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The idea that persons are or contain a nonphysical soul that is capable of existing after the destruction of the human body is customarily called “dualism.” Over the course of two millennia, the Christian tradition has been solidly in the dualist camp. Most Christians have affirmed the existence of the soul, its survival of death and its re-embodiment at the final resurrection. In recent decades, however, there has been a growth in the number of Christian scholars who deny the existence of the soul and affirm some form of materialism. In this paper, Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro examine the prospect of Christian materialism. Mr. Goetz is at Professor of Philosophy at Ursinus College and Mr. Taliaferro is Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College.


The idea that persons are or contain a nonphysical soul that is capable of existing after the destruction of the human body is customarily called “dualism.” Dualism is denigrated routinely in contemporary philosophy of mind, which may be characterized as broadly materialistic or physicalistic (in this essay we will treat these terms interchangeably). A growing number of Christian philosophers espouse a materialist view of human nature. Lynne Baker, Kevin Corcoran, Trenton Merricks, and Peter van Inwagen (among others) retain the traditional belief that God is a nonphysical (incorporeal or immaterial) reality, while denying that human persons either are or have a nonphysical soul. The advent of Christian materialism has been heralded as a way for Christians to share the fundamental convictions of mainstream philosophy and science. Moreover, Christian materialists have argued that dualism is at odds with scripture and core Christian convictions about death and the resurrection of the body. Adopting a form of physicalism allows Christian philosophers not just to rid themselves of an unpopular and religiously suspect form of dualism, but also to advance specifically Christian reasons for adopting materialism. Trenton Merricks writes: “We shall see that the fact that physicalism links everlasting life to resurrection in the most direct way possible is a powerful reason to think physicalism is true.”1 This new movement in Christian philosophy is important and calls for constructive and critical evaluation.

We first present a positive case for Christian materialism, drawing on some of its most prominent advocates. In the second section, we argue that despite the considerable strengths and resources of Christian materialism, its critique of dualism is unsuccessful and its positive interpretation of Christian teaching is far less plausible than that of the dualist. Our third section contains a brief positive Christian argument against materialism.

Some Reasons for Going Materialistic

There are four key arguments advanced on behalf of Christian materialism. Some of these are philosophical while others combine philosophy and theology; some form the basis for a positive case for the truth of materialism, while others advance materialism as a default position by undermining dualism. We consider:(1) a combined argument from simplicity and self-awareness; (2) an objection to dualism based on the problem of causation and interaction; (3) a case for the necessary relationship between the person and body, the mental and physical; and (4) a case for materialism based on Christian views of death and resurrection. There are additional arguments for (and against) Christian materialism based on rival interpretations of biblical texts. We believe that John Cooper has shown decisively that the biblical witness is soundly dualist in the sense that Scripture presupposes, without arguing theoretically for, a common-sense soul-body distinction.2 Hence, we simply assume Cooper’s work and will omit for the most part the biblical evidence in support of dualism. Our goal in this essay in philosophical theology is to show that even if the biblical texts are neutral between materialism and dualism, there are sound reasons for seeing dualism as a cogent Christian account of human nature.

(1) An argument for materialism from simplicity and self-awareness. Both van Inwagen and Baker contend that, in light of the initial plausibility of materialism and the absence of strong reasons either for thinking that materialism is false or for embracing dualism, some form of materialism is to be adopted in light of its greater simplicity and its prima facie plausibility. For example, van Inwagen writes:

When I enter most deeply into that which I call myself, I seem to discover that I am a living animal. And, therefore, dualism seems to me to be an unnecessarily complicated theory aboutmy nature—unless there is some fact or phenomenon or aspect of the world that dualismdeals with better than materialism does (or, equivalently, I should think, unless there is somegood argument for dualism).3

Van Inwagen’s view seems to be something like the following: his belief that he is a living animal is a basic belief in the sense that it is not inferred or derived from any other belief that he has. The fact that this belief is basic does not imply that it is groundless in the sense that there is no experience or awareness of his that explains his having it. Rather, when he considers introspectively what he is, van Inwagen is simply aware that he is identical with his living, animal body. Given that he starts with the belief that he is a living animal, he is unable to give it up unless he is presented with reasons to think that it is false. Philosophically, this method of argument has a venerable history, from David Hume and Thomas Reid to Roderick Chisholm and G. E. Moore. Consider carefully what seems to you to be the case, and trust appearances until you have good reason not to trust them.4

(2) Objections to dualism based on the problem of interaction and individuation. Baker argues that dualism faces the problem of accounting for the interaction between mind and body, the mental and physical. In her essay “Death and the Afterlife,” she notes simply:

There are familiar arguments in the secular literature from the seventeenth century about the problem of understanding how immaterial minds can interact with material bodies. These arguments apply equally to the conception of the soul as an immaterial substance that can exist unembodied.5

In addition to employing the often-raised objection from causal interaction against dualism, Baker mentions another criticism. While the objection from causal interaction concedes for the sake of discussion that the terms or relata (namely a soul and body) of causal interaction exist and raises questions about the possibility of their interacting, Baker’s second objection questions the intelligibility of the existence of a soul per se on the ground that there is no ontological principle of individuation that applies to it:

Another important criticism of the idea of a disembodied soul…concerns the question of individuating souls at a time…. In virtue of what is there one soul or two? If souls are embodied, the bodies individuate. There is one soul per body. But if souls are separated from bodies—existing on their own, apart from bodies—then there is apparently no difference between there being one soul with some thoughts and two souls with half as many thoughts. If there is no difference between there being one soul and two, then there are no souls.6

(3) The inability to imagine or conceive a contingent relationship between person and body, the mental and physical. Van Inwagen considers Richard Swinburne’s description of how a person might become disembodied:

