t f p g+ YouTube icon

Body and Soul, Mind and Brain: Pressing Questions

Bookmark and Share

August 16, 2012 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul
Body and Soul, Mind and Brain: Pressing Questions

Today's entry was written by Joel Green. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Continuing to explore some of the themes from our most recent Southern Baptist Voices series exchange on the biological and theological significance of death, for the next few days we'll turn to a topic often seen as central to understanding the promise of resurrection life: the soul. In today's post adapted from an essay that first appeared in Catalyst (31, no. 2 (2005): 1, 3-4), Joel Green argues that both contemporary neuroscience and the Scriptures suggest that many common ways of thinking about the soul are inadequate.

“Bit by experimental bit,” writes philosopher P. Churchland, “neuroscience is morphing our conception of what we are.”1 For many, this includes dispensing with the “soul” in favor of biologically anchored processes. As a New York Times article reported almost a decade ago, “Neuroscientists have given up looking for the seat of the soul, but they are still seeking what may be special about human brains, what it is that provides the basis for a level of self-awareness and complex emotions unlike those of other animals.” Noting the now-common view that morality and reason grow out of social emotions and feeling that are themselves linked to brain structures, the article suggests that, maybe, what makes us human is all in the wiring of the brain.2

What Is at Stake?

What does it mean to be human? In what ways, if any, is our essential humanity tied to body and soul, mind and brain? This is not the stuff of mere curiosity. A host of pressing issues are at stake:

  • Is there anything about humans that our mechanical creations, our innovations in Artificial Intelligence, will be unable to duplicate?
  • What view of the human person helps us to find what we want to know about ourselves theologically — about sin, for example, as well as moral responsibility, repentance, and growth in grace?
  • Am I free to do what I want? Given what we have learned about brain functioning, how might we understand the “free” in “free will”?
  • What portrait of the human person is capable of casting a canopy of sacred worth over human beings, so that we have what is necessary for discourse concerning morality and for ethical practices?
  • If humans, like sheep, can be cloned, will the resulting life form be a “person”?
  • How should we understand “salvation”? Does salvation entail a denial of the world and embodied life, focusing instead on my “inner person” and on the life to come?
  • How ought the church to be extending itself in mission? Mission to what? The spiritual or soulish needs of persons? Society-at-large? The cosmos?
  • What happens when we die? What view(s) of the human person is consistent with Christian belief in life-after-death?

For many, and not least for many Christians, what makes a human genuinely human is the identification of the human person with his or her soul. From the second century on, theologians debated the origin of the soul: Are souls created by God ex nihilo at the moment of their infusion into the body? Are body and soul formed together? Are souls preexistent? Indeed, in the late-second century it was clear to many, as the Letter to Diognetus puts it, that “the soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body” (1.27). Traditionally, systematic theology has discussed the uniqueness of humanity in two theological loci: human creation in the divine image and the human possession of a soul. Often these two are reduced to one, with the soul understood as the particular consequence of creation in God’s image.

For persons of faith — Christians included, but many others besides — the idea of a soul separable from the body is not only intuitive but necessary. We have regularly appealed to the soul as proof that humans are not mere animals, and so as a foundation for our views of the sacredness of human life. Moreover, Christians generally have derived from belief in the existence of the soul their affirmation of the human capacity to choose between good and ill. Further, the existence of a nonphysical soul, distinct and separable from the body, is typically regarded as the means by which human identity can cross over the bridge from this life to the next. Indeed, traditional Christian thought has tended to regard the body as frail and finite, the soul as immortal.

But it is the human possession of a “soul” that science now questions. When, as neurobiology and evolutionary psychology increasingly urge, the attributes and capacities traditionally allocated to the human soul are conditioned at point after point by biological processes, on what basis can belief in a soul be maintained? If science is generating “a radically new understanding of what it means to be human,”3 then those of us in the church must prepare ourselves for searching questions about the propriety of Scripture and traditional Christian thought in our talk about humanity, salvation, the end time, and more.

Before we engage too much in worried hand-wringing, however, we should ask whether our situation is so dire. Do these innovations in our understanding of personhood in fact call into question our deepest beliefs as Christians? Interdisciplinary study — with contributions from neuroscience, but also from biblical studies, theological studies, ethics, and philosophy (see “Further Reading,” below) — are demonstrating that emerging scientific portraits of the human person are neither as novel as we might imagine, nor as threatening to the essential tenets of Christian faith.

