jQuery Slider

You are here



by Ted Schroder

Since the eighteenth century, Western culture has been influenced by a philosophy called Positivism, which asserts that all genuine human knowledge is contained within the boundaries of science. Whatever questions cannot be answered by scientific methods we must be content to leave permanently unanswered.

In other words, the only knowledge worth having is that which is backed by biology and physics, and opposed to blind tradition and superstition, i.e. religion. People who espouse this point of view regard themselves as enlightened and progressive in their thinking, following the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment. It would seem that Elton John, Larry King, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett belong to this tradition. Richard Dawkins has written that, "Science is the only way we know to understand the real world."

As a result, they have narrowed knowledge to an examination of matter. The physical and the material is the only worthwhile subject of study. But there are limits to physical explanations. Life reduced to the physical leads to fatalism. Because we have no observable evidence of life beyond death (if we arbitrarily exclude the resurrection of Jesus), there is nothing to look forward to in the future but extinction.

It is to define humanity as but an episode in the universal dance of the atoms and electrons. But there is more to life than the physical. There is mind as well as body. There is the observer (who is subjective in his observation of the world), as well as the observed (the object of observation). Paul Tournier in The Meaning of Persons writes that there are two worlds: the world of things, and the world of people. They need different criteria to study because they are different categories.

What is life as a whole? Biologists and physicists can describe life as they see it in living things, but they cannot explain all of life itself. Psychology can study the laws of psychical phenomena, but that study is unable to explain the psychical fact par excellence, namely consciousness, which is not a phenomenon, but a subjective experience.

Science cannot account for the incomprehensible appearance on earth of life. The problem of the origin of life cannot be solved to our satisfaction because nobody was there to observe it. It is totally impossible to account scientifically for all phenomena pertaining to life and its development. The famous geologist Adam Sedgwick, who was Charles Darwin's mentor at Cambridge University, wrote to Darwin on November 24, 1859 shortly after the publication of The Origin of the Species. "Passages in your book...greatly shocked my moral sense. There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. 'Tis the crown and glory of organic science that it does, thro' final causes, link material to moral... You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it."

That is why we must turn to other sources of knowledge to seek answers to questions about life and death. When St. Paul contemplates the future he contrasted the sufferings of this present life with the glory that shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18) Jesus talked about his death as being the moment when he would be glorified (John 17:1) To the Christian death ushers us into a new creation of liberation from decay and glorious freedom. This is sometimes hard for us to comprehend because we are earth-bound creatures, and preoccupied with our bodies. When our bodies die, what becomes of us? How does the new creation occur? Is there any clue from what we know about the old creation? Art Buchwald in his new book, Too Soon to Say Goodbye, notes that the big question about death is 'not where we are going, but what we were doing here in the first place." In other words, we know our end from our beginning.

We read that God formed man from the dust of the ground - we came from the earth in some way that is not defined in Scripture. The Bible does not define us in physical or biological terms, but in spiritual terms. Man became truly human when God breathed into him the breath of life, the Spirit of life, and man became a living being, made in the image of God, capable of moral responsibility, reflection and a relationship with God. (Genesis 2:7)

The Bible talks about the soul, or the spirit, or the mind, as well as the body. The body is our physical presence which can be objectively and scientifically studied. Our soul, or mind, or spirit is not so accessible. Yet, it is the soul, or consciousness which is the subjective center of our identity. You can say that the soul is the 'real me.' The real person is internal, silent, hidden. Science knows only causality and excludes all reference to purpose. It is incapable of discussing the meaning of life. Life is characterized not by material function only, accessible to science, but by an immaterial, spiritual, purposive function. What maintains the continuity of the real me is not matter or the physical itself, but the immensely complex information-bearing pattern in which that matter is organized. That pattern is the soul.

It will be dissolved at my death with the decay of my body. I have no natural or scientific expectation of surviving death. Death is the real end of this life. Christians believe, differently from the ancient Greeks, that the soul, in itself is not immortal. Only God is immortal. Only he can confer life. When I die, the pattern that is me will dissolve with the decay of my body. Yet it is perfectly consistent to believe that God will hold in his heart, in his divine memory, the pattern that is me, in order to reconstitute me again in God's great final act of resurrection in the new heavens and the new earth. To use an inadequate analogy, we may say that when my computer crashes and I lose my files, my only hope is that I have made a backup file. God has made a back up file on me, which he uses when I die to reconstitute me in a new creation.

