The way we understand reality usually develops incrementally. We build slowly on what we know, using methods we have reasons to trust. This is as true of our personal relationships as it is of our approach to the physical world. Most people are naturally wary, changing their opinions of people and things only gradually. Yet, once in a while, a person may be compelled to make a significant leap in the way they see the world. In the face of new information, old explanatory connections can become increasingly strained. In such a case, the sense can arise that maybe we don’t just need more information, we need a different way to link and interpret all information
To make fullest sense of what is out there, it may be necessary to change our conceptual framework – to revisit how we make sense of the facts of life. This may mean questioning long-held norms, definitions and connections. Like a person jumping from one stepping stone to another, we may have to leave the safety of one explanatory framework to land both our feet safely on another one.
This kind of move has been called a paradigm shift, a radical reshaping of the way we see and explain reality. A paradigm shift does not primarily change our understanding of a given piece of information, but goes much deeper, changing our approach to how all things fit together, including the process of understanding itself.
The new physics
In the natural sciences, only a handful of true paradigm shifts have ever occurred. In general, the sciences inch forward gradually on shared foundations. We use prior knowledge, trusted methods and accepted assumptions to place a new layer of understanding on the layer before. But sometimes the very foundations used to turn information to understanding need to be radically rethought.
In the leap from Newton’s physics to the ‘new’ physics of Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg et al. (i.e. special relativity and quantum mechanics), new foundations for understanding physical reality had to be established. The new physics brought with it striking new powers to explain and predict the phenomena of the physical universe, unleashing a wave of cosmological discovery and technological innovation. However, the unlocking of this potential required a wholesale reassessment of how we had previously come to understand reality. In short, it required a paradigm shift – it asked that we release an old and familiar explanatory framework in order to grasp a new and more powerful one.
However, making headway in the new physics required its pioneers to be willing to accept an extraordinary new vision of reality. The physicists of the early 20th Century were presented with a universe very alien to the intuitive ‘clockwork’ system described by Newton, Galileo et al. They had to wrestle with the mind bending picture of the universe that was being unveiled as the horizons of knowledge were pulled back:
“That light should bend or that the universe began in a minuscule primeval singularity and is expanding, that atoms could be split or nuclear bombs built, even that heavy metal objects should fly or men land on the moon, even (going back to Copernicus) that the earth revolves around the sun – all of these would have been dismissed as absurd according to the intuition and commonsense of earlier generations.”1
It was as though our home – the universe we had lived in for so long – had been radically remodelled, leaving us contemplating these changes in bewilderment. But it is important to remember that the ‘new’ physics of the 20th Century did not change the actual nature of reality. It simply cast light on things we had not known before, revealing long-hidden mysteries that we could not have guessed using intuition alone.
The deeper insights revealed by the new physics jarred with many of humanity’s deepest intuitions. They still do. Just as the ancients had struggled to come to terms with the apparently flat earth being a sphere hanging in empty space, our intuitions can rebel against the picture of reality revealed by the new physics. Whereas most of Newtonian mechanics had been easily demonstrable in straightforward experiments, the abstract mathematical models at the heart of the new physics ask that we accept a mindbending new vision of the universe. It is not easy to reconcile our intuitive, everyday understanding of physical reality with physical phenomena as otherworldly as the bending of space and time, wave-particle duality, the probabilistic nature of fundamental particles, or the twinning of such particles across vast distances of space. Yet, the evidence appears to demand that we accept these strange realities as part of the universe in which we live.
A new and mind-bending vision
True paradigm shifts call us to unsettling new visions and interpretations of the reality around us. They move us out of the comfort-zone of our prior convictions. Once-familiar objects, people and phenomena may need to be reinterpreted in a new light. Thus, a paradigm shift is only possible if we are willing to revisit the contexts of and links between the things we think we know. This kind of upheaval is not to be taken lightly. The only motivation to undergo the existential discomfort of a paradigm shift is the tantalising pull of deeper explanatory power on the other side. But because the existential discomfort is still there, it is normal to feel a tension between the inertia of our old, ‘safe’ understanding and the draw of the new explanatory framework. We can find ourselves simultaneously drawn forward by necessity of deeper explanation and tugged back by a longing for established and comfortable norms.