Biblical Contributions

In the context of current discussion on the nature of the human person, the Christian Scriptures have two primary contributions. First, taken as a whole, the biblical witness is fully congruent with a view of the person that affirms the human being as bio-psycho-spiritual unity. Neurobiological evidence and/or philosophical arguments favoring some form of monism are not at all hostile to the witness of Scripture. Second, we must recognize that the Old and New Testaments do not define the human person in essentialist but above all in relational terms. Put differently, the Bible’s witness to the nature of human life is at once naive and profound. It is naive not in the sense of gullibility or primitiveness, but because it has not worked out in what we may regard as a philosophically satisfying way the nature of embodied existence in life, death, and afterlife. It is profound in its presentation of the human person fundamentally in relational terms, and its assessment of the human being as genuinely human and alive only within the family of humans brought into being by Yahweh and in relation to the God who gives life-giving breath. This non-negotiable biblical insight is being recovered by some scientists today — e.g., by J. Polkinghorne and W.S. Brown, each of whom has urged that the notion of “soul” be recast in relational terms.4

We can press further. First, Scripture outlines a series of qualities of the human person that contrast sharply with the “modern self” derived from dualistic portraits. In his Sources of the Self, C. Taylor finds that, for modern folk, personal identity has come to be shaped by such assumptions as self-sufficiency, self-determination, and self-referentiality (“I am who I am”); that persons have an inner self, which is the authentic self; and that self-autonomy and self-legislation are basic to authentic personhood (Harvard University Press, 1989). Without majoring on the notion of a metaphysical entity of the “soul,” Taylor’s analysis nonetheless intimates how modern, personal identity has been cultivated in the garden of anthropological dualism.

In Scripture, however, we find such emphases as the following: the construction of the self as deeply embedded in social relationships and thus the importance of dependence/interdependence for human identity; a premium on the integrity of the community and thus the contribution of individuals to that integrity; the assumption that a person is one’s behavior; an emphasis on external authority — that is, the call to holiness is a call to a human vocation drawn from a vision of Yahweh’s “difference”; and the reality of dualism vis-à-vis good/evil, resident in and manifest both outside and inside a person. The line from a substance dualism that locates personal essence in the “soul” to this vision of personal identity is not easily drawn.

The point is that the construction of personal identity that pervades modernity is at odds with biblical anthropology at almost every turn, while the witness of Scripture and the findings of neuroscience are converging at significant points.

Second, negatively, we err when we imagine that it is the “soul” that distinguishes humanity from non-human creatures. Aristotle is closer to the biblical tradition in his view that the soul is that in virtue of which an organism is alive (On the Soul 2.1 §§412a-413a10). Given this conceptualization, there is no particular reason to limit the idea of “soul” to the human person. Within the Old Testament, “soul” (Hebrew: nepheš) refers to life and vitality — not life in general, but life as instantiated in human persons and animals. Nepheš is not a thing to have but a way to be. To speak of loving God with all of one’s “soul,” then, is to elevate the intensity of involvement of one’s whole being. Accordingly, the Common English Bible gets it right when it translates “the first and greatest commandment” in this way: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Morever, in the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2, the Hebrew term used of human beings in 2:7, nepheš, is also used with reference to all sorts of wildlife, to everything “in which there is life (nepheš)” (1:30). This demonstrates incontrovertibly that “soul” (nepheš) is not, under this accounting, a unique characteristic of the human person. Accordingly, one might better translate Genesis 2:7 with reference to the divine gift of life: “the human being became a living person” — or, to quote again from the Common English Bible: “The human came to life.”

Third, thinking still of Genesis 2, it is instructive that the same texts that are silent on the infusion of a human soul into a dust-created body nevertheless distinguish by their use of the term nepheš between a being that has life and lifelessness. This speaks against any dualism that deprecates the body in favor of the soul and against any conceptualization of disembodied human existence in this life or the next. It also contravenes the widely held view that the quality of human life is vested in some thing or quality intrinsic to the individual person and that, in order to speak meaningfully of an afterlife, this “thing” must survive death. The soul does not distinguish human life as human or of particular value, but the graciousness of God does. Scripture situates the human family within the grand narrative of God’s doing; this narrative places a premium on human relatedness to God, humanity, and the cosmos because it is determined by God’s own character; and it is precisely within this narrative that the human creature draws both its value and its reason for being.

