Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Absent from the Body

Driving along Interstate 80 on the return trip to the Midwest from my brother’s funeral services, a Christian Aid Ministries roadside billboard stood out starkly: “After you die, you will meet God.” There was no politically correct gloss in this statement, even though its explicit message grieves many and triggers scornful disbelief. In others, the message conveys hope and joy, for the statement is entirely biblical.

Here are some scripture phrases that come immediately to mind: If in Christ we have hope in this life only we are of all people most to be pitied (I Cor. 15:19); Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live (John 11:25); Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8); If a man dies, shall he live again? (Job ESV). Each of these passages reminds us of what is known, scientifically, as dualism. This is not strictly a theological term, but there is strong connection with the Christian view that our body is distinct from our soul and spirit. Stated colloquially, we are talking about our real self when we speak of soul and spirit.

The real self meets God when temporal physical life ends. Scientists and philosophers of mind have discussed and proposed their ideas about the so-called “mind-body problem” for centuries. Thousands of books have been produced on the issue. Many of the speculations relate to how the presence and processes of physical matter in the brain--the atoms and molecules--could explain the reality of human consciousness. This concept, seriously studied and extensively commented upon, is actually not very well understood.

One quote recurring repeatedly in the literature on this topic is “The question, then, is how it is possible for conscious experiences to arise out of a lump of gray matter endowed with nothing but electrochemical properties.” Speculations on how conscious experiences are generated are far more plentiful than truly satisfying explanations.

Scientist/philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), was one of the early thinkers on the subject of consciousness, perception, and many related topics. He described the mind as “a thinking thing.” He stated, “I am therefore precisely nothing but a thinking thing; that is, a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason…” Further, that means, “a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses.”

At the risk of serious oversimplification, we might say that the characterization of humans as “thinking things,” together with our inherent ability to be aware of the existence of God by using our senses, intellect, and exercise of free will and faith, actually describes the gift of soul and spirit implanted in the human race by God when he created man. When we meet God after this life is over, we meet him as “thinking things,” souls and spirits redeemed by God in Jesus Christ. Our physical bodies function as a temporary material home for the “real person.” God created our physical bodies--“fearfully and wonderfully made.” Our physical bodies do, however, experience physical death. “Then the dust (of mortals) goes back to the ground as it was before, and the breath of life goes back to God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:7 GW Translation).

We may ask what is more real--our bodies, or our soul and spirit? Ecclesiastes 12:7 supplies the answer as do many New Testament passages. When the body dies, we are poignantly reminded of the loss by the events of the funeral and by remaining artifacts associated with the loved one. Sadly, no longer can we interact with the “real self” of the departed. Joyfully, however, we realize that the redeemed soul and spirit given to humans by God, lives on permanently in the presence of the Lord. And when the time comes when each of us dies who remain, we will also meet God.

In memoriam…David M. Virkler, May 30, 1934-January 23, 2012