Many of us unquestioningly assume that the ‘truest’ picture of reality must be the one that is most intuitively easy to grasp. Yet, as the case of physics demonstrates, this is not necessarily the case. The new physics continues to confront us with a universe of discomforting ‘otherness’, even though this truly appears to be the universe in which we live. Yet, the alienating discomfort of the concepts and interpretations spilling out of a paradigm shift can tempt us retreat to a smaller, safer picture of the world. We may prefer to plant ourselves firmly on the foundation of kinds of mechanisms and processes we see and feel every day. But much as we may want the shape of reality to fit into our familiar and intuitive models, why should it? We are not prior to the universe, nor does our interpretation of its phenomena determine their mechanisms and properties – they simply try to explain them. We do not possess a ‘master perspective’. The new physics suggests a startling and discomforting picture of reality, but we cannot just deny it simply because it challenges our intuitions.
It is worth reflecting briefly that the new paradigm does not stop many aspects of the old one from making sense. It just reveals the limitations of our framework in accounting for the full sweep of reality. Indeed, prior to Greek astronomy, many of our ancient forbears managed to live perfectly effectively in the assumption of a flat earth. It is understandable why they would believe this. We know that locally, and without a wider perspective, the surface of a huge sphere does indeed appear to be flat. But just because our ancestors managed to live fairly successfully within this highly intuitive framework of understanding, it did not make it the most correct one.
Likewise, Newtonian mechanics did not suddenly cease to work in the light of the new physics following Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg et al. What the new physics did was make the limitations of the older system more clear. The old physics was now seen to fit into a bigger understanding of reality, becoming a subset of a larger and more sophisticated picture. It still works, but it misses out vital aspects we now see as fundamental to the universe. Newtonian mechanics is doubtless still very useful if you want to describe the trajectory of a missile, or the orbit of the moon around the sun. But if you want to build an atomic bomb or predict the behaviour of a black hole, the old physics is a brick wall, whereas the new physics is a door.
Christianity as a paradigm shift
What is the relevance of this to understanding Christian claims to truth? Simply that it is impossible to understand what the Christian calling really is without being willing – at least as a thought experiment – to consider it as a similar kind of paradigm shift to that between the old and new physics. We must consider the possibility that Christianity does not offer competing definitions for physical phenomena (i.e. a ‘miraculous’ versus a ‘physical’ explanation), but instead sets all physical phenomena into an expanded and altered conceptual framework. This is, incidentally, why the philosophy of science is vitally important when considering the relationship between science and religion. Dialogue about the science / religion relationship will always be at cross purposes unless we probe the deeper foundations underlying the methods and reasoning inherent to both domains. To make progress, we must engage with factors whose importance is often hidden at the surface level of both scientific and religious practice: the area of assumptions, authority, methodology, and the limitations of knowledge.
The prevailing Western view of what Christianity actually is views it as something very different to a paradigm shift. To most, Christianity is characterised primarily as some combination of lifestyle choice, ritual, and moral code. Yet, to deeply engage with the Christian scriptures is to realise that they present something vastly bigger than any of these views. The Bible does not present an alternative option for flourishing in the here and now, nor a set of alternative explanations for physical phenomena; most fundamentally, it asks that we entirely reframe the context and purpose of how we understand life, the universe, and everything. We can only weigh it properly having looked through the lens it offers, and considered its consistency and explanatory power on its own terms.
