- On bodies and souls, updated
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. 1 Long ago, the philosopher Aristotle spoke of this in terms of “matter” and “form.” Plato talked even more about matter and form (or rather, Matter and the Forms), and he did so before Aristotle. But Plato’s thoughts on this subject were pretty far out there, and for the purposes of this discussion they can and should be discounted. I prefer the term “order” over “form” because it has a broader semantic range and more easily suggests dynamic activity and relationships than “form” does to contemporary English speakers. 2 The concept of entropy in thermodynamics is very useful for measuring order in terms of energy distribution in a physical system, for example, though it is rather less useful in the realms of politics and poetry. 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. 3 Some older Bible translations tended to render nephesh as “soul” rather than “living being.” In modern English, this is simply wrong translation, which is why modern translations don’t do it. 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.
- The Significance of the Cross of Christ, updated (published )
When my daughter was three years old, I realized that it was time to start explaining the gospel to her. But how does one explain the gospel well to a child that young in a way that will actually make sense to them? It isn’t easy! But I recognized that if I, with all my years of studying theology, could not explain the gospel to a preschooler, then I didn’t really understand myself. So I set my mind to it and thought a long time about how I could express it in a way that made sense to her. In the end, I came up with this formulation, which I like to call “the gospel for the preschooler”: Jesus died and came alive again, so that one day he can make everyone who dies come alive again. He is going to make the whole world good, and he wants us to help! That’s what the gospel really is, once you get right down to it. Everything else is elaboration, implication, and details. And the gospel for the preschooler seems to have worked. When I told my daughter the gospel this way, she understood it. It took hold in her and has continued to grip her soul to this day. She gets it. But let’s look a little more closely at the gospel here, and take notice of what its foundation is. “Jesus died and came alive again so that…” The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus are the basis for all the gospel. Everything depends on them. This is a holy night. It is a strange and terrible holy night. On Easter Sunday we will gather here again to celebrate the holiest day of the year, the day of Resurrection, the day when hope and joy arise victorious. But it is not yet Sunday. This is Good Friday. And it is indeed Good. But not Good like we usually think of good. This is a Good whose goodness runs too deep and too strangely for any of us to grasp fully even after a lifetime of contemplation. For the goodness of Good Friday is the goodness of the Cross. When I was a young Christian, I was presented with two ways of thinking about the Cross and what it meant that didn’t always seem to fit well together. Sometimes the focus would be on the awfulness of the Cross. This might involve concentration on the physical agony, or on the profound irony that this was happening to the Son of God. Other times the focus was on how the Cross was good news for us, because it was done in order to make our salvation possible. So far, so good; all of this is true. But where things went off the rails was when people treated the Cross as happy news, joyful news, straight-up reason to smile and laugh, like the Resurrection. In fact, it often seemed like the Cross was the whole gospel, that the sum of the gospel was “Jesus died for me, therefore I’ve been set free.” You’ll notice how something has dropped out in that version of the gospel. There is no Resurrection in it. And because of that, the Cross has been forced to do the job that belongs to the Resurrection. And when that happens, we can no longer understand the Cross for what it really means. “Jesus died and came alive again,” is the foundation of the gospel, and when we remember all of that, we will begin to be able to understand the true, full, terrible, and wonderous meaning of the Cross. Let’s take a moment and imagine two alternative possibilities. First, imagine the Cross without the Resurrection. Imagine if Jesus had died and had not been raised. Then the Cross would have been nothing more than one more example of meaningless suffering, just some bad thing that happened. It would have been the death of the Son of God, true enough, but it would only mean that God had lost and death had won. And we wouldn’t even know about it, anyway. Jesus would have been forgotten, except maybe in some footnote in some massive dusty tome on the history of the Roman Empire. God would have failed, and we wouldn’t even notice. Now imagine the Resurrection without the Cross. Suppose Jesus had lived to a ripe old age and then died reclining on a couch, talking and drinking wine with his disciples until he slipped off into sleep, and had then been resurrected. That would still be a source of hope, because it would still be God overcoming death with life. But it would be a very different hope. That would mean nothing more than that life goes on, and sure, sometimes some bad things happen, but it’ll all work out okay in the end. There would be no hope in that for the restoration of the broken. “It’ll all work out okay in the end,” is not much of a gospel. “Jesus died and came alive again” is the foundation of the gospel, and we need both parts to understand the gospel properly. The Resurrection is the source of the hope, while the Cross is what shapes and forms that hope. The Cross is what gives the Resurrection hope its character. The Cross tells us how the Resurrection hope works. The Cross is why we can trust that the Resurrection really will be a hope for the healing and transformation of even the worst. So then, if we want to understand the Cross, we need to see in it the ultimate expression of how God deals with evil, with suffering, with pain and violence and fear and cruelty and hate. We often ask ourselves, when faced with some evil thing, “Why?” We try to