You Will Be You in Heaven [Questions That Haunt]

This week’s question comes to us from Angel:

I have a question for the series. When I was very young, I used to wander into my parents’ morning bible study and listen. At one point, I heard something that really disturbed me and worries me to this day: when we go to heaven, we take no worthly possessions, not even our memories. I don’t want to forget anything that happened to me when I was alive. My question is this: Why do we have to forget when we go to heaven? Why would God make us suffer this fate of oblivion? Is there any way to avoid this?

I am hesitant to answer any question about the afterlife. Much theology is speculation. Talk of heaven and hell is entirely speculation. As a practical theologian, by training, I am both more interested and more competent in theological discourse that is rooted in human experience — and, as I’ve written before, I don’t believe that Don Piper spent 90 minutes in heaven. Nevertheless, Angel asked, so I’ll answer.

A friend of mine had a son who was afflicted with Down Syndrome. This child died of toxicity before he was 10; he’d had a particularly severe case of Down, meaning that he was unable to speak in full sentences, and he was hyper-susceptible to infection. I asked my friend if he thought his son would be cured of Down Syndrome in heaven, being that the conventional understanding of heaven is that place where: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

“No,” my friend replied, “He’ll have Downs. That’s who he was. I wouldn’t recognize my own son if he didn’t have Downs.”

Biblical theologians have pointed to two episodes in the New Testament to make a similar claim. First, at the Transfiguration, Elijah and Moses were both recognizable to Peter, James, and John (how they were so is a mystery, since there weren’t any photos or icons of the Hebrew saints). Regardless of the historicity of this scene, the theological point is that both Moses and Elijah were recognizably themselves, even though they’d died hundreds of years earlier (in Elijah’s case, he was escorted off of Earth in a fiery chariot).

Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, he appears to the Disciples in the Upper Room, and his crucifixion scars are visible — to the point that he challenges Thomas to touch them in order to quell Thomas’ disbelief. Likewise, the Disciples recognize Jesus on a later morning, when he’s cooking fish on the beach. In these cases, Jesus is both recognizable and bearing the scars of his mortal life.

By extension, we can assume that each of us will, likewise, be recognizably ourselves in the afterlife, whatever form that afterlife takes.

And here’s a second point. It is both gnostic and non-biblical to think that in our post-mortal existence, we will be only spiritual beings, without bodies. The early church made it abundantly clear that orthodox Christian beliefe affirms a “bodily resurrection” (cf. Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds).

There’s a modern aspect to this as well. Many of us have reject the gnostic/Platonic dichotomy between body and soul (in spite of Paul’s seeming embrace of it). We are what we are — we are one. There’s no wall of division between my flesh and some ethereal spiritual essence of myself.

Another way of saying this is that my “mind,” emanates from my brain, and my brain is a clearly material object. My mind may extend beyond my brain (to, for instance, my relationships and my iPhone), but it originates in the gray matter and electrical impulses that make up my brain.

Therefore, it does not even seem possible that I’d even have the possibility of existence without my brain. And my brain, Angel, contains my memories.

Angel, if there is a post-mortal existence for humans, we’ll have our bodies in some form; our bodies contain our brains, which house our memories.

QED, we’ll have our memories in heaven.

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  • Craig

    Your argument assumes that, if your brain is functioning in the future, it houses your memories of the non-immediate past. Maybe this is typically the case, but is it necessarily so? If not, your argument doesn’t seem to go through.

  • Must we understand everything in the world of science to believe in science? Must we understand everything about heaven before we can believe in heaven? Of course not on both accounts.

    You are unduly skeptical of Biblical revelation, while you are not skeptical enough about your own skepticism.

    • Craig

      How do gauge that he is too skeptical of revelation? I am highly skeptical towards astrology. How would you discern if I am being too skeptical towards astrology? What indicators would you look for?

      • mud man

        I get the same thing as Daniel. Hardly any of these preachers in the public marketplace seem to actually believe that this stuff is REAL, not just word games and fancy logic chopping.

        • Craig

          Mud Man, I don’t understand what you are saying, or what you are talking about.

      • Craig, Tony is overly dismissive of truth claims. Here’s an example:

        • This fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction form another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping…and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry. ( The New Christians, 234)

        Yet, if Tony applies this standard on himself, he shouldn’t open his mouth about any issue of truth.

