This is the third and final part of the talk that I gave at the recent annual conference of the Conditional Immortality Association, where I addressed the question of what difference it makes if we embrace a biblical portrait of human beings as unified and physical, rejecting a substance dualist view of humanity.
Naturally we can’t truly separate salvation from personal transformation. But I am talking about salvation in the sense of “having passed from death to life,” and being treated and regarded by God as an heir of eternal life.
Suppose we could record all the ontological facts about a person, take a perfect snapshot. By “ontological,” I mean all the facts about their being, everything about all their substances, what they are made of. Everything about their soul, if they had one, everything about their body. And then suppose that person is converted to faith in Christ, and we take another snapshot of all that information about them.
What differences would we notice? Any? None? Unsurprisingly, that depends on who you ask. Scripture says that if you’re in Christ, then you’re a new creation. In what way? Aren’t you made of the same stuff that you were before? Of course you are. What about the biblical language I talked about earlier – you were dead in your sins. God has raised you to life. Is that going to show up as a difference between the two snapshots? If so, how? If somebody’s answer is that it’s going to show up as a difference in somebody’s soul or spirit, because their soul or spirit was once dead but now it’s alive, then we have to say – no, that’s not what the difference is, because that’s not what human beings are like.
You might have heard a remark, or one like it, from time to time, that “your eternal life begins when you place your trust in Christ.” From a New Testament perspective, that’s something like the truth, but not quite. There is certainly a new life that begins in this lifetime. When St Paul talks in Romans 6 about a person who is converted and baptised, he does say that we are baptised into Christ’s death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too are raised to a new life. But that is about the nature of the life to which we are called as followers of Christ, it is not about its duration. That life is a life in community with the church, a life marked by obedience, and failure, and forgiveness.
But, to be fair, there is at least one place in the New Testament where believers in Jesus are spoken of as having eternal life, at it comes from Jesus. He said, in John 6, “this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Do we have it? Well yes, but only in virtue of the fact that something is going to happen in the future.
So what, in terms of substances, in terms of our bits and pieces, in terms of what we are, changes when we, to use a common phrase “get saved?” In the midst of metaphors about being born once more, or about being raised from the dead, which are, after all, metaphors, designed to help convey the idea of living a new life and so changing in that respect, there is, as we know, plenty of reference to something new in our lives, namely the Holy Spirit. God, working in our lives. If you ask me for the mechanics of it, I’m afraid I have very little to say, but certainly a God who is not physical is capable of influencing the physical world – he created the physical universe, after all. But even here, the work of the spirit, in the New Testament, is about equipping believers, gifting them for the service of others, as in Paul’s famous discussion about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, transforming our character, as described by the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace and so on. But none of that is what salvation amounts to.
I’ll get to the point: If we are physical, then any change in us is a physical change at some level. Appreciating our physical nature helps us to see that our status as “saved” is not something that amounts to a change in our constituent bits. We are still made the same way, and we are still mortal, and we will still die. Here is where another role of the Holy Spirit becomes crucial, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 1: “In him [that is, Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.”
Did you catch that? That’s what changed. We were sealed, marked, with the Spirit of God that serves as a guarantee, that is a marker by which God says “that one is mine,” so that when the time comes, we will receive what God gives us in Christ. This theme rears its head elsewhere in Paul’s writing, again referring to the Holy Spirit.
In Romans 8, Paul said “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
It can be disempowering and humbling to think this way, and in a sense it ought to be. You don’t have it now. You live in faith here and now in this world that is sometimes, as it has been described, a valley of tears. There it is, coming both from the teaching of Jesus and in the writings of St Paul, that being saved, being a child of God, is about present promises of future realities. I cannot walk around as a Christian and say that I’m something different from somebody who isn’t a believer, that if you took a snapshot of them and a snapshot of me, you’d see something better that’s a part of me, a super spirit or some such thing. That’s not how it works, and if we’re physical creatures, then of course that’s not how it works. God, by his Spirit, comes alongside is, is in us, is among us (I like the New Testament metaphor of the Church together as a temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells), helping us on this new journey of following Jesus. But our confidence, our ability to say that we are “saved,” is grounded in an objective fact that we can’t yet experience. We will be adopted as children of God, we will be redeemed, and as material creatures of God, those things will come to us materially, when we, along with all of God’s creation, are transformed through the resurrection of the dead. Salvation takes place – literally takes place – in our very bodies and in the physical world.
I’m going to draw to a close. One of the risks when my point is that once we get past square one there’s so much to explore is that it might feel like I haven’t explored enough because there is so much that we could say. But I’ve given an indication of what some of that exploration looks like.
For some, giving up a familiar dualism will feel like being too far from home. Our whole way of thinking about us changes, and that, so they might think, calls too much into question. Are we just animals, are we really God’s image bearers – something I haven’t even touched on – what about free will, are we leaving room for our spiritual dimension, whatever exactly that means, among many other questions. So it’s no good just expending the energy of getting people to give up a dualistic mindset and accept that Scripture doesn’t describe us that way. So what? What does that mean for us in all the areas where Christians might raise these concerns? Once we have, so to speak, acquired these new eyes, what does the faith look like? And what does this perspective enable us to say, as Christians with this perspective, about pressing social and pastoral concerns? I’ve said what feels to me like just a little about these things, but hopefully enough to encourage you to see that there’s a lot to explore.