What is the biblical response to the secular moral revolution? Let’s start by addressing the two-level body/person dualism itself.
We must start by expressing compassion for people trapped in a dehumanizing and destructive view of the body. The two-domain worldview is ‘above all an attack on the body,’ writes Catholic theologian Michael Waldstein. We must therefore respond with a biblical defense of the body to heal the alienation between body and person. The starting point is a biblical philosophy of nature. The Bible proclaims the profound value and dignity of the material realm—including the human body—as the handiwork of a loving God. That’s why biblical morality places great emphasis on the fact of human embodiment. Respect for the person is inseparable from respect for the body. God could have chosen to make us like the angels—spirits without bodies. He could have created a spiritual realm for us to float around in. Instead, he created us with material bodies and a material universe to live in. Why? Clearly God values the material dimensions and wants us to value it as well.
Scripture treats body and soul as two sides of the same coin. The inner life of the soul is expressed through the outer life of the body. This is highlighted in through the parallelism characteristic of Hebrew poetry in the Psalms:
“My soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you.” (Ps. 63:1)
“Our soul has sunk down into the dust; our body cleaves to the earth.” (Ps. 44:25)
“Keep [my words] in the midst of your heart. For they are life to those who find them and health to all their body.” (Prov. 4:21-22)
“When I kept silent about [refused to repent of] my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” (Ps. 32:3)
In one sense, our bodies even have primacy over our spirits—the body is the only avenue we have for expressing our inner life or for knowing another person’s inner life; it is the means by which the invisible is made visible. When you eat food, you do not say, “My mouth is eating,” you say, “I am eating.” When your hand is injured, you say, “I am hurt.” The Bible does not separate the body off into a lower story, where it is reduced to a biomechanical machine; instead, the body is intrinsic to the person, and therefore, will be ultimately redeemed along with the person—a process that begins even in this life. We are made in God’s image to reflect God’s character, both in our minds and our bodily actions.
At the time of the early church, this biblical view was radically counter-cultural. Ancient pagan culture was permeated by world-denying philosophies such as Manicheanism, Platonism and Gnosticism, all of which disparaged the material world as the realm of death, decay, and destruction—the source of evil. Gnosticism in particular essentially conflated the two doctrines of creation and fall: It treated creation as a kind of fall of the soul from the higher spiritual realm in to the corrupt material realm.
Gnosticism thus trained people to think of the body ‘as a total other to the self,’ writes Princeton historian Peter Brown. It was an unruly ‘piece of matter’ that the soul had to struggle to control and manage. The goal of salvation was to escape from the material world and ascend back to the spiritual realm. It taught that the world was so evil, it must be the creation of an evil god. In Gnostic cosmology, there existed multiple levels of spiritual beings from the highest deity to the lowest, who was actually an evil sub-deity who created the material world. (After all, no self-respecting god would demean himself by mucking about with matter.)
In this context, the claims of Christianity were nothing short of revolutionary. It taught that matter was not created by an evil sub-deity but by the ultimate deity, the Most High God—and that the material world is therefore intrinsically good. In Genesis, there is no denigration of the material world; instead, it is repeatedly affirmed to be good (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Humans are presented as beings whose personhood includes being part of the earth from which they were created. The second chapter of Genesis says God formed Adam ‘from the dust of the ground’ (Gen. 2:7), and it was this walking, animated clay that God pronounced ‘very good’. It was this embodied, earthly, sexual creature that God described as reflecting his own image: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness,” (Gen. 1:26). The early readers of Genesis knew the text was making the astonishing claim that all humans, not just rulers, are representatives of God on the earth.
What really set Christianity apart in the ancient world was the incarnation—the claim that the Most High God had himself entered into the realm of matter, taking on a physical body. In Gnosticism, the highest deity would have nothing to do with the material world. By contrast, the Christian message is that the transcendent God has broken into history as a baby born in Bethlehem. The incarnation is genuinely physical, happening at a particular time and in a particular geographical location.
