3 Problems With Christian Physicalism

Surprisingly, there are Christians who deny the existence of the soul. That may come as a shock to you (I know it was to me) but they’re really out there. They are a tiny minority of course, but they do exist. These people are called “Christian Physicalists”. They believe that people and animals are purely physical creatures with no immaterial aspect of their existence. They make an exception for God and perhaps for angels and demons, but humans, they say are physical through and through.

However, there are severe problems with physicalism on a theological level. It is not the intent of this blog post to give an argument for the existence of the soul, but rather to point out the theological problems with denying substance dualism.

1: The Continuity Of Identity

If physicalism is true, then how is the you that is raised to life at the resurrection not merely a clone of the you that died? If I’m only my body, if there’s so soul in this vessel, then who is that at the resurrection? Is that me? How could it be? That’s a different body! On my view, the thing that the two different bodies have in common is the soul. On a materialist view, that’s just a copy of the me that exists now; a clone!

Given that there’s no common constituent between the two bodies (i.e a soul), how is that not just a copy of you at the resurrection rather than actually being you? If my mind and my brain are one in the same, when my brain disintegrates into the dust, my mind is also gone…according to the materialist. So when God makes a new brain, wouldn’t that just be a copy of the one I had before? Sure, it’d have all my memories, my personality, and the resurrection body would both look and act like me, but it wouldn’t be me. The me that is typing this message will have been long gone by then and only a duplicate would be there at the resurrection.

It reminds me of a movie I saw a long time ago where people had been cloned, and the clones had all of the memories, personality traits, quirks, etc. programmed into them. They spent most of the movie thinking that they were the originals but they really weren’t. They were shocked (as I was) to find out that they were actually clones. They were copies. It was an interesting psychological thriller and I can’t remember what the name of it was, but that premise is sort of what the resurrection will amount to on a purely physicalist view. If I am to be the same person at the resurrection, there’s got to be a common constituent to link the two brains. I believe such a common constituent exists; it’s called the soul.

2: There’s No Free Will If Physicalism Is True

If there is no soul, then that means there is no free will. We’re all just molecules in motion. All of our thoughts, actions, words, feelings are caused by neurons firing in our brains stimulated by external and internal environmental factors. If there is no soul then your brain is just like a can of fizzing coke, obeying the laws of nature.

If we are molecules in motion, how can you possibly hold any human being accountable for their own actions? When a man murders, he is just reacting according to the physical reactions occurring inside of his brain. He can’t prevent his crimes anymore than water can prevent freezing in temperatures of 32 degrees. He can’t prevent his crimes anymore than a can of Coke can stop itself from fizzing. If we hold people accountable for their crimes, we are behaving as if they could have chosen to do otherwise, but they couldn’t have done otherwise if all they are is a cluster of atoms, chemicals and water. Man is just a purely physical object conforming to the natural cause and affect in his brain. He’s essentially an organic robot.

But if people don’t have free will, then how can God hold anyone accountable on judgment day? Well, actually He wouldn’t be judging the people who committed the crimes, He would be judging clones with all of the memories and personalities of the originals, which seems even more unjust. But assuming that problem number 1 listed above did not exist and somehow it was the original humans being judged by God, given that everything they did was causally determined by their brain chemistry and their environment, how could God hold them responsible? They couldn’t help what they did. No one can help what they do. Their brains, like everything else in nature, had to obey the laws of physics and chemistry.

What we have on Christian Physicalism are clones being judged for the crimes the people they were copied from committed. But even if the people at the resurrection could somehow be the originals, at the very least, we’d have people being punished for doing things they had no control over!

There are other issues with people not having libertarian free will such as genuine love being impossible and rational thought being impossible, but I already pointed these out in various other posts on this site.

3: Certain Bible Passages Don’t Make Sense If Physicalism Is True

There are many passages in The Bible that point to the fact that human beings have souls and in fact go to the afterlife immediately after they die, in a state of temporary disembodiment. This is how they exist before they’re given physical bodies at the resurrection.

For example, in Luke 23 which is Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, a thief hanging next to Jesus on a cross of his own turns to Jesus and says to Him “Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” Jesus said to the thief on the cross next to Him today you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). But if a person is just his body (meaning he has no soul to survive it’s death) and if there’s no intermediate state between death and resurrection, then what do we make of this circumstance in The Bible? Jesus wasn’t resurrected until 3 days later and the thief still hasn’t been raised. If people are just physical bodies, it would be impossible for that thief to be in paradise with Jesus that very day!

