Have you ever wondered what the Bible really teaches about the body, soul, and spirit? In this episode of the Radically Christian Bible Study Podcast, Chris McCurley and Wes McAdams tackle common misconceptions about these ideas that many Christians assume are biblical but are actually influenced more by Greek philosophy.
Diving deep into Scripture, Chris and Wes explain that the soul refers to our whole being, including both physical body and immaterial spirit or breath. This challenges dualistic thinking that devalues the body as disposable compared to an eternal soul. As they unpack verses about resurrection, it becomes clear God intends to redeem us wholly – soul and body. This study brings to life how the doctrine of bodily resurrection should radically reframe how we view life and salvation.
Chris and Wes aim to help Christians embrace the full goodness of God’s creation, care holistically for the physical and spiritual needs of people, and live out Jesus’ kingdom mission in the here and now. This is a truly fascinating discussion you won’t want to miss.
This episode was originally published on Chris McCurley’s “Dear Church” podcast. Chris graciously allowed us to republish this episode on our podcast as well. If you haven’t done so already, please check out the “Dear Church” podcast.
Links and Resources:
- Watch This Episode on YouTube
- Dear Church Podcast
- What is a “Soul”? Is “Soul” Different than a Spirit?
- Spiritual Things are Not More Important than Physical Things
Transcript (Credit: Beth Tabor)
CHRIS: Dear Church, let’s talk about body and soul. Hello, and welcome to the Dear Church Podcast. I’m your host, Chris McCurley. My good friend, Wes McAdams, joins us. He’s kind of a regular on here.
We’ve had you on several times, and I’m always excited when you come on. Thanks for joining us, Wes.
WES: Well, thanks for having me, Brother. I’m always excited to be with you.
CHRIS: Yeah, you know, we’re not as much of twins anymore. People who don’t know the story, we often would get mistaken for each other. Like at the Red River Family Encampment, as I understand it, you had somebody come up to you and ask you how you catch all those fish, and, you know, I’m okay with that. I’m perfectly fine with getting mistaken for Wes McAdams. I think that’s a feather in my cap. But, you know, we had VBS this summer and I challenged the kids to bring so many guests, and if they did, the elders could shave my head, and, you know, I didn’t have far to go anyway. I was losing it anyway. I tell people it was sliding down my back, but, you know, I decided I’m just gonna keep it. I kind of liked it. And I shaved the beard, as well, and so we’re not quite as similar, I guess.
WES: I think it’s the glasses, anyway. I think that the glasses were catching people. So we’ll see next year at Red River what people do with that.
CHRIS: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll bring the hair back, but ‑‑ it may not come back. I mean, you know, it may be gone forever. I don’t know. But this is certainly low maintenance. You’ve been doing this for a little while, maybe not quite this far.
WES: I save a lot of money that way.
CHRIS: But it’s pretty great. Yeah, it was like 30 bucks to get a haircut anywhere, and so I was like, I’ll just do it myself. So anyway, that’s not why we came on, but ‑‑ that’s not the purpose of the podcast today. I wanted to have you come on because this is a topic that we have discussed. It’s a topic that I’ve preached on, and for the most part, I get a good reception from it, but it challenges a longstanding doctrine or thinking in the church. I’ve often heard people say, well, if something new comes along that hasn’t been talked about or taught for many years, if it’s been one way for so long, that probably means that it’s the right way and this new‑fangled idea is not correct, and I’m not sure that that’s always true, and I think that’s the case here.
We’ve long believed something about the afterlife and about our body and our soul that, you know, just really ‑‑ when you start diving into scripture, you realize that’s not how it’s presented, and it’s this idea that the body is disposable, that it’s like Tupperware. It hides or encloses the part of you that really matters, which is your soul, but it’s really not important. It’s just gonna lay in the ground and rot anyway. What really matters is your soul. And it’s this false dichotomy, right? Talk a little bit about that false dichotomy of body and soul and how, you know, scripturally, they’re presented as one whole being.