Thus, Christianity is not a ‘leap of faith’ in the sense that is usually meant by skeptics. Contrary to popular misconception, it does not involve the wilful acceptance of less convincing explanations, an attempt to ‘believe the impossible’. So far as there is a leap in Christianity, it is a conceptual leap rather than a leap of credulity. In other words, the Bible does not most fundamentally offer different explanations for given phenomena, but goes much further, providing a different conceptual framework into which to fit all explanations and all phenomena. It goes deeper than explanations of things, providing in effect explanations of explanations themselves, i.e. how do we think, what is knowledge, and how do we know what we know?
Assessing this kind of claim to truth involves a willingness to ‘try on for size’ a different picture of reality, a lens that resets the things we think we know into a different explanatory framework. The skeptic who considers the claims of the Bible often assumes that they know what constitutes allowable warrant for a truth claim, and that Christianity provides no such warrant. However, Biblical claims cannot be studied in isolation, according to a paradigm that rejects a priori the possibility of any reality beyond matter, energy, space and time. Instead, what the Bible asks of the skeptic is to rethink the entire basis on which evidence is accepted and integrated into coherent understanding. Anyone who seeks to fit the Biblical claims into a human-derived framework is doomed to failure. The honest skeptic must engage with Christianity as a complete paradigm shift, and can only reject it with integrity having considered it on that basis.
A case study – the meaning of life
One clear way to see the character of the Christian paradigm shift is to consider how it reshapes the things we think we know. A good example is our intuitive view of ‘life’. If we compare how the materialist and Christian frameworks understand the concept of life, we will see that they do not simply provide competing explanations of the phenomena – the ‘facts on the ground’. At one level, the two paradigms do integrate together, but at the deepest level, they frame a very different vision for the scope and meaning of what life is:
In the materialist paradigm, humans are born, they fade, they die.
In the Christian paradigm, humans start out dead, but can then come to a new life, from which they can never die again.
Clearly these are very distinct summaries of the story of life. The Christian view seems so odd at face value that we may feel drawn to immediately dismiss it. But if Christianity truly represents a paradigm shift, we need to assess not only the factual claims it makes, but also the framework in which these claims are made and understood. The question is not whether the claims fit the framework of our current paradigm (i.e. materialist or otherwise), but whether the Christian paradigm, taken as a whole, provides a more self-consistent and comprehensive framing of all of reality.
Life according to materialism
Let us begin with the ‘materialist’ account of life, the one in which life is only defined in terms of matter, energy, space and time.
The human story, according to materialism, begins with life. A baby is born, full of vitality and potential. Life on this view is defined primarily – if not exclusively – as a biological phenomenon. If our cells are respiring, dividing and reproducing DNA, then we are ‘alive’. This means a human life will never have more potentiality than it does at the beginning. Everything we may come to be and do is dependent on the biological potentiality of the embryo which, in the materialist paradigm, marks the first stage of human being.
Assuming we are unaffected by serious genetic disorders, illness or accident, we generally mature through adolescence and enter a period of relatively healthy existence in which the bulk of our meaningful physical, psychological and social development takes place. During this time we usually reach the peak of our physical and mental powers, we complete formal education, we build many of our most formative relationships.
But along the way, we begin to pick up damage. In a multitude of ways, we begin to limp. Physically, there is a ‘death of 1000 cuts’, in which our potential and powers gradually diminish. Our potentiality as physical beings – kinetically, reproductively and psychologically – begins to wind down. This is a complex and dynamic process, since our growth in wisdom and experience can compensate significantly for the objective decline of our biological faculties for a considerable time. In some of us, the decline is slow, being almost imperceptible. In some – struck down by serious illness – the pace of this fading can be extremely fast.
Regardless of how quickly or slowly our bodies wind down, eventually we physically die. Breathing stops, the pulse fades, brain activity flickers out, our cells cease to respire and divide, we decay, and our biological life is no more. The inert load of our constituent molecules is scattered to the winds, water and earth.
This is the standard picture of human life according to Western materialism: we come to life, we fade, we die.
