I’ve focussed my last two posts regarding the debate on "Q and A" (here and here) on Professor Richard Dawkins more than Cardinal George Pell. For this final post I would like to suggest where I would have answered differently to Pell on a couple of points.
Can an atheist go to heaven?
At one point, Cardinal Pell was asked this question. Pell firstly tried to avoid the question, and then once pressed answered “Certainly”. I would like to suggest, firstly, that I would not have avoided this question myself as it provided a great opportunity for Pell to share a positive message about Christianity. Secondly, I would suggest that I agree with his answer, but I would want to qualify it. Admittedly, Pell wasn’t given the opportunity to do so, but neither did he press for one either. The way I would answer this question I’ve summarised as “optimistic exclusivism” – that is, I believe it is only possible to be saved by Jesus Christ (hence the ‘exclusivism’), but the way to Jesus Christ is open to methods I cannot even dream of (hence the ‘optimism’). I’ve written more extensively on here, so I’ll refer you there and leave it at that for now. Except to say, I'm even optimistic enough to hope that I will see Richard Dawkins himself there. I'm not sure who would be the most surprised, though!
The Resurrection of the Body
This was the point in the show when I was desperately holding myself in my seat. I just wanted to jump up and say “Cardinal… I’ll take this one from here.” This was a prime opportunity for him to present a foundational Christian doctrine and, in my humble opinion, he missed it.
In the midst of answering a question on the subject of heaven Pell states that Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. Dawkins, in his reply, says the following
“I am intrigued by the Cardinal saying that Christians believe you’re going to be resurrected in the body. I mean that’s an astonishing idea and I don’t believe you really mean that and I think – just as I don’t believe you really mean that the wafer turns into the body of Christ. You must mean body in some rather special sense.”
This is where I was disappointed. Pell got distracted by Dawkins bringing in the sacraments (and the idea of transubstantiation), even becoming curt with him “Mr Dawkins, I don’t say things I don’t mean”. Whilst the connection between the sacraments and the incarnation is a really good one, he needed to state why Christians believe in the resurrection of the body.
Especially since this was Easter Monday!
In response, I would have made a strong connection to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is the foundation of why Christians believe that at some future point those who believe in Jesus Christ will also be raised like him. Dawkins wanted to focus upon how the resurrection will take place, particularly at the cellular level. He stated, “the body is certainly not resurrected in terms of the cell, the protoplasm, the proteins, the DNA.” But that is to ask for too much evidence where there is none to be found. The evidence we do have is as follows
We’re unable to speculate about how the particular cells of each human will or won’t be “resurrected”.
Paul spends considerable time emphasising this point in 1 Corinthians 15. In verse 23 he refers to the risen Christ as the “first fruits” of the resurrection. This is an agricultural metaphor by which he suggests that the way Christ was resurrected is the same way that the “second fruits” (i.e. the rest of us) will be resurrected. He continues with a similar metaphor later on.
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Cor. 15:42-44)
Now, we should not think of “spiritual body” as a kind of ghost. It is, rather, a genuinely physical resurrection. This is where the gospel accounts can help. Luke records that Jesus said to his disciples
“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them. “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. (Luke 24:38-42)
The resurrection of the body is a foundational belief of Christianity. The accounts of Jesus’ risen body are of a very physical body, able to be touched, still with flesh and bones, able to eat. Yet it is a body that is not confined by locked doors or suffering the pain of someone putting their hand inside a fresh wound (John 20:19-29). Notice, though, that the marks of Jesus death are still present in his risen body. His bodily resurrection, whilst a body of a different kind, was importantly the same body that was born of Mary, grew and walked the earth, was whipped and abuse and nailed to a cross, there dying to restore all creation, then buried in a new tomb. This is the kind of resurrection that we believe occurred on that first Easter Sunday, and it is the same kind of resurrection we anticipate for ourselves.
I’m pretty confident that Professor Dawkins would have objected to such a response. I doubt that he would have accepted that as a valid, scientific answer, based upon known empirical evidence. I suspect he would have called into question the authenticity of the gospel accounts, and questioned the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
That’s OK. They’re all questions and objections that we could spend time answering, and that’s a worthwhile enterprise.
But what disappointed me was the feeling that Pell forgot that he had an audience very interested in hearing the Christian message. It wasn’t just Dawkins he was speaking to that night. There were thousands of people watching and the opportunity to share the heart of the Christian message to an audience of that size, on the most important date in the Christian calendar, was pure gold.