        Instead, I am convinced of the claims of the Bible. I was a devoted Jew and Zionist. Nothing would have convinced me of the truth of Christ apart from solid evidence, and this is just the thing that the Lord had provided. This doesn’t mean that I don’t find things about the Biblical faith perplexing. A child will find many things that the loving parent does as perplexing. However, the child knows enough about him to trust him despite these perplexities. This is precisely my situation.

        • Dave

          “I was a devoted Jew and Zionist. Nothing would have convinced me of the truth of Christ apart from solid evidence, and this is just the thing that the Lord had provided.”

          What evidence would that be?

          • Dave, It started with an encounter with God. I was bleeding to death about a horrific chainsaw injury. Suddenly, while languishing in a pool of blood that threatened to drown me, I knew with complete certainty that God was there to rescue me. I was ecstatic! I knew I was safe. Nothing mattered anymore to me than the fact that God was with me, even though I didn’t know who He is.

            Although I had been interested in God, I always wanted Him my way. Consequently, I was coming up with nothing. Only in the midst of my blood did I begin to pray, “Lord, I just want the truth about You. I don’t care where this truth might lead me.”

            Well, it led to Jesus!

    • Ric Shewell

      Wow, his position represents Scripture and the earliest Creeds of the Church. And he uses biblical account knowing that he’ll get dinged by more liberal readers.

      You’re not addressing this post at all, you’re just attacking what you think Tony Jones is. Go read John chapter 6 and try again.

    • Must we ignore everything we know about science in order to believe in heaven? Of course not. If we must, then heaven is just silliness and really of not purpose.

      Through the ages, heaven have been conceptualized, based first and foremost, on people’s existing conception of the world. If our science tells us Earth is flat and we think God is somewhere else we can’t reach, then it agrees with our scientific knowledge to put God and Heaven up in the clouds somewhere.

      Our knowledge of science has changed since then. It is natural that our conception of heaven would change with it.

      Our science now tells us that the matter we are made of is the same matter that exists on the other side of our universe. Our science now tells us that my brain is capable of traveling, in thought, in infinite directions in time and space.

      Our science tells us that no organism can survive alone, that an organism depends on being part of a network of organisms for its very survival.

      Our science tells us that knowledge is not a discrete object, but an elastic, ever-changing network of neural activity in our brain.

      And so on.

      With all of our current scientific knowledge, we are just as capable of creating a concept and understanding of heaven and after-life as the people whose science taught them that the Earth is flat. We don’t have to ignore science to create this concept. In fact, we must not ignore our science to create our concept of heaven. If we ignore our science, our concept of heaven becomes meaningless and silly.

  • Would have been fun to have Nancy Murphy answer this question as a guest blogger, Tony.

  • The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection indicate that the new body (the new container for the “person”) can take more than one form (Mark 16:12); appear and disappear, and then reappear into/out of thin air (John 20:19,26); and may even not be immediately recognizable as the former self (Luke 24:15-16; John 20:14-15). So where the Gospel accounts speak consistently of Jesus’ resurrected body, they also speak consistently as to its mutability (this seems to also be the case during the transfiguration when Moses and Elijah appeared and then disappeared; see Mark 9:8).

    The accounts of Paul’s alleged experience with the so-called “risen Lord” also indicate that, in “heaven” — or in an ascended state — people retain their personalities, consciousness, and memories without bodily form as we know it.

    And for those who subscribe to Paul’s theology, he wrote that there are “heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. . . . So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body … is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. . . . And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man [Adam], so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven [Jesus].” (1 Corinthians 15:40,42,44,49)

    So where traditional Christian theology would seem to be concerned, “post-mortal existence” for humans would be just like that of Jesus: intact personality, consciousness, and memory, either in non-bodily form “in heaven,” or in mutable bodily form on earth.

    • Ric Shewell

      Maybe I take some of the gospels’ images of the resurrected Jesus and apply it to 1 Cor 15, but there’s a good way of interpreting Paul’s understanding of the resurrected life as bodily form as well.

