Do We Retain Our Memories in Heaven? [Questions That Haunt]

Do We Retain Our Memories in Heaven? [Questions That Haunt] March 12, 2013

I hope you liked Richard Beck’s wonderfully thorough answer to last week’s question. I thought it was awesome. 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 really looking forward to reading your responses to Angel’s question. I’ll give it my best shot on Friday.

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  • Tim Chastain

    I believe in our resurrection. This means the resurrection is personal to each of us and the resurrected individual is us and not something else. If our memories are erased, then how are we even the same person? In fact, I believe our resurrected bodies will be free of current frailties and problems, so I suspect our memories will be enhanced and we will be able to understand the things we remember more clearly than we do now.

    I don’t see the point in our receiving eternal life as someone essentially other than ourselves. Of course, this is only my humble opinion.

    • Ric Shewell

      Yes! Only your humble opinion? I think it’s a pretty good interpretation of the New Testament. The Resurrected Jesus seemed to know who he is, and Paul says that he’s the prototype of whats going to happen to all of us, so…

  • Ditto to what Tim says, he puts it wonderfully. This idea that we will lose our memories at the resurrection (or the heaven we escape to, which is usually the context for this concept) comes from the presupposition that there will be no pain or suffering. Because some memories can be painful, we’ll be freed from that burden. But that sounds much more like an erasure of who God made us to be, not a perfection of it. I think the idea that our memories will be enhanced and we will have a clearer understanding of our life gives us a lot more to look forward to.

  • Heaven is not the end of the world (says Wright), rather it is resurrection. I have no idea what the intermediate mode of existence (heaven) will be like, but I do think that we will have transformed bodies at the very end, and I suspect, we will have bodies with brains that retain memories.

    With that said, I don’t think worrying about postmortem survival helps anything in this world, the world where we live and reflect God’s image.

  • Phil Miller

    In a very real sense, memories aren’t something that we hold in our brains and fetch when we need them. The model of our mind as a giant filing cabinet or even a hard drive really isn’t what is happening. When we remember an experience, we are actually in a way recreating that experience in our minds. We’re taking the raw materials of memory and putting them together again.

    So how this relates to what will happen in our resurrected bodies is speculative, but I’d say I like the idea that our memories will be redeemed as well. What I mean by that is that when we look back we’ll be able to remember the experience as we perceived it happening, but we’ll be able to see it a new light of Christ’s redemptive healing. Miraslov Volf gets into this in his book The End of Memory.

  • mud man

    Since we all are, or will be, united in Christ, maybe we remember everything, we all have each others’ memories. That is, in Eternity we aren’t just our pitiful individual selves, we are EVERYBODY. (So while you’re here, be nice to pitiful ugly strangers.) Hallelujah!

  • My mom passed away last week after many, many months of illness, and following several weeks of final decline. And yesterday we, my family and friends, said our last goodbyes. In my eulogy I said, “Today, mom walks with the Shepherd, tickling her feet in the grass of those green pastures, joining him on the path along the still waters, bidding us not to be afraid, but simply to love one another.”

    My words, I admit, are poetic sentiment borne of grief and which assume my mom’s continued yet new aliveness “in the above.” My words further assume that she retains an intact memory from the years of her earthly life, whereby she remembers her time and those she loves.

    The consideration that my mom has only died in body, but is alive in her transition to “the other side,” is admittedly a comfort that helps ease our emotional grief.

    The truth is, I cannot say I “know,” in the modern rational sense, that my mom lives on, because I can no longer see, hear, or touch her as I had always been physically able to throughout my life until now. In other words, I cannot objectively “prove” to others that mom lives on (any more than Saul of Tarsus could objectively “prove” that he encountered the so-called “risen Lord”).

    Yet “rational” knowledge is not the only way we are informed of realities in our human experience. And things that happened here at home (where my mom was being cared for, and where she passed in her sleep) in the final week of mom’s illness punctuated that peculiar truth of such “otherly realities” beyond the rational.

    I, my dad, and the hospice caregivers (who, as a consequence of their profession, are regularly accustomed to encountering the dying and death) experienced remarkable “sensations” in the house during my mom’s final week, and in the hours immediately after her passing. As I personally continue to process the experience for myself, which has been ongoing, I can only describe it as unmistakable “presence” and even “consciousness” marked by a character of peace, joy, and peculiarly motivating energy.

