Shroud of Turin and physics of resurrection

by Julian Sheffield

Mr. Fanti’s hypothesis cited in “Turin Shroud Going on TV, With Video From Pope” (New York Times, March 30), that the image on the Shroud of Turin resulted from “a very intense burst of energy” recasts the Shroud as a testament to Christ’s Resurrection, and not, as currently revered, a relic of Christ’s passion and death. This is a crucial reconception, one that makes sense of the scriptural record, and suggests that the morbid, and ultimately destructive, fascination of Christianity with the suffering of Christ is misplaced.

The scriptural record of the Resurrection of Christ has been interpreted as hoax, mass hypnosis, metaphor, and fact. While we live, none of us will know for sure which interpretation is closest to truth, but assuming arguendo that it contains fact, assuming arguendo that there is a God who became human in an extreme act of solidarity with humanity, the question of how it can be true demands to be explored.

Assuming arguendo God, the God of Christianity set up a universe with laws that God’s self is committed to respecting. God does not violate God’s laws. We haven’t yet discovered all those laws, and we don’t fully understand the ones we have discovered, but we have discovered enough to make sense out of some of the events described by scriptural record of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is described as occurring with a great burst of light and sound (Matthew 28:2, I Corinthians 15:12). The resurrected body of Jesus is described as being in two distant places at the same time (Emmaus, Luke 24:13-31, and Jerusalem, Luke 24:35-36) and being able to pass through solid objects (doors, John 20:19). It is characterized by a changing, unrepeated aspect or physical appearance; the disciples, even those who have experienced the resurrected body once, never recognize the resurrected Jesus except by spoken words and gestures (Mary in the garden John 20:16, Thomas John 20:26-27, the disciples fishing all night John 21:1-13, and many more).

We now have a concept in physics that could account for these descriptions of the resurrection appearances: the risen body of Jesus conforms to the physical laws of something traveling beyond the speed of light. It can be at multiple places simultaneously, can pass through slow matter, can appear as it wills when it wills (coming perilously close to attributing volition to an object).

Further, Mr. Fanti’s hypothesis of “a very intense burst of energy” burning the image on the shroud would describe precisely the mechanics of a body moving from a state of rest to beyond the speed of light. Just such images were burned onto walls by atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Which points to why Mr. Fanti’s hypothesis matters. So much suffering is endured by so many humans and creatures in this world, it is understandable that people take comfort from a God who suffers with them. But the church has glorified suffering in such a persistent way that it tends towards and has actively articulated justification of inflicting and enduring suffering in the name of holiness and sacrifice, acceptance of the so-called will of God.

In fact, the will of the God co-opted by this kind of thinking, is not towards suffering or redemption by suffering. The will of this God is towards resurrection.

Physics can explain the accidents of the resurrection, the outward appearances and anomalies. But physics cannot explain, as yet, how God raised Jesus from the dead. And therein lies the hope of Christians, and perhaps of the world. If the catholic church chooses to appropriate it, the Shroud of Turin can be a locus for it to turn from worshipping suffering to worshipping the God who raises the dead – even a dead church may be raised.

Julian Sheffield is married to Deirdre Good, works as Business Manager at the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy, has an MPhil in New Testament from Union Theological Seminary, and was trained in liturgics and priestcraft by Edward N. West of blessed memory.

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