By R. Keith Loftin

Are humans strictly material beings (the view known as physicalism), or do they possess both material and immaterial parts (the view known as dualism)?

The Bible is neither a philosophy nor a theology textbook, though it certainly places constraints on both Christian philosophy and theology. Consider, for example, the Incarnation of Christ: the Bible teaches that Jesus is simultaneously fully God and fully man, so whatever we say of Jesus must be consistent with both these claims. Yet we search in vain for a philosophical appendix to any of the Gospels —something like, “The Metaphysics of the Incarnation” or “Jesus’ Natures Made Simple.” Rather, we are left to interpret these biblical teachings, seeking to formulate an acceptable model for understanding them.

The mind/body issue presents us with a similar difficulty. Are humans strictly material beings (the view known as physicalism), or do they possess both material and immaterial parts (the view known as dualism)? The Christian Church has for the past two thousand or so years affirmed (or at least assumed) that humans are comprised of two parts: a physical body and a non-physical soul.1 Numerous texts in Scripture refer to the composition of human persons, though the biblical writers never explicitly address the topic. In other words, the biblical writers’ primary purpose was not to expound on philosophical anthropology; their main task was to communicate other things, especially the gospel. Despite this fact the Bible is not silent on the issue. At least tacitly, the writers’ widespread usage of anthropological terms seems to presuppose some form of dualism.

Thus we are left to formulate—within the bounds of what Scripture does say— an acceptable model of the composition of human persons. But what exactly does Scripture say? In this article I will survey the relevant anthropological terms found in Scripture, arguing their presupposition of dualism. Moreover, I will also consider two traditional Christian doctrines that entail dualism: the resurrection of the dead and the intermediate state. Taken together, these considerations provide a powerful cumulative case for accepting dualism over physicalism.

Biblical Anthropological Terms and Dualism2
Two Old Testament terms are particularly worthy of consideration: the Hebrew terms nephesh and ruach. As with most Hebrew terms, each of these covers a wide semantic range, that is to say, each term has a variety of meanings. Nephesh is frequently translated “soul,” but can also refer to life itself or part of a person’s physical body (e.g., the neck), among other things. In Deuteronomy 6:5 and 21:14, for example, nephesh refers to a person’s seat of emotion or volition (cf. Prov. 21:10; Is. 26:9; Mic. 7:1).3These usages, however, are somewhat ambiguous because it may be argued that a person’s seat of emotion or volition is in fact physical (viz., one’s brain or nervous system). The hotly disputed question among Old Testament scholars, then, is whether nephesh can be used to refer to a person either with or without a living body.

The debate among scholars notwithstanding, some usages of nephesh do appear to presuppose dualism. As. J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae have observed, “There are passages in which nephesh refers to the continuing locus of personal identity that departs to the afterlife as the last breath ceases (Gen. 35:18; 1 Kings 17:21-22; Ps. 16:10, 30:3, 49:15, 86:13, 139:8).”4 In these passages, the NASB translates nephesh as “soul” and “life,” and in each passage it is clear that nephesh refers to a personal, immaterial entity that survives physical death. Interestingly, this is confirmed by the Hebrew belief in Sheol. In the Old Testament, Sheol can refer to simply the grave, but it frequently means the place of the dead (not Hell, but something akin to the Greek nether region, Hades). The Old Testament Hebrews believed that the physically dead continue to exist in a diminished form in Sheol.5

The other Old Testament anthropological term we must consider is ruach. Though ruach is often translated “spirit,” it too has multiple meanings, including “wind” and “breath.” In the relevant sense, “ruach is a vital force or power or energy which animates living creatures.”6We see this sense, for example, in Zechariah 12:1, where God “forms the spirit [ruach] of man within him.” This, then, is not a part of one’s physical body, nor does the body generate it; the ruach comes from God. We learn further that the ruach, which gives life to humans, also returns to God (Job 34:14-15). The word is also used to refer to the seat of one’s states of consciousness.7

We see, then, that the Old Testament affirms the existence of a personal, immaterial entity—the soul or spirit— which is distinct from the physical body and survives physical death. Let us turn now to consider the relevant New Testament anthropological terms. These include psuche (soul) and pneuma (spirit).

