The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. […] we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. […] For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Corinthians 15.35).
In the book of Ecclesiastes, the Sage tells us that when death comes ‘the dust returns to the ground it came from and the spirit returns to God who gave it’ (12:7) after which ‘the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten (Ecclesiastes 9:5 NIV). Like the sage, an increasing number of us no longer believe in any existence after death. Although the reasons for this modern scepticism vary, most who are led to deny the afterlife do so due to the seemingly irrefutable connection between the brain and the personality. Neuroscientists have long observed the dramatic changes in the personality when the brain become subject to damage or disease. It is logical to assume that once the brain ceases to function, ‘the self’ also ceases to exist. For some this is a deeply shocking claim. If we are just our bodies, does that mean death is the end? Are we just machines devoid of ‘spirit? Probably, but I don’t think that necessarily means what most people take it to mean. Being at base a materialist doesn’t disqualify one from believing in a ‘soul’ but one must undertake some radical redefinition to make it work philosophically. Radical how? We need to move from the notion of the soul as a vital force (or a ‘ghost in the machine’) to a model that takes the physical mechanics of identity seriously. I call this latter model the recollection hypothesis.
According to this theory, the ‘soul’ is the name for a process of observation and recollection which is undertaken in the Mind of God. This contrasts with much of traditional Christian doctrine which insists that soul (anima) is an eternal quality, bestowed on otherwise mortal bodies. But the recollection hypothesis is not without some theological basis. My suggested redefinition emerges from strong theological intuitions concerning what God must be like. The God of Scripture is not just the Creator, he is the One who sees, listens, and knows. He hears the cry of his creatures (Jer. 29:12, Ps. 102:17), even down to the hairs on their heads (Matt. 10:30). Thus, God is the Great Observer, experiencing the temporal world through us (as well as the butterfly, the skylark, the cedar tree, and a million other things) knowing this world better than any other single observer. I suppose one could put this intuition more dogmatically by saying that one should take God’s omniscience and omnipresence philosophically seriously when thinking about the soul. In this vein one could define the ‘soul’ as the sum of God’s intimate knowledge of living beings, encompassing not merely their physical progressions but also their subjective joys and pains. When our biological processes (including our subjectivity) ceases at death, God’s presence as observer, means that all we are, and have been, does not perish, despite the end of a working brain. It is not that the body contains anything ‘special’ or ‘eternal’ on its own; rather our ‘soul’ comes from God’s experience of us as a sort of mental event or memory, and our ‘salvation’ (to use a problematic word) is the act of God retrieving us from what we might equate with a hard-drive on a computer.
So, is that all we become, just shadowy programmes running in ‘God’s mainframe’? Not necessarily. Such a definition of the soul does not exclude the notions of an afterlife (at least as understood within the Christian tradition). If God’ is capable of knowing us better than we know ourselves, it would be simple for such a One to recollect the location of particles which made up the person who was ‘me’ when I was twenty-five, thirty-five or forty-five (at any second of the day or night, on any birthday, any Christmas, any past event at all). It would be just as easy for such a God to summon the old ash-tree I played under as a child, recreate the beautiful bumble bee which once settled on my ten-year-old finger, or replay a wonderful sunny day in Cambridgeshire in 1996. God could as it were lift any piece of information from a life (although we must wonder whether time has the same meaning to God) into an eternal present, to continue the story in another direction. If God is indeed the Observer of observers, Resurrection could be given to anyone or anything (from a human being to a velociraptor) allowing existence and experience to continue beyond conventional ideas of time. Perhaps Eternity can be defined as God’s continual revisiting of mental events; manifesting as worlds and lives restored from what is from some perspectives, the past. This introduces a pleasing deviation into the normative grammar of Christian thought. From Augustine to Aquinas possession of soul-status meant inclusion in a family of rational beings which is the exclusive soteriological concern of Christ. It is to this group of soul-bearers that he directs both his love through his earthly ministry and his Church. According to this account, those bereft of soul-status are neither the concern of Christ nor of his disciples. At best these shady entities can be left alone; at worst they are ripe for exploitation. This precarious theological position has been the ethical position of non-human animals. Yet, in the recollection model, only beings are included, because all beings are seen and all beings are known by the divine viewer. Thus, the description offered does not merely take categories like omniscience seriously, it also brings to the fore the cosmic dimension of the Gospel in which ‘God may be all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:28). Yet, if Scripture is right, this is probably more than God doing an action replay. When the Bible speaks of Eternity, it is not a perpetually zero-point (caught in heavenly aspic) but a dynamic process. Revelation describes this as a universe praising God:
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’ 9And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, 11 ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’ (Revelation 4:6-11)
This suggests that ‘the us’ in the metaphysical conversation continues the story. If God indeed ‘wipes away tears’, comforts and loves us in the hereafter, perhaps particular parts of our lives are selected (moments of delight, fulfillment and safety) to be re-explored in a life beyond life. And for those taken almost instantly from temporality, there is still the possibility for the story to continue. It is certainly true that given what I have sketched, such a life, no matter how short, is never lost to God. The phrase ‘being with God’ takes on a special resonance if we adopt this perspective of divine recollection. For myself, I find it hard to think in terms of spiritual presences floating about in the ether. I prefer to think of ‘souls’ as perfect recollections which can be brought to life at any time by God’s decision. Of course, such a model is not without its own philosophical problems. If there is no ‘soul’ (no fixed bastion of ‘self’) how is it that this event called resurrection brings about the continuance of a living personality, consistent with expectations of a personal afterlife? Given that death severs the causal connection between our identity just before our demise and the resurrected body after-death, how can this reconstituted ‘person’ be the same as the one that died at some point in the past? Even if God used most of our remains to accomplish such ‘restoration’ how could such a ‘resurrected self’ be the same person who died in the hospital bed? Surely, it would simply be a replica of a person that died, not the person themselves? Or would it? Wouldn’t a ‘you’ with the same story, still be you? Regardless of the precise answers we adopt to these questions, the ‘how’ of the ‘perishable’ clothing ‘itself with the imperishable’ remains a tough theological nut to crack. On the other side of this argument we have the accumulated assertion of near-death-experiences, testimony of ghostly apparitions, and other assorted paranormal phenomena. Maybe I should leave that discussion for another post! In the end, all that Christians can really say is that there is no ontological break in God when it comes to the self. In death as in life, God upholds and sustains our identity. We know this primarily, not through philosophy or neurology, but from the empty tomb, which is the ultimate repudiation of death.