Science Ch.25 - Human Resurrection by Backup?

Computer science presents us with a vocabulary for understanding resurrection: our DNA and body can be reconstructed like hardware, and our memory can be backed up like software. Of course, the backup drive would be huge.

Memory is largely an illusion – that’s the sad conclusion of neurologists. We remember only a fraction of what happens to us, and then we fill in the gaps. Our brains simply don’t have the capacity to retain everything. And we forget things, because the brain cells that hold old memories are gradually reused for new ones. It poses a rather interesting question for Christians: Can we expect to get all our memories back when we are resurrected? Analogies drawn from computer backup technologies can put new realism into this Christian hope. As for the hardware – the resurrection of our bodies is also now easier to comprehend thanks to developments in genetics.

       We can now envisage God recreating our bodies to be the same as the ones we inhabited, because we are familiar with concepts such as cloning. Former generations thought that God would reconstruct our bodies from our bones. This belief was based partly on the fact that bones can last almost indefinitely if they are kept dry, and partly on the amazing vision in Ezekiel 37, where God raised up a valley of dry bones as living people. This is why Christians and Jews buried their loved ones, and first-century Jews even scraped remaining flesh off the bones of their dead after a year, then transferred them to a clean, dry ossuary, which successfully preserved them to this day. Christians and Jews regarded cremation (which was practiced by Greeks and Romans) as irreligious, and it has only gained acceptance in Christian countries during the last century.

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A new body

Paul said that the new resurrection body will be very different from our old one – as different as a plant is from a gnarly seed, or the sun is from the moon (1 Cor 15:37-41). Jesus said that these bodies won’t have any reproductive functions (Matt 22:30), presumably because they won’t die – so having offspring won’t be necessary. And if Jesus’ resurrection body is any guide, they may also be able to travel by novel means, such as through locked doors (John 20:19, 26). So these will be utterly new bodies and not just animated corpses. It doesn’t matter whether the atoms used by our original body have been eaten by a worm, then fed to a fish, which was then eaten by a person. God can still raise everyone to life using atoms from elsewhere by basing it on the pattern that our body had.

       God could use our genome to reconstruct a virtually identical body. A body with identical DNA may not be exactly identical, because identical twins are genetic clones and yet they often look subtly different. The Bible implies that God will do more than just create a clone, because Jesus’ resurrection body bore records of his life history – in particular, the scars of his death, which are a permanent part of his glory. Our resurrection body may also include features from our life history that make us recognizable, such as laugh lines and perhaps even pregnancy stretch marks, though presumably we won’t have any painful disabilities.

       One of Jesus’ parables implied that we will recognize our friends (Luke 16:9), though I’m hoping that my college friends will recognize me more easily than recent friends – it would be nice to look a few decades younger! Interestingly, when Jesus’ friends and disciples saw his resurrected body, they didn’t immediately recognize him (John 20:14-16; Luke 24:16). This may be a confirmation that God does indeed use our DNA to create our resurrection body so that it may be subtly different and perhaps younger than the body that died.

What about Jesus?

This brings up a difficult and potentially divisive theological question: Was Jesus’ resurrection special, or was it the same that his followers will experience? We might initially think that because Jesus is special in all kinds of ways, his death and resurrection was different. His followers won’t go to hell before being raised (like he did – Acts 2:31; 1 Pet 3:19), and unless they die just before his return they will be dead for much longer than a couple of days. Jesus was alive again before his body had suffered much decay, so we usually assume that his resurrection body was simply his reanimated corpse. Until recent centuries, most Christians assumed that they, too, would be raised from their buried remains, so Jesus’ resurrection didn’t seem significantly different. But if everyone else receives a brand-new resurrection body, while Jesus’ new body was his reanimated corpse, then his resurrection was different and (arguably) inferior to ours.

