The question “What does it mean to be human?” has challenged every age.
Frank M. Hasel
Christian theologians and philosophers have discussed human nature for some two millennia. In light of the daunting smallness of human beings against the backdrop of God’s greatness and the vastness of the universe, already the psalmist had raised the question: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” (Ps. 8:4, NRSV).
The question “What does it mean to be human?” has challenged every age, it seems. But no age seems to know so much or so many things about human beings as does ours. Yet, as Martin Heidegger pointed out: “No age seems to know less than ours what human beings are.”1 The days are long past when talk about human nature was the preserve of theologians and philosophers. New discoveries in genetics, neurology, and psychology confront us with new proposals about human nature that have far-reaching implications for our understanding of what it means to be human and for our theology. A recent book review claims that no fewer than 130 views of the human person have been documented.2 In light of this, Nancey Murphy is certainly correct when she writes, “It is a strange fact about our culture that we are operating with a variety of radically different views of the basic nature of human beings. Even stranger is the fact that so few people seem to notice the first fact.”3
Indeed, to give an overview of biblical anthropology in Christian theology poses some daunting challenges. First, the historical and theological scope of this topic is so vast that it is impossible to do justice to all its facets in such a limited space as this. Second, throughout most of church history, there existed no single biblical or theological anthropology. Rather, the church developed a series of anthropological issues deriving, on one hand, from ancient philosophy (body and soul, freedom of the will and the sovereignty of God’s grace, immortality, and the problem of evil), and on the other hand, from authentic biblical tradition (the image of God, sin, the original human state, forgiveness, repentance, penitence, etc.).
Yet, in classical theology the question of the human soul dominated the field now called anthropology, though the anthropological question embraces much more. Seventh-day Adventists have often tended to restrict the anthropological discussion to the issue of the mortality or immortality of the soul. But there are more things involved in biblical anthropology than that.
Theological Issues Related to Anthropology
In studying the topic of anthropology in the Christian tradition, it becomes obvious that it is interwoven with a number of other theological issues. It is significantly interconnected, for example, with what happens to human beings when they die. The issue of the continuation of existence after death in hell, purgatory, or heaven comes to view. But no less significant are questions about free will and God’s grace as well as the consequences of sin for human nature. Thus, the understanding of who we are encompasses more than the question of the relationship between body and soul and the issue of an immortal soul. The question of our sinful nature and original sin and the role of humanity has also played an important role in anthropological discussions throughout church history.
Furthermore, recently the question has been raised with new vigor whether human beings can be reduced to purely natural factors and whether we came into existence through purely immanent naturalistic factors by means of evolution. There are other issues that are interwoven with our understanding of anthropology, such as the relationship of man and woman and the role of the sexes as well as the recent debate about gender and gender mainstreaming.
What makes the topic even more complex is the diverse understanding of leading Christian theologians on various aspects of human nature. Thus, there are proponents who teach the existence of an immortal soul but also defend free will in human beings, while others support the dominance of divine grace over the human will and equally maintain the belief in an immortal soul. In view of this complexity, it will be helpful to overview briefly the understanding of anthropology in Christian theology, beginning with some influential perspectives of the early church fathers.
The Early Church Fathers
With the early church fathers, there was a systematic presentation of their anthropological understanding of human nature. Their main interest lay in the field of theology and Christology. Purely anthropological questions were only touched on, and statements about human nature were made only in passing, usually in connection with other questions, such as the nature of Christ, the question of salvation, or the soul and its relation to the body. H. D. McDonald has said about the apostolic fathers that “the very practical purpose of their writings precludes any form of dogmatic anthropology.”4 When we find early discussions relating to anthropology, they were often influenced and shaped by questions arising from (Greek) philosophy.