In 2 Corinthians 5:8, the Apostle Paul writes “We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” If human beings are only bodies, then it’s impossible to be absent from the body. This would be akin to saying “I’m trying to get away from myself” and mean it in the most literal sense. However, this makes perfect sense if human beings are souls residing inside of a body. If that’s the case, then you can be away from your body. The wider context of 2 Corinthians 5 also indicates the truth of substance dualism and cannot possibly make sense on physicalism. For example, in verse 1 Paul says that “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” And by “earthly tent” and “building from God” he’s contrasting the body we have now with the glorified immortal resurrection body. “Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Corinthians 5:2-4) Here he’s saying that we long to have those resurrection bodies. After all, the resurrection body will be immortal, it will never die. The resurrection body will never get sick, never age, never be injured, etc. So we long to have that type of body because the body we have now is mortal, will die some day, it often does get sick, it ages, it is susceptible to injury. So the resurrection body is preferable to the body we have now, and that’s why we long for it. Paul says that while we are in this body, we groan and are burdened. But, he says, we do not want to be unclothed (that is to say, to exist as a disembodied spirit), but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling (i.e the resurrection body).

If human beings are merely bodies, then this kind of talk in 2 Corinthians 5 is absurd. It makes no sense. Paul is using the analogies of tents and clothes to talk about our bodies. He says we don’t want to be naked, rather we’d rather have different clothes, heavenly clothes. The fact that he uses tents and clothes to describe our current VS. resurrection bodies suggests that Paul thinks a body is something you can dwell in and jump out of at any time. And 2 Corinthians 5:8 especially doesn’t make sense. “We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” If human beings are bodies, then it’s impossible to be absent from the body.

If there is no soul, what the heck appeared to Saul in 1 Samuel 28:11-19 when he went to talk to a medium? Was that not really the ghost of the prophet Samuel? Was that a figment of his imagination?

Also in Matthew 10:28, Jesus said “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” But if physicalism is true, then whenever someone destroys the body of another person, they are also destroying the soul. But Jesus says that man cannot do that. That’s why you shouldn’t fear him. You should fear God because not only can God destroy the body but He can also cast your soul into Hell.

And let’s not forget about this passage; “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether he was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows– was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” – 2 Corinthians 12:2-4

There are several other passages just like these that make no sense unless substance dualism is true.

There you have it, 3 problems with having a soulless Christianity, and 3 reasons why I’m a substance dualist.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jordan

    Under point #1, I wonder if that movie you were thinking of was The Sixth Day with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie The Prestige also raises similar questions about continuity of identity. This is, I think, a serious issue for physicalism. Chris Date is a very smart guy (so is Glenn Peoples, and I think you know who both of them are), but their response to this objection seems to be, “Well, God will take care of it somehow” or “our identity is preserved in the mind of God.” That second response is perhaps slightly better, but I still think this poses a more insurmountable problem than they think it does. R. Scott Smith has some good material on this subject.

    All your other points are also very well taken, and I’ve had many of the same basic thoughts. I just don’t think Christian physicalism holds up.

    1. Evan Minton

      Yeah, I don’t think either of those responses work. The first is an appeal to mystery. Now, sometimes we have to appeal to mystery because in the course of doing theology, we will just reach the edges of human understanding. I can solve omnipotence paradoxes, but I still can’t answer “How can God create out of nothing?” I don’t know how he does it. I can answer plenty of objections to divine omniscience, but I still don’t know how God knows what he knows – especially logically prior to His creative decree.
      However, I often find appeals to mystery to just be put forth when someone doesn’t want to admit there’s a problem with their view. Calvinists are most notorious for this. In the case of physicalism, I do think there is a real problem here. And I don’t think saying that “Our identity is preserved in the mind of God” is an actually good answer. Think about it; my body right now and the resurrection body are either the same or they’re not. If they don’t have ANY material in common, nor do these bodies share the same soul, then what is it that makes them the same? How is it that Body 1 and Body 2 are both just body 1 at different points in time? God could SAY “This is the same person”, but that wouldn’t make it true. Indeed, because it wouldn’t be true, I would argue that God wouldn’t say it, but let’s leave that to the side. The thing is; God could decree that the body of my resurrected mother is the same as the one that was cremated last year, but that decree will not change the logical fact that these are two entirely different bodies. And given that the soul doesn’t exist on Date’s and Peoples’ view, there is no soul to unify them. What this answer amounts to is God saying “Nope, they don’t have any material in common, nor do they have anything immaterial in common. But these two bodies are the same person. Trust me. I’m God. I said so.”

  2. Matthew

    Excellent article. There are several other problems with Physicalism. One of them is a denial of historic Christology and the Incarnation. The physicalist must deny the doctrine of the hypostatic union because in their view the God-Man Jesus lost his human nature at the crucifixion. He became in their view only God during those three days. (Now there are some of course that are consistent and go so far as to say that Jesus even in His Divine nature was ‘dead’ during those three days, but then that is saying that God died, that the Trinity became a binary… such a mess of problems!!)

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