Religion Today

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The Biology of Bodily Resurrection

Beginning with the teachings of Jesus, Christianity has promised the resurrection of each believer in his or her own body.

In contrast to fearful Greek notions of the dead having a marginal existence in a shadowy Hades, the Christian afterlife is desirable. It is a joyful reanimation in a working body, with a mind and consciousness. This happens in a desirable place called heaven and in the company of one’s resurrected friends and relatives.

In Christian belief, this attractive scenario can be accessed only by true believers. Evil people who lack salvation will receive punishment instead.

Pop culture plays with different notions of what it means for a body to be resurrected. Ghosts, for example, have an ethereal resurrection linking personality to an incorporeal body. Ideas about ghosts go back centuries but, rather than being discarded as old fashioned, each generation reshapes them. Think of the ghosts in the popular Harry Potter series, ghosts’ roles in horror films and TV series featuring ghost hunters.

More recently, zombies have become a key entertainment. A zombie is a body reanimated in its decayed form -- usually without much brain or personality. While storytellers give zombies different characteristics, their motivating force seems to be hunger -- for “brains.”

Of course, ghosts and zombies are this-worldly, but they provide models for thinking about heavenly resurrection. And, these models are useful, for their repulsive character helps us identify what would not be desirable as heavenly resurrection.

By contrast, since 2000, biologists have provided new insights about the human body that could impact our understanding of heavenly resurrection. When the human genome was sequenced in 2003, scientists learned that there were approximately 22,000 different genes in the human body.

Continued study of genes in humans revealed that we carry around another 3.3 million genes. These belong not to our bodies, but to the microbes that have inhabited us from birth. From our mouths to our large intestines, from our skin to our sexual organs, colonies of microorganisms live in us. This is termed the human biome.

We can thus conceive of the human body as a superorganism. It is not a single entity, but a collection of multiple organisms that work together for the well-being of the whole.

We also can think of the human body as a walking environment, carrying around many habitats to which different living creatures have become adapted.

Although our understanding of the role of microbes in the human body is in its infancy, it is clear that some microbes simply live in the body without having any significant impact on it. But other microbes have a mutualistic relationship with their bodily surroundings.

The microbiome of the human large intestine contains an entire community of microbes. Some of these break down food into nutrients our bodies can absorb. Others synthesize from food vitamins B and K, which the body needs and cannot produce on its own.

Microbes in our mouths help the body recognize dangerous microbes and even produce anti-inflammatory chemicals to fight microbes that can cause disease.

The presence or absence of particular microbes in our gut impacts our central nervous system, causing or relieving anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorders. They even affect brain functions, including memory.

In other words, from digestion and nutrition to disease prevention to mental function, the human microbiome is essential to the body’s proper function.
So here is the question: When God resurrects each human body, will its microbiome be resurrected with it?

If not, if the body alone is resurrected, then how will the body be able to function? A body will need to eat to have the energy to move about, to think and function, to enjoy the company of relatives and the heavenly experience. Without the microbiome, the body will not be able to digest food to provide energy.

Some people might object that the resurrected body will not eat. But, if this is the case, then it will not function as a real body. It won’t be a bodily resurrection; a real body cannot function without food.

If one’s microbiome is resurrected with his or her body, then not only humans will undergo resurrection, but mindless, thoughtless creatures also will receive the blessing of resurrection. They are not believers, not true Christians, not capable of hearing the gospel let alone receiving it. So God would bring beings incapable of salvation into a realm reserved for the saved.

Or, perhaps, the newly resurrected individuals acquire a microbiome in the same way newborn babies acquire theirs, namely, from the environment around them. That would mean that microbes -- millions of different microbes -- live in heaven to support its resurrected human inhabitants.

What is the answer? No one knows. We cannot see beyond the veil. But the implication that humans are not a single entity, but host to necessary creatures that help our bodies function, have interesting implications for Christian belief and theology.


Note: Thanks to the following: NIH (National Institutes of Health) Human Microbiome Project (hmpdacc.org); Learn.Genetics (learn.genetics.utah.edu); “Human microbiota” (Wikipedia); and Luke K. Ursell et al., “Defining the Human Microbiome” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3426293/).

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Coffin of Archbishop Bancroft and the King James Bible

Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, England, is the center of the worldwide Anglican Church -- the third largest Christian organization in the world. But since the Anglican Church also is the official Church of England, there is a business office -- a residence called Lambeth Palace -- across the Thames River from London’s Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. And next to Lambeth Palace is an old medieval church known as “St. Mary at Lambeth,” where, for centuries, the archbishops of Canterbury and their families worshipped when they were in London.

It was announced this Easter weekend that the missing remains of five archbishops had been discovered in a crypt beneath the church. One of these archbishops was Richard Bancroft, who was archbishop from 1604 to his death in 1610. He was the “chief overseer” of the King James Bible.