WES: Yeah. Well, even the way that we typically use the word “soul” ‑‑ we use the word “soul” as synonymous with “spirit,” and we can get into spirit later, but soul does not mean spirit. Soul is ‑‑ I always tell people one of the best words that’s synonymous with “soul” is “life” or “being.” “Being” is a great word. In fact, the first time we find the word “soul” in scripture, it’s God breathes life into ‑‑ well, specifically applied to humans, God breathes life into Adam’s body and he becomes a living being. Some translations say “creature.” The King James said “soul,” but it’s this idea ‑‑ the Hebrew word is “nephesh,” and a nephesh is a living creature or a living being.
And so when we talk about soul, we really ought to talk about soul as something that we are, not something that we have; and we tend to talk about soul as something that we have, whereas scripture talks about it as something that we are, that we are a living being or a living soul. The best way I’ve found to explain it to people is ‑‑ it’s kind of archaic now, but we still use it when it comes to boats and airplanes. We say that there are 200 souls on board, and we don’t mean that there are floating spirits on the airplane or on the boat. We mean there are 200 people, living people, on that craft.
WES: And so that’s the way the Bible uses the word “soul,” is that we are a soul and that encompasses everything that we are. It encompasses our body; it also encompasses our emotions and the inner part of us, as well, but we have to think of ourselves holistically, that we are, in totality, a living creature or a living being.
CHRIS: Yeah. And even animals are souls, as presented in Scripture, which really kind of freaks people out when you start talking about that, that “nephesh” doesn’t just apply to human beings; it applies to animals, as well. That animals, you know ‑‑ again, like you said, you don’t think of it as that animal has a soul. An animal is a soul, and the Bible presents animals, any living creature, as a soul.
CHRIS: And of course that dives into some other things. Well, then, do we need to baptize our animals because they’ve got a soul and they could err and they could go to hell and all that? It’s just this way that we’ve always been taught to think on this subject, and, in actuality, what we’ve always thought is what separates us from the animal world is the fact that we have a soul. No, no, no. What separates us from the animals is that we were made in the image of God, and so, therefore, we have this special connection with him and a special relationship with him, right?
WES: Yeah. Yeah, we are God’s image‑bearers. We bear the image of God because we are human. So every human being, regardless of what we do ‑‑ and, really, bearing God’s image isn’t about what we do; again, it’s about what we are. That every human, from the fetus, I believe, to the grave, whether someone is able‑bodied or disabled, whether somebody is mentally capable of great things or mentally capable of very little, if somebody is able to speak or not speak, being God’s image is not about what we do; it’s about what we are, and that is what makes us unique. Animals, as you said, are living creatures. They have the breath of life in them; we have the breath of life in us. We are living creatures; they are living creatures. The difference is that we bear the image of God. Whatever that means, whatever that indicates, we are the image of God and they are not the image of God, and that’s what makes us unique.
Again, this idea of soul ‑‑ the way we tend to talk about it in the modern world comes from Greek philosophy, not from scripture. So Greek philosophy thought about that idea of the ‑‑ in Greek, the “psuche,” similar to our word “psyche.” And so the Greek philosophy had a very unique understanding of the soul, and we’ve adopted that rather than the scriptural idea of the soul.
CHRIS: Yeah, because you can even read throughout the Old Testament, nephesh ‑‑ you know, a murderer is known as a nephesh‑slayer in the original language there in the Hebrew. You know, it’s this getting back to a living being, and we see that reiterated over and over in Scripture. So, you know, how do we grab on to this and get this far down the road with this idea that body and soul are two separate things, that you have a soul rather than you are a soul? You traced it back to Greek and the lineage in Greek and Plato and his teachings. You know, I mean, it seems more Gnostic than anything else, doesn’t it? You know, it seems closer to Gnosticism than something that’s scriptural.
WES: Right. Yeah, I’m no historian or philosophy expert, but from what I’ve read, this idea goes back to Plato, maybe even before that, to Socrates. And this idea that Plato had was that every human had an eternal soul and that their eternal soul was what was very important, and that their body was, as you said, disposable. This idea of the disposable body and the important eternal soul comes from Plato. It doesn’t come from scripture, and we’ve just assumed that it was from scripture. And then, of course, as time went on, there were Jewish philosophers who adopted this Greek philosophy, and then, eventually, as this sort of bled into the Christian world, as you said, it became infused with Gnosticism. “Gnostic” meaning secret knowledge, that these people believed that they had this secret knowledge, and part of their, quote‑unquote, secret knowledge was that the physical was bad, that everything physical and tangible was bad, and that what was ‑‑ what they would think of as spiritual, or non‑physical, was good and pure. And so the idea was we need to separate from or escape from the physical world and really be all about the non‑physical world.