Life according to Christianity
The Christian framework of understanding completely overturns this conceptual view on virtually every level:
In the Biblical view of life, we begin dead, we are brought to life, and then having become alive, we can never truly die.
Intuitively speaking, the idea that human beings begin physical existence in a ‘dead’ state sounds absurd. To make any sense, ‘life’ and ‘death’ must mean something in the Christian paradigm that goes beyond the familiar biological picture. This is exactly the kind of shift that Christianity requires of us. It pushes back the horizons of the materialist view and situates ‘biological’ life within a wider, deeper definition of what life most fundamentally is. This new perspective denies neither the reality nor the good of biological life, nor the physical mechanisms of biological life, but it situates biological life subsequent to and dependent upon a deeper form of life. Just as Newton’s physics sits within the bigger and deeper picture of the universe offered by the ‘new’ physics, the Christian view of life calls us to a bigger and deeper picture of the full scope of life. It is not a rival interpretation of what biological life is.
Life outside space and time
The Bible speaks of a kind of life which pre-exists the biological. Prior to any biological life, prior even to space and time, there was nothing but the being of the eternal God. The form of this being – the life within God himself – is very distinctive, and is essential to understanding the whole of reality in the Christian paradigm. In the Biblical testimony, God is not a lone ‘monad’, nor is he simply a logical ‘first cause’. The uniquely Christian testimony is that God is a Triune being: three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – in an eternal, divine unity of perfectly loving relations.
Because the most fundamental form of life in the Christian paradigm is the life within God himself, the deepest definition of life in reality must be drawn from the nature of God’s interpersonal unity. The living God is persons in loving relation. So, one of the most fundamental things we can say about ‘life’ is that it is inherently personal and relational. And since God’s inner life existed before any space, time, energy or matter existed, it cannot itself be dependent on space, time, energy or matter. Biological life in space and time is thus a reflection of a more fundamental and eternal life existing outside space and time.
Human life as a sharing in God’s life
According to this relational definition of life, grounded in God’s nature, we humans are most fundamentally ‘alive’ when we are relationally united to the inner life of the living God. This is what the Bible calls ‘spiritual life’. Far from being vague and mysterious, the word ‘spiritual’ in this context has a very precise and important meaning. ‘Spiritual’ life is so called because it is by the Holy Spirit that we are brought into life-sustaining relation with the inner life of the triune God. It is the particular work of the Holy Spirit to form and sustain this relationship:
“…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:5
It is the Holy Spirit’s work to bring human beings to share in the unity of loving relations that has always existed between Himself, the Father and the Son. Like a member of a loving family inviting an outsider in to share around the family table, the Spirit draws us into the family life of God.
Relational life precedes biological life
So, one aspect of the great paradigm shift of Christianity is to see that relational life precedes biological life. This is perhaps the most important thing to grasp about ‘creation’ in the Bible. The main thrust of Genesis 1 is not to ‘scientifically’ explain the physical processes and timescales underlying reality, but rather to demonstrate that all physical realities – including the biological life of the physical body – find their cause, their inspiration, and their sustaining power in the inherently relational triune God. In the Biblical framework, physical reality, including biological life, is a creative expression of the other-centred and outward-looking relational God.
This bigger definition of life requires a shift in our understanding of the ontology (the ‘inherent purpose’) of biological life. Biological life in the Christian paradigm has a purpose that goes well beyond ‘passing on DNA’ or ‘survival’. This is inescapable, since on this view, both the existence and meaning of biological life are grounded in the relational, loving identity of God.
It is here that the link between eternal ‘spiritual’ life and created biological life comes into focus. Christianity is not a competing explanation for how biological life works at the level of mechanisms (i.e. cellular respiration, DNA transfer, growth and development, reproduction). Rather, the Biblical testimony puts these mechanisms in the context of a deeper purpose:
Biological life enables a sharing – within the realm of space, time, matter and energy – of the timeless, non-physical relational life within God himself.
