Reading Time: 12 minutes
Reading Time: 12 minutes
For a lot of my friends and family members, time has passed slowly over the last few weeks. So many people that I love are plastered with a somber, quiet stillness. Earlier this month, a car full of college students—who many people in my community knew through Young Life ministries—were traveling to Colorado for a Young Life volunteer work week when one of their vehicle’s tires blew out, causing a rollover. One passenger died immediately, another suffered serious injury, and a third, Blake Rodgers, entered into a self-induced coma as a result of fatal brain trauma.
That night, the community that raised and prayed for Blake throughout his life committed to flood hospital waiting rooms, host prayer vigils, cook meals, and show up for the Rodgers family in the endlessness and uncertainty of their crisis. It was both exhausting and inspiring to watch a community “show up” in so many faithful and loyal ways. While Blake slept suspended between life and death, family and friends were caught in this tide of praying then listening, begging for a miracle then surrendering to God’s plan. In some moments, it felt like all of Heaven prayed with us for Blake’s healing; but there were other inevitably lonely moments which were shadowed and empty, and my voice felt like one of the only ones left praying for a miracle, an explanation, or some morsel of peace.
After holding on with the help of life support for over a week, he passed.
And now, the conversation has changed. Now, we celebrate his passing from death to eternal life. Discussions that were grounded in God’s capacity to breathe life back into Blake’s body have evolved into discussions about Blake smiling, laughing, and walking hand in hand with His Creator. This Christian community possesses a hopeful, Heaven-oriented imagination that is trained to picture Blake as already reunited with his Maker in both body and soul; as more than just a spirit. Even in their grief, Blake’s family and friends have let the outline of their memory of him be colored with the hope and assurance of his immediate and full reunion with Jesus.
For Protestant American Evangelicals, this perspective is not uncommon. But not all Christians think about death that way. There are lots of ways to talk and think about the reality of dying. Since the church’s beginning, Christians have wrestled together with Scripture, science, and philosophy to understand God’s vision for our bodies and souls after death.
Despite how little they may be talked about within the context of Christianity, bodies are deeply important to the church’s doctrines. The concept of bodies and human form is integral to the Christian religion, and this intersection of faith with human physicalness hits home in the midst of mourning.
The question is, how should we as Christians think about what will happen to our bodies and souls after death? In other words, how do we solve the mind-body problem? The way we think about the relationship between our bodies and souls is a direct reflection of what we believe will happen to them both in and after death.
Though this conversation of what death does to our bodies and souls is not normally at the top of anybody’s list of theological questions, the death of a loved one puts it there. Witnessing another person pass from life into death jolts us into all kinds of questions.
The following 4 theories are attempts to answer those questions. They tackle the “mind-body problem,” (sometimes referred to in Christian circles as the “soul-body problem”) which is what Rene Descartes named this ongoing series of questions about what happens to our bodies and souls after death. It is appropriate to call it a “problem;” no one doctrine can pinpoint God’s design for humans in and after death perfectly. Still, a look at the different ways that theologians have tried to answer the question over the years can contribute to our own understanding of mortality, and the hope we have in eternal life. These conversations remind us that death is not the end of the story and that God has a good plan for our bodies and souls that extends past life as we know it.
This is arguably the longest-standing and most commonly held belief in church history on the topic. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestant traditions back this theory. Essentially, holistic dualism says that God has created body and soul as unified, though not inseparable. We are unified creatures, and our minds, bodies, and souls are integrated. But holistic dualists also believe that souls enter a disembodied intermediate state after death. This is an exception to the unity God intended for us in life and in resurrection. In that intermediate state, God takes the souls to Heaven and sustains them until the second coming, but our bodies die. When Jesus returns, souls are reintegrated with a renewed, resurrected body.
Holistic dualism is a combination of two theories, as the term suggests: holism and dualism. Though on the edge of conflicting with each other, both are essential for fleshing out the intricacies of this definition.
- Holism says that humans are created by God as integral wholes—single beings with different dimensions (e.g. body, mind, soul) that cannot be naturally separated.