      One of the big things in 1 Cor 15, is that Paul is not setting up a dichotomy between “flesh” and “spirit” but between “natural” and “spiritual.” “Natural” is a terrible translation, so is “Physical.” The word most often translated as “natural” is “psychikon,” an adjectival form of “psyche” which is usually translated as “soul” throughout the New Testament. So the best translation should understand that Paul is discussing the differences between “soulish” bodies and “spiritual” bodies. This doesn’t make sense to us, so in an effort to give us something that’s sensible, modern translators decided for us that Paul must mean physical vs. spiritual.

      He also goes on in the end of that chapter that our dead and dying bodies are “clothed” in what cannot die (vv. 53, 54), which hints to me that even the “spiritual” bodies he’s talking about are actually embodied bodies… but of a new, transformed, and different nature, like Jesus’.

      That’s how I get there, anyway.

    • Paul says we have a new body now. 2 Corinthians 5:17. Sounds good to me.

  • Yes. I was me. I am me. I will be me. Always and forever.

  • Good answer Tony! I know it is somewhat speculative, but I believe that my resurrected body
    will be me and not something else. Without my memories, I don’t see how it could be me.

    ~Tim Chastain

    • When does this resurrected body happen? Does the “when” matter?

  • Tim Blake

    One point of clarification: Elijah was not taken to Heaven in a fiery chariot. He was separated from Elisha by the chariot, but was taken into Heaven by a whirlwind/tornado.

    • As for Elijah being transported by a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11), his presumed ascension “into heaven” is questionable since quite some time later it is recorded that he sends a letter to King Jehoram of Judah (see 2 Chronicles 21:12). The parallel passage of the Jehoram story, which is recorded at 2 Chronicles 21:4-20, is found in 2 Kings 8:6-24, and clearly takes place after Elijah’s transportation “to heaven” by the whirlwind. Which suggests to me that Elijah did not actually enter “heaven” at all.

  • Worthless Beast

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with a pure-materialist view (then again, I’m “not sure” about most things)… and I’m no scholar, just a worthless nobody, but this is exactly why this post speaks to me.

    I have a disability – one of the brain. Bipolar disorder that’s severe enough to keep me from being able to hold down a job for any length of time. A lot of people in the world do not treat brain-illness as real-illness and those that do, it would seem, think in terms that most people think of “illness” – “Cure it all now!” and “Let’s prevent more people from being born with this!”

    As much as I work to manage symptoms, in the end, I like my crazy. I wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood, but there’s strong evidence that “this was the thing that was wrong with me” that my parents and teachers couldn’t figure out when I was a kid, and thus, it’s a condition that has been with me all of my life, has shaped my life and is an indellible part of me. I also find that having the issues that I have with my emotions helps in my creativity. I may not be able to hold down a normal job, but I’m hoping that some of my art and writing will get lucky and get “known” someday.

    In any case, my “crazy” that the world looks down on and wants to “cure all” is something I donot want to be cured of – by man OR by God. Being wonky is what makes me “me.” To “lobotomize” me just because people are afraid of oddness or think it’s merciful would essentially destroy “me.”

    I like to think, if the afterlife in any form is real, that we keep the scars we want to keep.

    • Great point. I think the whole purpose of salvation is to finally be in love with our self, and to stop wishing to be something else. That is salvation.

  • Nick Gotts

    Coming up next: what colour are fairies’ wings?

    • If fairies give you a worthwhile direction for your day, it might be a good question to consider.

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  • Dan Saperstein

    The real question isn’t whether we will have brains (and memories) in heaven, but, Will we have them on earth? Do we recognize others as our neighbor *now* with all of their imperfections? Will we learn from our past mistakes, or simply repeat them? I will leave questions about the afterlife to those who actually know something about it (i.e., no living person).

    • Great point. If we use our brain, we already know eternal life. Our brains are not bound to the present. Our brains are connected to the past of all eternity. Our brains can already imagine and experience the eternal future. The afterlife certainly exists. The beforelife does too, both just as certainly as our brains exist. We are living all of life now.

  • Keevan Mooi

    Is it normal for a child such as myself to read this? Because recently I’ve became scared that i wouldn’t be able to meet my mother in heaven,I didn’t use to believe in Christianity but recently I’ve been praying to Jesus every night hoping that he would forgive me and my mother,and that we would be accepted into heaven by him.