This might surprise some people, but embracing a biblical worldview gives us reasons to be mind-body materialists rather than dualists.
I first rejected mind-body dualism not because of any sort of scientific scepticism but because of what I started to see in the Bible when I started looking.1 For what it’s worth, I think other Christians should do the same.
When some Christians first consider the possibility that human beings don’t have immaterial, immortal souls (i.e. immaterial souls that carry on living when the body dies), they are concerned that if they give up believing in souls (as they currently see them) then they would be somehow compromising with unbelief or “naturalism.” Unfortunately this fear is only encouraged by some who I think should know better, academics who want to assure the faithful that really they had better stay away from this point of view because it “derives its vitality from naturalism” (whatever that turn of phrase is supposed to mean). I’ve commented on this in the past, and it’s a shame that some proponents of dualism seem to engage in such poisoning of the well.
From a pastoral perspective I see this as not only mistaken but dangerous. There is a parallel here to the “Young Earth Creationist” position. Some of the defenders of that view – the view that the age of the earth is measured only in the thousands of years and that evolution on a “macro” level, leading from species that no longer exist to species that now exist with common ancestry across species is a fundamentally mistaken model – have promoted this view as the only viable option for any sincere Christian. They have encouraged people to think that to reject this view is tantamount to spiritual treachery, compromising with unbelief. When young earth creationism has been given up, so the narrative goes, a central truth has been given up, calling into question the Gospel itself. The risk, of course, is that if anyone who was raised under such teaching ever encounters and accepts another point of view (as I see it, a point of view more closely connected to reality), they will feel as though something central to their faith has been lost. Their whole thought world may collapse, calling into question the Christian faith. Disillusionment follows.
The same is true, at least potentially, of the mind-body issue. If a young Christian thinker is bombarded with the assumption that dualism is the view that takes the supernatural seriously and a materialist view of human beings (which I will now just call “materialism”) is not just mistaken, but constitutes the abandonment of a supernatural worldview (it is, after all, a view based on “naturalism,” they are told), then two things follow. In the first place their thinking about human beings will be terribly skewed, for they will always attempt to reach conclusions compatible with dualism, and in the second place they will view any evidence that favours materialism (if they are willing to hear it) as evidence for naturalism – the view that there is no God and nothing supernatural. Any persuasion they feel towards materialism will ultimately be perceived as persuasion away from Christianity. Again, unnecessary disillusionment would follow.
This is why I try to make it very clear when I tell people that I favour a materialist view of human beings that sympathy for naturalism has nothing at all to do with my view. Far from it. When I began to entertain materialism I still (from memory) held to a young earth creationist view replete with belief in a global flood. I had never even heard the phrase “philosophy of mind” and I went on to attend a Pentecostal church. No, naturalism was nowhere in sight. I had come to this outlook because I had realised that my assumption that Scripture would amply support my dualistic assumptions about human nature – an assumption that I had absorbed, as most Christians do, from my culture – was false. I found that in fact the biblical support for that view was scant at best, and much of what I found in the Bible supported a view that I would once have regarded as totally alien, namely materialism. In the years since then I have immensely appreciated the more philosophical writings on the philosophy of mind, especially those written by my fellow Christians who wish to address the same questions that I do (people like Bruce Reichenbach, Trenton Merricks, Peter Van Inwagen, Nancey Murphy, Kevin Corcoran and others, as well as those with whom I disagree, William Hasker, J. P. Moreland, Stuart Goetz and others). For what it is worth, I think dualism has more support in that arena than in Scripture. I do not think that it has compelling support from conceptual / speculative arguments (and, as far as I can tell, no advantage over materialism – indeed, some of these arguments fail miserably, e.g. Plantinga’s modal argument for dualism), just more support than it finds in Scripture. Indeed I think the only real traction that dualism makes in the philosophical literature is to continually ask challenging questions of materialism (sometimes in the apparent but naïve hope that if materialists cannot answer them all then dualism must be true, quite overlooking whether or not dualism itself can answer those same questions – e.g. the question of how consciousness arises).