- Dualism is concerned with our core personalities, sometimes called egos, souls, or spirits. These are distinguished and separate from our bodies–in God’s infinite power and omniscience, He is able to sustain our souls apart from embodiment.
Essentially, this separation exists as a temporary consequence of sin. Paul says in Romans 6:23 that death is the consequence for sin. God’s original plan for humans was an eternal Edenic existence with Him, but Adam and Eve’s sin changed that plan. It brought sin into the world. So now, our bodies must die and be separated from our souls until Jesus’s second coming. Holistic dualists say that this separation is “the wages of sin” that Paul talks about in Romans. They strike a good balance between recognizing the vision that God had for humans after death while realizing the fact that humans threw a wrench in that plan. The theory highlights God’s good intentions for embodied souls, while still recognizing the reality of sin’s consequences in their disembodied intermediate state.
Paul’s letters provide the Biblical basis for holistic dualism. In 1 Corinthians 3, he writes, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” Some interpret this to mean that we have a body on earth that serves as a temple for the spiritual soul, and a different but equally real version of that body in Heaven when we are reunited with God. 2 Corinthians 5:3 says that we will have “an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands… We will not be spirits without bodies.” Life in the kingdom will be bodily, so instead of telling his readers to practice living apart from the body, Paul exhorts them to dedicate their bodies to God. And it is hard to ignore the deeply dualist language of Genesis 2:7, in which God creates man by breathing His spirit into the dust of the earth. A human’s equation is part Creator-breathed soul and part Creator-built body, two integrated but not indistinguishable components.
Of those who affirm this belief, there are two main camps:
Substance dualists, also dubbed Augustinian dualists because of the 4th century theologian who championed their cause, see the body as distinct entities that combine to form a whole person. Plato, John Calvin, and Rene Descartes also promoted substance dualism.
The other camp, in support of soul-matter dualism, holds that we are made up of substantial souls that, combined with skin and bones, constitute a human being. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and the majority of the Catholic Church fall inside this subsection of holistic dualism, emphasizing that a human is not two substances but one being, made up of part soul and part matter.
It is difficult to draw lines between the beliefs of substance and soul-matter dualists. Most crucial to keep in mind is the all-encompassing umbrella statement to which all holistic dualists would nod their head in agreement: body and soul are distinct, and with God’s aid, the soul exists temporarily unembodied in death.
The diametrically opposing view to holistic dualism is Monism. Monismus means “single” in Latin and is the word from which 18th century theologians derived the term monism to finally label a sect of Christians that had existed unnamed for centuries. While most theologians ascribe to holistic dualism, many great political philosophers believe that monism is more accurate to reality. To name a few, the famous thinkers Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Georg Hegel were all monists. Paul Tillich, who was a prominent theologian and existentialist thinker in the 20th century, also championed this view.
In direct contradiction to holistic dualism, this theory posits that the human is composed of one substance only. Any trace of body and soul distinctions, which are parsed out by holistic dualism, is simply acknowledged as fluctuating personalities or characteristics of the single substance. There is one reality for monists, that is, there is only one existing substance within human beings that cannot be separated into different entities. It is impossible, in this view, to distinguish between the body and the soul.
Death is powerless to change this reality, which leaves monists with many different theories about life after death. Most monists posit a theory similar to the pantheistic idea of reincarnation: that a human being, upon dying, immediately reappears in a different place and time. The reincarnation that monists believe in is the reappearance of a human that looks, sounds, and acts similarly to how they did before dying. Until Jesus returns, you and I would keep reincarnating as very similar versions of ourselves, but in different places and historical periods than where we were in the last life.
Since bodies and souls cannot separate, they go together in death, life, and everywhere in between. Believing in reincarnation upholds that singularity of body and soul that monists promote. If death takes a being’s body, it takes its soul, too. So, until Jesus returns, monists believe that our beings will continue that cycle of death and immediate reappearance. Before scoffing at a monist’s view of death and embodiment, John 2:19 warrants a re-reading. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” His vague answer to the Jews’ challenge of his authority lends itself to both monist and dualist perspectives. Perhaps He meant that God will sustain his spirit bodiless for three days, but it is not outrageous to consider that Jesus implied the kind of reincarnation in which monists believe.
