What comes to your mind when you think about your soul? How does it relate to your body? Do you have a spirit that is in some way different from your soul? Are your body, soul, and spirit just one inseparable unit? What happens to these dimensions of you when you die? And what happens at the resurrection?
Christians have debated these questions throughout history. This is partly because the Bible can sound like it’s saying different things about the body, soul, and spirit in different places, and partly (particularly for western Christians) because of Plato’s influence on our thinking. Today, we also have the additional influence of the discoveries in neuroscience.
But the majority of Christian theologians throughout history have agreed that the Bible reveals human beings as fundamentally comprised, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, of a “rational soul and flesh,” meaning two main dimensions: an immaterial and a material.
These two dimensions were not designed to be torn apart, but due to sin and its wages (Romans 6:23) the tragic abnormality is that they are torn apart in death. And therefore, the ultimate goal of what Jesus purchased on the cross, and the great hope of the Christian faith, is not disembodied souls living in an ethereal heaven after bodily death, but the resurrection of the body.
The Great Divide
God created us as embodied souls and designed these two dimensions to function in complete harmony. But then came the fall, and “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). And when death occurs, the Bible describes our soul being torn from our body.
Not all Christians affirm such cleaving. There are a minority of theologians who hold to monism, the belief that a human is one inseparable being, that no aspect of a person can live apart from his body, and that “the scriptural terms soul and spirit are just other expressions for the “person” himself, or for the person’s “life.” Monists believe that when people die, they undergo a kind of soul sleep until the resurrection, pointing to numerous texts like John 11:11 and 1 Corinthians 15:20, where death is described as sleep.
But there’s a reason the vast majority of Christians have not been monists: so many texts point to our soul (or spirit) living on after death claims our bodies (Genesis 35:18; Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:43, 46; Acts 7:59; Philippians 1:23–24; 2 Corinthians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:14; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 6:9; 20:4). Therefore, “sleep” is a euphemism for what happens to the body, not the soul.
The Intermediate State
One of the clearest Scriptures on this is Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). In the story, both poor Lazarus and the rich man die. Their souls are torn from their bodies and sent to “Hades,” the realm of the dead, where Lazarus is at Abraham’s side, across the chasm from where the rich man is in torment. Jesus may have employed fiction in his parables, but he always used realistic fiction. If this parable didn’t in some significant way reflect what really happened after death (until Christ himself went in human soul to Hades, and drew up with him saved souls to his Father’s presence in heaven), it would have been a strange anomaly and uncharacteristically misleading.
Theologians refer to the place where Lazarus’s and the rich man’s soul go (with a great chasm fixed between them, Luke 16:26) as the “intermediate state,” where souls of those who have died await the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment (John 5:28–29). For those who die in their sin (John 8:24), it is literally a hellish state of torment. But for those who die in faith, it is wonderful beyond imagination, what we call “heavenly,” because it is where God is. That’s why Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). And it’s why Paul said that to “be away from the body [is to be] at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), which is “far better” (Philippians 1:23) than remaining in a fallen “body of death” (Romans 7:24).
But while this temporary paradise is far better for the Christian than this futile world, the Bible does not describe it as being the best thing. There is some sense in which our souls will be “unclothed” at the loss of our physical bodies (2 Corinthians 5:4), though the Bible doesn’t describe it in specifics. It may be a heavenly experience for us to be with the Lord, but we will be incomplete until we “attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:11).
Your Spiritual Body
Christianity is not merely a go-to-heaven-when-you-die religion; Christianity is foremost a resurrection religion. The cross of Jesus is of course crucial. But it is the resurrection of Jesus that not only points to his death’s efficacious substitutionary atonement for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17–19), but also points to our ultimate future hope: our resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20).
When Jesus came, it was to inaugurate the new creation. The current creation is groaning under the weight of “futility” and its “bondage to corruption,” eagerly waiting for “the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19–21). And the sons of God will be revealed when they experience the “redemption of [their] bodies,” meaning their new bodies (Romans 8:23). And this will happen at the return of Jesus, the great Christian “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13), which will initiate that great gathering in the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:15–17). The entire New Testament rings with resurrection.
God is not content to give us an ethereal heaven where we’ll live as a great gathering of disembodied souls. God originally made this creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But since it has been corrupted by sin, he now intends to make “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). And a central part of this new creation is the reunion of our purified souls with our new resurrected bodies:
What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42–44)
The Great Reunion
God is giving his Son, Jesus, a kingdom of a new heavens and new earth (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13), and all who have been adopted as sons in Jesus (Ephesians 1:5) will reign with him, all having shared in his resurrection (Revelation 20:6). For, in our case, the last enemy Jesus will destroy is death (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:51–55)
And so the great divide between our immaterial soul and our material body that happens at our curse-caused death will become, in the resurrection, the great reunion of our soul and body — a glorious body that, like Jesus’s, “will never die again” (Romans 6:9).
And of all the glorious things we will experience in our resurrected, reunified state as inhabitants of God’s new creation, the joy of our joys, our light of our new life, the heaven of the new earth, will be this: that “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).