But the point I want to make here is that I think materialism commends itself to the Christian in particular because it is a position that finds much support in the Bible – a fact that surprises some people (largely for cultural reasons). The biblical writers never set out an explicit philosophy of mind as a subject in itself because doing so was simply not their purpose (any more than offering explicit teaching about physics was their purpose). But what the Bible does say about human nature and related matters fits more comfortably, I think, with a materialist view of human beings. I’m going to write a couple of blog posts, starting with this one, where I offer reasons for saying that this is true. Then in the next post on this subject I’ll look at the small number of proof texts that some dualists use as evidence against a materialist outlook. I’ve covered some of this biblical material in the podcast series In Search of the Soul, but these two blog posts will be more focused on why I think a Christian should be a materialist rather than a dualist (at least, a Christian who thinks that the biblical material has some authority on the matter), and why I find the attempts to say otherwise on biblical grounds unpersuasive. If there are further, philosophical reasons for entertaining materialism or dualism, they are beyond the scope of what I am looking at here and will not be addressed.
In the Beginning: Created from the dust
Right at the outset, this is what we are. When humans are created, it is from the dust. When animals are created, it is from the dust (Genesis 2:19). When the sentence for sin is announced, the climax is that “you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).
The Psalmist tells that God shows compassion “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (103:14). When our life comes to an end, the Psalmist writes (90:3), “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’ ”
But is this simply metaphorical? It is somewhat metaphorical, yes. Our bodies are not actually dust. But why use this metaphor at all? Why not metaphors that support dualism? Why say that we are composed of natural elements if this is not true? Other ancient cultures managed to not speak about human beings in the way the Hebrew Bible does. For example, the Egyptians spoke of the soul or spirit being like a bird that enters a building for a short time and then flies out again.
Even when biblical writers are not being as metaphorical, they evidently conceive of their parts as being material, as in Job 10: 9-12.
Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to the dust? Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese? You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews. You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit.
But what about the more important part, Job, the immaterial soul or spirit? It doesn’t enter the picture. It would be question-begging in the most obvious way to look at passages like these and say that they offer no insight on this issue because they were only written to describe the material aspect of human nature. This would be to import the foreign assumption that there are other parts to speak of. The truth is that Job was writing about what he called “me.”
When materialists speak of the Bible as offering a “holistic” view of human nature rather than a dualistic one, this is what they mean. The biblical writers spoke of themselves as creatures of the earth, not divided up into radically different substances, but molded from the stuff of the created universe.
We assume that because we use these words to mean something, the Bible uses them in the same way, so when we see in the Bible significant words that we are accustomed to using, we read our own views into the Bible. After all, our words are in the Bible, so our beliefs must also be in the Bible!
But of course this is no way to go about reading the Bible. What matters is not how we are accustomed to using words, but instead what concepts lay behind the words that appear in the Bible. In order to engage this issue at all, we have to consider the various ways those words are used – and not the English words, but the words in the original languages (although the English translation should generally, if it is a good one, give us good insight into what the word means by accurately conveying the context to the reader).
There exists a discussion about whether or not animals have “souls.” If the question could be answered simply by determining whether or not the biblical word(s) translated “soul” was ever applied to animals, then the question can be answered very simply: Yes. In fact the biblical word for “soul” is applied to animals before it is ever applied to human beings, in spite of the translators of the King James Bible obscuring the fact (whether intentionally or otherwise). The Hebrew word that is translated “soul” is נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh, from naphash, meaning to draw breath), and it occurs in the very first chapter of the Bible, before humans are mentioned.
