Many of us have had fun with the virtual background in our Zoom meetings—I’m thankful I can replace my messy study with a neat bookshelf. The foreground, however, remains a problem. The human body I see there is not so great. In fact, I’ve been wondering about the option of projecting not just a virtual background, but a virtual body to replace my own. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard. I would just need a program to capture my facial expressions and body movements and put them on a much more attractive computer generated body. I could have the complexion, hair, shoulders and I’ve always wanted. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Would you be interested in a program like that?

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rapidly explore and expand the ways we relate to other people in the absence of physical proximity. Thankfully, technology has enabled us to attempt a virtual version of most of the things we were doing beforehand: church, Bible study, one-to-one ministries and family gatherings. Some work, unfortunately, is impossible to do from home, but much of it has continued online (perhaps with greater efficiency). These enforced changes are rightly being called a revolution. Once the restrictions are lifted, we will need to work out afresh what things we will do physically again and what we continue to do online. Things will never be the same.

Once the restrictions are lifted, we will need to work out afresh what things we will do physically again and what we continue to do online. Things will never be the same.

In light of this, there is an urgent need for us to think deeply about our theology of the body. The temptation in the future will be to make decisions about church and ministry on the basis of pragmatics—what works, rather than on biblical principles. Pragmatic decisions are easier in the short term but the danger is that we will be simply swept along with our culture rather than live out our convictions under the Lordship of Christ. Working out theological principles is an important project, especially for pastors—the shepherds of God’s people. This article is an attempt to move things forward with a brief discussion of the body—especially its relationship to our mind or soul. Only as we think about what the Bible says about the body will we be equipped to handle the sort of questions the coronavirus world will put to us.

Soul-Cages and Mind-Machines

Attitudes towards our physical bodies in the western world have always been complex. One recurring theme has been a sharp dualism between the mind (or soul) and the body, where the mind is seen to be superior to the body. This can be traced back to the philosopher Plato whose view on the body is often summarised by the axiom, “The body is the prison house of the soul”.[1] In this view, the body is weak, unreliable and mortal, whereas the soul is eternal, possibly containing the spark of divinity. A low view of the body was a feature of Gnosticism in the early centuries after Christ. In the seventeenth century the philosopher Descartes located the true self as the thinking self (rather than the embodied self), as he expressed in the famous saying, “I think, therefore I am”.[2]

Materialism influenced our culture of the body differently. Materialism states that, along with there being no god, there is no such thing as a soul (or mind) apart from our bodies, and that we are nothing more than molecules fitting together. Like dualism, materialism has a long history. Unlike dualism, materialism was popular among atheists in the twentieth century.

With the digital revolution, both the themes of dualism and materialism have come together in a number of creative initiatives. In the Netflix series Altered Carbon (very explicit, unfortunately) people’s minds do not exist in a spiritual sense but are actually encoded on a small disc called a ‘stack’ which can be placed in different bodies called ‘sleeves’. Placing someone’s stack in a sleeve can help them prolong their life, improve their appearance or become the physical sex, age or race the person wants to be. A similar thing happens in the animated film Ghost in the Shell (1995) in which artificial bodies (called ‘shells’) can host a human brain. The philosophies of these imagined worlds are both materialistic, in the sense that there is no God or soul, and dualistic, in that there is a sharp distinction between the mind and body. The argument, or just the assumption, in these and many other films is that our minds are the real me whereas the body is a temporary and changeable vehicle.

COVID-19 has brought our lives closer to science fiction. Our minds are free to work and relate in the virtual space, whereas our bodies remain at home to operate our devices.

COVID-19 has brought our lives closer to science fiction. Our minds are free to work and relate in the virtual space, whereas our bodies remain at home to operate our devices. Our bodies are still necessary (and, as yet, not physically replaceable) but they have the serious problem of being potential disease transmitters and highly susceptible to death. If they absolutely must be out in public they should be cleaned, covered and kept at a distance from any other nearby bodies. Our culture is in a new era of mind and body dualism. But we’re still philosophical materialists.

As Christians, it is important that our thinking about the mind and body is not primarily shaped by culture but by the Bible. And in God’s word we find an alternative to both materialism and radical dualism—a view that takes into account God’s creation of humanity, the coming of Jesus and our future hope. The biblical perspective on our bodies not only helps us navigate the coronavirus world but is part of our gospel message to a world deeply confused about who we are as humans.

Embodied Creatures

The Bible is dualistic in the sense that it distinguishes between our bodies and souls. For example, Jesus encourages us not to fear humans who can kill the body but not the soul (Mat 10:28). In Revelation we hear the souls of those who had been slain because of their testimony cry out to God (Rev 6:9-10). We are more than simply an animated arrangement of molecules.

At the same time our bodies are more than containers for our souls. They are an important part of us. In Genesis 2:7 God tenderly created the first human out of the dust of the ground, gave him the breath of life, and the man “became a living creature”. In Psalm 139 David described his creation in terms of his body: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (v. 13). His sense of self is intimately associated with his body. He is not simply a created soul inhabiting a body. Likewise, Job described how he was clothed with skin and flesh and knitted together with bones and sinews (Job 10:11). We were created as embodied creatures. Rather than think of ourselves as souls (or minds) in a body, we should think of ourselves as souls with a body.[3]

A biblical theology of creation will help us understand who we are. There is no real self independent of our bodies. Our height, weight, skin colour, facial features, eyesight, voice, fitness and health have all been incredibly influential in us becoming who we are. Our real self is the embodied self. If the body fades in significance to become merely the instrument that operates the keyboard we will start to lose our sense of self.

