How Will God Know His Own? Vaccination Worries and Medieval Resurrection Doctrine

by Karl Steel

Photo by Josh Marshall on Unsplash

The twitter account Bad Vaccine Takes had a hit last November with a screenshot of someone wondering whether “it is possible that the ‘Vaccine’ interferes with the protein transcription process and prevents us from reincarnating when we decompose after we die. God would not be able to recognize the sequence and we would not be able to enter heaven.” The tweet’s several thousand responses offer no surprises: they jeer at its bad science, and delight in its bad theology. They exult in the greatest comfort many of us have sought in this pandemic, that of not being a sucker.

The tweet from Bad Vaccine Takes

We know Covid vaccines do not alter our DNA. And even if they did, it’s even more incredible to imagine Heaven’s celestial security scanning the recently resurrected for genetic irregularities, and still more so to imagine some vaccinated unfortunate rejected because their new DNA signature was missing from that divine database, the Book of Life. God, being God, can do whatever he likes. In the reassuring words of 2 Timothy 2:19, infamously quoted in 1209 by Crusaders in Languedoc before they massacred the inhabitants of Béziers, “the Lord knoweth them that are His.”

So the tweet may just strike us as silly. But people still worry. When I was a child in an evangelical Christian church, every night I worried whether Heaven would let me in. It wasn’t my DNA that kept me up, but the sincerity of my love for Jesus. God knows his own, and he had to know I wasn’t one of them, because he had to know my love for him was never better than feigned. But how could I find love in that morass of worry, when I could already feel the infernal flames at my heels?

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Anyone who believes in Heaven must be preoccupied with how to get in. God’s imponderable might would drive anyone to wonder if we’re doing right by him. I recognized in the tweet an echo of my long ago nighttime infernal anxieties. As a medievalist, I also sensed a glimmer of worries about the nature of the self explored more seriously by medieval theology than they are by our own, supposedly secular era.

For when the tweet uses “reincarnation,” it must mean resurrection, the usual term in Christianity. Reincarnation is typically understood as a soul getting a new body — that of another person, or maybe a fish, dog, or worm — whereas resurrection, in Catholic doctrine, means a soul being reunited with its own physical body. Mainstream medieval Catholic resurrection doctrine pointed to Jesus stepping forth from the tomb, still marked by the wounds of his crucifixion. Like Jesus, our souls would have our bodies again, and not just any body, but our unique bodies, the ones that were ours — that were us, in fact — throughout our first, mortal life. As the great medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum explains, this notion of the self was not a soul with a body, but rather a “psychosomatic unity,” body and soul combined. If the self is going to be judged by God, then the whole complete self needs to be there.

It is difficult, however, to imagine how this might work. So much happens to our bodies, in life and afterwards. Some 1500 years ago in North Africa, Augustine of Hippo assured his readers that God would make us whole again, but in the process, he reminded us of all that we have to worry about:

For the earthly substance from which the flesh of mortal man is produced does not perish. Instead, whether it be dissolved into dust or ashes, or dispersed into vapors and the winds, or converted into the substance of other bodies (or even back into the basic elements themselves), or has served as food for beasts or even men and been turned into their flesh — in an instant of time this matter returns to the soul that first animated it, and that caused it to become a man, to live and to grow.

At least Augustine was willing to let himself, and us with him, be worried by what might become of us. One attraction medieval doctrine has for me, as a former Evangelical, is its commitment to taking seriously any conclusion that followed from its fundamental premises, no matter how seemingly outlandish. Questions that would have elicited suspicious befuddlement in my childhood church were taken up enthusiastically by medieval theologians. Although some of them insisted that it’s “better to be a simple Catholic than an eloquent heretic!”, others seemed to be having fun in letting their thoughts run up the very edge of heresy.

If we have to have our bodies back, matters of eating and being eaten offer extraordinary opportunities for heresy, and equally extraordinary opportunities for ingenious solutions. The twelfth-century logician Gilbert of Poitiers imagined atheists who denied the resurrection because the resurrection of the body required that we resurrect with whatever we had eaten during our life: would we therefore be called before God as partially us, and partially ham? Around the same time, another theologian went so far as to imagine animals able to resurrect because they had consumed resurrectable flesh:

a man, in eating beast flesh, turns it into his own flesh and conversely a beast eating human flesh turns it into its own flesh, and thus the flesh of a beast having been converted into human flesh or having been made human will resurrect.

Some theologians responded to these perhaps concocted opponents by asserting that no food ever actually became us: maybe, they suggested, food only warmed our unchangeable bodily core, and nothing but that bit would resurrect.

But what happened to that core after we died? A thirteenth-century doctrinal guide features a debate between a teacher and his student in which the student wonders whether a man who has been hanged, quartered, and then eaten by a dog would resurrect, since the human body was now, at least partly, dog flesh. The teacher doesn’t simply shut the student down. Instead, he outdoes him with a still more outlandish chain consumption scenario: a wolf kills and eats a man in the woods, and then a lion does the same to the satiated wolf, and then the lion dies too, as all lions must: “Know, indeed,” cries the teacher, as if imitating his student, “that I do not believe at all that this man could be recuperated from death into life, because nothing can divide the earth that was the man from that which became the beasts!” But then, as soon as he’s conjured the specter of nonexistence, the teacher banishes it by assuring the student of God’s unerring majesty.

Thomas Aquinas takes the problem of eating and the self to the absolute limit when he ponders the old cannibalism thought experiment: when the cannibal resurrects, how many people resurrect with him? What if the cannibal ate nothing but human flesh? What if his parents were dedicated cannibals too? No worries, explains Aquinas: the people who got human flesh by being born with it rather than by eating it would have the first claim on their flesh in the resurrection, and, as for the cannibals, even though they might not have any flesh they could really call their own, God would still make up the difference, somehow, because everyone has to have a body. God would sort it out.

It is this answer that we can offer, too, to our worried anti-vaxxer. No God worthy of the name could be thwarted by our technological innovations. No matter how strange the medicine, no matter if some transhumanist uploads their brain into the cloud, God will always find a way to find you, for good or for ill.

Our anti-vaxxer is worried about his own bodily integrity and suspicious of the new and unfamiliar. Not unlike the medieval theologians, he’s worried too about what counts as his own body and therefore about who he might be. The medieval answers can still be offered to him: if God can sort us out from the flood of food that passes through us during our hungry lives, no doubt he can distinguish us from vaccines too.

While I doubt my ability to convince him, I admire his commitment to the logical possibilities of his theology. Big claims require serious thought. If the answer, in this case, always leads to the same place, on our way to that answer we can still be grateful to have had an excuse to think again about how this strange and vulnerable thing we call us could possibly persist from moment to moment, and to wonder again how it might continue, even into the after ever.

Karl Steel (@karlsteel) is professor of English at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of two books: How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Ohio State University Press, 2011) and How Not to Make a Human: Pets, Feral Children, Worms, Sky Burial, Oysters (University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

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Engaging premodern literature, history, culture, and art to speak to contemporary social issues. Engage the past, define the future.

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