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How Belief in the Resurrection is Incompatible with Today’s Definition of Death

Updated: May 28, 2023

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

1 Corinthians 15:12–19 (NIV)

Christianity requires belief in the resurrection—a literal dead body-to-life event. Since the resurrection is real to Christians, they are put into a precarious situation regarding today’s definition of death. The Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) splits death into two criteria: death by a cardiopulmonary cessation standard or death by a neurological standard (whole-brain death). It then uses the dubious term “irreversible” to define the cessation of the heart, lungs, and brain. Herein is the difficulty for Christians who believe in the resurrection. Only the Creator of life can restore life to people who have experienced the irreversible cessation of the heart, lungs, and brain.

People declared dead under the UDDA are not dead in the biblical and biological sense of the term. A functioning heart and lungs removed from one person and transplanted into another have not irreversibly ceased functioning. After a determination of death under the whole-brain criterion, people have recovered. Many have also been misdiagnosed, and some registered organ donors have revived between the diagnosis of death by the neurological standard and the procuring of their organs. Not to mention, during the harvest surgeries that occur for so-called brain-dead donors, an anesthesiologist must be present to manage visible signs of distress, suggesting the brain has not irreversibly ceased functioning.

I could go on, but this is beyond my scope. For more information, I recommend watching Shewmon's Challenge. This post aims to demonstrate that a belief in the resurrection is incompatible with today’s definition of death, not to present the signs of life in those declared dead today.

Jesus’ resurrection was unique since he received a glorified body, a type of body Christians will also receive at Jesus’ second coming (see 1 Cor. 15). Nevertheless, other resurrections recorded in Holy Scripture occurred before Jesus’ resurrection. The prophets Elijah and Elisha resurrected two dead boys (1 Kings 17:17–23; 2 Kings 4:19–37). In the New Testament, Jesus resurrected the synagogue ruler’s girl (Mark 5:38–42), the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11–15), and Lazarus (John 11:38–44). Then there were the resurrections of Dorcas by Peter (Acts 9:36–42) and Eutychus by Paul (20:9–10). The account recorded in 1 Kings 17:21–22 explains these types of resurrections the best: Elijah “cried out to the Lord, ‘Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him’ …the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived.” These people had irreversible heart, lung, and brain function—they were biologically dead and then resurrected to life.

Medical technology and drugs may support vital functions in a biologically alive body. However, they cannot restore living processes in a dead body—only the Creator of life can do that. The difference is between resurrection (a supernatural event like a God-breathed spirit that raises a corpse to life) and resuscitation (a medical event using technology and drugs that requires the ongoing life of the body to restore or maintain cardiopulmonary function). Those resurrected before Jesus had their cardiopulmonary and brain function restored after they crossed the line from life to death. The scriptures declare this truth, and it’s a fact of human life as we’ve come to understand it because of medical science. To live, we require a heart that pumps oxygenated blood to the brain/body, lungs that exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, a brain that regulates these vital processes, and many more functions to sustain life.

Those meeting the criteria for the UDDA are in the second category (resuscitation/maintenance), so they have not crossed the line from life to death according to a biblical definition—at least if a Christian believes the Creator of life is the only one who can reverse the irreversible cessation of the heart, lungs, and brain. Since Christians believe a dead person can be raised to life, they should hold firmly to the conviction that if biological signs of life are present in a person requiring the assistance of medical technology/drugs, then the breath of life from the Creator is still in union with that person’s body. There is no warrant in Holy Scripture to go beyond this simple conviction about human life. If the heart beats and lungs breathe, this person still bears the image of the Creator of life, and they are alive even if they are declared dead by the neurological standard.

Today, Christians are faced with the task of honoring the image of God in people with biological signs of life who are declared dead by the UDDA. Christians before the 20th Century did not have to confront this ethical dilemma, as the various historical formulations of Christian anthropology testify. Human nature, as it developed in the confessions of Christendom, appealed to Plato and Aristotle, usually via Aquinas and Augustine. The problem with these outdated views of Christian anthropology, as Paul Helm writes in his historical survey, Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards, is the mistaken conclusion amongst Christians of all stripes that “to possess the intellect is to possess the image of God” (79). From that standpoint, Christians affirming the UDDA have argued that since the heart-beating neurologically impaired person on a ventilator no longer has mental capacity, that person no longer bears the image of God. The soul has left the body, and he/she is no longer a “rational animal” (80). On the contrary, Holy Scripture declares that if a heart beats and lungs breathe, that person is alive pre- and post-resurrection, and he/she bears the image of God as a unique human being, not as an animal or vegetable. The Creator of life does not consider the devaluing of his image in humans inconsequential (Gen. 9:5–6).

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