Memory is an illusion. That’s the sad conclusion that has been reached by neurologists. We remember only a fraction of what happens to us, and even then we fill in the gaps. Our brains simply don’t have the capacity to remember everything. We forget things because the brain cells that hold memories are gradually replaced with new ones.
This poses a fascinating question for Christians with a resurrection hope: can we expect to get our memories back? This might have been regarded as logically impossible in the past, but computer back-up technologies bring a fresh reality to the Christian hope.
THE SINGLE BRAIN CELL
Neuroscientists recently discovered what has become known as the ‘Jennifer Aniston brain cell’. A single cell responded in someone’s brain when they saw the actress’ picture or her name but didn’t fire up for any other images or names. The upshot is that a specific neuron in our brains can be devoted to a particular concept or memory.
When it comes to thinking about our resurrection bodies, this adds weight to our problem. What happens to this particular memory if the cell dies or is reallocated to another memory? I’m sure that remembrances of my wife occupy considerably more than one cell in my brain, but we know that Alzheimer’s disease can turn these cells into useless amyloid plaques. Can memories be lost for ever?
Scientifically, it is now easier to envisage God recreating our bodies just as they were. Former generations thought God needed at least our bones because of the wonderful vision captured in Ezekiel 37, so Christians and Jews buried their loved ones. But we now know that God could use just our genomes.
The Bible implies that God will record our bodies’ history – including the scars and laugh lines – because Jesus’ resurrection body had evidence of wounds. Jesus also implied that we would recognise our friends, although he wasn’t immediately recognised by his disciples (Luke 16:9; 24:16). Personally, I’m hoping this was because our resurrection bodies rewind a bit; a few decades in my case.
CHANGING THE RECORD
Memories are different from physical bodies, however. How can they be resurrected when they are potentially infinite in size? Again, there is the question of just how much of our lives on earth we will remember in eternity. Will every mealtime conversation be as clear as when we first heard it? Will we recall every raised eyebrow and expression on our friends’ faces as they spoke? What about the background music or the flavour of the food? And what about the details we didn’t consciously notice, such as the face of someone on the edge of our vision or a crumb on the table? Imagine recording your experiences on a computer: recording everything you saw, felt and experienced. You would run out of space in a couple of hours.
OUR MEMORIES IN HEAVEN MAY BE FULL, BUT THEY WILL BE EDITED
Our brains cope by editing. While we sleep we move some medium-term memories into long-term memory, and we discard others. But nothing is permanent. Our hippocampus has a limited number of memory engrams and although the folds of our corpus are huge they are not infinite, so new memories supplant old ones we haven’t used for a long time. On the whole, we don’t miss them because we are great at filling in the gaps. But will we have memory gaps in heaven?
WHAT DO YOU KNOW?
Thanks to concepts such as back-up drives, we can now envisage God capturing everything we see and experience, and then storing it for our resurrection. Even now, some people wear life recorders that capture a picture every few seconds, along with continuous audio, and transmit it to storage via Wi-Fi.
This has raised privacy concerns that Jesus addressed many years ago: ‘There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed…’ (Luke 8:17). Paul gives us some minor comfort, suggesting that unworthy sections of our lives will be burned up at judgement (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). I like to think that this means those recordings will be destroyed, but it does mean that some of us won’t have many memories worth taking into heaven.
The Bible also suggests that we will have infinite knowledge in heaven, because Paul said: ‘…I shall know fully, even as I am fully known’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). This amazing statement implies that we will one day know everything as well as God does. It’s hard to even conceive of a resurrection body containing the knowledge possessed by the infinite God. We have no idea what kinds of bodies we will have, but whatever they are made of – whether it is matter or something else – we can’t be infinite as God is.
Modern technology enables us to at least imagine what the Bible is describing. We no longer need laptops with huge hard drives; we just need a fast connection to a server in ‘the cloud’. Similarly, our resurrection bodies may not need to contain infinite knowledge. We may just need to be in communication with our creator.
The most detailed vision of our future existence given at the end of the Bible sounds like science fiction: we will live in a cube-shaped city made from transparent materials (Revelation 21:9-23). The gold-paved streets will be transparently thin and lights will be unnecessary as the light of God will shine through the whole city. I wonder whether this might have been God’s way of telling first-century readers about the total transparency of mind-to-mind communication. If this is the case, we won’t just be in constant touch with God, but also with each other, so there will literally be no walls to hide behind. At present, I don’t like that idea of total openness, but perhaps it won’t be so bad when I don’t have so many vices to hide.
No doubt the reality of the resurrection will be totally different from anything we can yet imagine. But computer science has at least enabled us to make sense of Bible passages that previously seemed impossible, even though we cannot fully understand them. We now have a better insight into the wonders that God has prepared for us. Our memories in heaven may be full, but they will be edited. Everything that is lovely and done in God’s company will be remembered, with all the sin and tears wiped out for ever. This isn’t just rosy editing; it is a new reality, bought for us through Jesus’ death.