The Apostolic Fathers
It seems that many of the early church fathers took for granted that human beings were created by God, that they were created male and female, and that they enjoyed the freedom to decide on matters of salvation. Most of the so-called apostolic fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, The Didache [Palestine], Barnabas of Alexandria, Hermas [Rome], and Polycarp of Smyrna) seem to have set forth the view of conditional immortality and the eternal death of the wicked. But some Christian writers, as early as the second century, also promoted the concept of an immortal soul. Some Christian thought leaders in the early church apparently found the answer to the question “What makes a human being genuinely human?” in the idea of a soul distinguishable from the body. One of the earliest Christian references to an “immortal soul” can be found in the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (circa A.D. 130). Here one finds statements such as the following: “the soul lives in the body, but it does not belong to the body”; “the soul, which is invisible, is put under guard in the visible body”; and “the soul is imprisoned in the body, but it sustains the body.”5
While most of the apostolic fathers do not seem to have supported this view, as LeRoy Froom has demonstrated in his monumental study, more second-century voices acknowledged similar ideas. The story of The Martyrdom of Perpetua, a young woman who was killed with other Christians in Carthage, North Africa, around A.D. 203, reported several recorded visions that seemed to promote belief in a transitional state after death that can be affected by intercessory prayers.6 Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who was martyred circa A.D. 155 or 156, seems to have believed that he would be delivered into heaven immediately upon his death and that the soul also survived after death.
Beginning already in the second century, apparently under the influence of Platonic philosophy, the origin of the soul was debated among Christian theologians. According to Froom, Justin Martyr (A.D. 105–165) continued to champion apostolic conditionalism.7 Indeed, Justin, commenting upon the statement that “according to some who are termed Platonist” the soul is immortal,8 responded: “I pay no regard to Plato.” He then proceeded to argue against Plato’s conception of immortality that the soul “lives not as being itself life, but as the partaking of life,” because “God wills it to live, and hence it will cease to live whenever he may please that it shall live no longer, for it is not the property of the soul to have life in itself as it is the property of God.”9 While Justin Martyr did not propagate the notion of an immortal soul, some of his statements were somewhat ambiguous or even contradictory when he spoke about an everlasting punishment that is proportional to sin. Another of his important anthropological concerns was safeguarding the freedom of the will. He wanted to secure humanity’s responsibility for wrongdoing and guilt. Justin Martyr believed that sin was derived not from an inherited corruption of nature but instead was a consequence of each individual’s own act of self-determination. This view became especially characteristic of the anthropology of the theologians of the Eastern church.
Joel B. Green, in his otherwise remarkable book Body, Soul and Human Life, seems to overstate the point when he concludes that “as early as the second century of the Christian era it was nonetheless clear to most theologians” that the soul is an entity separate from the body and imprisoned in the body.10 In a similar manner, the respected church historian J. N. D. Kelly has stated that the Apologists’ “general view of human nature is dichotomist, i.e. they consider it to be composed of two elements, body . . . and soul. . . . And they are unanimous that man is endowed with free-will.”11 While it is true that the Apologists widely supported the notion of free will, the early testimony on the immortality of the soul was not as predominant as these statements suggest.
The successors to these early voices in Christian theology were characterized by the attempt to solve the biblical question of anthropology by means of Greek-philosophical categories of thinking. Thus, a more definitive doctrine of human nature began to take shape. Froom has stated that in the new ante-Nicean period (circa A.D. 150–325), the phrases of Neoplatonic dogma such as “immortal soul,” “eternal spirit,” or “eternal suffering” increasingly appeared. In light of the fact that Greek thought on human nature was more diverse than just espousing a dualistic view of man, it remains a mystery how Plato became the single most influential philosopher for Christian theology. Perhaps he exercised a greater influence than others through his writings, which were used in schools to train future generations of thinkers. But Greek philosophical thought on human nature cannot be reduced to a single viewpoint and was much more diverse than often assumed.
Apparently, Athenagoras, who was influenced by Platonic philosophy, seems to have been the first Christian theologian to embrace the immortal soul postulate publicly. Yet it was Tertullian who gave great impetus to this perspective.
