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Following Jesus, Believing in the Soul

Mike Sanborn

What's the problem with dualism?

Teaching Pastor at Granada Heights Friends Church
February 9, 2015

When I talk with people at my church about the implications of neuroscience on Christian faith, and I tell them that there are serious Christians who do not believe that we have souls, they look at me with bewilderment.[1]

Most of them immediately ask, “What about what the Bible says in…(INSERT PASSAGE THAT SEEMS TO TALK ABOUT THE EXISTENCE OF THE SOUL).” Even if the passage that they bring up is questionable about what it really advocates, those people in my church reveal an admirable posture that they take toward the Bible, a posture that rightly sees that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

Against the Existence of the Soul

It is this posture toward scripture that I have been pondering as I examine the various cases thinkers make for and against the existence of the soul. As the debate rages on, many biblical scholars within the Christian community, claim that the Bible is at best unclear about the existence of souls, and perhaps clear about their non-existence.

For instance, Warren Brown and Brad Strawn claim that “the Bible is not interested in giving a detailed anthropology of the human person (monist, dualist, or tripartite),” but then on the next page they assert, “The few Gospel passages that might be read in a dualist manner (e.g., Matthew 10:28) are at best ambiguous and, many believe, are best read from a non-dualist perspective.”[2] Nancey Murphy suggests that “the New Testament authors are not intending to teach anything about humans’ metaphysical composition.”[3] Joel Green argues that “the witness of the biblical materials is at home with a range of monist positions,” but he also notes that he does not argue “that a dualist position is unbiblical or otherwise categorically excluded by the biblical data.”[4]

Is the Bible really this vague about a subject so central to who we are as human beings? Did God intend for us to be left in the dark about this, so much so that when a child or a cancer patient or a tribesmen from Papua New Guinea asks us, “Where do I go when I die?,” we are left with nothing more than the reply, “The Bible is unclear.” My sense is that God would want us to know something as crucially important as this, and that he intended his Word to be understood by the vast majority of “regular people” around the world. Indeed, it is revealing (in my opinion) that nearly all people groups throughout history have been dualists.

It is my contention that the perceived lack of clarity of the Bible regarding the soul is due to an underappreciation of the posture that Jesus demands from his followers toward his teachings. In other words, I believe that many Christians fail to recognize the weightiness that Jesus intended his teachings to have in guiding the lives of all his followers throughout all ages and all cultures. Jesus demanded from his followers a unique posture toward his teachings, a radically loyal posture that if maintained, would have tremendous results.

“Hold to My Teaching”

In John 8:31-32, Jesus says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (NIV). We often hear the saying, “The truth will set you free,” but many are unaware of the condition that Jesus says will lead us to knowledge of the truth—holding to his teachings. The word translated “hold to” by the NIV translators is the Greek word ‘meno’, which is commonly translated “to remain, abide, persist.” This word communicates a rich, multifaceted orientation towards the teachings of Jesus. It includes the ideas of believing that his teachings are true, obeying them, studying and meditating upon them, as well as counting on them to deliver on what they promise. In sum, Jesus expects his followers to maintain a deep loyalty to his teachings. This loyalty is not blind, for Jesus promises that when we remain in his teachings we will find a profound freedom—“the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus instructs his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations,” and he then explains that one of the key components of the disciple-making process is “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (NIV). In other words, Jesus expected that all of his teachings would comprise the ongoing curriculum for disciples across all cultures and all time periods.

So, if Jesus taught that the soul exists… I think you see where I’m going here.

Did Jesus Teach the Existence of the Soul?

But did he actually teach dualism? Well, the overwhelmingly dominant view of Christians throughout history agrees that Jesus advocated at the very least a “mere dualism.”[5] I think this is the most reasonable and obvious conclusion from a number of passages, such as Matthew 22:23-33 (cf. parallel passages in Mark 12:18-27 and Luke 20:27-40), Matthew 10:28 (cf. Luke 12:4-5), Luke 23:43-46, and others.

Affirming the Afterlife

For starters, Jesus publicly affirms the view of the Pharisees regarding the afterlife in his clash with the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23-33), and the Pharisees were dualists who believed in an intermediate state of non-bodily existence for the dead.[6] In Matthew 10:28, Jesus makes a distinction between the body that dies and a non-bodily aspect of the human person that survives death. In Luke 23:43, Jesus promises the thief on the cross that “today” they will exist together in “Paradise” upon their deaths, and a few verses later Jesus commits his “spirit” to God quoting Psalm 31:5—a prayer for God to keep one alive and safe.

It is telling that many prominent Christian non-dualists do not try to bar a dualist interpretation of these passages. Instead, they prefer to argue that non-dualism is consistent with these biblical teachings, and they find ways to show how each of these passages could be construed without the need to postulate the existence of a soul.[7]

The Authority of Jesus

My point is not to analyze each passage in detail, because non-dualists don’t seem bothered by the presence of dualist interpretations alongside their own interpretations. My purpose instead is to call us to examine the posture that we take toward the authority of Jesus.

As disciples of Jesus, should we content ourselves with the pursuit of a view that might be consistent with the teachings of Jesus? It does not seem to me that Jesus leaves any room for his disciples to settle for a possible compatibility with his teachings, according to John 8:31-32. Jesus did not say here, “If you can figure out a plausible way to make your views fit together with mine, you are really my disciples.”

Jesus calls for a much deeper loyalty than that, a much more trusting posture toward his teachings in which one bets everything they have that Jesus delivers truth that sets us free. This freedom, characterized by love, peace, and joy, has been the testified experience of countless followers of Jesus throughout the centuries who have remained loyal to his teachings because they trusted him above all else.

Too Quick to Dismiss Dualism

I understand that “dualism” has largely been dismissed as an antiquated, unscientific view, but I am amazed at how typically hasty and erroneous this dismissal is, for it is directed at only one radical version of dualism—whether it’s called “Cartesian” or “Platonic.” Non-dualists rightly criticize a radical dualism that separates the body and the soul as far as possible, elevating the soul far above the body and discounting the vast importance of the body. But this extreme version of dualism does not exhaust dualism—there are many versions of dualism that take seriously the neurosciences and our embodied nature, uniting body and soul in deep and profound ways.[8] Perhaps non-dualists should reconsider these other versions of dualism and how they rightly appreciate the body or the brain, as they do themselves. And perhaps non-dualists could greatly help dualists in conceiving of ways to understand the deep unity between body and soul.

But let us not dismiss the whole concept of the soul because of an extreme version of dualism. Let us embrace the soul as Jesus did, and let us embrace the body as Jesus did as well, and together we can explore how God has so intricately united body and soul to make such wonderful creatures as us.

Above all, as disciples of Jesus, let us trust what Jesus taught. If we can count on anything, surely we can count on his teachings to deliver incredibly wonderful results.

J.P. Moreland on Neuroscience & the Soul