By animating physical matter via the complex genetic machinery at the heart of biological life, God provides a space-time context in which His own relational life can be reflected. Biological life supports forms of verbal and physical communication between beings, the feedback of touch, the enjoyment of sensing and sharing external realities with one another. In other words, biological life provides a physical, space-time context for the expansion of God’s relational life.
But biological life does not only provide an embodied context for living out relational life. Since biological beings have reproductive capacity, a means is provided for a network of persons-in-relation to extend outwards. Biological birth brings into being new persons who can partake in and expand the network of relations. Just as the eternal God shared his own relational fullness with an external physical reality by creating biologically living beings, those beings themselves are likewise enabled to extend a network of loving relations through parenthood.
The creation of biological life thus provides a context in which God can share his identity of being-in-relation with an extending physical reality. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, this relational, fruitful picture of biological life is deeply and positively affirmed. God looks at the biological, human life he has made within the physical world, and he proclaims that it is ‘very good’. In other words, it is perfectly fit for the purpose of reflecting and sharing in his own loving, relational, communicative, creative, outwardly expressive life.
Once we have grasped how the Christian paradigm shift transforms the scope of the word life, we can begin to understand the similarly distinctive and deep way that the Bible defines death.
In the biological definition of life, we are born, we live, we fade, we die. But, in the relational (‘spiritual’) definition of ‘ultimate’ life inherent to Christianity, humans begin dead, they can become alive, and this form of new life can pass unscathed through biological death. Again, to be ‘born dead’ cannot refer primarily to biological life. As is is with ‘life’, the word ‘death’ in the Christian paradigm must have deeper definition to the one recognised by materialism.
In the Biblical view, human beings are born physically into a state of spiritual rather than biological death. This state of death is defined relationally, just as was the case with spiritual life. According to the paradigm we find in the Bible, there was a point – the Fall – at which humanity lost its original communion with the relational life of God. At the heart of this event was a profoundly non-relational act of disobedience and self-serving on the part of humankind. Adam and Eve, the common ancestors of all humanity, turned against God’s benevolent promises and provision, subverted his rightful authority over what he had made, rebelled against him for personal gain, and lied to cover their tracks.
To understand the gravity of this act in our own age, in which this kind of individualistic self serving is the norm, we must understand how radically it subverted God’s good design. The selfish and individualistic rebellion of humanity was a smack in the face of God’s self-giving communion with his people. It was fundamentally incompatible with the shape of the ultimate life within God: self-giving, other-focused unity. The selfishness, deceit and mistrust shown by our human ancestors is irreconcilable with the other-centred and self-denying love at the heart of who God is.
This rebellion against God brought judgment upon humanity. Since the act of disobedience and deceit was so fundamentally opposed to God’s very identity and the pattern of the physical reality he had made, God cut mankind off from the privilege of intimate communion with his own relational life.
As well as excommunicating us, God placed the ontological reality of our physical lives under judgment. Thus, the natural state of our biological being was altered – made subject to weakness and frustration – with pain, disfigurement, limitation and decay becoming a part of our experience for the first time. Biological life was no longer open-ended: entropy and decay – ‘winding down’ – became an inherent part of our physical experience.
This event of profound dis-communion – the Fall – represented a radical severing of humanity’s relation to God, the ultimate source of life. We longer shared by rights in God’s inner life, even as our biological life persisted.
A diminished form of life
When biological life was divorced from its intended connection to God’s inner life, it become a poor shadow of its intended form. As human beings, we no longer fully reflected the nature of the God in whose image we had been created. Since the form of our biological life was designed as a physical context for sharing the spiritual life of God, biological life could not remain untouched by our radical dis-communion with God’s inner life. Since the Fall we are – biologically speaking – now destined to wind down and return to the atoms and molecules from which we are physically comprised. As far as our sustaining union with the creator God goes, we are fundamentally dead even while we breathe and talk and walk. Biological life in this new state is not now bad, but there is a huge gulf between life narrowly construed as only biological and the full scope of biological life properly integrated with the spiritual life of God.