Hence, from a vantage point within the biblical narrative, avenues determined by autonomous individualism, interior psychic and/or mental processes, or the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells are mistaken, however well-worn they may have become. Although each of these accounts might appear to support a workable portrait of the human person and of human health, none of these carry us far in our concern to address our deepest human questions about what it means to be fully human.

What does it mean to be human? From a perspective within the biblical narrative, the way forward is marked by an account that rejects the necessity of a separate, metaphysical entity such as a soul to account for human capacities and distinctives; that underscores the material location of the human person in relation to the created order; that refuses to reduce personal identity to our neural equipment but rather emphasizes the personal contribution and relatedness of human beings to the human family and the cosmos; and thus that has as its primary point of beginning and orientation the human in a partnering relationship with God.

Further Reading

  • W.S. Brown et al., eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Fortress, 1998)
  • J.B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Baker Academic, 2008)
  • J.B. Green, ed., What about the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology (Abingdon, 2004)
  • M.A. Jeeves, ed., Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach (Eerdmans, 2011).


1. P. Churchland, Brain-Wise. MIT Press, 2002: 2
2. S. Blakeselee, “Humanity? Maybe It’s All in the Wiring,” New York Times, 9 December 2003, F1
3. T. Metzinger, “Consciousness Research at the End of the Twentieth Century,” in Neural Correlates of Consciousness: Empirical and Conceptual Questions. ed. T. Metzinger; MIT Press, 2000: p. 6
4. See J. Polkinghorne, “Eschatology: Some Questions and Some Insights from Science,” in The End of the World and the Ends of God. ed. J. Polkinghorne and M. Welker. Trinity Press International, 2000: 29-41 and W. S. Brown, “Cognitive Contributions to Soul,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul? ed. W.S. Brown et al.; Fortress, 1998: 99-125.

Joel Green is a New Testament scholar, theologian, author, and Associate Dean for the Center for Advanced Theological Studies and Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He has written and edited some thirty books, including What About the Soul? and Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. He is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Theological Interpretation. Green is also an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church with 12 years of pastoral ministry experience.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
Roger A. Sawtelle - #71970

August 16th 2012

You are right this is a very difficult and important issue that really cannot be properly addressed in this framework.

However, to begin we need to clarify the terms.  The Greek word in the NT usually translated Soul is psyche.  A better translation I think is “mind,” as in psychology.  When we talk about body/mind dualism, we are talking about body/psyche dualism. 

If the eternal aspect of the person is the “soul,” then for the NT this is the spirit.  Humans are composed of body, mind, and spirit.  The most dangerous aspect of today’s neuroscience is not the denial of the soul or spirit, but the denial of the soul or mind. 

If the brain is a physical mechanism, then it is subject to natural laws of cause and effect, so that nothing is new or original.  Granted this does not conform with reality as we know it, but this does not deter our friend Daniel Dennett and his followers.  

Mind/body dualism does not work and neither does monistic naturalism.  We need a third option like triunity to make sense of the world that we know.  Until we take this seriously we will be just spinning our wheels and going nowhere or downhill.     

wesseldawn - #71977

August 16th 2012

Accordingly, one might better translate Genesis 2:7 with reference to the divine gift of life: “the human being became a living person”

This is incorrect, no where in Gen. 2:7 is man (translation=ruddy) called a ‘person’ but only a living “soul”: 

         psuche=soul (a breathing creature) also, (body and mind/flesh and blood) = animal    principle/personality

It’s the earthly (animal) part of us (NT flesh: at enmity with God).

The animal personality became infused with God’s image, which only then became human. However, becoming human did not (does not) guarantee salvation but only circumcision of the heart.

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. (Deut. 10:16)

And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God… (Joel 2:13)

heart = spirit

But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter (Romans 2:29)

the spirit is circumcised = a spiritual matter

When the heart/spirit is circumcised, the human becomes a child of God. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71983

August 17th 2012


You are mixing apples and oranges and coming up with garbage as to told you in a previous exchange.   

