Johnston on the metaphysics of resurrection

Mark Johnston’s Objection to resurrection of the same body

In his 2010 book, Surviving Death, Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston presents an objection to the possibility that bodily resurrection constitutes the return of the same person at the end of time. This is an important line of argument for believers in resurrection – for traditional doctrine is that the same body will return at the resurrection. In short, God will gather all our particles from our bodies at the moment of our death and reassemble our bodies. (For an early Christian defender of this view, see Athenagoras’s aptly titled On the Resurrection of the Dead.) This is especially important for modern-day Christian physicalists, because they claim the return of the same person requires/consists in the resurrection of the same body (at least in most cases). But, if Johnston is correct, then it seems even a perfect reassembly of our bodies from this life would not count as a return of the same body. But why think resurrection by reassembly is problematic?

Johnston’s argument goes like this: If we allow that the resurrection (through reassembly) of exactly the same body is possible, then it has the absurd consequence that two numerically distinct bodies may possibly become one (numerically identical) body. But it is obviously not possible that two distinct objects can become numerically one and the same. So, the reassembly view of resurrection of the same body must be false.

Why should we believe this? I’ll adapt an example from Johnston to illustrate his argument. Imagine, let’s say, a man called Isaac dies in the year 1865. His body at the moment before death is composed of all and only the same particles as a man named Abraham, who died in 1665. Furthermore, at the moment of death, the particles of the two men are arranged in precisely the same ways in terms of biological organisation. (Though, between their deaths, those particles had been part of all kinds of other bodies, perhaps.) Now, imagine that the general resurrection occurs 200 years after Isaac’s death, and God brings together all those same particles which composed Abraham’s body at his death and Isaac’s body at his death. Let’s call this resurrected person Jacob. According to Johnston, Abraham and Isaac (distinct bodies and distinct persons) have become Jacob. That is, two numerically distinct persons have become one person. This, however, is unacceptable because two distinct things cannot be made identical (even by God). So something is deeply flawed with the claim that a reconstituted body at resurrection is the same body as a body which passed out of existence at death. [In this, Johnston agrees with the Christian philosopher Peter van Inwagen (1978).]

Johnston schematises his argument this way:

  1. Necessarily, two distinct things cannot become identical with one. (Necessity of Distinctness)
  2. Necessarily, if at some time t after the death of a body x a body y comes together out of simple elements in such a way as to reproduce x’s perimortem state then y is numerically the same body as x; that is, y is the very body x come back into existence. (The Auxiliary Principle)
  3. Necessarily, the re-creation of a person’s body is the re-creation of that person. (The Bodily Criterion)
  4. It is possible that there be two people who have the same peri-mortem bodily state and then that a body y comes together out of simple elements at some later time t in such a way as to reproduce that common perimortem state. (Assumption)
  5. It is possible that two distinct people become identical with one person. (From 2, 3, and 4, contradicting 1.) (Johnston, 34)

Johnston claims that The Bodily Criterion is not to blame, since ‘we could drop the bodily criterion of personal identity and still get a violation of the necessity of identity at the level of bodies’ (34). But in fact (as we shall see in another post), the bodily criterion as a criterion of personal identity is what gives an apparent force to the argument.

Johnston wants to claim that you could have two perimortem bodies which are 200 years apart (body x and body z), composed of all and only the same particles, arranged in all and only the same ways. You could then have (say at the resurrection) yet another body (body y) composed of all and only the same particles, arranged in precisely the same way as the body x and body z. Under this scenario, bodies x and z have become body y — which is impossible. So, one of our premises must be false. But we know that two numerically distinct things cannot become numerically one. So the auxiliary principle (upon which the metaphysics of resurrection depends) must be false.

But this is seems wrong. For the person who believes y is identical with x does not believe that z is numerically distinct from x. All one’s reasons for thinking y is identical with x and all one’s reasons for thinking y is identical with z apply equally to the proposition that x is identical with z. In the example above, all one’s reasons to think Jacob’s body is a resurrected version of Abraham/Isaac’s body apply equally to the claim that Isaac’s body is identical with Abraham’s body. So, rather than ‘two distinct things [becoming] identically one and the same’(33-4), we simply have one identical thing (a certain body) existing at three times.

Why does Johnston’s argument go wrong? In short, the argument appears to beg the question about the identity or non-identity of x and z (or of Abraham and Isaac). More precisely, it seems to assume Abraham and Isaac do not have identical perimortem bodies. But the very question under consideration was whether two bodies (such as the perimortem and post-resurrection body) are necessarily distinct or could possibly be the same. If one assumes that all temporally discontinuous bodies are distinct, then of course the resurrection of the same body is incoherent. But if one believes they are identical, then both x and z (or Abraham and Isaac’s perimortem bodies) are identical with y (or Jacob’s resurrection body). [Furthermore, if one is unsure of the claim that the bodies of Abraham and Isaac are identical, she should similarly reject the argument on the grounds that Johnston assumes the denial of that proposition.] So a defender of resurrection of the same body can preserve the principle of the necessity of distinctness. It seems that there must be some other version the argument in Johnston’s mind — a version which is more plausible than the one I’ve outlined and considered here. But what would this argument be? Perhaps a better argument can be constructed with the specific assumption of physicalism (Johnston himself is a physicalist). In my next post, I will query whether the assumption of physicalism — combined with an argument like the one above — can render resurrection by reassembly impossible.

Mark Johnston. Surviving Death. Princeton: 2010.

Peter van Inwagen. ‘The Possibility of Resurrection’. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. 1978.


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