The Theology on Air podcast recently held a debate on the nature of the soul, which itself was really a debate on the nature of the human person. Surprising as it may be, Christian philosophers – who normally agree on so much of significance – actually cannot agree on the nature of the soul. After all, isn’t it just common knowledge that human beings are bodies and souls? Well, yes, but the extent to which these two substances constitute one being or whether they are inseparable, is where the points of division lies.

The basic dividing lines are these,

1. Are human beings a body and a soul?

2. Do souls exist before (either in time or as an ontological reality) before the body comes into being?

3. Are body and soul separated at death, so the soul goes off to Heaven (or Paradise or Hades or Hell) while the body waits for resurrection, decaying in the ground or existing as ashes in an urn?

4. Or does the soul go into “soul sleep” at death because it cannot exist without a body?

5. Are the accounts of near death experiences, where souls float above their own body and “see” and “hear” things possible, or are those absurd visions of a dying brain?

The practical ramifications of any of these questions are significant. For instance, at the popular level, there is now a growing belief that my body is just physical goo, occasionally with the “wrong” gender "assigned" to the real me. In other words, my soul is who I really am, and how I think and feel has precedence over the realities of my body, and thus mutilating my flesh (even as far as having a taxpayer-funded surgery) for my mental well-being, is the right thing to do. Or, does abortion become less conceivable if a small human body already possesses a soul? Or maybe it might influence Christians towards one belief or another in terms of cremation vs. burial.

Theology vs. Philosophy

To find concrete answers, where would one go? Well, there really is not much Biblical content that can address the answer, so this is mostly a philosophical debate. Although both sides of the Theology on Air debate warned that the other side’s view could lead to serious problems, I mostly heard tinkering on the edges that didn’t seem especially dangerous either way. After all, whatever the answer is, we can’t know it with certainty right now, there is nothing we can do to change and it won’t change my trust in a merciful God! But there were points of agreement that are important to note and have a lot of bearing on practical issues, some more controversial than others.

First, any and all Christians must reject any kind of bare materialism. Whatever human beings are, they are not just flesh. We have or are souls, and are thus supernatural beings. When our hearts stop beating and our brains stop working, our souls will live on.

At worst, they will exist in repose, waking up once Jesus comes again and our glorious bodies are risen from the dead and reunited with a slumbering soul. At best, the soul will exist without a body in the afterlife, either Hades or Paradise, assuming that the gates of Heaven and Hell will not be opened until Jesus comes again. But, in either case we are not mere stardust that happens to have evolved to possess reason and self-awareness. We are more than flesh.

Secondly, all Christians must also agree that we are not only souls. Even if we are mostly souls, Paul clearly teaches that our bodies are “temples to the Lord” and how we treat them matters. And while we may exist for a time without a body in the intermediate state between our bodily death and resurrection, that is not the normal or even ideal way for us to exist. Human beings are distinct from other created beings like angels in that we have bodies. The very earthy stories of Adam being made from dust and Eve being made from his side have always situated man in a materialistic light, but if God wanted us to be bodiless, we could have just been angels. But he did not. We are bodies and souls.

How This Works Out in Our Lives

Christians are now confronted with multiple issues in the modern world where one’s understanding of the soul can speak to in important ways, transgenderism probably being the most significant. After all, the argument is that the body is a mistake and, in some cases, needs very invasive surgery or hormone treatments to correct it’s misalignment with who the person (their soul) truly is. So one’s belief in what particular gender they are trumps the obvious facts of their physical body.

Christians would argue against the concept of transgenderism based on the belief that God made us male and female, and thus part of our identity is the body we have and are. It is just as wrong to say that God gave me the wrong body as it is to say he gave me the wrong soul. A defense of transgenderism always privileges the soul over the body, which we as Christians reject because we are both souls and bodies.

Interestingly enough, this defense of transgenderism actually undercuts one of the most common rhetorical arguments for homosexual acts. The argument usually asserts that “God did not make junk,” which means, I (the homosexual) am “good” (in the Genesis 1 sense) just the way I am. I do not need to change because God made all of creation, declared it good, and I am part of that creation. Therefore, my natural urges are good. Thus the body’s urges take precedence, and the possession of the urge justifies it, even if there are natural realities (reproduction) and revelation (the Bible) that speak against those urges.

On the abortion front, if we really are just flesh without a soul - at least for a time - then I suppose abortion is justifiable. But for that matter, since materialists believe that human beings are only matter no matter their age, then what makes the murder of other adults wrong? The problem with the existence of a human body without a soul- even for a short while - is that the addition of the soul at some point along the way is arbitrary.

Sure, maybe at “quickening” we receive a soul, but what really is so special about the detection of a baby’s movements? Or maybe it is the child’s first breath, but a difference in the way a child receives oxygen is not that significant of a change. If being able to breathe on one’s own makes one human, we should kill all those who are presently on ventilators. But no one would agree with that, right?

Finally, as Christians age, they should think about making funeral arrangements. They should consider whether they want to be cremated or buried when they die. What does this conversation have to say about that? Well, Christians historically and generally have taught against cremation precisely because of their respect for the body as part of who we are, has made it less than ideal. Even in death, destruction of the body is something Christians should avoid.

In the End the Soul Remains a Mystery

The extent to which we are divided bodies and souls will never be fully agreed upon on this side of the veil. But the fact that we are bodies and souls has and will always lead to difficult social and political realities for Christians. For the tyranny of materialism never sleeps as it chases an endless hope of fulfillment apart from God. Meanwhile, beings with souls will never relinquish their transcendence for the false promises of material utopia. So the conflict continues. Maybe now, we understand the “why” a bit more.

Photo Credit- The Pilgrim of the Cross at the End of His Journey by Thomas Cole (Smithsonian Institute of Art)