In modern times, this story became embarrassing for many Christians. The advancements of science during the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution gave rise to the concept of the “clockwork universe,” with God as a remote “watchmaker” who set the gears of reality in motion, thereafter letting deterministic physical laws take over in all situations. According to this worldview, the Easter miracle would be impossible.
As a result, many people today shy away from the traditional Christian proclamation of the resurrection of the dead. Instead, growing numbers of Christians interpret the Biblical testimony of the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ as only a metaphor, a beautiful myth intended to teach us that good triumphs over evil and our spirits live on, in some mysterious way, after physical death.
I believe the story of Easter is indeed a powerful metaphor, but I also believe the seemingly supernatural events of Jesus’s resurrection as reported in the Bible could be literally true — and the latest advancements in science and technology make it possible for an intellectually sophisticated person in the 21st century to affirm this.
Before we dive into the science, first let’s review what Jews in the time of Jesus believed about the afterlife. There were three basic sects of Judaism in the first century: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. The Sadducees believed that you get one life on earth, and then you die and that’s it — there is no afterlife at all. The Pharisees believed that after you live and die on earth, you will someday be raised from the dead to live again in bodily form — the resurrection. The Essenes believed in a spiritual plane of existence beyond this one, where our souls may experience heaven or hell, or possibly return to other human bodies — a spirit world and reincarnation.
Early Christianity was influenced by the Pharisees and the Essenes, and was a rebuttal against the Sadducees. In the teachings of Jesus himself, we find the ideas of bodily resurrection (John 5:28-29), a spiritual world beyond earth (Luke 23:43), and arguably reincarnation of the soul in some cases (Matt. 11:9-15).
As the Christian religion developed, the orthodox view of eschatology was that we go to a spiritual world after death, and at the end of the age, we will also be resurrected in the body, to live again upon a perfected version of earth or in a physical hell. Reincarnation, perhaps as a form of purgatory, was part of the Egyptian school of Christianity led by Origen of Alexandria, but was eventually declared a heresy — although surveys show that Christians today are increasingly open to the idea (e.g. 30% of American Christians polled last year believe in it).
Now let’s consider a scientific point of view for how all of these ideas about the afterlife could in some sense be true. Beginning with Einstein’s theory of relativity, science began to move away from the Newtonian physics of the “clockwork universe” and toward a new understanding that the universe in which we live does not obey the principles of common sense. Time and space are not constant, fixed realities, but strangely different depending on your motion and perspective — a counterintuitive truth that new technologies such as satellites and GPS must factor into their calculations.
According to quantum mechanics, physical reality is a lot less “real” than the way we ordinarily think of it — in fact, reality only takes shape when observers are present to experience it, as proved by the double slit experiment. Despite this, “entangled” particles on the other side of the universe can somehow instantaneously react to what happens to one particle here, without any means of communication between them.
These features of our world make no sense — except that all of them have perfectly logical explanations if we’re living in a virtual reality within an even greater universe. Some of the evidence and arguments for this hypothesis are explained in an eye-opening video called “What If the Earth Does Not Exist?” — which I highly recommend as a starting point for exploring the subject.
In the 21st century, growing numbers of mainstream scientists and philosophers are openly speculating about the possibility that we are living in a simulation, or that the “physical” world is actually something like a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game). Although it’s not yet clear whether this could be proven through scientific experiments, the hypothesis clearly matches the data.
So what does this mean for Christianity, and in particular, the central claim of the religion that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? Well, for one thing, it makes it a lot more plausible. If we’re living in a computer program, then somebody had to design that program — and it could include design features and in-game occurrences that seem supernatural, because the whole world is a fantasy anyway, so why not? God as game developer is a very different paradigm than God as watchmaker, and the new paradigm significantly strengthens the case for the possibility of miracles or paranormal phenomena.
It also strengthens the case for the afterlife — all three afterlife possibilities we’ve mentioned. The “spiritual world” refers to the more real world beyond the virtual reality in which we’re currently living. When we “die,” we exit the simulation because our avatar is no longer functional, and we find ourselves living in the higher world that we originally came from. In that higher world, we also have a body, and that body exists “eternally” (i.e. far beyond the lifespan of any particular avatar) — so we are “resurrected.” That world is presumably much better and more advanced than this one; and if we haven’t performed so well in the simulation, or if we are needed as a teacher for others who are struggling to master the program, maybe we get sent back in (“reincarnation”). We might be students at various levels of development (“children of God”) or prisoners (“fallen angels”) in the higher world, going through a training process using virtual experiences to determine our station in life (different “degrees of glory”) or to reform our character so that we can rejoin society (being redeemed from “hell” or “purgatory”).
What about the resurrection of Jesus, in which he appeared to ordinary people on earth in a more perfect bodily form? Christian orthodoxy tells us that Jesus left this world and went to the spirit world while his body was in the tomb; then his spirit returned to reanimate his body; and then, after making some appearances to prove that he was still alive, he left the earth and ascended into some other dimension, i.e. “heaven.” Interpreted through the lens of a 21st-century understanding of the possibilities of virtual reality, we can tell the story like this: Jesus’s earthly avatar died, and he reemerged in the higher world; then his avatar got reanimated and upgraded to have more special powers, and he went back into the virtual reality to interact with people there and confirm their religious faith; then he once again exited the simulation and is currently residing in his true home — which is the true home of us all — outside the simulation.
The reason why the Game Developer may have made this happen was to give people living in the matrix, so to speak, some hope that it’s not all there is, and that if we play the game correctly, a much better future awaits us in the real world beyond this one.
It’s important to remember that throughout most of human history, life was very, very hard. It still is today, in much of the world. Wars, famines, pestilences, illnesses and disabilities, terrible inequality, and a typical standard of human behavior that is barely any better than life in juvenile hall or a prison-gang-infested cell block in the federal penitentiary — that has been life on earth, for most people who have ever lived. If the Software Developer in the Sky saw fit to include some Easter eggs in the program to help us believe there’s a point to all this, and that we have something good to look forward to after it’s “game over” for the difficult life we’re currently living, that seems like just the kind of thing that a benevolent God would do.
Fifty or a hundred years ago, a scientifically literate person couldn’t have thought of things this way, but now we can. As weird as it may seem, we shouldn’t get hung up on the details of the analogy. The universe was never literally a clock when people thought of God as a watchmaker — and if we think of God as the lead dev of the metaverse, we’re probably not going to literally wake up in a tank full of goo wearing virtual reality goggles when we die. The point is that our religious concepts should evolve with our understanding of the world and its possibilities, so that we may better appreciate the meaning of life and the nature of reality.
We’re fortunate to live in a time when incredible advancements in science and technology have revealed the absurdity of Industrial Age rationalism and materialism. Ironically, in the Information Age, we can open our minds to the mysteries of faith in a way that only pre-modern people could enjoy. That’s why, on Easter, I’m not embarrassed to say “He is risen,” and to really mean it.