Saturday, June 16, 2012

Biblical dualism

A friend asked me some questions recently–mostly about dualism. Here’s the exchange:

Have you looked into Christian Physicalism? I noticed that the ARP is going to be ruling on whether or not it is legitimate to hold the position in their denomination. I've been listening to some stuff by Glenn Peoples and - surprisingly - I find it at least as plausible as Cartesian dualism.

I'm acquainted with it. Your question depends on whether you're considering it from a philosophical standpoint or exegetical standpoint.

Two standard monographs are:

John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Eerdmans, 2000)

Joel B. Green and Stuart L. Palmer (eds.), In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem (IVP, 2005)

As you know, physicalism is subject to familiar philosophical objections, viz. "the hard problem of conscious" (a la Chalmers):

I'll have more to say later. For now, keep in mind that Glenn's physicalism is probably related to his annihilationism or conditional immortality. There is no immaterial, immortal soul. Immortality is tied to the resurrection of the body–or not. So physicalism dovetails with annihilationism.

Two standard monographs are:

And here's a freebie:

Exegetically speaking, some traditional prooftexts for dualism are admittedly weak. The word "soul" in the OT is sometimes just a pronoun for "self."

Likewise, the Hebrew word for "soul" doesn't mean the same thing as the concept of the soul in traditional Christian theology, especially the Augustinian tradition.

The primary exegetical argument for dualism is the intermediate state. This includes standard prooftexts, viz. Lk 23:43; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23; 1 Thes 5:10; Rev 14:13.

For instance, one purpose of Revelation is to give persecuted Christians encouragement. Even if (or especially if) they are martyred, a better life awaits them the moment they are killed for the faith. What they lose in this life is more than made up for in the afterlife.

If, however, they pass out of existence the moment they die, then that's not very encouraging–even if they will be resurrected at a later date. Temporary nonexistence cuts against the grain of certain Biblical promises.

And apart from specific prooftexts, there is just the gap between when we die and the resurrection of the just. Christians die at different times. If the resurrection of the just lies at the end of the church age, what happens to us during the interim?

That naturally generates a two-stage view of the afterlife: intermediate state followed by final state.

The Bible also teaches the existence of discarnate minds. Angels are a case in point.

Allow me to give a few quick readings of these texts that might check out:

Luke 23:43 and Phil 1:23 could be dealt with by an argument based on the experience. Although it could actually be millions of years before Christ returns in the experience of the believers all they will be conscious of is something like falling asleep followed by waking up – they were unconscious during the interim.

i) I’m familiar with that argument. Whatever the independent merits (or lack) of that argument, it’s not to be confused with exegesis.

ii) The time-marker in v43 (“Today”) stands in studied contrast to the time-marker in v42 (“When you come into your kingdom”). The thief petitions Jesus to remember him at the Parousia. Jesus responds by assuring him of something even better than he petitioned. Instead of having to wait until the final Judgment, the thief will enter immediately into heaven, in the company of Christ, at the moment of death.

So v43 doesn’t refer to the Parousia. To the contrary, the timing is set in deliberate contrast to the Parousia.

iii) That’s reinforced by the emphatic position of the time-marker (“Today”) at the beginning of the sentence, to accentuate the temporal contrast.

iv) Moreover, that’s confirmed by the cultural connotations of “Paradise.” In 2nd Temple Judaism, that stood for the postmortem state of the righteous after death but before the resurrection of the just.

Of course, Intertestamental tradition isn’t normative, but that’s how the text would be heard by educated members of Luke’s audience. That’s the default understanding. And that’s what Jesus is trading on.

v) It’s analogous to “Abraham’s bosom” in Lk 16:22. And there’s a similar notion of a present, but hidden “Paradise” in 2 Cor 12:2-3 (cf. Rev 2:7). Of course, Paul isn’t Luke, but both of them are using the same cultural background imagery.

vi) How does physicalism do justice to the tension in Phil 1:23? Is Paul really torn between the duty to continue ministry and the better prospect of passing into oblivion (until the resurrection of the just)? How is passing into temporary oblivion far more appealing than remaining here?

