January 19, 2021

A Scientist Talks about Human Destiny Beyond Death

A Scientist Talks about Human Destiny Beyond Death

John Polkinghorne, respected scientist and ordained Anglican priest, is a man, his bio says, “who is not afraid to ask difficult questions about God’s action in His creation. How can God act in a world governed by scientific law?”

In this brief interview, appropriate for Eastertide, Polkinghorne discusses human destiny after death, the nature of the “soul,” and humans as naturally embodied creatures.

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  1. I love me some Polkinghorne. And I agree with him here, as I’ve said in several posts, we are embodied beings. Our souls are us, an emergent property. It is not just material as he said, the material part changes sevreral times over our life. The skeptic argues that all ends with death. But Jesus put the lie to that when he rose from the dead. He is our hope, the resurrection and the life. I believe, Lord, help thou my unbelief.

  2. Klasie Kraalogies says

    One thing though. He is a scientist, but in his discussion about life after death, he didn’t talk as a scientist. He talked as a believer. Which is fine. But a different thing altogether.

    • Can’t scientists be believers ? That’s a pretty narrow view

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        I did not say that at all.

        • No, you didn’t say that. I think you’re saying that the religious beliefs of a scientist are no more likely to be true than those of any other person. Being a scientist gives him no privilege, and gives his opinions no greater weight, when it comes to the subject of religion, and religious assertions, than any other person. All other things being equal, being a scientist does not make him more likely to hold true opinions concerning religion.

    • Klasie, I did think, in brief, that he gave a logical (not biblical) perspective on the concept of life and personality continuing after death. I found him reasonable and measured in his claims.

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        Logical from a theological, or even cultural perspective. There are no scientific elements to his view on life after death.

        • Klasie, I think he admitted as much. How could there be strictly scientific elements? For myself, I’m ok with that. I’m persuaded that knowledge gained through the scientific method is not the only kind of knowledge there is and that “proof” is not necessary to justify every belief.

  3. To investigate perceived reality within a discipline of only that which can be measured and weighed and observed with the five senses as physical materiality is valid and useful and scientific. To believe that reality actually consists only of that which can be measured and weighed and observed with the five senses as physical materiality is unscientific and a bit silly, if quite common.

    • Charles: If you have a spare moment, go to Enns site and listen to the “Science Mike” podcast. I’m intrigued and just ordered his book.

      • Mike, rather a spare hour, but I’m listening and will respond later. In the meantime I have to replace the water pressure tank and roll down the mole hills in the back yard before it rains again. So far I’m thinking the podcast would be very helpful to many here.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      That is severe oversimplification. I mean – we can’t in a direct way experience either the Higgs field or the Higgs boson with our five senses. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find scientist that denies the likelihood of its existence. However, to assert without direct or indirect evidence that can be corroborated in any way will remain just that, an assertion. And once their is counter evidence, you do have a problem.

      In this case however, you can assert virtually anything. Doesn’t mean it is true.

      • Does historical evidence count as “indirect”?

      • And we are right back to where we were the other day. “However, to assert without direct or indirect evidence…” The indirect evidence is the historical record of the four gospels that RECORD Jesus’ resurrection. I realize they are no longer persuasive to you (and many others) but that is a matter of interpretation/opinion. They ARE indirect evidence. See the problem here, Klasie, in your current mind-set, is that a miracle could occur right in front of your eyes and you wouldn’t believe it. Any other explanation would be put forward, i.e. God-of-the-gaps. Well, I, for one am not giviing up on you and this conversation is not over— not by a long shot. I DO NOT abandon my friends.

        • Klasie Kraalogies says

          Mike, One would have to examine said miracle. Understand what came before, what came after, what changed. Etc. Correlate to other similar events. And so forth.

          And yes – I am happy to remain friends with all here, as I have always been.