Imagine yourself…gradually ceasing to be affected by alcohol or drugs, your thinking being equally coherent however men mess about with your brain. Imagine too that you cease to feel any pains, aches, and thrills, although you remain aware of what is going on in what has been called your body. You gradually find yourself aware of what is going on in bodies other than your own and other material objects at any place in space—at any rate to the extent of being able to give invariably true answers to questions about these things, an ability which proves unaffected by men interfering with lines of communication, e.g. turning off lights so that agents which rely on sight cannot see, shutting things in rooms so that agents which rely on hands to feel things cannot do so. You also come to see things from any point of view of which you choose, possibly simultaneously, possibly not. You remain able to talk and wave your hands about, but find yourself able to move anything which you choose, including the hands of other people…7

Van Inwagen counters that his imaginative abilities are not up to Swinburne’s:

I can’t imagine any of this. I can’t even imagine myself ceasing to be affected by alcohol, in any sense that will help Swinburne. I can, of course, imagine my never drinking any alcohol and thus “ceasing to be affected” by it; but clearly that isn’t what Swinburne has in mind. Or I can (perhaps) imagine myself drinking alcohol that is removed from my system by Martians before it reaches my brain; but this gets us no forwarder…. Can I imagine alcohol having its usual effects on my brain but no effect on my sobriety? I can’t and I am sure that anyone who thinks he can “imagine” these things has just not thought the matter through.8

(4) A case for materialism based on Christian views of death and resurrection. According to Christian tradition, there is life after death. Ultimately, this fact is the reason for the hope within us. As the Apostle Paul writes, “if Christ has not been raised, then…your faith is in vain… For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised” (1 Corinthians 15: 14, 16).9 From the perspective of Christian materialists, if dualism were true, there would simply be no need for bodily resurrection. We could survive death disembodied and that would be the end of the matter. If there are no souls, however, the resurrection of the body makes sense. After all, if we are identical with our animal bodies, then we cannot survive death without them. Merricks states the Christian materialist’s position concisely as follows:

The Bible treats the resurrection as very important. But if dualism were true, it is hard to see why our resurrection would be a big deal…. The dualist cannot say that the resurrection is necessary for eternal life…. If, on the other hand, we are physical organisms, then our resurrected bodies coming back into existence on that Great Day just is our coming back into existence. If we are physical organisms, the resurrection of the body is the whole ball game asfar as life after death goes. If we are physical organisms, then our hope for life after death and our hop e for resurrection of the body are one and the same thing. If we are physical organisms, death is defeated in, and only in, the resurrection…. While the physicalist holds that life after death and resurrection are one, the dualist does not. The dualist does not believe that dead people are raised to life; rather, she believes that dead bodies are raised to be re-united with already living people (who are, in the intermediate state at least, souls).10

In addition to dualism’s difficulty in explaining the need for the resurrection of the body, there is the issue of whether or not dualism can account for the badness or evil nature of death. Is it not because we are bodily beings that death is the ultimate enemy? If we are bodily beings and there is no resurrection, then there is no hope of a better life beyond the grave. Is death really such a bad thing in the dualist view, if souls exist and survive death, at least for the duration of an intermediate state, without the resurrection of the body? We quote Merricks and van Inwagen respectively:

It is not clear that the dualist can agree that death is bad. When the Christian dies, according to the dualist, he or she goes immediately to a much better place. Death for the believer, according to the dualist, is nothing other than exchanging the travails of this life for immediate and glorious union with the Father in Heaven. Death, it would seem, is even better than quitting your job and moving to a beachfront villa in Hawaii. I think this is a problem for dualism. For I think the scriptures teach that death is a bad thing, a curse, an enemy; and an enemy defeated in resurrection…But if dualism is true, it is hard to see how death is an enemy, and harder still to see how it is overcome in resurrection.11

In my view, in the death of Jesus we see a man facing death who understood death….Jesus…knew that it was he himself, and not another thing, who would die, who would become a corpse, who would be composed of nonliving matter. Therein lies the suffocating horror of death. At least this seems very real to me. When I think of the fact that I shall one day be composed of dead flesh, it is then that I appreciate the full power of the words of the medieval song: Timor mortis conturbat me (“The fear of death torments me”). This is, by the by, a very different experience from fearing nonexistence. It may be that the anticipation of endless nonexistence is frightening, but I find the anticipation of being even temporarily composed of dead flesh frightening. I am, after all, an animal, and this prospect is the prospect of a total violation of my animal nature.12

Reasons for Remaining Dualistic

Before responding to the arguments of Christian materialists, it is important to note that Christians down through the ages have believed that human beings are composed of physical bodies and nonphysical souls. As Corcoran notes, “Most, if not all, orthodox Christian theologians of the early church were anthropological dualists,”13 and van Inwagen adds that “God has allowed dualism to dominate Christian anthropology for two millennia.”14 Hence, it is relevant to make clear that while contemporary Christian materialists advocate going materialistic, we support remaining dualistic.

(1) Reply to the Argument from Simplicity and Self-awareness. We believe that while dualism is more complex insofar as it holds that a human being is comprised of two entities, a physical body and a nonphysical soul, it is rooted at least partially in the seeming ontological simplicity of the self that is grasped from the first-person perspective. In this sense, dualism takes far more seriously than materialism our natural understanding of ourselves provided through self-awareness.

