A Biblical Doctrine of the Human Body

“Proportions of the Head” by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1488-89

Are you your body? Is your body you? Are you only your body? Are you more than your body? Do you have a soul? Does your soul go where your body cannot? Why do we have bodies anyway?

Questions like this have puzzled even the brightest philosophers since the beginning of time. As a Christian, I believe that every human being certainly has a soul: a part of them that is not visible. Yet there is no denying that from the perspective of other humans, and often from our own perspective, we are our bodies. This is how we interact with the world around us. It is how we reach out and touch one another. And when our bodies finally give out, we can no longer remain in this life.

The way a person feels about their body, along with the opinions of others, has a major effect on how that person views him or herself. While we certainly tend to view ourselves as more than our bodies, we by no means consider that our bodies are not a part of us. No one would ever say, “My body’s leg is broken. My body hurts.” They would say, “My leg is broken and it hurts!” Things that take place in our bodies have a major impact on our mental state and even our emotional and spiritual welfare.

The poet Yusef Komunyakaa is one of many writers to speak of his body in verse. In the poem “Anodyne” he says,

I love this body

made to weather the storm

in the brain, raised

of fish & water hyacinth,

out of rapture & the first

regret. I love my big hands.

I love it clear down to the soft

quick motor of each breath,

the liver’s ten kinds of desire

& the kidney’s lust for sugar.

This skin, this sac of dung

& joy, this spleen floating

like a compass needle inside

nighttime, always divining

West Africa’s dusty horizon.

I love how in this poem, Komunyakaa portrays not only the physical characteristics of his body, but the way that it links in with his desires, his emotions, and even his cultural heritage. His body, he writes, will always remind him of his ancestral home.

This poem has some relevance to what I would like to discuss. I would first like to examine the biblical view of body and soul. In my next essay, I will look at some of the ways in which we as human beings have a tendency to view certain people as only bodies. With that said, let’s dive in…

“Study of a Womb” by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1489

God did not create a universe of disembodied spirits. Although He Himself is spirit, He made a clear choice to form a physical world in which human beings and other creatures would have physical bodies.  The account that Scripture provides of the creation of man is certainly a divine miracle, but it also has important physical aspects. “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) God could have presumably created man in any way He pleased, but He chose to do it in this manner that clearly links human life with the physical universe.

Likewise, when Eve is created, she does not simply appear out of nowhere. “So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man.” (Genesis 2:21-22) Taken together, these two passages emphasize that humans were made to have bodies as well as souls.

We see throughout Scripture a number of biblical commands concerning the human body and not merely the mind or emotions. The rite of circumcision would be a very good example of this. Scripture makes clear that we are not simply souls in a shell. You may be thinking at this point, “Yes, but isn’t the soul eternal while the body is mortal?” Yes and no.

The Apostle Paul certainly taught that the body is an “earthly tent which is our house” (2 Corinthians 5:1), and he went on to explain that a person can be separated from their body, a reference to the eternal nature of the soul.

Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight – we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6-8

These verses are important because they establish the principle that our souls do not “sleep” when we die. The majority of Christians have always held that when a person united to Christ passes from this earthly life, they are present with Him. However, I must stress at this point that becoming disembodied is not the goal of the Christian. Our ultimate hope is the resurrection and glorification of our bodies.

In that same chapter I mentioned earlier, Paul tells us,

For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.

2 Corinthians 5:2-4

The opinion of many people in Paul’s day was that the physical body was an inherently bad thing, while the soul itself was pure. In this, they were influenced by Greek pagan thinking that held to a rather extreme form of mind/body dualism. The Gnostics in particular bought into the idea that they could commit sins in their bodies without affecting their souls, a problem that Paul had to address elsewhere in his letters.

“Studies of the Arm Showing the Movements made by the Biceps” by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1510

Paul could not have been clearer: Christianity is not a religion divorced from physical reality. In his famous chapter dealing with resurrection – 1 Corinthians 15 – he pushed back against those who were saying that there would be no literal resurrection of the dead. At no point in his writings does Paul ever suggest that the body is unimportant, that physical suffering is of no consequence, or that we should not long for our bodies to be renewed. He never suggests that we are only our souls, or that the soul is the righteous part of us while the body is the evil part. In concert with the rest of the biblical authors, he held that both the soul and the body have been tainted by the curse of sin and come under a sentence of death.