        • Mike, yes, the Gospels all talk about Jesus’ resurrection, and they are “historicsl” insofar as they contain a record of Christ’s sayings, actions, etc. *as believed by the early church.* They are religious texts, and histotic documents, but as a historian, i have to say that, absent objective outside sources that corroborate the evrnts discussed and detsils mentioned, they are not records of fact per se.

          There are so many anomalies, even within/among the Synoptics, that i think it’s vital to stop and question what you mean by “historical” and how that idea aligns with what these texts actually *are.* If you made this assertions class on, say, the history of the early church, the instructor would no doubt politely tell you that your thoughts are, strictly speaking, pertaining to what early Christians (including the writers snd editirs of the Godpels) *believed.* As such, yes – they point to the *history of belief* about Jesus. But they are not irrefutable “historical” documents on their own. You believe what they say – that’s the “irrefutable” element here, not the widely varying versions of the Gadarene demoniac (s), etc.

          That does not mean thst I personally disbelieve what is conveyed about the resurrection; only that I cannot take the stories as journalistic reportage. Nor should snyone – for one thing, that wasn’t the intent of the writers/editors.

        • “They are indirect evidence” – well, not exactly, as you mean it. They are all stating what people *believed* to be true. Where are the other mentions of the resurrection in contemporary sources?


          There aren’t any. Which means one can believe or disbelieve, but not state as historical fact.

          The methodology used by historians isn’t the same as the methodology used by theologians.

          • Numo: I appreciate you trying to give the nuance of the historian. Nevertheless, there isn’t much else the people from the first century could have done to transmit what they believed or even what they personally witnessed. I understand it was oral for a long time before it was written, I understand there are discrepancies ( I think that was to be expected), I understand it was not the modern view of history. And as far as other sources, there are: the Babylonian Talmud is probably the best example, so its not like there isn’t anything at all. But what would you expect from hostile sources? Look at Trump and “alternate facts”. This “there is no evidence” is way overstated.

            • Still, do you know of other accounts of the resurrection? Because that’s crucial to your line of thinking here. (No pun intended, honest!)

              Whatever is in the Talmud has much to do with the *beliefs* of others, as well as how those beliefs were used as an excuse to persecute Jewish people, slur them and their religious practice, and much more.

            • There is, afaik, no overstatement in saying that there are no other stories or accounts of Christ’s resurrection *apart from the Gospels.* Again, afaik – if you know of any, i would welcome info., links, etc.

              This isn’t remotely about “alternate facts” (lies); it’s about ancient textusl sources and whether or not there are unbiased accounts (not written by xtians) of the resurrection. Again, i want to stress that i believe that it did happen. I’m not coming at this from “unbelief,” contra what a lot of evangelicals might say. (Not you, but many.)

              If we xtians are unable to deal with textual analysis, archeology and all the rest, we’re to be pitied (imo). I think all of that can bring a much deeper and more nuanced reading of the texts, rather than the reverse. Again, though, anyone embarking on this discussion might want to review the definition of “historical” and related words. (Side note: I’ve not run into much difficulty in discussing this with evangelicals who’ve spent a lot of time studying ANE texts, texts of the NT period, etc.)

              • “There is, afaik, no overstatement in saying that there are no other stories or accounts of Christ’s resurrection *apart from the Gospels.* Again, afaik – if you know of any, i would welcome info., links, etc.” No, you are right and that is not what I am saying.

                “This isn’t remotely about “alternate facts” (lies); it’s about ancient textusl sources and whether or not there are unbiased accounts (not written by xtians) of the resurrection.” Again I agree but I must point out that the remaining Jews and the Romans were not unbiased but hostile to the “Christian sect”. So who was going to write the “unbiased account”.

                “If we xtians are unable to deal with textual analysis, archeology and all the rest, we’re to be pitied (imo). I think all of that can bring a much deeper and more nuanced reading of the texts, rather than the reverse. Agreed, Numo, but I’m going to be stubborn here and insist “there is no evidence” is way overstated.