There is a weaker and stronger way of formulating this first-person epistemic datum. The weaker formulation points out that when we are aware of ourselves thinking, believing, desiring, hoping, fearing, choosing, seeing, feeling, hearing, and so on, we are unaware of any part of ourselves that is thinking, believing, and so on. Thus, if we are our physical bodies, we are introspectively unaware of any part of them being the subject of any of these mental events. When, in van Inwagen’swords, you “enter most deeply” into that which you call yourself, you do not observe introspectively that your brain or some part of it (or any part of your body) is engaged in this introspection. As Chisholm states, “Whether or not I am identical with my body or with some part of my body, I do not know that I am.”15

The stronger formulation emphasizes additional aspects of the relevant first-person epistemic datum. For example, we are presently aware of ourselves thinking about the ontological nature of persons. While aware of this now, we are also simultaneously aware of ourselves seeing the trees outside our windows, hearing the sounds of voices outside, feeling the throbs of pain in our limbs, and smelling freshly brewed coffee. When we are aware of ourselves, we are aware of ourselves as wholes that think, see, hear, feel, and smell in our entireties. Because we are entities that lack parts, it is not possible for one part of us to think while another part sees, and yet another feels pain, and so on. There is a fundamental ontological simplicity about ourselves in the sense that we lack any substantive parts while at the same time possessing and undergoing multiple psychological properties and events respectively. Simplicity as a substance or individual thing is compatible with a multiplicity in properties and events (for example, to be one being with many thoughts, perceptions, and pains).

We stress at this juncture that this first-person datum is not some cooked-up or contrived point that is invented out of a missionary zeal for dualism. It is recognized widely, even by opponents of dualism. For example, opponents of dualism such as Thomas Nagel and Derek Parfit concede the problems created for materialism by “the apparent unique simplicity and indivisibility of the self.”16 Indeed, they describe the natural conception of the self as the “Simple View.”18

In light of this first-person datum about the self’s substantive simplicity and what materialists themselves report about the nature of the self and consciousness, van Inwagen’s claim to discover that he is a living animal when he enters most deeply into himself is puzzling. As a way of accounting for the difference between the views of others and van Inwagen, we offer the following explanation for why van Inwagen might think that introspection reveals to him that he is an animal. When we consider ourselves from the first-person point of view, what we find is that we seem to be spatially located entities and not non spatial minds (which is the standard Cartesian dualist view, after René Descartes) or extensionless, mathematical points that are, perhaps, located in our brains.19 That is, when we enter most deeply into ourselves we find that we seem to occupy the spaces that are occupied by our physical bodies. It is this apparent spatial location (along with other factors) that leads us to believe that a soul and its body are deeply integrated.

Our view (we call it “integrated dualism,”20) has deep historical roots. For example, Augustine held the view that the soul is simultaneously present as a whole in all the parts of its physical body,21 and even Descartes claimed that “I am very closely united to it [my body], and so to speak intermingled with it that I seem to compose with it one whole.”22 Moreover, Kant endorsed the view favored often by medieval, Scholastic philosophers that a soul is present in its entirety at each point in space where it is natural to locate one of its sensations. C. D. Broad summarizes Kant’s view in the following:

Now, as far as empirical facts go, Kant thinks that it would be reasonable to say that a person’s soul is present equally at every place at which it would be natural to locate any of his sensations…. In general, Kant holds that there is nothing in our experience to support the…view that the soul is located at a certain point in the region occupied by the brain. He says that he knows of nothing which would refute the Scholastic doctrine that a person’s soul is present as a whole in his body…as a whole in every part of it.23

The philosophical rapprochement between van Inwagen and the dualist is as follows. To the extent that we seem to fill the spaces occupied by our physical bodies, we seem to be living animals. What we are aware of when we are aware of seeming to occupy the space of our physical bodies does not include, however, an awareness of substantive parts of ourselves. Indeed, on the stronger formulation of what we are aware of about ourselves from the first-person perspective, we are aware of not having any substantive parts. At a minimum, it is what is not included in this awareness that is the basis for a belief in dualism. Those dualists who hold that a soul is actually located in the space where it seems to be located must try to account for how entities of different kinds can occupy the same space. One suggestion is that a physical body and an immaterial soul occupy space in different ways. While a physical body occupies a certain region of space in virtue of its substantive parts occupying distinct portions of that space, a soul occupies that same space by being present in its entirety at each point of the space that it occupies. Those dualists who hold that a soul does not literally occupy the space that it seems to occupy must try to account for how it is that it is related to its physical body that does occupy that space. Dualists of both kinds might hold that while both van Inwagenand they (the dualists themselves) are introspectively aware of the same datum concerning their seeming spatiality, van Inwagen might use this datum as the basis for inferring mistakenly that he is his physical body.

(2) Reply to the objection from interaction and individuation. We address the interesting and difficult matter of causal interaction in depth elsewhere.24 What is important to remember here is that Christian materialists maintain that God is nonphysical. “The Christian physicalist will insist,” writes Merricks, “that God is nonphysical.”25 Thus, if there is a problem with causal interaction between souls and bodies, there is also a problem with accounting for God’s causal relationship with the cosmos that he creates, sustains in existence and, presumably, intervenes in on occasion.

There is, however, an additional problem for the Christian materialist. Presumably the Christian materialist will insist that God, who is immaterial, took on human flesh (became incarnate) in the second person of the Trinity. If materialism is true, however, it is not at all clear how an incarnation could occur. Could a non-physical person become something physical? We think there are good reasons for holding that if something is nonphysical, then it is essentially so. But if God could not become incarnate by becoming physical, then it must be the case that an essentially immaterial being took on a human body and causally interacted with it. Hence, if arguments against causal interaction between a soul and its physical body are successful, they undermine causal interaction between the incarnate Son and his physical body as well. (We return to this argument in the third section of this essay.)

What about the issue of ontological individuation? Baker asks, “What makes it the case that there is one soul instead of two?”26 Well, in virtue of what is there one physical body instead of two? We believe that the correct answer to this question about bodies is that each body is intrinsically or per se the numerical particular that it is. In other words, each body’s numerical identity is a fundamental or basic nonrelational feature. Its numerical identity is not something that is acquired or comes to be in virtue of a relationship in which it stands to some other entity. Ontologically, bodies just come numerically individuated. An opposing view is that the numerical identity of a physical body is dependent upon the spatial relation in which it stands to another physical body whose numerical identity is dependent upon the same or another spatial relation. This view gets things backwards. The terms or relata of a spatial relation are ontologically prior to and make possible their standing in that spatial relationship.