Within the last ten years, in an attempt to marry modern neuroscientific discoveries and ancient theological beliefs, a group of thinkers have emerged, calling themselves non-reductive physicalists. Non-reductive physicalists argue for the brain as the soul’s origin. Because of that authority they give to the brain, which is a physical, material part of the body, these theorists conclude that a disembodied intermediate state would be unrealistic. In their view, there is no way for the brain to be separated from the soul after the death since it is the soul’s origin and generator. Consequently, our bodies and souls are either immediately resurrected after death or our bodies and souls “sleep” at death, waiting for the second coming when God will awake them in recreation. Regardless of which side you land on, the body and soul are a package deal in the theory of non-reductive physicalism.
Research in neuroscience attributes progressively more autonomy to the brain with each new discovery, so they use this as reason to believe that the development of our souls and spirits mirrors that of our brains. The theory actually credits the human brain with generating personality, soul, and mind. Their anthem is the homogeneity between Scripture and science; but they do tread this middle ground lightly, admitting to the limits of science and the imperfections of their developing theory. This group of both theologians and scientists is attempting to bridge the gap that many modern thinkers point to as proof that there is no God.
This philosophy was spearheaded by 19th and 20th century Christians, who drew much inspiration from contemporary theorists and their speculations about the soul’s evolutionary development. There are lots of similarities between emergentism and non-reductive physicalism. Both parties support that the soul gradually emerges from the physical brain during development. But emergentists would be quick to defend the part of their philosophy that affirms holistic dualism. Namely, that the soul is distinct from the body and can develop its own characteristics apart from the brain. They see the relationship between soul and body as reciprocal: soul affects the brain, just as the brain affects the soul. Basically, emergentism wants to fuse together holistic dualism and non-reductive physicalism, agreeing that brain and soul are ultimately distinct, but deeply tied and connected.
Remember: non-reductive physicalists believe that body and soul stick together after death, whether that means immediately dying or immediately resurrecting. Emergentists think about it differently. They believe that the brain is not the only reason the soul is the way it is, so the two may be able to be separated in a disembodied intermediate state (like dualists believe). But emergentists are split down the middle on the topic. Some would argue that, since they believe that soul and body are distinct, the soul has independence from the brain’s power to create, nurture, and sustain it. Then, the disembodied intermediate state would be realistic. But others argue that the soul, though not completely dependent on the brain, still would not be able to exist apart from the material body. After all, for emergentists, the brain is still a major player in the soul’s development.
Both non-reductive physicalism and emergentism are rooted in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul writes in verses 44-46, “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.” This last sentence crystallizes what both parties emphasize in their theologies: first came natural, then came spiritual. They would argue it is a fairly direct affirmation of the body’s responsibility for the soul’s evolution. Paul gives a lot of agency to the physical here, and seems to, like emergentists and physicalists, credit our brains with being a kind of control center for the soul.
To say Christian theology is born from the combination of church tradition and the study of Scripture would be the technical truth, but an oversimplification of it. None of the theories or doctrines listed above have perfectly solved the body-soul problem, and none are sufficiently able to untangle God’s good ultimate plan for His creation from the tragedy of death. As finite and mistake-prone people in pursuit of a perfect and eternally present God, we will never fully understand that mystery. Still, each serves to broaden our minds, spark curiosity and conversation, and refocus our sight on God’s riddling grandeur.
In all of these beliefs, there is a common thread of hope in life after death and confidence in God’s determination to not let death conquer His creation. Conversations about these theories will not necessarily find definite answers or across-the-board agreement, but they still important to have, even if only as reminders of that common confidence and hope woven throughout Christian traditions.
“Raised a Spiritual Body: bodily resurrection according to Paul” by Margaret Pamment
“Why All the Fuss about the Body? A Medievalist’s Perspective” by Caroline Bynum
“Diseased Bodies, Defiled Souls: Corporality and Religious Difference in the Reformation” by Charles H. Parker
“The Current Body-Soul Debate: A Case for Dualistic Holism” by John W. Cooper