    Beyond that, and until some time has passed for me to acclimate to this experience which continues to change me, I cannot yet adequately explain it, or define its implications.

    But the experience has so far convinced me of my mom’s continued aliveness, and a powerful intuition that her memories remain intact in her continuing life “in the above.”

    (And for those of us who also understand “consciousness” and attendant memories to be a form of ordered energy, and knowing that energy cannot be destroyed but can only transition or be dispersed, then there is some science which, arguably, could support the belief that consciousness, in some way, continues after bodily death.)

    • Glad to hear you’re doing well R. Jay. Sounds like she was a great woman.

      • Thank you Lausten. My mom was an unusually remarkable woman. We were incredibly close.

    • Sorry to hear about your loss. You write that “I can no longer see, hear, or touch her as I had always been physically able to”, and then go on to describe how you now see, hear and touch your mom in indescribable ways even now. Our lives and our memories are indeed eternal, as you poignantly describe. Thank you for your words.

      • Thanks Curtis. As of my mother’s death, I am now the last remaining member of my core family. My father died when I was 15, and I am the last surviving of my four siblings (who never married or had children). My aunts and uncles, and grandparents, are all gone. My mom’s husband since 1995 (who I refer to as “dad”) survived my mom along with me, and he is a good and decent man who I respect immensely. He has no children.

        So for a number of reasons, my mom’s passing has me in an unparalleled emotional place.

        But the profound experiences I’ve had over the past two weeks — experiences which at the very least qualify as powerfully spiritually — have had an extraordinary effect upon me. It’s all a first for me, so I am traversing completely new territory in my life journey, such as I never expected and could never have anticipated.

    • djadkins

      Beautiful words, R. Jay. They give me a lot of comfort (I recently lost a grandmother who was very active in my own upbringing). Thank you.

  • Jonnie

    “Oh, baby do you know what that’s worth? Oh, Heaven is a place on earth.”

    -Belinda Carlisle

    Sticky questions about what exactly ‘heaven’ should be understood as biblical in relation to the eschaton, resurrection, supposed intermediate state etc. Whatever it refers to, the important element of the consummation of eternal life (i.e. ‘knowledge of God’, which is already happening!) is the reclamation of all creation in union with God. So, I’ll probably go with Belinda on this one, and claim any life after death before the eschaton (if there is one), is the foggiest of concepts, especially on a physicalist or monist understanding of human ontology. About all you can say from that perspective, is that God must be understood as reconstituting human persons, preserving them in God’s memory(?) or some other capacity ‘in between’ these times. All that to say, a human person, if there is a conceivable human person without body, don’t have memories during that time…at least on monist/physicalist framework.

    I think it best not think of heaven as a place we go, but rather as a synonym for the kingdom of God, the realm of God’s reign and rule which is now breaking in (e.g. the kingdom of heaven in Matthew, etc.). Our citizenship is “there” in the sense that we claim allegiance o God’s economy, not Rome’s, the US, or any other (Phil 3:20). It is a term used for distinguishing the realm of God from the realm of human rule and economy. It is then not an end product, but a rich aesthetic concept, meant for us to see it coming here, not our going there.

    • Aldous Smith

      Hello Jonnie. I have concerned myself, all of my discerning life with the nature of God, heaven and all the things we are taught to believe in and have faith in. I am at a point where I seriously lack faith, and cannot, logically, conceive of a God who knows me individually and cares about me. This version of things makes God sound like some Grand Switchboard Operator who can listen in on every single person on this planet, answering our prayers and so on. To me, this is juvenile, and logically impossible, even by the most abstruse calculations of physics and metaphysics.
      The fundamental problem in getting a sound answer for such a question, or questions, is that the believer simply retells what he/she believes, or feels to be true. To me, this does not constitute a reasonable discourse, and certainly no proof of the bible’s validity or faith itself. It is a tautology, albeit a very complicated and esoteric one.
      There is more writing, thinking and talking about the nature of God, his Kingdom, our faith and heaven than would fit in the famed libraries of Alerxandria, or the Library of Congress, and yet, as brilliant, or as dull as the arguments and discourse gets, nobody can tell the nature of anything I have mentioned.
      Without the tautology of faith, and the vast vocabulary of faith, could you answer two things for me? What, exactly, is the Kingdom of God? And what is meant by God’s economy. This word has been so overused in universities worldwide that it ceases to have meaning.
      I apologize if all this sounds brusque. It is not meant in that spirit. The typed word carries none of the important nuances of personal speech.

