Saturday, June 28, 2014

New Seminarian: Physicalism & Scripture

Well, I suppose the cat is out of the bag on this one. I lean towards what is called Christian 'physicalism' or 'materialism.' If those terms freak you out, don't worry, I don't use the latter term to describe myself.

Of course, if anyone describes himself or herself as a Christian hedonist, then they shouldn't complain about potentially confusing terms. Plus, then you have the honor of explaining your misleading use of terms. Which is fun.


Here is some of the paper I wrote for a scholarship. I don't think its my best, but I wrote it quickly. By no means am I settled on this position, but I most strongly identify with it.

Bertrand Russell wasn’t the first to say, “Philosophers used to think that there were definite substances, the soul and the body, each that lasted on from day to day, that a soul, once created, continued to exist throughout all future times...All that constitutes a person is a series of experiences connected by memory and by certain similarities we call habit.”2 From the times of Russell to the current anthropological debate, the soul has been under succinct investigation. In the biblical tradition, history offers us three basic conceptions of the human person. The first is physicalism where the human person is entirely physical, lacking a soul.3 The second and arguably most popular is dualism, the belief that the human person consists of two parts; body and soul/mind.4 The third option is less popular than dualism but more popular than physicalism is trichotomism, where the person is body, soul and spirit.5

Physicalism is the current mainstream concept and it can mean several different things and may go by several names. Speaking against a dualist account of human nature (body and soul/mind), Professor Nancey Murphy makes a very fair observation: “the terms ‘physicalist’ and ‘materialist’ are nearly interchangeable in philosophy but ‘physicalism’ is more fashionable now, and it is more appealing to Christians because ‘materialism’ has long been used to refer to a worldview6 that excludes the divine.”7 In theological terms, monism is often considered a more proper method of explaining the idea of mankind as purely physical. Rudolph Bultmann once stated, “man does not have a soma (body); he is soma (body).”8 Or rather, that a human being is a bio-psychosomatic whole, lacking in soul, being united fully and being fully human. While some may nuance the definition, most would agree with it in principle. 
While Scripture is of course reticent to use the term ‘physicalist,’ ‘dualist’ or ‘monist’ we will see that the imagery and language used is strong evidence that human beings are entirely physical, fearfully and wonderfully made. To this theological argument we now turn.

Christians have long thought that Scripture teaches several forms of body/soul dualism. However, there has been a resurgence of biblical scholarship that argues for a wholistic account of human nature and much of it centers on the Old Testament and the relationship between Paul and Jesus. Since biblical studies has only now begun to consider evidences from the biological and neurosciences, this shift cannot be dismissed as cultural influences. Rather, it is the product of sound exegesis. 

Theologically, Scripture speaks fluidly about human nature: we are “created in God’s image” in Genesis 1:26-27, suggesting that human beings are a climactic creative event; this distinguishes them from the animals and land.9 On the final day, God rests. We are told nothing about the spiritual natures of the first humans, except that all creation was very good – yet not perfect.10 The creation of human beings takes center stage in the second creation account in Genesis 2:4b-24, where Adam11 is formed from the dust of the ground (2:7), suggesting several things. First, God is capable of infusing inert matter with volition and life; and second, dirt is composed of things that have long since died. Not only are humans created ex creatio (out of creation), we were comprised of dead material and given life. This has enormous implications for the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead12 but I must confine my passion to this specific argument. 
In the words of theologian Jurgen Moltmann, “soul and body are not analyzed as a person’s component parts.”13 This is echoed throughout the Old Testament, specifically with Deuteronomy 6:5: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The emphasis is not on anthropological partition, but on the whole person living out the closest thing ancient Israel had to a creed; to love YHWH is to love him with all of one’s self. The love of YHWH encompassed the totality of what it meant to be human. When a person dies, this is the death of the ‘soul’ or entire person (Lev. 19:28; 21:1; Num. 9:6-10; Hag. 2:12-13); what is also illustrated is that the ‘soul’ (nephesh) can be killed (Ez. 22:25-27; Judg. 16:30). This applies to the New Testament in Matthew 10:28, where body and soul can be “destroyed” in Gehenna. We find that “bashar” (flesh) can encompass the entire person (Ps. 63:1-2; 84:1-3) and it includes both rationality and emotion.14 

The physical nature of the body is drawn upon two assumptions: it came into existence, and it can go out of existence. This section is to show that physicalism has some grounding in Scripture, and that many Christian philosophers and scholars make their case from Scripture.15 Thus, the material nature of the human person applies significantly to the issue of abortion. As Peter Van Inwagen says, “It can hardly be denied that in the Hebrew Bible we are represented as living dust, dust into which the spirit of God has entered.”16

Just thinking it through.


