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Physics and the final frontier

John Polkinghorne

Is there a scientific argument for an afterlife? Theoretical physicist
John Polkinghorne constructs a case for a human destiny beyond death -
and finds grounds for Christian hope.

Fpolkinghorne1.jpgEvery story that science has to tell ends ultimately in decay and futility. This is due to the second law of thermodynamics which says that, without external intervention, a physical system will become increasingly disordered. The reason is statistical. There are many more ways of being disorderly than of being orderly, so that entropy (the measure of disorder) inevitably increases with time.

We all know that we are going to die on a timescale of tens of years and the cosmologists tell us that the universe itself will eventually die on a timescale of many tens of billions of years. As it continues to expand it will become progressively colder and more dilute, so that all life must eventually disappear from everywhere within it. The distinguished theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg notoriously said that the more he understood the universe, the more it seemed to him to be ultimately pointless.

Weinberg is a staunch atheist, with only the 'horizontal' scientific story of the unfolding of current physical process to tell. I believe that there is also a 'vertical' theological story to tell, of the Creator's everlasting faithfulness. This story is the sole, and sufficient, ground of the hope of a destiny beyond death, both for ourselves and for the universe.

This is exactly the point that Jesus made in his argument with the Sadducees about whether there is a human destiny beyond death. He reminded them that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, commenting incisively 'The God, not of the dead, but of the living' (Mark 12:18-27). The point is a powerful one.

If the patriarchs mattered to God once, as surely they did, they will matter to the faithful God forever and will not be cast aside at their deaths like broken pots thrown onto a rubbish heap. And, as a Christian, I believe that this faithfulness which is stronger than death has actually been demonstrated within history by the resurrection of Jesus, as the sign and guarantee of what awaits all of us beyond history.

But can we make sense of the notion of a human existence beyond death? A little thought shows that this requires the satisfaction of criteria of both continuity and discontinuity. It really must be the individual patriarchs who live again and not just new persons given the old names for old times' sake. This requires a degree of continuity between life in this world and life of the world to come. Yet there would be no point in making the patriarchs live again simply for them to die again, so there must also be a criterion of discontinuity.

In much Christian thinking the carrier of identity beyond death has been seen as the human soul, conceived in a Platonic fashion as a detachable spiritual component, released at death from entrapment in the body. Today, considerations such as the effects of brain damage on personality, and our evolutionary kinship with animal life, convince many of us that this dualist picture of human nature as a combination of distinct and separable body and mind is unpersuasive. Instead, human beings are a kind of package deal, psychosomatic unities, with mind and body complementary aspects of a single integrated nature. This idea would not have surprised most of the writers of the Bible for, in the famous phrase, Hebrew thinking regarded humans as being 'animated bodies', rather than 'incarnated souls'. We are not apprentice angels awaiting release from the flesh.

Have we then lost any notion of the human soul? I do not think so, but the idea will have to be reconceived. What we are looking for is 'the real me' and it is almost as difficult to know what that may be within this life as it might be beyond it. What makes me, a bald and elderly academic, the same as the schoolboy with the shock of black hair in the photograph of long ago? It might seem that material continuity is the answer, but in fact that is an illusion. The atoms in our bodies are changing all the time, through wear and tear, eating and drinking, and I am atomically distinct from that young schoolboy.

What is the true essence of my continuing personhood is hard to express with any precision, but it must be something like the almost infinitely complex information-bearing pattern (memories, dispositions of character, relationships, etc) carried at any one time by the atoms then making up my body. The soul is this dynamic 'pattern', not a detachable spiritual component.

The idea has some resonance with ideas just beginning to be developed within science as it starts to study the behaviour of complex systems treated in their totalities and not simply decomposed into their constituent parts. These systems are found to display astonishing powers of spontaneous self-organisation, creating holistic patterns of behaviour unforeseeable in terms of the properties of their constituents. Holistic 'information' is a concept that, I believe, will prove fundamental to a proper understanding of physical reality.

This 'pattern that is me' will dissolve at death with the decay of my body, but it is a perfectly coherent belief that the faithful Creator will not allow it to be lost, but will preserve it in the divine memory. This in itself would not amount to a life beyond death, for I believe that it is intrinsic to human beings that we are embodied, so that a true destiny beyond death requires the reimbodiment of that 'pattern' by a divine act of resurrection. The true Christian hope is not a kind of spiritual survival, but the resurrection of the body.

This reimbodiment will have to be in a new form of 'matter' with different properties from the matter of this world and thus released from bondage to decay. This is the criterion of discontinuity. Scientifically it seems perfectly coherent to believe that God can bring into being a form of 'matter' endowed with such strong self-organising principles that it is not subject to the thermodynamic drift to disorder that characterises the matter of this world. However, this idea raises two further questions.

The first is to ask why, if the 'matter' of the world to come is to be free from transience and decay, did God first create the matter of this world of mortality? Putting it more bluntly, if the new creation is going to be so wonderful, why bother with the old? I believe that the answer lies in the recognition that the divine creative purpose is intrinsically two-step.

First, creatures must be allowed to exist at some distance from their Creator, as finite beings free to be themselves and to 'make themselves' (the theological understanding of the evolutionary exploration of potentiality) without being totally overwhelmed by the naked presence of Infinite deity. This veiling of deity is why the character of the old creation is evolutionary, a world in which the death of one generation is the price of the new life of the next. However, God's final purpose is eventually to draw creatures into a freely-embraced closer relationship with their Creator. That will be the world of the new creation. This world contains sacraments, covenanted occasions in which the veil over the divine presence becomes thinned; the world to come will be totally sacramental, fully diffused with the revealed presence of God. That is why the character of its physical 'matter' will be so different.

The second question is where will this 'matter' come from? I believe that it will be the transformed matter of this world. God has a purpose for the whole of creation and all creatures will participate in the new creation in appropriate ways. Human destiny beyond death and cosmic destiny beyond death lie together. The new creation is not God wiping the slate clean and starting over again. It is not creation 'out of nothing', but creation 'out of the old'. For the Christian, the paradigm is the resurrection of Christ. The Lord's risen and glorified body is the transform of his dead body - that is why the tomb was empty. The resurrection is the seed event from which the new creation has already begun to grow.

So what will the life of the new creation be like? People sometimes say that, though they would like a lot more life than we get in this world, they would not want to live for ever. Eventually it would get too boring. If the life to come were just a matter of sitting on a cloud and endlessly chanting 'Alleluia', that might well be so. But the life beyond death will be the endless exploration of the inexhaustible riches of the divine nature, progressively unveiled. It will be a world of redemptive process.

I think that humans are intrinsically temporal beings and there will be 'time' in the world to come as well as 'matter'. Part of that redemptive process will be judgement and purgation, both hopeful words if understood correctly.

Judgement is not appearing before a testy celestial judge, eager to condemn, but a coming to terms with the reality of our lives, including the dross that has accumulated in our characters, from which we will be cleansed by the action of purgation by divine grace.

There is clearly much speculation in what I have been trying to say. In many respects, of course, we shall just have to wait and see. Nevertheless I think that this tentative exploration has a valid point. It is important not to lose our nerve in believing in a destiny beyond our death. Fundamentally the issue is whether the universe truly makes sense, not just now but always, or whether it is ultimately pointless, as Weinberg thought. Whatever the details may prove to be, Christian belief affirms that the creation is everlastingly significant, resting this belief on the twin foundations of trust in the faithfulness of God and the resurrection of Christ.

John Polkinghorne

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