Well, it’s ironic that at the time when Gnosticism was being preached, it was condemned as heresy. This is not in keeping with Christian doctrine. This isn’t in keeping with the incarnation or the coming resurrection. It’s not in keeping with the goodness of creation. All of these things are antithetical to Gnosticism, and so Gnosticism was condemned in its day as being heretical, but yet the common understanding now that Christians have, as you said, sounds a whole lot more like Gnosticism, this idea that the spiritual is good, the physical is bad; we need to escape from the physical world and move to the ethereal world. That idea is rooted in Gnosticism and not in Christianity.
CHRIS: Yeah, and I think one thing that really ‑‑ I think the biggest thing that got me rethinking this whole idea ‑‑ and then you’ve written some articles about it since. I’ve read more about it since, as well. If we’re gonna die and then a spirit part of us is gonna go and live beyond the ether somewhere and float around or whatever, you know, Paul talks about us getting a body, that there will be a resurrection, that we will have a body, you know, soul and body will be reunited, that we will walk out of the tomb just as Jesus did. So why would we need a body if we’re just going to float around in the ether somewhere? And so I started thinking about that. I started looking into that a little further. Again, you and I have talked about it, as well. And so it really discredits this idea that the body doesn’t matter, that it serves no real purpose, when, no, God made it, and God’s creation is good, and, obviously, there is going to be a time when it gets put back together. What’s that body gonna look like? I don’t know, and none of us do, but there’s gonna be a body of some sort, right?
WES: Yeah. Well, and I think some of the confusion comes from 1st Corinthians 15. Paul says that our new body, our transformed body ‑‑ so he says it’s this body, but it’s transformed. So when we’re resurrected there will be a transformation that happens, a metamorphosis that happens, like a caterpillar to a butterfly. And so, yes, there is some sort of connection to this current body, but the new body will be some sort of transformed version of that, and Paul calls it a spiritual body.
Now, when we read “spiritual,” we tend to interpret that as non‑physical, but Paul doesn’t contrast it with physical; he contrasts it with natural. So our present body is natural in that it is the product of, it came from, the natural procreation, and so this body is a result of natural procreation. The transformed resurrection body will be the result of the Spirit of God. When Paul uses the word “spiritual,” he doesn’t mean non‑physical. He almost always means that it is empowered by, it is enlivened by, it is animated by the Spirit of God. So what is empowering that? It’s almost like saying the difference between an electric car and a gas car is not that one is made of electricity and one is made of gas; it’s what is empowering those two vehicles.
And so what empowers this present body is natural. It’s empowered by natural forces, but the resurrection body will be empowered by and animated by the Spirit of God. And so it’s not that the new body will be less permanent. It will be more permanent. It will be more tangible. It will be more solid than this one is. Paul, in 2nd Corinthians, compares this body to a tent. This is a decaying body, and when it’s resurrected and transformed, it will be permanent. It’ll be like a house compared to a tent, and so then it’ll be permanent, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.
CHRIS: Yeah, dig a little bit deeper into that because that’s the other false dichotomy that many of us have bought into, me included, for a long time, is this spiritual versus carnal, or spiritual versus temporal, and I think that lends to this confusion, as well. But like you said, Paul is not exactly talking about spiritual in the sense that we often think of it, nor is he often talking about temporal in the sense that we think of it, either. Talk a little bit more about that.
