What Can Be Left Behind?

Every time I look at this photo, I think of Cat Steven’s song ‘Moonshadow’— ‘and if I ever lose my legs, I won’t moan, and I won’t beg….’. It’s a song about a person who loses various limbs, and how they are still a person after that happens. The ‘I’ still exists after the loss of that particular body part.

Take a good long look at this picture. It’s a picture of someone leaving their artificial legs behind, as they go swimming. Is the person without the legs somehow less than a person? Are they a disabled person? Are they just a challenged person? What is it that makes a human being, a human being? Is it certain requisite body parts? If that were so, all kinds of animals would qualify as human beings because many of them have the same parts as we do. The problem with materalistic visions of humankind is they do not rise to the highest level of what can be said, they rather reduce human beings to the lowest common denominator, their mere physicality. And when you do that, it is more than a little difficult to distinguish humans from other higher orders of beings.

There are those for example who would argue that when a person has Alzheimer’s and cease to be able to mentally function properly, they cease to be a person. This is based on the assumption that the brain houses the person and the personality and the identity. If the brain ceases to function, the person is no more. I do not see how any Christian could agree with this proposition. In the case of Alzheimer’s we are talking about loss of memory. Memory is only one aspect of personhood. Alzheimer’s is rather like progressive amnesia. We would never say a person who has amnesia ceases to be a person because of loss of memory. But all of these discussions are based on a monistic view of human nature, that it is all bound up with and grounded in one’s physicality.

This however is not what the Bible says— at all. For example, Paul stresses in 2 Corinthians that when a Christian’s body ceases to work, they become ‘absent from body’ and yet ‘present with the Lord’. Or one could compare Revelation where we hear about the cranky saints in heaven asking God ‘how long o Lord’, or in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we hear about people live and well in both a positive and negative form of the afterlife. But it’s not just afterlife theology in the Bible that makes clear we are more than just the sum of our physical parts.

There is also the fact that human beings have been uniquely created in God’s image and for anyone who is in Christ, they will be redeemed in the image of the risen Christ. Physicality obviously matters to God, and is good, but there is more to humankind than its physical parts or existence. There is, to use a phrase— the human spirit, something Jesus from the cross, according to Luke’s Passion narrative, commended into the hands of his Father, expecting to live on beyond the grave.

What we absolutely cannot do without is our human spirit, our image quality, our unique personality, if we are to go on living everlastingly. Biblical religion insists that while all of life is good, it is not true that all of life is interconnected.

The theory of reincarnation is not compatible with the Judeo-Christian idea of resurrection. Bugs stay bugs, birds stay birds, and humans stay human in whatever life now or later they have. We do not move up the chain of being in the next life by good behavior in this one.

Human life in particular is the only life created in God’s image with a capacity for everlasting relationship with God. Resurrection suggests that the body is very important to a full life as a human, a fulfilled life as a human, a whole life. Resurrection is about making us all whole, whole persons.

So in the end, nothing is left behind— nothing squandered, nothing useless, nothing unnecessary in the new creation when we will be made like Christ. While we can temporarily do without this or that body part, or even the whole of our physicality in heaven, we can never do without life, identity, image, spirit. There is more to humans than meets the eye, or can be smelled, tasted, touched, felt. And this is because not only is God spirit and love, but we also have been made in, for, and motivated by love— something never seen under a microscope, something which can never be quantified, full analyzed, or even found by opening up a human being and examining their parts. Like God we too are spirits, in a material world.

The above picture in question raises the question— What can we leave behind, or do without? As it turns out— a lot if we are talking about a merely physical existence. As it turns out— nothing if we are talking about an eschatological existence. God doesn’t make any junk, no matter how hard we try to trash things. God is a conservationist when it comes to matter, energy, and things that matter— like human life. Think on these things.

Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’–The Interview Part Six
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Finding Jesus— Reboot
  • vasaroti

    You clearly have never had much experience with people with Alzheimer’s, especially in the advanced stages. People with amnesia generally do not lose cognitive function, people with Alzheimer’s do. http://www.caring.com/articles/alzheimers-stages

  • barobin

    Dr. Witherington, I am curious, how you would define the person/soul? Right now I am studying the philosophy of the mind, and traditionally you have dualists, both Cartesian substance dualists and property dualists, and then the materialists, which say that Mind=Brain. The substance dualist schools face a lot of problems due to the recent advances in neuro-science in the last 50years. As it seems strange to damage the brain and in doing so, the mind is damaged, because they are different substances. Furthermore, when you split the brain down the middle, you get two different functioning hemispheres that think and do things without a greater and unified awareness, almost as if you had two minds now. Coupling that with studies in the brain processes themselves, make it hard to accept a dualism between the mind and the body.

    So is there a different concept of the soul/mind at work in the Scriptures, and we have just imported Greek philosophical ideas of a soul? Thus, this whole mind-body problem, where Christians have been trying to defend Cartesian dualism, is just a faithful attempt to defend something non-biblical in the first place.
    (Also, I am aware that not all theologians accept dualism, like Joel B. Green and Nancy Murphy.)

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi: I think what one has to say about the NT writers is that they believe in a limited dualism, but not in the Greco-Roman notion of the immortal soul. I would certainly distinguish between the brain and the mind, or the brain and the human spirit. The brain is the hardware, and there is an interface between the brain and the software, namely the mind. This interface is such that in this life, in this body the brain can certainly affect the mind or human spirit, and vice versa. It is not a one way street. Some would talk about a porous boundary between brain and mind. The preferred term in the NT for the non-material part of who we are is the spirit, the human spirit (‘into thy hands I commend my spirit…says Jesus’). Like the divine Spirit, it does not have materiality and as such is not subject to empirical scrutiny. The Biblical authors, and even the OT ones who only believed in Sheol as an afterlife concept, did not believe that a person simply ceases to exist when they physically die. In other words, they are not hardline materialists when it comes to personhood. At the same time, they do not affirm either that the body is the prison house of the soul or that the non-material part of who we are is inherently immortal. The spirit of a person has a finite beginning with the origins of the person in his or her mother’s womb. Before then, neither that person, nor their immaterial spirit existed. In that sense, each person’s spirit is and example of creatio ex nihilo.

  • jerry lynch

    “What we absolutely cannot do without is our human spirit, our image quality, our unique personality, if we are to go on living everlastingly. Biblical religion insists that while all of life is good, it is not true that all of life is interconnected.”

    What do you mean by “image quality”? As far as “unique personality” goes, what do you think of the “false self” described in certain Christian literature? The last statement about interconnectedness seems to me, on the surface, to entirely overlook the reality of existence. Perhaps you mean something different than the ecology of both society and nature.

    “…we can never do without life, identity, image, spirit.”

    What do you mean by “indentity” and “image”? Again, this relates back to the “false self” I mentioned earlier. The only image and identity for the Christian is Imago dei and this is nothing I hold but what I surrender to spirit to bring into being.

  • GEW


    Even so, I don’t think that invalidates Dr. Witherington’s point that when someone’s mental functioning fails, they do not cease to be a person. I would never say that my grandmother, who has mid-to-late severe stage Alzheimer’s, has lost her personhood or value as a human being.

  • Ben Witherington

    You should read the article in the latest Newsweek about the neuroscientist from Harvard who had an afterlife experience while in a coma and now repudiates hard line materialistic assumptions about human personhood. BW3

  • Max

    Are you saying then that the mind, if the brain is damaged, still holds memory? Or that the spirit itself is mind or memory also?
    The Greeks developed a doctrine of the future life with the worship of Dionysus, and curiously the Orphic sects held to a doctrine of reincarnation. I guess Paul set them straight on that one.