The St. Mary’s crypt was discovered during renovations to the church that have been carried out since 2015. The crypt was not disturbed, but a remote camera on a pole was stuck into the tomb through a hole in the wall. Bancroft’s coffin was not alone, but accompanied by 30 other lead coffins, several of which contained the remains of later archbishops.

Bancroft was perhaps the most important figure in the creation of the King James Bible. To begin with, James became king of England in 1603, after being born the king of Scotland. He was raised and educated within the Calvinist Scottish church. At this time, the Church of England was undergoing difficult and protracted internal debates between the traditional churchmen and the Puritans.

The Puritans were heavily influenced by Calvinism, like England’s new king. They hoped he would be an ally in their attempts to reform the Church of England and petitioned him, as the church’s head, to institute key changes.

James convened the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604 to address their concerns. It was not a success for the Puritans. Bancroft, who was then bishop of London, was widely known as a fierce opponent of the Puritans. He helped persuade the king to reject the Puritan calls for church reform.

But James shared one desire with the Puritans, which he granted. That was their request for a new, “authorized” translation of the Bible. But, even as he acceded to their request, he added a twist: James put the anti-Puritan Bancroft in charge of the project.

King James hated the Calvinist Geneva Bible with a passion, widely used among Puritans. The source of that hatred was that it included interpretative notes, many of which expressed anti-monarchical ideas. Since James believed strongly in the divine right of kings to rule their subjects, these were especially infuriating. The new Bible, he made clear, would have no notes, just translation.

Archbishop Bancroft pioneered a new approach to Bible translation, one which helped the translation overcome the political and religious conflict in which the project was conceived. Earlier translations had essentially been done by individuals, without consultation or review. Bancroft brought together 47 experts in biblical studies from Oxford, Cambridge and London. Here, he was surprisingly even-handed, bringing in the best scholars whether they were establishment or Puritan.

Bancroft divided the experts into six companies: three for the Old Testament, two for the New Testament and one for the Apocrypha. There were multiple levels of review, with himself having the final say. This ensured that the translation was both accurate and pleasant to hear.

This last goal was important, for nearly all England agreed that the last official Bible translation of the church, known as the Bishop’s Bible, was plodding, dull and uninspired. The churchmen did not like it, and the people who listened to it every Sunday found it boring. To have any chance of success among the people, the King James Bible needed attractive prose.

And, by all accounts, the King James Bible succeeded. Within 50 years, its “majesty of style” made it the widest circulating English Bible. It traveled to the American colonies, where it was frequently reprinted. For more than 300 years, it was the main Bible used in the English language, and no other Protestant Bible could compete with it.


Archbishop Bancroft, whose burial site we now know, was a partisan bulldog for the Church of England establishment. Yet he guided the creation of a new Bible translation that lasted for more than four centuries and was accepted by most branches of Protestant Christianity.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Businesses, Sports and Public Debates Over National Moral Character

This week saw the end of one boycott and the start of another.

In North Carolina, months after the boycott by businesses and the NCAA began over the state’s anti-transgender “bathroom bill,” the Legislature passed a bill removing the restrictions, the governor signed it, and the NCAA removed its ban on holding tournaments in the state.

In New York, as Fox host and commentator Bill O’Reilly settled five cases of sexual harassment, and new charges were made, his show’s advertising supporters finally took notice. Five top-flight auto manufacturers, three health care companies and Allstate Insurance have withdrawn their advertising from his show. More may follow.

Since the start of the national debate over gay marriage specifically and LGBTA rights in general, national and international businesses have become vocal about their positions on political issues -- especially in states and shows attracting national news. CEOs from Apple, PayPal, Yelp and Eli Lilly weighed in on Indiana’s 2015 law permitting discrimination against gays. The NFL and the NBA are warning Texas over its own proposed bathroom bill. And, back in 2010, popular rock bands canceled concerts in Arizona over that state’s extreme anti-immigrant legislation.

Of course, it is common for businesses, sports groups and celebrities to defend their interests and those of their customers and fans. But, usually that is done with regard to issues related to their areas of activity. Coal and oil companies lobby about energy legislation, for example. Popular singers lobby for copyright enforcement and anti-pirating legislation.

But, this is different. Companies have realized that their national image is at stake; their brand value can be compromised by being associated with particular positions in debates over social issues. They want to choose their positions proactively, not have perceptions or misperceptions attached to them.

So, companies have taken stands to make their positions clear and protect their brands. When Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, Apple, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Ford and Motorola ended their sponsorship of the party’s national convention. They did not want to be associated with the inflammatory character of then-candidate “Trump’s statements about women, immigrants and minorities,” as Apple CEO Tim Cook put it.

