Shock and awe; a glimpse of the awe and wonder of God.

Reflections on Jesus’ post resurrection appearances

by Don Rampolla

“Shock and awe” is now a well recognized term for U.S. military strategy. (70 years ago the equivalent term was “blitzkrieg”) Thinking about the disciples despair after Jesus’ crucifixion I would suppose that these terms might apply to their reaction to Jesus post resurrection appearances.

However to me one of the most amazing features of the eleven post resurrection gospel stories in which Jesus appears suddenly is the lack of amazement with which they are recounted. When Jesus does appear the disciples reactions are seldom mentioned. Even when Jesus appears out of nowhere despite closed doors, the disciples reactions are described in the fewest words possible as being afraid, but then reassured by touching Jesus and by eating with him. I don’t know how reassuring it would be for me to find that someone who becomes present in this way actually has a body that I can touch and feel like an ordinary body, or that this someone can actually consume food.

Perhaps one reason for the almost casual mention in these stories of Jesus suddenly appearing is that the writers were removed in time and space from the events, and had heard or told the stories so often. Perhaps another reason is that in retrospect the writers realized that since Jesus had foretold His resurrection, His appearances should not have been a cause for shock and awe. My own experience, perhaps for the same reasons, is that on rehearing these stories my own sense of shock and awe is muted. So to enhance my sense of amazement I like to ask what resurrection might imply from a scientific point of view.

Each living adult human body consists of a huge number of atoms. (In scientific notation this number is about 1028 – pronounced “ten to the twenty eighth”. For example the 2004 U.S. gross domestic product of 10 trillion dollars, - 10,000,000,000,000 - would be expressed as 1013 or “ten to the thirteenth” dollars). These atoms are organized by our life force into molecules, cells, organs, and finally into a living, breathing, thinking organism. The complexity is overwhelming. How does Jesus resurrected body fit this pattern? He speaks – are the organs involved in speaking, face muscles, vocal cords, tongue, chest muscles, lungs, like mine? He eats – are the organs involved here for holding, tasting, chewing, swallowing, digesting, eliminating, like mine? The disciples can touch him – is the composition of His skin, muscle and bone, like mine – does He feel the touch as I would? If his bodily structure is like mine, from where do His atoms come, and to where do they go, and how do they get arranged by His life force?

Of course these questions are unanswerable, but they help to increase my sense of shock and awe at Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent appearances. And they get me to thinking about the awe and wonder of every living thing. Every living thing is a collection of a huge number of atoms organized by a mysterious life force into molecules, cells, organs and finally a living organism. Even in the smallest flea and the tiniest mold cell the complexity is overwhelming. These thoughts lead me to a profound respect and reverence for all life – and especially for the life of another human being.

I want to relate these thoughts to the human experience of lack of respect. How often do we respect one person less than another because of differences in;

physical stature
physical ability
mental ability
skin color
country of origin
political affiliation

Yet when you stop to think about it, the fact that a person is such an awesome complex entity completely overwhelms the importance of all the accidents of being.

Here’s an example of how I present these ideas to my college physics students in a non-religious way.

Dear students, you and I each have a certain level of ability, ambition and energy to excel, else you and I would not be here four days a week for a physics lecture at 8 AM. Now consider someone with less ability, ambition etc. You and I may sometimes be tempted to feel superior to this person in some way. So let me issue us a joint challenge – to stitch together a mere 1019 atoms (one billionth the number in a human adult) into a living thing with the size, ability, ambition and energy of an aphid. All the necessary atoms can be found in a fraction of a teaspoon of good quality potting soil. We have to admit that this job is far beyond our abilities; perhaps this will enhance our sense of the respect that we owe to every person, including ourselves, and to every living thing, from the “greatest” to the “least”.

Now taken by itself this idea of respect based on a scientific perspective of the awesome complexity of life may seem like a very cold and mechanical way of looking at other people and other living things. But I propose that in a way it’s no different from being moved to awe and wonder by a magnificent sunrise, night sky, or symphony. In all of these the perception of the physical somehow opens a window to something beyond – the awe and wonder of God.

So, dear reader, I hope that these simple thoughts, prompted by the stories of Jesus’ appearance after His resurrection, will help to increase your sense of awe and wonder at all forms of life in this marvelous creation of which we’re so privileged to be a part, and through which we get a glimpse of the awe and wonder of God.