Human Nature and the Gospel
When we consider the view of personhood presented in Scripture, the question of whether we are mere brain machines or something more becomes a gospel question. In other words, the integrity of the gospel proclamation is undermined if we reject a biblical view of humanity, because, in large part, it is our nature that frames the gospel message in the first place. There are many reasons these connections matter, but four significant ones are worth reflecting on briefly.
First of all, the gospel of Jesus Christ presents us with a call: because we have all fallen into sin, we are unable to live the righteous life that God requires. This is a universal problem endemic to humanity. The remedy provided by God in Christ is the forgiveness of sins, secured by Jesus’s sacrifice of himself on the cross—the righteous for the unrighteous. We can stand in his forgiveness and be acceptable to God by turning from sin and following Jesus in faith. This is a very cursory description of the good news proclaimed by the apostles and bequeathed to the church, but it has a key implication that traditional Christian anthropology has embraced and many secular thinkers have abandoned: there is a moral law. We cannot be in need of forgiveness unless we have transgressed the moral law; and if we are not in need of forgiveness, the gospel is emptied of its power and truth. No moral law, no sin problem; no sin problem, no gospel.
Second, the Bible makes it clear that the death of our bodies is not the end of our story. While the belief in life after death is by no means unique to Christianity, being found everywhere from Plato to Buddha to Shirley MacLaine, it is essential to the Christian message. Over and over again, Jesus and the apostles preached that after this life we would be raised to face judgment, and judgment would be followed by either eternal life or death. So central was this belief in life after death that the apostle Paul declared, “If our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world” (1 Cor. 15:19 NLT). Surviving the death of our bodies is a central biblical teaching, but one rejected by nearly all secular cognitive scientists, their advocates, and the we-are-just-brains metaphysic.
Third, the reliability of Jesus and the Scriptures is at stake. According to the Bible, there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ, and putting our trust in him is the only way to find redemption. However, if Jesus taught and preached a demonstrably false view of human nature, then his authority to prescribe a remedy for what is wrong with that nature would be hopelessly undermined. If Jesus claims to be the divine made human and to teach the very words of God himself, then his trustworthiness would evaporate if we were to discover his entire view of human nature to be radically wrong. He would be offering a cure for an imaginary disease and would lose all credibility.
Jesus Was Embodied
The fourth consideration is about the nature of Jesus Christ himself. The early creeds struggled to refute heresies and articulate the complex Christology implied by Scripture. They culminated in a sophisticated affirmation in AD 451 as a result of the fourth ecumenical council, convened in Chalcedon (in modern-day Turkey). In a statement known as the Chalcedonian Definition (or Creed), the council agreed to the following:
Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.
We base our view of human nature—our anthropology—on our doctrine of Christ because he is the perfect representative of humanity.
Some key phrases in the definition help to show the importance of believing that humans are not just brains or even just bodies but a union of body and soul. The argument of the definition requires, first of all, that Jesus took on our nature and, second, that our nature is dualistic (yet without division).
In addition to what it says about human nature in general, the definition raises a special issue for orthodox Christology, because there must be some sense in which the incarnate Son of God—that is, Jesus of Nazareth—has continuity and identity with the Son of God as he existed in unity of substance with the Father and Holy Spirit before the incarnation. The expression “the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person” affirms that the Son took on a body: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” as Saint John put it in his Gospel (John 1:14). Another way to state it is this: If we are merely physical objects, then Jesus was also merely a physical object. But a merely physical object cannot have continuity and identity with a spiritual Being, as God is said to be.1 Therefore, if we are merely physical objects, then Jesus could not be God incarnate. And if we are merely physical objects, then centuries of ecumenical, orthodox Christology based directly on Scripture are wrong. We base our view of human nature—our anthropology—on our doctrine of Christ because he is the perfect representative of humanity. As one theologian says, there is
what may be described as a widespread consensus among theologians that Jesus Christ lies at the heart of theological anthropology. . . . He alone provides the proper vantage point for understanding humanity. . . . We can still maintain the long-standing intuition that Christology alone provides the proper ground for theological anthropology.”2
We believe that we have souls in part because orthodox Christology requires that the incarnate Son does.
- For example, John 4:24 says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
- Marc Cortez, “The Madness in Our Method: Christology as the Necessary Starting Point for Theological Anthropology,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology, ed. Joshua R. Farris and Charles Taliaferro (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), 15
This article is adapted from God on the Brain: What Cognitive Science Does (and Does Not) Tell Us about Faith, Human Nature, and the Divine by Bradley L. Sickler.
Martin Luther believed that maintaining a good conscience was worth going to prison for and even dying for.
Norman Geisler (1932–2019) distinguishes here between contrary beliefs and the absoluteness of truth.
God can work exceptionally. We have science existing at all because God is faithful in his governance of the world.
Your conscience can function like a moral version of your nervous system.