Cut off from God’s inner life, the purpose of biological life became diminished. We still grope, in the dark as it were, towards dimly-sensed purposes and impulses of our being. The faculties of communication, goal-setting, creativity, logic, touch – faculties designed to support relational life that reflects God’s life – are still part of our human experience. But they are now more often turned towards other, non relational ends and purposes. Far from seeking other-centred communion in extension of God’s inner life, we often use our faculties to actively destroy the forms of communion for which we were made. Humans are often suspicious, chronically self-serving, frequently carelessly cruel, and occasionally actively malevolent towards others. This repurposing of our faculties to serve self is not only a daily re-enacting of Adam and Eve’s original sin, it also utterly subverts the intended purpose of our being. Thus, both social Darwinism’s doctrine of ‘survival of the fittest’ and our familiar doctrine of Western individualism can be seen as ironic inversions of the most fundamental ‘meaning of life.’ Viewed within a narrow materialist paradigm of life as biological life alone, both these philosophies have a cynical kind of internal consistency. Yet compared to God’s bigger paradigm of life as a context for loving communion of other-centred beings, both philosophies are meagre and stunted visions of how to express the potential and power of our humanity.
We have seen two aspects of the paradigm shift to which the Biblical testimony calls us.
Firstly, life is fundamentally relational.
Secondly, our biological lives begin in a state of spiritual death, as a consequence of the Fall.
Human separation from the source of ultimate life is a terrible existential state – a true crisis for humanity. This radical disunion and its consequences are so tragic that it is perhaps tempting to affirm that only biological life exists, simply to avoid the pain of contemplating what has been lost. At least if we affirm biological life alone, we can ignore as a beautiful but hallucinatory dream all in our being which cries out towards a transcendent purpose. There have been plenty of people across the history of ideas who have taken this stoic stance, choosing to affirm that life as we currently see it must be mutely accepted as the best we can hope for.
But the Fall is not the end of the story of God’s relation to humanity. Though spiritually dead by nature, a way does exist for human beings to become spiritually alive. God has established a means to bring us back into true life – communion with himself. This means our ultimate purpose – our ontology – can be restored from frustration. We can once again be caught up into the eternally loving relations within the God who gave us our biological being.
In this sense, human beings who are already biologically alive can ‘become alive’ for the first time in the more fundamental way expressed by the term ’spiritual life’. And, appropriately perhaps, the inner life of God – the eternal, loving union of Father Son and Spirit – is displayed in the very way God restores human beings to this communion with himself. It could hardly be otherwise. The restoration to communion of a people designed for communion was inevitably going to call forth the fundamental inner communion of God.
This restoration needed to cancel the legal debt of sin, righting the moral guilt for human rebellion against God at the Fall. It also needed to heal the ontological fracturing of our humanity, the frustration and entropy of physical life that resulted from God’s judgment upon us. We needed both a righteous status to replace our guilt and a new physical nature capable of perfectly reflecting and integrating with the holy, loving, relational life of God.
Both were achieved in God’s salvation of humankind.
Firstly, the Father sent the Son, the second person of the Trinity, to be born into frail, frustrated human flesh. Jesus entered space and time, being joined to our post-Fall biological humanity. In this act – the ‘incarnation’ – the eternal and divine was united to the time-bound and physical. It was an act in which the Trinity was on full show: the Father lovingly sent the Son, the Son came in obedient love, and the Spirit lovingly joined Jesus to our human nature so that though fully God, he ‘became like us in every respect’2 . As Jesus walked through Palestine, humans witnessed in one man their own physical nature united to the divine nature. In this extraordinary union of the temporal and eternal within the incarnate Jesus, there was partial restoration of the intended purpose human being. In Christ himself, biological life was once again joined to the spiritual life of God in a way that had been absent since Eden.