Psyche or psuche is a Greek word, so it is not used on the Hebrew book of Genesis.  The original Hebrew word translated as soul in Genesis does mean “animate” (not animal”) life, which has been identified by some with the soul.  However psyche or psuche does clearly mean the human mind, which the Greeks identified as the soul.

In other words your analysis is mistaken because animals do not have a psyche or mind.  Only humans have a mind.  Rev. Green is quite right in saying that a better translation would be that the man became a person because according to western thought a mind or psyche makes one a person.   


wesseldawn - #72009

August 18th 2012

Careful Roger, you’re showing your true colors…your Pharisee colors that is! And the only garbage here is your mouth!!

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72011

August 18th 2012


Respond to the facts that I presented.

I apologize for being brutally frank about my opinion about you views, but you refuse to rationally defend them. 

The psyche is the human Mind, not the animal soul as you would have it.

wesseldawn - #72019

August 18th 2012

I won’t respond to anything until you show some respect.

wesseldawn - #72022

August 18th 2012

I have responded a number of times to you on this topic and defended it with a solid scripture base, so I don’t know why I need to reiterate it again!

Too, you don’t uphold all of the scriptures as being divinely inspired even though Jesus continuously honored the prophets by “quoting them” and saying that they (the Prophets) spoke about him.

The mind (brain) and the soul (body, brain, mind, thoughts, personality, reasoning) are one and the same - the earthly nature!

HornSpiel - #71999

August 17th 2012

Is it not clear that when God says “Let us make man in our image” He is talking about something other than—more than-the other animals.

I believe that being made in God’s image means that we share a certain immaterial reality with God. The human soul is the highest material reality that, in our knowledge, exists. It is through the soul that the real person exists in the world, but it is through the Spirit that the real self communicates with God. The Bible refers to the real person or self as the Heart.

Relationship with God and others is certainly central to becoming eternally alive. Love, the greatest good, can only occur in relationship. Love is both the means and the end of keeping the Law. Being human is thus, at least theologically, not just defined by “our partnering relationship with God” but our God-given capacity to love.

wesseldawn - #72023

August 18th 2012

Even animals love HornSpiel!

Love for us is an emotion, God’s love (agape) however, transcends emotion (not dependent on the ebb and flow of feelings). God’s love is far bigger than emotion, and so able to embrace even His enemies.

Law’s are only necessary in a sinful world that needs borders, otherwise chaos would (and often does) result. No such laws are required in God’s realm (Paradise) because the law of love rules there.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72002

August 17th 2012


Okay, if God is Spirit, such as the Holy Spirit, then the human spirit has to be the immaterial reality that we share with God. 

On the other hand humans also have a Mind and so does God and to my way of thinking and also traditionally it is immaterial.   

Our capacity to love is not one single thing, but a trinity of things: a Body which is the vehicle of love and provides the power to love, a Mind which gives humans the ability to think and make choices which are necessary for love, and a Spirit which provides the will to love.

Being human is certainly being created in the image of God which is our body, mind, and spirit, and being Human in the fullest sense as we see through the God/Human Jesus Christ is loving God with all ourself, and loving others as ourself.    

I hope you understand what I am saying and it answers your question. 

Please note:  The word “soul” is difficult because it has several different meanings.  Soul (psyche) means a combination of Mind and Spirit, which creates confusion, because Mind and Spirit are separate in the NT so I do not think that it should be used theologically.

HornSpiel - #72035

August 18th 2012


What I am throwing into the discussion is the heart. The heart is talked about in the Bible alot more than the soul, spirit or flesh. I don’t belive it is the same as the soul or the spirit, but actually the center of a person.

As Wesseldawn remarks, animals have souls, which I believe is an emergent property of the physical brain/mind. It is something an intellegent machine might someday be said to possess.  But possessing a soul, in itself, is not eternal. It is the heart that is the etranal center of a person. The heart communicates and touchs the world and other souls through the soul and body. And the heart senses and  communincates with God through the human spirit.

So I agree that we share an immaterial spirititual nature with God, but the heart is also an immaterial reality. It is in the heart where the real battle takes place. God speaks to our heart through  our spirit. But the heart is also influenced by our soul and our flesh/body.

If on a triangle the spirit is at the apex and the soul and body are on the base, the heart is in the middle.

