Resurrection and the ontological gap

I had the great pleasure of walking some hills and swimming some streams with Ronan a few months ago.  One of our conversations touched on the resurrection and I was reminded of this after his thought-provoking post yesterday.

Like Ronan, death frightens me.  That fear motivates my hope in the after-life but it is also constrains the degree to which I have confidence in the life-after.  To hope of a resurrection in the face of the brute fact of death just seems so flimsy.  As a believing Christian, I have been conflicted about death for some time.  I have a fairly robust commitment that there was an empty tomb and yet I still struggle to have confidence that I too will be resurrected.

This struggle emerges from what I perceive to be the ontological gap between Jesus and myself.  There is a dual movement here.  First, those doctrines which posit that I am of the same species as God resonate with me.  I relish the thought of being capable of entering a divine life with God, Jesus and all those other people who will have me as part of their family.  Yet, this appeal seems grounded, to a large extent, in the hope that if Jesus is like me then perhaps I might also be resurrected with him.  To make God like me (mundane) is also to make the resurrection, that which was made possible by that particular divine-human combination, mundane as well. As Mormons, the very universality of the resurrection makes it a commonplace, at least theologically.

Contrary to this impulse is the accumulated realization that there is absolutely nothing mundane or commonplace about the resurrection.  Not only have I come to feel that the Christ of faith is absolutely other than the mundane (he is God’s own singular intervention in the world), but I see now that the gospel is good news precisely because it is so absurdly good. I cannot wholly collapse the distance between myself and God because the resurrection stands on the other side of a chasm filled with the many, many bodies that have not been resurrected.  I cannot seem to find Jesus amidst all those other people just like me (and profoundly unlike him) who are very much dead.

In answer to Ronan’s question I think my answer is this: Yes, I believe there was an empty tomb but I am not sure that means very much for me.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I myself have never really considered how the possibly ontological gap affects the resurrection.

  2. Ugly Mahana says:

    This is where, I think, Moroni and John the Baptist, and Peter and James and John come into play. The restoration includes evidences of a general resurrection.

  3. H. A. Worle says:

    I’ve just looked at some scriptures related to this contradiction – our divine sonship on the one hand and the vast gulf between us and deity on the other. Ps 8: 4-5 speaks of the relative closeness in character of man to deity, Moses 1:10 points out the vast difference that exists. Perhaps one small explanation can be found in Ether 12:27 where our “weakness” is explained as a god-given trait, perhaps along with the fallen environment in which we are placed, to learn faith through humility.

  4. Ugly Mahana says:

    I should add that I enjoyed the post very much. It made me think, and I especially appreciate the powerful description of the miracle of grace that is Christ. You made me think, and, above, I put forward my thoughts.

  5. “like me (mundane)”

    Speak for yourself. (I understand that you are.)

  6. Thanks for the thought. I think this is one of the places where intellect has to give way to faith. I am not sure that faith is our natural state, which may be the point. We have to take a step beyond reason and let the spirit of revelation take us the steps beyond where our thoughts and brains would take us by themselves.

  7. This struggle emerges from what I perceive to be the ontological gap between Jesus and myself….Not only have I come to feel that the Christ of faith is absolutely other than the mundane (he is God’s own singular intervention in the world), but I see now that the gospel is good news precisely because it is so absurdly good. I cannot wholly collapse the distance between myself and God because the resurrection stands on the other side of a chasm filled with the many, many bodies that have not been resurrected.

    An interesting way of expressing a position similar to where my own faith quest has led me to, Aaron. I also, the more I think about it, feel an almost visceral distaste for the idea that God (who is, as you say, “absurdly good”) is anything at all mundane–that is, anything at all like me (who is anything but absurdly good, or even moderately good). However, I wonder if it leads me to different conclusions than you. The ontological gap you describe has not only become more and more convincing to me over the years, but also more and more of a comfort. I take solace from knowing that God, who is good, gracefully invites me, a total screw-up, to become something entirely different from myself, and entirely like Him. The resurrection is a part of that grace, and for me it logically must be: since so much of my (and everybody’s) sinfulness is a product of mortal limits, of human frailty and double-mindedness, of natural temptation, God’s grace must extend to the perfection of the body through raising it up again. So yes, the bare cross and the empty tomb seem very real to me, and very important; I’m not sure I know how I could be a Christian otherwise.

  8. I find it interesting that when Jesus’ disciples asked him to show them the Father, he said something like, ‘you’ve been observing me all this time, what more are you looking for?’ There is an attraction to mystery that I admit I don’t particularly understand. The desire that God be something some great distance from us, something fundamentally unlike us, I don’t get it. What is the quote?: they desired a God that they couldn’t understand, and so God gave that to them. RAF, if you were half as bad as you apparently think you are, but give me a break. We are not only bad, we are also good … trailing clouds of glory and all that. I’m not going to surrender my Mormon ground. If I wanted to be a protestant, I’d go be one.

