Rene Descartes (d.1650) is often credited with starting the discussion about a distinction between mind and body. In his book Meditations, Descartes began a mental exercise that involved systematic doubt. He doubted everything he could doubt……doubting whether his senses were deceived, doubting whether he had a body, doubting everything that appeared to him. This exercise ended with the famous “I think, therefore I am” phrase, with the point being that one cannot doubt one’s own existence, for if I know that I’m doubting, then I know that I exist. From there, Descartes attempts to prove the existence of God.
Descartes didn’t really doubt his senses, for in the end of his book he states that no one in their right mind would do such a thing, but that he only expressed these doubts as an exercise to show that the existence of God is more sure than our senses or anything else that we know. Descartes position has been much critiqued. But we must give him some credit, for how many of our ideas will still be taught in classrooms 400 years from now?
Regardless of the questions about Descartes’ conclusions, what he achieved was to begin a long discussion on the separation of mind and body. If we start with thinking in the mind, how can we get to the physical world? Descartes emphasized this separation, and many today still feel that there is no way to bridge the chasm between a person’s mind and the outside world.
In Christian theology, a similar concept exists with the soul and the body. As far back as Augustine (d.430), the a teaching has been widely held that the “real you” is your soul, and the soul inhabits a body. When the body dies, it becomes useless, and the real you, the soul, goes to heaven. Augustine was influenced by the common teachings of Plato, who separated forms from objects. So following this system that started with Plato, went through Augustine, and influences us today, many theologians teach that the body is useless and is not the “real you.” Many Christians have a soul-body dualism and believe this is taught in the Bible.
The problem is that in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 15 teaches us that the physical resurrection is essential for our faith. 11 times directly, and three more times indirectly, Paul tells us that the body is buried, but “it is raised.” The chapter says that if the physical resurrection does not happen, our faith is in vain and we are still in our sins.
So how do we respond? We reject the tradition that started with Plato and went through Augustine, and instead embrace the tradition that started with Aristotle and went through Aquinas (d.1274). Aristotle taught that the form was in the object, not separate. Aquinas, following the scriptures, tell us that our soul and body are unified. We are a soul-body unity. My body is as much a part of me as my soul, and I am incomplete without it. While the soul can exist without the body, it is a form without a substance, like a chair without any substance…….to be a real chair, it needs a body. If we are a soul-body unity, then the resurrection is essential to our salvation, for unless our physical body has eternal life, I don’t have eternal life, because my body is me. If I have eternal life, so does my physical body. This is what scripture teaches.
For those of you that are fearful of sneaking in “Greek philosophy” into Christian theology, we only have three responses to the question of how things are composed: 1) we can say like Plato that the form of the object is separate and the form exists somewhere in space, or 2) we can say like Aristotle that the form in in the object, or 3) don’t answer the question. If we are going to wrestle with the question of how things are composed, we only have 1 or 2, there are no other views; Plato and Aristotle have exhausted the possibilities.
And for those of you who are skeptics about the resurrection, see the work of Gary Habermas, who is likely the greatest living scholar on the topic. He has written several excellent books, such as The Case For The Resurrection of Jesus. Most modern skeptics are following David Hume, whose work was self-refuting.