But on its own, the incarnation did not resolve the judgment for sin that had hung over all humanity since the fall. The union of eternal and biological life within Christ did not unite us to the eternal God. The sinless life of the God-man Christ did not on its own cancel our moral guilt.
It was the death of Jesus that rescued humanity from the moral weight of our rebellion against God.
As Jesus died on the cross, he did so as an atoning sacrifice for human rebellion against God, a rebellion found at the Fall and across all ages, corporately and individually. In Jesus, God in human flesh willingly submitted to what was, in effect, a judicial execution for humanity’s selfish, proud and hateful attitudes and acts. Jesus bore a punishment deserved by self-serving human beings since the Fall – a just sentence for their rejection of their creator. In Jesus, God himself stepped into our flesh, the perfect one dying under a death sentence as a broken man, the innocent standing in the place of the guilty. In this, ‘God presented Jesus as a a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood’3, substituting his human life for ours in the court of his perfect justice. The judicial penalty for the rebellion of human sin was cancelled as the perfect God-man died.
This is the first meaning of the death of Jesus.
But in taking a human body to the cross, Jesus did more than pay a judicial penalty with his death. Not only was our sin put to death in his human body, but as that body died, the frailty and frustration of post-Fall human ontology was in a sense crucified along with it. When Jesus died in his physical body, he was in effect putting ruined humanity to death. The post-Fall reality of physical humanity was put out of its misery so that a new humanity – one no longer subjected to the frustration of the post-Fall judgment – could be formed in its place.
This means the promise of salvation goes beyond freedom from judgment. Jesus’ resurrection makes his followers future heirs of a new humanity. Jesus’ atoning death restores the possibility of relational life with God, and Jesus’ resurrection body is a guarantee of an unspoilt physical context to share and reflect that relational life after our current physical bodies have wound down and died.
When the Holy Spirit raised Jesus to physical life after his crucifixion, his new physical being was ontologically different to the frail post-Fall flesh he had taken to the cross. It was still fundamentally physical like the old humanity, but it had been radically altered, being free from the inevitable fading and decay that had marked humanity since the fall. This was humanity as it was always intended to be, coupled to the relational life of God himself, no entropy, no decay, no frustration of purpose.
In his human, physical nature, the risen Jesus represents an archetype of a new humanity. He stands as a living guarantee of a new physical reality in the age to come, the inheritance of all who have accepted Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for them, who recognise he took their place in God’s judgement of their sin. By raising the crucified Jesus to a new and unfettered physical life, God demonstrated that after our biological deaths, he has the power and desire to give us new physical lives. These will be lives free from the brokenness of the post-Fall ontology, perfectly able to reflect God’s own relation life, as was always the intention.
So, in coming to meet us, to die and rise again, Jesus accomplished everything required for human beings to be truly alive:
1) Our debt of sin was cancelled, redeeming us to restored communion with the inner life of God.
2) Jesus’ resurrection body guaranteed God’s intent and ability to give his redeemed people a restored humanity in the age to come.
A radical paradigm to accept
This closer look at the Christian definition of ‘life’ reveals a fundamental change of perspective. To the Christian, spiritual life is not a competing explanation for the mechanism of biological life – it is a deeper and wider definition into which the biological definition fits. More than that, it contextualises what biological life is for, giving it ontological grounding. Without the deeper view of life that the Bible brings, we may understand much of the mechanism of biological life, but know nothing about the much more existentially significant questions: what is life for, what is consciousness, what is being, how should life be lived?