  9. I’m itching for a fight. How I miss some of the old dialogue in the endowment.

  10. Thanks for the comments so far.

    Ugly Mahana, the messiness of the categories pertaining to visions or visitations make the appearance of other beings means that the appearance of Moroni is uncertain ground on which to base my faith in the resurrection. At the same time your comment also touches on one of the foundational commitments of Christianity, which is a willingness to trust the testimony of others (ie Paul, Peter, John etc).

    Julia, I agree and I have tried to live my life through precisely that kind of faith.

    Thomas, I think I come at this in a slightly different way to what you describe. I want to be ontologically similar to God and find great hope in Mormonism’s assertion that this is the case. My struggle is that the gap between God and I is so great – even if I do not think I am wretched – that I find it hard to conceive that we are similar beings: that gap is evident primarily in Christ’s ability to rise again not in his superior righteousness.

    RAF, typically I find the case for grace most compelling in the lived experience of repentance and forgiveness. I see grace not so much as a theological end-point but rather as a willingness and a capacity to live with and love those who cause us pain.

  11. Aaron, I love that explanation of grace. I think that the concept of grace, like faith is best known by the heart and soul.

    That doesn’t mean that I see myself as anywhere close to the perfection of Christ, or even as someone who has a chance of getting anywhere close in this life. I think that you are right, forgiveness and faith are a process that will continue well beyond this life It is in the experiences of repentance that I am able to see the reflection of Christ on the outskirts of my countenance.

  12. “We see through a glass, darkly.”

    I see the difference (the ontological gap) between myself and God very clearly – or, stated differently, I don’t see an obvious connection between God’s full goodness and the natural man I study throughout history. When I really study people ontologically, I see smart animals. I see a gap that seems unbridgable.

    “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

    I don’t want that gap to be eternal. I want to be a child of God in an evolutionary sense – something created with a self-perpetuating purpose in mind. I don’t hope just to return to God; I hope to progress to godhood. I can catch glimpses of that possibility, but the evidence is of a nature I can’t see fully. It’s in the things I feel and envision as possible – the things for which I hope.

    “Having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

    To me, the good news of the Gospel is that what Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have taught actually can happen – somehow, even though I can’t grasp or fathom how it is possible. It’s accepting that what actually IS an ontological gap can be overcome somehow – that the gap can be closed and we truly can be “at-one” with God, our Father.

    That, to me, is the “power of godliness” – that God really can to the unimaginable (the seemingly impossible), including closing a very real ontological gap and creating a way for me to be and become what otherwise is impossible.

    As an aside, our modern obsession with knowledge erodes that type of faith, imo – but positing that the gap really isn’t ontological – that it’s not as incomprehensible as others think. It is that incomprehensible – but that doens’t mean it can’t happen, if God really is Almighty God.

    I don’t see our theology as making God mundane like us; I see it as believing God can make us glorious like Him – partly by accepting that He could condescend to experience our mundane-ness for a time (whether that be literally, figuratively or representatively). That’s a very different orientation, and it’s important to me.

  13. MikeInWeHo says:

    “If I wanted to be a protestant, I’d go be one.”
    I’m with you on that one.

    In recent months I have been reading books about Eastern approaches to spirituality, and have been struck at times by how the some of the same ideas are found in Mormonism (at least the version Thomas Parkin defends). The ontological gap collapses when we stop worrying about all those dead bodies, and come to realize that “birth is not the beginning but a continuation, and death is not the end but a continuation. Life goes on forever. It always was and always will be. Physical incarnation is just one form that life can take.” (quoted from A Course In Miracles) This realization also cleans up the “messiness of the categories pertaining to visions or visitations.”

    Perhaps the current status of Jesus’ physical body doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we can know he lives.

  14. A wonderful unhurried out of body experience left me with little doubt that there is life beyond our bodies and little fear of death. However the gap between God and ourselves has been constantly on my mind since that experience because that gap must be closed to eventually enjoy the fullness of a resurrected life. Unfortunately the church teaches little in this regard so I have sought and found some of those answers elsewhere. Hint; the dos and don’ts list, white shirts, cap sleeves and doing your Home or Visiting Teaching on time isn’t part of it. I believe Joseph put us on an early part of the path of enlightenment with plural marriage because living that law would eventually lead to compersion and compersion cannot be achieved without transcending jealously, possessiveness, selfishness and insecurity thus making use of the adversity that polygamy creates to refine us to a more Godlike people. Since Joseph married women who were already married I think it’s possible that plural marriage was intended to apply to both genders eventually teaching compersion to both women and men. But the practice of plural marriage was stopped and lacking prophets with Joseph’s gifts, we are left marking time by marching in place with regard to enlightenment and closing the gap.