      • Jonnie

        Hey Aldous! You don’t sound brusque (fancy word!) at all. I appreciate your reflections and questions. A couple of thoughts in response:

        1) I understand the physical/scientific difficulty you feel in conceiving of divine action. I feel it too, deeply. But calling it logical possibility connotes that its categorically impossible to conceive of, which doesn’t seem to be the case right? It is possible to imagine and therefore not strictly logically incoherent. Best to restrict that terminology to literal logical impossibility. Otherwise, you give the impressionism that scientific theory equals logical truth!

        2) I totally don’t KNOW what Kingdom of God means, but I can give you sketch of the things I think it’s connoting, and why I use economy of God as a corollary (or perhaps replacement/ or better) term. KoG is admittedly a New Testament concept for the most part. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of Old Testament precedent for it. It likely had a strongly apocalyptic/ eschatological tinge to it. The growing expectation and longing for relief of the oppression of foreign rulership was building during the intertestamental time and literature that point to God’s overthrowing these powers seems to be what Jesus is building on.

        Put simply, I think most are comfortable defining it vaguely as the “realm of God’s reign and rule.” The kingly terminology rang true, connected with the socio-political context in which Jesus’ hearers were living. They had Caesar’s kingdom all over them. Another one, a different kind must have had some analogous familiarity to them. It doesn’t for us, at least snot for me. This is why I like economy of God. We live in a word where economy is the ruler; the system that sets the values. God’s economy offers an alternate way to be in the world. A different format of values which challenges dominant forms.

        3) I’m struggling a bit to pin down this tautology language. Together with you difficulty with the scientific justification of believing in divine action. Are you looking for non-narrative, biblical concepts for defining the KoG. If so, that doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. Tautology as strict philosophical category is not what’s going on– unmarried men are bachelors, etc– logically true in virtue of the internal logical connectives in the statement, etc. So maybe you mean more an idea that is unfalsifiable when only faith language is allowed to define it. Again, I agree that these terms need to be unleashed from platitudes and Christian phrases, but ‘exactly’ and scientific language won’t get us any closer. It’s a concept of hope, developed out of the complex biblical narrative and eschatological hope of freedom from oppressive yokes.

        Great thoughts! Hope this socio-political reading added some more meat to the concept.

        • Aldous Smith

          Thank you Jonnie for your detailed response. You are clear in dealing with difficult and complicated subtleties here. I certainly appreciate your response, and the food (or is that ‘manna’ ) 🙂 for thought you have offered.
          I like this blog, and will keep delving into it. I have a lot to learn, and a lot to express, so this is enjoyable.


          • Jonnie

            Ditto to that! I appreciate your thoughtful insights!

  • We are living in connected, eternal life right now. God’s kingdom is right now. Our memories and thoughts are infinite and unbounded, right now. Welcome to heaven; enjoy your stay!

  • R Jay,

    I lost my grandmother (96 years old: here’s her obituary

    I’m in a similar state of contemplation.

  • djadkins

    Like many others who have commented, I tend towards the notion that resurrection is our future destination, not some disembodied heaven. We are experiencing the Kingdom here and now as it breaks into our world (or something like that). I think though, with the idea of resurrection, it makes sense that our “memories” would be resurrected as well. I’m not sure what this would look like, but I’m going to take a stab at it.

    When we think of our bodies being resurrected and the sorts of infirmities and imperfections of our present life being redeemed, I can only guess that our mental capabilities would as well. As we all age, our minds being to fail us, much as any organ/muscle in our body. There are ways to lessen this (through learning new skills/languages, reading, being creative, etc.), but eventually the mind will decay. Memory is usually the first suspect because, as Phil Miller mentioned, we don’t store memories but recreate them (this is why eye witness testimony is suspect; people aren’t tapping into some storehouse, they have to recreate the event). If in our resurrected bodies we don’t have the same sort of failings we do now (I should mention I’m running with this assumption, not trying to state this as fact), then our memories will be able to be recreated as nearly perfectly as we can. Likewise, I can imagine in the sort of world that is usually envisioned post-resurrection, harmful memories won’t be harmful to us, but will be viewed with a new frame of mind.