The ontological priority of relata over relations applies equally to souls. In virtue of what is there one soul as opposed to two? Not in virtue of a relationship to physical bodies. That would give ontological priority to the relationship over the relata. Hence, what explains there being one or two souls is the fact of there being one or two souls. Souls are individuated numerically in the same way that bodies are—intrinsically or per se. It is because this is the case that we can imagine Stewart and Charles becoming disembodied and both thinking the same thought, “Materialism is false,” without an ontological collapse of the two souls into one.

As we pointed out in our reply to (1), there are different kinds of dualisms. According to Cartesian dualism, souls are nonspatial in nature, while the view favored by many medievalists and Kant is that souls are located in the same space as their physical bodies. Both kinds of dualism, however, maintain that souls, like physical bodies, are ontologically non relationally individuated. In this regard, souls and bodies are like abstract entities that are individuated nonrelationally. For example, those who believe that numbers and propositions exist believe that they are ontologically differentiated in virtue of their intrinsic contents, and not by their standing in a relation to a mind that is aware of them.

(3) Reply to the case for the necessary relationship between the person and body, the mental and physical. Van Inwagen appears to affirm the necessary relationship between the mental and physical, but this view is not shared widely. In fact, much of contemporary philosophy of mind acknowledges the apparent difference between the mental and physical, as well as the ostensibly contingent relationship between them. The following passage from the work of Nagel is representative. Nagel notes how, given our current understanding of the physical and mental, we seem unable to close the gap between them. If Nagel is correct, the only way to reach the position van Inwagen points to would be to come up with a yet-to-be-developed, novel understanding of what it is to be at once physical and mental.

What will be the point of view, so to speak, of such a theory? If we could arrive at it, it would render transparent the relations between mental and physical, not directly, but through the transparency of their common relation to something that is not merely either of them. Neither the mental nor the physical point of view will do for this purpose. The mental will not do because it simply leaves out the physiology, and has no room for it. The physical will not do because while it includes the behavioral and functional manifestations of the mental, this doesn’t, in the view of the falsity of conceptual reductionism, enable it to reach to the mental concepts themselves. The right point of view would be one which, contrary to present conceptual possibilities, included both subjectivity and spatiotemporal structure from the outset, all its descriptions implying both these things at once, so that it would describe inner states and their functional relations to behavior and to one another from the phenomenological inside and the physiological outside simultaneously—not in parallel. The mental and physiological concepts and their reference to this same inner phenomenon would then be seen as secondary and each partial in its grasp of the phenomenon: Each would be seen as referring to something that extends beyond its grounds of applications.27

Are we in a position to articulate this new account? Nagel’s judgment does not seem overly confident:

I believe it is not irrational to hope that someday, long after we are all dead, people will be able to observe the operation of the brain and say, with true understanding, “That’s what the experience of tasting chocolate looks like from the outside.”28

In the absence of this new, not yet developed account, it is hard to appreciate van Inwagen’s confident denial that the mental and physical are contingently related. We suggest that his reported grasp of the necessary correlation between the mental and physical amounts to asserting that he believes they are necessarily correlated, not to the claim that he sees their necessary correlation.

(4) Reply to the argument for materialism based on Christian views of death and resurrection. While dualists believe that embodiment is not metaphysically necessary for existence, it is true, as Augustine says, that “A man’s body is no mere adornment, or external convenience; it belongs to his very nature as a man.”29 Why does a soul get united with a resurrection body? Because embodied life is itself a great good. Hence, it does not follow from the fact that (if dualism is true) your body is not essential for you to exist that disembodiment is better than embodiment.

Why is embodiment a great good? Two reasons come to mind. First, there are the virtues of embodiment. In various publications, Taliaferro sets forth a dualist account of healthy embodiment in terms of the coordination of different goods, involving causal constitution, sensation, agency, reason, self-acceptance including bodily integration, and other factors.30 We believe that a credible dualism must recognize that while there are times when the body can function as a prison (as Plato suggests in the Phaedo), under healthy conditions dualists should affirm the good functional units of embodiments.

Second, given that God’s purpose in creating us is so that we experience the greatest good of beatitude or perfect happiness, and that a necessary condition of our fulfilling this purpose is that we choose a just way of life, God affords us the opportunity to make such a choice in this life. He provides this opportunity by embodying us in a created material world with its goods and rightly expects us to choose to pursue those goods in just ways.31 Unjust choices wreak havoc with both that world and our bodies. The corporate nature of embodied souls and the effects of their unjust choices on the material world are captured in the biblical story of the fall and the theological doctrine of original sin. Critics of dualism too often associate the view with individualism and isolation, for which “disembodiment” is code. Human experience and Scripture remind us that our individual happiness is maximized in sharing material goods with others in community through just choices and bodily behavior.

Christian materialists seem to assume that talk about the resurrection of the body either presupposes the falsity of dualism or creates a presumption against its truth. As the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has argued, however, one must be careful about using linguistic expressions like “resurrection of the dead” as the basis for determining what people believe about the nature of the afterlife.32 Wright points out that just as it is possible to use language about the soul and life after death (immortality) to refer to the idea of physical resurrection, so also it is possible to use language about physical resurrection to refer to the idea of the soul and life after death.

On the one hand…Josephus and some of the apocalyptic works refer to physical resurrection while using the language of immortality, i.e. a non-physical life after death. On the other hand, it can also be suggested that a writer refers to immortality while using the language of physical resurrection, in order to make the hope [of immortality] more vivid.33

Thus, it is erroneous to conclude from the fact that the Pharisees are described consistently in the Gospels and extra-biblical sources as believing in the resurrection of the dead that they did not believe in the existence of a soul that would receive a new body in the age to come. They did believe in the soul’s existence and its future re-embodiment, as Wright notes with the support of various extra-biblical texts.34 And it should not go unmentioned at this point that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee.

