Embodied Souls and Ensouled Bodies

January 20, 2023
Editors Note

Is a fish aware that it’s wet? It’s a tough question to answer, and not just because fish aren’t exactly the most communicative of creatures. On the one hand, we might think that a fish must certainly know it’s wet; after all, it spends its entire life in water! On the other hand, we might realize that a fish doesn’t know any other existence. If it is born into water and lives its entire life there, how would it even notice the water’s wetness?

This somewhat amusing question about a fish can be applied to ourselves: Are humans aware that they are embodied? On the one hand, we spend a lot of time thinking about our bodies—how they look, how they feel, what they perceive. And yet, despite being physical creatures, we do not seem to spend a lot of time contemplating what being embodied really means. We are born and live our entire lives with a physical body. How do we think about something so ubiquitous that it is virtually impossible to imagine life without it?1

Despite the difficulties we may have considering what it means to have a body, the Bible has much to teach us about our physical nature in God’s creation. Using the framework of creation, fall, redemption, and re-creation, let us consider what it teaches about our nature as embodied creatures.

Creation

Human embodiment is introduced at the very beginning of the biblical story. Genesis 2:7 tells us that “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (ESV). From the first moment of our creation, humans have been physical beings. Our bodies are not a burden or afterthought, and they cannot be separated from our conception of “ourself.” God’s design in his very good creation was for humans to live an embodied existence in a state of peace and harmony, or shalom, with themselves, each other, the rest of creation, and God himself.

Genesis 1:26–28 is well known for introducing the language of the imago Dei—humans, male and female, are created in the image of God. There has long been debate over what exactly this entails, but at the very least we should understand it to mean that humans have a connection with God that is separate from and greater than the rest of creation, and that we are meant to reflect (or image) God to the rest of the world.2  This is commonly used as the basis for human dignity, but we should not miss the additional truth that God’s chosen image-bearers are physical creatures. We sometimes think that, since God is spirit, a disembodied existence is somehow better for us or will bring us closer to God. While understandable, this is to mistake the creator/creature distinction. We are not God, and we are not designed to exist as he does. Embodied existence is a part of God’s good plan for us.

Fall

As we know all too well, Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God resulted in the fall, and since then sin has permeated every aspect of creation. That includes human beings; the fall corrupts us, body and soul, and we find ourselves out of shalom with ourselves, each other, the rest of creation, and God. As a result of the fall, our embodied state becomes a curse. We suffer from pain, sickness, and disability. As we age, it can feel like our very bodies betray us, becoming frailer and less and less under our control. Ultimately, we experience the violence of death, reversing God’s creative work and separating body and soul in a way that should never happen in God’s good design.

And yet, despite the horrific results of the fall, we remain embodied creatures. Scripture affirms that God still cares about our physical bodies. This care is present at the very beginning of our existence as God knits us together in our mother’s wombs (Psalm 139:13–16). The Old Testament is full of examples of God healing the sick, providing food and clothing, and otherwise caring for the physical needs of his people. In the midst of a broken and fallen world, God is aware of and cares about us in our embodied state.

Redemption

After the fall, one might think that God would change his plan, abandoning our frail physical bodies and focusing on our souls. What we see, however, is something very different. At the incarnation Jesus took on flesh for us—he embraced human embodiment and all that entails. So important is Jesus’ embodied life on earth that the early church condemned the view that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body as heresy (referred to as Docetism). As a human man with a fully human body, Jesus experienced life as we do, underwent the same temptations we do, and ultimately suffered from death just as we do. Jesus’ crucifixion was not the end of his incarnation. The gospels affirm that he was raised to life again in a transformed but still human body, ascended to heaven in that body, and will come back again with it! At all points of the gospel account, Jesus affirms and participates in our embodied existence, for our redemption is to be an embodied redemption, encompassing soul and body (Rom 8:23–24; Phil 3:20–21).

Re-creation

One day Jesus will turn to earth and make all things new; only then will the salvation that we now hope for be realized (1 Pet 1:3–9). There are many things to look forward to on the day of Christ’s return, but one of the most significant is the redemption of our bodies. Paul tells us that it is necessary for our bodies to be transformed into ones that are imperishable and immortal; only then will it be true that “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). Our Christian hope is not for a disembodied state but for eternal, embodied life with God on a re-created earth.

Applications

Each of the arcs of the biblical story has implications for our Christian faith and walk. Against the materialists who say that the physical is all that there is, God’s creation of humans as embodied image-bearers shows us that we are a unity of body and soul. Our embodiment reminds us that we have a spiritual dimension, and we must attend to that aspect of our existence.

The fall reminds us that not all is right with our bodies—they suffer from injury, illness, and death. And yet, we can acknowledge that this occurs not because bodies are inherently evil, but because all of creation is affected by sin. In a fallen world, it takes effort and stewardship to care for our bodies.

Against the hedonists who say that the body exists simply for pleasure and that nothing we do in our body matters, our redemption reminds us that Jesus had a high enough view of the human body to take on embodied existence for us. Jesus affirms the value and import of the embodied life, and as redeemed creatures awaiting the transformation of our bodies, we must recognize that what we do in the body matters a great deal, as do our bodies themselves (1 Cor 6:15–20). This has implications for how we view sexuality, as well as any attempts to mutilate, deform, or transform the body.

Against the Gnostics (as well as today’s transhumanists) who would call the human body a hindrance to be thrown off or modified at will, our hope of re-created bodies reminds us that we should not disparage the body or look forward to abandoning it. Embodiment is a blessing from God, given at creation and carried through into the new creation—we should joyfully anticipate new bodies! Anticipate, however, does not necessarily mean strive for; we should not try to obtain in our time what God has promised to give in his.3  We can and should seek to treat disease and other effects of the fall on our physical bodies. Christians have a long history of caring for the sick and making advances in physical healing. At the same time, we must resist attempts to enhance human capabilities or escape our mortal bodies altogether; our new bodily existence will come from God, not our own striving.

Much more could be said about our embodiment and how it should shape our ethical thinking, but I hope this serves as something that can at least “prime the pump.” Our embodied existence is a crucial, though oft-overlooked, aspect of our humanity, and better understanding it should help us better live for and serve God in his world.

References

[1] Some might argue that we are perfectly capable of contemplating spiritual or, for some, digital existence. I would argue, however, that lacking any frame of reference, most of the thinking done in these arenas is still tied to what we already know—of feeling, sensing, perceiving, and communicating within the physical world.

[2] For a comprehensive discussion of the image of God, see John F. Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).

[3] Stephen Williams, “Biotechnology and Human Flourishing in Christian Perspective” (plenary address, The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity’s 25th Annual Conference, Bioethics and Being Human, Deerfield, IL, June 23, 2018).

Cite As:

Bryan Just, "Embodied Souls and Ensouled Bodies," Intersections, January 20, 2023, www.cbhd.org/intersections/embodied-souls-and-ensouled-bodies.

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Bryan A. Just, MA