Body and Soul, Mind and Brain: Pressing Questions

| By Joel Green

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.

Body and Soul, Mind and Brain: Pressing Questions

“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 isone’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 bothoutside 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.


About the Author

Joel Green

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.