Here’s part 2 of the talk that I gave recently at the annual conference of the Conditional Immortality Association, about the difference it makes when we grasp a biblical portrait of human nature as unified and material. In part 1 I traced a brief history of the issue, and talked about some pressing social issues that our view of human nature has much to say about, namely sex and gender, as well as mental health more broadly. Now I’ll move into territory that we more typically think of as doctrinal.
The idea of sanctification is a familiar one in Christian theology. The word literally mean “becoming holy” – Sanctus is Latin for “holy.” It is the transformation that demonstrates that someone is a child of God. Our understanding of sanctification and what it involves, as well as the idea of sin and brokenness from which we are transformed, is affected by our understanding of human nature. How could it not be, since the thing that is stuck in sinful ways and the the thing that is being transformed, is a human being?
Once we abandon dualistic ways of thinking about the human person, there are some turns of phrases and in some cases vague ideas that we should be more suspicious of. The idea of being “spiritually dead” presents us with one of those terms. And so when the New Testament talks about people being dead in sin, because people are not physically dead, some readers have inserted a concept of spiritual death, a new type of death, which, by the way, they then use to interpret biblical passages about the final death of the lost. After all, now there’s another thing called death, namely spiritual death, and so maybe death doesn’t mean physical death in the context of the last judgement. Here the idea may be that there is a part of us, call it our spirit, that is infected, or in some sense “dead,” prior to being made alive by God.
This is a way of thinking and speaking that doesn’t sit well within a biblical view of human nature. Certainly a naive dualism that says sin is really a problem of the spirit, not the body, seems out of the question if we have accepted a biblical worldview according to which we are bodily, material beings.
And in fact, in spite of the term “spiritual death” primarily being used by people who consider themselves conservative Evangelical or Reformed in their outlook, that is, people who take Holy Scripture seriously, this language doesn’t appear in the Bible at all. Spiritually dead, spiritual death, your spirit was dead, nothing like that can be called biblical phraseology. Scripture simply says to God’s people that they were dead, and that God has raised them to life, and they should walk in newness of life. But this language of having been dead is metaphorical. Just as Scripture says that we died to sin, so we were once dead to God. The metaphor indicates the state of a relationship. If we are dead, then we are incapable of relationship, obviously, so being dead to God indicates that we do not have a relationship, and being dead to sin means that sin cannot have the relationship with us that it wants. If we were actually just dead, we could have a relationship with neither sin nor God.
But back to the question of sin and sanctification. Embracing a biblical portrait of human nature invites us to pursue an avenue of thought and investigation that, with all due respect, most of us don’t, and we probably should – and it may challenge us in some ways, which is good. It’s more than I can cover here, but let me offer a signpost to just some of the issues that I think call for our attention when it comes to the issue of sin and transformation.
One of the arguments that some dualists give for the view that we are immaterial souls that have a body is the argument from free will. Christian philosopher J P Moreland said that “we do have free will. We all know that deep down inside. We’re more than just a physical brain,” and “I have free will because I’m a ‘self,’ or a soul, and I’m not just a brain.” The idea is that if we are composed entirely of physical matter, then our brains would just be reacting to the laws of physics and so all our choices would be made by impersonal forces and we’d have no free will. We would be unable to act in any way other than the way in which we do act. And if that’s true, then that takes away our responsibility for sin and it would mean that there is no virtue in obedience. But we can’t accept that, so we need our version of free will to be true and so we need to insert a soul into the mix. It’s not a type of argument that I’m sympathetic to because it sounds for all the world like an argument that survives because of ideas that we just don’t want to be true.
And what’s more, it’s an argument that is starting to look somewhat naive in the face of a fairly clear consensus of evidence from the field of neuroscience. Let me give you just a couple of examples.
In a now famous, or perhaps infamous experiment by Benjamin Libet, subjects we asked to perform simple actions at times of their choosing, while their brain activity was being closely monitored. What researchers discovered is that the brain activity leading up to the performance of the action actually began before the subjects were aware of their decision to act. Unbeknownst to them, their unconscious brain was preparing for the conscious decision. The brain had decided before they thought they had decided. Further experimentation indicated that subjects were able to veto the pre-conscious impulses of the brain, leading neuroscientists to say that while we might not have free will, perhaps what we do have could be called free won’t. Neurobiology creates the options for us (as the result of all kinds of internal and external stimuli that we may or may not be aware of), and we are able to resist or decline some of those options.
Take another example. Actually this is an interesting one for another reason. Going back to J P Moreland again, just because he is a prominent Christian voice in the case for dualism, Moreland made the following commented about early neuroscientific experiments, claiming that they offer support for dualism:
[N]eurosurgeon Wilder Penfield electrically stimulated the brains of epilepsy patients and found he could cause them to move their arms or legs, turn their heads or eyes, talk, or swallow. Invariably the patient would respond by saying, ‘I didn’t do that. You did.’ According to Penfield, ‘the patient thinks of himself as having an existence separate from his body.’
“No matter how much Penfield probed the cerebral cortex, he said, ‘There is no place … where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide.’ That’s because those functions originate in the conscious self, not the brain.
(Quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator, 258)
There are a couple of problems with the argument. Certainly the reaction of “I didn’t do that. You did,” does not support dualism as an explanation. Me grabbing your arm and using it to slap you in the face is comparable to what Penfield did: Exerting a physical cause that has an involuntary effect on your body. Yet this arm-grabbing, face slapping prank hardly warrants the belief that you have an existence separate from your body. At best, it shows that whatever was stimulated, the conscious thing (whatever it is, brain or immaterial soul) might not have been part of the causal chain. But this shows very little.
