Robert A. Rucker is arguably the second best-known American scientist of a small klatch of fellow scientists proposing that radiation played a role in forming the images on the Shroud of Turin. He writes a lot of papers in support of this idea. “The Disappearance of Jesus’ Body,” Part 1 and Part 2 are among them. I found them troubling.

I like Bob. I met him in St. Louis in 2014. He’s a good guy, smart guy. But he wrote these two papers and I have much to say about them. The very first paragraph of part one reads:

The importance of God’s existence cannot be overstated; from its emphasis in “The Great Books of the Western World” to its foundational element in the rise of western civilization to the foundational documents of United States of America. When the United States’ “Declaration of Independence” refers to “Nature’s God” and says that “all men are created … by their Creator” and that the authors of the declaration were “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World … with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence”, they were not referring to the God of the Muslims, the Hindus, or any other non-Biblical religion. They were referring to the God of the Bible. This is made clear in our Constitution in the last paragraph in the dating of the document. . . .

The above paragraph segment is an unfortunate pop patriotic polemic. It is also an inaccurate picture of early American history. This, from the Encyclopedia Britannica is surely more accurate:

But the widespread existence in 18th-century America of a school of religious thought called Deism complicates the actual beliefs of the Founders. Drawing from the scientific and philosophical work of such figures as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Isaac Newton, and John Locke, Deists argued that human experience and rationality—rather than religious dogma and mystery—determine the validity of human beliefs. In his widely read The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine, the principal American exponent of Deism, called Christianity “a fable.” Paine, the protégé of Benjamin Franklin, denied “that the Almighty ever did communicate anything to man, by…speech,…language, or…vision.” Postulating a distant deity whom he called “Nature’s God” (a term also used in the Declaration of Independence), Paine declared in a “profession of faith”:

But even if Bob is correct, it’s a categorical error to try to wrap the disappearance of Jesus’ body in a stars and stripes narrative. I was going to hit delete but dinner wasn’t ready. I had a Shepherd’s Pie or was it a Lasagna wrapped in foil heating in the oven I decided to pour another glass of wine and read a bit more. Bob seems to be fighting a cultural war. In part two. which is mostly about science (sort of), which I will not examine in this posting, Bob writes, “This tendency [to call a miracle a miracle] must be resisted if at all possible because in our current culture of disbelief using the word miracle when interacting with scientists will almost invariably poison the discussion.”

Part one of Bob’s paper is mostly biblical. It continues:

But in our culture, there are many that attack the resurrection of Christ; arguing that it never happened – that it is not a true historical event.  This attack upon Christ’s resurrection usually argues that Christ’ resurrection violates the laws of science and is therefore impossible.  

Cultural wars are always about them versus us. But Christ, whether you believe he is fictional or really the Christ, is about open arms, open hearts and hopefully, I think, about open minds. Yes, we Christians get a lot of things wrong, like trying to separate the wheat from the chaff when that is not our task.

I differ with Bob because I believe in a multicultural God, a God who loves so much that he is Allah for the Muslims, the gods of the Hindus and the little statue of the people who think their god is made of clay and sits on a little stone altar deep in the jungle. The Cherokee Indians call Her Selu. And He wishes to be the sensibility of “our thoughts are with you” by those who don’t pray. And there are the Nones, the None-of-the-above crowd, as they call themselves. And there are the Christians like me who believes in a God who loves everyone without exception, a God who loves so much that he doesn’t prescribe that you or I believe in Him; or that we believe something particular about Him, Her or It.

As a Christian I do believe that God’s salvation comes from Christ. I believe in prayer, forgiveness and miracles. I believe in the Resurrection. But not entrance exams.