Tertullian was the first theologian in the early church who wrote in Latin rather than Greek, and thus he exercised great influence on the Latin church. His A Treatise on the Soul is perhaps the first extended Christian writing on the subject. For him “the entire man consists of the union of two substances,” namely, body and soul.12 Tertullian rejected the idea of the soul’s pre-existence as found in Plato. If the soul does not pre-exist, it must come into being at the time of birth of a human being.13 For Tertullian, this meant that the human soul came into physical progeny from Adam. Adam held within him the seed of all humankind, and he is the one root from whom every propagating branch or “layer” has been derived. The soul had its origin in the mediated activity of God through human parents and has propagated together with the body. This led Tertullian to his famous dictum: “the propagation of the soul is the propagation of sin.”14 Kelly has pointed out that it is only “a short step from this psychology to the doctrine of original sin.”15 Indeed, Tertullian was more explicit and outspoken about the sinful bias of human beings than previous theologians. Yet, for Tertullian, original sin did not quite annul free will. The first act of sin was itself an exercise of free will, but since the soul, even in its fallen state, retained a measure of its original goodness, the ability to choose between good and evil continued in human beings. Thus, Tertullian is regarded as a firm believer in free will.
Tertullian also introduced another influential concept into Christian thought; namely, that good deeds accumulate merit with God, while bad deeds demand satisfaction. This led him to propose the endless torment of the wicked. According to Froom, “Tertullian’s description of the eternal anguish of the damned surpassed any and all predecessors.”16
Tertullian was a dichotomist par excellence. His dichotomous understanding of man won wide acceptance and later was implicitly approved by Augustine. Augustine also further developed his understanding of original sin. Before turning to Augustine and his anthropology, we will look briefly at some influential Eastern theologians.
The idea of human beings’ physical solidarity with Adam, and thus human participation in his sinful act, was largely absent from the thinking of Alexandrian theologians. Both Clement and Origen placed great emphasis upon free will. According to them, the free will of human beings enables them to turn to the good and to accept the salvation that is offered in Jesus Christ. While God offers salvation, human beings have the power to accept it.
In contrast to the Western church, which was inclined toward dichotomy, Eastern theologians such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa tended to see human nature as tripartite. “They are called ‘trichotomists’ since they divide human nature into three components. Spirit is the essential human self which relates to God. Soul is that dimension of persons which mediates and conjoins the spirit with the material body.”17 While according to Kelly, many theologians from East and West took it “for granted that man is a composite being, made up out of body and soul,”18 this was not the only existing view.
With Origen we encounter another aspect of anthropology that is somewhat out of the ordinary. Origen was a firm proponent of the theory of the pre-existence of all individual souls. In this, Origen continued in the tradition of Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas about the immortality of the soul. But for Origen, God created a fixed number of rational essences, all of them co-equal as well as co-eternal, and all of them endowed with free will. The present condition of humanity presupposes a pre-existing fall from holiness into sin, which was the occasion for the creation of this material world. The fallen spirits were joined on earth to material bodies. Matter was called into being for the purpose of supplying an abode and as a place of training and purgation for these fallen spirits. Human beings are sinners, according to Origen, not because of Adam’s transgression but because of their prior choice of evil in the pretemporal world. Humans exist as a punishment for the evil chosen in the pretemporal realm.
Because he saw all of life and history as a movement back to God and a recovery of the state of original union, Origen thought that, in the end, all persons might be saved. Even those who leave the primal state of blessedness are not removed irrecoverably but may yet be restored to a condition of happiness. Origin’s universalism or teaching of apokatastasis, where God’s work of redemption will not cease until all things are restored to their original state, is one of the most controversial aspects of his theology. Origin believed that this restoration of all things will even include Satan and his demons.
It has been said that “it was in the fourth and fifth centuries that the doctrine of human nature became an issue of prime importance in the Church.”19 It seems that anthropological questions surfaced particularly in connection with questions about salvation, such as the depravity and original sin of humankind and the issue of free will. A key theologian in this discussion was Augustine, who provided a rebuttal to Pelagius.
With regard to the understanding of the soul, Augustine’s anthropology is a two-substance dualism influenced by Platonic thought. According to Froom, Augustine, even before he became a Christian, had written a book giving 16 reasons for the immortality of the soul.20 For him, the immaterial soul is superior to the body because it alone bears the image and knowledge of God. The body tends to divert the soul from spiritual things and tempts it with sinful desires. The soul is superior because it is immortal and survives the death of the body. Augustine became the most powerful and influential exponent of the immortality and indestructibility of the human soul. He also stated that some will go to heaven after a period of purgation. He believed that the intercession of members of the church for the dead could never be in vain. This thought became the basis for the Western belief in purgatory that is still held in Catholicism but was rejected by Luther and other Protestants.
