Matter Matters

I’ve been thinking lately about the dualistic attitude of many Christians, in which “spiritual” things are set in stark contrast to “unspiritual” – i.e., material, temporal – things. Many Christians simply take for granted that the soul is far superior to the body, and that our goal as Christians is to downplay as much as possible “mere earthly” things and focus instead on “the things that really matter.” Hence, the enormous bias Evangelical forms of Christianity have for “getting souls saved” and avoiding “secular” matters like culture and elevating “the ministry” above all other kinds of activity in the world.

This view seems to have some solid biblical support, particularly from the Apostle Paul. Think of how many places he says things like “Set your minds on heavenly things, not earthly things,” and “I count all things in this mortal life as dung when set next to knowing Christ,” and “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” and “Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers and rulers of spiritual wickedness in high places,” and so on. The writer of Hebrews makes one of his central themes the fact that the external Old Testament rituals do not count anymore because Christ has entered into the heavenly temple, which is the reality upon which the ineffective, shadowy, earthly versions are based. And of course we recall Christ’s words that if a man gains the whole world, but loses his soul, it profits him nothing.

Clearly, then, the idea that the Bible teaches a dualism between heaven and earth, between spirit and matter is not simply one that hyper-pious people have made up whole cloth. There seems to be a definite trend toward that position in Scripture.

Or is there? I keep coming back on the other hand to passages such as “we await the resurrection of our bodies,” and “If Christ has not been physically raised from the dead, our faith is in vain,” and “present your bodies a living sacrifice to the Lord,” and “the body is not made for fornication, but for the Lord,” and “it is sown a corruptible body; it is raised an incorruptible body,” and so on. Clearly, then, the idea that the body – and by extension, matter itself – is very important in the Christian religion is not an idea that is made up by Christians who are just confused about the plain teaching of Scripture.

What is the reconciliation of these seemingly contrary themes of Scripture? I think it all has to come back to the fact of the Fall. God created man in His image and likeness, and an integral part of man was his physical body. Man simply was not made by God to be a disembodied spirit, so it simply is not correct to say, broadly, that the soul is the most important part of man. Had man not fallen into sin, he would have continued to live his physical life in this physical earth forever, in a state of perfection. It was only the fact of the Fall that made his body corruptible. So, the common argument that the soul is “immortal” and is for that reason of more value than the body, which is merely mortal, only has force for us because our bodies are now subject to death. Prior to the Fall, men’s bodies were not subject to death, but would have lived forever right along with their souls.

This leads to the typical Christian talk about “salvation,” which nearly always focuses on the state of the soul only – leaving out all that messy, merely material stuff about physical bodies. “Salvation” in common Christian parlance, is about “saving the soul,” because again, the soul is immortal and is therefore thought to be of more value than the body, which is not. As one person I knew once put it, “I wish I didn’t have to waste time cleaning my pool and mowing my yard, because then I’d have more time to do what really matters – preaching the Gospel.”

But this doesn’t make sense. In their more astute moments, Evangelicals will say that “salvation” in Scripture has three elements: past, present, and future. “I have been saved (justification), I am being saved (sanctification), and I will be saved (glorification).” Talking this way about “salvation” makes it impossible to say that the soul is of more value than the body, because this process of salvation is not only taking place in creatures who are embodied throughout it, but has as one of its future goals the resurrection of the body. Why resurrect something that is of little to no value, or perhaps even dispensable aspects of our being?

Furthermore, what was the crucifixion about if matter doesn’t matter? If true religion is about invisible soul stuff, why couldn’t the central redemptive act of our religion have taken place entirely invisibly, in Heaven, in that Perfect Spiritual Temple of which all on earth is just a copy? Why bother with the incarnation if the whole point is ultimately to escape from the physical world? Why the horror of the Cross if the body is dispensable and only the soul matters? And last, why is Jesus going to come back “in the same manner” as He left – physically descending, with physical results?

Christ did not just die in a body, but He was raised in a body, and He is the first fruits of the new creation, to which we ourselves are ultimately aiming. Just as Christ went into the earth physically and was raised physically, so we who have faith in Him will be. Once more, our bodies will be sown corruptible seeds, and raised incorruptible fruits of Christ’s conquering of death. The Fall will be reversed. Bodies will no longer die. And if bodies will one day no longer die, the argument that they are inferior to souls because they die and souls do not collapses. It’s too general an argument to match all of the teachings of Scripture.

This much seems proven regarding individual human bodies, but I think it has enormous implications for the whole of our lives in this physical, temporal world. What is a culture if not a sort of “mass body” (a complex of institutions and other structures) animated by a “mass soul” (all the people who live and move within it)? Jesus spoke of being “salt and light” in the world. Salt is a preservative. Why put a preservative on things that it’s best to ignore? Light makes us able to see. Why shed light on dispensable nonsense that merely distracts our attention from the really important things?

What it all comes down to is that when one takes the whole of the Scriptures into account rather than just one prominent part of them, the notion that spirit is “superior” to matter starts to look like a rather large mistake. One begins to understand better the remark of Luther when, asked what he would do if he knew that Christ would return tomorrow, replied, “I would plant a tree.” One begins to understand better the remark of Tyndale that “There is no difference between washing the dishes and preaching the Gospel.” And so, one begins to better understand the freedom the Reformation brought us to take our lives in this physical, temporal world seriously, and not be in what Luther called “monkish” bondage to the false idea of the superiority of so-called “spiritual” matters.

Salvation, then, is about all of man’s being, not just about his “immortal soul,” and consequently, as Christians our lives have two ends, not just one. To make it all short, sweet, and simple, inthe religion announced to us in the divine Scriptures, matter matters. Any other view, even if we can see how a reasonable person might hold it, is sub-biblical.

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