance, such an event seems to push the boundaries of what is possible. On second thought, however, resurrections are frequently observed even today, or perhaps especially today.

Let’s first disclaim the possibility of anachronism. Notions of what constitute life and death have varied through the ages. Some Christian theologians have posited the death of Jesus might be non-literal, or it might be literal but according to some Jewish concept, rather than our conceptualizations of death as they are today. Those are interesting possibilities, but I’m going to take my chances with anachronism, because I consider using words in their ordinary sense as the simplest route to understanding, and therefore I prefer the simple approach as long as it is tenable.

In the medical community, death is typically defined as cessation of blood circulation and breathing. This may be called medical death, clinical death, cardiac death, or cardiovascular death. Consider that there is probably no field with such precise scientific and applied knowledge as medicine. There are few fields where practitioners are so well educated and definitions are so well conceived. Perhaps the only comparable field when it comes to cleanliness of applied definition would be law.

In both medicine and law there are plenty of cases of dead people returning to life, or having been literally dead in a way and also not literally dead in another way. Brain death is another conceptualization of death. It is commonly recognized that a person may suffer cardiac death without suffering brain death, and vice versa. The opposite case overlaps greatly with deep coma, where a person may have a well-functioning cardiovascular system and little to no brain activity.

With today’s technology, a person can be medically dead for a long period of time, and do many of the things we would normally associate with not being dead. Things like talking or eating. When a person stops breathing, we can resuscitate them with CPR or breathe for them using mechanical ventilation. When a person’s heart stops we can resuscitate them or use machine assistance techniques like cardiopulmonary bypass or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. There have been many recorded cases where a person temporarily suffers cardiac or brain death and later resuscitates, sometimes assisted by machine for significant periods of time before resuscitation, and sometimes resuscitating naturally with very little explanation on the part of observing medical staff.

Doctors have recorded cases people “who have been brought back, three, four, five hours after they’ve died…” It seems to me that Jesus’ resurrection is rightly regarded as amazing, but it shouldn’t be regarded as impossible. Practitioners today could easily induce a coma and resuscitate a person after a few days. I’m not sure if herbs and things could have accomplished that in Jesus’ day. Something like that is famously discussed in Romeo and Juliet, but I’m not sure if it was pure fiction or actually possible even in the time of Shakespeare. Perhaps it was atropa belladonna, also called deadly nightshade.

Another possibility is that Jesus may have had brain death and weak pulse. The pulse may have been weak enough for the Roman soldiers who would have checked him not to notice, but strong enough to sustain his body. I think brain death is not a lower standard than cardiac death for the purpose of theology.

Much of this discussion overlaps with the discussion on swoon theory, but I’m not arguing that Jesus merely fell unconscious and didn’t die. I’m arguing, rather, that sometimes the concept of coma and the concept of death overlap. Conceptualization of life is relevant to the discussion on the resurrection and also to discussion on abortion.

Please note that when I am discussing brain death I obviously don’t consider it to be irreversible. Brain death is often defined as the irreversible loss of brain function, but there are plenty of people who have been diagnosed as brain dead and later made partial or full cognitive recovery, weeks after diagnosis.

The armchair medical response is to say those people were misdiagnosed, but a more accurate and sophisticated answer seems to be that a flat EEG line, the standard way of diagnosing brain death, does not indicate irreversible loss of brain function. So when I referred earlier to brain death I was referring to the standard operationalization of brain death, lack of EEG activity, not some abstract, never-actually-observed, irreversible state.

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