And the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead

The other day, I watched Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World for perhaps the fifth time. The movie is very intriguing for a history buff like me because of its semi-realistic portrayal (it is, after all, still Hollywood) of life aboard these ancient warships. What audacity those early explorers had to sail their ships over the horizon into the unknown.

 One of my favorite scenes is the burial at sea of the dead. I love the simple faith expressed in the words of the traditional prayer. It goes something like this. We therefore commit these earthly remains to the deep, looking for the general resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose second coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself. Amen.

I love the picture of the sea giving up her dead – a phrase taken from the Book of Revelation. Christians in general affirm a belief in the resurrection of the body. Our ultimate state will not be that of a bodiless spirit, but one of body and spirit reunited. Anyone who joins in reciting the Apostle’s Creed is affirming just that. There is a tendency to think of this as a New Testament teaching, but in fact it is as old as the Old Testament itself. In the Book of Job, believed by many scholars to be the earliest of the Old Testament writings, Job speaks of his own resurrection. “And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.” The same idea is expressed in the writings of David, Isaiah, Daniel and Hosea. Even the vision described in Ezekiel speaks of sinew and flesh being reattached to bone to restore the dead to life. The resurrection of the body is consistently taught throughout the entire Bible.

Now Christians are not stupid. We know what happens to a dead body. A body in the sea will disintegrate and be largely consumed by fish. Those fish will likewise be consumed and so on and so on and may even wind up as dinner on our own plate. Thus the bits and pieces of that body are scattered far and wide and some may even become confused with the bodies of later human beings. So how is it that God can promise to resurrect that body on the last day? Is that merely a foolish belief, a myth to comfort grieving survivors? You might think so unless you pay attention to what science tells us.

Science tells us two pertinent things about our physical bodies. First, we each come from a unique DNA pattern. That pattern, derived at the moment of conception, determines not only what we will look like but much about how we will behave. If we could read it properly, a baby’s DNA could tell us quite a bit about how it will look and act at maturity and beyond. Another thing science tells us is that the constituent components of the DNA are all interchangeable. The molecules of DNA are built up from atoms and there is no way of distinguishing one atom of an element from any other. They are identical.

That means that DNA is not so much a unique chunk of material as it is a unique chunk of information. If you have the information, you can in theory replicate the body from the ground up. That is certainly not an extreme idea when you consider that the body you have today is not the same body you had even a few years ago. For the most part, the cells that make up your body are replaced many times during your lifetime. So the resurrection of a body does not necessitate keeping track of the particulars that made up a corpse at the time of death. Given an omniscient and omnipotent God who retains control of his creation, the flesh can be destroyed and resurrected just as the Bible promises.

Now a believer does not need to know the science in order to believe his body will be resurrected on the appointed day. His faith comes from knowing God’s trustworthy nature. As Jesus said, “If it were not so, I would have told you.” Still, it is interesting to contemplate that out of the entirety of the Bible there is not a single thing which turns out to be scientifically impossible. I can understand a person hearing the Christian testimony and rejecting it. After all, such rejection of the things of God is at the core of our fallen nature. Yet any person who tells himself the Bible is impossible to believe goes a step beyond mere rejection of the message in order to seek reassurance that his rejection is legitimate. That is a dangerous and foolish thing.  At the very least, one should concede how odd it is that reality should turn out to be so conveniently shaped around this ancient belief.

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