I prefer to think that what Bob calls an attack is better said to be a differences of opinion. My friend, an atheist, doubts that the resurrection is a historical event. Historian that he is, however, he recognizes that something important must have happened to give birth to a movement that profoundly influenced the course of history: world history, that is. I imagine that people of many faiths could and would agree with him. Then, too, a young lady who likes to think of herself in very contemporary terms as a “None,” believes in the resurrection of Christ as “meaningfulness” beyond anything physical or spiritual. “I could care less if it is physical or spiritual,” she told me. “The narrative shapes my life. I serve Christ. Isn’t that what matters?”

As for me, I am a small-o-orthodox, small-c-catholic Christian. I’m an Anglican to be precise, or as we say in the United States, Episcopalian. I’m high church which means I like incense and chimes and cross myself. I believe woman can be priests and that priests can be married. I believe that the Resurrection is impossible by way of the laws of nature. Nonetheless, I believe it happened, physically. It happened without the benefit of science. I think others believe in the Resurrection but not that it was physical.

I don’t doubt for a minute that among Christians there are many like me.

As I point out in my essay, Slouching Towards Emmaus and Some Nonsense Along the Way, a survey, just a few years ago, reports that about a third of American Catholics made it clear that belief in a physical resurrection was hard for them. Asked to respond to the statement, “Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead” only 68% said they strongly agreed. The percentage of Mainline Protestants was statistically the same at 67%. Evangelical Christians scored higher in this regard with 84%. The survey, “Portraits of American Life Study” (PALS) was conducted in 2006 by Michael O. Emerson of Rice University and David H. Sikkink of the University of Notre Dame with funding from their respective schools and the Lilly Endowment Fund. Are such statistics representative of wider world? I don’t know but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Ellen Painter Dollar, who writes frequently for Sojourners, Patheos, and Episcopal Cafe, has written a revealing article called Why We Need the Resurrection. It appears in the blog of St. James’s Episcopal Church of West Hartford, Connecticut. It reads, in part:

. . . But the resurrection is a hard sell. It looks an awful lot like wishful thinking. Dead bodies don’t just up and walk around, asking for breakfast and appearing in locked rooms. What really happened that Sunday morning?

Some say that the disciples experienced some kind of prolonged shared vision—not a hallucination that existed only in their minds, but a vision tangible enough, real enough, for disparate people to agree on what they were seeing and hearing. They saw and interacted with something real that looked and walked and talked like Jesus, that was Jesus, but was something other than Jesus’s cells and organs and protoplasm resuscitated from the grave. The resurrected Jesus’s body didn’t behave the way bodies usually do—take the locked room appearance, for example, or that he appeared to different people in different places around the same time. Scholars point out that when Paul defends the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he links his own experience of seeing a powerful vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus with the first disciples’ post-resurrection sightings, implying that he thinks they had the same sort of vision that he had, rather than an interaction with an actual dead body that was no longer dead.

Other theologians have said, no, it’s not that complicated. The resurrected Jesus was not some kind of vision. Jesus’s body was dead and lying in a grave, and then it was alive. Thomas put his hands into the wounds, after all. The resurrected Jesus ate, walked, and talked. Why would a vision need to eat? . . 

Back to Bob’s papers. He writes:

But the “laws of science” are not static things.  The laws of science, as they are currently defined, have a long history of development.  And our understanding of the laws of science will undoubtedly change in the future as we learn more about the mysteries all around us.  Part of the problem is in defining a “miracle” as a “violation of natural law”, coupled with the belief that the laws of science are known with absolute certainty and perfection so that they can never change, so that a miracle in this sense is a logical impossibility.  In this way, the skeptic does not need to prove that God does not exist; rather, the skeptic merely defines God out of existence. 

Why insist that a miracle is a violation of natural law?  For some reason we never seem to escape the long, dark shadow cast by David Hume. Why is that? 

Well, for one thing, as Bob argues in part two of his paper, one stipulation in the basic nature of science ought to be understood as “Science is based on a belief that every effect is brought about by a prior cause.”  

That will do it!

