A couple of weeks ago it was my pleasure to speak at the annual conference of the Conditional Immortality Association. In the next few blog posts, you’ll see what I had to say to them about the ways in which an understanding of human nature as material and mortal impacts the way in which we approach both the world in which we live and the familiar Christian doctrines of sanctification and salvation.
The story so far
Every time you sit down to a Star Wars movie, right at the outset you are served a wall of scrolling text, recounting the relevant bits of the history that led up to the story you’re about to watch, so that it all makes sense and you know why these events are happening. Alas, I can’t offer you the dramatic opening music, but here is the story that brought us to this talk:
Most Christians, like adherents of most religions, are dualists when it comes to human beings. That means they think a human being is two parts a body and a soul, although sometimes you’ll hear people say that we are three parts, adding a spirit to the mix as well. But the idea is that there are two kinds of substances involved, material and non-material, and I – the real I – am a non-material soul or mind that inhabits or interacts with the world through a material body, this meaty object you see before you today. Unlike the body, which gets old and dies, the soul is immortal, not subject to death at the end of this three score and ten years, or hopefully a fair bit longer. The soul goes on to heaven or to hell, or to purgatory, or to some sort of intermediate state between earth and heaven, depending on the particular theology of the Christian in question.
From the first century of its existence, Christianity expanded from Jerusalem into the Gentile world where dualism was a basic part of the worldview of converts from the various pagan religions. That dualism remained with converts and was integrated into their new religious outlook. Beyond the historical influence of pagan religion, we are told that dualism is an intuitive, if naive, interpretation of reality that we acquire without even trying. Not everyone agrees with that, but certainly many do. And as is perfectly natural, Christians take what they think is obvious or that which they have just assumed as part of the faith handed down to them, and they find it in Scripture. However, in recent centuries this near consensus has been increasingly called into question. The Hebrew Scripture, biblical scholars are increasingly telling us, does not reflect this popular view, instead presenting a model of human nature that is material and unified, according to which we are part of the physical creation, composed of the dust and returning there when we die. Immortality is not something we have, but something we can obtain, and even then it is a bodily immortality like that of the risen Jesus, and it will be bestowed as an act of divine grace through the resurrection of the dead. There are a lot of ways we could label this perspective. Physicalism or materialism, emphasising that we are material beings, mortalism, emphasising that we are mortal through and through, or conditional immortality, highlighting the fact that while we are mortal, we can becoming immortal on certain conditions, namely the condition of a saving relationship with God.
And so a battle of ideas rages. Those Christians who hold to a material view of human beings are often labelled as those who are caving in to naturalism, as giving up crucial aspects of the faith, as devaluing human beings, and so on. As far as we are concerned, or at least as far as I am concerned, these sorts of red herrings are invitations to look away from the biblical data and to the cultural concerns of my fellow Christians. While those concerns matter and should be addressed, they cannot tell us what is true and what is not. All the while the number of sincere and conservative Christians who have come to this realisation (for that is what I think it is) continues to grow. And so here we are, talking about it today.
How not to use our time
Although Christians, materialists or otherwise, believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, it’s still true that the time we have between now and the grave is finite and we have a responsibility to use it well.
Imagine that every Sunday when the minister got behind the pulpit in church, he gave a sermon about why you should believe in God. He wheeled out very good arguments and explained them thoroughly. His case was not lacking in quality in the least. But it was the same every week. Maybe some of the arguments would be different every now and then, but every Sunday morning, it was another session of giving arguments for the proposition that God exists.
You would hope that before very long, somebody would tap him on the shoulder and suggest that perhaps the church should be a bit past that point, and there were plenty of other good things to talk about that take the basic facts as a given – the existence of God, the incarnation, the death and resurrection of Jesus and so on. Maybe it would be good to hear about how to follow Jesus, or some of the implications of the Gospel for justice, or some of the more subtle and fascinating contours of theology other than just the fact that God exists. What the minister is doing is not good stewardship of the opportunity given to him.
I’ve made this point elsewhere about the doctrine of eternal punishment and it applies here, too. Sometimes I think that people who argue for the view I hold on human nature from a biblical perspective make the same mistake as that minister. Nearly every time I see something written from a self-consciously Christian point of view where the issue of human nature is involved and the writer or speaker shares my view, what they are doing is making the case all over again, from the ground up, that this position is a biblical one that Christians can and should hold. It is a constantly repeated session of asking for a seat at the evangelical table.
There will, naturally, be times when it’s appropriate to make that case to people who simply don’t know what it looks like. In our conversations with other believers, or perhaps as part of our discussion with people who are not Christian, and who would benefit from knowing that actually they don’t have to wrap their heads around accepting dualism in order to be a Christian. In most cases, there’s enough good work already out there to give to people that we don’t have to always reinvent the wheel, and it’s an unwise use of our time, in my view, to keep doing so. The case has been made, and we can have some confidence in that, we can refer people to that case, and we can move on to explore what the faith looks like once we know this about ourselves. What does it mean for our understanding of Christ? That’s an area where I’ve been privileged to have done some work. How does a biblical understanding of ourselves affect our understanding of pressing social matters about mental health and well-being, or familiar Christian issues like sin and salvation?
Enough with asking the questions. I’m going to say something about the answers, but my main message is that there is much more to explore once we get past step one.
So let’s start with something that I’m sure won’t be controversial at all.
Sex and gender
The close of the twentieth century and certainly the early twenty-first century has seen an explosion in the numbers of people who are transgender – people who experience gender dysphoria. They find it difficult to relate to or identify with the sex they are born into, and they identify with and describe themselves as being the opposite gender from their biological sex. There is a lot to say about that and its causes and consequences from a pastoral perspective but I’ll resist doing so and just focus on the aspects of that discussion that overlap with my subject today.