As with nephesh and ruach, the terms psuche and pneuma yield a variety of meanings. Here again, the usages of these terms frequently (but not always) presuppose anthropological dualism. In several texts pneuma refers to a person’s persistence after physical death. We see this in the person of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 3:18-20, for example, recounts Jesus’ preaching to the imprisoned spirits. Here, despite “having been put to death in the flesh” (i.e., physically killed), Jesus continued to exist as a person—a person who made a proclamation—who had been “made alive in the spirit [pneuma].” Jesus similarly described his physical death as the giving up of his pneuma (Matt. 27:50; Luke 23:46, cf. 24:37; John 19:30).

Like the Old Testament term nephesh, the New Testament word psuche can refer to a person’s seat of emotion or volition. The psuche experiences emotions (Luke 2:35), worships (Luke 1:46), and makes moral choices (Acts 14:22).8 Finally, in Matthew 10:28 Jesus warns his hearers: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul [psuche]; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul [psuche] and body in hell.” This verse is extraordinarily difficult to interpret in physicalist terms, as one’s psuche is described as being able to exist without one’s physical body; body and soul are clearly not synonyms in this passage.

In sum, based on Scripture’s four major anthropological terms, Christians have a prima facie reason to accept dualism. Admittedly, the Bible does not explicitly teach dualism, and not every usage of these terms demands a dualistic reading. Nevertheless, while each usage is consistent with dualism, many usages seem clearly to presuppose or entail anthropological dualism.

Dualism and Christian Doctrine

In addition to the evidence provided by scriptural terminology, the Christian doctrines of the resurrection of the dead and the intermediate state strongly support dualism. Now, the Church has always believed in the future resurrection of the dead—that is, not only of Christ, but of all humanity. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (c. 381), for example, closes by affirming that “we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”9 The Apostles’ Creed (c. 700) similarly confesses belief in “the resurrection of the body,” as does the Westminster Confession.10 More importantly, the Bible clearly teaches the future resurrection of the dead. This, of course, is a significant part of believers’ hope: triumph over death (1 Cor. 15:55; cf. Is. 25:8)!

Isaiah 26:19 says, “Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.” Daniel 12:2 likewise teaches, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (cf. Ezek. 37:12-14). The New Testament teaching of the resurrection of the dead is equally clear. When the Sadducees, who “say there is no resurrection,” attempted to corner Jesus in a logical dilemma about a certain woman’s marital status in the afterlife, he rebuts them by correcting their misunderstanding of Scripture: “But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:26; cf. Matt. 22:29-32; Luke 20:34-38). Jesus elsewhere taught that “an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live…. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:25, 28-29). This resurrection is not instantaneous at death; it is in the future, specifically, at Jesus’ Second Coming (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16; Lk. 5:25). Scripture is clear, then, in teaching the future resurrection of the dead.11

Further, as we know from experience, all men—save Enoch and Elijah—experience physical death, that is, the separation of life from one’s physical body. (We have already surveyed Scripture’s teaching that the soul does not die with the body.) According to Scripture (and affirmed by the creeds), the Second Coming of Christ will occasion a bodily resurrection of the dead. Paul explains that “if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies, through His Spirit, who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). He elsewhere clarifies that “we eagerly await for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory” (Phil. 3:20-21). For believers the physical (earthly) body will be resurrected and transformed into a glorified body, a body like Christ’s present body, which will be reunited with the soul—but not until Jesus’ Second Coming.

It is clear, then, that intervening between physical death and the resurrection of the dead is a state of disembodied existence— what Paul called nakedness and we call the intermediate state. During this time believers’ souls will exist with Christ apart from the body. In 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 Paul discusses having a physical, earthly body (“earthly tent”) versus having a transformed, glorified body (“building from God, a house not made with hands”). While clothed in our earthly tent, we groan and are burdened, looking forward to being re-clothed in our new bodies. The intermediate state refers to the state of the disembodied soul, that is, the soul after being unclothed of the earthly tent and before being re-clothed in the resurrected body. Why? Because “this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53).

