Saturday, August 7, 2010

What is Heaven like?

I apologize to the many readers who keep checking back at OutsideTheBox only to find the well still dry! It has been difficult for me these last several weeks. I miss my lovely wife more now than ever. I thought it would get easier by now. Not so. And so, writing has taken a back seat to other personal business. However, my friend, Regina, recently asked me to describe my current thoughts about Heaven (obviously, I would be motivated to think about Heaven and the after-life!). I answered her earlier this week in an email. That portion of the email is reproduced below.

Re. Heaven:

Of course, I think about this often. But not so much in the terms Christians typically use. It is one thing to glibly recite our standard beliefs about heaven, the afterlife, etc., when it is all theoretical and distant. But when someone as analytical as me is dealing with these questions up close, and so utterly personally, directly impacting the most significant of relationships, it is a little harder to maintain a simple belief. My thoughts have been all across the spectrum, to be honest.

Whether we like it or not, the state of evolutionary psychology today tells us that those things we once attributed to the soul (or spirit, or any immaterial part of man) are increasingly finding material explanations. That is, where we once thought that our own experience as a human necessitated some immaterial part of us, the "real me", the executive director of the mind, emotions and will, we now understand that no such immaterial reality is necessary to explain human behavior, thought, altruism, guilt, love, etc. We understand things like memory: our memory is stored in the massively complex meshwork of cells in our brain via electronic charges, not at all unlike the memory storage on our computers. The scary (really scary) thing for me was looking down at the sweet face of Ginger after she died, and thinking that, when she breathed her last breath, all of her memory literally ceased to exist. No need for a soul to "depart" her body. Even if such a soul did go somewhere, it left behind all those cells, all those strategically placed electrons, all that patchwork of axons and dendrites, all those synaptic interfaces. I began then to construct in my mind a picture of the human built upon the computer model ... one involving duplicate ROM and RAM memories, one in which the actual soul mirrors the material aspects of "soul-like" functions. More recently, I think of it in different terms.

Now, I conceive of God "recreating", if you will, Ginger (or any of us) based upon our unique genetic code, and with a stored (or resurrected) ROM memory. My faith in the resurrection, now, is built more upon God's love for me. If he really loves me (as we presume) and if he really wants relationship with me (as we presume), then he will not just let my body rot and my personhood cease to exist. He will resurrect me! If, alternatively, we were mistaken, and God (if he exists at all) doesn't really care for me or about me on the level we had assumed, I have no wish to be resurrected. I won't be resurrected, and I'd just as soon never be conscious again.

Does that make sense? I don't want you to think that I doubt the resurrection, or the after-life. I believe. But the reasoning has changed. It is not based upon some immortal part of me, an immortal soul. Rather, I believe (first of all) in the character of and the inherent goodness of God. (If we're wrong on that count, who wants everlasting life anyway?) And believing that about him, and believing in the extreme value of every unique human being, I am convinced such a God will call us to himself at some point after our death.

As to what Heaven is like, I'm sure I have no clue. It is beyond our imaginative scope to even come close. I don't mean this in terms of the gushy "Oh, Heaven will surpass all our wildest, most wonderful dreams! It will be better than anything we can imagine." Rather, I mean that the dimensionality of Heaven (or God's reality) is so multi-faceted with facets for which we have no calculus, that Heaven is unimaginable. Not unimaginably good. Just unimaginable.

For example, when we speak of Heaven as a place of unremitting joy, we only fool ourselves if we think of joy in the terms we now experience it. Joy, as we know it, is related to things like conquest, overcoming resistance, winning the battle, success (which implies resistance.) Life itself for us, in our current condition, contains potential for joy precisely because it also contains potential for sorrow. Take away suffering, resistance, struggle, pain, sorrow, and I submit that "joy" has no meaning. And yet, for most believers, Heaven is a place devoid of those things, but full of eternal bliss. Within our current frame of reference, that is craziness ... but most Christians never give it much thought.

More than anything you can possibly imagine, I hope to see my Ginger again.

Thanks for asking,
~ Cliff


Like a Child said...

Great post. It is so surreal though, thinking that of the neurobiology of memory. Surely there must be something more to this life, as you have described! Check out the post on this blog regarding the afterlife -

Cliff Martin said...

Thank you for the link. I enjoyed reading her thoughts! Are you personally acquainted with the writer of that blog?

Irenicum said...

Thank you for posting this. As someone who has also lost a deep love, your words are welcome and comforting.

Like a Child said...

Cliff- No, I have no idea who the writer is, but the similarity is amazing! I thought you'd enjoy browsing through her blog!

Mike said...

Cliff said, “…the state of evolutionary psychology today tells us that those things we once attributed to the soul (or spirit, or any immaterial part of man) are increasingly finding material explanations.”

I just read a book called "Why Choose This Book? (How We Make Decisions)" and it talks about this kind of stuff. I agree that we may now be closer to explaining “how” things work in our brains (meaning there is nothing mysterious going on concerning things like love, regret, etc.) but it still doesn’t explain “why” things are as they are (Polkinghorne’s teakettle analogy). It seems to me that the more we find out about the physical universe (including our physical selves), the more we see that it may all be explained scientifically. Well, we do live in a physical universe so this would make sense to me. After all, throughout history we’ve learned how things really work and then have dismissed magic, superstition, etc. once we’ve understood stuff scientifically. Now it seems some want to dismiss belief in God, not as one of those superstitious things, but as a byproduct (or something) of the way our brains work. (Note that the author of "Why Choose…" didn’t bring up God at all but I’ve gathered that some other people think this about belief in God.) Perhaps, in some strange way that we don’t or can’t understand, belief in God may work this way in our brains and yet God may still be real. Maybe God “caused” belief in Him to work this way (where belief is a byproduct from eons of evolution).

You may think I’m crazy and/or deluded or not even making any sense but I think this is a venue where I can express these things! I’m not sure I’m expressing what I really mean so if you have any questions or want any elaboration let me know.

The one thing I keep coming back to is what it means to love your neighbor. Even if love is a result of how our brains evolved, there just seems to be something more to it than that.

Tom said...

Thanks, Cliff.

Cliff Martin said...


Tom, who responded after you did, and who is doing post-grad study in evolutionary sciences, would tell you that, indeed, the development of religion (and the many-varied beliefs about god[s]), can be fully explained by our evolutionary development. And, like you, I do not doubt that it may be so. That fact alone does not invalidate all such beliefs. And I think this is what you are saying ... and I agree.

Tom, I like very much that you still read here!

BrownPanther said...

There's a great Radiolab called After Life here:

No answers, just several thought-provoking stuffs.