Have you’ve always thought of the body as a house for the soul? Maybe even as a hindrance to the soul? Or, if you grew up in church, you sang lots of songs about the soul, and likely remember those revivalists coming for a “soul saving” campaign. But can you recall a sermon about the goodness of the created body or the promise of a resurrected body?
While Scripture does say our outer man is wasting away while the inner man is renewed daily (2 Cor 4:16), does this mean the body is merely an earth-suit? If the body is just some temporary shell encasing the part of humanity that actually matters – the soul – then why care about the body?
At times, this seems to be the church’s prevailing mindset regarding the body. Though it may be unintentional, the mindset is pervasive with potentially devastating results for our witness. The reality of embodiment hinges on the truth that the body is just as meaningful as the soul. Failing to recognize our embodied reality can lead to disregard or even harmful treatment of the body.
In the 6th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian converts, he combats a licentious mindset that led them to commit all kinds of sin. He warns not all things are beneficial for believers, particularly those things which might dominate them (1 Cor 6:12-20). However, they were attempting to use freedom in Christ to justify physical, fleshly desires. The believers felt their bodies did not matter, a mindset that made it easy to commit shocking acts of sexual immorality.
Paul contrasts this mindset and declares the body to be the Lord’s. In other words, it is not dispensable to sinful pleasures. He skillfully drew a connection between pursuing present morality in light of promised future resurrection. Paul undeniably fought for the body’s value in the midst of a culture that denied the body any respect at all.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Gnosticism, but you probably recognize how it portrays the body. For Gnostics, anything material and physical (like the body) was evil, but anything immaterial or spiritual (like the soul) was good. So, at death, the soul achieved true salvation because it was liberated from the prison-house of the body. Greek thought, rooted in Platonic philosophy, also perpetuated the same disdain for the body. This thinking, which was highly influential on the Corinthian church, still subtly impacts the church today.
This purely dualistic notion that completely separates body and soul typically manifests in one of two ways – producing either ascetics or libertines. Ascetics zealously pursued spiritual matters and commonly bridled their bodies, even inflicting physical harm, to ensure greater depths of piety. Conversely, libertines, like those in Corinth, felt any physical action was inconsequential because their souls were destined for eternity and bodies for decay. For both ascetics and libertines, embodiment meant nothing. Today, if Gnostic thinking is not identified and perceived as erroneous, it will continue to malign the reality of embodied existence.
Scripture shows God is concerned with both body and soul. His commands throughout Scripture hold sway over the believer’s whole life – spiritual and physical aspects. Commands like: preparing for spiritual warfare (Eph 6:10-18), presenting the body to God and not to unrighteousness (Rom 6:11-14), taking every thought captive (2 Cor 10:5), the warning to bridle the tongue (Jam 3:2-10), or offer one’s body to God as a spiritual act of worship (Rom 12:1), show God calls for unified submission of both our spiritual and physical lives.
I believe Scripture supports a holistic dualism view of humanity – distinct but unified body and soul. Body and soul are intimately linked, a connection even noted in the early church. Gregory of Nyssa, a Cappadocian father influential on Trinitarian doctrine, held to a “thoroughgoing interconnection of mind and body” and that this “relationship between mind and body is so intimate that the proper function of the former depends on the health of the latter.” In fact, the apostle John writes this very thing in his third epistle to the elder, Gaius. He prays for him and, “that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3John 1:2). When the unity of body and soul is understood, the importance of each is upheld.
The only exception is our condition in the intermediate state, between death and resurrection. Though we will be temporarily disembodied in this state, the separation of soul and body was never meant to be permanent. Upon death, our body will decay, but Scripture teaches we will be resurrected and restored – reembodied with a glorious body like Christ’s (1 Cor 15, Phil 3:19-20). Aside from the intermediate state, we will always exist as embodied beings whose body is just as important as the soul. John W. Cooper is quite convincing on the subject of holistic dualism and a lengthy quote is merited from his book, Body, Soul, & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. He writes:
“In modern times body-soul dualism has come under a series of attacks mounted by both Christians and non-Christians. Philosophers have proposed nondualist theories of human nature. Scientists (are) undermining the basis for considering the soul a separate substance. Biblical scholars concluded the biblical view of human nature is quite emphatically holistic. Historians of Christianity have confirmed that the roots of traditional anthropology are nourished by the soil of the Hellenistic worldview, not by Scripture as had always been assumed…Christians have charged that the body-soul distinction of traditional Christianity is one of the root causes of the many ways in which the faith has been distorted and prevented from effecting the complete salvation of humanity and the whole creation.” John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate
Thankfully, by Cooper’s estimation, it seems Gnosticism’s negative view of the body might be shifting. Along with this shift, it’s time for Christians to echo Paul’s words to the Corinthians and uphold the dignity of the body. The church must lead in reclaiming the value of embodiment, seeking to love the Lord not only with the soul but in the body with the heart and mind as well. And may we agree with the great Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, in his acclaim for the body as, “not a prison but a marvelous piece of art from the hand of God Almighty, and just as constitutive for the essence of humanity as the soul.”