Thursday, April 14, 2016

Material body and immaterial soul

According to Christian belief

By Kyle Garza

In our postmodern materialist society, there seems to be an idea creeping steadily more prevalently into our culture that, as the field of neuroscience progresses, scientists will eventually “explain away” all that we once thought could only be attributed to the human soul. Eventually, some think, we’ll be able to say with empirically-based scientific observation and study that the physical human brain accounts for all of our experience in life, and that there is no reason to archaically believe in the existence of the human soul.
    Naturally, this kind of thinking poses a great threat to the Christian worldview. Those attending the Council of Chalcedon back in A.D. 451 “would have thought of a human being as composed of a material body and an immaterial soul.”1 Even before Chalcedon though, Scripture established quite clearly that the first man, Adam, was made with a physical body “from the dust” and an immaterial soul “breathed into Him” from God. 2
    This Christian belief is what J.P. Moreland calls “substance dualism.” He explains that substance dualism

holds that the brain is a physical thing that has physical properties, and the mind or soul is a mental substance that has mental properties.3
The soul and the brain can interact with each other, but they are different entities with different properties.4
Substance dualism is at the heart of much Christian thought, including the idea that Jesus had a divine and human nature. Arianism (the heretical belief that Jesus was just a special human being made by God the Father) is just a stone’s throw away from the materialist’s belief that Jesus was just another ordinary human being in history. The Council of Chalcedon went great lengths to clarify that Jesus had a perfect human nature “like us in all respects except for sin” and divine nature “consubstantial with the Father,”5 and that though these two natures were united in the same person, they were still distinct from each other. “The difference between the natures [was never] taken away through the union”6 as if Jesus had a perfectly fused human-divine nature unlike God or man (the heresy of Monophysitism). He is one person, “a single subsistent being” having the “property of both natures” (human and divine) within Himself.7
    Ordinary people, on the other hand, have just a human nature, but it is divided into body and spirit. This is not to say, though, that the soul is the “real you” and that your body is just a prison that houses your body until it is free from it, which was the Platonic understanding that the Council of Chalcedon saw fit to refute.8 Rather, “The human being, in the classical Christian view, is a unity of soul and body.” 9 Thus, when we die, believers in Christ experience a resurrection of the body, but it will be a body not susceptible to the corruption of death, and this body will have a human soul as well – just like Jesus, who, when He rose from the dead, ate with His disciples and invited them to physically touch Him.10 He was not merely an immaterial “ghost” but a physical body that still had an immaterial soul.
    Apart from God, all humans are bound to die two deaths: a physical one and a spiritual one. The physical death happens only once, but spiritual death happens perpetually when we distance ourselves from God through sin. The gospel message is that God the Son, Jesus Christ, came to this earth to do something ordinary humans cannot: He died physically, but not spiritually, because He lived a perfect life in submission to God the Father’s will, and thus never sinned. Three days later, He rose from the dead in a perfect physical body with the same spirit. Now He extends the possibility for us to live like Him now and eventually with Him for eternity in Heaven, with a perfect body and spirit, because He gives us His Spirit to live through us righteously.11

  1. Charles Taliaferro & Chad Meister (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 96
  2. Genesis 2
  3. J.P. Moreland, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters (Chicago, Moody Publishers, 2014), p. 31
  4. Ibid
  5. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology, pp. 97-98
  6. Ibid, p. 98
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid, p. 96
  9. Ibid, p. 97
  10. Luke 24:41-42, John 20:27
  11. Galatians 2:20

Copyright © 2016 by Kyle Garza


  1. Kyle,

    Thanks for the article. You may be interested to know that Praveen Sethupathy has given a talk through Veritas Forum titled "Are We More Than Our Genes?" Given your article you probably would appreciate his talk. I'm sure you are familiar with Veritas Forum. Sethupathy is the Principal Investigator of the Sethupathy Lab in the Department of Genetics at the UNC School of Medicine. He is an outstanding scientist and scholar. He is also an Evangelical Christian. You should check out his work. Cheers.

  2. Thanks for the reference, Patrick! I'll definitely keep Sethupathy in mind for future viewing hours. The Veritas Forum is one of my favorite "series" to watch online; there definitely are never enough dialogues being generated like Veritas does.