From my own knowledge of people who are affected by gender dysphoria and from my reading the writing of many more who are affected, as well as reading the work of the professionals who help people in that situation, there’s a phrase I’ve read more times than I can easily count, and you’ve probably heard it too. “Born in the wrong body.” I don’t identify with this body. This body isn’t me. This body is wrong, this body is gross, this body needs to be fixed, and so on. So strong is this conviction that young people with healthy bodies in numbers that are frankly terrifying are being prescribed drugs to stop puberty from working, and they are receiving surgery to remove and destroy healthy body parts, rendering them permanently sterile and I daresay, irreversibly damaged.
Born into the wrong body. I’m not saying that people who say this are intentionally expressing dualistic beliefs about the human person. Nor am I saying that if you’re a dualist then you’re committed to affirming the truth that people are born into the wrong bodies. You might still deny that for whatever reasons you have.
But never mind what other people think. If we have arrived at the position, on biblical grounds, that we are entirely material creatures and that this is enough to sustain a biblical vision of human worth and dignity, how can that inform us in the way that we approach this issue?
For one, we certainly have something to say about the notion of being born in the wrong body. Again, when people say this, it’s not as though they have thought through the implications of what they are saying in terms of bodies and souls, they are just using language that feels natural. All the same, what a biblical worldview tells us is that you cannot be born into the wrong body because – to state it very crudely – you are a body! In the picture of the creation of humanity in Genesis 2, God forms what from the dust of the earth – Adam’s body? No, God formed the man, Adam, from the dust of the earth. You can say “well that’s just his body,” and OK that’s true, but the text calls the body the man. Whatever the complexities of the psychological factors behind a person’s difficulty in identifying with their body, any outlook that would say that your body is not really who and what you are are mistaken, and what needs to be addressed are your beliefs about your body.
Secondly, here is where things are so important for parents, for pastors, and for anyone in a position of responsibility and care for people, especially young people, and especially young women. The rates of young women being referred for life-altering surgery dwarfs the number of men. Remember, I am not talking about what dualists think and I won’t pretend that Christian dualists have a disdain for the physical world and body. In many cases I know that’s not true at all. But for those of us who see a biblical view of humans as being unified and physical, that is a clear motivator to affirm the goodness and beauty of the physical creation, and your goodness and beauty as a physical being. Touched by sin, yes. Falling short, yes. Flawed and damaged, yes. But created good and worthy of love and respect. There is an enormous problem in the developed world, especially for young people, and while it’s an issue for men as well, it’s an issue so much more for young women because of social pressures, in accepting their bodies.
Self-love and self-acceptance cannot be separated from body acceptance. I don’t mean “body acceptance” in some self-neglecting way that you hear about occasionally in the name of being body positive, where it doesn’t matter what bodily condition you’re in, you have to be OK with it even if you’re not healthy. I mean that your body is you, and accepting that your body is what you are means that if you’re going to learn to really love and respect yourself, you have to love and respect your body, to accept what it is, to look after yourself physically, and to see that in the case of a persistent negative attitude to your body where you reject your physical reality and want to harm your body, it is your beliefs and attitudes that need to be challenged and and changed, not your body. We see this all the time in the case of people who believe that they are fat when in fact they are starving, or of men who are towering walls of muscle who believe that they are physically pathetic. The answer is never “well if you think you’re fat then eat less” or “Well if you think you’re scrawny then you need to pack it on.” The solution in every case is to work towards a place of loving yourself by loving your body, forming true beliefs about yourself on the basis of what is true about your body, and working, perhaps slowly and perhaps with great difficulty, to overcome a mindset that would tell you to do otherwise.
Mental health more broadly
I would like to be in a position to say a lot more about the broader issue of mental health, something that has been put under the spotlight in recent history. The truth is, however, I lack the expertise to do so at this point, something that I hope to change. But it is an area that conservative Christians have, lamentably, handled poorly in many cases. Because of the way that human beings are spoken of as “spiritual” creatures so that our real issues are spiritual, with often little clarity about precisely what that means, but some innuendo about the fact that we aren’t just animals, and because of an apparent (even if sometimes justified) suspicion of the field of psychology and psychiatric assessment, reading the comments on news stories or social media posts about mental illness or mental health, comments left by professing Christians, can be a very concerning activity. The very ideas that trained professionals are good people to help us with our mental health or that medication can ever be part of an appropriate solution are sometimes treated as though they are somehow a compromise of the faith.
There’s some fascinating research from Baylor University about the effects of prayer and of our beliefs about the God that we are praying to on our mental health, as it turns out, with evidence indicating that prayer to a God who we believe is loving and protecting makes us less prone to suffer anxiety. Other research from Columbia University indicates that regular participation in prayer or meditation actually makes a physical difference to the brain, thickening parts of the cortex, which might explain why such activities help to guard against depression.
But the one thing I think I am qualified to say is that once we arrive at the view – the biblical view, as I think it is – that we are at bottom physical creatures, we need to take seriously the idea that mental health is something that can be got at and worked on via the natural sciences and by physical means. We can study it as we can study all phenomena. It would be naive, of course, to take a view such as that chemical supplements can fix all things, or that solutions to mental problems can be simplified if the mind is physically generated, as though brains and the lives they lead are anything like simple! Of course they aren’t. The issues are going to be social, and cultural, and dietary, and chemical, and yes, spiritual, because spirituality covers so much, and certainly our health is a God issue because God loves us and cares deeply about our wellbeing, and our thoughts about God will affect our thoughts about so many other things, just as our thoughts about other things affect our thoughts about God.
In the next blog post in this series, we’ll take a step closer to issues that we might think of as doctrinal.