Augustine’s view of human nature was much more pessimistic than that of many of the Apologists or Eastern church fathers (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa). He believed that all human beings are under the sin of Adam. In his view, each person is born a sinner because the taint of sin has been propagated from parent to child in the physical act of procreation. Thus, even newborn babies are affected by original sin. While Augustine admitted that nothing is more difficult to understand than the nature of ancient sin, he went beyond Tertullian in speaking not only of original sin but also of original guilt. Hence, in his view, everyone will go to hell unless converted to Christ. Since Adam’s sin was not his alone but every human being’s act in him, each person is guilty as soon as he or she exists as an individual. This idea helped strengthen the practice of infant baptism, because the sacrament of baptism was designed to remove the guilt of sin.
Since for Augustine the soul is immortal and does not die, the souls of the damned suffer apart from God for eternity. In his famous book City of God, Augustine discussed at length the state of the damned in hell, where they are burned with everlasting fire. He confused, as Froom has aptly phrased it, “eternal loss of life” with an “eternal life of loss.”21 Augustine vigorously rejected Origen’s view that all might be saved. The Western church has basically followed Augustine and his perspective of eternal punishment in hell ever since. Only occasional and sporadic voices of dissent have been heard.
Perhaps the most important questions in the debate between Augustine and Pelagius were those of free will and original sin. Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct. According to Pelagius, human beings are born into the world without any inherited bias to sin and with the natural ability to obey God. Sin did not injure the human race but only Adam himself. The universality of sin results from imitation. Since people ought to refrain from sinning, they thus must be free not to sin. Hence, the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility is the keystone of Pelagius’s system.
Augustine, in contrast to Pelagius, had a much bleaker view of human nature, stressing human solidarity with Adam. Every human being is depraved, disabled, and condemned because of Adam’s sin, which brought guilt and corruption upon all his descendants. As a byproduct of Adam’s fall, all human beings lost the liberty he enjoyed: the ability to avoid sin and to do good. While for Augustine the will still had a certain natural freedom and was capable of acts that are civilly good, he also maintained that—separated from God, burdened with guilt, and under the dominion of evil—human beings cannot choose to do that which is good in the sight of God. Augustine’s view of grace followed logically from his contention that the will is enslaved because of original sin. He acknowledged that God’s omnipotent will, operating on our wills by grace, is irresistible. Since divine grace takes the initiative, and apart from it all human beings are condemned, it is for God to determine who will receive grace. This God has done from all eternity, and the number of the elect is strictly limited. Augustine so magnified the grace of God that it left nothing in humankind upon which that grace could lay hold and operate. H. D. McDonald has raised the question: “If belief in Christ is altogether God’s own act, what room is there, then, for anything human or natural?”22 “Augustine’s doctrine of sin and grace was adopted as the anthropology of the Western Church.”23 His ideas have significantly dominated or at least influenced most of subsequent Christian theology, including Protestant theology, even up to our time.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, Christian anthropology remained within Greek philosophical presuppositions. Medieval thinkers took their understanding of the relationship of body and soul and the soul’s immortality from the earlier fathers of the church. While Bonaventure, following Platonic dualism, understood the body to be the decaying shell of an immortal soul, Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotelian thought and emphasized the unity of human nature by making the soul the primary organizing principle of the body, without which it would disintegrate. While the matter in a person’s body is constantly being replaced, it is the soul that gives individuals their continuity and identity. According to Cooper, he nevertheless agreed with Augustine in affirming that the soul is a distinct substance that can survive biological death.24
Under the influence of Aristotelian thought, Aquinas also insisted that the soul is capable of understanding and is therefore rational. Along these lines, he saw the image of God in humanity in his rational abilities. Others, such as Bernhard of Clairveaux and William of Ockham, stressed freedom of the will as a sign of the image of God.
