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?