A person asked 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 to say that Tertullian and Origen discussed that question in the 2nd and 3rd century, and much later, CS Lewis picks up the same theme in his book, Miracles.
CS Lewis who observed that fingernails and hair and skin and the entire the human body is always in a condition of flux. “Bodies change their entire molecular kit once about every 7 years”, Wright summarized.
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 in this sense, 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 make up my 60-year body.
NT Wright posed the question differently: If a ship goes into a port and then, one year later, after all parts of it have been replaced, 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, but I know that I am still me even I don’t have a single molecule left over from my 22-year old self. I have more experiences, which are, themselves, now memories. They aren’t physical things I can show anyone, but I can describe them.
They are undeniably “part” of “me” – things I have picked up along the way in my physical existence over the years, along with the extra weight.
CS Lewis says that people are like the curve in a waterfall. There is continuity of form but discontinuity of matter. Matter pours through us.
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 they once were. Not one molecule remains from my 22-year old self.
God will give us new bodies that are appropriate for us, and we will be recognizable but more fully us then we were before hearing it’s like the person who comments about someone who is sick time a that they are just a shadow of themselves. In fact, we are just a shadow now of what we will become. Wright says there is a real you that use much more like you then you are now that is vividly more like you.
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.”
Then Wright referred to the encounter in John 21, after had Jesus died. A group of his disciples had gone back to their livelihood, fishing, which is where 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. Peter immediately know it was Jesus who stood there on the shore. He didn’t hesitate a moment, but jumped into the water to swim ashore.
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 he was the same Jesus.
The encounter undoubtedly reminded Peter, James and John of the day they first met Jesus when he engaged them while they were working (Matt. 18:-22). In that first encounter, 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 immediately today. I have 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 was changed. He was standing there in a a resurrected body that was his, but different. His body was a new creation.
“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”: we 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 this bodies. The reality that those of us on this side of that change experience is wispy, shadowy and incomplete compared to the what will be. THIS life is the dream from which we will awaken one day, like the butterfly emerges from its cocoon.
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.