Both the dualist and the Christian materialist believe in life after death (though it is unclear whether the latter affirms the existence of a person in an intermediate state before the future resurrection of the dead). The dualist has a natural explanation of the afterlife: at death, the soul that was embodied in this life continues to exist disembodied as the numerically same individual until it is re-embodied at the resurrection. We emphasize that this account in no way presupposes that the soul is naturally immortal and can survive without God’s sustaining power. Like any other metaphysically contingent entity that is created by God, the soul exists only so long as God sustains it in existence.

How does the Christian materialist account for life after death? Does life after death require the existence of the numerically same body that existed before death?(“Numerical sameness” is a technical term contrasting with “specific sameness” in the following way: two copies of the same book are specifically the same, the same in species or kind, but not numerically the same because there are two of them.) Presumably the Christian materialist thinks that it must require this numerical sameness of body because it is the numerically same person who exists in the resurrection life as existed in this earthly life. What, then, is required for the numerical sameness of a human body? At this point, it is interesting to consider Augustine’s discussion of the calumnies of unbelievers who made fun of the Christian belief in the resurrection.35 As a way of ridiculing the idea that the resurrection of the dead required the numerically same body, these unbelievers asked the following kinds of questions: What will be the size our resurrection bodies? Will deformed bodies be reassembled with the same deformed parts? Will resurrected bodies be infant or adult in nature? What will happen if a person’s body at, say, age 30, which will be resurrected, had a part that was also a part of another person’s body of the same age which will be resurrected? Which body will get that part? What questions like these indicate is that in the minds of these unbelievers, if a person is going to get the numerically same body in the resurrection life that he had in his earthly life, then there must be numerical sameness of parts in those bodies. Given this concept of numerical sameness, these unbelievers thought it would not take long for a person to conclude that the idea of the resurrection of the body, if it requires numerical sameness of the body, is a joke.

Not surprisingly, the Christian materialist rejects the unbeliever’s account ofthe numerical sameness of a human body. According to the Christian materialist, it should be obvious that a living human being is the same body throughout its life even though the majority, if not the entirety, of its parts are replaced every several years. While it is not obvious to us that we continue to have the same bodies throughout the course of our lives (we are inclined to think that if an object is composed of parts, then its continued existence as the numerically same entity requires that it continue to be composed of those numerically same parts), we will concede for the sake of discussion that we do. Whatever account of numerical sameness of body one espouses, however, there is the additional problem of a temporal gap between death and resurrection. This gap raises the question of how the resurrected body can be numerically the same as the pre-mortem body.

Merricks tries to bolster the case for the numerical sameness of the pre-mortem and resurrection body with two examples. First, there is the following thought experiment of the time machine:

Imagine that you build a time machine that can “take you to the future.” You push the Start button. You (and the machine) disappear. You then reappear at some later date. Now there are easier ways to travel to the future. Just sit there for a minute, and you’ll move ahead a minute in time. The whole purpose of the time machine, of course, is to get you to some future time while “skipping” all the times between now and then. In other words, the time machine causes a temporal gap in your life.

The idea of a future-traveling time machine doesn’t seem incoherent or contradictory. We have no trouble making sense of a person’s “jumping ahead” in time. That is, a person’s jumping ahead in time and experiencing a temporal gap is not obviously incoherent in the way that, for example, a person’s being simultaneously under five feet tall and over six feet tall is.36

Second, there is the following example of a watch:

Consider . . . a watch that is disassembled, perhaps for cleaning. Suppose that, as a result, it ceases to exist. Suppose further that when its parts are reassembled, that watch comes back into existence. The watch thus traverses a temporal gap. Of course, the watch example is controversial. But the claim that the watch jumps through time via disassembly and reassembly—even if it makes questionable assumptions here and there—is at least coherent. It is not contradictory or obviously absurd. It is not, for example, like the claim that one has found a round square in one’s pocket, next to the number seven.37

There are problems with each of Merricks’ examples. The idea of time travel is believed widely to be metaphysically impossible. Hence, to use it to bolster the case for numerical identity of the pre-mortem and resurrection body merely replaces the obscure with the obscure. The case of the watch might well be a case of legitimate reassembly because all the same parts are indeed reassembled, but the challenge (see Augustine’s discussion of the calumnies of the unbelievers referred to earlier in this section) to the reassembly view is that our bodily parts are (presumably) dispersed radically upon our death and, over thousands of years, these parts become parts of other bodies that might even, eventually, become parts of indefinitely many people. The reassembly of your body would seem inevitably to involve the bodily parts of other persons and things, and thus involve a process radically different from the imagined case of a single watch having its parts disassembled and then reassembled.

Regardless of how persuasive or unpersuasive Merricks’ examples are, he believes that he need not explain how it is that a person on one side of a temporal gap is numerically identical with another person on the other side of that gap. He need not provide such an explanation because personal identity over time (what it is for a person to remain the numerically same through time) lacks an ontological criterion of sameness. Hence, just as God initially creates a person, uniquely, so also he recreates that same person, uniquely, at the resurrection.

It seems possible that, when God set about to create me, God was able to do just that: create me, not just somebody or other. To do this, God didn’t need to make use of matter that had previously been mine, for none had. To do this, God didn’t need to secure my continuity, or any kind of continuity at all, with something I had previously been continuous with, because I hadn’t previously been. And if God could see to it that I—not just somebody or other—came into existence the first time around, what’s to preclude God from doing it again, years after my cremation?38

Merricks’ account of how God creates and recreates us as individuals (God created you rather than someone who looked and acted like you) seems to presuppose the problematic concept of an individual essence or haeceity (a property that makes an individual the particular individual that it is, for example, the unique property of being Goetz or being Taliaferro). Our view is that we do not acquire haeceities, if we acquire them at all, until we actually exist as individuals. The notion that you are uniquely you has intelligibility once you exist, but prior to your creation, God’s creative power ranges over universals such as properties or states of affairs. Thus, if God wills that Adam and Eve have a child with such-and-such properties who will be called “Abel,” this could not be explained in terms of God’s choosing that the haeceity “being Abel” be instantiated. Similarly, when it comes to the idea of God’s recreating you at the resurrection, there is no individual essence that he can use to ensure that what he is recreating is the numerically same individual as that which went to the grave.

