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.