       There is also a theological problem: if Jesus’ resurrection was different, then can he really be the “firstborn from among the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5)? That is, Jesus was born and lived in a fully human way in order to represent us completely when bearing our sin; and he suffered real human death just like us, so that when he rose from that death he was opening the door for us to rise in the same way (Rom 5:17; 1 Cor 15:47-49). He was like us “in every way” (Heb 2:17), so we might expect his resurrection to be like ours too. In other words, after he died, we’d expect his Father to give him a brand-new body so that those who follow him will be like him (1 John 3:2).

       When theologian David Jenkins was asked this question in 1984, he said he believed that Jesus’ new body was not his old corpse, and he was castigated for not believing in the “real” resurrection of Jesus. “If Jesus was given a new body,” people asked, “what happened to his original body which disappeared from the tomb?” Unfortunately David answered this with a memorable but provocative phrase: “The resurrection was not just a conjuring trick with bones.” A former college friend of his told me that this was typical of the kinds of jocular phrases he liked to use – but this time, no one laughed. He was not a student now – he was about to become the bishop of Durham. Journalists picked up this phrase and twisted it, saying that he had compared the resurrection to a conjuring trick with bones. And when lightning caused a fire in York Minster a few days after he was consecrated bishop there, it seemed as though God agreed with his critics.

Proof of concept

So how can Jesus have a new resurrection body when his old body was apparently reused? This question is worth thinking about even if we can’t come to any definite conclusion. After all, if resurrection bodies can be constructed from different atoms based on the recorded pattern of DNA plus any significant personal features, then the actual corpse isn’t needed. In Jesus’ case, however, there was no need to collect some atoms that might be available to build his resurrection body. The most obvious available source was his newly killed corpse. Just as a brand-new picture can be painted on a previously used canvas, a new body can be constructed from the atoms of an old one. So God could create a brand-new resurrection body, with all its improved features, out of the materials of Jesus’ old body.

       The resurrection of Jesus was, as engineers would call it, a proof of concept. Every new product needs a prototype, and every new process needs testing – and it worked. Jesus was alive again. Of course, God had no doubt that it would work, but the physical and demonstrable resurrection of Jesus was important for humans to see and report to each other: it really happened.

       Actually, making the body may be the easier part of the problem. We almost have the technology to do this already – as Dolly the sheep showed – though, of course, normal clones don’t have the superior features of resurrection bodies.1 The harder bit is preserving and transferring the memories and personality.

       Making a new body with a perfect skeleton instead of arthritic joints is pointless if the brain is blank, but our brains aren’t so easy to reconstruct. When we get a new laptop, we transfer all our backups (which we hopefully remembered to make), but how does that work with our memories? We are still trying to fathom how memory is encoded in the brain, but one thing is certain: our brains can’t hold everything we have ever seen and read and heard – we have a finite space within our cranium.

       Neuroscientists in one study discovered a “Jennifer Aniston brain cell” (named after the actress made famous in the comedy series Friends).2 During direct neuron stimulation in preparation for brain surgery, they found a single cell that responded whenever a person saw her picture or her name, but that cell didn’t fire up for any other images or names. This suggests that a specific neuron in our brains can be devoted to coordinating a particular concept or memory. What happens to that memory if the cell dies, or if it 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 that remember nothing. Are memories lost forever if they disappear from the cells that store them?

Total recall?

How much of our life on earth will we remember in eternity? Will every mealtime conversation be as clear as when you first heard it? Will you recall every raised eyebrow and expression on your friend’s face as they spoke? What about the background music or the flavor of the food? And what about the details you didn’t consciously notice, such as the face of someone on the edge of your vision or a word spoken while you were thinking about something else? We can’t recall this level of detail even immediately after a meal, unless we record everything we see, feel, and experience. However, the memory in our recorder would run out of space in a short while, and even our capacious brains can’t contain that amount of detail.

       Our brains cope by editing out extraneous details. During sleep we move some medium-term memories into long-term memory, and we discard others. But nothing is permanent. Our brain has a limited number of memory engrams, and although our brains are huge, they are not infinite; so new memories supplant old ones that we haven’t used for a long time. On the whole, we don’t miss the bits we forget because we are great at filling in the gaps. We remember things that we think about regularly and forget the things we don’t think about – so we usually don’t notice they are gone.

