John Polkinghorne on life, death, and resurrection

This year for Advent I’ve been working my way through John Polkinghorne’s Advent devotional book Living with Hope. Polkinghorne is a theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest and much of his work is at the intersection of science and theology. In this devotional book, he focuses on themes of birth, death, and resurrection.

My understanding of Polkinghorne’s perspectives, based on this book, are as follows:

Human beings are “psychosomatic entities,” or in other words, that both the mind and body are indispensable to our true selves. We are embodied and destined to remain embodied. Embodiment with physical matter is a necessary part of our identities. While there might be a “soul” or “spirit” as traditionally conceptualized that exists separate from our bodies, modern science has made classical dualism fairly untenable given the strong evidence of brains on our personalities and behaviors.

As psychosomatic entities, he defines the “soul” as “not matter itself, but the immensely complex, information-bearing pattern in which that matter is organized.” This includes the pattern of our neurons and how those have changed over time to produce the personality and behaviors that make us us.

At death, we really do die. Our bodies and brains, which maintain the “information-bearing pattern” of our selves, really do die and the information-bearing patterns cease. We really are dead. The patterns that make us us are then “held in the divine memory” of God. While here, these patterns are somehow purified of sin (“purgation”).

In the meantime, the universe will continue on according to the patterns as shown by modern science. It will either continue to expand and cool until it dies and entropy wins OR will at some point quickly contract and dies in a “Big Crunch.” Either way, the Universe itself, including all matter in it, eventually dies.

After the death of the Universe, God will create a “New Heaven and New Earth” by redeeming the matter of the universe and reconstructing it according to its information-bearing patterns. At the same time, the matter will be redeemed and transformed in a way that (presumably) is no longer subject to the disorganizing effect of entropy.

Into this New Heaven and New Earth, God rebuilds us too, physical bodies and all, based on the information-bearing patterns (our “souls”) that have been held in God’s divine memory. The molecules likely won’t be the same, but the information-bearing pattern will be, and philosophically, then, it is us that is recreated and redeemed in the life of the world to come.

He fully admits that there is no natural basis for the hope of life beyond death. There’s no empirical evidence that suggests that this will happen. Instead, “the true ground for hope of a destiny beyond death lies solely in the everlasting faithfulness of God.” As with so many things, it’s ultimately a hope based on faith.

Considering all this together, questions that remain for me include:

Are we conscious while our souls (information-bearing patterns) are held in the divine memory between mortal death and the resurrection?

If so, this implies that our bodies and brains are not necessary to experience consciousness. What, then, is the added value of a physical body in the resurrection? Why not just live in the divine memory of God forever?

If not, this further supports the centrality of the physical body in making our selves. It also suggests that while our souls are held in the divine memory for 10-50 billion years until the death and redemption of the Universe, we are not conscious of the passage of time. It might be, then, that from our vantage point, we “wake up” almost immediately after our physical deaths (perhaps in a “twinkling of an eye“). But then, how does the purgation/purification of our selves occur? Is it something we have to participate in? If so, we’d need to be conscious during this interval between death and resurrection. If not, then no consciousness would be needed.

In order for the redeemed Universe to be free from the effects of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the matter of the redeemed Universe, including that which composes our redeemed physical bodies, must be subject to a different set of physical laws than currently govern our current existence. Some recent research suggests that this is not outside the realm of possibility from a scientific perspective, as other universes in the Multiverse might indeed have different sets of physical laws. If this is the case, perhaps God recreates our selves in a different universe in the Multiverse that has different physical laws(?).

Either way, this all strongly implies that God is exogenous to our current universe, existing prior to and separate from our current universe, in order to be able to exogenously redeem the current universe and travel between different universes in the Multiverse. (This has theological implications for some assumptions of Process Theology, panentheism, etc.)

In my view, this is one of the best syntheses of science and theology in addressing questions of eschatology and post-mortal existence. It takes seriously the findings of modern science and their philosophical implications, as well as the theological expectations of the Christian tradition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s