Wednesday, November 4, 2015

SOUL AWAKE—DNA SLEEPING

Death has different meanings in Scripture, depending on what part of a person dies. Paul’s prayer in Thessalonians 5:23 (WEB) lists these parts: “May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 
 These three components or our human nature are similarly described in the creation of Adam: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [spirit] of life; and man became a living soul.” (Gen 2:7, KJV).

What is the Soul?

The soul seems to begin when that fleshly dust and spiritual breath come together. It connects them as a God-designed mediator. Our soul integrates our visible animal bodies and our invisible angelic spirits, making us body-spirit beings who can interact with both the material and spiritual realms. These three parts of our humanity form a lifelong amalgamation—a human trinity—that images the Creator in special ways, both separately and in union.

The soul has self-awareness and a personal identity that thinks, feels, chooses, and remembers. Other people can perceive an individual’s spiritual character when the soul reveals his or her unique personality via the body. A person’s soul, though not seen directly, is recognized through the bodily activity of thoughts communicated, emotions expressed, and actions taken.

A computer can illustrate this tri-unity of body, soul, and spirit. The body with its brain, nervous system, sense organs and musculature, is like the computer’s motherboard, RAM and ROM memory, hard drive, and input and output devices. The spirit is like the electrical power energizing the whole unit. But the different programs loaded and the personally stored data make up the functional soul of the computer.When the power is turned off or an essential physical component breaks down, the programs and data continue to exist on disk or backed up on a cyberspace memory cloud. When the physical computer (body) is turned on (spirit), it has a functional character (soul). The computer’s body is visible; its electrical spirit is not. While the programs and data are also invisible, they become uniquely recognizable through the running computer. While not perfect, this analogy might be helpful to some.

The “Soul Sleep” Misinterpretation

Because the Bible often speaks of death as “sleep,” some teach that the soul goes nowhere at death but either ceases to exist or unconsciously rests in “the grave” with its disintegrating corpse. The latter scenario becomes a strained interpretation when the grave is the ocean, or when an explosion literally makes a real grave impossible. The former idea fails to explain the martyred souls in heaven described in Revelation. Those “souls” weren’t asleep in their graves but had wide-awake wills actively choosing to express mental thoughts with strong emotional feeling, all in a definite, non-earthly location:

And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:9-10, KJV)

If it’s important in our conception of death to know which part of us dies, it’s also important to know which part of humanity is sleeping, when Scripture metaphorically uses “sleep” to indicate death. People can mistake which part is asleep by confusing the metaphor. The appearance of literal sleep provides the metaphorical significance of “sleep” as a description of how a dead body appears. Observers no longer see choices of the will, perceive no more sad or happy feelings, hear no thoughts being communicated. Shake a dead person vigorously. Why is there no response? “The dead know nothing,” says Ecclesiastes 9:5. The corpse is profoundly asleep. The dead body has nothing more to do with the ongoing activities of this physical world, except to disintegrate and be reabsorbed by it.

What Sleeps in the Body’s Death?

Christians believe that bodies, sleeping in death, will awaken at the resurrection. How so? How can a buried corpse absorbed by a tree root, or a drowned body scattered throughout the ocean, or one vaporized by an fiery explosion, be reconstructed into its original state as a resurrected body? In Christ’s resurrection, all the matter in His body was still local. In ours, some molecules from those who died at sea might end up on our table in the next bite of fish. This thought may bring emotional discomfort, but it poses no scientific problem. What sleeps in death is not the body’s array of personal dust but each person’s specific arrangement of DNA.

The material composing the bodies of living creatures is in constant flux. Cellular structures are continuously being built up or repaired with new molecules taken in as food. Old cell material is likewise being broken down and discarded from the body as waste. This process of construction and destruction replaces all the atoms in a human body approximately every seven years. In other words, “we’re not what we used to be.” We’re not living in the material body we had seven years ago. Even the old atoms on each double-helix DNA molecule have been exchanged for new ones. However, the DNA stays the same, except perhaps for some minor mutations.