  15. MikeInWeHo says:

    What does compersion mean?

  16. “My struggle is that the gap between God and I is so great ”

    I don’t believe that it is. It is true that coming from a certain perspective it is important to recall that we are “nothing.” We are dust. There is a great deal that we cannot do for ourselves: fragile little clay figures on a little clay world. But even so important a truth has its opposing and equally valuable truth, and that is that we are quite impressive. We are beasts of the earth, but we are also beasts of the cosmos: full of love, apprehending beauty, expanding in marvelous ways, learning and _understanding_ things that will still matter deeply long after we are done here. Anyway, wallowing in recognition of sin as a modus operandi tends to lead to meaningless praise and testifying language, and for that there needs to be an antidote.

  17. Jacob H. says:

    “Like Ronan, death frightens me”

    You’re not alone. RJH frightens me sometimes, too.

  18. it's a series of tubes says:

    ba bump bump!

  19. Ha! He is a scary fellow.

  20. Western philosophy is not very tolerant of a unity of opposites. I suppose the ontological gap is more unsettling for us. I LOVE the idea that unity is inherently a discussion of harmonizing complementaries that are, of necessity, apparently incompatible, otherwise, what would unity mean? Can we hold in our minds the competing and paradoxical realities of justice and grace, combustible flesh and indestructible spirit, the pathetically mundane and the absurdly good? We are completely incapable of maintaining that unity – it was bequeathed to us by the gods and will be restored to us by the gods and we simply submit to the process. What is the principle of power we are meant to develop in this apparent environment of powerlessness on this subject? Is moral agency the complement of an assurance of resurrection? If not, what is? If so, what does it mean?

    FMH has an Eliza Snow piece up today on this very subject.

  21. For real, I love you guys. As much as it is really possible to in this format of “relationship”. I always feel the spirit very strongly whenever we have discussions like this, and I am predisposed to love anyone who helps me feel the spirit. These conversations are where we have a shared language, and a shared history–where we are truly brothers and sisters.

  22. It’s interesting how different people can be. I, for example, have never feared death. As a child, I had simple faith that Jesus was going to resurrect everybody and never really doubted that. As I got older and faith became more complicated, I’ve also had to deal with depression and figure a little more fear of death would probably be healthy. To me, the idea that God appeared to Joseph, or that Moses somehow parted the Red Sea, or that Jesus healed the blind — these are all much more immediately relevant to my faith. I need to know that God not only exists and has power, but wields it consciously in a way that will lead to my eventual happiness. Otherwise, it’s life that’s scary. Death is a relief either way.

  23. Martin (22) I agree with most of your statement, I said something very similar in the comments on RJH’s post. Life is the scary part, death is the relief.

  24. I think that perhaps because I don’t know what it means to be resurrected (I know what we say, but I really don’t know what it actually means), I count it as a mystery.

  25. I don’t find Ronan scary. I think of him a bit like a large teddy-bear. But perhaps that’s partly because I don’t find death too scary either. I trust in the promise that Christ’s universal atonement means that all will be resurrected. If God’s power and God’s love mean anything, they mean we can confidently place our trust in that promise.

  26. I never found death scary, but now there is the woman. I don’t even like it when she goes to the grocery store.

  27. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    One of Mormonism’s distinct teachings is that our spirits are eternal and indestructible, that we lived for an eternity before being born, and will live for an eternity after death. The real question is, In what condition will we live? The opportunity for resurrection and return of our spirits to our transformed, durable bodies is dependent upon our humble submission to Christ and his will. Christ’s atoning sacrifice enabled him to receive a comprehension of not only our sins, but all of the suffering of each person who has ever lived or will ever live. A connection is established between each of us and Christ, in which an understanding of of both our sins as actors, and our suffering as the recipient of actions, is uploaded to Christ. The power of resurrection will also be downloaded to our spirits over that same link. It is not MY power to be resurrected, it is Christ’s power to resurrect me, just as it is not MY power to confer priesthood blessings, but the power of God that operates to and through me.