While we are skeptical about Merricks’ idea of God creating and recreating uniquely the same numerical individual, we share his belief that personal identity over time lacks an ontological criterion of sameness. Being the same soul over time just consists in being the same soul over time. Given, however, that souls exist and survive death, there simply is no problem of a temporal gap between death and resurrection because the numerically same soul continues to exist after death in an intermediate state to await the final resurrection and re-embodiment.

What about van Inwagen’s view that he is a living animal? Does his “animalist” view fare any better when it comes to accounting for the numerical identity of a person in the afterlife with an individual in this life in terms of the identity of pre-and postmortem bodies? We doubt that it does. On a typical animalist view, persistence as the numerically same individual in this life involves continued biological functioning. Given that this is the case, Baker raises the following problem for the animalist view:

If, on the animalist view, a person’s postmortem body were identical to her premortem body, then we would have new questions about the persistence conditions for bodies. Non-Christian animalists understand our persistence conditions in terms of continued biological functioning. But Christian animalists who believe in resurrection cannot construe our persistence conditions biologically unless they think that resurrected persons are maintained by digestion, respiration, and so on as earthly persons are. Because postmortem bodies are incorruptible, it seems unlikely that they are maintained by biological processes (like digestion, etc.) as ours are. But if biological processes are irrelevant to the persistence conditions of resurrected persons, and if, as animalism has it, biological processes are essential to our persistence conditions, then it does not even seem logically possible for a resurrected person to be identical to any of us. Something whose persistence conditions are biological cannot be identical to something whose persistence conditions are not biological.39

If Baker is right, and we believe that she is, then van Inwagen faces the problem of accounting for how one and the same body can be both numerically identical with a biological body in this life and a glorified or Christ-like body in the resurrection.

While Baker thinks views like van Inwagen’s are problematic, she advances her own version of Christian materialism. On her constitution view of a person, human persons are constituted by their bodies without being identical with them. An analogy that is often used is that statues are constituted by pieces of marble, copper or bronze, but they are not identical with the substances that constitute them. Baker writes: “A person is not a separate thing from the constituting body, any more than a statue is a separate thing from the constituting block of marble.”40 Because constitution is not identity, Baker contends that one can maintain both that persons are physical currently (they are composed of an exclusively physical body) and that they may survive the perishing of this body.

The constitution view can offer those who believe in immaterial souls . . . almost everything that they want—without the burden of making sense of how there can be immaterial souls in the natural world. For example, human persons can survive change of body; truths about persons are not exhausted by truths about bodies; persons have causal powers that their bodies would not have if they did not constitute persons; there is a fact of the matter about which, if any future person is I. . . . The constitution view allows that a person’s resurrection body may be nonidentical with her earthly body. According to the constitution view, it is logically possible that a person have different bodies at different times; whether anyone ever changes bodies or not, the logical possibility is built into the constitution view.41

Baker’s position is philosophically fascinating and raises the possibility of a position midway between physicalism and dualism. If she is right, then re-embodiment is possible for persons and yet this is compatible with affirming that persons are, prior to death, physical. Though philosophically fascinating, we have doubts about the intelligibility of her account. Consider the idea of the intermediate state between death and resurrection. Baker claims that her constitution view is not incompatible with a person’s existence in the intermediate state. Given, however, that a person must always be constituted by some kind of body, an individual’s existence in the intermediate state requires such constitution. Dean Zimmerman is rightly skeptical of the constitution view’s ability to provide an intelligible account of how a person, who is constituted supposedly by a physical body in this life, can survive death in another kind of body in the intermediate state:

Organisms and aggregates of matter cannot, presumably, lose all of their physical parts at once; and there are limits on the ways in which the subsequent physical states of organisms and aggregates may evolve out of earlier ones. Baker’s persons are free of such constraints. They can, miraculously, jump from one body to another, losing the shape and size and so on of the one body, and instantaneously acquiring those of that other, whatever they may be. Not even a miracle could allow mere hunks of matter or organisms to perform such feats. I would say that, if the current size and shape and physical makeup of an object puts no necessary constraints upon the immediately subsequent size and shape and physical makeup of that object, then the object does not really have that size, shape, or makeup—however appropriate it is to ascribe them to it in ordinary contexts on the basis of relations to things that really have them. Persons that can pass instantaneously from organic matter to ectoplasm (or whatever intermediate-state bodies are made of) are “physical” in an attenuated sense at best, able to pass from one body to another like shadows or spirits.42

Like Zimmerman, we believe that the only way to allow for these radical changes from embodiment to re-embodiment requires that there be some thing, a nonphysical person or soul, who undergoes these changes.

Finally, what about the badness of death? Merricks suggests that dualists have a difficult time accounting for death’s badness. This is simply not the case. Death is bad to the extent that it involves pain and suffering for both the victim and loved ones, and there is nothing about dualism that is inconsistent with this. It is a mistake, however, to think that death cannot also be good. The goodness of death comes from its being instrumental to the experience of the goodness of the afterlife, and a pertinent question at this juncture is whether Christian materialists can account for death’s goodness in relation to the intermediate state, which is the interval between death and the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the age.