Dualism has no difficulty accounting for the soul’s existence in both embodied and disembodied states, making it the most (if not the only) plausible account of the resurrection of the dead and the intermediate state. In other words, these doctrines make the most sense when understood as a soul being embodied (on earth), then disembodied (at death), then re-embodied in glory. If physicalism is true, then this eschatological picture is impossible, for according to physicalism one cannot exist without one’s body.12

Some Christian scholars who hold a version of physicalist materialism have made attempts to avoid this conclusion in hopes of reconciling physicalism and the above doctrines. One of the most popular such attempts takes the strategy of denying the intermediate state by arguing that resurrection occurs instantaneously at death. This move, however well intentioned it may be, simply opposes Scripture. Not only are there plain indications as to the future timing of the resurrection (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:16), we also have the resurrection of Jesus, which provides the pattern for our resurrection. First, Jesus was not instantly resurrected; He existed in an intermediate state immediately after His crucifixion. Second, it was Jesus’ body in the tomb that was resurrected after three days, and so we may presume that our resurrected bodies will have some continuity with our current bodies. Yet this creates a dilemma for the instantaneous resurrection proponents, because the physical bodies of known believers are still in the ground. So, either Jesus’ resurrection is not in fact the pattern for our resurrection, or the resurrection has not yet happened—neither of which the instantaneous resurrection proponents want to accept.13

The physcialism/dualism debate is an extremely important one to Christians. Since its inception, the Church has affirmed dualism and rejected physicalism. In other words, the vast majority of Christians down through the ages have believed and taught that humans possess both material and immaterial parts, that is, that humans are more than their bodies. They have believed this, as we have seen, because it is the clear testimony of Scripture.

R. Keith Loftin (M.A., M.A) is an associate editor for Areopagus Journal and an adjunct instructor in philosophy and apologetics at Southeastern Bible College in Birmingham, Alabama.


1 See, for example, Irenaeus (c. 180): “For by the hands of the Father…man, and not [merely] a part of man, was made in the likeness of God. Now the soul and the spirit are certainly a part of man, but certainly not the man; for the perfect man consists in the commingling and the union of the soul receiving the spirit of the Father, and the admixture of that fleshly nature which was moulded after the image of God” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.6.1, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson [1885; New York:Cosimo, 2007]; or the traditional Reformed position: “After God had made all other creatures, he created man… with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image” (The Westminster Confession [1646], 4.2, in Creeds of the Churches, 3d ed., ed. John H. Leith [Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1982], 199; cf. 32.1).

2 Space permits me to mention only some usages of the main terms.
3 J. P. Moreland and Scott B Rae,
Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InverVarsity Press, 2000), 28.
4 Ibid.
5 John W. Cooper,
Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 59; cf. Deut. 18:9-14 and 1 Sam. 28:7-25.
6 Cooper, 39.
7 Moreland and Rae, 31. These states include will (Deut. 2:30; Ps. 51:10-12; Jer. 51:11), thought (Is. 29:24), emotion (Judg. 8:3; 1 Kings 21:4), and moral or spiritual disposition (Prov. 18:14; Eccl. 7:8).
8Robert Pyne,
Humanity & Sin (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 110.
9 Leith, 33.
10Ibid., 25; cf. 229.
11 Cf. Jn. 6:39-40, 44, 54; 11:24-25; 1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 5:1-10; 1 Thess. 4:13-16; Acts 23:6; 24:14-15, 21; Rev. 20:4-6, 13.
12This difficulty for physicalism is, perhaps, easier to see when one considers Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross: “…today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
13 Thanks to Dr. Nathan Holsteen for pointing this dilemma out to me.

(First published in the Areopagus Journal Vol. 8 No. 6 – Nov/Dec 2008 The Mind Body Problem)