The next place that the word occurs is in Genesis 2:7, the creation of Adam. “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.” I have intentionally used “soul” here, following the older translations, to make this point: The translators gave as “soul” when referring to a human being here in Genesis 2:7, but when referring to the animals in Genesis 1, they did not. The misleading impression here is that humans have souls or are souls, but animals are not. In truth the same term applies to them both. These things are bodily, tangible things made from the dust of the earth. Nephesh is even used in a couple of places to refer to dead bodies; Leviticus 21:11, Numbers 6:6, Number 19:11. Here people are instructed not to touch the dead body of a human being or they will become unclean for certain purposes.
The New Testament retains this usage of the Greek ψυχή (psuche, the word used to translate nephesh). Acts 27:37 recalls that “we were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen souls” (KJV), although modern translations give us “276 peoples.” 1 Peter 3:20 reminds the reader that in the story of Noah, “eight souls” (KJV) were saved on the Ark, with modern versions giving us “eight people.” When the merchandise on the ships of Babylon is described in Revelation 18:13, it includes “cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men.” Although the meaning conveyed is obviously correct, the KJV departs here from its characteristically literal approach, because John’s word here is not “slaves” but “bodies” (σωμάτων), although bodies refers to slaves. The precise translation of the verse differs from one translation to the next, but “bodies” is an idiomatic reference to slaves, with the additional “and human lives (psuchai, souls)” stressing the humanity and value of those bodies (compare with the New Living Bible, “bodies—that is, human slaves.”) Those bodies really amount to human psuchai or human souls – although “souls” would hardly be a helpful translation. But if we insist on using the word “souls,” it follows that souls are things that can be loaded onto ships and carried across the sea.
The term “soul” itself is vanishing from the pages of Bible translations…
Lastly, these terms very often mean “life,” as in Mark 8:34ff: “For whoever would save his life (psuche) will lose it, but whoever loses his life (psuche) for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (psuche) For what can a man give in return for his soul? (psuche)” It is a shame that the ESV has used “soul” here when the translators think that the eternal part is intended, but “life” when they think the text refers to this life. But in context it is clear that the writer means “life” throughout – for the one who loses his life now for the Gospel’s sake will find it forever.
In short, the biblical language of the “soul” does not carry so much as a whiff of dualism. By contrast, in Christian works on the mind-body problem, it nearly always just means the immaterial substance that is the self. This is why if one approaches the question of the “soul” from a biblical point of view rather than via the philosophical / theological literature, they will find no reason to think of the soul as dualists do. For anyone who is immersed in a world where every mention of “your soul” suggests something ethereal or invisible, this is no small discovery to make.
The breath of life
But what about the spirit? Maybe the Bible just uses its terms differently from us, so even though the word “soul” in our English Bibles doesn’t mean “soul” in the way that dualists use it, perhaps the word “spirit” in the Bible serves that function.
Perhaps. But as it turns out, it doesn’t. There are a couple of words in the Hebrew Bible that are translated as “spirit,” רוּחַ (ruach) and נְשָׁמָה (neshamah) both of which are translated by the same Greek word, πνεῦμα (pneuma), and which have overlapping meaning in the Hebrew Scripture. We have already seen neshamah at work in Genesis 2:7, where it is translated as “breath” (in “the breath of life,” or more literally, “breath of lives”). The phrase “breath of life” appears again several times in the story of Noah’s flood in Genesis 6 and 7, this time using ruach (illustrating the overlap of the two terms) referring to that breath of life held in common by all animals, human or otherwise. God promises, “I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven” (6:17). As part of Noah’s duty he took into the ark “two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life” (7:15). As for the creatures that did not enter the ark, including human beings, “Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.” The preacher in Ecclesiastes 3:19 likewise declared that both man and the animals “all have one breath (ruach).”
The writer of Job equates the two terms, using a parallelism: “All the while my breath (neshamah) is in me and the spirit (ruach) of God is in my nostrils” (Job 27:3). The spirit, in this sense, is God’s. He gave it to make men alive, and he will take it back. Job depicts all creatures as having breath on loan from God: “If he should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust” (Job 34:15). The psalmist, too, made no clear distinction between the two terms, describing God’s providential care for all of creation, man and animal, then saying “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath (ruach), they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit (ruach), they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (104:29-30).