When reduced to its essence, our personal DNA is a numerical arrangement, much like the computer’s stored programs. If the physical computer is destroyed, the programs can be reloaded on an entirely new unit. But the difference with DNA is that it holds the specific formula for the physical unit’s unique design. This is why I personally believe that the intangible numerical formula of our personal DNA—expressed tangibly in this life through the medium of matter—is registered in the soul and taken with it, along with our entire personal memory, when the soul and spirit leave the body in death. As far as our bodies are concerned, “we’re just a number,” but a number “wonderfully and fearfully made” by creation’s Master Mathematician.

Michelangelo's "Resurrection of the Dead"
On Resurrection Day, what’s the point of having our bodies restored from the same material our DNA was borrowing for the last seven years of our lives? Any nearby dust will do. What about the undesirable results of a believer’s DNA defects, caused by sin in a fallen world? Surely each of our DNA programming will be restored to the perfection of the Creator’s original design. Jesus said He “came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), and not only the soul and spirit were lost in the Fall. Christ’s glorious physical resurrection is the pro-type of our own. He will reconstruct our bodies to be “like His glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). Sadly, this hope for “the redemption of our bodies” is a part of the Gospel not emphasized in modern evangelism. Yet bodily resurrection is so important that Paul declares, “in this hope you were saved” (Romans 8:23b,24a, ESV).

Putting the Soul Sleep Doctrine to Sleep

But this resurrection hope doesn’t include the unconsciousness of the soul in death. Widespread belief in “soul sleep” or in the soul’s annihilation at death is relatively recent. Various versions of this concept have been held by Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses since the late 1800s. However, this doctrine is absent from the teachings of the primitive church, although one critic reports that “according to historian Philip Schaff, soul sleep fomented in the mind of a specious fourth century pantheist named Arnobius.”


In modern times, the growing number of those bold enough to share their personal testimonies of near-death experiences have confirmed the early church’s teaching. Even though these episodes are usually only “near-death,” some of those describing NDEs were professionally evaluated as clinically “dead.” In other words, God let them miraculously come back from death to tell their stories. While their descriptions may vary, these people unanimously report a continuing consciousness, sometimes seeing the bodies they left behind. They talk about still experiencing their soul’s ability to think, feel, choose and remember. It might take only one NDE to convince teachers of “soul sleep” that their doctrine was erroneous. If not, their final death certainly will.

In discussions with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I sometimes show them Genesis 49:33 in their New World Translation: “Thus Jacob finished giving these instructions to his sons. Then he drew his feet up onto the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people.” I explain how this verse mentions first body, then spirit, and finally soul. If they say, “Oh, but to be ‘gathered to his people’ means to go to the grave,” I show them the next verse, Genesis 50:1, “Joseph then threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him.” Then I point out, “You forgot something. Jacob wasn’t buried yet. His body was still there, but a special part of him had just been ‘gathered to his people.’ Don’t you find that theologically embarrassing?” No, they don't. A footnote in the Watchtower translation tells them to ignore the clear implications of this phrase by insisting it to be merely “a poetic expression for death” rather than a divine revelation of what actually happened. This is the kind of stubbornness that could benefit from an NDE.


I had a Seventh-day Adventist friend who was similarly adamant in her belief about the soul’s unconsciousness in death. When she died, I envisioned her immediately regretting her insistence on that doctrine. I even wrote a poem to be read at her graveside service, believing that someday in the afterlife she will thank me for doing so.

That poem is probably the best conclusion I can make for this article.

SOUL SLEEP

For eighteen hundred years was taught
That only corpses went to graves,
That souls went on, awake in thought,
While bodies slept ’neath dust or waves.

I choose to keep the older creed
That says our flesh must rest from toil,
Awaiting, like the planted seed,
That Day of Rising from the soil.

If later teachers’ words are right—
That souls must sleep before they rise—
Then when I hear that Trumpet bright,
I’ll wake up and apologize.

But if they’re wrong, then their mistake
Was known the moment that they died,
For even now they’re wide awake
Repenting for what they denied.

I’d rather be aroused from sleep
To find that I was duped by lies
Than be awake in death to weep
Till God decides to dry my eyes.

— David L. Hatton, 3/12/2013
(to be in Poems Between Here and Beyond)

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