    At least, that is how i speculate. Pretty much this sums it up; our memories will still exist in “heaven” but they might not have the same kind of affect on us as they do now.

    • Aldous Smith

      Djadkins. I deeply appreciate that you admit that you are making assumptions here. I think this is the most honest place to start, as in any philosophy. One assumes, makes a hypothesis, creates a theory (which in this case is the Bible and the Christian religion), and then attempts to prove the theory. That we are still at a state between assumption and hypothesis – notwithstanding the legions who believe we have traveled far beyond even theory – I think is the only tenable intuitive and intellectual conclusion. It is the foundation, from which all else arises.
      Perhaps I am proving myself (ironically, since I am no longer a Christian) to be a fundamental protestant (without the capital P), perhaps thinking even, along the lines of Luther, which is a logical impossibility, being non-Christian, and yet simply is.
      However, this is all a digression from my first point, which I thank you for.
      This entire string of posts in intellectually challenging, and thoroughly interesting.

      • djadkins

        Thanks Aldous!

  • I have never heard the notion that we lose our memories in the next life. To me that sounds like an attempt by (ironically enough) biblical literalists trying desperately to make the Bible “come out right” when it talks about a world to come without pain or sadness. I’m not a biblical literalist, but I’m not at all comfortable making stuff like that up. I prefer the response of a respected German theologian of the last century who, when asked what the end of the world would be like,smiled and said, “Vell — all vee really know is zat it’s gonna be a real zurprise!”

  • Of course it’s “sticky”. If we retain our memories, then we would be aware of people who are not there with us. We would know they were suffering for eternity, separated from God or fire and brimstone, it doesn’t matter. That makes heaven sound less than perfect, less than blissful. I don’t think your parent’s Bible study was anything more than a convenient answer to work out that conundrum. I wouldn’t give it a second thought.

  • Tanya

    I kinda think this is like speculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Who knows what heaven is actually like? The biblical references are extremely vague — it’ll be good, it’ll be with God — you don’t really need to know more.

    Also, some people would be quite happy to have a heaven WITHOUT memories of much on earth. Why torment them with memories of hunger, betrayal and abuse?

    • So they appreciate how good the cooking is?

  • mary

    Do not mistake me, for I love ‘this sweet old world’, but if my memories leave me when I go to God, so be it. I believe everything I am, all my memories are a gift from God anyway. I have to be ok with not knowing until I die. I hope to be in union with loved ones when I die but the less attached I am to outcomes. I am more free to trust God.

  • LoneWolf

    If we don’t retain our memories in the event of entering an afterlife, then why does this world matter at all?

  • I can see how having memories of missing people who are suffering for eternity, separated from God (in?)fire and brimstone, could be a problem, but I don’t think anyone will be suffering in hell at all.

    • djadkins

      Good point. If the other side of coin from heaven is hell, then having memories of loved ones burning forever would be horrible. Then again, if we lose our memories in heaven, do those in hell lose theirs? Or if they retain them, then how horrible is that? Like you Tim, I don’t really think anyone will be suffering in hell, but it is an interesting side point to conversation if you come at it from that traditional angle.

  • Ian Wrisley

    Heaven, schmeven. Resurrection is the Christian hope: physical grunting and laughing life. This living on as a ghost, an essence, a boiled-down-“spiritual” force isn’t biblical. The idea that there is some immortal bit of you or me that God can either roast or reward seems pagan at best.

  • Memory is part of our eternal life. Memory is part of our connection to the eternal past, just as hopes and dreams are part of our connection to the eternal future. Without memory, eternal life would not exist.

  • Stan

    I once had a very Evangelical theology professor teach that we actually do retain our memories and identities in heaven. One of his defenses was the transfiguration, in which Moses and Elijah were still themselves, and who were apparently explained/introduced to Peter, James, and John as such, even after leaving our world.

  • Aldous Smith

    Can we pick and choose our memories? Some I just don’t want any more. Coming from a person with major depressive disorder, I have a lot of unpleasant times piled up in my hard drive. But then, if passing on is actually an evolution, and one of spiritual joy, then the harshest earthly memories should me manageable. One can only hope.

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