  28. Yes, Thomas there is the woman. Hm, the woman, yeah, the woman, gosh, the woman. Wait. What about the woman?

  29. Lately, a connection between this concept and many talks I heard as a youth (think EFYish) has struck me as an insight into the general Church membership. Probably like many of you, I was often told (or it was strongly implied) that the second coming of Christ would occur “soon,” as in my lifetime. Various signs of the apocalypse were pointed too (usually involving Democrats) as evidence for this immediacy. I’ve since wondered if this focus on the second coming were a response to a nearly-universal fear of death. After all, if Christ did come in our lifetime, we could be changed in the twinkling of an eye and never taste of death, which (despite the unarguably difficult times immediately preceding His coming) is probably a more palatable long-term vision than collapsing of heart disease while shoveling snow or bleeding out in the crushed hull of a Sonata. I used to ardently maintain that the second coming was hundreds of years in the future; now that I’ve had my own brush with death via serious illness, I earnestly hope I was wrong.

  30. >large teddy-bear

    Cheeky git.

  31. Can’t help it Ronan. You’re a cute guy.

  32. J., working from the premise that the resurrection is a mystery works quite well for me.

    Martin, my wife has no fear of death. You are right that there are great differences between us and I wonder whether some of our dispositions are the product of factors other than our own imperfect attempts to think about these questions rationally. Life is certainly scary too.

    EOR, glad that we can share these conversations together.

    RTS, the condition of existence in the after-life is an important consideration and one that is contingent on how we view the pre-mortal life. Ironically, I also fear the breadth of eternity and so I am stuffed either way.

  33. Glenn Thigpen says:

    It is not death that I fear. If we were assured that there was no afterlife we could all breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing to fear. A merciful end to depression, disease, pain, etc.

    It is not death that I fear. It is the uncertainty of what the afterlife does hold that is cause for a bit of nervousness. Have I made my calling and election sure? What more do I need to do?

    It is not that God is a bit like man (mundane, hardly! man is not mundane) but the hope that we can become somewhat more like Him.


  34. I’m not the least worried about death for myself, but I fear greatly for the heartache those I would leave behind (especially children). It breaks my heart thinking about how my kids would struggle with it for their entire lives, and gives me a whole lof of empathy for those who are having to endure such a trial now.

  35. The ontological gap: I have understood that we have come to earth to learn the unteachable. There is this class of understanding which cannot be taught, so it must be experienced. If you have lived to learn the unteachable then you become like Abraham, able to argue with God on that narrow ground of vastly important knowledge. There is no gap there. There is equality, and within that equality there is familiarity.

    As to death, I think only a fool would not be at least a little nervous when standing on the brink of that passage. Familiarity will make you more accepting.

  36. “I don’t know what it means to be resurrected ”

    I know more now than I used to know. When I was a kid, I had a body that would do what I asked it to do. It was the greatest joy. I told my boy run, and off it went running. I told my body speak, and it spoke. I told my body jump, etc. Now, I’ve got a knee that I have not been able to put weight on without pain since before Christmas. Being resurrected will be like once again having that body that participated so fully and joyfully in the physical world, only more so.

  37. Thomas, just to throw this out there:

    I also see the resurrection that way – but the exact nature of a physical resurrection is a fascinating topic given the idea that all matter is tangible / physical / etc. and that only the degree of “refinement” and durability differs.

    In some very important ways, Mormon theology is radically different than the rest of Christianity. In some very important ways, I’m not sure just how different it is.

  38. Well, Ray, at our current rate of progress, we will be indistinguishable from the rest of Christianity right in time for the holidays, so I do indeed hope that those ways are very important. In the meantime, someone around here needs to speak for what is lost. I’m quite grumpy about it, in case it isn’t obvious.

  39. I actually agree with you that we need to speak for the uniqueness that is lost. As I said in an earlier comment, I believe a traditional physical resurrection is the single biggest taeching that requires true faith in all of Christianity – and I think that’s the main reason it has been rejected so universally by so many.

    All I’m saying is that the topic is interesting given some of our scriptures about the nature of matter. (Fwiw, I feel the same away about the creation of spirit children and many of our comunity’s assumptions – past and present – about how that occurs.) Mormon theology is so expansive and complex that I am amazed and perplexed regularly still. I think sometimes we latch onto what appears to be obvious and forget that earlier beliefs that lie discarded in the trash cans of history seemed just as obvious to the people who believed them back in the day.

    Also, I like grumpy Thomas – as long as happy Thomas and sarcastic Thomas and hilarious Thomas comment occasionally, as well.

  40. Thomas & Ray, I, too, am very much in favour of emphasizing the uniqueness of Mormon theology and the importance of embodiment is certainly somewhere important to start. This post was intended to express part of the reason I struggle with the resurrection rather than being prescriptive of what I think Mormon theology is or should be.

  41. I understand, Aaron. I apologize if it sounded otherwise.

  42. Me, too, Aaron. Though don’t expect me stop tilting at windmills. ;>

  43. No need to apologize, I just wanted to make it clear where I stand in this conversation. Great to have your thoughts here.

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