Transhumanists and the apostle Paul aren’t generally seen as having a lot in common. But here’s one thing they do: both see us as needing to be rescued from the current constraints of physical existence. They both see that, to use Paul’s words, we need to be ‘rescued from this body of death’. But, of course, the nature of that rescue, and the end for which we are freed, are about as different as they can be.
For transhumanists it is physicality itself that is the problem.[i] The limits it places on us, and the death that inevitably awaits us, prompt them to search for a way to escape physical existence into a virtual world in which humans—or whatever it is that humans will become—have unfettered freedom to determine their reality. We need to be freed from this body of death.
For Paul, things are very different. The body is good—after all, the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body—so it’s not the body from which we need to be freed, but this body of death. But what does that mean?
The first thing to realise is that for Paul, death is a much more complex and deeply rooted phenomenon than transhumanists can imagine. The problem is worse than they think. Death is not mere mortality, it is moral and spiritual much more. After all, what prompts his impassioned cry in Romans 7:24 is the realisation of the paralysis of human agency. For whether he speaks as a representative of Israel and its history, or whether he speaks of his own pre-Christian or post-conversion struggle to enact service to God’s will in the law, he is clear that the human condition has no resources to overcome that agential impotence. That is found only in what God has done in Christ. As he goes on to say in chapter 8, this rescue is not the snatching of a bunch of human ‘souls’ from the wreckage of the world, but a transformation of the whole person that is a manifestation of the transformation of the whole of creation—a veritable new heavens and earth.
In that new heavens and new earth, not only will sin and moral failure be a thing of the past—so will death and disease, and the disorder and decay that attend them (Romans 8:18–25; 1 Corinthians 15:35–58; Revelation 21:4). The problem with humanity is deep and pervasive and all-encompassing. So is the solution. The death that is overcome is moral, and spiritual, and yes, physical. So is the transformation that defeats it. But that means that the conditions that bind us to futility and death must be changed. And that includes the elements of human physical existence—indeed, the physical universe itself—that are in bondage to decay.
This brings me to some reflections on the physics of the resurrection. Let me begin with a necessary contrast with life as we know it. Entropy is a feature of all physical systems in the universe—it is one way in which we, and all things, are bound to futility. While complex systems may give rise spontaneously to order, without the imposition of energy and/or information, any order in the universe tends to decay (or more technically, systems head towards energy equilibrium, thus dissolving the ‘nodes’ of complexity within them). Time’s arrow is governed by entropy. To put it more prosaically, bodies rot, solar systems burn out (or blow out), the universe ends in heat death (or perhaps a big crunch). Futility. Disorder. Death.
In the new creation, and for those who inhabit it, all this will be a thing of the past.
But this will not entail the transcending of matter and time in some disembodied virtual state. It will entail the transformation of matter and space and time. While we’re not in a position to say precisely how this will work, David Wilkinson and others have pointed us in the right direction.[ii] In light of the resurrection of Jesus—the firstfruits of the new creation—we know that there will be continuity and discontinuity between this cosmos and the next, and the physical and biological systems that sustain them. We also know that the new creation will be a physical universe and that amongst the creatures that inhabit it will be humans who have, like Christ, been raised immortal and incorruptible, bodily and recognisably themselves.
As new bodily creatures, we will necessarily inhabit space and time and, I should think, we will be biological organisms. Now, our current bios necessitates entropic processes (food must be masticated and digested, thereby losing its own order, in order for us to utilise its energy or component molecules in maintaining or building our bodily order)—ours is a life that necessitates death. If our new bios has been rescued from death and disorder as part of a new cosmos in which death and disorder are no more, then it must be a non-entropic bios, even as it is a non-entropic cosmos.
How might that work? Perhaps God will provide both the energy and the information required to ensure that no physical systems—including the bodies of those raised with Christ—see corruption. This might even mean that we become capable of indefinite growth and development without death. The arrow of time will be governed, no longer by entropy, but by ever-richer fecundity.[iii]
Be that as it may. For Paul, unlike the transhumanists, being rescued from the current constraints of physical existence does not mean shucking off the constraints of physicality; it means being invited into and gifted with the promise of a transcendent physicality in which the delights and possibilities of human embodiment reach their fullest potential in lives of creativity and worship and fellowship and joy that can barely be imagined. This is the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. A hope that enables us to live with faith and love and patience and gladness as creatures in a good, but broken world, awaiting its glorious transformation and ours with it.
[i] See, for instance, https://www.transhumanism.com.au/
[ii] David A. Wilkinson, Christian eschatology and the physical universe (T & T Clark, 2010). See also John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (Yale University Press, 2002).
[iii] For further thoughts on this in light of dementia as an entropic phenomenon, see Andrew Sloane, ‘Untangling the Cords of Sheol: Dementia and the Eschatology of the Physical Universe’. Science & Christian Belief (forthcoming).
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