Without this deeper context, the mechanism of biological life hangs in mid-air as an isolated physical fact – a bizarre and improbable accident, full of both glory and ruin, but with no internal resources to explain these characteristics. In the bigger paradigm opened up by the Bible, we are shown a wider picture of how and why physical life in space and time has the shape it does. But fundamental to this paradigm is the necessity of being told certain truths about ourselves that we could never ‘figure out’ on our own. One of the Bible’s central claims is that God himself speaks to humanity from outside space and time, enabling us to know things that only a being with his perspective could fully see. This is important, because the nature of some of the realities God communicates to humanity are such that we could by definition never find them out by tracing either backwards or forwards from our current situation.
As T.A. Noble notes, the Biblical view situates our current physical experience in an era bracketed by two major ontological shifts. 4At the Fall, the nature of physical reality was changed in profound ways. Our separation from relational unity with God brought with it a judgement upon the entirety of physical reality, subjecting it to a frustration of its original purpose. As a result, humans and the space-time reality they inhabit are not the same now as they were before. There has been a corrupting of the very being and structure of things in the world and their connections to one another. This poses a problem for probing beyond the Fall with scientific methods, which depend on observing current states and then extrapolating them backwards or forwards in space and / or time. If the nature of things has been altered, there will be a discontinuity beyond which our extrapolations will be misleading. Like light bending as it passes from air to water, distorting the image we see, we cannot see clearly through this kind of ontological fracture without having our view corrected by information from outside. This is one reason the Bible unashamedly affirms the need for revelation – we require God who stands outside space and time to reveal certain truths to us. Only the one who stands outside space and time – who is not themselves subject to the ontological shift that occurred at the Fall – is able to see clearly the reality on both sides of the event.
Likewise, the new life we will enjoy after death belongs the far side of a second profound ontological change. God’s redeemed people will cease to dwell in the broken reality of biological life as we know it, and will instead be clothed in a physical life which is radically restored, altered and remade. They will share in the new humanity of which the resurrected Christ is the first example – a reality somewhat recognisable from our current humanity, but also profoundly different, being free from many of our post-Fall limitations and weaknesses.
Thus the age in which we now live is ‘bookended’ by two radical ontological shifts, the Fall and the New Creation. We cannot fully extrapolate across either boundary from within our current experience encased within the broken and frustrated ontology of this life. This is fundamentally why the Christian paradigm must involve revelation. The fact we cannot empirically verify everything of which the Bible speaks is not a ‘cop out’, precisely because in the Christian paradigm, the limitations of empirical insights are made very clear. The only way to know what form ‘life’ takes before and after the ontological discontinuities of the Fall and the New Creation is to be told by one who stands outside the fabric of time itself.
This is very different to the ‘blind faith’ of which Christians are often accused. Logic and reason are not absent simply because revelation is involved. As we have seen, the Christian relies on information, understanding, and a framework of links between concepts and phenomena. Sure enough, some of these diverge from their corollaries under a purely materialistic account of reality, but we must remember that the Christian account is not a competing explanation for objects and phenomena in the universe. Christianity represents a different paradigm for understanding everything, and like any paradigm shift, it asks us to consider whether the explanatory framework it offers makes a more comprehensive sense of what we know than the alternatives.
Just as the paradigm shift of the new physics expanded our minds, and unsettled our intuitions, so the paradigm of Christianity asks us to radically and uncomfortably expand the horizons of our perception. It takes us beyond what we could ever access through our own eyes and our own independent reasoning. But to the one who allows themselves to undergo this shift, the result is an expanded explanation of everything. There is greater consistency and explanatory power on the other side. Not only do we realise why science itself works, but we realise the answers to our existential longings, the deepest calls of our hearts and minds. On the subjects to which science is most curiously silent – who am I, why am I like this, what am I for, how should I live – we find not just answers but a glorious hope. We find ourselves being reached out to by the one who stands behind all things, reached out to in sacrificial love to call us to the fulfilment of our very being. And that makes the paradigm shift a risk worth taking.
1 T.A. Noble, in Darwin, Creation and the Fall, p120
2 Hebrews 2:17
3 Romans 3:25
4 T.A. Noble, in Darwin, Creation and the Fall