I think it is important to be aware of how little we as theologians can say about existence after death. If one wants to attack a persons faith with the weapons of reason, surely the post-mortem existence is the easiest target.
The bible actually has very little to say about this. The common conceptions about life after death are based much more on Virgil and Dante than on Scripture. In fact, I think one can argue that what the Christian tradition actually states about what comes after death is essentially “negative theology”, in the sense that if we combine these pieces of doctrine, we end up with concepts that are completely incomprehensible to the human mind. It is a firm belief of the Church that time will not be a part that existence. Now, this in itself makes all symbols we use to describe the future world of limited worth, because time is such a fundamental component in this existence. And if we add to this statement the notion of the resurrection of the body, the most important symbol of life beyond death in the NT, the last pieces of our pastoral images of heaven crumbles to dust. What kind of a body can we imagine without existence in time?
Paul, of course, in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 15), does combine these two statements. “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable” (v. 42). It is fairly clear that Paul means something quite different with the body here than the physical body have/is in this life. I’m no exegete, but I think we can get a clue of what he is talking about from Romans 6. Here Paul seems to use the body as a symbol for what we have come to be, in the sense of a deviation from our true selves caused by life in the world. “The old self” (v. 6) is what has we have become because of original sin (in the sense I described it in my previous post – the sum of all the things that affect our personality but does not come from ourselves).
The imperishable body is our personality as it would stand, freed from this deviation. In other words, the Christian hope, as Paul envisions it, is that death will only affect those parts of ourselves that are not genuine. Our true selves, freed from negative outside influence, will continue to exist in some way. This is also how I like to interpret that other important eschatological symbol, the judgment. It will be a separation of what is true in me and what is not, more than a separation of the good people from the bad.
The important question then is, what is this “true self”. Can we even imagine a personality apart from the influences of our environment? I think this image is fundamentally flawed, and it is the dominating anthropological concept in our time: the assumption that there is one part of our personality that is natural (often: biological) and one that is caused by society, influence. See any debate on homosexuality, for example.
No, our genuine self is not defined by our genes, and it is not (the religious equivalent) given by God as a specific calling. If we believe that humans are created free, this is the essence of that freedom: we are free to define who we are ourselves. “True” when we speak of the self, is not to be translated as “original” or “what once was”. True is that which we have defined ourselves, which of all the influences that come to us we in our freedom accept to incorporate in our personality. False is that which we accept, not by freedom, but by lack of responsibility over our own life, and because of the circumstance under which we live. These are all the parts of our personality that we just let happen, since we do not take our life seriously.
It is from those elements of our personality we will ultimately be saved. This is to become “whole”. Now, how this will feel, look, take place – these are questions we do not have the answer to.