The Soul Issue

The insightful Enlightenment philosopher Blaise Pascal notes that “the immortality of the soul is something so important to us, something that touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent to knowing the facts of the matter.”[1] Most thinkers, Christian and non-Christian alike, traditionally have held that a human person is a unity of two distinct entities: one physical (the body) and one immaterial (the soul). This idea, called “dualism,” is pervasive in the history of Christian thought—not least because it seems essential to numerous tenets of the Christian faith (not to mention implied by the straightforward reading of Scripture, e.g., 1 Peter 3:18–20 and Matthew 10:28). And yet dualism increasingly is being rejected by the unlikeliest of scholars: Christian scholars. Pastors and theologians are well-advised to take note of this development.

The 20th century saw dualism widely replaced by views of human persons as wholly physical beings. Being convinced by naturalist arguments to this end, a growing number of Christian scholars (the “Christian physicalists”) are adopting this view. But upon inspection, we notice that Christian physicalism is incompatible with key Christian doctrine. Consider, for example, the Christian belief in the intermediate state: that is, a temporary state of personal, disembodied existence following death.

On the basis of passages such as John 5:25, 28–29 and Romans 8:11, Christians believe in the future resurrection of the dead. This resurrection is not instantaneous at death; it is in the future, specifically at Jesus’ coming (1 Thessalonians 4:16). This means Scripture teaches the future bodily resurrection of the dead; at Jesus’ coming, all the dead are going to be resurrected. Of course, we know from experience that all people die physically, that is, their spirit is separated from their bodies. For believers, the physical (earthly) body will be resurrected and transformed into a glorified body, a body like Christ’s present body, which will be reunited with the soul—but not until the future return of Christ. The intervening period between physical death and the resurrection of the dead is a state of disembodied existence. The apostle Paul calls this a state of “nakedness” since during this period believers’ souls will exist with Christ apart from the body. In 2 Corinthians 5:1–5, Paul discusses having a physical, earthly body (“earthly tent”) versus having a transformed, glorified body (“building from God, a house not made with hands”). While clothed in our earthly tent, we groan and are burdened, looking forward to being re-clothed in our glorified bodies. The intermediate state therefore refers to the state of the disembodied soul, that is, the soul after being unclothed of the earthly tent and before being re-clothed in the resurrected body.

Now, ideas have consequences, and one consequence of Christian physicalism is that it would render the biblical doctrine of the intermediate state impossible. If a person, Nathan, is nothing more than his body, then Nathan equals his body. But if that is so, then upon physical death it is not possible for Nathan enter into a disembodied state. It will not do to suppose that God could solve this problem by later re-creating Nathan, say, at the future resurrection of the dead. This is because Nathan, the once denizen of earth who was a sinner redeemed by grace, stopped existing upon death. Even if the “Nathan” God later creates looks and acts exactly like the original Nathan, the two are not the same person. After all, the later created “Nathan” only begins to exist at the moment God creates him; he was never a sinner and was never redeemed by grace!

It seems to me, on the other hand, that dualism has no difficulty accounting for the soul’s existence in both embodied and disembodied states, making it the most (if not the only) sensible account of the resurrection of the dead and the intermediate state. In other words, these doctrines make the most sense when understood as a soul being embodied (while alive on earth), then disembodied (at death), and then re-embodied in glory.

As the great 20th-century theologian J. Gresham Machen put it, “we ought to hold not only that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul.”[2] Machen seems to me correct. In light of its incompatibility with key Christian doctrine, Christian physicalism ought to be rejected in favor of dualism.[3]

[1]Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. and trans. by Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 217.
[2]J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (New York: MacMillan, 1937), 137.
[3]The incompatibility of “Christian physicalism” and a variety of Christian doctrines is explored at length in R. Keith Loftin and Joshua R. Farris, eds., Christian Physicalism? Philosophical Theological Criticisms (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).