In this context, it is helpful to consider the Apostle Paul’s comments about the afterlife in his letters to the churches at Corinth and Philippi. Paul describes how he has gone without food and drink, has had sleepless nights, been beaten with rods, suffered lashings and stoning, and been shipwrecked (2 Corinthians 11:23-29).43 It is no wonder, then, that he can say to the Philippians that death is gain and that he desires to die and be with Christ (Philippians 1:21-23),44 comments which imply his conscious existence in an intermediate state when taken at face value. What do Christian materialists think about the period between death and the resurrection? Do they believe they exist and are conscious during this interim period? If they do, how is it possible that they continue to exist as conscious beings, given that their earthly bodies are decomposing in the grave (or are cremated) and the resurrection of the dead is still a distant, future event? A straight forward reading of Paul’s letters supports the existence of an intermediate state that is good and undermines Merricks’ claim that “the resurrection of the body is the whole ballgame as far as life after death goes.”45

What about van Inwagen’s statement that it frightens him to think that he will be composed temporarily of dead flesh and, by implication, that this fear is better explained by the view that we are our physical bodies? We must simply demur at this point and insist that we do not share van Inwagen’s fear. If van Inwagen is his body, he will be dead when it is decaying and presumably unable to experience anything at that point in time. So it is hard to see why he is afraid of “being even temporarily composed of dead flesh.”46 He says that his fear of death is not the fear of nonexistence but the fear of a total violation of his animal nature. Perhaps we lack a fear that we should have at this point, but we simply do not fear the violation of our animal nature per se. What we have and do fear is the pain and suffering that all too often accompany the process of dying, but we stress once again that dualists are comforted, as Paul was, by the fact that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

A Positive Christian Argument against Materialism

We believe that many of the arguments above identify positive philosophical and theological reasons on behalf of dualism. One more needs to be underscored that identifies a problem with materialism for Christians.

We noted earlier in our reply to the objection from interaction and individuation our conviction that if some object or substance is nonphysical then it is essentially nonphysical. We share a similar conviction about physical objects or substances: if an object or substance is physical then it is essentially physical. Thus, it would be absurd (we suggest) to hold that this physical journal might become(either slowly or instantaneously) nonphysical. Would such a change amount to parts of the journal being replaced by a hallucination or journal after-image?

If materialism is true, in what sense can God the Son become incarnate? By hypothesis, the Son cannot be changed into the physical body of Jesus. Perhaps the materialist can interpret the incarnation as a human physical body becoming the vehicle or matrix for the nonphysical Son of God’s thinking, feeling, acting, and soon. But this would bring about a radical severance between Jesus’ humanity and our own. If, qua human animal, Jesus is fully and only physical, then Jesus’ thoughts and feelings are themselves physical (Jesus’ thinking would be identical with his brain activity) and yet God the Son’s thinking would be nonphysical and thus not identical with the thinking of Jesus the animal. If one understands the incarnation in dualist terms, one can affirm that God the Son acts as the embodied subject (it is the Son of God who acts as Jesus Christ) and endures embodiment as an object (when Jesus Christ suffers the passion it is the Son of God who is suffering). The dualist can claim that God becomes enfleshed, taking on human nature with all its restraints and virtue, without making the unintelligible claim that God, an incorporeal being, becomes identical with a corporeal body. The incarnation might be pictured in a fanciful, yet haunting way, by reversing Swinburne’s earlier thought experiment of disembodiment. Consider the following picture of an immaterial being coming to have a corporeal body:

Imagine yourself gradually being affected by alcohol or drugs, your thinking being less coherent because it depends on your brain states. Imagine that you begin to feel pains, aches, and thrills as you become vividly aware of what is going on in your body. You gradually find yourself unaware of what is going on in bodies other than your own and other material objects at any place in space and you find yourself unable to give invariably true answers to questions about remote things. You lose the ability to see when objects are hidden, you can be trapped in a room and forced to have your hands tied. You can be compelled to be silent when your mouth is forced shut.

On dualist grounds, one may see how it is that the Godhead takes on embodiment without being changed into a physical object. Someone who is only human is not numerically identical with the Son of God; our life and death is defined by our physical embodiment. But in the incarnation, with Jesus being fully human and fully God, the pre-existing Son comes to be incarnated and defined by an embodiment that is then transformed and taken up into the Godhead. Dualism allows for a high Christology whereby to look at the eyes of Jesus would be to see the Son of God incarnate as human. It is unclear how materialism could allow that the Son of God can become incorporated into or become identical to a human animal. Insofar as Christian materialists do not subscribe to the problematic metamorphosis whereby the nonphysical second member of the Trinity becomes identical to a physical animal body, they seem to be left with the view that dualism is false with respect to all human beings with the exception of Jesus Christ.


Though a growing number of Christian philosophers advocate a materialist view of human nature, we believe that dualism should not be abandoned. It is not as problematic as Christian materialists suggest and is better able to explain life after death and theological doctrines such as the incarnation. We believe, however, that there is one other reason that dualism should not be abandoned by Christians. This reason is that dualism is the view of ordinary people, and Christianity supports such ordinary beliefs. It does not undermine them. C. S. Lewis understood this point about the importance of ordinary beliefs very well and illustrated it in terms of morality:

The idea . . . that Christianity brought a new ethical code into the world is a grave error. If it had done so, then we should have to conclude that all who first preached it wholly misunderstood their own message: for all of them, its Founder, His precursor, His apostles, came demanding repentance and offering forgiveness, a demand and an offer both meaningless except on the assumption of a moral law already known and already broken. . . . Essentially, Christianity is not the promulgation of a moral discovery. . . . A Christian who understands his own religion laughs when unbelievers expect to trouble him by the assertion that Jesus uttered no command which had not been anticipated by the Rabbis—few, indeed, which cannot be paralleled in classical, ancient Egyptian, Ninevite, Babylonian, or Chinese texts. . .. Our faith is not pinned on a crank.47

Our point is that just as Christianity did not bring a new ethical code into the world, so also it did not bring a new anthropology into the world. It simply assumed the truth of what ordinary people believe, and what they believe is that the soul exists and is capable of surviving death. As the philosopher William Lyons (an ardent materialist) has written recently, the view “that humans are bodies inhabited and governed in some intimate if mysterious way by minds (souls), seemed and still seems to be nothing more than good common sense.”48 In the spirit of Lewis, we see no reason for Christians to give up on the good common sense of dualism.49

