Death, Existence, and the Body

Last week a co-worker (Ben) died in his mid-thirties. His death was sudden and tragic. He was, by all accounts, a man of wisdom, intelligence, kindness, and authentic faith. Today I went to his memorial service. The place was packed, a testimony to his extraordinary life. There were many tears, but there was hope there, too because the One who conquered death was honored.

Like most people, events like this cause me to contemplate my own mortality. I confess that one thing that has bothered me at several points in my life is the question of my continuing consciousness after death. Are we conscious after death and, if so, how? After all, death is a separation from the body and soul. In this life our entire experience is mediated by our bodies. We see with our eyes, hear with our ears, think and reason with our brains. So how, if our bodies cease to function, can we experience any sense of consciousness or continued personal existence? How will we see without physical eyes or hear without physical ears or reason without a brain? What could this new sort of consciousness look like? Is Ben conscious today or has his consciousness been snuffed out?

I was encouraged earlier last week by a passage from (who else) Dallas Willard in the Divine Conspiracy which, I think, helps us think about this in a helpful way.

(God’s) own being proves that personal existence is not, as such, dependent upon matter. Instead, matter depends on him. He did quite well without the physical universe before he created it. He undoubtedly has the very highest quality of consciousness – and all this without a brain! God, many are now shocked to realize, does not have a brain. And he never misses it. This is something one must never forget. Body and brain come from him, not the other way around. And in him our own personal being will be as secure without body and brain as it is now with body and brain. In fact, much more so.

Willard says it well. The foundation of our personal existence is not dependent upon matter. Instead, both matter and our personal existence are dependent upon God. And God, unlike our physical bodies, is eternal. And so, whether we are “in the body” or separated from our bodies, our personal existences are secure in his eternal nature. We have a personal existence beyond the existence in our bodies and the foundation of that existence is God.

Of course, my concern is only for this “intermediate state”, the time between our death and the Restoration of All Things and the resurrection. At the resurrection our souls will be reunited with our bodies and we will all face the final judgment. It is in the resurrection that we find our ultimate hope.

We closed out the service with one Ben’s favorite songs. It was a new song to me but it wonderfully expresses this glorious hope. Come, Lord Jesus.