Obviously, we all know that our physical bodies are mortal. What Paul stresses in addition to this is that, absent the working of the Spirit, our soul (or spirit) is already dead. Yes, you read that right: our bodies are dying, but the part of us that most people regard as eternal is dead already. How can this be? Can a person without a soul live? Well, we must explain what we mean by dead. We mean that a person who has not been spiritually regenerated by the power of God has no possibility of doing acts of righteousness or earning their salvation. They are bound to the sinful nature with no hope of ever defeating it. When Paul talks about what happens to our souls when we become Christians, he uses the language of resurrection.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience…But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…

Ephesians 2:1-2, 4-6

Every human being experiences the death of the body, save for those who will be around when the Lord returns (and certain oddities like Enoch). That is a result of sin, without a doubt. Yet the most terrible curse of sin is that for those who have not been saved by grace, their soul is also under a sentence of death. They are destined to spend eternity separated from God in a kind of eternal death. In contrast, the good news for those who are in Christ is that we are not merely going to escape that torment of the soul. In addition to our soul being redeemed, our bodies will be redeemed as well.

Scripture never downplays the severity of physical death. It is the curse of sin, after all. It was not part of God’s perfect creation at the beginning of time. Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. (John 11:35) The grief of death and the separation of loved ones is certainly a tragedy, and there is nothing like death to remind us how intimately connected we are to our bodies. This is why Paul makes a point of telling us that the work of Christ will bring life to our bodies as well as our souls. He acknowledges the frailties or our physical bodies and then contrasts that with the glorified bodies we will have in the future.

So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

1 Corinthians 15:42-44

This “natural body” is the one that lives under the curse of sin. It is subject to aches and pains. It breaks down and ages. The “spiritual body” is the one we will have for all eternity. Our bodies will be raised to life, renewed, and glorified. They will not be subject to the curse of sin, but they will still be bodies, because our bodies are part of who we are.

“Anatomical Male Figure Showing Heart, Lungs, and Main Arteries” by Leonardo da Vinci, date unknown

There are two other biblical passages that are worth considering with regard to this issue. The first is when Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) This is a recognition of the temporal nature of our present bodies and the power of God to raise them back to life. No human being has the power to kill our soul, and so long as we have a soul, God can resurrect our body. Christ tells us that the people who should truly be afraid are those whose spirits are dead and are destined for an eternity apart from the grace of God. That is a double destruction: the curse of sin on both body and soul. Therefore, we see from this verse that there are certain ways in which the soul is clearly more important than the body, for the status of our soul determines our eternal status.

However, we should not take this to mean that our bodies are of no consequence to our spiritual state. Paul tells us elsewhere,

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! … Flee immortality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Paul is not attempting to say here that certain sins committed “in our minds” are not a severe problem. He is not attempting to downplay the danger of jealousy, pride, hatred, lust, and the like. Rather he is establishing the fact that our bodies are a part of who we are. Many of the Corinthians held to the mistaken view that their bodies were so separate from their souls that they could essentially have sex with anyone they wished without spiritual ramifications. Paul turns that thinking on its head by saying that, in some ways, sins committed in the body are worse.

Now, we have the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount assuring us “that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Therefore, it would be a mistake to assume that sexual sins are in a completely different category than other sins, or that those who commit them are much more condemned than a person who simply hates their neighbor. However, it is true that sexual sins often have far reaching consequences, including consequences for our bodies. Paul understands that since our bodies are part of us, what we do with them will affect the rest of us, even as it affects others.

In summary, the view presented by scripture is that human beings are made up of both body and soul, Christians will exist eternally in a resurrected body, both the body and soul need to be redeemed, and what is done by one affects the other. Check back later this week, when I will discuss some of the ways that we tend to misapply these principles with regard to our fellow human beings.