                • Ok, again, there are problems here, one of them being that so-called xtianity was still a *Jewish* sect for a good long while, early gentile converts notwithstanding. That began to change after 70 C.E./A.D., but for diverse reasons. You speak of early Jewish hostility to xtianity, yet the sole criteria for that are found in the NT itself. The writers of the Gospels frame just about all of Jesus’ encounters with other Jews (other Pharisees plus Saducees in particular) as oppositional and hostile, but that clearly could not have been the case.

                  Reasons include: constant mentions of large crowds, people in synagogues being healed, Jesus visiting all kinds of people, etc. It’s implied that he had influential supporters, not least when it’s mentioned in John’s Gospel that the writer was a relative of the then-high priest. For the Saducees, maintaining good relations with the occupying power must have superseded the upstart from Nazareth who thew over tables and brandished a whip at the moneychangers, don’t you think?

                  As an aside, an NT scholar who teaches at Vanderbilt Div. School, A-J Levine, is someone you might find interesting. She’s written some excellent books for xtian readers; I’d suggest beginning with The Misunderstood Jew. A-J is Orthodox and is way better than i am at explaining things to people from an evangelical background, (i spent a few decades inside that territory, but was raised ELCA Lutheran and am a revert; also am fascinated by Judaica as i grew up with some very articulate and friendly Jewish adults around, mostly my neighborhood friends’ parents. Their belief in God helped sustain me during the period of time when i doubted his existence.)

                  Roman persecution of xtians didn’t start right off the bat, either, but i figure it’s beyond the scope of this reply, and in any event, everything changed once Constantine recognized xtianity. That’s when persecution of Jewish people began with a vengeance.

                  Can you show me how (including when and where) the evidence is for my overstatement? Again, i genuinely am interested in how you are seeing this and would welcome sources, links, book titles, etc. I’m not atall intending to be rude or sarcastic, truly.

                  I do think you’ll find that certain basically not sane emperors had a real hatred for xtianity, but they weren’t exactly fond of Judaism (or any other religions that said there was only one god). It’s really complicated, though, in both the long and short run. The suthor i mentioned in a reply below, George Nirenberg, begins his book Anti-Judaism with, well, all kinds of sources hostile to Judaism in the ancient world. I haven’t dug into the book as yet, but you might find the 1st couple of chapters good for context.

            • How are the Talmudic sources “hostile,” in light of persecution?

              I’m not being snarky; i genuinely want to know what you make of this, and why.

              • Numo: unfortunately I can’t source this right now but the Bablyonian Talmud quote is: “On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu of Nazareth and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defense come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defense and hanged him on the eve of Passover.”

                • Unfortunately, the passages that are supposed to be about Jesus, including this one, are controversial. Part of the controversy has to do with when they were actually written + became part of the Talmud; not necessarily the one you cite, but many others. Most are controversial largely because whether they’re about Jesus of Nazareth – or not – is up for debate, among both Jewish and gentile scholars. Given that the Talmud covers vast amounts of material and includes opinions that outright clash in many cases, am not sure it’s easy to come to a consensus on this topic, you know?

                • Big question: *when was it writtrn*? And when did it become part of the Talmud?

            • Mike, I don’t understand how you can say that the Talmud provides historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. The Talmud provides less evidence for the historicity of the Jesus’ resurrection than the New Testament apocrypha do, and they don’t provide much. Frankly, you still would be better off citing the apocrypha as historical evidence, since they are closer to the community of witness that wrote and redacted the NT. But then again, the NT apocrypha provide alternative theological perspectives, some of which don’t fit well with the traditional mainstream of orthodox Christianity as it developed in the early centuries and has come down to us. They, I’m afraid, would be viewed as even more hostile than the Talmud, though better placed historically to speak to the issues at hand.