At the risk of heresy, I would instead say, “Reality is based on a belief that every effect is brought about by a prior cause as 1) in the laws of nature or 2) by a miracle which bypasses and, in every way imaginable, is unconnected to science and all its attributes.”  

When it comes to the Resurrection I believe option 2 and thus I very much doubt that the images were caused by radiation. It would take a lot to convince me otherwise.

In our minimal facts approach we will not consider the shroud, since it is not accepted as genuine by the vast majority of all scholars who study the subject.

Gary habermas & Michael Licona

Bob continues: 

The Christian concept of the laws of nature has always been that God, as the creator and sustainer of the universe, operates on a much higher plane than we do, so that He is able to do what He wants to, without regard to the status of our understanding of the laws of nature, restricted only by his own character and the rules of logic.  

Mostly, I agree with that. But I do wonder if the rules of logic are the same on God’s higher plane.

Bob continues:

Thus, it is wise to take a position of humility regarding our current state of science and admit that there are probably many new concepts, principles, and theories that are yet to be discovered in science.  This means that the eye-witness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection and post-resurrection appearances ought to be taken at face value, and thus recognize that these are real historical events.  They ought not to be rejected just because they contradict our current understanding of science.

Apples and oranges? Lasagna made with mashed potatoes and mushy peas?

Most of Bob’s part one is a precision exegetical run-through of the New Testament. A+ work from my perspective. Some of the conclusion is a bit difficult to understand. Consider this:

. . . It was concluded that at the resurrection, Jesus’ body underwent a basic transformation, a metamorphosis, from what Paul called a natural body to a spiritual body.  In his resurrected state of this spiritual body, spiritual things such as his soul and the Holy Spirit were in the ascendency over the limitations of our physical reality, so that by an exercise of his will He could do things that might appear to contradict the laws of nature as we now understand them.  Jesus’ “spiritual body” after his resurrection was still a body with the characteristics of a physical body such as weight, inertia, volume, etc., and could interact with his surroundings.  However, the new adjective, “spiritual”, means that as the result of the basic transformation of his resurrection, his resurrected body was no longer restricted by our normal limitations related to our physical reality, thus allowing him to exit the shroud and the tomb without disturbing either. . .

From Bob’s exegesis, I have concluded something else. I concluded that at the resurrection, Jesus’ body did not undergo any sort of transformation, metamorphosis, from what Paul called a natural body to a spiritual body. Instead, Jesus vanished from the tomb instantly. No flesh and blood, no matter at all, not even a molecule or an atom decomposed, dematerialized, or changed in any way. For at the moment of resurrection the body wasn’t there for that to happen or that it might give off radiation or particles or anything. It became a spiritual body in that instant: a body that cannot be seen or sensed or detected by anything in nature and is nowhere in space and time unless He wants to be. He can be wherever He wants whenever He wants, as physical as He wants, dressed as He wants, and recognizable as He wants. I don’t doubt that God is that powerful and that capable and has no need for chemistry or physics.

Bob imagines a miracle that is a process acting somehow in nature. I imagine a miracle without a process that takes place in zero time. As Alamo, a character in my essay puts it. “The measure of a miracle is the result,  not the way it happens. If you and I want cookies, we mix the ingredients and bake the mixture in an oven. . . . If God wants a cookie, a cookie exists. He doesn’t make it. He doesn’t bake it. It just is.”

Who is right? I don’t know.

Where are the Shroud’s images in this? If the Shroud is real — it could be — Bob has an imagined method. It’s radiation. I have an imagined method. It’s naturally formed images along the lines Ray Rogers was proposing. Discussions for another day!!!

A couple more perspectives are warranted. The late Hans Kung may well be my favorite. He was a prominent and popular Catholic theologian and priest, much respected by scholars and laymen of all Christian traditions. He had been Professor of Dogmatic and Ecumenical Studies at the University of Tubingen and a Visiting Professor at Chicago University. He held honorary degrees from several American universities and had lectured on numerous campuses worldwide. 

