The Resurrection stories are replete with people failing to recognize Jesus until he says or does something evocative, puzzling even serious Christians. Skeptics use these appearances to suggest that Resurrection witnesses succumbed to a kind of transference, seeming to recognize Jesus in one of his followers, or succumbed to a wish-fulfilling delusion.
Christians counter that if skeptics were correct, why would the chroniclers of the Gospels have admitted that these Resurrection witnesses did not immediately recognize the risen Christ? Why not sanitize the Resurrection stories to delete this inconvenient fact?
Understanding the Resurrection is beyond human comprehension, and Christians believe that getting their minds around it completely is of little importance in relation to conforming themselves entirely to Christ. Still, is there a way, a coherent explanation if you will, that might give us some insight, however feeble, into how a person could be unrecognizable while remaining the same person, how a person could move through locked doors, how a person could be transported instantaneously from place to place?
Newtonian physics made no allowances for a Resurrection event in which person might move at will across time and space, in which he might – while remaining substantial – pass through closed doors, in which he might be the same person who multiplied the loaves and changed water into wine, while not being immediately recognizable to his closest disciples. Such a Jesus was ghostly or allegorical from the perspective of Newtonian science.
A clue to an explanation for how these appearances might be reconciled with science and reason can be found in the 1884 book, Flatland: a Romance of Many Dimensions, by the mathematician and theologian, Edwin A. Abbott, who uses the example of “flat” creatures that live in only two dimensions (length and width) on a plane, or on the surface of a sheet of paper, for example. These creatures can only see and move along the surface of the plane, having no comprehension of height. Thus, a three-dimensional creature, like a human being, could hover over these plane creatures, look down on them, while being invisible to these creatures. Furthermore, a “locked room” in the plane creatures’ world could be “entered” by a three-dimensional creature “descending” into the room and intersecting the plane within the room. The three-dimensional creature “magically” appears to the plane creatures because these creatures cannot comprehend, or “see”, the third dimension (height) from which the three-dimensional creature descends, only perceiving the 3-D creature when it intersects the plane.
As to appearance, imagine that these plane creatures are circles of different sizes. From above — the perspective of the three-dimensional creature — the plane creatures look like circles, but to the plane creatures they appear to be lines of different lengths, because the plane creatures are looking along the plane (surface) rather than observing from “above”. If a circle is cut from a piece of paper and observed along the edge of the paper, a line will be observed rather than a circle, and the length of this line will be the diameter of the circle. A particular plane creature (circle) always looks the same to other plane creatures because it is the same length regardless of another plane creature’s vantage point.
Now imagine that one of these plane creatures (circles) acquires a third dimension and becomes a sphere. For our example, we can liken this sphere to the risen Christ. Now existing in three dimensions, this sphere can descend into and intersect the plane and — this is the important point — the size of the intersecting circle made by the sphere — and the line observed by the plane creatures — may be a different length, though it is exactly the same sphere. As the sphere passes through the plane, it first produces a point, then an increasingly larger circle, than an increasingly smaller circle, then a point again, with the flatlanders perceiving these circles as lines. Thus, one plane creature observes a longer line, while another observes a shorter line, while a third observes a line of another length, but all are produced by the same sphere intersecting the plane.
Far from this three-dimensional creature being “ghostly”, it is more substantial than a two-dimensional creature, as a sphere is more substantial than a circle by virtue of having an additional dimension.
In The Creator and the Cosmos, physicist Dr. Hugh Ross, using the Flatland analogy, states, “A three-dimensional being then could approach the plane of the flatlanders and place his hand just a tenth of a millimeter above the two-dimensional bodies of two flatlanders separated from one another by just one centimeter. Since the three-dimensional being is slightly above the plane of the flatlanders, there is no possibility that the flatlanders can see him. And yet, the three-dimensional being is a hundred times closer to each of the flatlanders than they are to each other.
“As with the flatlanders, so it is with human beings. God is closer to each of us than we can ever be to one another. But because God’s proximity to us takes place in dimensions we cannot tangibly experience, we cannot possibly see Him.”
Engineer/physicist Jack Sacco has written extensively on the Shroud of Turin and its relation to the Resurrection. Invoking the principles of quantum mechanics in an article written for Magnificat, Sacco describes a Person possessing these additional dimensions as in a “Super-Ordered State”, an atomically reordered state in which the “body would exhibit characteristics heretofore unknown to modern science…not subject to the laws of time and space, as we traditionally perceive them…could, in its entirety, be in an unlimited number of places at any given time…could pass through solids with ease…could manifest itself in time and space without becoming subject to the constraints of times and space.”
According to Hugh Ross, “Because human beings can visualize phenomena only in dimensions that they can experience, in their attempts to describe God, they characterize Him as Being confined to a four-dimensional box. One reason we know the Bible comes from a supernatural source is that, just like the implications from the recent measurings of the cosmos, it claims that God is not so confined – He transcends the space-time continuum of the universe. In its unique insistence that God moves and operates in dimensions independent of length, width, height, and time, the Bible not only insists on extra-dimensional capacities for God, but it also specifically describes how He functions in these extra dimensions.”
String theory, a concept that many physicists believe provides a fundamental description of nature, suggests that the building blocks of everything are super-tiny strings that move and oscillate, and how these strings oscillate determines what our measuring devices register: electrons, photons, quarks, etc. String theory relies on nine or ten dimensions, meaning there are six to seven dimensions that are “invisible” to human beings, like height to flatlanders. It is postulated that these extra dimensions are too small (physicists refer to them as being “compactified”) to be detectable. Another explanation is that we are “stuck” in a 3+1 (three spatial plus one time) dimensional subspace of a full universe. Suffice it to say that quantum physics — this isn’t science fiction — needs these extra dimensions to be coherent. The world’s big colliders (Hadron, etc.) are seeking to identify these extra dimensions indirectly via the activity and behavior of super-tiny particles.
All of this isn’t intended to be a scientific explanation of the Resurrection, but to demonstrate that what we can perceive and measure as human beings is constrained by our intellects, our measuring devices, and perhaps our imaginations.
Faith doesn’t require scientific explanations, or plane creatures, or a fantasy involving dimensions, or quantum mechanics. Still, this is an imaginative way to explain how a person in a glorified body, having reentered the dimensions of Heaven, could initially be unfamiliar, and could move in time and space in ways that are inaccessible to mortal beings constrained by four-dimensions.
Honest science and reason, seasoned with a healthy does of humility, are never adversaries to faith. The Resurrection changed the world, and may have given us a glimpse of the dimensions of Heaven.