Have you ever driven a car? I suspect that most people reading this article have. You know how it goes. You get in the car, turn the key, and the engine roars to life. You drive the car a couple of miles to the grocery store or a hundred miles to a business appointment, and when you reach your destination, you park the car and turn off the engine. Then you get out and take care of your business. When you’re through, you get back in the car, turn the key to start the engine, and you drive back home or to the office.
Now think of this: You and the car are two separate entities. The car is a machine. It can’t do what it was designed to do until you, the intelligent part, step inside and operate it. When you leave, your consciousness and intelligence continue to exist apart from the car, even after the car is shut down.
A computer is also a machine, but its “intelligence” is built in. It doesn’t need an intelligent entity to step inside it to operate it. All it needs is a connection to a power source, and the intelligence is there. When it’s disconnected from the power source, the intelligence ceases to function.
What about humans?
We humans are intelligent beings. Our intelligence is far superior to that of a computer, but for the purpose of the illustration that doesn’t matter. The key question is this: does our human intelligence come from a Source outside of our physical bodies, like the car, or is it built in, like the computer?
Throughout much of Christian history, the dominant view has been that we humans are like cars. Our bodies are machines that need an intelligent entity called “the soul” inside of them to operate them. As long as the soul is inside the body, it “runs.” When the soul leaves, the body ceases to function. It dies. But the soul, the intelligent part, continues to exist and carry on as an intelligent entity the same way the driver of a car continues to function as an intelligent being when he or she is outside the car.
That is still the way most people think we humans function.
However, today, more and more theologians are beginning to think of our human nature according to the computer model. And neuroscience—the science of the brain and nervous system—is increasingly supporting that view.
Do you feel happy, sad, peaceful, or anxious? Studies on the human brain using scientific tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are increasingly demonstrating that these attitudes can be explained strictly on the basis of what happens in the nerves and chemistry of our brains. The same is true of our moral understanding. All of our emotions, logic, reasoning, and our understanding of right and wrong arise from the functioning of our brains. There is simply no need of an independent, intelligent soul to explain our human consciousness.
Are we mere machines?
Some people object that this makes human beings nothing more than machines. However, this is not necessarily the case.
A thousand years before Christ, David said, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Indeed, we are! We are much more than machines, mere robots. Computers can store data, sort it, and analyze it in ways that far exceed our human abilities. But a computer has no consciousness. We humans have an awareness of our own existence, reasoning powers, and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong that makes us superior to the most elaborate computer.
And the point is that God created the human brain as a physical organ that has this marvelous, intelligent ability.
It doesn’t really matter whether our reasoning powers, our emotions, and our moral understanding arise from external souls that are implanted into our brains or whether all of our conscious activities arise strictly from our brains with no external input needed. The point is that we have these abilities, however we get them. The Creation story helps us to understand which way it is.
How we were made
Genesis 2:7 says that “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” That’s how the New International Version translates the text. The King James Version says, “Man became a living soul” (emphasis added to both versions).
Since the word soul is commonly understood to mean a part of our human nature that has a conscious existence apart from the body (the car analogy), some people have understood this text to mean that God implanted Adam and Eve’s souls (their “breath of life”) within them when He created them, and that He has implanted a similar soul in every human being since then, either at their conception or at some point after conception but before their birth.
However, please notice the following three-part formula found in Genesis 2:7:
- The dust of the ground
- Plus the breath of life
- Equals a living being
The dust of the ground is commonly understood to mean the material part of our human nature, that is, the body. But what is the “breath of life”? There are two possibilities, corresponding to the car and computer analogies. According to the car analogy, the “breath of life” is an intelligent soul that God introduced into Adam and Eve when He created them. According to the computer analogy, the “breath of life” is God’s life-giving power that activated Adam and Eve’s bodies and minds and made them alive.
So which way is it? It’s critical to note that Adam became a living soul only after God had combined the dust of the ground (his body) with the breath of life (God’s life-giving power). Thus, his “soul” (to use the KJV wording) was not a separate entity that was introduced into his body. Only when the two elements were combined did Adam become a living soul. His soul included his body. Therefore, it could not be a separate entity from his body.
The Creation story in Genesis favors the computer analogy of our human existence over the car analogy. And so does the Bible’s teaching about death.
You may wonder what difference it makes whether we humans are like cars or computers. For those of us who are in a right relationship with God, it doesn’t matter. If the car analogy is correct, though our bodies die, our consciousness continues, and we are immediately with God. On the other hand, if the computer analogy is correct, we will be unconscious until the resurrection, at which point we will regain consciousness and immediately be with God. Either way, from the standpoint of our perception, we will be with God as soon as we die.
However, the computer analogy (death is a state of unconsciousness) avoids two critical problems. First, as a general rule, those who believe that humans continue a conscious existence at death also believe that the soul is immortal; that the wicked are cast into hell as soon as they die; and that they continue being tormented in hell throughout eternity. It’s nice to think that a loved one who died is “with the Lord.” But it’s not so nice if you’re quite certain that he or she was not a Christian. In fact, it’s downright horrible to think of a friend or loved one being tormented right now in the fires of hell!
Furthermore, even those theologians who believe that the soul is immortal generally agree that any immortality we humans have now or in the future is derived from God. We do not possess it within ourselves. Therefore, God has to keep the wicked artificially alive just so they can suffer eternal torment in hell! That’s a horrible contradiction of the biblical picture of a God who is merciful and just, even in His dealings with the wicked.
A second problem with the idea that humans continue a conscious existence after death is that it would conceivably be possible for that person to communicate with the living. This is precisely what spiritualism claims. But if the dead truly are dead in every sense of the word, as the Bible teaches, then any so-called communication with the dead is simply a demonic deception. The computer model of our human nature—that when we die everything about us ceases to exist—protects us against this deception.
Death is not the end
Fortunately, while the Bible teaches that our existence as conscious beings ceases when we die, that is not the end of the story. At Christ’s second coming, He will raise back to life all those who served Him faithfully during their time on earth, and they will spend eternity with Him in a world that has been re-created into the home of the redeemed. Revelation 21:4 promises that God will “wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rather, “he who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son” and daughter (verse 7).
Now that’s a concept I can truly live with!