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Aren't Souls Passé? Biblical Reflections on Human Nature

Joshua Farris


Do humans have souls?

Assistant Professor of Theology, Houston Baptist University
August 5, 2015

 What does it mean to be a human?

Such a question evokes several answers. Recent answers suggest that we are no more than complex machines manageable by science. The film Ex Machina depicts such a state of affairs—where artificial intelligence develops to such an extent that a female robot seems to exhibit comparable human intelligence, emotions, and the ability to manipulate others. On the other hand, older Greek views portray humans as something in between God and animal—as similarly depicted in the recent Hercules film.

Here, I wish to raise a related but different question: Do humans have souls?

Biblical Reasons for the Existence of the Soul

More specifically, do we have biblical reasons to believe in the soul? Such a question may seem rather strange to some. For those who take the soul to be an apparent biblical truth, raising such a question is kind of like asking the question: “do birds fly?”; “do fish have gills?” or “does the bible teach that humans are generally sinful?”

After all, isn’t that what it means to be human? It’s just basic to human nature and the human story. Of course humans have souls. It may be surprising to some that the popularity of souls is on the decline.

Souls in Decline

The popularity of the soul has declined for a variety of reasons. As science gains more credibility in suggesting that physical processes explain much of how the world works, Christian scholars are re-examining the biblical/theological data in fresh new ways and arguing that the soul really isn’t all that necessary for making sense of biblical and theological data.

Motivated by what she sees as responsible scientific reasons, Nancey Murphy says this about the soul:

So the strongest point I can make here is to claim, as I did in the preceding section, that physicalism—along with an eschatological hope for resurrection of the body—leads more naturally to a concern for the physical world and its transformation than does dualism.1

The term ‘physicalism’ (or ‘materialism’) is just a sophisticated way of saying that humans are purely physical objects: their bodies. In contrast, dualism is most commonly the view that humans are souls with bodies. Murphy concludes by saying that the overwhelming evidence (e.g., biblical, theological and scientific) suggests that we do not need souls.

Are Science and the Bible at Odds about What Humans Are?

Biblical scholar and Christian materialist Joel B. Green reaches a similar conclusion in his book Body, Soul and Human Life. In it, Green rightly assumes that the question of the soul, a question often posed in the biblical study of anthropology, is a second-order or derivative inquiry into biblical texts. This is so because the biblical material is arguably not directly concerned with specifying the constitution of humans. In this way, motivated by recent neuroscientific concerns, Green re-examines the biblical data.

He argues that instead of presuming that science and the bible are odds, science can help or “underscore” the biblical data on humans.2 For Green, recent scientific study suggests that human functions were previously attributed to the human soul, but are now detailed and attributed to physical processes in the brain.3

I seek a via media that responsibly handles the Bible along with science, philosophy, and tradition.

Green offers several biblical reasons why Christians should re-assess the so-called dualism of the past and consider materialism as a live biblical option. While not favoring a purely biblical approach that seems to exclude, at least initially, other theological sources of knowledge to the question of human constitution (e.g., tradition, philosophy, science, and experience), I am convinced that Green’s approach, driven in many ways by contemporary science, is also flawed. Instead, I seek a via media that responsibly handles the Bible along with science, philosophy, and tradition. I would like to offer some brief reflections on Green’s arguments and offer some reasons why Christians do in fact have biblical grounds for belief in the soul.

Dualism Versus Holism? Reflections on Joel Green’s Arguments Against Dualism

Green argues that the widespread belief in dualism among Christians is “undoubtedly” due to the importance theological tradition has placed on dualism (13). He argues, however, that we must pay careful attention to the Old and New Testament witness to human embodiment (14). Furthermore, he argues that the creation account found in Genesis 1 and 2 offer us no reason to believe in the soul, a view that has gained notable support amongst Old Testament scholarship.4 Instead, the creation story and its view carried along in the Old Testament is a view of humanity as physically embodied, holistic and relational, not soulish or immaterial. Why think then that there is any place for a soul in the Old Testament? Green’s argument in his book and his more recent work seems to amount to the following.

1.     The Old Testament/Hebrew conception of humans is holism.

2.     Dualism excludes holism.

3.     Therefore, dualism is not the OT/Hebrew conception of human nature.

Yet, nothing in the above argument necessarily rules out dualism! Furthermore, why think this is the end of the story? The defender of dualism should respond by claiming that holism does not exclude dualism.5 Simply because the Old Testament nowhere teaches, entails, or necessarily yields dualism does not mean it precludes dualism. If dualism is not excluded as an option faithful to the Old Testament witness, we may have additional reasons from the New Testament, guided by theological tradition and good philosophy, for belief in the soul. This is precisely what I wish to argue in a moment. But, before I do so, I want to ensure that I am being fair to Green’s argument. It may be that he is arguing something along the following lines.

Reformulating Green’s Argument Against Dualism

More charitably, Green’s argument, reflecting a tradition of modern and contemporary reflection on the biblical narrative, is something like the following:

1.     The Biblical narrative gives us no reason to think that dualism is the appropriate ontology of humans.

2.     Scientific data suggests that humans are monistic in nature (monism is the view that humans are not two kinds of things but one).

3.     The biblical data highlights humanity as holistic, relational, and embodied.

4.     Thus, it is probable that dualism is not the biblical teaching. And, monism or materialism remains the most viable option.

Does Science Suggest that Human Beings Are “Monistic”?