There’s also a grammatical argument for Luke 23:43 where the comma would be placed after ‘today’ rather than before so that the verses would read ‘Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise’. But I couldn’t argue the point because I don’t know Greek. I’m just saying this explanation has been offered. That said, if the grammatical argument doesn’t go through then the other explanation could work.

That explanation is proffered by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Aside from the fact that it disregards the relationship between v42 and 43 (see above), the explanation is absurd. Of course Jesus was speaking to him at the time he was speaking to him. That’s self-evident.

2 Cor 5:8 comes in a section which is clearly referring to the resurrection (being ‘further clothed’). The ‘body’ that he would like to be absent from refers to bodies that are perishable and part of this current evil age. He longs for a time when he will be away from it and be ‘present with the Lord’ in a new glorified bodily on a glorified earth.

i) In 2 Cor 5, there’s a threefold comparison and contrast:

a) Being clothed is to having a mortal body in this life


b) being unclothed is to being disembodied with Christ in the afterlife


c) being reclothed is to having an immortal body at the Resurrection of the just.

That’s how the elements match up in this passage.

ii) It also parallels the three-stage experience of Christ:

(a) He was alive in a mortal body; (b) he died, during which his soul occupied the intermediate state; (c) he was raised from the dead in an immortal body.

iii) This also involves inaugurated eschatology. Because Christians are united with Christ by the Holy Spirit, they participate in the Resurrection even before they die (5:5). A tongue taste and foretaste of things to come.

iv) In Paul’s argument, the intermediate state involves both loss and gain. “Corporate” existence is corporate in more than one sense: (a) It’s embodied; (b) it involves fellowship with other embodied beings in the corporate life of the church.

But there’s gain: he will enter into the presence of Christ. And that’s better than what he left behind.

So that involves another threefold comparison and contrast: the intermediate state is superior to the mortal state, but inferior to the final state. The final state will combine the best of the mortal and intermediate states, without the downsides.

If, on the other hand, Paul denied the intermediate state, then there is no contrast between distinct stages, even though Paul distinguishes them in this very passage.

v) In verse 8, he explicitly describes a Christian’s postmortem existence as an out-of-body (“away from/out of” the “body”) mode of subsistence.

In his figurative analogy, a soul without a body is like a body without attire. Nudity is a metaphor for the intermediate state. Cf. vv3-4. Yet that’s concomitant with being in God’s presence.

Indeed, this may also play on the figurative connotations of guilt and shame. To be naked is to be morally exposed, having nothing to hide behind.  In the direct presence of God, we are stripped bare.

The parallels with 1 Cor 15 strengthen the appeal of this interpretation.

No it doesn’t, for that isn’t concerned with the credibility of the intermediate state (i.e. immortal soul), but the credibility of the resurrection.

1 Thess 5:10 only works as a proof text for dualism if the physicalist position necessitates the non-existence of the person at death but this isn’t obvious. The metaphor of ‘sleep’ could apply to a corpse as well couldn’t it? Wouldn’t it primarily be referring to the appearance of a dead body?

If you’re a physicalist, then death isn’t a state of suspended animation for the mind of the decedent. It isn’t as if the mind survives the death of the body, and continues to subsist at an unconscious level. Rather, your consciousness, your personality ceases to exist when the brain dies.

Rev 14:13, as you know, is a highly symbolic book so we should be careful not to assume that the souls of the martyrs refer to actual disembodied souls. They certainly mean disembodied souls at the symbolic level but it’s not necessarily the case that they are disembodied souls in reality.

i) I already made allowance for symbolism. That’s why I discussed the passage in relation to the purpose of the book. A major aim of the book is to encourage Christians who are facing the prospect of capital punishment for their faith. That naturally triggers fear of death, and the consequent temptation to recant their faith under duress. So God reveals what awaits them if they die.