Anyways that is my approach. Not original with me though. I learned it from a wise counselor by the name of John Smeltzer. If you listen to his CDs he makes a good biblical case for it.

My qhestion for you, Roger is, In your model of man, what do you do with the heart?

wesseldawn - #72010

August 18th 2012

In effect, God gave us a part of Himself (His very image)! The spirit is the higher self, the moral self (the other animals are not moral because only man/Adam got it and passed it to Eve and so on).

If God did not give it then we could not communicate with Him or He with us (the still small voice). It’s an astonishing gift:

I have said, You are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. (Psalm 82:6, Isaiah 41:23, John 10:34)

We can only be children of the Most High because we are like Him in this respect, having got His image. God is a ‘spirit’ (John 4:24), which means that man/Adam got a spirit and passed it on down his line only.

If you light other candles from one candle, the flame is passed on (though the flame itself on each candle is the same size). The spirit is passed on like that from human to human. I believe the spirit surrounds the entire body as when a limb is amputated people can still “feel” it. Science thinks this is neurological remembering, but I think it’s the spirit, still there in the original shape because it’s eternal/immortal.

Artificial intelligence will never be able to duplicate God’s image because it’s otherworldly (from Heaven).

Morality and ethical practices are already mapped out for us in the Bible, ensuring that we don’t produce “our own” set of rules (do what is right in our own eyes) and God is always reasonable.

If humans are cloned then yes, they will be a ‘person’ because the spirit (flame) being supernatural, permeates every cell of our body. Thus God’s image is passed on.

Salvation is the “saving of the human part of us (soul)”:

But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul. (Heb. 10:39)

The “spirit” is circumcised (please refer to my post #71977), the “soul” is saved!

Individuals (the church) have the duty of passing on the true gospel of Jesus to others that will appreciate the message:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3)

On the “poor in spirit” will welcome the true words of Christ.

When we die, our eternal spirit (God’s image) returns to God, the physical body returns to dust:

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. (Eccl. 12:7)

All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. (Eccl. 3:20)


Roger A. Sawtelle - #72012

August 18th 2012


The problem of salvation is not death, but sin.  In your presentation you have not mention sin once nor have you explained how Jesus Christ saves humanity from the power of sin.

Until you do this you have no understanding of the Bible.  

wesseldawn - #72020

August 18th 2012

I didn’t mention sin Roger because your ideas of it are archaic. Sin is simply “separation from God”. To err is human! We are going to mess up - it’s a given! Would you blame someone for something that they couldn’t help? Until the heart/spirit is circumcised, sin is imminent!

Jesus came to save, not to condemn:

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:17)

Roger A. Sawtelle - #72046

August 19th 2012


This is in response to you question about the heart.  This is not the place or time to put forward a full explication on this topic.  My book The GOD Who RELATES I do have a section on this whole topic of the body, mind, and spirit.

If God is the Trinity and humans are made in the Image of God, then it would follow that humans would be composed of a trinity also, which is what I propose.  A problem with this is aligning the body with God the Father. 

Please pay Wesseldawn little mind here.  While at times he might make some points, his effort is not to understand the Bible, but to force the Bible into a dualistic Gnostic paradym, which does not make sense.  His goal is to combine the Hebrew animate soul with the Greek psyche, which do not fit together.

So I have the person as body, mind, and spirit.  You add the heart in the middle, which does not belong with the Trinity.  In my view it is Jesus who talks much about the heart, while Paul does not.  I expect that this is a difference in language and audience rather than difference of ideas.  I think that the heart is the spirit. 

The human spirit is more than a conduit for speaking to God, it is the essence of ourself communing with God’s essence.

For Biblical evidence of this I submit Psalm 51:10

  Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.  

As I expect you know these verses are composed of couplets where the poet says the same thing two ways.  Here David asks God to give him a clean heart and give him a right spirit.  These are not two different actions, but the the result of one forgiveness.  A clean heart and right spirit are the same thing, which he needs because of his sin with Bathsheba and the following “cover up.” 

I have found that there are no simple, clearcut answers in this complex area.  However this gives you a broad idea of my views that I hope will be helpful.


HornSpiel - #72056

August 20th 2012

Thanks for your response Roger. Although I disagree that the spirit is the same as the heart, I agree this is not the place for an extended discussion.

Page 1 of 1   1