Some questions don’t seem very important until they actually are. If you know someone who is losing their memory, or who has had a brain injury, or perhaps a pregnant woman who is told her baby’s brain isn’t developing properly, then these questions suddenly get real in a hurry.
How should the Christian think about such questions?
For starters, we can’t expect a secular world to define this for us, though sometimes they do get a little closer to the truth. For example, the recent article by Yaïr Pinto in Aeon Magazine, “When You Split the Brain, Do You Split the Person?” pushes back against the notion that if you split someone’s brain that you end up with two persons.
Pinto, the author, points to an earlier study that confidently concluded that their research “literally proved the concept of materialism in the area of consciousness. If you split the person when you split the brain, that leaves little room for an immaterial soul.”
How’s that for scientific humility?
The article draws on more recent research challenging the notion that it is possible to split someone into multiple persons by removing the connection between the sides of the brain. This leads to a far more cautious conclusion, “While the previous model provided strong evidence for materialism (split the brain, split the person), the current understanding seems to only deepen the mystery of consciousness.”
What might the Bible have to say about the mystery of consciousness?
First, the Bible teaches us that we are more than our bodies. God made Adam from the dust of the ground and then breathed life into him (Genesis 2:7). Like Adam we have a material body and an immaterial soul. To be human is to be both body and soul.
Second, because of the curse of sin our souls are severed from a relationship with God and we live in fallen and dying bodies (Genesis 3). Even when our soul is made alive to God through faith in Jesus (Ephesians 2) we still live in a sinful and fallen body. That means to be a Christian is to have a wonky relationship between our living soul and our dying body. We will certainly experience what Jesus warned the disciples of — our spirit can be willing but our flesh weak (Matthew 26:41).
There are only two biblical categories for souls: dead (unbelieving) or living (believing). There is no middle category for impaired or limited souls. A soul made alive by Christ is complete even though wed to a fallen and limited body. There are no handicapped souls in heaven. Every soul that is made alive in Jesus is whole, and better yet, as Paul reminds us, is wholly known by God (Galatians 4:9).
Third, even if our bodies fail to function properly that doesn’t mean our soul is not still complete. There are a number of things that can radically affect the relationship between our soul and body such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, or severe brain injuries. But just because the machinery of the body doesn’t recognize the soul doesn’t mean the soul isn’t there.
To use a crude metaphor, if you have seen Ghostbusters you might remember their ghost-detecting devices (P.K.E. Meter). Imagine if the machine was broken and couldn’t detect the supernatural, that wouldn’t mean the ghost wasn’t there but simply that the machinery was broken. In a similar way, our bodies, or better our brains, can be broken and not work properly with our souls. The Christian has no reason to believe this in any way changes one’s soul.
Fourth, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). When our bodies quit functioning altogether the believer is immediately ushered into the presence of God. While this should give us great comfort, we must realize it is not our final hope as God has created us as body and soul. He will restore what was lost in Eden. He will reverse the curse.
Fifth, the hope of the New Testament is that we will receive a new and incorruptible body (1 Corinthians 15). We will not spend eternity as just a soul in a ghost-like existence or living in fallen body. We will spend eternity in a similar way that Adam and Eve initially lived physically in God’s presence without sin, guilt, shame, or death.
Sixth, Jesus models this for us. He appeared to the disciples bodily after the resurrection. He went into the heavens bodily, physically, visibly. His entering heaven was humanity entering heaven. He will return just as the disciples saw him go, bodily and visibly.
The scandal of the Ascension (Jesus bodily entering heaven) is that there is now once again a pathway for humans to dwell in God’s presence with his provision. This should immediately make us think of what was lost in Eden. No one has physically dwelled in God’s presence since the human rebellion in Genesis 3. Jesus’ ascension shows us that we, like him, will be able to dwell bodily with our Creator.
For the unbeliever, this should bring great concern. The moment after you breathe your last breath you will stand before God. That’s why Jesus said we shouldn’t fear those who can merely kill the body but not the soul, but rather to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in Hell (Matthew 10:28).
That’s why Christians take seriously the mandate to share their faith knowing that every person has a soul that will outlive the grave. When the nearly 100 billion neurons in our brain stop firing, our soul lives on. The biblical teaching of the soul should be a subject of concern for the unbeliever but a doctrine of great comfort for the Christian.