A person posed this question to N.T Wright: “If my body decays, and goes on to become reconstituted into plants and animals and things, what remains? What is essentially me?” NT Wright responded by noting, first, that Tertullian and Origen discussed this question in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and CS Lewis picked up the same theme in the 20th century in his book, Miracles.
CS Lewis observed that fingernails, hair, skin and the entire the human body are in a constant condition of flux. “Bodies change their entire molecular kit once about every seven (7) years”, Wright noted.
I am not the same person physically that I was when I was born, or graduated from college at age 22, or graduated from law school at age 31 or when my last child was born when I was 39. I am not the same person, physically, at 60, as I was when I was 39.
All of the molecules in my body have switched out many times over those years, yet I am still recognizably me. Maybe a bit larger, with gray hair and visibly aged from my mid-twenties, but I am still me even though none of the same molecules exist in my 60-year body.
NT Wright re-phrased the question in different ways: If a ship goes into a port and one year later, after all parts of it have been replaced, it goes into port again, is it the same ship? If my grandfather has a spade, and replaces the blade and handle several times, is it the still the same spade?
I don’t know about a ship or a spade, but as for me, I know that I am still me even though I don’t have a single molecule left over from my 22-year old self. I have more experiences; I have gained more memories. People can see in my body and mind some resemblance of the “me” they might remember.
Though memories aren’t physical things I can show anyone, I can describe them, and people who share those experiences with me can recognize them. Those nonphysical memories are undeniably “part” of “me” – things I have picked up along the way in addition to the extra weight in my physical body.
CS Lewis says that people are like the curve in a waterfall. They have continuity of form but discontinuity of matter. Matter pours through us. The “us” matter pours through is the real thing – not the matter.
On this day six (6) years ago, Facebook informs me that I posted this quotation from CS Lewis:
“You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.”
I don’t know if CS Lewis is exactly right, but he is getting at the same idea – that we are something more than our physical selves. We aren’t reducible to our physical selves. Our physical selves aren’t even made up of the same molecules that once existed in us. Not one molecule remains from my 22-year old self – yet my self remains.
This mystery is extended in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Through Jesus, God promises to give us new bodies. Our bodies will be changed, Scripture says, but each one of us will remain the same person and be recognizable. Biblical scholars say we will be more fully us then we were before.
In a sense, it’ will be the opposite of the saying about a sick person who is “just a shadow of himself.” Except, the perspective will be reversed. We will see that our bodies were just a shadow of what we will become. Wright says there is a “real you” that is much more like you, vividly more like you, then you are now.
Getting around to attempt an answer to the question posed, NT Wright says, “Nowhere in the New Testament does it describe a soul leaving a body and going to heaven.” What does he mean?
Wright alluded to the encounter with Jesus in John 21. After Jesus died, some of his disciples went back to their livelihood, fishing, which is where Jesus found them. When Jesus found them, they didn’t recognize him at first as he stood on he shore and called out to them.
Jesus told them to throw their net out the other side of the boat. When they did, they were unable to haul it back into the boat with all the fish trapped in the net. At that moment, Peter knew it was Jesus who stood there on the shore. Peter didn’t recognize Jesus at first, so how did he know?
Scripture makes a point of emphasizing the recognition: the disciples didn’t have to ask him, “‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.” (John 21:12) He was obviously different then he was before his death, but they recognized him nevertheless.
The instruction to cast the net off the other side of the boat undoubtedly reminded Peter, James and John of the day they first met Jesus. Jesus engaged them, then, while they were working (Matt. 18:-22). They had labored all night without catching fish. Jesus got in the boat with Simon (Peter) and had him launch out into deeper water to drop the net. (Luke 5:1-11)
The same thing happened: there were so many fish Peter couldn’t haul the net back into the boat. These memories connected them, and Peter knew immediately the significance of them. Jesus was different the second time around, standing there in a resurrected body, but he was recognizably Jesus.
Some people from my high school class might not recognize me at first glance today. I have changed, put on weight and aged, but I am still recognizably me. The “me” today has been changed somewhat by the aging process that occurs over 40 years, but I am still me.
The encounters the disciples had with the resurrected Jesus were similar, but of a different kind altogether. Jesus was not ravaged by years of living; he stood among them in a resurrected body. His body was a new creation. Just as my high school classmates might see the resemblance of my older body to my younger body, the disciples undoubtedly saw the resemblance of the body that died on the cross to the resurrected body of Jesus.
“There are … heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another…. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable…. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” (1 Corinthians 15: 40, 42, 51-53)
Jesus demonstrated that for us in his death and resurrection. N.T. Wright summarized it this way: “The mystery of the new creation is that it is a heaven plus earth reality.” We don’t “leave our bodies behind”: our bodies are changed from perishable to imperishable.
I will end my thoughts with this. In his book, The Great Divorce, CS Lewis describes in allegorical form the idea that “heaven” is a reality that is much more vivid and real in every way than the lives we live in these earthly bodies. The reality that those of us on this side of that change of experience is wispy, shadowy and incomplete compared to what will be. THIS life is the dream from which we will awaken one day, like the butterfly emerges from its cocoon.
God existed first; then He created space/time and matter. We are part of the created world, but God extends to us the invitation to participate in His very Being, which preceded and supersedes the created world. This, in fact, is the purpose for which He created us – that we might become new creations, from perishable to imperishable.
If you are interested in what the science might suggest about an afterlife, you may interested in reading about Near Death Experiences. I warn you, though, it may not prove anything, but the data is interesting nonetheless.