Jesus Christ

Jesus, of course, was himself a genuinely embodied person who has come “in the flesh” (2 John 1:7). The eternal Son of God was not inserted into a pre-existing body (the heresy of adoptionism), rather, he “partook” or “shared” in flesh and blood (Hebrews 2:14) or “became flesh” (John 1:1). He was, and is, a person with a soul and a body.

His body was subject to all the same weaknesses as ours. He experienced hunger (Luke 4:2), thirst (John 4:6) and exhaustion (Matthew 8:24). At the end of his life he even experienced the most humbling bodily event: death. His time on earth was no pretend incarnation.

His death on the cross was not a condemnation of the concept of physicality. It was a condemnation of sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3). It was God’s act of love for his creation that secured the redemption of his people, including their bodies.

Importantly, the resurrection of Jesus was not about a new life released from the body but new life with a body. And not a replacement body (a new sleeve or skin), but the same body, although now transformed and glorious (Philipians 3:21). When Jesus ascended to heaven he remained an embodied person, and he continues in that existence, at God the Father’s right hand. Hebrews says: “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25).

Eschatology—our Hope

The death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God shape our hope for the future. We do not long for freedom from the body but in the body. We long to enjoy a bodily resurrection like Jesus and an eternity with him. 2 Corinthians uses the metaphor of putting on clothing to explain the resurrection body. As someone who wears a new outfit looks different but is still the same person so we will be different but recognizable with our resurrected bodies (2 Cor 5:2-4; see also 1 Cor 15:53-54). Other biblical metaphors for the resurrection are mortality being “swallowed up” by life (2 Cor 5:4) and a plant coming to life from a seed (1 Cor 15:35-44).

We do not long for freedom from the body but in the body. We long to enjoy a bodily resurrection like Jesus and an eternity with him … Our ultimate hope is a bodily resurrection

Although there is likely to be an experience of disembodied fellowship with Christ after we die and before he returns (known as the “intermediate state”—see Luke 23:43; Phil 1:23; 2 Cor 5:8; Rev 6:9-11), our ultimate hope is a bodily resurrection—as Paul says “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). Embodiment is our future and our hope.

Living in the Body

The doctrines of creation, Christology and eschatology all have practical implications. The Bible is clear that God cares very much about how we live in our bodies, even if they are weak and dying. The body is not a regular piece of matter which we can be casual about or use for sin (1 Cor 6:13). Neither is it a sign of maturity to pretend that we have somehow transcended the regular pleasures and desires of the body (1 Timothy 4:1-4). As redeemed people, owned by God, we are now to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor 6:19-20). The members of our body should be “instruments for righteousness” rather than “instruments of wickedness” (Rom 6:13).

It is right that we should feed and care for our bodies (Ephesian 5:29; 1 Tim 5:23), while remembering that they are not perfect. Weakness and illness remind us of death and of the connection between sin and death (Rom 5:12). Paul’s thorn in 2 Corinthians may have been a form of physical suffering. If so, this aspect of bodily existence kept him from becoming conceited and taught him the sufficiency of grace (2 Cor 12:7-9).

Our perseverance through weakness and suffering can even show the gospel to people who see us struggle. Paul said that in his bodily life (a “jar of clay”) he was somehow “carrying about the death of Jesus in his body” (2 Cor 4:10). He revealed to the world, in his body, the death and life of Jesus (2 Cor 4:10-11). As we live out sacrificial faith and obedience to Jesus in our mortal bodies (along with our spoken testimony) we point people’s attention to the death and life of our Lord and Saviour.

Of course we don’t do this alone. We are embodied people living life alongside other embodied people, both saved and perishing. Although we can relate to people at a distance (through letters or video conferencing) we prefer and hope to share the same room as well as the same thoughts.

Our Bodies in the Post Coronavirus Era

So how will we live in the post-coronavirus era? How will our lives be different if we reject both materialism and radical dualism, and embrace a biblical view? I don’t think we should simply reject technology. Technology allows us to communicate with each other despite physical limitations. It also opens up opportunities for new relationships and evangelism. Paul and other biblical writers embraced the technology of letter writing for multiple purposes.

A biblical worldview will lead us to value being physically together with our church community, family, non-Christian friends and mission partners.

However, audio and video recordings of my voice and appearance are not who I really am. I really am where my body is. We really are embodied and therefore weak and flawed. But because I am embodied I am whole. I am one person: soul, mind and body.

If we remember this we will understand why online interactions can be exhausting and unsatisfying in the long term. We stay at home in isolation and interact with voices and images of people who are physically and so relationally far from us. Separation affects us and how we serve God. A biblical worldview will lead us to value being physically together with our church community, family, non-Christian friends and mission partners.

Living an embodied life is not easy. For many of us it is actually very frustrating and painful. However, the answer is not to search for the sleeve or shell to escape death. We can remind ourselves of the goodness of our hope. We know, as Paul says, “that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Cor 4:14).

[1] Kelly M Kapic Chapter 4 “embracing our embodiment” in Embodied Hope: A theological meditation on Pain and Suffering. (read on kindle—13%)

[2] Horton. The Christian Faith. 373-375.

[3] Some theological terms for this idea are psychosomatic unity (Horton, 377) or holistic dualism (Kapic quoting Bavinck—holistic dualism. Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation 2:559).