Although it is common for evangelicals to read Ecclesiastes 12:7 as a reference to the survival of death, this is simply a mistake. When we read “the dust shall return to the earth as it was and the spirit shall return to God who gave it,” we are seeing a continuation of the biblical portrayal of human beings as mortal and disappearing at death, when God takes back his spirit, which had been keeping us alive. When the biblical writers are talking about what is sometimes translated as “spirit” as an anthropological term (i.e. when talking about anything that is substantially “part” of us), William Dyrness is correct: “the person’s spirit and God’s are all but inseparable.”2
The epistle of James reflects this biblical anthropology, saying that “Just as the body without the spirit (pneuma) is dead, so too faith without works is dead.” Terms for spirit can mean more than this, however. At times they are similar in usage to heart or mind, referring to our mental or emotional qualities. We might have a brave spirit or a broken spirit, or be downcast or troubled in spirit. But at no point is there any reference – as there easily could have been – to us living on after death as a spirit, or to the spirit as the true self, a substance apart from the body. This is a truth borne out in the New Testament as well. When Stephen is martyred he cries out – just as any Old Testament reader could have “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit” (Acts 7:59). It may be tempting to read dualism into a text like this, but we would only do so if we had no background in how the Hebrew Scripture uses this language. God takes back the spirit of all flesh when they die.
If biblical material like this is allowed to clearly speak, it paints a picture of human beings as earthly, physical beings – made of the same stuff as other creatures and dependent on God to keep us alive and breathing, returning to the dust from which we were made when we die.
The types of evidence discussed so far justifies the belief that the biblical material – when it appears to be speaking about human nature – is more supportive of materialism than dualism. This is why I maintain that those who think that Scripture is supportive of a dualist view do not hold this view because of the things that the biblical writers say about beings and the various bits and pieces (if there are any) that make us up. Such passages of Scripture just do not support a dualist view at all. Instead, I think Christians who see dualism in the Bible do so because they believe that some biblical passages assume that when our bodies die we will go on living. Surely, these Christians think, this can only happen if we are really immaterial entities that can live without our bodies. I will say something about those passages of Scripture in the next instalment of this short series. For now, however, I want to make the opposite point. In fact the vast majority of what the Bible says about death militates against the popular notion that instead of truly dying, we simply pass on to heaven while our bodies remain in the graves. What the Bible says about death, like what it says about human nature in general, is most compatible with a materialist view of human beings.
Sleeping and Waking
It is often said that the Bible says “very little” about the state of the dead (a state often called “the intermediate state,” because it is the state between death and resurrection). The implication is that there is a lot more that the biblical writers could have said if they had wanted to, but they just chose not to. Or perhaps God could have revealed a whole lot more to them – because there is a lot to say about where the dead are and what they are up to, but for some reason God just didn’t want to. But what if that isn’t true?
What if the Bible actually does tell us most of what there is to know about the state of the dead, but we don’t realise that it does, because we believe much more about the intermediate state than what the Bible says?
The Bible actually does paint a picture of death, but many readers don’t recognise it as doing so largely because what it says is not what they were expecting. We have already seen some examples when looking at what Scripture says about human nature, but they warrant reiteration here.
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Not only is it true that we are dust, but that is where we are heading when we die. It is not that our bodies are dust and we shall one day escape them. We are bodily things, and when the body dies, we die, returning to the natural elements of which we are composed.
“The dust will return to the earth as it was and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” As noted previously, there is no light at the end of the tunnel in these words. This is a reversal of the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7, when breath and body were combined to make a living soul. Here the elements are separated, as they were before (notice the use of the word “return”). Where was the man before he was created? Nowhere, which is where he will be when he dies.
