Where Soul Meets Body
Have you ever run into someone with this attitude?
"You're not allowed to listen to that music / eat those foods / be around that culture / play that sport / learn that dance, because it stirs up your feelings, and those are evil."
What if we told you that religious beliefs about soul and body had something to do with this kind of restrictiveness? We have already discussed What Happens When You Die - how the human soul and body only function when united, how death is like a sleep, and how the true Christian hope for the future is in resurrection. But what many people fail to realize is that these views about souls, spirits, and humanity can actually affect how we live our lives right now. In order to understand how this can be, we need to go back to the beginning.
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." "Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!" These lines mark the beginning and end of Genesis 1, the first chapter of the Bible. Just these two lines summarize two extremely important truths: first, God is the one responsible for making this word, and second, that he created the world to be fundamentally good.
"In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it." John 1:1-5 NLT
The Bible goes on to tell us that this Word, who existed before all things were created, and who himself participated in God's creation activities in the beginning, became flesh, a physical human being. We know him as Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. The Christian faith teaches that Jesus was God in human form, fully human and fully divine.
In the early days of Christianity, a rival movement was rising up that would eventually challenge, poison, and re-shape the history of Christian beliefs. While it did not fully take form until the second century, the seeds of it were already growing during the time of the Apostles, and they warned against it strongly.
Gnosticism was a religious movement whose teachings involved "secret knowledge" that could lead people to salvation. It came from a mixture of influences, including Judaism, parts of Greek philosophies, and even a little bit of Christianity. These followers shared many things in common with other movements that appeared at this time, including Marcionism and Docetism.
But these are all strange words. What do they mean?
Gnostics and Docetics essentially believed that the physical universe had been created by an evil, petty god, and that the true highest God had created a spiritual reality that was "higher" and better than the physical realm. Physical matter was considered evil, tainted, and ultimately fleeting, while spiritual realities and the spiritual world of the "highest God" were good. The Gnostics especially taught that in order to escape this evil physical realm, one needed to gain special secret knowledge, or in Greek, "gnosis" - which is where their name comes from.
Some of the early seeds of this movement tried to make this secret knowledge about Jesus. It seemed almost like a part of the Christian movement for that reason. However, there was a major difference between Gnostic beliefs and Christian beliefs. To these people, if Jesus was a manifestation or revelation of the highest God, the one they believed to be the good one who had created spiritual things, then Jesus could not have been a part of the physical realm. He would not have sullied himself by touching physical matter, and so he must not have been fully human.
The Apostle John had some strong words for this kind of teaching. He said, "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world."
The Apostle Paul also had similarly strong things to say in warning about these kinds of teachings, since to him it was clear that Jesus was a true human being.  Paul clearly saw the dangers that came with the teaching that the human body was a bad thing to escape from, and that God the Son would not have become a human. Many forms of Gnosticism came with harsh treatment of the human body, and neglect of basic needs. They also sometimes involved rejecting good things that God actually allowed people to enjoy.
" Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." (Colossians 2:20-23 NIV)
There were also versions of Gnostic teachings that allowed people to be careless, chaotic, and completely free from self-control. If the body is only a temporary vessel and all physical life is immoral and tainted, why fight it? Just indulge in whatever you want, and pay no mind to the circumstances. After all, you don't need to take care of this evil physical body anyways, right?
Both of these extremes are dangerous and unbiblical. God created the physical world good, and created people in this world to take care of it, and to enjoy their experience. Over the course of religious history, dangerous unbiblical ideas have seeped into Christianity, creating unnecessary burdens and restrictions for people that are not based on Christian truth.
Jesus was born as a human being, lived as a human being, died a physical death, and was raised in a physical-spiritual body in order to save us and our bodies from sin, and to show us what a life in the human body looks like at it's full potential. Following Jesus doesn't only mean looking forward to heaven, but learning how to live well now in this present, physical reality. This life is a gift from God to be enjoyed. How will you live it?
- Think about interactions you have had with other Christians while reading Colossians 2:20-23. Have you ever encountered someone who thinks this way? What kinds of things did they try to forbid, and why did they do so?
- The term "Antichrist" is a frightening word that many people associate with the book of Revelation, but it is actually found in John's letters. Read 1 John 4:1-3 and 2 John 7. What is it about these teachings that John things is anti-Christ? Compare these passages to Hebrews 2:14-18, and 4:14-16 to help you answer.
- The emphasis that Christianity places on physical bodies makes it different from other religious ideas about the afterlife. Read 1 Cor 15:42 (NIV) below. What does Paul say gets raised from the dead? What does that mean?
- So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised 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. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (see also verse 54)
- Read 1 Timothy 4:1-5 and try to explain what Paul is talking about here. Is the false teaching that he describes more chaotic or more restrictive? Why would someone try to say that it is wrong to be married, or to eat certain foods, and how might that be connected to beliefs about the body and its physical feelings being spiritually bad?
- "Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead. They will say it is wrong to be married and wrong to eat certain foods. But God created those foods to be eaten with thanks by faithful people who know the truth. Since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks. For we know it is made acceptable by the word of God and prayer." 1 Timothy 4:1-5 NLT
- Have you ever felt like there was a war going on between two different parts of you? Like you were sometimes longing to do the right thing, but sometimes strongly desiring the wrong things? Read through Romans 7 in the ESV and NLT, noting where these translations do or don't use the word "flesh."
- How would a Gnostic and a Christian understand these passages?
- When Paul uses the word "spirit" to talk about the thing that the flesh fights against, is he speaking of the human being's own spirit, or the Holy Spirit from God?
Genesis 1:1 NLT ↩︎
Genesis 1:31a NLT ↩︎
John 1:14 ↩︎
1 John 4:1-3 NIV ↩︎
"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority." Colossians 2:8-10 NIV ↩︎
"The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Colossians 1:15-17 NIV ↩︎