How to understand the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body against the background of modern science? A physicist and Fellow of the Royal Society, who is an Anglican priest, explains how he brings his scientific researches to bear on his Easter faith. John Polkinghorne was formerly president of Queens’ College Cambridge.
WHAT is a human person? A smart tap on the head with a hammer will show that we depend in an essential way on our bodies. So are we simply bodies, merely material beings? What about the soul? In the history of much Christian thinking, and in much popular piety, people have thought of themselves as if they were apprentice angels. In that case, the “real me” would be a spiritual component, trapped in a body but awaiting release at death. Today, that is an increasingly difficult belief to hold. Studies of brain damage and the effects of drugs show how dependent our personalities are on the state of our bodies. Charles Darwin has taught us that our ancestry is the same as that of the other animals. Earth was once lifeless and life seems to have emerged from complex chemical interactions. Many scientists think that we are nothing but collections of molecules and they write popular books to assert this belief.
Yet that also is a pretty odd thing to believe. Could just a bunch of chemicals write Shakespeare or compose Handel’s Messiah, or discover the laws of chemistry, for that matter? There is something more to us than the merely material. Yet, whatever that extra something is, it is surely intimately connected with our bodies. We are a kind of package deal, mind and body closely related and not wholly detachable from each other. It is a puzzle.
Strangely enough, a clue about how to wrestle with the problem may be offered to us by modern science itself. For a new kind of scientific paradigm is in the making. It is called “complexity theory”; so far it has only reached the natural history stage of studying particular examples.
Physicists naturally started by considering the simplest systems available. After all, they will be the easiest to understand. Recently, the use of high-speed computers has extended our scientific range. As complex systems began to be explored, an unexpected realization dawned. Very often these turn out to have a quite simple overall behaviour, ordered in some striking pattern.
Heating water in a saucepan can provide an example. If the heat is applied gently, the water circulates from the bottom in a remarkable way. Instead of just flowing about any old how, it forms a pattern of six-sided cells, rather like a honeycomb. This is an astonishing phenomenon. Trillions of molecules have to collaborate and move together in order to generate the pattern. The effect is a simple example of a new aspect of nature that scientists are just beginning to learn about.
Traditionally, physicists thought in terms of the bits and pieces that make up a complex system. The exchanges of energy between these bits and pieces look extremely complicated. It turns out, however, that if you think about the system as a whole, there can be these remarkably orderly patterns of overall behaviour.
In other words, there are two levels of description. One involves energy and bits and pieces. The other involves the whole system and its pattern. At this second level, using computer-speak, we could say that what we need to think about is the information that specifies the pattern.
We have become used to the concept of cyberspace – the realm of information accessible through our computers. That world is one of human contrivance, a world of virtual reality. We are less used to the idea, in fact because it is so unconsciously familiar, that we live in a world of intrinsic information-generating capacity, the world of actual reality and so the world of God’s creation.
We human beings are immersed in this realm of being in which energy and informational pattern complement each other. It is a world altogether richer than its pale shadow in cyberspace, for people are much more than computers made of meat. Our powers of thinking, including our access to meaning and to mathematical truths that cannot be established within the confines of the purely logical formulation we may be considering, show that we transcend the limitations of the merely computational.
One might ask what all this has to do with the human soul and coherent hope. What-ever the soul may be, it is surely the “real person”, linking what we are today with what we were in the past. That real me is certainly not the matter of my body, for that is changing all the time, through eating and drinking, wear and tear. We have very few atoms in our bodies that were there five years ago. What provides the continuity is surely the almost infinitely complex pattern in which that matter is organised. That pattern is the real person, and when we talk about the soul, that is what we are referring to. The infant science of complexity theory encourages us to take this kind of thought very seriously.
SUCH a manner of thinking need hardly come as a surprise to Christians. After all, the ancient Hebrews certainly did not think of human beings as apprentice angels. They took the package deal view that we are bodies full of life. St Thomas Aquinas thought the same. He helped the Church to free itself from the straitjacket of Platonic thinking imposed upon it through the great influence of St Augustine, with its reliance on a dualistic picture of soul and body as distinct entities. Instead, Aquinas made use of the then newly recovered insights of Aristotle. In Aristotelian thinking, the soul is the “form” (that is, the pattern) of the body.
In these terms, we can understand in a coherent way the great Christian hope of a destiny beyond death. That hope is to be expressed in the classic terms of death and resurrection, and not in spiritualist terms of “survival”. Death is real and a real ending, but it is not the ultimate end, for only God is ultimate. The last word on human destiny does not lie with the fact of death but with the greater fact of a faithful Creator and a merciful Redeemer.
Of course, as far as embodiment in the matter of this world is concerned, the individual pattern that is the human soul will be dissolved at death. It makes sense, however, to believe that God will hold that pattern in the divine memory and then reimbody it in the environment of the new creation at the resurrection of the dead.
Our real hope that death is not the end has to depend on our belief in the trustworthiness of God. Appeal to that belief was exactly the way in which Jesus countered the disbelief of the Sadducees (Mk 12: 18-27). He reminded them that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The patriarchs mattered to God once and so they must matter to God for ever. Israel’s God is “God, not of the dead but of the living”. If we matter to God now, as we certainly do, then we shall matter to God for ever. At death, we shall not be cast aside like broken pots on some cosmic rubbish heap. Human beings are not naturally immortal, but the faithful God will give us a destiny beyond our deaths.
We can take with all due seriousness all that science can tell us about ourselves and this world and still believe that God will remember the patterns that we are and will recreate them when we are resurrected into the life of the world to come. As Christians we know that this is not a mere theoretical possibility, for we have the resurrection of Our Lord as the foretaste and guarantee, enacted within history, of the destiny that awaits us all beyond history.