As creatures of the earth, made from physical matter and possessing the breath of life, we return to the earth when the breath of life leaves us. This is already implicit in the passages we have seen that describe human nature. But there is more in Scripture about this as well. When Daniel looks forward to a future time when the dead will rise, he says (12:2), “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake.” People will wake up. And where are they now? Sleeping. Where? In the dust of the earth. Their souls are not in repose in the world beyond the grave, alive somewhere out there. They returned to the dust, and from thence they shall come.
Beyond these, there are a number of occasions where the biblical writers refer to the current state of those who have died. Often when people in the Old Testament die we read that “he slept with his fathers.” Search for that phrase in the Bible and you’ll see it occurring often (e.g. Moses in Deuteronomy 31:16, David in 2 Samuel 7:12, Omri in 1 Kings 16:28 etc). In fact death is referred to as “sleep” 66 times in the Bible, in the Old and New Testament. If this was a figure of speech used by perhaps a few authors then there might be grounds for saying that it was just their own euphemistic way of talking about death. But while of course we cannot take the reference to death literally (the dead do not snore!), there is surely a point to the description. The dead are not conscious. They do not do anything (indeed, as the Psalmist says (6:5, 88:10, 115:17) and as Isaiah claims (38:18), the dead do not even praise God anymore). As the writer of Ecclesiastes urged the reader – do it now (whatever you are going to do), because there is no activity in the place of the dead (9:10).
It is true that the biblical writers affirm that there is a sense in which we now have eternal life, saying that we have “passed from death to life.” But it is also clear that those same writers operated with a heavy dose of “not yet.” Yes, Jesus said that whoever believes in him “will have everlasting life,” but in the next breath, as though explaining what he meant, he said “and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). Likewise, although St Paul stated plainly to two churches that “we have redemption” through the shed blood of Christ (Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14), he also stated, equally plainly, that the redemption we have is still in the future, that we have the Holy Spirit as a pledge, “until the redemption of the purchased possession” (Ephesians 1:14). Although we have already received the “spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15) enabling us to, right now, cry “Abba Father,” Paul placed the fulfilment of our adoption, like our redemption, in the future, because we “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). These things: eternal life, redemption, adoption, are ours as a guarantee of which we may be quite certain, but they are truths that are yet to be fully realised, coming to pass at the resurrection of the dead, the redemption of our bodies.
In fact, St Paul makes a remarkable claim in his first letter to the Corinthians, saying that unless there is a bodily resurrection, unless Jesus bodily rose, enabling our bodily resurrection, then there cannot be any future beyond death, and “those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished,” so we may as well just eat drink and be merry, because when we die, it’s all over. I say more about this in “Eat Drink and be Merry: 1 Corinthians 15 and Physicalism.” The main point is that if it were possible to live after death as an unembodied soul or mind, Paul would simply be mistaken. The absence of a bodily resurrection might rule out one type of future life beyond the grave, but it surely would not rule out all possibility of life after death. Hence, Paul appears to presuppose a materialist view of human beings.
It would have been very easy for the biblical writers to talk about a person surviving as a spirit or a soul when the body died.
The last biblical consideration that I will mention here has wide-ranging implications (for example it has important implications for a Christian view of human destiny, specifically the doctrine of hell, which I will not discuss here). As I indicated earlier, most people who think that dualism is biblical do so because they think the Bible teaches that the soul, unlike the body, does not die, and so there must be an immaterial soul in the first place. But in addition to believing that there exists an immaterial soul, this view of body and soul involves the belief that there is something very different about the body and the soul when it comes to death. Bodies die, but souls do not (unless God were to intervene and do something to destroy the soul).
I have already looked at some of what the Bible says about death, which calls this view of human beings into question. However, if there are also good reasons to deny that there could be a soul that is immortal in this sense (literally “undying”), then we would have a second reason to reject this view of human beings, and we would lose one of the reasons that some people have for thinking that dualism is biblical.
