The Severed Toe, the Goodness of Flesh, the Gain of Death, and the Resurrection of the Body

A Response to Kevin Corcoran

When my wife cut off half of her big toe under the lawn mower thirty years ago some of my students at Bethel argued that, strictly speaking, she wasn’t the same person now, because the body is coextensive with personhood. It was not a new thought then. It is not new today. So I hope not too many people are swept up by its new presentation in Kevin Corcoran’s new book, Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul. I have only seen his summary article in Books and Culture, (Nov./Dec., 2006, pp. 33-34). So I will happily be corrected if the book corrects the article, or if I miss what’s there.

Actually, it’s his article as it stands that puzzles me. Books and Culture, which I have read with profit almost every month since its creation twelve years ago, consists mainly of substantial reviews of significant books or art forms or movements from a more or less Christian perspective. But the editors have this tick that baffles me: Now and then they give a platform to an author not to review something significant but to attack something historic (and precious). One wonders how these articles are chosen.

I am thinking first of Robert Gundry’s broadside against the biblical doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (Jan./Feb., 2001, pp. 6-9). It was not a review of any book. Just Gundry’s view. And now there is Kevin Corcoran with a personal manifesto that humans are no more than material, though this material does things that image God. So my first perplexity is with Books and Culture, wondering why they didn’t have someone review Corcoran’s book instead of giving him space to promote it—especially since Corcoran’s proposal is against what most Christians believe. Very strange.

Corcoran’s view is that, just as statues are made up of material things, like the shape of a man or a woman in copper or ivory, and yet are not identical with the pieces of copper or ivory that constitute them, in a similar way, human persons are made up of material things but are not identical with the bodily materials that constitute them.

We are animals in the sense that we are wholly constituted by our bodies; every material part of me is a part of the biological body that constitutes me and I have no immaterial parts—just like the statue and the copper. We human beings are wholly physical creatures constituted by our bodies without being identical with them. (p. 33 emphasis in the original)

My second puzzlement is that neither in this article in Books and Culture, nor in the summary of the book at Calvin College’s web site (where Corcoran teaches philosophy), is there any mention of the biblical texts that stand in the way of Corcoran’s materialistic vision of human personhood. Rather, you get an odd argument that one might call the “logic of expectancy.” For example, after pointing out that damaged brains change personal consciousness, he says,

My argument is not that soul/body dualism is logically incompatible with empirical discoveries in the neurosciences. My argument is simply that if we were immaterial souls, we wouldn’t expect to find such a radical, causal dependence of the mental on the physical. (p. 33)

My response to this is that there are so many mysteries in the world that are counter-intuitive to my finite and fallen mind that the criterion of expectancy on my part would be a poor philosophic tool.

Corcoran comes closest to the Bible when he affirms the resurrection of the dead. But he denies that the human person is or has a reality that exists between physical death and physical resurrection. He argues like this—a third puzzlement—

Since dualism identifies us with immaterial souls capable of disembodied existence (or attributes to us such souls as parts), dualism is quite obviously compatible with belief in an afterlife. But for Christians it is important to recognize that the relevant Christian doctrine with respect to an afterlife is that of the resurrection of the body. None of the ecumenical creeds of the Church confesses belief in a doctrine of soul survival. It is curious, then, that contemporary dualists seem to have forgotten this in a way that our Christian ancestors did not. While most, if not all, orthodox Christian theologians of the early church were anthropological dualists, they nevertheless struggled in systematic ways to make sense of the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection. (pp. 33-34)

This is a very puzzling argument. Those today who believe that personhood is more than material have forgotten what our ancestors didn’t forget. But these ancestors all believed what we believe about human personhood. Hmm? But they wrestled to see how it is coherent with the bodily resurrection. And we today don’t? I don’t get it. What thoughtful Christian today does not know that in Philippians 1 Paul said that “to die is gain” and “to depart and be with Christ . . . is far better,” and in Philippians 3 he said that when Christ comes he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body”? Not either/or. Both/and.

It is puzzling that Corcoran says (above) that “the relevant Christian doctrine with respect to an afterlife is that of the resurrection of the body.” It is certainly a relevant doctrine. But arguing from the silence of ecumenical creeds about whether we survive death will not get you very far. One would be hard put to believe in the doctrine of justification by faith if we depended on the ecumenical creeds alone.

But back to my second puzzlement: the absence of any interaction with, or even mention of, all the texts in the New Testament that stand in the way of Corcoran’s rejection of an immaterial dimension to human personhood. Here are some of them that cry out for at least a mention if a philosopher wants a hearing from a biblically driven church.

  • The souls of martyrs cry out in heaven (Revelation 6:9-11).

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (See also Revelation 20:4)

  • To die is to “depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:20-24).

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

  • There is an outer and inner nature to who we are (2 Corinthians 4:16).

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature (ho exō ēmōn anthrōpos) is wasting away, our inner nature (ho esō ēmōn) is being renewed day by day.

  • Paul preferred not to die and be found “naked”—unclothed of his body; nevertheless, it is better to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:1-9).

For we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.

  • Jesus said that one may kill the body and not the soul (Matthew 10:28).

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

  • Jesus pictured life after death while the relatives of the dead are still here (Luke 16:22-28).

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house—for I have five brothers--so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.”

[The fact that the rich man speaks of his “tongue” in Hades may be the only way to express his non-physical misery; but it is certainly part of the “struggle” to make sense of life after death and its relation to the body.]

  • Before the end comes, there are already “spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-23).

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.

  • Jesus saw his personhood being in paradise the day of his crucifixion, and so committed his spirit into the Father’s hands (Luke 23:43).

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” . . . Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last. (See John 19:30)

  • There were spirits of humans “in prison” after their death that Jesus preached to in his spirit (1 Peter 3:18-20).

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

I repeat, it is a great puzzle to me that Corcoran could write his article without a single mention of these and that Books and Culture could regard such lopsided promotion of a marginally Christian idea as worthy of their journal.

I am happy to affirm Corcoran’s celebration of human physicality and the goodness of God’s material creation in spite of the fall. I applaud the passion to make this a means of awakening the church to the care of creation through God-centered, Christ-exalting, biblically driven environmental engagement. I agree that the song, “This World Is Not My Home” is lopsided. We must also sing, “This Is My Father’s World.” We are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13), and, as Abraham Kuyper said, there is not a square inch of the planet over which the risen Christ does not say, “Mine!”

Moreover, it is good to be reminded that the state of the human person between bodily death and bodily resurrection is not ideal. (The restoration of my wife’s toe will be good for her. But there will always be a “her” awaiting the great reattachment.) We long for the final triumph over all evil including death and the severing of body and soul. But we affirm with Scripture that death is gain for us even before the resurrection. The reason it is gain is that 1) we will be with Christ to see him and know him more directly than we do now, 2) we will be sinless, (O precious thought!), and 3) we will be free from all suffering.

Since I believe God is wise in revealing this to us (as mysterious as it is), I also believe that Kevin Corcoran’s proposal affirms the good of material reality at too great a loss, and that it will backfire on the very goods that he loves.

Read the correspondence between Piper and Corcoran in response to this article. 

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