Whilst I am not a scientist by training, premise 2 seems to be open to further discussion. It is not at all clear that the scientific data suggests that humans are monistic or materialistic in nature. In fact, we have no reason whatsoever to believe that desires, ideas, intentions and the like are attributable to the brain or a physical process, despite what some might suggest today. Philosopher Daniel N. Robinson has pointed this out in more than one context. In one place, he states,

The brain has no motives and seeks no solace. That actual persons—possessed of brains and other anatomical structures—are, indeed, motivated and do, indeed, strive to find deeper meaning in an otherwise indifferent cosmos is beyond dispute. That such motives and longings are somehow enabled by the brain should be readily granted but not as a fact that would give the motives and longings to the brain or locate them in the brain. Such inferences might well trigger activity in the anterior cingulate cortex in any creature expecting propositions to be meaningful.6

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Back to the Biblical Data on Human Persons

But my primary concern here is with the biblical data. It may be true that humans are portrayed holistically, relationally, and bodily in the biblical story, but, once again, this doesn’t rule out dualism.

Do we then have any biblical reasons for the soul and dualism? One might argue that dualism effectively makes sense of the biblical data while materialism simply lacks the resources to do so. Such an argument is a tall order and too ambitious to make good on in this context, so I simply wish to offer a couple of reasons for thinking that belief in the soul is biblically viable.

Two Ways the Bible Supports Belief in the Soul

1. Belief in the soul is motivated by theological tradition.

Belief in the soul is motivated by theological tradition, and thus we would be wise not to dismiss the belief too quickly. As noted earlier by Green, the popular belief in the soul is motivated by the fact that theological tradition teaches it. However, I want to suggest it is not arbitrarily motivated by tradition. One can make an even stronger claim about the church’s consistent belief in the soul throughout history. Arguably, the tradition has had a longstanding inclination toward belief in the soul that is rooted in biblical reflections.  And it has been helpfully guided by good philosophy, in order to accommodate the biblical teachings on human transcendence over the physical world—especially in light of humanity’s creation in the image and likeness of God and the human purpose to see and experience God in the afterlife.

There is one particular passage that clearly teaches this view of human transcendence, which constitutes to the second reason for embracing belief in the soul.

2. The Intermediate State: Human transcendence of the physical world in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10.

The traditional readings of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 correspond to and support the notion of human transcendence and thereby provide a basis for belief in the soul. This passage has traditionally been interpreted as supportive of what is often called the ‘intermediate state’ of human existence. By positing an intermediate state, theologians suggest that humans will continue to exist after physical death and before physical resurrection. Hence, there is an interim period between the life that we presently live and the new life of physical re-embodiment. 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 states,

1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

Earthly Tent, Heavenly Home

While space is limited, a few brief comments on this passage are in order. The language of an earthly tent has often been interpreted to refer to the present human state, which will be replaced by our heavenly homes with God. But, as we see in verse 2, there is this unique state of waiting for the clothing (i.e., the body). And while it seems clear that this is referring to an interim state of human existence, the passage has often been taken to refer to something higher than our state on the earth, as we see in verses 6-8, thus pointing us to that transcendent aspect of humans.

I maintain that we have no positive reason to reject the tradition’s belief in the doctrine of the soul and we may have at least a couple of reasons lending credence to the belief in the soul doctrine.

Traditionally this passage is cited as support for the “beatific vision” (i.e., the eschatological, heavenly vision of God for the saints), which is assumed to be experienced during the interim state between bodily death and bodily resurrection.

Thomas Aquinas, representing what would come to be a common traditional reading, explicitly affirms this and sums up 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 by saying:

Therefore, the answer is that the saints see the essence of God immediately after death and dwell in a heavenly mansion. Thus, therefore, it is plain that the reward which saints await is inestimable.7

Assuming this is the best way to read 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, we have one clear biblical teaching that yields support for belief in the soul because it requires not only that some thing exists beyond the body, but also that this entity experiences the vision of God in the intermediate state in a way that transcends bodily life. So, here the NT gives us a reason to affirm the belief in the doctrine of the soul as undergirding human transcendence in the afterlife.

In contrast to Green’s suggestion that the biblical narrative provides no such reason or motivation for belief in the soul, I maintain that we have no positive reason to reject the tradition’s belief in the doctrine of the soul and we may have at least a couple of reasons lending credence to the belief in the soul doctrine. Unfortunately, it is true that most contemporary biblical scholars reject the tradition’s doctrine of the human soul (as seen in Green’s analysis), yet the arguments for such a conclusion remain unconvincing.

More Information about The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology

Philosophers and theologians address the relationship between body and soul and its implications for theological anthropology, interacting with cognitive science, biological evolution, psychology, and sociology. Reflecting these exciting new developments, The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology is a resource for philosophers and theologians, students and scholars, interested in the constructive, critical exploration of a theology of human persons. Throughout this collection of newly authored contributions, key themes are addressed: human agency and grace, the soul, sin and salvation, Christology, glory, feminism, the theology of human nature, and other major themes in theological anthropology in historic as well as contemporary contexts.

Click here for a full list of contributors and essays.

Theological Anthropology

Reviews

‘An invigoratingly diverse collection of essays focused on the Christian understanding of human nature in general and its bearing the image of God in particular; it would serve as an excellent introduction to the developing interest shown by analytic theology in these and related topics.’
T.J. Mawson, University of Oxford, UK

‘This Ashgate volume, brilliantly crafted by first-rate scholars from multiple disciplines, is a paragon of excellence for research companions. Rigorous, well informed, and refreshingly insightful, it is a tour de force of theological anthropology!’
Chad Meister, Bethel College, USA

‘Excellent in breadth and depth of treatment of relevant topics, with an international group of contributors, senior scholars and scholars newer to their fields but already published therein, this is a superb contribution to the fresh interest in theological anthropology, which it expands, develops, and encourages.’
Keith E. Yandell, University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA

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