God brings about a re-embodiment, in a new kind of matter which will not decay. That new matter will be the redeemed matter of this world, transformed by God after the death of the universe itself. The future of the cosmos and the future of humanity must lie together, in the life of the new creation that will succeed the demise of the old.

St. Paul talks about this in terms of the destruction of the earthly tent in which we live, and then being clothed with a heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2 Corinthians 5:1-4) We are psychosomatic unities. We are not meant to be disembodied. Paul has a horror of being found naked, unclothed, a soul without a body, a consciousness without a home. We need a heavenly body as much as we need an earthly body.

What then is the real me, the real soul, or mind, or consciousness? It is hard to recognize the same body which we have inhabited all our lives. We have changed dramatically from infancy through to old age. Our material continuity is an illusion because the matter in our bodies is changing all the time, through wear and tear, eating and drinking. We have very few atoms in our bodies today that were there even three years ago, let alone sixty. Continuity lies, not in the physical form but in the informational-bearing pattern, our memory, our consciousness. Science is beginning to discover that information is as fundamental as energy.

To be truly human is to be embodied - the Christian hope is resurrection rather than simply spiritual survival. We are not apprentice angels. We are creatures of time and not destined to be inhabitants of a timeless eternity. The new creation will have its own form of time. There will be an everlastingly unfolding history in heaven.

How do you imagine that? The prospect of an everlasting world ahead of us may be threatening. No doubt it would be nice to have a much longer life than is afforded us here - a few thousand years maybe. But everlasting life? Isn't there a danger that eventually we shall get bored? Even the greatest golf enthusiast might tire of the game after a thousand years of playing on an endless succession of different courses.

But the life of heaven will be lived in the presence of God's infinite reality. In the course of the unfolding time of the new creation, we shall be drawn deeper and deeper into the unending exploration of the inexhaustible riches of the divine nature.

St. Paul expressed this so well when he quoted Isaiah: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him." (1 Corinthians 2:9)

Teresa of Avila describes the soul in terms of an interior castle. "I thought of the soul as resembling a castle, formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal, and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions. What, do you imagine, must that dwelling be in which a king so mighty, so wise, and so pure containing in himself all good, can delight to rest? Nothing can be compared to the great beauty and capabilities of a soul; however keen our intellects may be, they are as unable to comprehend them as to comprehend God, for as he has told us, he created us in his own image and likeness."

Jesus said, "In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (John 14:2,3)

Death and resurrection into the new creation is like moving from your old dilapidated house in a deteriorating neighborhood, from which you cannot emerge because of possible accident or injury, into a new, custom-built house, which you, with God, have been designing in your mind and consciousness (your soul) all your mortal life, situated in a beautiful neighborhood and a heavenly country where to venture forth is to experience new adventure and delight, and you have eternity to explore and to serve. We take into the new creation our consciousness of who we really are, who we have become, in Christ.

George MacDonald (1824-1905), author of many children's books such as The Princess and the Goblin, and At the Back of the North Wind, wrote these words about the death of his brother:

"Of him we need never say he WAS; for what he was he is now - only expanded, enlarged, and glorified. He needed no change, only development. Memory and anticipation are very closely allied. Around him they will both gather without very clear separation perhaps. He died in his earthly home and went to his heavenly... he is more to be envied maybe... But for them that love God, no one is to be envied more than another; for all are clasped to the bosom of love and fed daily from the heart of the Father, whether here or in the other world - all one."

To have such a hope you need to experience the love of God through a faith-encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ. He is the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Jesus will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in him will never die. (John 11:25,26) Jesus said these words to Martha when her brother Lazarus died.

Then he challenged her: "Do you believe this?" He challenges us today with the same words. Do you believe this? Do you believe that I will bring you through death to resurrection in the new creation? Then trust in me. Follow me. Believe in me. Live each day with me in that living hope that I will come for you and take you to be with me. There will be a glory to be revealed in you. You will be clothed with a heavenly dwelling.

(This presentation contains material from Living with Hope, John Polkinghorne.)

Amelia Plantation Chapel
Amelia Island, Florida

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top