You Are Not a Soul

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

C. S. Lewis

Or not. The above quote was supposedly said by C. S. Lewis, one of our favorite theologians of the modern age. The sentiment is echoed all over the place in Christianity. People complain about their bodies and long for the day that they will be free of them in Heaven. When people sin, they excuse or minimize their sin by saying that they didn’t mean to do something, but their passions or instincts got the best of them. People who struggle with body image are always reassured that the body doesn’t matter, but what’s inside counts. The promoted idea is clear: your body is not really you, just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

This is not Biblical.

They say that your body is not really you, just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

While I could go on for a long time on why this is wrong, I’ll focus on two points: Gnosticism and resurrection. First off, such a strict division of body/soul does not come from the Bible, but from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a cult who came from the early church. They believed many problematic doctrines, but one of their core distinctives was their view of the physical and the spiritual, or the material and the immaterial. Matter and flesh, they believed, came from an inferior, perhaps evil, creator, whereas spirit and soul came from the true God. For this reason the body was seen as at best irrelevant and at worst an evil obstacle to salvation. The spirit, on the other hand, was considered the true and good self by which salvation could be attained through enlightenment. The difference between this Gnostic view and the “you are a soul and have a body” view is mostly only semantics.

The problems with this approach are numerous. For one, this kind of thinking is what led to the heresy that Jesus was not completely human, or only had the appearance of a body. Yet John calls them deceivers who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” or (as the NLT puts it) “deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body” (2 John 1:7). Jesus was God made flesh. Another problem is that this leads to one of two major moral errors in Gnosticism. On one hand, some felt that if the body was irrelevant to salvation, then we can do with it anything we please and not defile ourselves. Others, however, thought that if the body is so much less than spirit, then we should deprive and ignore our bodies, practicing strict asceticism at best or self-mutilation at worst. Yet these conclusions, as wrong as they are, follow rather naturally from such a deficient view of the body.

The difference between this Gnostic view and the “you are a soul and have a body” view is mostly only semantics.

The other main problem with the view that the body is secondary to the soul is resurrection. See, the resurrection is the hope of Christianity. Because Jesus died, but was raised to life everlasting, we also can be sure that we who trust in Him will be raised as well. This is not a mere spiritual restoration: it is the renewal and resurrection of our physical bodies. Paul explained well the importance of this. When there were some in the Corinthian church denying that we will be resurrected, Paul declared that if there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and if Christ was not raised we are doomed and lost in our sins. This shows that the resurrection of the body, which is supposedly just a container for the soul, is core to Christianity. And if the body’s resurrection is core to Christianity, then the body cannot be dismissed as “merely” anything. The beginning of the new creation in eternity will be the resurrection of the body, after which we live physically on a renewed creation forever.

There is one more issue I would like to raise about the importance of the body to human nature. When Jesus became a man, He took on a body, lived in a body, and died in a body. In fact, the death of Jesus’ physical body is the event which sealed our redemption. If the body is not essential to human nature, then Jesus could have incarnated without a body and done His mission in spirit. That Jesus took on flesh to become a human means that we need flesh to be human. In fact, Paul himself says as much when He writes of the hope of the resurrection body. He says that while we are in “this tent” (our mortal bodies suffering from the curse) we groan and are burdened, for we do not want to be “unclothed” (without a body) but be clothed with a “heavenly dwelling” (a resurrection body). For the problem with our bodies now is not that they are flesh, but that they are mortal and suffer the curse. Yet human nature is meant for a body, one which is immortal and free from sin. This is what is coming.

If the body is not essential to human nature, then Jesus could have incarnated without a body and done His mission in spirit.

Now I realize there are some who would object on the basis of the war between the spirit and the flesh. After all, Paul says this: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Doesn’t this mean that your physical body is corrupt and that your spirit/soul is pure? Not really. For the acts of the flesh are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). While many of these are body with the body, they are all rooted in the heart, and some of these only take place within. Thus the flesh as Paul speaks of it against the Spirit is not the human body. What the flesh actually means is debatable, but it doesn’t mean human body by itself.

To conclude, let’s drop the Gnostic silliness. You are a body and a soul. Your body without your soul is dead, and your soul without your body is unclothed. God made us to be both. We cannot ignore the body, but must let our body and soul serve as instruments with which to glorify God. For we will be raised forever, to live bodily with Christ.

Oh, by the way, it is a myth that C. S. Lewis said the above quote. Thankfully.

[This is a repost of Stop Thinking Like a Gnostic.]

You Are Not a Soul

One thought on “You Are Not a Soul

  1. This is why it is a shame contemporary Christians are not familiar with the writings of the Church Fathers. The French Protestant theologian Oscar Cullman does a grand job of teasing out the difference between the flesh and the body in Scripture. Body and spirit are not antithetical in the Bible, because a Body can either behave as flesh or as Spirit. Also, I think Father Karl Rahner has a great speculative theology of life after death (before the ressurection) in which he says that even though we are in the presence of God, a disembodied being is drab.

So what do you think?