A few months ago I wrote a blog called The Resurrection Paradox discussing my ambivalent feelings about the doctrine of the resurrection. On the one hand, I feel inspired by the idea of a reunion with loved ones in an eternal world. The LDS doctrine of the resurrection enshrines the relationships and physical characteristics of this life into eternity. This doctrine is beautifully stated by Gustav Mahler: “nothing to you is lost, yours is, yes yours is what you have desired, yours, what you have loved, what you have fought for.” But at the same time, I’m inspired by Solomon’s doctrine of vanity from Ecclesiastes: the idea that nothing lasts forever, and that embracing eternal change is essential for peace and happiness. Since writing that post, I think I may have found a way to resolve the conflict within myself. The resurrection need not be understood simply as a restoration of the past, but as a revelation of change.
Resurrection as a Revelation of Change
At the end of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, queen Hermione dies of a broken heart after being cruelly and falsely accused of infidelity by her husband, king Leontes. After she had dies, the king realises his mistake and spends the ensuing years trying to atone for his sins against his wife. Then completely unexpectedly, Hermione is raised from the dead by a priestess named Paulina, who makes a statue of the queen come to life. When the penitent king greets his beloved queen, it is one of the most sublime moments in all of Shakespeare, a beautiful metaphor for the Christian belief in the afterlife and resurrection.
Interestingly, Hermione is resurrected at the age she would have reached had she lived: an older woman with wrinkles. And herein lies a paradox of the resurrection: souls and bodies change over time. When we finally meet again in the next life, will we really be greeted by the same folks we knew and loved back on earth? I myself have changed so much over the years. If I were to meet the person I was as a child, I would be meeting a total stranger. I don’t feel like the same person, and I think in a very literal way, I am NOT the same person. We are related, but not the same person. “The child is father of the man” as William Wordsworth said.
I have younger brother who died 10 years ago. When we finally meet again, will we actually be reuniting, or will we be meeting as strangers for the first time? For many, the hope of the resurrection is a hope of restoration: overcoming what was lost through death and being reunited with the people we loved so dearly in this life. But how can a true restoration take place if we change so dramatically over the years? Even if death is overcome, how can the effects of time be overcome? Time carries away the past and continuously replaces it with a strange and unfamiliar future. Time changes us and makes us strangers to each other, and to ourselves.
The Essence of Identity is Our Journey, Not Our Destination
This paradox is also illustrated in Homer’s Odyssey. After the fall of Troy, Odysseus longs to see his wife Penelope and his beloved homeland Ithaca. It takes him 10 years to return, a journey beset with continuous disasters and distractions. Through the long, exhausting journey, Odysseus’ great love for home and family keeps him putting one foot in front of the other. But when he finally arrives, it is not the joyous reunion Odysseus had dreamed of. His wife is surrounded by other men and Odysseus has to murder hundreds to put his house back in order. Milan Kundera wrote:
For twenty years Odysseus had thought of nothing but his return. But once he was back, he was amazed to realise that his life, the very essence of his life, it’s centre, it’s treasure, lay outside Ithaca, the twenty years of his wanderings. And this treasure he had lost, and could retrieve only by telling about it.
Like Odysseus, Mormons are fired by a desire to return to our heavenly home, where we will be reunited with loved ones long lost. But like Odysseus’s Ithaca, will it really be the reunion we imagine? According to LDS doctrine we know that heaven is a place, not only of rest and peace, but also of war and tears (i.e. the “war in heaven,” and the Weeping God of Mormonism). Perhaps we too will discover, like Odysseus, that the essence of our life is not our heavenly home, but the journey towards it, and that once we get to heaven, it will simply be a continuation of that eternal journey.
Reunion of an Adopted Child With a Biological Parent as a Metaphor for Resurrection
Of course the resurrection will be a joyous reunion. But it might be a bit different than we sometimes imagine. Perhaps a better metaphor for understanding the resurrection is the reunion that takes place between an adopted child and her biological parents. Parents who have put up a child for adoption often never stop loving that child. The adopted child likewise wonders about the identity of her biological parents. When they finally meet, it is a joyous reunion, not because they are reunited, but because they are discovering something about themselves: the revelation of their own potential as parents or children. The joy is in the discovery, not the reunion.
The most beautiful moment of The Winter’s Tale comes when the resurrected Hermione embraces her grown daughter Perdita, whom she had not since since she was an infant. The mother’s love for her daughter was so powerful that it existed in full force even though she had never met her, even though she had never lived or sacrificed for her.
Who is greater, the biological mother, or the adopted mother? This question can help us get at the heart of the Resurrection Paradox. In the eternal scheme of things, apart from the legalities of sealing ordinances, what does an adoptive mother have that a biological mother doesn’t have? She has lived a life of sacrifice for her child, thus she should have a “right” to the child. But this reduces the child to a commodity, one earned through righteous sacrifice. And children are not commodities. We are all individuals and ultimately, we belong to no one but ourselves and God. By expecting to “possess” her children in the resurrection, the adoptive mother misunderstands the nature of eternity and identity.
The biological mother on the other hand, does not expect to possess a child, but simply to have a relationship of mutual discovery and love. She does not come with the baggage of jealousy and possessiveness. Thus I see her as an apt metaphor for eternal relationships which are subject to continual change. In the resurrection, the adoptive mother will learn what the biological mother has already learned: she has no rights of possession on anyone. Her relationship with her daughter is also a relationship of mutual discovery and love.
My Mother’s Experience
My mother has watched helplessly as nearly half of her children have left the church. Those that remain have “issues,” and she often wonders if these too will leave. She shared a beautiful experience with me that she had in the Provo temple a few weeks ago as she was pondering the terrible loss of her children. As she was watching the young missionaries going through the veil into the celestial room, she had a profound feeling that these young saints “belonged” to her, and that she “belonged” to them. That even if all her children left her, that she would still be surrounded by a vicarious family which shared something even more powerful than biological bonds.
Of course my mother still holds out hope for her children, and she is quite open minded about the potential of those who have left to find their way back in the eternities. But I think it is amazing that she has been able to see beauty even in the worst case scenario. It’s a revelation about the nature of family that transcends the possessiveness of biological ties, that looks beyond a simple restoration of the joys of earthly family life and embraces something more comprehensive and inclusive. And here we come back to the Solomon of Ecclesiasties: all is vanity. We must let go of the past and embrace the present. The resurrection is not a restoration of the past, but the revelation of time and change.