Christianity 201

October 3, 2012

Do You Have A Soul?

I Cor: 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born…

…12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…

…35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another…

…42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.

Today we’re living up to our “digging a little deeper” tagline, with a look at a topic which confuses even veteran Christ-followers.  As we spun the giant internet wheel, today it stopped at WhyTheology,  the blog of Troy Medley. This is a two part article, you might want to start with the first part reading it at source, at the bottom you’ll find the link to part two.

So I recently attended and presented at a conference on the soul and body at Oxford. It seems, however, that the theme actually shifted to talking about identity generally, which was identified as the soul, rather than the soul as a separate thing.

A reason for this shift was a general skepticism surrounding the idea of a platonic soul. If you are unaware of that term, it is the conception of the soul most frequently portrayed in popular media. A sort of “ghosty” type of thing that is identifiable as us, and yet has no material form. While some medieval theologians might have taken exception to the fact that it is sometimes portrayed as visible, the idea still seems to accurately reflect this idea of the soul. According to that view, then, people are essentially embodied souls. In other words, the you that is you (i.e. your soul) is simply occupying and manipulating your body, which is not you.

The problem is, this is not the biblical view of the soul. It is clearly platonic (whether we have Augustine or Rene Descartes or someone/something else to thank for its pervasiveness is another issue). The Hebrew Bible always and only refers to people as entire units. There is nothing separate from the body. When someone loses an arm, their body doesn’t lose an arm the person does. There isn’t a separate soul. Alister McGrath noted that if you take every instance of the word soul in the Old Testament and replace it with life, the verses would read just the same, and sometimes more clearly than by retaining the word soul. I feel comfortable sharing this bit of his talk, of course, because it is a fairly uncontroversial (and not generally disputed claim); I doubt he’d object.

The New Testament doesn’t seem to help very much either with the idea of a Platonic soul. In fact, the New Testament is adamant that the thing which is raised and transformed into an eternal thing is the entire body, not jut a separate soul. That’s why Jesus’ bodily resurrection is important. That’s what Paul is going on and on about in 1 Corinthians 15. There isn’t a separate soul independent of our bodies. Instead our identity (or soul) is a way of talking about ourselves, and in particular our minds, even if it “emerges” in some way. This is a very subtle shift in thinking that I think might be very important.

While I certainly believe that God can and will transform our bodies into something new and eternal when Christ returns, this has the potential to transform our thinking about the physical world. If we are platonists about the soul, then we devalue the physical body. This leads to all sorts of problems. The body then becomes something of a prison to escape, something that is constantly our adversary, not who we are. This can lead to self-loathing, self-abuse, willingness to take abuse and unhealthy attitudes about sex (for instance, the idea that, even when married, sex should not really be a source of pleasure ever). It also leads to a devaluing of other aspects of creation. But if, instead, we believe that our bodies are the source of our identity/soul rather than something our soul inhabits, then we begin to value it. We feel we must take care of it and, within appropriate ways we can celebrate aspects of it: athletic ability, a good steak (in moderation), a slowly sipped cup of coffee. We can appreciate our physical stuff, because that’s the thing that we are, and that’s what Jesus is redeeming and beginning to transform. It also means we value other people’s bodies. They are not tools to be used for personal gain, objects to be oggled, but when you see someone else’s physical form you are looking at another person. That is important and is something we’ve lost. If we begin to recapture it, it means that our bodies, our blood and sweat and tears, our aches and pains and joys, the tickling that my kids love, the feeling of a warm mug in cold hands, all of this matters in a way we can’t even fathom yet.

But what do you think? Should we instead hang on to the platonic notion of the soul? Does it have more biblical grounding than I’m giving it credit? Does this idea have some other pitfalls?

~Troy Medley

Here is the link to part two of this subject which looks at three different options as to the state of those who have died in Christ. If you got this far, you want to keep reading.  To engage the author, your best bet is to leave comments at his blog, WhyTheology.

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