More importantly, it’s just not wise to appeal to neuroscientific experiments conducted in the early 1950s when we have so much more research to use now. A report published in Science 2009 called “Movement Intention After Parietal Cortex Stimulation in Humans” is of great interest here. Firstly, notice the way that some of the cause and effect observations in this report match those of Penfield:
… during stimulation patient PM1 exhibited a large multijoint movement involving flexion of the left wrist, fingers, and elbow … He did not spontaneously comment on this, and when asked whether he had felt a movement he responded negatively.
So far this does not advance on Penfield’s experiments. But then observe:
Stimulation of all these [brain] sites produced a pure intention, that is, a felt desire to move without any overt movement being produced… Without prompting by the examiner, all three patients spontaneously used terms such as “will,” “desire,” and “wanting to,” which convey the voluntary character of the movement intention and its attribution to an internal source, that is, located within the self.
Here the decisions of the conscious self were produced by a physical stimulation of the brain and affected a person’s will. Why didn’t Penfield’s experiments show this happening? Who knows? Each experiment is an incomplete part of the picture. The findings of each experiment are provisional, taken to be the best we can do for now, but we may always learn more in the future. And what we now know is likely to be thought by some to be a threat to some of the things that Christians hold dear.
In particular, yes, certain understandings of free will may called into question by the view that we ae material beings and by the available evidence in neuroscience. But as hard as you might find it, you shouldn’t reject what we find in Scripture and what is visible through the natural sciences just because it has consequences we would rather not face.
But, having come to this stance on human nature through Scripture, and having been exposed to what some might regard as unnerving evidence about the way we work, we’re left with the question of how to think about what sin in us is and does, and what it is to be transformed. Scripture uses a range of terminology to talk about these things. Some of it is rich in metaphor, and not all biblical authors express themselves the same way. But New Testament scholar Joel Green has identified some ways in which Scripture talks about these things that provide harmony. Here are three that both make very good sense of our experience, and bear echoes of what we can learn about the way our minds work. (See chapter 3 of his Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).)
In 1 Peter, the writer talks about sin as a sculptor. He describes his audience as “no longer shaped by the desires that marked your former time of ignorance (1:14), saying that “you were liberated from the emptiness of your inherited way of life” (1:18). He says that they once spent time “conducting yourselves in acts of unrestraint” (4:3). There had been nothing keeping their impulses in check. He calls them now “to avoid worldly cravings” (2:11). In chapter 4 verse 1 he calls readers to ready themselves with the “same pattern of thought” as Jesus.
This is not, as Green is at pains to add, to throw off all responsibility for sin, because “what does God expect of us, after all we were born in this world!” Remember the term “free won’t,” the act of resisting impulses, and look at how that might be reflected in Peter’s reference to sin as lack of restraint. But it does drive home the point, one that a neuroscientist or a psychologist knows only too well (provided they have first embraced the reality of sin at all), that sin and its way of life are cultivated socially and enculturated into us as ways of thinking and living.
Or consider the famous description of sin from the letter of James. Where is sin conceived? It begins in the mind, in the form of desire, and when it is fully grown it produces death. The solution, says James, is to get something else into that heart of yours, a new cause, something that will have a counteracting effect, and here it is, in 1:21 – “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Unlike John, James here doesn’t use the language of “word” to mean Christ, he means the message, because he immediately says – “be doers of the word, not just hearers.” As for our approach to sin, one of James’s most famous comments sums up his approach – resist the devil, and he will flee. Again, here is the appearance of “free won’t.” The reality of creating new neural pathways by a concerted effort to form new patterns of behaviour and thinking so that the old impulses become a thing of the past was obviously not something James knew about, but he certainly knew the outward phenomenon that we aim for.
If we look, we can find similar themes appearing in Paul, especially when it comes to his talk about sin having dominion or control. He talks about enslavement to sin, and he agonises over his own condition – the things that I don’t want to do, I still find myself doing them! He delights in God’s law, but he cannot help but see that there is another principle at work within him.
When we talk about personal transformation, we are talking about the transformation of the person (obviously!), and if the person is a physical creature whose thoughts and patterns of thought are produced neurobiologically, then there is nothing unspiritual or naturalistic about accepting that sanctification is the transformation of this neurobiological unit that is me. It means a rewiring. It means recognising that so much of the way we live is the product of well-worn pathways that it will take work to change – work, and community, and yes of course, divine grace. Of course we believe that God is at work in us, and the question is – what kind of work? Understanding the role of our brains in sin and conversion and change helps us to see why conversion is a process, and why sanctification can seem like such a mountain to climb. It also, I hope, helps us to be gracious and patient with one another. The fact that something, some behaviour we associate with God’s kingdom, comes so naturally to you and not to me is no reason to look down on me. Don’t assume that we are all just completely free agents, able to change at the same rate at will without anything stopping us but our own uninhibited choice. We know that’s not true because Scripture says so, and so does science, and once we get a biblical picture of human nature right, our faith doesn’t need to be threatened by that at all. God meets us all where we are at, and the change that I’m able to go through between now and the grave might seem small to you, but don’t worry, it’s not the end of the story.
I hope you get the sense that there’s so much more that we could say here (remember, my main point is that once we’ve gotten human nature right, there’s a lot to move on and talk about), but for now I’ll press on to the final section.