Are people spiritual or physical in nature? Are we made up of a body and spirit, or are we only physical bodies with thought processes that give us the impression as though we have a soul inside us?
While there are many variations on this theme, most people throughout time, have fallen into one of two primary groups: those who believe that people are made up of just the physical body alone, and those that believe that we have a body and a soul.
The prevailing position of most cultures and world religions has been that everyone has a soul or “spirit” that survives death in a conscious state. Many ancient people-groups had the whole framework of their culture centered on the idea of spirit and ancestor worship. Even today, in many of the countries that I visit, a small spirit house can be found inside most homes and businesses. People daily feed the spirits of their ancestors with food and drink offerings.
Most Christian denominations also teach that we have a soul that survives death, but usually avoid attempting to communicate with those who have passed or worship them in any way. For the most part, they believe that their departed loved ones are enjoying life in some kind of spiritual form, with Jesus in Heaven, or writhing in pain and torment in Hell. (Yikes!)
So… if spirits, ghosts and souls are such a popular worldwide belief, who believes that people are made up of just a body alone? For one, most modern scientists would fall into this group. From their research they would conclude that we are simply a collection of cells, bones, flesh, hormones, nerves and neurons! Self awareness, consciousness, volition, deep-seated emotions and spiritual experiences might give us the feeling as though we have a soul inside us, but this is only an illusion. All of these and other wonderful experiences can be induced by probing various sections of the human brain or introducing chemicals into the system. They would say that when this body dies and the brain cells decay, the person that we have been ceases to exist. We are gone!
Lest some should come to the quick conclusion that this is just another attempt on the part of scientists to dispel the notion of a Creator and an afterlife, it should be pointed out that not all of these scientists are secular or atheists and they are not totally alone in their beliefs! Historically, the Israelites and even the later Jews of the Bible, especially the Sadducees of Jesus day, and a few Christian groups of today, such as the Seventh-day Adventists, would tend to agree with modern science. In the last 60 years or so, a growing number of dispassionate Biblical scholars are also making a good case for the single or “holistic” nature of mankind. While there are some distinct differences in the way these ideas are interpreted or applied, these divergent groups would likely agree that man is made up of a body alone and should not be thought of having a separate soul. At the very least, they would agree that people should not be seen as having a soul that can harbor the essence of a person’s self-awareness, personality, memories, or consciousness in a state that could exist in any kind of spiritual or “energy state”, beyond the death of the body.
When theologians begin to speak and write on this subject, they like to lay down some terms. In describing this debate, they will say that the people who believe that we are made up of only a physical body, believe in the “monistic” nature of man. Those who believe that we are a combination of body and soul hold to the idea of the “dualistic” nature of man. These designations are also referred to in the literature as “monism” and “dualism”. In fact for those who have really delved into this question over the centuries, many modifications have been suggested, and named. The list of subcategories and variances on this question can bring on a migraine headache to even the most eager of students, and so for the purposes of our discussion we will stick to a very simplistic approach and stay with the two main groups, monism and dualism. In later articles we may delve into some of the “shades” or “degrees” of dualism and monism, but we will do our best not to try and name any of the shades!
Think about it for a moment. What do you believe? Are you monistic or dualistic in your thinking? Are we made up of one complete whole, where the mind, the thoughts, the emotions, the consciousness and our personality are completely integrated with our bodies and brains to make up one whole unit? Or do you believe that our body is merely a housing for a spiritual entity that is in some kind of temporary residence in frail flesh?
Not sure? That’s OK! You are not alone! With modern science and the recent studies being done on the body and the brain, views on this subject are mixed and changing, even within Christendom! One of the things that makes this debate interesting and challenging is that the Bible appears to be somewhat supportive of both viewpoints! In reality, the Bible is actually silent on the question and nowhere has an explicit teaching on the matter! It may be quite shocking for many to learn that the concept of a human soul that has any capability to exist outside the body, is a question of philosophy more than it is of theology. The Bible has some interesting stories and allusions to a human soul, but does not have any direct “thus saith the Lord” on the matter. If we are to build any theological doctrine on it at all, it must be done by sifting through the many implicit statements, trying to get a sense for what the people of the Bible actually believed themselves.