WES: Yeah. The two contrasts that he makes with the word “spiritual” tend to be spiritual and carnal, or spiritual and natural. And so spiritual and carnal, again, like you said, isn’t between spiritual and physical. It’s between are you animated by and keeping in step with the Spirit of God, or are you living according to the weakness of the flesh? Being carnal ‑‑ being a carnal person is about being animated by your base desires, your sinful desires, and that is what we are supposed to be crucifying and dying to those things, and being led by, walking in step with, and being animated by the Spirit of God. And when we’re spiritual people in that sense, when we’re thinking like the Spirit, when we’re acting like the Spirit of God, then our life is full of the Spirit’s fruit. So we, right now, are spiritual. Again, that doesn’t mean we’re not physical. It means we’re spiritual in the sense that the Spirit of God is changing us and transforming us, and then our resurrection body is going to be spiritual. Again, not in the sense of being non‑physical. It’s going to be spiritual because, in every way, our mortal body will be redeemed.
And this has so many practical applications. It’s not just about eschatology, about end things and what’s going to happen in the end. Because I think a lot of people, when we start talking about this, they say, well, Chris, Wes, what does it matter? What difference does that make now? Well, for Paul, it makes all the difference in the world. When he talks about sexual immorality, he anchors his arguments about sexual immorality to this idea of the resurrection body, that your body is for the Lord and the Lord is for the body; that your body has been purified through baptism and through the blood of Jesus, and the Spirit of God dwells in your body, and in the resurrection, your body will be redeemed so your body belongs to the Lord. It’s not disposable. It’s not Tupperware. It’s not something that just doesn’t matter. And so Paul anchors so many of his arguments about ethics and how we should live based on the fact that your body actually matters. And so to adopt a Gnostic philosophy that says the body doesn’t matter, it has implications about how you treat yourself, how you behave, and how you treat other people, not to mention the implications about what’s gonna happen when Jesus returns.
CHRIS: Yeah, yeah. Great stuff, because I think that just adds more fuel to the fire that this is not about, you know, body versus spirit or body versus soul. But I have heard, and I’m sure you have over the years, that it’s kind of three‑pronged. You have body, you have soul, you have spirit, and we kind of take each one of those as a classification and we try to kind of parse out what each one of them means and, you know, kind of where each one of them fits in this whole picture. But what we’re saying is, and more importantly, what scripture intonates, is that body and soul are one.
So let’s talk now about spirit, because I think there’s a lot of confusion ‑‑ at least there was with me first starting out in Christianity. How do we separate soul and spirit? Because Paul does, but there are a few times in scripture where Paul almost makes them go together and it can be confusing. So talk a little bit about that. What’s the difference in soul and spirit?
WES: Yeah. My understanding is that the soul encompasses everything ‑‑ that the word “soul” encompasses everything that we are. We are thinking beings, we are feeling beings, we are emotional, we are logical. So there are a lot of ‑‑ the way I like to talk about it is aspects. There are aspects of being human, not necessarily parts, and I think when we start to think of it as parts, it takes on a different sort of meaning. It’s better, I think, to think of it as aspects, things that we do and that we’re capable of. So the idea of the soul is the idea of our whole life and everything that we are. And so we are a soul, and that encompasses the fact that we are thinking beings and feeling beings and we are image‑bearers of God and all of these things, everything that it is to be a human.
And then one of the aspects of that is that we have a spirit, both the Spirit of God and a personal spirit, and our spirit is the internal part of us, everything that is sort of internal that’s going on on the inside that we can’t see that’s moving us and animating us. The word “spirit” is the same word in Greek and Hebrew as “wind” or “breath.” And so this idea of the wind moves the trees ‑‑ you can’t see the wind, but you know that the wind is moving the trees, and in the same way, we are moved along by what we think and what we feel, and so our spirit is this internal aspect of us that is moving us and animating us. Now, hopefully, because we are Christians, the Spirit of God is really what is moving ‑‑ “who” I should say ‑‑ who is moving us and animating us to do and act in certain ways. And so the “spirit” is the non‑physical part of us, or non‑physical aspect of us, but “soul” encompasses both our spirit and our body.
CHRIS: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a lot clearer than what, you know, I’ve always kind of learned and even taught at times. And people would ask me, so what’s the difference between the two, and I really struggled to find, you know, the answer to that. But when you think of it as breath or wind, “pneuma” in the Greek ‑‑ it’s where we get our word for “pneumatic,” and I think, you know, people who work with tools know what “pneumatic” means. But this idea of air, of breath, which means that when we die, we don’t have that spirit because we’re no longer breathing; we’re no longer alive. Still a soul ‑‑ you know, soul encompassing body and spirit ‑‑ but, you know, no longer have that wind in us that’s moving us.
