“I Believe in the Life Everlasting”
by R.C. Sproul
His name is “Beechie.” Recently he surprised us with a serendipitous visit. He called to say he was in Orlando with part of his family and asked if he could make an impromptu visit to our home. We responded with unreserved delight at the prospect of seeing a friend from the past. As I relate this yarn, I am looking at an elementary school class picture from 1946–47 (grade 3). There, sitting Indian style in the center front is Bob Beech, wearing knickers and adorned with his ubiquitous smile. Next to him is Johnny, from my novel Johnny Come Home. Almost directly behind Beechie is Vesta, who was Beechie’s girlfriend before she was mine.
During our visit, Beechie opened a package that contained pictures and other relics from our past, many stretching over a half century into yesteryear. The visit stimulated a flood of memories — memories of people and of events. We spoke of the kids we grew up with — of Jarl “Gus” Gustafson, Don Whirlow, Bobby Ewalt, Bill Heidish, Rodney Wise (Rodney — where are you? I think of you often.), and a host of others.
Beechie and I shared so many memories, especially of sports. We played football, basketball, and baseball together. I remember him going over the middle to catch my passes — of playing the backcourt together on the hardwood and hundreds and hundreds of practice moves for the double–play, as he was 4 (second base) to my 6 (shortstop).
Memories were dredged up from the past that had lain fallow over decades, consigned, as it were, to the sea of forgetfulness (to mix my metaphors). Memories were forgotten … but only temporarily. Like Plato’s sparking the recollection of the slaveboy in the Meno dialogue, so Beechie awakened a storehouse of images and names from my past.
I doubt if many people call Robert Beech “Beechie” today — probably about as many as still call me “Sonny.” Few make the connection. But there is an indissoluble link between the “Beechie” of 1947 and the Robert Beech of today and the “Sonny” of the same era and the “R.C.” of the present.
Everyone of us has a past. We are not only the people we are today, but we remain the people we were yesterday and the days before that. My memory contains a record of my personal history — which is an integral dimension of my identity. Memory links my consciousness of my past existence with my consciousness of the present.
We have seen dramas on television and in the movies where the protagonist suffers a virulent attack of amnesia, leaving him in a state of desperation, afflicted by a dreadful loss of personal identity.
Is death a final and permanent form of amnesia? Does it spell the abrupt halt of personal consciousness? The materialist answers with an emphatic “yes” — assuming that once the matter of the brain dissolves, consciousness, or mental function, dissolves with it. That is, without the physical brain, non-physical thought is impossible.
This raises the perennial philosophical question about the nature of the mind (or soul) and its relationship to matter. John Gerstner once mused: “What is mind?” — He replied, “No matter.” — “What is matter?”…“Never mind.”
The Christian affirmation of life after death asserts the notion of the continued conscious existence of the soul after the dissolution of the body (as articulated by Charles Hodge). This continuity of personal, conscious existence is the very essence of life after death. If we “continue” in an impersonal manner (lost in the oneness of the “all” of the universe), or in an unconscious state (soul-sleep), then our “continuation” is not what the Scriptures teach about life after death.
The folly of reincarnation is that it assumes on-going life without continuity of consciousness. It is the eternal recurrence of the amnesiac. Oh, one can claim “memories” of former lives ala Bridey Murphy and Shirley MacLaine stimulated by deep hypnosis or other esoteric methods, but for the average person there is zero recall of former existences. For practical purposes — if there is no conscious memory linking discreet “lives,” then there is no essential difference between re-incarnation and death as the absolute end of a life.
The key to on-going life is the essential element of the continuity of personal consciousness. It is really arrogant to assume that a physical brain or body is necessary for consciousness. In our present state, mind may be linked to brain — but that does not indicate a necessary permanent dependence. We see the analogy in nature of inestimable diversity of both body and consciousness. Biblically we encounter angelic spirits who can think and reason without the benefit of physical, human brains. The ultimate proof is seen in the nature of God Himself, who, while lacking a body, exhibits the highest possible level of consciousness.
Lesser arguments may be seen in the rising tide of testimonies of uncanny experiences of those who have been revived from a flat line state only to recall observations of things that occurred after they were declared dead — in many cases observing things that took place outside the rooms where they “died.” To be sure the jury is still out on this phenomena, but the reports pose interesting grist for the life-after-death mill.
If I may indulge in a bit of cynicism, I can’t resist noting that we’ve all experienced people who have brains but can’t think, and people who think who seem to lack brains. But that would involve an exercise not only of cynicism but of equivocation.
The Bible affirms that life is good, even with the afflictions we must endure. This side of heaven, we resemble Hamlet in his judgment that we would rather “bear those ills we have, than fly to others we know not of .…” This fear is that what comes after our eyelids close in death may be worse than what we now endure. But this is not the biblical hope for the Christian. Paul writes: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Phil. 1:21–24 NKJV).
Here Paul expresses apostolic ambivalence. He sees the good of his present life, yet yearns for his departure because of his assurance that it will mean gain. He uses the comparative form of the good by choosing the term “better” to describe what follows this life. Indeed the comparative is further modified by the word “far.” Thus Paul avers that the state that follows death is “far better” than that which we presently enjoy.
This comparative state is called “the intermediate state.” It is intermediate because it stands between our present state and our final state. It is the state of bodiless souls that precedes our final state of resurrection when our souls will be reunited with our glorified bodies to live in the superlative state of human life (the best) forever.
My memories of “Beechie” and my childhood friends will not cease at death. Indeed they will be enhanced as the muddled memories of this present body will give way to unconfused recollections of the past that I will be able to cherish forever. Beechie — that means that we will never forget our friendship together.