Saturday, April 28, 2012

Can These Bones Live? More on the resurrection of the body

Picking up from my last post about the hope of the resurrection of the dead/body:

For Christians, the resurrected body has always been (officially if not in popular imagination) an integral aspect of our ultimate expectation. But affirming that raises other questions such as:

How do bodies that have turned to dust and whose atoms have been scattered and shared by other bodies get resurrected?

First of all, any answer to this questions like this is bound to be speculative and partial. For now we see in a mirror, dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12).  Still, we wonder.

I have been helped in wondering about this by John Polkinghorne, the English theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest. In his book, The God of Hope and the End of the World:
Whatever the human soul may be, it is surely what expresses and carries the continuity of living personhood. We already face within this life the problem of what that entity might be. The soul must be the ‘real me’ that links the boy of childhood to the ageing academic of later life. If that carrier of continuity is not a separate spiritual component, what else could it be? It is certainly not merely material. The atoms that make up our bodies are continuously being replaced in the course of wear and tear, eating and drinking. We have very few atoms in our bodies today that were there even two years ago. What does appear to be the carrier of continuity is the immensely complex ‘information-bearing pattern’ in which that matter organised. This pattern is not static; it is modified as we acquire new experiences, insights and memories, in accordance with the dynamic of our living history. It is this information-bearing pattern that is the soul. - p. 105-106
If these ideas contain some truth, we have to acknowledge that this information-bearing pattern will, in the course of nature, be dissolved by the decay of our bodies after death. There is therefore, no intrinsic immortality associated with the soul in this way of understanding it. Death is a real end. However, it need not be an ultimate end, for in Christian understanding only God is ultimate. - p. 107
. . . there is indeed the Christian hope of a destiny beyond death, but it resides not in the presumed immortality of a spiritual soul, but in the divinely guaranteed eschatological sequence of death and resurrection. Only a hope conceived of in this way can do full justice to human psychosomatic unity, and hence to the indispensibility of some form of re-embodiment for a truly human future existence. The only ground for this hope–and the sufficient ground for this hope, as we have already emphasised–lies in the faithfulness of the Creator, in the unrelenting divine love for all creatures. - p. 108 
It is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern that is a human being could be held in the divine memory after that person’s death. Such a disembodied existence, even if located within the divine remembrance, would be less than fully human. It would be more like the Hebrew concept of the shades in Sheol, though now a Sheol from which the Lord was not absent, but quite the contrary, God was sustsaining it. It is a further coherent hope, and one for which the resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the foretaste and guarantee, that God in the eschatological future will re-embody this multitude of preserved information-bearing patterns in some new environment of God’s choosing. - p. 107-108

We could say, I suppose, that, if God can pull of the resurrection of the dead at all, he can take care of the details, and leave it at that. But, the observation that our bodies as we know them now have very few atoms that were there even two years ago seems to help resolve the question at the beginning of this post. Our current bodies are dynamic rather than static, maintaining a continuity of appearance even as their material make-up changes. Might we imagine that if the Christian expectation of the resurrection of the body is true that the "information-bearing pattern" that is the "carrier of continuity" of our personality and physical form will be re-embodied when the New Heaven and New Earth are united (the "new environment of God's choosing")? And wouldn't that mean that our resurrected bodies will be made of the transfigured material of this world -- whether or not that incorporates all the particular atoms that might have made up our bodies at any given moment of our pre-resurrection lives let alone at the time of our death?

That would mean that there would be both continuity and discontinuity between our pre-resurrection and post-resurrection existence, just as we see with Jesus. His resurrection appearances give us a hint of that destiny as does Paul's discussion of the "spiritual body" in 1Corinthians 15. 

For a playful imagining of how this world might look, transfigured into New Creation where the resurrected, transfigured, spiritual bodies will enjoy eternal life partaking in the divine nature see: Ephrem of Edessa (the Syrian) on Paradise.

1 comment:

Robert F said...

I tend to think that this "information-bearing pattern" is closely linked with each of our unique genetic codes. And it is this pattern or code that will be resurrected at the end of the age even as it is, in another sense, always alive to the God of the living, who transcends our chronology and mortality.