No age has known as much about the chemistry, physiology, and psychology of the human body as our age, yet no age has been more confused about human nature and destiny. The question of our nature isn’t merely an academic issue for scholars to debate. It’s a fundamental question that affects every one of us. Our understanding of what composes human nature largely determines our view of life, of the value of this world, the scope of redemption, and the future life in the world to come.
Historically, Christians have held two major views regarding what constitutes human nature. The vast majority have believed that human nature is dualistic, consisting of a material, mortal body and a nonmaterial, immortal soul. At death, the soul allegedly detaches itself from the body and survives in a disembodied state, either in the bliss of Paradise or in the torment of hell.
Catholics and others allow for pardonable souls to be purified in purgatory before ascending to Paradise. At the resurrection, the material body is supposedly reunited with the spiritual soul, thus intensifying the pleasure of Paradise or the pain of hell.
A minority of Christians have believed that human nature is holistic, that is, that a person is an indivisible whole consisting of body, soul, and spirit. The soul is the animating principle of the body and is manifested in the conscious, thinking, living aspect of the person. The body and soul don’t separate at death; rather, they simply cease to exist. So the person rests unconsciously in the grave until the resurrection. At that time the total mortal person will be resurrected either to eternal life or eternal death.
In recent years biblical scholars of different persuasions have reexamined these views. Study of the basic biblical terms for the human being—body, soul, spirit, flesh, mind, heart—has led many to conclude that the dualistic view of human nature derives from Platonic dualism rather than from biblical holism. To bring into focus the fundamental importance of recovering the biblical holistic view of human nature, this article compares the practical and doctrinal implications of these two views.
Practical Implications of Dualism
Christians who hold the dualistic view of human nature tend to think of our present lives dualistically. They view the spiritual life of the soul as more important than the physical life of the body. Since they regard saving the soul as more important than caring for the body, they focus on meeting the needs of the soul rather than those of the body. Their “saints” are people who devote themselves primarily to contemplative life, detaching themselves from secular life. Those who hold this view often ignore or even suppress the well-being of the body.
The Bible openly contradicts this dualistic mentality, teaching us to glorify God not only with our minds but also with our bodies, because our bodies are temples of the Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19) to be presented to God as living sacrifices (see Romans 12:1). The way we treat our bodies reflects the spiritual condition of our souls, because our bodies and souls are one. When Paul expressed the desire that “Christ . . . be honored in my body” (Philippians 1:20, RSV),1 he was talking about honoring Christ with his whole person.
If we pollute our bodies with tobacco, drugs, unhealthy foods, or an intemperate lifestyle, we cause not only the physical pollution of our bodies but also the spiritual pollution of our souls.
The dichotomy between body and soul, the physical and the spiritual, is still present in the thinking of many Christians. We describe the missionary work of the church as that of “saving souls.” The implication seems to be that souls are more important than bodies.
Practical Implications of Holism
Scripture doesn’t picture a redemption that saves souls apart from the bodies to which they belong. What God has joined together at Creation and redeemed at the Cross, no one has the right to separate. Yet many Christians have been guilty of splitting the human being by making salvation an internal experience of the soul rather than a total transformation of the whole person.
The biblical view of human nature challenges us to be concerned about the whole person. In the church’s preaching and teaching, it must meet not only the spiritual needs of the soul but also the physical needs of the body. Those who teach Christian living should encourage proper diet, exercise, and outdoor activities.
Accepting biblical holism means opting also for a holistic approach in such areas as education and social issues. The Christian school’s program should aim at the development of the physical and spiritual as well as the mental aspects of life. A good physical education program should be considered just as important as academic and religious studies.
The biblical concept of the whole person implies the endorsement of holistic medicine, which recognizes the importance of treating patients’ emotional and spiritual problems, as well as physical needs. Biblical holism challenges us to serve the world, not to avoid it. Those who believe that God is working to restore the whole person should be concerned about social issues of war, injustice, racism, and poverty.
Doctrinal Implications of Dualism
In addition to its practical implications, the dualistic view of human nature has huge doctrinal implications. The belief that at death the soul separates from the body and transits either to Paradise or hell fostered the following beliefs and practices: the intercession of the saints, praying for the dead, indulgences, purgatory, the reattachment of the soul to the body at the resurrection, and eternal torment in hell.
The negative impact of these beliefs on Christian faith and practice is profound. For one, they’ve obscured an expectation of the Second Advent. If at death the soul of a believer goes immediately to be with God, they will hardly have an interest in Christ’s return. But in the New Testament, the Advent hope isn’t “pie in the sky for disembodied souls when their bodies die” but a real meeting upon this earth between embodied believers and Christ on the glorious day of His return.
When the only future that counts is the individual soul’s survival after death, the anguish of humankind can have only a peripheral interest, and the value of God’s redemption for the world is ignored. The result of this is, as noted by Abraham Kuyper, that “the majority of Christians do not think much beyond their own death.”2 The individualistic concern for immediate immortality overrides the biblical corporate hope for an ultimate restoration of the whole creation (see Romans 8:19–23; 1 Corinthians 15:24–28).
Dualism has also fostered misconceptions about the world to come. The popular concept of Paradise as a spiritual retreat center somewhere up in space where glorified souls will spend eternity in everlasting contemplation and meditation owes more to Platonic dualism than to biblical realism. For Plato, the material components of this world were evil—and, consequently, not worthy of survival. The aim was to reach the spiritual realm, where souls liberated from the prison house of a material body and world enjoy eternal bliss.
Doctrinal Implications of Holism
Both Old and New Testaments reject the dualism that separates the material world from the spiritual. The Bible envisions a cosmic redemption that encompasses the body as well as the soul, the material as well as the spiritual. Scripture regards the final salvation inaugurated by the coming of Christ, not as an escape from, but as a transformation of this earth. The world to come that the Bible portrays isn’t a spiritual heavenly retreat inhabited by glorified souls. Instead, it’s this physical, earthly planet populated by resurrected saints (Isaiah 66:22; Revelation 21:1).
Believers enter the new earth not as disembodied souls but as resurrected bodily persons (see Revelation 20:4; John 5:28, 29; 1 Thessalonians 4:14–17). Though we’re told that nothing unclean will enter the New Jerusalem, we’re also told that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it, . . . the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it” (Revelation 21:24, 26). These verses suggest that everything of real value in the old heaven and earth, including our inventive, artistic, and intellectual prowess, will find a place in the eternal order. The image of “the city” conveys the idea of activity, creativity, and real relationships. It’s regrettable that this concrete, earthly view of God’s new world in Scripture has been lost, replaced in popular piety with an ethereal, spiritualized heaven.
At a time when many Christians are losing interest in heaven because they find it too chaste, too disinfected, too unreal, and too boring, it is imperative that we recover the biblical holistic and realistic vision of the new earth. It will be a place where our every faculty will be developed and our loftiest aspirations realized, where we will carry out the grandest enterprises, and where we will enjoy the sweetest fellowship with God and fellow beings.
The Bible pictures sin as distorting the whole of God’s creation. The salvation God provides is complete. It contemplates the restoration and extension of all the best of the original Paradise.
It’s a picture worth viewing, a plan worth our full commitment!