1 In addition to this, even though a Christian is not entitled to accept materialism, one could argue for a pro-life position on the basis of materialism.
2 Bertrand Russell, “Do We Survive Death?” in Why I Am Not a Christian, 88, 89. Simon and Schuster, 1957.

3 Cf. Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? see also Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Joel B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? Warren Brown, Nancey Murphy, H. Newton Malony, Whatever Happened to the Soul?
4 Cf. J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics. John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting.

5 Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 260.
6 Nancey Murphy’s emphasis.
7 Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? 1-2.

8 Rudolph Bultmann, New Testament Theology, 1:194. Quoted in Joel B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human life, 4 n. 9.
9 The same word for ‘soul’ (nephesh) that appears in the KJV is also applied to animals as well.
10 John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, 64-67.

11 This is not a title, as in a name – but rather, it is literally (and colorfully) rendered as ‘earthling.’
12 See for example 1 Corinthians 15 as the pinnacle argument for the bodily resurrection. I will be presenting a paper discussing this very detail in greater depth this July at the inaugural Rethinking Hell conference in Houston, Texas.
13 Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 256.

14 Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? 61.
15 See Samuele Bacchiocchi’s Immortality or Resurrection? Biblical Perspectives, 1997; Peter Van Inwagen, “Dualism and Materialism: Athens and Jerusalem.” Faith and Philosophy 12, no. 475-488; Kevin Corcoran, Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul, Baker, Academic 2006; see also Soul, Body, and Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons. Cornel University Press, 2001. 
16 Peter Van Inwagen, “I Look for the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come,”
Unpublished article,” 2. Accessed via 

For further resources, see Nancey Murphy "Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?", Glenn Peoples and also Peter van Inwagen.


  1. Hey Nick, I have two main questions about Christian/human physicalism:

    1. Do you have a coherent concept of human physicalism and the Incarnation?
    2. Does human physicalism indicate that humans temporally cease to exist between death and the resurrection?


  2. 1. I don't know. I've had this question tossed my way several times and I confess I don't understand the reason for it. The incarnation was a physical event. Yet it is mysterious and quite difficult. I don't see how physicalism denies anything written in the Creeds.

    2. Yes. I don't have a soul or immaterial substance so that rules out an intermediate state of affairs for me.


  3. If we may, let us focus on # 1.

    I admit that I do not know what Trinitarian physicalist scholars say about the Incarnation while I suppose you will end up studying that.

    First of all, I need to know more about your view. For example,

    Do you agree that the Incarnation is about God who became flesh while God is primarily nonphysical?


    1. "Do you agree that the Incarnation is about God who became flesh while God is primarily nonphysical?"


    2. James, Glenn Peoples has addressed much of this. While I'm not certain I agree entirely, its a substantial response and one I am happy to partake in.


    3. Nick, Glenn's article does a great job of outlining the issues of Christian physicalism and the Incarnation. I'll get back to this more after I put together a model of the Incarnation, which will happen after I finish my models of (1) God and time and (2) the Trinity. By the way, my models of the Trinity and Incarnation will use my legal models of identity in my 2014 essay "Natural Unity and Paradoxes of Legal Persons."

      I also want to clarify that I hold to living human mind dualism. A living human mind is a dualism of the spirit/soul and brain, which also indicates that a living human is a dualism of the spirit/soul and biological body that obviously includes a brain.

      Concerning my eschatology, Christian physicalism is compatible with conditional futurism and my interpretation of Revelation 21 where the resurrected lost such as the nations and the kings of the earth may enter the New Jerusalem, not that this looks like conditional immortality that is a typical view among Christian physicalists. But physicalism is incompatible with any universalistic church father's and my interpretation of Christ's descent into Hades and respective postmortem conversions. Also, physicalism would indicate that biblical imagery of postmortem existence prior to the resurrection is figurative to the degree that there is no such postmortem existence, not that this surprises any Christian physicalist.

      I am enjoying this, but I need to focus my so-called free time to my current project and get back to this in due time.


    4. I want to clarify that the official category of my *philosophy of mind* is *substance dualism* that rejects various extremes of *Cartesian dualism* (

  4. I also want to add that I disagree that biblical references to postmortem *rest* indicates complete nonexistence. I suppose that that the biblical concept of *rest* is compatible with partial existence that is a nonphysical existence.