Last week I posted a view that I consider to be the biblical view of the person and the soul, but which I readily acknowledge may not (in fact is likely not) the majority view. As way of brief summary, let me say that my view is essentially that the bible does not ever actually describe anything that might be considered an immaterial soul. You are not distinct from your physical body in the way that would mean the one who is really ‘you’ is simply inhabiting your body, and the ‘you’ (which we would call a soul) will one day eject from this physical body. I maintain that such an idea comes not from biblical revelation, but from Platonism, and that there is no evidence that the pre-Christian Hebrews nor that the Church prior to the second century ever entertained such an understanding of theological anthropology (the theological view of humanity, and by extension, discussion of the soul). In fact, I went on to claim that the evidence we do have for the views of the ancient Hebrews and pre-second century Christians was that there isn’t a soul that is distinct from our physical self.
I would now like to extend that conversation. I will first briefly note what this might mean for using the term ‘soul,’ which I acknowledge has a long history, a good portion of which may not necessarily be connected to platonic dualism. Then I would like to continue the discussion to see what this might mean (if it is in fact the accurate view) for our understanding of life after death. Or, phrased differently, according to my view, where would I say that our loved ones are right now? But first, let me talk briefly about the term ‘soul’ and how we might use it constructively or to affirm past theological discussion, even if we reject the “traditional” platonic understanding of it as an immaterial thing.
So what do I mean by soul, then?
For the sake of brevity, we might simply consider that the soul is another way of talking about identity. This is not the same as the so-called “emergent” thesis, because the emergent view of the soul still maintains the existence of an immaterial thing. According to the emergent view of the soul (which has no connection to the emergent church), the soul arises out of our physical self in the same way that software can emerge from computer hardware (which might be transferable), or a song emerges from instruments. In these views there is still an immaterial thing (information or a song) that is distinct and separate from the physical object.
In contrast, by speaking of the soul in terms of identity, we are saying that the soul is the defining characteristic of your physical body. So, while an emergent view of the soul indicates that the soul is not tied to any particular body once it emerges (or possibly any body), an identity view of the soul, as I’m giving it, says the soul must be tied to your particular body. What this does do, unfortunately, is complicate matters with identity, especially given the fact that our cells are constantly dieing and being replaced, and that even the very atoms seem to have a remarkable amount of changeover. However, these problems are not unique to this view of the soul. Instead, this particular view (of the soul as our identity) simply eliminates the intervening problem of such problems and focuses on the actual problem (i.e. if your brain is transplanted to another body and a different brain is in your body; or even more complicated, your brain is divided and put into two bodies: which resulting person is you. On other views of the soul, the problem would be which body does the soul interact with (or is it divided) in addition to the problem of identity).
What about those who have died? Where are they now?
Now, with regard to the second half, what do we do with life after death. Essentially, we are left with three different options:
- What is usually termed soul sleep (and odd name given the actual content of the position) is one espoused by Martin Luther (among others). It indicates that for the person who dies, from their perspective they lose consciousness. Their next conscious moment is the final day of history when all the dead are raised. So from our perspective they would be unconsciously in the ground awaiting resurrection and the transformation of their bodies, but from the perspective of the person who dies they go to sleep and immediately wake up for the general resurrection. This has the advantage of suggesting that people wake up in heaven with all their other believing relatives and friends, rather than “waiting” on them. It has the disadvantage, of course, of not being quite as comforting to those of us left behind. Our hope would need to be more future in orientation than immediate, it seems.
- Option 2 is a fairly recent one, and I first read about it in an article by philosopher Dean Zimmerman (formerly at Notre Dame, currently at Rutgers). It is, in some ways, built upon the “soul sleep” model and posits that at death a small physical particle (or “seed”) is transported to God and it is from this that we are recreated. Now, one direction it is not usually taken (which I don’t see why it couldn’t be taken this way) is that the “seed” is transformed at that point in time. This would be one possible way to speak of us being in heaven with God. The clear problem (and likely why it has not been seriously taken this direction) is that this would be problematic when we move to speaking of the final resurrection of the dead. In the popular dualistic model people can argue that are immaterial souls are reunited with our resurrected bodies, but in a “seed” model where one is recreated in heaven immediately following death makes the later resurrection of your body moot.
- The final option, and the one which I tend to lean towards, takes into account the two very different structures of time: our experience of time as discreet sequenced events (i.e. each event is entirely distinct from the ones before and after it), and God’s experience (as the immanent Trinity) or eternity (or the absence of time). Since God’s time is not bound by the non-irreversibility of time we are able to say that God exists both now and in the future at the end of history. From the perspective of God in his eternal self, then, the resurrection of the dead is occurring. Thus, from one account of time, our bodies lay in the ground awaiting the resurrection of the dead. But on the other account of time, all of those who have already died are already present with the LORD. So in one manner of speaking we may very truly say that our brothers and sisters in Christ who have died are already present with God. Not only that, but when we really consider the nature of eternity, we can even say that they are not only present with God already, but they are present with our resurrected selves as well (as well as all of their descendents who have followed Christ in faith). It’s a bit odd to think about, but it nevertheless remains that in a very real sense we are already with our “dearly departed” in heaven.
Well, mine may not be the most popular view, and I’m certainly aware that I may be completely wrong. Still, I know mine is a minority view and I’d love to know what you think. There was a good bit of conversation last week and I think it would be good to have that again this week.