I’m not just appealing to the surface imagery. Rather, I’m understanding the imagery in light of the book’s occasion and purpose.

ii) Likewise, Revelation distinguishes between the intermediate state and the final state.

The idea of the souls of the martyrs might act as a poetic device to ensure John’s first century readers, who were undergoing persecution and had lost loved ones in the tribulation, of the justice of God. By using this imagery he would be reminding them that God will punish those who killed their loved ones and who continue to oppress them as living believers.

Punishing their oppressors is one side of the coin, but that doesn’t address what becomes of them after they die. That’s the other side of the coin. Knowing that your oppressor will be punished isn’t sufficient motivation to face martyrdom. That’s about what happens to him, but what about you? What happens to you?

“If, however, they pass out of existence the moment they die, then that's not very encouraging–even if they will be resurrected at a later date. Temporary nonexistence cuts against the grain of certain Biblical promises.“

Again, I think the argument from experience can handle this.

If you press the metaphor of sleep, then we sleep we dream. We’re oblivious to the waking world, but conscious of the dream world. So the argument from experience cuts both ways. Sleepers are dreamers. You could just as well use the metaphor of sleep to illustrate the intermediate state.

“And apart from specific prooftexts, there is just the gap between when we die and the resurrection of the just. Christians die at different times. If the resurrection of the just lies at the end of the church age, what happens to us during the interim?”

This could be the hardest part for the physicalist to answer. They would have to say that we are simply dead corpses. But then they have to face problems like the ‘Christian cannibal’ and the like which are designed to bring the possibility of resurrection under scrutiny. But remember, this is a philosophical argument whereas the Christian physicalists I know are making an exegetical case. They could still be warranted in believing physicalism even if they don’t have a philosophical answer to these problems in the same way that a Calvinist who doesn’t know how God can hold people that have been determined to sin accountable is still warranted in his Calvinism so long as he can make his case exegetically.

There are both philosophical and exegetical objections to physicalism. Keep in mind that I wasn’t presenting a full-blown case for the intermediate state, but there are additional arguments:

i) According to Jesus, the Patriarchs are living with God (Lk 20:37-38). Not merely that they will live again, at a future date, but that they are currently alive with God. Death didn’t sever their fellowship with God. That’s a present, abiding reality. It will be consummated at the resurrection of the just, but it never ceased.

ii) Scripture bears witness to the existence of sainted ghosts (e.g. the shade of Samuel; Moses and Elijah appearing to Christ at the Transfiguration).

iii) There is Stephen’s “deathbed” vision, as he stands on the brink of crossing over, to be with Christ in glory (Acts 7:55-56).

iv) Keep in mind that 2nd Temple Judaism distinguished between the intermediate state and the resurrection of the body. The Bible can override that, but unless the Bible contradicts that cultural given, that’s how the original readers would understand these promises. It would be misleading for NT writers to leave that presumptive eschatology intact if it was wrong.

“The Bible also teaches the existence of discarnate minds. Angels are a case in point.”

I’ve been thinking through this one for a while and I’m not sure if the Bible does teach that Angels are discarnate minds. No Cartesian would be willing to say that an immaterial mind could appear sensibly to people…

Actually, certain parapsychological phenomena (e.g. ectoplasm, apportation, teleportation, bilocation, materialization) seem to be empirically manifest mental projections.

…and yet the Bible speaks of angels as if they had bodies. Perhaps their bodies are somewhat ‘wispier’ than ours but they still seem to be empirically detected, can move around in space, etc. The only clear case of a discarnate mind in Scripture seems to be God.

The Bible distinguishes between angels/ghosts and embodied creatures (e.g. Mt 14:26; Lk 24:37-38; Acts 12:15). Even if we chalk that up to folk belief, it still means people wouldn’t readily confuse the two.

No comments:

Post a Comment