As one reads the Bible there does appear to be a progression of thought on life and the concept of an afterlife. The early Hebrew writings indicate that the people of Moses’ day had very little concept of a soul that might somehow survive the trauma of death, and live on, separate from the body. They seemed to believe that we have one life to live and that was it! There was no spirit that floats away into a bright light, no resurrection, no after-life! The teachings of Moses held out no heavenly reward as an incentive to keep the law. The only incentives for being good, were blessings in this life and blessings that would be passed on to your children and their children – to the “third and fourth generation”. Those who disobeyed the law would receive curses, not only for themselves but also their offspring.
Some Bible scholars suggest that one of the reasons why the early Israelite religion may have been so quiet on the afterlife and the spiritual nature of man, was a conscious effort to distance themselves from the teaching of the prevailing cultures that surrounded them. One of the major tenants of the Covenant agreement between God and the Israelites was that they were not to worship any other gods. Spirit or ancestor worship, such as that practiced by the Egyptians and Canaanites would have grossly violated this agreement between God and the people.
However, the Old Testament is not completely silent on the question. In the book of Job, we start to get glimpses of the concept of a resurrection. Job says,
If a man dies, will he live again?
All the days of my hard service
I will wait for my renewal to come.
You will call and I will answer you;
you will long for the creature your hands have made. Job 14:14, 15
David, being an artist, and “in touch with his feelings”, spoke often of the “soul” and says,
“But God will redeem my soul from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.” Psalm 49:15
The prophet Daniel was told about a time at the very end when:
“many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” Daniel 12:2
The final message of the angel to Daniel was;
” As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.” Daniel 12:13
And yet Bible scholars, Jewish rabbis included, generally agree that for the most part, people of the Old Testament were very “monistic” in their understanding of the nature of mankind. If our Old Testament forefathers conceived of a afterlife at all, it was almost always within the context of some kind of miraculous resurrection of the body. For them, in order to live, to function, to be aware, to interact, people had to have a body.
With the exception of a few stories, like Saul and the witch of Endor, the Old Testament is strangely silent on the question of a soul that survives death. Little is said about heaven or an afterlife of any kind! Even with this story of Saul and the witch, a few questions should be asked. Who was the spirit Saul saw? Was it really the essence of the prophet Samuel, or was it an impersonator, a fallen angel? Who is more likely to answer the call of a witch, a dedicated servant of God or some type of impersonator? Given that this story is so unique in the OT literature, I believe that caution is advised, as to the conclusions we might draw from this story.
By the time that Jesus arrives on the scene, things have changed. Perhaps with the statements of Daniel, the rabbis of succeeding generations began to develop a culture of belief in a life after death. However, even then, it was never thought of as happening at the time of death, or arrived at by the migration of a soul or spirit to an eternal reward at death, as the Greeks believed. It was seen as something that would happen by a reanimation of the physical body, by the direct miraculous activity of God. Most importantly, it was something that would not happen until the end, when the Messiah would come and set up an everlasting Kingdom on Earth. They called this amazing event to come, “the Resurrection”!
Some will no doubt think of a few passages from the NT that seem to indicate that most of the people, including Jesus, had by this early date, adopted the pervasive ideas of Greek Philosophy, so popular at the time, that spoke of the duel nature of people. We will attempt to take a closer look at all of these interesting statements in future articles, but for now, it is helpful for the student to be aware of the “pop culture” of the day! The ideas of the Greeks were no doubt quite popular by this time, not just in Jerusalem, but throughout entire Grecian-Roman world. Remember, the New Testament was written not in Hebrew, Latin, or Aramaic but in Greek! By the time of Jesus, the scripture that was read in the synagogues was not the original Hebrew text, but a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures! As a result of this Greek permeation of ideas and philosophy adrift in the Jewish culture, we should probably be careful how much weight we give to anecdotal or implicit references to the ideas of dualism that we might encounter as we read the New Testament. Just because Jesus or Paul may allude to dualism, does not necessarily mean that this was what they believed!