In the days of the early church, this was Christianity’s greatest scandal. That’s why the apostles repeatedly stressed Christ’s body: that in him “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9), that he “’bore our sins’ in his body on the cross” (1 Pet. 2:24), that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ” (Heb. 10:10). John even says the crucial test of orthodoxy is to affirm that Jesus has “come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2). When Jesus was executed on a Roman cross, we might say he ‘escaped’ from the material world, just as the Gnostics taught we should aspire to do. But what did he do next? He came back—in a bodily resurrection! To the ancient Greeks, that was not spiritual progress; it was regress. Who would want to come back to the body? The whole idea of a bodily resurrection was utter ‘foolishness to the Greeks’ (1 Cor. 1:23). Even Jesus’ disciples thought they were seeing a ghost—he had to assure them he was present bodily: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:39).
Not only did Jesus rise from the dead, he also ascended into heaven. We often think of the ascension as a kind of add-on, with no important theological meaning. What it means is that Christ’s taking on of human nature was not a temporary expedient, to be left behind when he finished the work of salvation. Because he was taken bodily into heaven, his human nature is permanently connected to his divine nature.
Death, Be Not Proud
Finally, what will happen at the end of time? God is not going to scrap the material world in time and space as though he made a mistake. He is going to restore, renew, and re-create it, leading to a new heaven and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17, 66:22; Rev. 21:1), where God’s people will live in resurrected bodies.
It is true that at death, humans undergo a temporary splitting of body and soul, but that was not God’s original intent. Death rips apart what God intended to be unified. This is why Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, even though he knew he was about to raise him from the dead. The text says twice that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:33, 38). In the original Greek, this phrase actually means furious indignation—Jesus was outraged at the pain and sorrow caused by the enemy invasion that had devastated his beautiful creation.
The Gnostics saw death as freedom from the encumbrance of the body, but Christians are never admonished to accept death as a natural part of creation. Scripture portrays it as something alien—an enemy that entered into creation with the fall. As Paul writes, “Death is the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). In the new creation, body and soul shall be reunified, as God meant them be. When the Bible speaks of redemption, it does not mean only going to heaven when we die; it also means the redemption of all creation. Paul writes that the whole creation suffers pain and brokenness but that it will be liberated at the end of time (Rom. 8:21). The gospel message is that the entire physical world will be transformed—humans will not be saved out of the material creation but saved together with the material creation. We cannot know exactly what life will be like in eternity, but the fact that Scripture calls it a new ‘earth’ means it will not be a negation of the life we have known on this earth. Instead, it will be an enhancement, an intensification, a glorification of this life. This broken world will be fixed in the end, God’s creation will be restored, and you and I will live in that renewed creation in renewed bodies. We will not be floating around in heaven as wispy, gossamer spirits—we will have physical feet firmly planted on a renewed physical earth.
Revenge of the Body Haters
The New Testament concept of a bodily resurrection was completely novel in the ancient world. In fact, it was so astonishing that many simply denied it. In the second century, many Gnostics claimed to be Christians but they adjusted biblical doctrines to fit their philosophy. Denying the incarnation, they taught that Christ was an avatar from a higher spiritual plane who entered the physical world temporarily to bring enlightenment and then returned to a higher state of being. They insisted that he was not really incarnate in a human body, nor did he really die on the cross. Spirituality had nothing to do with this world, but only with escape to higher realms.
Just as today, privatized, escapist, otherworldly spirituality was far more socially acceptable. The Gnostics were not persecuted by the Roman Empire as the Christians were, because a spirituality that applies strictly to the private realm poses no threat to power. As N. T. Wright says, “It was those who believed in the bodily resurrection who were burned at the stake and thrown to the lions.” They understood that when Jesus was raised from the dead and given a new, resurrection body, God was inaugurating the promised new creation, in which all injustice and corruption would be wiped out—and as a result, they were empowered to take a stand against injustice here and now.
Nancy Pearcey is professor of apologetics and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and editor at large of The Pearcey Report. She is the author of multiple books, including Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality (Baker Books, 2018) and Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2008). The above excerpt is adapted from Love Thy Body and is used by the kind permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group (2018).