Since according to New Testament faith the raising is an act of God within God’s dimensions, it can not be a historical event in the strict sense: it is not an event which can be verified by historical science with the aid of historical methods. For the raising of Jesus is not a miracle violating the laws of nature, verifiable within the present world, not a supernatural intervention which can be located and dated in space and time. There was nothing to photograph or record…. But neither the raising itself nor the person raised can be apprehended, objectified, by historical methods. In this respect the question would demand too much of historical science – which, like the sciences of chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology or theology, never sees more than one aspect of the complex reality – since, on the basis of its own premises, it deliberately excludes the very reality which alone comes into question for a resurrection as also for creation and consummation: the reality of God. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a terrific paper by Hugh Farey, The Rational Resurrection and the Shroud of Turin (it is in a collection, so scroll down to page 2). You really should read the entire thing but if you have a casserole in the oven, at least read the following paragraphs:

In his monumental The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright, another Bishop of Durham, examines the Resurrection from every possible angle for seventeen chapters to establish that something really happened, before finally facing the question – what was it?

“The historical datum now before us is a widely held, consistently shaped and highly influential belief: that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. This belief was held by virtually all the early Christians for whom we have evidence. It was at the centre of their characteristic praxis, narrative, symbol and belief; it was the basis of their recognition of Jesus as Messiah and lord, their insistence that the creator god had inaugurated the long-awaited new age, and above all their hope for their own future bodily resurrection. The question we now face is obvious: what caused this belief in the resurrection of Jesus?”

Unfortunately, it turns out, we really have no idea. After all his investigation, Wright pins down two ‘facts’, the empty tomb, and the appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples, which together he considers “necessary and sufficient” for belief in the Resurrection, but of the scientific nature of these facts, such as how the tomb became empty, or the exact nature of the subsequent appearances, we remain ignorant. Actually, even these two necessary and sufficient facts can be queried. It is obvious that it would be necessary for Christ to be dead first, for example, and Gary Habermas, whom we will explore below, does not think the empty tomb can be asserted as confidently as Wright claims. Significantly for this essay, Wright does not adduce the Shroud of Turin as evidence. It is no more than an interesting side-issue.

Gary Habermas, in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, with Michael Licona, lists five “minimal facts,” which are “strongly evidenced” by primary sources and “granted by nearly all scholars […] even the skeptical ones.” His facts are that Jesus died, that his followers believed they had seen him, that St Paul, and also St James, were converted after initial skepticism, and (although as I mentioned this is not as fundamental a fact for Habermas and Licona as it is for Wright) the empty tomb. As before, no sure details of exactly what the disciples saw, or of the empty tomb, can be ascertained. That they saw something has to be enough in itself. Of the Shroud of Turin, although slightly more assured than the previous two experts, the authors say: “In our minimal facts approach we will not consider the shroud, since it is not accepted as genuine by the vast majority of all scholars who study the subject.”

William Lane Craig is another prominent apologist for the Resurrection, whose factual foundations are also the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus, coupled to the plain “fact of belief in the Resurrection”, although in terms of attempting to discover historical facts this is less relevant. The fact that early Christians believed in the Resurrection certainly supports the proposition that the Resurrection occurred, but it does not go far in telling us what actually happened. Craig, however, sets more store by the Shroud than other theologians, and although he is careful not to overcommit, it is clear that he thinks it is at least evidence of the occupied tomb, if not the risen Christ. He also attempts to specify more details about individual appearances, although is a little too selective of what he considers relevant information from the New Testament, for example omitting both the ‘Noli me tangere’ scene and the supper at Emmaus completely.

I’m not sure we can have a consensus definition for the Resurrection, much less figure out how the image was formed.

Thanks for reading. Please comment.

Coming soon: Part 2 scrutinized. I plan to call it A Priori Upside Down Cake, or something like that.