Earlier we saw the way that death was described in the story of the fall, as a return to the dust that we are made from, undercutting a dualistic portrait of human beings. But now let’s ask the question: Why was this fate handed down to sinful human beings? On its own terms, how (if at all) does the narrative in Genesis describe the rationale for death following sin? As it turns out, the rationale is spelled out quite clearly in Genesis 3:22-23.
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.
There’s an interesting reticence here. The thought of God seemingly trails off, never completed: “Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” Well? What about it? The sentence leaves us hanging, because the thought is too terrible to complete. This is the rationale for expulsion from the garden. It is because in a state of sin, human beings could not continue in existence. God would not even contemplate the idea. And so God sent them from the garden. Sin separated them from God, and God brought an end to their life in that state, for that is not what human beings were meant for.
Human beings are mortal. Their life comes to an end when they die, and they do not survive in another form, as though the real issue in Genesis was living one way (in Eden in bodily form) vs living another way (outside of Eden and then on after the demise of the body, in a disembodied state). Certainly life was changed in the story, but it was more than just changed, it was brought to an end. Life is lost to death, and throughout Scripture the hope of immortality – of living and not dying again – is bound up with God’s plan of salvation, being revealed fully through the Gospel and the resurrection of the dead made possible through Christ. It is through the Gospel that God has “brought life and immortality to light” (2 Timothy 1:10). Set aside for now the question of the scope of immortality in the future (I have made it clear elsewhere that I part ways with the traditional view here because I do not think that immortality will come to all). The point is that the biblical portrayal of life, death and immortality is that our existence is marked by mortality and death.
To posit the survival of death by all people is really just to deny the reality of death in the biblical story. It is not as though we are all players in the game of earthly life like players in a game of rugby, and we have all been penalised so we must leave our uniforms behind and hit the showers – still living but no longer in this world. This is the way that some religions view earthly life: It is a temporary part of our on-going existence, and we may enter and leave it, with bodies coming and going while we march on (figuratively speaking of course). But this is not a biblical vision of what we are. Unlike a game of rugby where we can begin and end many times, life is all we have, and if we lose it then we are not. From a biblical point of view it makes no sense to say “OK, so I am not alive anymore. Now what?” We are mortal, and to talk of us going on when our bodies die is to simply not take our mortality seriously. It may be frightening to think of our life as a vapour or of ourselves like the grass of the field that is here today and gone tomorrow with nothing remaining, but that is exactly how Scripture describes mortal human beings. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). “Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath” (Psalm 39:5)! If anyone is inclined to think that dualism is biblical because they think that the Bible encourages us to think that the soul is immortal, then that is a reason for maintaining dualism that should be rejected in its entirety. No part of us is immortal, on a biblical view of human nature. Genesis depicts us as mortal and this view is repeated many times, with emphases on our frailty and temporary existence. Immortality only rears its head as a promise, vague at first but one that fully comes to light through the resurrection of the dead.
In closing, I know that some Christians who read this may find it all a bit dreary. I’ve painted a dismal picture, they might think: We’re just dust, and when we die we’re gone. If this is your instinctive reaction, then it’s possible that your hope has been misplaced. The consistent Christian message freely acknowledges the badness of death and our own mortal state. To quote Isaiah 40:6, “all flesh is grass.” Our hope should never be bound up in the idea that we’ve got the stuff that will live on in spite of death, as though death isn’t really real.
It is entirely fitting to fear death and to see ourselves as utterly lacking the resources to survive it.
In the next instalment I’ll look at some of the attempts to find dualism in several well-known passages of the Bible.
- Specifically, I mean substance dualism, a view most clearly represented by the French philosopher René Descartes, or in classical thought by Plato. Materialism as a view of human beings is compatible with property dualism, with emergentism or with hylemorphism (in which a human being, like any other creature, is a compound of matter and form), in spite of the fact that the word dualism is used to describe each. The key is that these are views where the only substance involved is a physical substance.
- William Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1979), 71.
- The sole apparent exception may be the story of the Rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, remarkable just because it is unlike anything else in Scripture. I will comment on this in part 2.