Last week, I was listening to an old Radiolab podcast called “The Black Box.” The episode centered on mysterious processes: What happens under anesthesia, for instance? How does a magic trick work? And last of all, what happens in the chrysalis, to turn a caterpillar into a butterfly?
That last one caught my attention. Like the radio hosts, if I thought about it at all I assumed that the caterpillar simply sprouted wings and other butterfly miscellany in the chrysalis. Not true. It turns out that the caterpillar literally dissolves into itself, turning into a yellowish primordial goo, before re-forming as a butterfly.
Even more interesting, the butterfly is nonetheless the same creature as the original caterpillar, with the same memory and soul (as much soul as an insect can have, anyway). Scientists have measured the caterpillar’s sense of smell and memory before and after the creature enters the pupa, and have discovered continuity. The creature which goes into the pupa is the same that emerges. It is alive again, though it dies.
This takes on particular significance if you realize that, as the hosts mentioned in the episode, the medieval world saw the butterfly as a sign of resurrection: that it enters the pupa and then (to all appearances) dies is a reminder that we too, though we die, will live again. As the Radiolab hosts pointed out, if the butterfly is the same as the caterpillar who enters the pupa, then those of us who believe in eternal life can take heart that when we are resurrected, we will be ourselves: perfected, yes, but substantially the same.
But there is a richer truth here. Towards the end of the episode, one of the hosts pointed out that if the butterfly is the same as the caterpillar which enters the pupa, the process works in reverse, too: The caterpillar carries within it the future butterfly.
Though the radio hosts, working on a secular science-and-technology show, did not make this point, there is a rich spiritual meaning here: If when we are resurrected we are nonetheless ourselves, then in our present physical self we hold that which will eventually become a spiritual body (I Corinthians 15.44). Within us now we each carry our immortal selves. It’s not simply that we will one day be transformed into an everlasting being; we are already that being, though we carry that part of our being around in a physical body for now, as the caterpillar carries around within it the butterfly.
Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t it cool?
To me, this speaks of the hope of everlasting life with God. Since each of us always carries around the seed of our immortal self, we (subconsciously) revolt against the idea that we have an end at death; our very being cries out against it. Lewis writes that the fact we have “desires which nothing in this world can satisfy” proves “we were made for another world,” but the truth is sharper still: the fact that we always feel ourselves shaped for another world proves we will one day inhabit it.
It also speaks of the hope of sanctification. It is so easy to get bogged down and discouraged with sin. Like Paul, I find myself doing exactly the things I don’t want to do. But given that I am already the one who will be transformed into an immortal, godly self, then by healthful spiritual habits such as prayer I can (and this is not a very precise way to put it) draw that self out. If I were outside, and moved into the sun, my shadow would become stronger; just so, since I carry around my immortal self, when I through habits such as prayer move into the light of Christ, the presence of immortality within me becomes stronger. I can taste the joys of eternal life through Christ.
And last of all, it speaks of the value of human beings. I am easily frustrated with people, and impressed with those who are able to see Christ even in people who are dirty or annoying. That guy who backed into my brand-new car in a hotel parking lot last weekend? It was hard to see God’s hand in creating him, I was so unhappy with him. But if each of us carries around an immortal soul, then each of us (no matter how annoying) is of inestimable value. We must always look at the caterpillar, and see through it to the butterfly.