By the time that Jesus came to this Earth, some of the people that He interacted with may very well have believed the in the Greek proposals of dualism. Many may have integrated these ideas into their Jewish concept of a resurrection at the end of time. Some may have even believed that when our bodies die, the soul survives, separates from the body and either goes directly to an eternal reward in a totally conscious state, or waits somewhere, in some kind of unconscious “sleep-like state” for a time of resurrection, when the soul will be joined to a new body. Either way, people held out hope that if they were very good, and kept all of the laws of Moses and the Prophets, that they could be assured of an afterlife, somewhere, sometime.
What did Jesus believe on the subject? In a few places we do see Jesus talking about a body and a soul. For example He says,
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28
Should we conclude by this that Jesus endorsed the Greek concept of the dualistic nature of man? We will explore this further in much detail, but for now it is good to keep in mind that the original Greek word that is translated here, into our English word “soul”, with all of the shades of meaning this can have, even in today’s English, also had many different meaning in the original Greek! The original Greek word here, “pseuche”, could also be very legitimately interpreted “person”. In other words, this passage could read, “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the person, be afraid of the One who can destroy both the body and your person-hood, your identity, in hell” Put another way, especially considering the context of the statement, “don’t be afraid of governments or people that might persecute you or even kill your body, be more concerned about the One who will be determining the fate of your personage, your eternal personal destiny!
Another important principle that I believe we should keep in mind is that in some of the statements or allusions to dualism, it could be that, like the great cross-cultural communicator that we have discovered Him to be, Jesus was simply revealing His universal principles, using the medium of the common thinking, philosophies and “pop culture” of the day.
For example, when we think of that wonderful parable that Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19), should we see this as a personal endorsement of Jesus for the dualistic nature of man? Does it prove that Jesus believed in an eternal Hell of personal torment, or was he simply using some of the ideas that may have been swirling in the local culture of his day, to teach the importance of being kind to the poor at our gate? The question is up for debate. However, it should be said that we need to be very careful not to build theological doctrine on parables! Was the intent of this story to teach universal truths about the nature of man, the afterlife, Heaven and Hell, or was the universal principle taught here more about what our relationship should be with the poor?
I often hang out with pastors who have spent their entire lives with a worldview that is quite monistic. The idea that people have a separate soul that is capable of transporting our our identities into the afterlife at the point of death is quite foreign to their thinking. Yet even these people may be overheard on the golf course, sharing the odd joke about “the priest, rabbi and pastor” who all die and meet Peter at the gates of heaven! Should I conclude that my friends have changed their mind and now believe in the dualistic nature of man, or have accepted the idea of Peter being alive now, in heaven, standing at the gates of paradise with the “keys to the Kingdom”? Or are they simply using a common cultural idea of our day, to share a funny story? Likewise, I believe that we need to be careful not to make any big conclusions about the beliefs or teachings of Jesus on the nature of humanity, based on the story of the Rich man and Lazarus, or other allusions to dualism, that may have more to do with the common “street talk” of the day, than it did about Jesus or Paul attempting to lay down the foundation for Church dogma on the nature of mankind!
In future articles we will continue our probe into the fascinating question about the nature of mankind and what the books of the Bible and Nature can tell us about the mysteries of our existence. So much to discuss!
Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West – Alan F. Segal
Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament – Philip F. Johnston
Body, Soul and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible – Joel B. Green
In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem – Edited by Joel B. Green and Stuart L. Palmer
Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics – J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae