Human Being - Flesh & Spirit
I have become quite convinced that the modern Christian church has, as a whole, once again come to tolerate a particular heresy in its ranks. It’s a tenacious and pernicious heresy, which has its origins in the third century and is known as Manichaeism. A subset of Gnosticism, its central tenant can be summed up as “spirit good; body bad.” Put another way, it’s the idea that the only thing about a person which is good is our spirit. The ideas of this false religion seem to rear their head periodically in the thinking of the church as new generations of the church body forget once again the historical orthodoxy of the faith.
At its core, this idea is an outworking of imbalance, an out of context application of St. Paul’s teaching in Romans that the things of the “flesh” bring death, while the things of the “spirit” bring life and peace.
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Romans 8:1-8 (ESV)
In this passage, Paul is referring to our fallen nature, dead in sin, apart from the life of Christ. He is using a metaphor of flesh and spirit to contrast the state of mankind, in the first place dead in our sin, and in the second place alive in Christ Jesus. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in Eden, they rejected the good rule of God and gave themselves and all their progeny over to be subject to the rule of sin and in so doing, inherited death. If you will, Paul in referring to the “flesh” is describing our sinful state as animated corpses; as walking dead.
Indeed, if the “flesh” of which Paul speaks is referring to our bodies and our bodies are therefore inherently evil, in what manner could the Son of God have possibly become incarnate? The Gnostics, of course, unable to reconcile the idea of God in the flesh with their belief that all physicality is evil, taught that he was not incarnate, but an apparition only and therefore he was not raised bodily, but as a spirit; however even a cursory reading of the Gospels and other writings of the Apostles makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was the incarnate Word of God who took on a bodily, physical, human form. That Jesus was real flesh and blood is pivotal to our salvation.
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might -destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
We must surely conclude that Paul, when his other writing is taken into account, cannot be understood to be teaching that physical existence is evil, for Christ himself was raised bodily, the “firstborn among many brothers” and in like manner so shall we be raised. Indeed, if Christ was not raised bodily from the dead then our faith is in vain and we are to be pitied above all people.
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”
42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
1 Corinthians 15:12-19,35,42-44,50-53
Clearly, from this passage (and I encourage you to read it in its entirety for the full context) while our resurrection body is very different in some ways from this body we now have, it is, at the same time, quite the same. What was sown a “natural” body is raised a “spiritual” (or super-natural) body. The perishable puts on imperishable; the mortal puts on immortality; what we have is not discarded, but rather transformed. That is a critical detail for us to comprehend.
Even as Jesus told his disciples, after his resurrection, “For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And not just a physicality only, but one in which he ate and drank.
36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them.
Jesus’ disciples knew him, post-resurrection, to have a physical body. A body unlike ours, to be sure, one that appeared and disappeared at will, one subject to the spirit, redeemed and glorified, but a body nonetheless.
The Significance of the Body
Angels are spirit creatures; mighty, beautiful, powerful… but pure spirit. Animals are physical creatures; mighty, beautiful, powerful, but though possessing the capacity for emotion and bonding, pure mortal flesh. Human beings are unique of all God’s creation - we of all God’s wonders are created as an amalgam of the physical and the spiritual, designed for immortality and glory.
Most of my life, I believed that my body was simply a restrictive enclosure from which I yearned to be free. A concept which has elements of eastern mysticism and of pagan afterlife ideas, it is one which has never had a rightful place in orthodox Christianity. One of the greatest distinctives of the early church was this belief that we will be bodily raised from the dead - in this, the Christian faith was significantly different from all other beliefs about the afterlife.
Our bodies are not simply a housing for our spirit - it is not true that we are a spirit who has a body. That is paganism. The truth is that we are an embodied spirit. Our body is the aspect of our person by which our spirit communicates with another person. Without our body we are blind, deaf, mute and insensate. Without our body there is no communion, for without our body there is no communication. Pope John Paul II said words to the effect of, “a spirit separated from its body is every bit as abhorrent as a body separated from its spirit.” This is why we find the idea of a dispirited corpse to be as much the stuff of horror stories as a disembodied spirit - when faced with one or the other every instinct we have cries out, “this is wrong”. Indeed, it is subhuman; it’s half-human.
I think this is why scripture describes those who have died as having fallen asleep. It’s because without our bodies, our spirits are as one who is asleep.
The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised,
After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
1 Corinthians 15:6
Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
1 Corinthians 15:18
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
1 Corinthians 15:20
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
1 Thessalonians 4:14
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
1 Thessalonians 4:15
The Significance of the Mind
The aspect of the immaterial part of man that this site is most concerned with is the mind, and how it relates to man as a whole.
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Wait! What? I thought that we are transformed by the grace of God?
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
There it is again. How do you experience the peace of God? By causing your mind to think about the things of God, which are honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy.
The thing is, the scriptures constantly exhort us to guard our minds, to focus our minds on the things of Christ. Ephesians six tells us that part of our protective armor is the “helm” of salvation - the knowledge of salvation protects our minds.
In my experience, every spiritual breakthrough I have ever had, every victory, every significant stage of growth has been preceded by a change in my thinking. I have come to realize that the work of the Holy Spirit is to change our minds, to transform us to having the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). For where the mind dwells, the body and the spirit follow.
Our modern churches have denigrated the life of the mind, honoring instead a form of “spirituality” which is purely emotional, centered around what we feel, perhaps the most unreliable and unstable part of our being. And that is backwards! We must first fix our thinking and the other parts of our person will come to reflect our thinking. In the words of Paul, “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:5)
The Christian faith is not a mindless one, but one that is very considered and thoughtful. I am a believer because the Holy Spirit revealed to me the ultimate truth, my mind embraced that truth, and the grace of God, through the work of the cross, returned eternal life to my body.
11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
6 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
For many years I labored under the misconception that faith was a feeling. Now I realize that faith is a state of mind. What you believe is that which is firmly fixed in your mind as truth. Belief, or faith, is the product of what you set your mind to.
For just as many years I yearned to be free of my body. Now I realize that my body is the part of me which expresses me to other persons, including God.
We are not spirits trapped in bodies. Nor are we minds swimming in a fantasy of our own devising. Rather, we are a unique amalgam of material and immaterial, body and spirit made in the image of God.
Wikipedia Article on Manichaeism