              • Robert – yep. As to when parts of the Talmud *might* have been written and edited, the jury’s out, though i think it pretty much points to after the established church began to persecute Jewish people, as well as to malign their religion (cf. John Chrysostom’s anti-Judaic and equally antisemitic sermons).

                • Where the NT apocrypha do speak about Jesus’ resurrection they do so in ways that spiritualize it, rendering it as a state of being accessible to anyone rather than a singular eschatological event unique to Jesus. They just won’t do as witnesses to Jesus resurrection.

                  • Well, see, there’s the rub – no attestation to the bodily resurrection. I don’t want to keep on about this; my primary goal was to try and untangle some of the ideas surrounding what is historical, as well as what is faith/belief. This gets messy, and i can’t really wall these things off in my mind, because they’re all part of a greater whole.

                    But i do think that understanding terminology helps, along with contect and all that implies. I know i cannot imagine myself back into a 1st or 3d c. mindset; it’s like a different universe. But sometimes it’s worth trying, regardless.

                • Antisemitism is a disease that the church caught early in its life. It still hasn’t been healed of it; will it ever?

                  • I doubt it. But it is also anti-Judaism: if you can find Chrysostom’s writings, it’s clear enough. Simon Schama used some quotes for his book and subsequent TV seties, a history of the Jews, and a scholar named David Nirenberg published a book on anti-Judaism specifically a couple of years ago. (He is himself Jewish.)

            • To clsrify, I’m not disputing the (admittedly few) mentions of Jesus’ life and death in non-xtian sources. What I’ve been after is: outside attestation to the resurrection. Not in *belief* in the resurrection, but the thing itself.

              I believe in what is stated in the Nicene Creed, but i cannot prove any of it as clear, unbiased historical fact – nor do, i need or want to. Seems a bit beside the point, i think, but… that’s just me.

        • We all need to meet for beers some day! Some of the discussions here would be best done in a pub or tavern.

    • Math truth vs poem truth, as HUG would say.

      To comment on Mike the Geologist’s comment later on…my problem with miracles is how often people assign something the definition of miracle after the fact. It’s not a miracle as it’s happening, rather it’s now ‘become’ a miracle. That seems…iffy to me, maybe downright dishonest at times. It’s how tall tales happen, through repeated telephone repeatings.

      • The problem is often the peer pressure in some groups to have your “testimony” of a miracle or you’re a second class Christian. This is particularly egregious in Pentecostal circles, where, if you don’t speak in tongues you aren’t even saved. People start faking it, repeating sounds they hear, because if they dont’ have the “experience” they can’t be “in”. So sad and spiritually destructive.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Especially when “Can You Top This?” sets in.

          And as for Pentecostals, the ONLY “Gift of the Spirit” to them seems to be Tongues Tongues Tongues Tongues Tongues Tongues and Tongues. When I brushed against them during my time in-country, I think I was the only one who held out for Wisdom (i.e. the command control over all the others). Everyone else was Tongues Tongues Tongues Tongues Tongues…

          The only time I heard tonguing in action that didn’t get flaky was charismatic Masses at the Azusa Newman Center circa 1980-82. During the Elevation of the Host (during the Consecration), a swell of tonguing would arise like waves breaking against a shore, ebbing and flowing as the priest went with it and “freeze-framed” until the tonguing faded away in the same way it first appeared. At which point the priest would continue with the Mass.

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        Exactly. Telephone truth. Often because people desperately want it to be true.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Math truth vs poem truth, as HUG would say.

        Actually, I copped that idea from a blog by a “Rob Bell” (presumably the Rob Bell who got piled on by Team Hell a couple years ago).

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      There’s a Pony for that, too.

      During the first season of MLP:FIM (when Lauren Faust was still the main producer running the show), there was an episode called “Feeling Pinkie Keen” about Scientific Proof of something weird. The real kicker was hearing the “only that which can be measured and weighed and observed with the five senses is valid” speech coming from a magical talking purple unicorn.

