Souls and Bodies

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” This quote, attributed to C.S. Lewis, occasionally makes the rounds among Christians. Its attribution to Lewis has been reinforced by respected figures like John Piper and Ravi Zacharias. The problem is that Lewis never wrote such a thing and probably never would, as this excellent post shows. Yet the quote’s continuing popularity and the need to attribute it to a respected Christian figure like Lewis is significant because it reveals a subtle misunderstanding about the nature of human beings, one that has existed since the early days of Christianity.

Today most people accept the historical existence of a man named Jesus; his divinity is the thing they find hard to believe. In the century following Jesus’ resurrection, the situation was often different. Stories of that time were full of divine beings coming to earth and walking among humans. The struggle was over the idea that a divine being would take on human flesh. Matter was lowly and corrupt, while spirit was exalted and pure. Human flesh would contaminate any divine being who assumed it; that the highest spiritual being would fully clothe himself with matter was an impossibility. Either Christ’s divinity or his humanity had to be downgraded to deal with the conflict. Gnosticism reduced his humanity, while Arianism reduced his divinity.

The earliest church council worked hard to establish the full divinity of Christ. The First Council of Nicaea calls him “very God of very God” while affirming that he “came down and was incarnate and was made man.” Of course, if Christ was fully God, then maybe he wasn’t fully man. Thus the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD says that he is “truly God and truly man” and explains, as much as possible, how those two natures exist in one person. That much was established as orthodox belief. However, its implications for human beings has been much harder to realize.

Our bodies appear to us as gross and dirty, just as they did to many Greek philosophers. Paul, likewise, talks a lot about the dangers of “the flesh.” Thus it is easy and almost sounds Christian to say that we are really souls who simply have bodies. Yet, as the Church has tried hard to affirm, Christ was fully God and fully man without his flesh contaminating his divinity. The very fact of him taking on flesh shows that matter is not inherently evil. Christ taking on a body and retaining it after his resurrection actual elevates the dignity of bodies. Furthermore, if our lives will follow that of Christ, and Scripture say that they will, the separation from our bodies at death is not permanent. Our understanding of the nature of Christ actually has an enormous bearing on our perception of human nature and vice versa.

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body,” is a quote that fits better with a belief in reincarnation than Christian theology. (Indeed, the article cited above suggests that the origin of the quote reflects influence by eastern religious thought.) If we are reincarnated, the soul really is us and the body is something we shed each time around the wheel, like a snake shedding its skin. Christian belief, while differing as to when the soul begins, holds that we only get one body. Whenever people are resurrected in the Bible, they always do so in the same body. Likewise, the final resurrection will involve our bodies, though the mechanics of this is tantalizingly unclear. “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).

Dante works from this perspective in his Divine Comedy. The people that Dante meets in his journey through inferno, purgatory, and paradise are mere souls; their bodies are dead and rotting on Earth. At the resurrection this will change. The souls in hell dread the resurrection and the return of their bodies, for then they will experience the full measure of their punishment. Those who enjoy heaven look forward to the return of their bodies because their bliss, though perfect, is incomplete without them.

While we are alive, it would be better to describe us as body-souls. This is the argument of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica(I, Q75, A. 4), who looks to Augustine for support. Lewis studied the Middle Ages and his theology shows the influence of medieval theologians. He expresses a similar view to Dante and Aquinas in his Screwtape Letters. Interpreting the views of the elder demon Wormwood is always tricky, but when the demon talks about the nature of humans in the passage below, he seems to reflect Lewis’ own opinion on the subject.

Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. (Screwtape Letters, Letter VIII)

Christ is fully God and fully man, but we are hybrids of body and spirit. To say that we are souls with a body or bodies with a soul is to present us as partially human. Our full humanity requires a recognition of both. It affects our relationship to the world and others. If we see humans as primarily souls inhabiting dirty bodies, we are more likely to neglect the physical for the spiritual. Poverty, injustice, and the state of the environment take a backseat in the quest to save the soul. The inverse is true when the soul is downplayed. We focus on raising the standard of living and political reform while leaving people spiritually barren. A society built on either extreme tends to collapse on itself.

A recognition of our being soul-bodies changes the way we see ourselves. We should enjoy our bodies: taste, touch, the incredible oddity of skin, and the riot of colors that enters our eyes. Yet we can avoid unhealthy obsession with the body because there is more to us than bodies. (Perhaps some of our trouble with body image and beauty comes from an overemphasis of soul or body.) When we grasp this we can move towards life as a fully embodied human being.


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