“What am I?” This is a perennial question in metaphysics (a branch of philosophy) and one we rarely ask, despite its importance upon our view of human nature and the afterlife. If one were to ask Plato he might respond with something like “I am a soul; I have a body,” whereas Aristotle would say something like ““I am a soul with a body.” While Plato kept the material and immaterial worlds entirely separate, Aristotle (a pupil of Plato’s) understood there is a necessary connection between the two worlds and the soul would require some connection to a body.

Philosophically speaking, a human is either:

  1. Entirely a material entity consisting only of physical substance.
  2. Partly material and partly immaterial consisting of two substances: a soul (immaterial) and a body (material) where the two substances can be separated physically from each other, e.g., the soul can leave the body.
  3. Integrated being comprised of two substances, a soul (immaterial) and a body (material). The two substances can be distinguished conceptually but not separated physically from each other.

[Note: I’ll not address the minority view that the human is trichotomous consisting of “body, soul, and spirit” since “soul” and “spirit” are both immaterial and I take them to refer synonymously to the same aspect of the human soul, just as the thrust of biblical data suggests.]

Now, those committed to biblical authority would find it difficult to maintain 1. above and 2. would certainly be Plato’s view (and that of Rene Descartes). Option 3. has the most going for it and closely aligns with the view of Thomas Aquinas (who follows Aristotle’s metaphysics). St. Thomas’ view remains a force to be reckoned with in philosophical circles and, I suggest, best comports with Scripture.

So what?
What’s the big deal with this philosophical speak? To begin with consider:

  1. When someone dies, does their soul die too or just their body? If the soul dies, then are the deceased immediately brought back to life again without a body? How much time elapses between the end of life and the beginning of the afterlife, or “how long do I stay dead?”
  2. Will the body be abandoned by the soul at death or will the body be transformed to contain the new soul?
  3. What happens after death? If we get a new body to live in does it look like the one previously? If so, what happens to the dead body? Are there “two” of me now? If so, how is this different from some kind of reincarnation?
  4. Jesus promised one thief next to him that “today” you will be with me in “paradise.” Is death just a blink of the eye or brief moment of time before we pass on to the afterlife? Is “paradise” heaven?
  5. If after death we do receive a new body like our previous one, will it be in perfect shape or will I continue to be overweight?
  6. If after death we do not receive a new body, where are we if not locally present somewhere? How can a body-less person be some “where”? Are we little ghosts transparently floating around?

Scripture simply does not give us all the answers and that’s why we need philosophers who can help us think through some of the implications. Of course, we can’t have certainty on the details, but we can be sure that because Christ is raised (2 Timothy 2:8; 1 Peter 1:3) we too will someday be raised (1 Corinthians 15:12; 1 Thessalonians 4:16) and given new bodies that will be like Christ’s glorious body (1 Corinthians 15:35-53).

For an excellent book from a solid biblical perspective, see John W. Cooper’s Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. For a well-informed article that nicely canvasses the philosophical landscape see “Resurrection.” Finally, for a penetrating and thoroughly provoking article, don’t miss N.T. Wright’s Rethinking the Tradition. To whet your appetite, I offer his opening remarks:

I begin at the end. The bodily resurrection is still in the future for everyone except Jesus. Paul is quite clear in 1 Corinthians 15.23: Christ is raised as the first-fruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ will be raised as he has been raised. The ‘coming’ of which Paul speaks has not yet happened; therefore, clearly, the dead in Christ have not yet been raised. This is actually the official view of all mainstream orthodox theologians, Catholic and Protestant, except for those who think that after death we pass at once into an eternity in which all moments are present — a quite popular view but one which contains many serious difficulties.

Spread the word (please & thank you) 

3 Comments

  1. “Integrated Metaphysics.”

    Thanks Paul for posting the current item. “What am I?” Great question! Yet, I fear most Christian based thinkers fail to construct an integrated metaphysic regarding the question. And, due to time constraints, I will posit the following: Is the question “What am I?” to be answered, for the Christian, as one “In Adam” or as one “In Christ”? May we assume that dualism here?

    The usual way this question “What am I” gets replied to is given from the vantage of, I would contend, everyone being “In Adam.” What happens if the Christian thinker (leveraging the biblical metaphysic) takes the vantage point of “In Christ” to answer said question? Perhaps if we expand the metaphysic domain, we will see that those being “In Christ” have significantly more, metaphysically speaking, than those remaining “In Adam” to work with.

    For starters, “In Christ” one has a new Body, one has a new Spirit. These are in addition to (we’ll assume) the by nature body / spirit dualism generally accepted. Thus, here, for heuristic purposes, can we assume and explore the possibility (?) that those “In Christ” are a double dualistic composite (at a minimum) and thus we must hold an integrated dualism (“In Christ” weds nature and grace; Christ and I; additionally, I and Christ’s Body),

    In conclusion, “Paul, My Brother In The Lord,” (speaking of another dualism…my earthly family and my heavenly family) and all attending readers, have we as Christian thinkers tried to fully explore and answer said question…”What am I”?…from too narrow a reply?

    God’s best to All readers.

    Carl



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