Wes, let’s talk a little bit about ‑‑ based on everything that we’ve discussed so far, you know, we often talk about, in the church, being about souls, saving souls, that that’s our mission, is to save souls. What exactly are we talking about, then, based on everything that we have said when it comes to saving souls? Talk about the physical and spiritual implications of that.
WES: Yeah, I mean, it’s so good. I mean, you could go ‑‑ and I think that both the practical applications of this question, but also how we read scripture, the hermeneutical part of this question ‑‑ because if you go to the Psalms and you read the Psalms, the Psalms talk a lot about saving souls. The psalmist David crying out to God to save his soul, but he does not mean something that is about the afterlife. He’s not talking about the afterlife; he’s talking about his current life. So when he’s asking God to save his soul or he says his enemies are pursuing his soul or his enemies want to tear his soul apart, again, he’s talking about his present, current life, because everything that we are is encompassed with that idea of soul.
And so if we realize that, that God has always been in the business of saving souls ‑‑ in other words, God has always been in the business of preserving people’s life and keeping people alive and helping them to stay alive because God is on the side of life, and death is an enemy of God that has invaded God’s good world, then we realize that, as we move into the New Testament, that Jesus gives us the opportunity to have a life that lasts forever, that he is going to preserve our life, our existence, our being in eternity, so then we realize that it isn’t about soul and body. It’s about soul‑temporary and soul‑permanent. So I not only want to help people live in a temporary sense ‑‑ I want to preserve their soul, their temporary existence ‑‑ but also, more importantly, their forever existence, their eternal life.
WES: And so when we talk about the church saving souls, it should be about ministering to their body. It should be about feeding the sick. That is their soul, and so you’re ministering to their soul by feeding them. Now, of course, we also recognize that this life is going to end and the only way to live forever is, Jesus says, to forfeit your life, to forfeit your “psuche” and inherit a life that’s going to last forever. So the church needs to be in the business of souls, both in the sense of feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, but also in teaching them the gospel so that they live forever. It’s about life: Life in the temporary and life in eternity, and Jesus has always been about both. When Jesus feeds hungry people, he is preserving people’s soul. Now, they’re going to die and so he also wants them to be resurrected to eternal life. We just don’t need to, as you said, draw a false dichotomy here and say, “Well, you know, we need to focus on souls,” and what we tend to mean by that is to the exclusion of their body, and that’s not at all how Jesus would think about it or how the early Christians would think about it.
CHRIS: Yeah, I think we tend to look forward and always look towards heaven and say, “Well, we want to get them to heaven. All this stuff down here doesn’t matter,” when, yeah, it does matter. I mean, especially when you read through the New Testament, I don’t get the feeling that Paul is focusing all his efforts on getting to heaven, necessarily, as much as he’s striving to be like Jesus. And I think you’ve said it, I’ve said it: The goal is not to get to heaven as much as the goal is to be like Jesus. And if you make that the goal, well, then the destination’s never gonna be in question. And so when you make that the goal to prepare in this life for the next, well, then the soul matters here in the temporal as much as it matters in the eternal, as well, because you’re preparing, right? You’re getting ready for eternity, but, also, you have a lot to do here. Like we have a mission here. It’s not just to kind of hunker down and wait it out until Jesus returns or until we die. Is that completely off base?
WES: No, I think that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And I think that so many churches ‑‑ you could look at different denominations and their different focuses. Some in the mainline churches would focus so much attention on the temporal; and others, in more the evangelical side of things, tend to focus on the eternal. Now, they’re both right, but when we do one to the exclusion of the other, then they’re both wrong, and we have to be people that are praying what Jesus taught us to pray. “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” that we are practicing and living out the good news of Jesus, which is that he lives and reigns now and that he is in favor of and supportive of life. Life is good. Life is good, both temporal life and eternal life, and we need to be in the business of both, and they both support one another. There shouldn’t be any dichotomy.