       Will those gaps in our memories be restored in heaven? The storage system needed to record the totality of all our memories would be truly massive. Perhaps it could be recorded “in the clouds” of heaven. When we refer to computer cloud storage space, we mean a computer server somewhere on earth – perhaps a basement in Seattle – but the cloud storage space of heaven can be as endless as the Large Magellanic star cloud, which contains ten billion solar systems. Considering the size of creation, there is a great deal of matter that God could use for memory storage – though, of course, he is likely to have a completely different kind of information storage system of his own that may not require any matter.

       Even now, some people wear life recorders that capture a picture every few seconds along with continuous audio and transmit it to storage by Wi-Fi. I wore video glasses during a holiday in Rome, and reviewing it later I realized how many details I had forgotten. My wife, looking over my shoulder, wanted to know why I was looking at the backside of the woman walking in front of me. I said it was a narrow street, and I had to look somewhere – but she had a point.

       This type of situation could become even more pressing in heaven if every memory is resurrected. Jesus has already warned us about this issue: “There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed” (Luke 8:17). Paul gave us some minor comfort, though, when he said that unworthy sections of our life will be burned up at judgment (1 Cor 3:12). I like to think of this like edited segments of film being thrown on a fire so no one will ever view them. Part of our salvation and forgiveness means that all those sections of our lives when we weren’t living for Jesus will be erased and forgotten. However, this means that some of us won’t have many memories worthy of taking into heaven.

Fully known

The Bible does suggest that we will have infinite knowledge in heaven because Paul said, “I will know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). This amazing statement implies that we will know everything as well as God does. It is difficult to imagine even a resurrection body that can contain all the knowledge that the infinite God possesses. We have no idea what kinds of bodies we will have, but whatever they are made of, we can’t have an infinite mind like God himself has.

       Here, too, modern technology enables us at least to imagine what the Bible is describing. Today we no longer need laptops with huge hard drives – we just need a fast connection to the internet. When we need something that isn’t on our drive, it is downloaded, and anything that we add is uploaded, ready for when we need it. Similarly, our resurrection bodies may not need to contain much more memory than we have now, because when we need knowledge we will be in communication with our creator, who knows everything.

       The most detailed vision of our future existence at the end of the Bible also sounds like science fiction: we will live in a cube-shaped city made of transparent materials (Rev 21:9-23). The gold of the city will be so transparently thin that no lights are needed, because the light of God can shine through the whole city (vv. 21, 23). I wonder whether this could have been God’s way of telling first-century readers about the total transparency of mind-to-mind communication? If this were the case, we won’t just be in constant touch with God but also with each other, so there will be literally no walls to hide behind. At present I don’t like that idea of total openness, but perhaps it won’t be so bad in that new world when I won’t have so many vices to be ashamed of.

       No doubt the reality of the resurrection will be totally different than anything we can yet imagine. But the point of this chapter is that computer science has at least enabled us to make sense of Bible passages that previously seemed impossible, even though we cannot yet fully understand them. We now have a better insight into the wonders that God has prepared for us. Our memories in heaven can be limitless, and all the bad bits will be edited out. Everything that is lovely and done in God’s company will be remembered, with all the sin and tears wiped out forever. The pains and evil that we experienced while holding onto Jesus will be recorded as victory rather than suffering, and the sins that Jesus has forgiven won’t be recorded at all. This isn’t just rosy editing; it is a new reality, bought for us by Jesus’ death and proved to be possible by his resurrection.


• A twin with identical DNA may not look exactly the same, and the resurrected Jesus wasn’t recognized immediately.
• Jesus had scars to indicate his history, so a new body may have features that reflect our lives – such as laugh lines.
• Even a new body won’t have infinite memory.
• Proposal: We may have access to our resurrected memory, which we can download when required.

1^ See Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “Embryo Stem Cells Created from Skin Cells,” ScienceDaily, May 2, 2019 (
2^ See Anna Gosline, “Why Your Brain Has a Jennifer Aniston Cell,” New Scientist, June 22, 2005 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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