While businesses have become more involved in social debates, their involvement tends to focus on one-off events or pieces of legislation. It is usually short-term, either avoiding a particular event or campaigning against a specific bill. Most find it difficult to sustain actions like a boycott over long periods of time.
Sports leagues have taken a prominent role in some of these debates. The decision by the NCAA to stop all tournaments in North Carolina because of its bathroom bill played a key role in rolling back that bill’s restrictions. Once state businesses made clear the economic and social impact the NCAA’s decision would have, the Legislature reluctantly made changes -- enough for the NCAA to rescind its ban.

When Arizona passed a law allowing discrimination against LGBTA people in 2014, the NFL threatened to move the upcoming Super Bowl to another state. Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill.

The power of sports leagues in combating state-sponsored discrimination comes in part from their fans, and those fans are families. From young children to doting grandparents, families participate in, root for and follow sports. From pee-wee leagues to high school and college games to professional teams, sports in America comprises a family activity. Leagues want to be seen as inclusive of everyone and exclude no one. It is an essential part of their all-American image. Businesses that manufacture products or provide services simply lack that kind of loyal and across-the-board following.

The only other major, national institution that consists of such a broad-based family culture are churches. Indeed, it almost goes without saying that religions -- both Christian and non-Christian -- are family based. They provide services for families and their members from birth (e.g., baptism) through marriage to death.

Finally, many religious movements, such as evangelical Christianity, and on some issues Catholicism, have joined the conservative wing of the Republican party. Ironically, it is conservative and often religious Republican legislators who have passed the discriminatory social legislation that sports leagues like the NCAA and the NFL have lobbied against. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the two family-oriented institutions -- sports and churches -- share many of the same followers.

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The Restoration of Jesus’ Tomb is Completed

Although Easter Sunday is not until April 16, perhaps the most important moment in this year’s Christian calendar is Wednesday, March 22.

For this is the day on which the restored Edicule -- the structure housing the Tomb of Christ -- was opened to the public with a celebration that included key representatives of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The celebration does not commemorate a religious or spiritual event, but an achievement of engineering, architectural restoration and art historical conservation.

The restoration was undertaken not by celibate priests or monks, but by a team of academics, scientists and specially trained engineers and construction workers who have worked diligently for the last year to complete the work before this Easter. The team was led by Antonia Moropoulou and came from the National Technical University of Athens, where she is the vice rector of academic affairs and an expert in the restoration of ancient monuments.

The cost of the project was more than $4 million and was funded by people and organizations from different religious and nonreligious backgrounds. The New York-based World Monuments Fund (WMF) took the lead, but money was donated by King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (both Muslims); each of the three Christian churches who control the tomb -- Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox -- as well as WMF Trustee Mica Ertegun, the widow of the founder of Atlantic Records.

To state the point bluntly, the restoration of the Edicule over Jesus’ tomb came about through the cooperative efforts of Christians, Muslims, and secular organizations and individuals. And, the participation of all was necessary for its successful completion.

The Edicule is a small structure within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is believed to cover the remains of the tomb in which Jesus was laid by his disciples after he was taken down from the cross, which, in turn, means that this was the tomb in which he rose from the dead. In Christian theology, then, the act that ensured the availability of salvation for all Christians took place right here.

This traditional location for Jesus’ tomb was identified in 326 by Queen Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine. It was hidden underneath a temple to the goddess Aphrodite. As part of Constantine’s promotion of Christianity in the empire, the temple was removed and a church built on the site.

The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre goes back to the Crusader church built in the 12th century. The Edicule over Christ’s tomb is known from that time, although it was rebuilt several times since then.

The present Edicule was built in 1810, incorporating remains from the previous one that had been damaged in a fire in 1808. It was fine for about a century and was then damaged by an earthquake. It became increasingly unsafe.

When the three churches in charge of it could not agree upon repairs, the British Mandate government stepped in and erected a structure of metal girders and cables around it to prevent it from falling down. It was quite ugly, but allowed pilgrims to continue to enter the tomb’s shrine within the Edicule.

And, so, the Edicule remained. Even when the entire Church of the Holy Sepulchre underwent restoration a decade ago, the Edicule remained untouched. But, when the Israel Antiquities Authority ordered it temporarily closed in 2015 for safety reasons, something had to be done to protect the worshippers.

That was when the current project got underway. After a study of the structure in March 2016, work began that May and was announced as completed just this past week.

Pilgrims primarily concern themselves with spiritual matters, but someone needs to ensure their physical safety. It took international and multi-religious cooperation to ensure that. And, in the end, it was mundane engineering and scientific expertise that restored this site of holiness and prayer to its former, safe magnificence.

Pictured here is the Edicule over Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre before this year’s restoration. (Paul V.M. Flesher Photo)

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