Beliefwatch: What Does Resurrection Look Like?

You likely believe that when you die, you're going to heaven. More than 80 percent of Americans do. But in what form? Are you "you"? If so, are you old or young, fat or thin? If not, what are you? An angel? A spirit? A spark? On the question of resurrection, the consensus breaks down. According to a 2005 NEWSWEEK POLL, only half of Americans think of resurrection as a physical event, a revivification of

flesh after death. More than a third think of it as something spiritual, an ascension of the soul that leaves the corpse behind. Such widespread hedging infuriates the orthodox.

Now a small group of orthodox Christian and Jewish scholars are trying to force the issue. They argue that from the beginning, Jews and Christians have understood resurrection as a physical transformation—a literal reversal of death. For the faithful to be faithful, these proponents argue, they must believe, wholly and without hairsplitting, in resurrection as the reunion of an individual's body and soul at the end of time—a miracle from God. This was the argument that the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, N. T. Wright, put forth in his 2008 book "Surprised by Hope." It is also the argument in Randy Alcorn's book "Heaven." Unknown to the secular world, but a must-read in evangelical Christian circles, Alcorn argues that belief in resurrection as a material event is central to Christian faith. "Go ahead and say you don't believe in miracles," says Alcorn, "but then don't portray yourself as a person of faith. If you believe the Bible is true, then you have to believe that Jesus healed people and that he raised Lazarus from the dead." "Heaven" has just come out in its 16th printing, this time with a DVD for study groups attached. Since its publication in 2004, it has sold 500,000 copies.

At Harvard, a scholar named Jon Levenson is trying to bring back a belief in resurrection to the legions of Jews who insist on agnosticism or, at least, on looser metaphorical interpretations. His award-winning 2006 book "Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel" argues that a Jewish belief in resurrection has its origins in the Torah (a controversial claim in scholarly circles) and a long tradition in rabbinic Judaism. Since the Enlightenment, he explains, progressive adherents have tried to scuttle or modulate belief in resurrection. But in a classical sense—and in prayers the orthodox say every day—resurrection means "you come back in the body as a result of a miraculous intervention of God." In a new book, "Resurrection," Levenson and his Harvard colleague Kevin Madigan explore the common roots of Jewish and Christian conceptions of resurrection.

Resurrection has from the earliest days strained credulity, and progressive Jews and Christians continue to talk about it as a metaphor for spiritual renewal or to explain it as the immortal soul returning after death to God. This view may be more palatable in secular times, but it doesn't inspire the same kind of awe. Saint Augustine, in an effort to convince skeptics of the truth of resurrection, took the opposite tack. He devoted himself to describing the benefits of the real, resurrected body. In heaven, he wrote in "City of God," you will be your perfect self: unblemished and 30-something. If you were fat in life, you will become pleasingly thinner; if too thin, you will become robust. According to Augustine, "we will be in our physical bodies in a universe that has no dimension, and we will know God without interpretation," explains Paula Fredriksen, author most recently of "Augustine and the Jews." "Our bodies will be the very same as the ones we had in life, but buff and beautiful." What Augustine and today's orthodox are talking about is compelling indeed: a heavenly makeover. From their point of view, faith is radical belief. Miracles really do happen.