Now, we do need to be prepared to give up our temporal life in favor of and to the winning of our eternal life, and so Jesus calls us to take up our cross and be willing to sacrifice. But when it comes to loving other people, it shouldn’t be a choice between whether we care about their temporal life or their eternal life. The answer is we should care about both, and doing both is spiritual. Like this is spiritual work. This is soul‑saving work. Feeding people and teaching them the gospel, both are spiritual and both are soul‑saving work.
CHRIS: Yeah, I think it kind of goes back to our ‑‑ we had Dan Chambers on a few months ago talking about heaven and his view on heaven, and, yeah, I think it kind of goes back to that somewhat, too, is it ‑‑ you know, we kind of tend to think that God’s just going to blow all this up and, you know, therefore, none of it really matters because it’s all going to be ash in the end, it’s all going to be blown up. And so, you know, that kind of affects our thinking on this, too, doesn’t it?
WES: Yeah. Again, that’s Gnostic. The idea that everything physical is so corrupt that the only thing God could possibly do with it is destroy all of it, that’s Gnostic thinking. The gospel teaches that not only is God going to redeem our mortal bodies, but God is going to redeem all of creation. That’s Romans 8. Romans 8 explicitly teaches that God is going to redeem creation, that creation is longing to be redeemed. And so when we feed hungry people in the name of Jesus, when we minister to sick people in the name of Jesus, we are living out the kingdom. We are living out the future in the present. So when we are in favor of life and we help bring life and protect life and support life, then we are ‑‑ and when we do it in the name of Jesus, we are living this out.
But when we adopt a philosophy that says, “Oh, your body doesn’t really matter and feeding you doesn’t really matter and loving you and taking care of your physical needs doesn’t really matter,” we’re adopting not only a Gnostic philosophy, but we’re adopting a philosophy that is antithetical to the gospel. If you love somebody and then you tell them, “Oh, God bless you. Be warm and well‑fed. I really just want to teach you; I’m not really concerned about ministering to your physical needs,” well, that’s not supported by, and it’s, in fact, condemned by Jesus and James and every single one of the early Christians. This is not the way we live out the gospel. The way we live out the gospel is proclaim Jesus, proclaim eternity, proclaim the resurrection, but also minister to people’s temporary needs, because, after all, even from a practical standpoint, people aren’t going to care about this teaching that we have to give them if they’re hungry and they’re naked and they’re homeless. We have to also care for their temporary needs. That’s what it looks like to live out this gospel message.
CHRIS: Absolutely. Man, that’s good stuff, Wes. Thank you so much for being on here with us today. And I want to promote the podcast that you’re doing, which I love, I listen to every time you put out something new. Radically Christian is the website. Talk a little bit about ‑‑ promote what you’ve got going on with the podcast, with the website.
WES: Oh, thanks, Chris. Yeah, the Bible Study Podcast is the podcast that we do, and we have conversations like this where we talk about scripture and we talk about what it means and also how we live that out. The goal ‑‑ the tagline of my blog and my podcast at Radically Christian is “Learning to love like Jesus” because I started the podcast and the blog wanting to teach people how to do church, but now I’m more concerned about how to be the church and how to love like our Savior.
CHRIS: I love it. I love it. And this will be shared on Radically Christian, as well, and I want people to tune in and listen because you’ve got a lot of great content that has helped me tremendously, as well as the blog post on Radically Christian. At McDermott Road Church of Christ, how are things going there?
WES: Good, good. We’re very blessed. This is a wonderful congregation and we’re so blessed to be here. And, Chris, I appreciate you so much. Thank you for the podcast. Thank you for your work there. And I’m so thankful for our friendship, but I’m so thankful for the work that you’re doing in the kingdom, Brother.
CHRIS: Well, thank you, and, likewise, I love you. I appreciate you very much, and thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us on the podcast. I’m looking forward to having you on again and talking more about this subject, or any topic, really.
WES: Well, thanks for having me, Brother. This has been great.
CHRIS: Absolutely. And I want to thank our viewers and listeners. If you have a question about today’s podcast, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have a question specifically for Wes, we’ll forward it to him and I know that he’d be willing to comment or answer any questions you might have. And just want to thank everyone for tuning in today. Until next time, may the Lord bless you and keep you. Sincerely, Chris.