Often people ask me about the relationship between our bodies and our souls or spirits. The explicit or implicit reason for the question is usually that people are wondering about what happens when we die, but sometimes there are other reasons. The following is an attempt to give an accessible explanation of this profound and complex matter.
First, for orientation, it is helpful to describe at least briefly some of the major views that circulate in our culture. The default assumption in Western culture, including for many Christians, is that humans have two parts, the body and the soul. Some Westerners are materialists, believing that there is only the body and that the mind, will, emotions, etc., are simply the byproduct of neurological processes. Others take the opposite tack and say that the material reality is only an appearance whereas the spiritual is the truly real. Some Christians argue that we are made of three parts, body, soul, and spirit, with soul and spirit considered to be as distinct from each other as either one is from the material body. Yet others (including me) take the view that material and immaterial are not two separate parts of reality, but rather two real aspects of one, unified reality. There are all sorts of Scriptural, theological, and practical reasons to consider this latter view the best one for Christians to hold, but the task for now is to describe this view, rather than to explore its warrants and implications.
This idea of material and spiritual as a unified reality is a bit difficult for Westerners to understand, so a few analogies might be helpful.
This first analogy illustrates some key ideas that will be helpful in thinking about this subject. It isn’t a full-scale model of the relation between body and soul/spirit, and we will need to leave it behind once we’ve used it for its limited purpose. But within this limited scope, it is helpful.
Imagine a sheet of paper. You can pick it up, turn it around, fold it, write on it, curl it into a tube, whatever. It’s just a piece of paper. Now pick a number between, say, one and five. Tear the paper in half that many times. Now your sheet of paper is in broken little pieces.
This is similar to what happens to us when we die. While we live, we are a seamless whole. There is no division between our bodies and our souls. Instead, the material and immaterial aspects of our being are thoroughly integrated with each other. We will our bodies to move; a soothing touch calms our anxiety; excitement makes our eyes dilate and our pulse quicken; ingesting certain substances alters our mood or thought patterns; etc. There is no barrier, no disconnect, no discernible line between the two. But when we die, this integrated whole is torn asunder. What God intended to be whole is broken, and what remains are only scraps with ragged edges showing where the wholeness used to be. Once a person has been torn asunder by death, it becomes possible to perceive body and soul as separate parts of that person, just as we can see that two halves of a torn sheet of paper were both parts of the whole sheet. But while we can apply that mental abstraction to ourselves and others, it is only an abstraction so long as we live. This is true regardless whether we distinguish into two parts (body and soul), three parts (body, soul, spirit), or any given number of parts (arm, hand, stomach, brain, mind, will, emotion, heart, lungs, spirit, femur, humours, memories, veins, nerves, feelings, impulses, perceptions, etc.). While we live, we are one, integrated whole; only dead things are actually separated into parts.
But our paper analogy isn’t enough to fully explain the relation of body and soul. When we tear a sheet of paper in two, the two torn halves are fundamentally the same sort of thing. This is not the case with the material and immaterial aspects of a human being. To go further in our understanding, we need another approach.
You have probably seen a building that was partially or wholly demolished for whatever reason. Maybe it was a barn struck by a tornado, or an office tower collapsed in a controlled explosion, or a house that was being gutted by workmen in the process of an extensive reconstruction. What was the difference between the barn before and after the tornado? Simple. It was smashed to pieces. Likewise the office tower was reduced to rubble. The workmen at the half-demolished house carefully and methodically took it apart piece by piece, tossing the scraps into a bin to be carted away. In each case, though, the pieces didn’t stop existing. They remained, but they no longer formed a building. The building, meanwhile, ceased to exist in part or in whole because the structural relationship of its pieces was undone.
The difference between a house and a pile of materials is order.1 Order is immaterial. Order can’t be touched or seen or measured—not directly. But order can be discerned through the things we can touch and see and measure. We can even measure order by proxy to a limited degree.2 It takes work to create and sustain order, and the effects of order and disorder on our lives are clearly perceptible. Order is immaterial, but it is a very real part of this world.
The relationship that matter and energy have with order sheds some light on the relationship that the body has with the soul or spirit. There is a certain sense in which the presence of spirit within us makes us what we are. In Hebrew, it was having ruach (spirit; literally, breath) that made one a nephesh (a living being) and to lose ruach was by definition to cease to be a nephesh.3 The immaterial aspect of our being plays an indispensable role in shaping our material-spiritual existence.
However, this analogy is also limited and potentially misleading if we don’t note some major caveats and qualifications. First and foremost, the spirit is not itself the ordering principle of the body. Rather, the interrelatedness of body and spirit is part of the overall order that makes us whole beings. The relationship between spirit and body has some analogy with the relationship between ordering principles of our existence and the overall structure of our being that includes both our material and spiritual aspects and their interrelation, but there is at least one key difference. Order is about the necessary structures and patterns for a thing to exist. Spirit, in contrast, is about the dynamic impetus that makes a living thing be a living thing.
Our spirits are what animate us. Explaining what our spirits are is only possible by metaphorical extension from a description of the role it plays in our being and the literal, concrete effects it has in that role. Spirit is what enables and impels us to live, to move, to breathe, to desire, to respond, to think, to imagine, to choose, to act, to love, and all the other actions that mark out a living creature from an inanimate object. Because we are a single, material-spiritual reality, we can analyze the processes by which we perform these actions—physical, chemical, biological, psychological, social, etc. We can explain the means by which we act, describe the patterns according to which we act, the reasons why we act in one way and not another. Such analysis of how we engage in all these actions is immensely helpful, but in the end we are still faced with the question: Why do we act at all? Why are we not inert like rocks? From where does all the action ultimately arise? In answer we find only the raw and irreducible fact that the spark of life is in us. As a Christian, I believe that God, who is himself the self-existent Source of all Life, all Being, and all Action, gave us this spark of life. Even so, the fact remains that we have in us this fundamental spark, this source of action that’s just there in us and that we can never get around or see behind. This spark of life, this spontaneous source of action, is the core of our spirits. There is much more to our spirits than this—whole ordered structures that shape and form us as the people we are—but this is the key. While we live and our bodies and spirits are one, this spark can be expressed in the world that God has created. At death, our spirits are deprived of the means to act in the world we were made for. And we look forward to the resurrection because then, and only then, we will get our bodies back, which will allow us to become whole human beings again and to engage in the joyous, everlasting, life-giving, spontaneous activity that we were made for.