Cite this article
Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz, “The Prospect of Christian Materialism”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 37:3 , 303-321


  1. Trenton Merricks, “The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting,” in Reasons for theHope Within, ed. Michael Murray (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 277.
  2. John Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-DualismDebate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, 2001).
  3. Peter van Inwagen, “Dualism and Materialism: Athens and Jerusalem?,” Faith and Philoso-phy 12 (1995): 476 (emphasis in original).
  4. See Charles Taliaferro, “Taking Common Sense Seriously,” Inquiry 41 (1998): 361-369.
  5. Lynn Rudder Baker, “Death and the Afterlife,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Reli-gion, ed. William Wainwright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 374.
  6. Ibid., 375.
  7. Swinburne cited in Peter van Inwagen, God, Knowledge, and Mystery: Essays in PhilosophicalTheology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 19, 20.
  8. van Inwagen, God, Knowledge, and Mystery: Essays in Philosophical Theology, 20.
  9. Bible. Revised Standard Version.
  10. Merricks, “The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting,” 280, 281, 283 (emphasisin original).
  11. Ibid., 284-285.
  12. Peter van Inwagen, The Possibility of Resurrection and Other Essays in Christian Apologetics(Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), 63-64.
  13. Kevin Corcoran, “Dualism, Materialism and the Problem of Post Mortem Survival,”Philosophia Christi 4 (2002): 414 (emphasis in original).14
  14. Van Inwagen, The Possibility of Resurrection and Other Essays in Christian Apologetics, 65.
  15. Roderick M. Chisholm, “On the Observability of the Self,” Philosophy and PhenomenologicalResearch 30 (1969): 7-21; reprinted in Self-Knowledge, ed. Quassim Cassam (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1994), 100 (emphasis in original).
  16. Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 43. (London: Routledge, 1973), 137-169.
  17. Derek Parfit, “Later Selves and Moral Principles,” in Philosophy and Personal Relations, ed.A. Montefiore[/efn-note] If we think of what we learn about the self from the first-person perspective in terms of consciousness, the dualist view is confirmed once again. Thus, the materialist Colin McGinn makes the following point about our consciousness:

    It is precisely [spatially defined properties] that seem inherently incapable of resolving the mind-brain problem: we cannot link consciousness to the brain in virtue of spatial properties of the brain… [C]onsciousness defies explanation in such terms. Consciousness does not seem made up out of smaller spatial processes… Our faculties bias us towards understanding matter in motion, but it is precisely this kind of understanding that is inapplicable to the mind-body problem.17Colin McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 11-12, 18 foot-note 21.

  18. Philip Quinn, “Tiny Selves: Chisholm on the Simplicity of the Soul,” in The Philosophy ofRoderick M. Chisholm, ed. Lewis Edwin Hahn (Chicago: Open Court, 1997), 55-67.
  19. 0Charles Taliaferro, Consciousness and the Mind of God (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1994), 16.
  20. Roland Teske, “Augustine’s Theory of the Soul,” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine,eds. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001),116-123
  21. 2René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Works of Descartes,trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967),192.
  22. C. D. Broad, Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1953),130, 132.
  23. 4Stewart Goetz, “Dualism, Causation, and Supervenience,” Faith and Philosophy 11 (1994):92-108; “Naturalism and Libertarian Agency,” in Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, eds. WilliamLane Craig and J. P. Moreland (New York: Routledge, 2000), 156-186; “Substance Dualism,”in In Search of the Soul, eds. Joel B. Green and Stuart L. Palmer (Downers Grove: InterVarsityPress, 2005), 33-60; Taliaferro, Consciousness and the Mind of God. See also C. Stephen Evans,“Separable Souls: Dualism, Selfhood, and the Possibility of Life after Death,” Christian Schol-ars Review 34 (2005): 327-340.
  24. Merricks, “The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting,” 279, footnote 21
  25. Baker, “Death and the Afterlife.”
  26. Thomas Nagel, “Conceiving the Impossible and the Mind-Body Problem,” Philosophy 73(1998): 351.
  27. Ibid., 338.
  28. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, trans. D. Knowles (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,1972), Book I, Chapter 13.
  29. Charles Taliaferro, “The Virtues of Embodiment,” Philosophy 76 (2001): 111-125.
  30. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 29.
  31. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992),320-334.
  32. Ibid., 322 (emphasis in original).
  33. Ibid., 324-326.
  34. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Book 22, Chapter 12.
  35. Trenton Merricks, “How to Live Forever without Saving your Soul: Physicalism and Im-mortality,” in Soul, body, and Survival, ed. K. Corcoran (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001),184 (emphasis in original).
  36. Ibid., 184-185.
  37. Ibid., 197 (emphasis in original).
  38. Baker, “Death and the Afterlife,” 388.
  39. Lynn Rudder Baker, Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-versity Press, 2000), 91.
  40. Baker, “Death and the Afterlife,” 387.
  41. Dean Zimmerman, “Rejoinder to Lynne Rudder Baker,” in Contemporary Debates in the Phi-losophy of Religion, eds. Michael L. Peterson and Raymond J. Vanarragon (Oxford: Blackwell,2003), 340 (emphasis in original).
  42. Bible, Revised Standard Version.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Merricks, “The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting,” 281.
  45. Van Inwagen, The Possibility of Resurrection and Other Essays in Christian Apologetics, 64.
  46. C. S. Lewis, “On Ethics,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1967), 46-47.
  47. William Lyons, Matters of the Mind (New York: Routledge, 2001), 9.
  48. We would like to thank the John Templeton Foundation for providing the support thatenabled us to write this paper. We also thank several anonymous readers and Brett Bullionfor their helpful comments.

Charles Taliaferro

Mr. Taliaferro is Professor ofPhilosophy at St. Olaf College.

Stewart Goetz

Stewart Goetz is Professor of Philosophy at Ursinus College.