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A Destiny beyond death: heaven – John Polkinghorne

Every story that science can tell ends ultimately in decay and futility.  This is due to the fact that without external intervention, systems become increasingly disorderly (the second law of thermodynamics).  Even the universe itself is going to die after billions of years, as it eventually becomes too cold and too dilute to support life anywhere within it.  The atheist physicist, Steven Weinberg, once said that the more he understood the universe, the more it seemed to him ultimately pointless.  However, Christianity has an additional story to tell of the everlasting faithfulness of the universe’s Creator.

As Jesus told the Sadducees (Mark 12.18-27), God is not God of the dead but of the living.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not abandoned at their deaths, like broken pots cast onto a rubbish heap; the patriarchs have a destiny beyond their deaths.  But can we actually make sense of such an idea as a human life beyond the decay of the body?

Once one begins to think about this, it becomes clear that conditions of both continuity and discontinuity between this life and the next would have to be satisfied for his hope to make sense.  On the one hand, it really must be Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who live again in the kingdom of God and not just new characters given the old names for old times’ sake.  This is the condition of continuity.  On the other hand, there would be no sense in making the patriarchs to live again simply in order for them to die again.  This is the condition of discontinuity between this world and the next.  We must consider these two conditions in turn.

In much traditional Christian thinking, the carrier of continuity has been supposed to be the human soul, thought of as being a separable spiritual component, temporarily housed in the fleshly body during this life but released at death.  This is a view that the church borrowed from Plato, but today it has become a problematic idea.  Considerations such as the effect of brain damage on the personality encourage the idea of human beings as a kind of package deal of the mental and material in an inseparable unity.  This is an idea that would not have surprised most of the writers of the Bible, for the Hebrews thought of human beings in precisely this integrated way.  We are not apprentice angels, and our destiny beyond death will be resurrection, not simply spiritual survival.  But what then is the soul?  It is surely ‘the real me’ and at first sight it is about as difficult to understand what this is in this life, as it might be beyond it.  What makes me, a bald elderly academic, the same person as the schoolboy with the shock of black hair in the photograph of long ago?  It is not, as one might have thought, material continuity, since the atoms in our bodies are changing all the time, through wear and tear, eating and drinking.  I am atomically distinct from that schoolboy.  What connects us is the continuing development of something like the immensely complex ‘information-bearing pattern’ (memories, character, etc) carried at any one time by the matter of my body.  That ‘pattern’ is the soul and, though it will dissolve with the decay of my body, it is a perfectly sensible hope that the faithful God will not allow it to be lost but will preserve it in the divine memory in order to restore its embodiment in the great divine act of resurrection.

Rev Dr John Polkinghorne

Rev Dr John Polkinghorne

However, that re-embodiment will have to be in a new form of ‘matter’, not subject to the drift to decay of the matter of this world.  The existence of this ‘matter’ is the condition of discontinuity.  It seems to make sense scientifically that God could choose to create such ‘matter’, endowed with strong organising principles that resist decay, through the transformation of old matter.  In theological terms this would be the transition from the old creation, a world of immortality, into the new creation, the world of everlasting life.  The example and guarantee of this is Christ’s resurrection, the seed event from which the new creation has already begun to grow.  The tomb was empty precisely because the Lord’s dead body had been transformed into the ‘matter’ of his risen and glorious body.

Our destiny is resurrection, not spiritual survival, because it is an essential aspect  of human existence that we are embodied in some form.  I also think that it is intrinsic to human beings that we are temporal.  Our destiny is everlasting life, not the timeless eternity  that is God’s alone.  There will be ‘time’ in the world to come, but different from the time of this world and so not merely the prolongation of present history.  People sometimes fear that eventually heaven might become rather boring.  If its life were a matter of sitting on a cloud, endlessly chanting “Alleluia!” that might well have been so, but heaven will be much more exciting than all that.  This world is one that contains sacraments, covenanted occasions on which the veil between humanity and deity is thinned.  The life of the world to come will be wholly sacramental, suffused with the unveiled presence of God.

If we learn anything about God from the long history of this universe, it is surely that God is not in a hurry, but is content to work, as love must work, through patient process.  This will be true in the ‘time’ of the world to come.  Part of the salvific process that awaits us will involve judgment and purgation.  Properly understood, these are hopeful words.  Judgment is not appearing before a testy celestial Judge Jeffries, eager to condemn, but being brought to see ourselves as we really are.  This will be painful, but it is a necessary part of our entering fully into reality.  We are all going to die with our lives incomplete and our sins only partly repented of, in short, with dross still in our lives.  Purgation is the necessary removal of that dross to enable us to enter ever more fully into the life of God, our Redeemer.  As we progressively encounter the divine reality, the life of heaven will be far from boring.

There is inevitably speculation in what I have been trying to say, but it rests on two trustworthy foundations, the faithfulness of God and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  f

Rev Dr. John Polkinghorne has published many papers and books on theoretical elementary particle physics as well as a series of books exploring and developing aspects of the compatibility of religion and science.  His latest book is Questions of Truth (2009), co-authored with Nicholas Beale.