Dear Dr. Erasmus,
Tim Stratton shared your post, Objections to the Existence of the Soul, to the UK Apologetics and Evangelism Facebook group, of which I am a member. In that group, there is a very knowledgeable Christian who does not seem to believe in the existence of a soul yet says he is not a strict materialist or physicalist. I’m sending you a discussion he had with Lenny Esposito in which Lenny posted about atheism’s weakness regarding the lack of a soul and he took exception to it (click here).
So whilst I am a dualist, I do not know how to respond to his assertions. If you have time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thank you for the email, David. When trying to come to a conclusion about the existence of the soul, the Christian must explore the issue from three perspectives, namely, from (1) a theological perspective (what does the Bible say about the soul?), (2) a philosophical perspective (are there good philosophical arguments for/against the soul?), and (3) a scientific perspective (what does science say about the mind?).
Now, your friend seems to address the theological perspective only and does not engage with any philosophical arguments in favour of the soul. He also fails to recognise that most philosophers of mind agree that science (or neuroscience) cannot address the physicalism-dualism debate. Since science studies the physical, it cannot, by its nature, disprove the immaterial. Moreover, both the physicalist and the dualist agree that there is a strong correlation between the mind and the brain. Thus, the fact that Alzheimer’s disease affects the mind in no way supports physicalism; a correlation relationship is not an identity relationship.
It seems, then, that Jocelyn is more concerned about whether Scripture teaches that humans have souls. He thinks that the Bible does not teach or imply that we have souls. How does he arrive at this conclusion? Simply by analysing the various meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words for “soul” and “spirit”. The problem with this approach is that is confuses words with concepts. The same concept may be expressed in various ways with various words. For example, the concept of the Trinity is expressed in the Bible even though the Bible does not use the exact words “the Trinity”. Hence, we are not merely interested in the meaning of the word for “spirit” but we are mainly interested in whether the concept of dualism is explicit or implicit in Scripture.
Now, it seems that the concept that human beings comprise both material and immaterial parts (or are made up of matter/body and spirit/soul) is made clear throughout the Bible:
First, souls do exist because God Himself is a soul or spirit and so too are the angelic beings. Thus, the existence of souls is not impossible according to Scripture.
Second, in 1 Samuel 28, Saul instructs a medium to call the deceased Samuel from Sheol so that Saul could talk to him. Interestingly, the medium does as she is told, and Saul speaks with Samuel’s spirit.
Third, Paul believed that we, as human beings, can exist without our bodies. For example, Paul writes:
“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8 ESV).
“…as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell” (Philippians 1:20-22 ESV).
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)
Fourth, while on the cross, Jesus said to the thief beside him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus could not have meant that the thief’s body was going to be in paradise, since a grave is no paradise. Rather, Jesus must have meant that the theif’s soul/spirit will experience joy once his body dies.
Fifth, the disciples believed that spirits exist because they thought that Jesus was a spirit when they saw him walking on water (Matthew 14:26; Mark 6:49).
Sixth, Jesus distinguished between the body and soul and treated them as two different parts of a human: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”
Finally, Jesus’ human body obviously had a soul/spirit, since it was animated with Jesus’ spirit. Consequently, according to Scripture, a human can comprise both matter/body and soul/spirit.
It is very difficult to align the above passages with monism or physicalism. These passages, I believe, clearly imply the concept of dualism.
Jacobus Erasmus, Ph.D