It seems we are natural-born dualists. On the physical side we of course can observe our own bodies as well as those of others. And then there’s that inner life, that internal world. We have a powerful experience of sensations, emotions, and thoughts that together give us a compelling sense of will and of identity. We refer to this inner world as mind or consciousness or sentience, and if we are religious we call it the soul.
As I’ve said before, even though we have a powerful sense of a personal will that directs our actions, in my view this sense is illusory. In fact, all of our actions are the result of the laws of physics applied to our material beings. Chemicals spill across neuronal synapses, triggering biochemical responses on the other side, and those “chemical spills” had, in turn, been the result of other purely chemical and physical events further up the line of our nervous system. There is simply no need for—more importantly, no role for—anything other than the physical events that led up to all of these nervous system biochemical reactions. That’s the way we understand the rest of the world to operate. Why should things be any different inside the human nervous system, which is made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe? Whatever existence consciousness may have, it plays no causative role in behavior. It is, so to speak, just along for the ride.
For the Christian, however, that mind-body relationship is reversed. It is the soul that counts. The body is simply the vessel that carries the soul through this life. Traditional Christian dogma supposes that at birth (or before) our bodies are blessed with a soul. And we are ultimately judged by how we handle that soul. The physical body is frankly designed to fail, either through accident or illness or design defect or simply by reason of the wearing out of the physical systems over time. In short, no one lives forever physically. But, according to Christian principles, the soul is not subject to any of those mortal design flaws, if you will. The soul is potentially immortal.
There are any number of Christian opinions as to where the soul comes from, how and when it becomes associated with an individual person, whether and where it exists prior to being assigned to a person, what happens to the soul at physical death, and whether everyone’s soul is eternal. But while there are multiple and conflicting beliefs about the nature of the soul, Christians are united about two things: The soul is real and in the end it rather than the physical body is what is important.
We have a general consensus about how the physical world works, but we have no similar consensus or understanding about the nature of the soul. The fact that there are so many views about the soul should raise questions, shouldn’t it, about whether the soul actual exists. But while Christians might disagree about the soul’s specific characteristics, they could never abandon the fundamental idea of the existence of the soul. That idea is at the very heart of the salvation message. After all, everyone dies. That is, each person’s physical body dies, and if that were the end of the story, then there would be no existence beyond this physical life and no salvation story. But salvation is not about saving our physical bodies; it is about saving our souls.
Although the standard view of salvation includes the notion of a continuing physical existence, in heaven or on a “new earth,” that notion has its own problems. Our physical bodies simply aren’t designed for eternal life, an issue I have also discussed before. The fabric of our existence—our interests, our goals, our very attitude toward our being—is based on the fragility and finiteness of our lives. On the other hand, the very idea of salvation, the bedrock basis of Christianity, is premised on the promise of eternal life—of our souls, with our bodies somehow coming along.
All of this raises a basic question: If the very raison d’être for our existence is the worship of God and the salvation of our souls, why would God as creator bother with giving us physical bodies? Frankly, they just get in the way. Why not just work with souls and dispense with the whole physical thing? In fact, why wouldn’t God simply dispense with a physical universe altogether? It just makes things messy, if you will. And it raises questions about what the whole point of creating the physical universe was in the first place. If one believes that it was created for our benefit, why did God wait so long—13.7 billion years, in fact—to get around to the human species? Why did God create such a chaotic universe comprised of hundreds of billions of galaxies each with hundreds of billions of stars just to wind up with us? Why did God allow millions of species to evolve only to go extinct, all as prelude to humankind? Does that scenario actually make sense?
In my view there are two basic answers to these questions. Either God is inscrutable and we can’t understand him (a copout in my view), or it is more reasonable to abandon the whole God/soul/salvation idea in favor of a naturalistic world that doesn’t bother with the idea of a soul. Personally, I favor the latter.
Put another way, I think I could have done a better job than God.
© 2015 John M. Phillips