  4. Iain Lovejoy says

    I always find at weird when people get referred to as a “scientist” without any further specification; I agree with an earlier poster that it seems an attempt to make it more “sciency” when he talks about something completely different. It just seems a little “off” and a bit disingenuous: if they called him what he is, a theoretical physicist, that would give people a better idea of the relevance or otherwise of his expertise to what he is actually saying. I am trying not to think of the lack of clarity as deliberate. (I am not having a go at John Polkinghorne here at all, just possibly the producers.)

    • Same here; haven’t looked up his credentials, but I immediately wondered about his field, specialization, whether he actually is a researcher (as opposed to someone who has degrees in the sciences but not a career in them), etc.

      That’s not to say i think he’s a bad guy or not worth listening to, but people can be so overawed by the term “-scientist” that they don’t stop to ask basic questions about expertise. In any case, he’s not speaking with his scientist’s hat on in this clip. And that’s fine, but i think the clarification is helpful. (Fwiw, i know a father and son who both have undergrad degrees in science, but who both went on to studies for and careers in the ministry. They’re both clear about the differences between faith/belief and scientific proof, though i think s natural curiosity about the world almost inevitably draws people to think about both aspects of life.)

    • Polkinghorne as a scientist has no special knowledge about religious claims that would make his own religious experience and beliefs any more likely to reflect reality than those of any other sane, rational person. If religious claims are as a class baseless, then so are his; if they are not baseless, then his religious claims should be taken as seriously as anyone’s, but no more so. Strictly speaking, he would have no epistemological advantage over an equally intelligent and generally well-informed trash collector, if such a one exists (and I think, why should one such not exist?). There are very smart people who believe in life beyond death, as well as other religious claims, and there are equally smart people who don’t; but didn’t we already know this?

    • There’s a link to his bio in the post so all are welcome to peruse his credentials.

      • Thanks, CM. I think his credentials don’t make his beliefs any more (or less!) believable, though. A person can be at the top of the field and still *believe* things that aren’t credible, though. Witness Ben Carson: a true genius in neurosurgery, but also a person who believes that the pyramids are the granaries Joseph built, and that enslaved Africans weren’t actually enslaved, but came to this hemisphere voluntarily.

        I realize that’s a truly kooky example, but am trying to use the inherent weirdness to make a point about belief, in general terms, not to ridicule Carson, or anybody else. And i can’t and won’t downplay his accomplishments as a neurosurgeon, either. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that expertise in one area = authoritative opinions or understanding in *all* areas.

      • CM, i didn’t find a link in your post, but I looked him up and would like to give a couple of his books a go. (Provided i can understand them! Am not someone who finds the hard sciences at sll easy or even approachable.)

        He sounds like a fascinating guy, on the whole.

  5. Mike the G, I did listen to the podcast you recommended all the way thru, something I rarely do, and recommend it to all here. While on the surface it seems to deal with the science/Bible debate, that is just a beginning part of the story. I most enjoyed the part where the guy lost his (Evangelical) faith and then had a transcendent experience complete with bright light and voice in his head. Had himself tested for brain tumors, negative, and then checked himself into a psychiatry ward. Doctor said, you aren’t crazy, you’re religious.

    I have never experienced the Bible as literal letter or science as in conflict since my Evangelical education happened as a critical thinking adult, and thus I avoided the brainwashing so many here struggle with. My struggles lie more with lack of energy and motivation in getting my house in order which are off the radar here. To be honest, I usually find people’s Evangelical struggles boring and inexplicable, but I observe they are real, and I observe a certain amount of brainwashing in science as well. I would think most people here would find helpful information and attitude with the podcast, or at least a few laughs, and I would be glad if you reviewed the book after you read it. This is a long link, not sure it will fit:


  6. I like that concept of existing as amphibians, in living well in two worlds. To a fish, the air world is hard to conceive as is the underwater world to a land animal. It is just a fresh way of putting it.

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