deal with evil by explaining it. If we can just make sense of it, we think, then it’ll be okay. We try to turn evil into a philosophical problem, because philosophical problems are abstract and take our minds away from the concrete. This doesn’t really help, of course, but it is what we keep trying to do. But God does not treat evil like a philosophical problem to figure out. God treats evil as a practical problem to solve. The Cross is the ultimate demonstration how God deals with all that is wrong in this world. The Cross shows us the answer to the question: “In what way is God present in the midst of this suffering and evil?” Or better, “How is God acting in the midst of this suffering and evil?” You see, the Cross requires us to see God himself nailed to it, God himself surrendered to death and submitted to it. Our God does not negate evil. He does not make it as if it never were. No, he takes it, goes into it, and from the depths, he changes it! He rises from the grave not as a negation of death, but as the subversion and transformation of death. He rises with the nail scars in his hands and the gash in his side, but now they are wounds of glory. They have not disappeared; they have not ceased to be wounds inflicted on him by nails and spear. But they no longer hold the power of death, for they have been transformed into wellsprings of life. The life that flowed out of those wounds into the void, the chaos, the darkness has proven to be inexhaustible, and now the void is changed. Resurrection life arises where there was only death, new life where there was only destruction, because God is there, too. This is why the Cross is good news. Suffering begins as meaningless. It has no ultimate reason behind it. It doesn’t belong in this world. But the Cross shows us that God will take our suffering and make sense out of it, literally make sense where there was none before, by creating good out of it. The Cross, that unspeakable horror that we ourselves inflicted on the Son of God, is, thanks to the Resurrection, now the sign to us that all the suffering, evil, fear, hate, cruelty and pain that afflict us in this world will be changed and transformed. Your suffering will become a wellspring of new life. Nothing is beyond hope. Our pains will not be washed away as if they had never happened. The Cross signifies that we, in all our brokenness, will be made whole.
- On why “fully” is a bad description for divine presence(published )
In response to the statement that “If God’s presence was fully with us then surely the evil and alienation and suffering would end.” That depends on what “fully” means. Does it mean “concretely,” “observably,” “manifestly,” etc.? Does it mean “deeply,” “intimately,” or “in the heart”? Does it mean “transformationally”? “Gloriously”? “Victoriously”? “Ubiquitously”? Something else? If we are using quantitative metaphors (fully, partially) to talk about how concretely or manifestly God is present, then no, God being fully present doesn’t mean the end of the old order. It doesn’t get any more concrete and manifest than the incarnation—one could literally see, hear, and touch God in Jesus—and that did not bring the old order to its end. If we are describing God’s presence with quantitative metaphors as a way to discuss how he relates to us, then once again, no. The Holy Spirit dwells in us already (corporately and individually) and is “closer to us than our own hearts,” but the old order is not ended thereby. Paul does use quantitative metaphors to talk about how the Spirit’s presence now functions soteriologically (i.e. as a downpayment on our future inheritance of glory), but this indicates how our salvation is not yet fully realized, not that the Spirit is only partially present to us. The Holy Spirit’s real, full, and true presence in us today is precisely what enables us to face the ongoing reality of the old order with faith that evil, alienation, and suffering will end. If “fully” means “gloriously” or (more to the point) “victoriously,” then the statement is true. God’s ultimate triumph over evil will mean the end of the old order of things. ... But does God’s “full” presence properly mean his being triumphantly present? Was God less present at the stoning of Stephen than at Peter’s healing of the lame man outside the gate called “Beautiful”? Was God less present on the cross than at the transfiguration? Perhaps we need to understand the relation between God’s presence and the existence of evil in a different way. I suggest that it’s not a matter of how much God is present vs. how much evil and suffering there is. “How much” is not the right sort of relation at all; it isn’t a matter of degree, but of mode. The right question is “In what way is God present in the midst of this suffering and evil?” Or better, “How is God acting in the midst of this suffering and evil?” The cross requires us to see God himself nailed to it, God himself surrendered to death and submitted to it. Our God does not negate evil. He does not make it as if it never were. No, he takes it, goes into it, and from the depths, he changes it! He rises from the grave not as a negation of death, but as the subversion and transformation of death. He rises with the nail scars in his hands and the gash in his side, but now they are wounds of glory. They have not disappeared; they have not ceased to be wounds inflicted on him by nails and spear. But they no longer hold the power of death, for they have been transformed into wellsprings of life. The life that flowed out of those wounds into the void has proven to be inexhaustible, and now the void is changed. Eschatological new life arises where there was only death, new life where there was only destruction, because God is there, too. So, do we still see suffering and evil in our world because God is not fully present? No. Our world still contains brokenness because God is currently present in a mode of kenotic redemption, subverting evil into good and transforming suffering into new life. We look forward to the day when this work will be complete and he will be present in the mode of glory, having won his victory via transformation rather than negation. But in the meantime, we suffer not because he is only partially present, but because he is not yet finished the work he is doing in us and our world.