The Reformation and the Council of Trent
Among the Protestant Reformers there were several who, on a fresh and unbiased reading of Scripture, supported a conditionalist understanding of human nature, such as Wycliffe, Tyndale, and others.
Martin Luther is championed by Froom as reviving conditionalist thinking.25 Yet, Luther was still a dichotomist. It is true that Luther opposed the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory and the related practice of selling indulgences. He also lamented the idea of the soul being immortal as a monstrous opinion coming from the Roman dunghill of decretals.26 He even spoke about death as a “deep, strong, sweet sleep.”27
While this might sound more conditionalist with regard to anthropology, in other areas Luther was following Augustine in ways that significantly influenced his understanding of human nature. With Augustine, he believed that as a result of Adam’s fall, the human race became totally depraved and corrupted. He followed Augustine in postulating human beings not just in a state of sin but also a state of original sin. For Luther, original sin meant that guilt, depravity, and condemnation were transmitted to the human race. According to Luther, the sinner is bent on sin and has no free will in spiritual matters. In fact, Luther asserted that the person who maintains “that man’s free-will is able to do or work anything in spiritual cases be they ever so small, denies Christ.”28 In spiritual things, or in things pertaining to salvation or damnation, human beings have no free will; they are captives either to the will of God or to the will of Satan.29 Lutheran theology also strongly affirms original sin, which maintains that the guilt of Adam is transmitted to his posterity. These salvational formulations are much more prominent in Luther’s theology than his few statements on soul sleep.
Calvin embraced traditional Augustinian Platonism. He was convinced that Plato “has rightly affirmed its [the soul’s] immortal substance. . . . Hence Plato’s opinion is more correct, because he considers the image of God in the soul.”30 Calvin thought that the soul was an “incorporeal substance” that “is not spatially limited, still, set in the body, it dwells there as in a house.”31 Calvin not only defended an intermediate state where the souls of believers enjoy fellowship with Christ, he also attacked the idea of soul sleep in his tract ‘Psychopanriychia.’
Furthermore, for Calvin, the depravity of the human being is so great that sin has corrupted every part of the person. Consequently, he affirmed that the human will is so affected by (original) sin that, although free in everyday matters, it is not able to respond positively to God. The baneful consequences of original sin are already experienced by infants. Thus, salvation is by God’s grace alone, and God has predestined the elect as well as the reprobate.
Calvin’s understanding of human nature, the bondage of the will in spiritual matters, and his view of the afterlife became a guidepost for subsequent Reformed theology and continues to shape the thinking of millions of Christians to this day.
Both Luther and Calvin differ significantly from Adventist theology on these points, and we must ask ourselves whether we are truly heirs of the Reformation or whether we are not more in line with the Anabaptists and Christians in the Arminian tradition, who have not won such widespread admiration and support in the theological world. Our Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the nature of humanity is markedly different from the understanding of human nature held by Luther and Calvin, and this has repercussions on our understanding of salvation as well.
In the Tridentine response to the positions of the Magisterial Reformers, the Protestant teaching regarding the radical nature of sin and the complete destruction of the imago Dei in humankind is rejected. Similarly, the Council of Trent stated that in spiritual matters, free will is weakened but not lost. The bondage of the will is rejected. While sin has seriously damaged the imago Dei in human beings, it is not completely destroyed. The remaining capabilities such as reason and willpower make it possible for the person— together with divine grace—to perform works that count toward salvation.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, held that “we were all born with a sinful, devilish nature”32; that is, every human being inherits a polluted, depraved, and sin-infected nature from Adam. But inherited guilt is canceled by God’s prevenient grace, which frees the human will and enables all persons to repent and exercise faith toward God. While Wesley was more appreciative of human free will than were Luther and Calvin with regard to the physical aspects of human nature, Wesley “was influenced by the early Greeks in his concept of the components of man’s physical being” and proposed a position that is “not greatly different from that of the ‘pluralistic’ Greek philosophers, especially the Pythagoreans.”33 Thus, for Wesley, death was “properly the separation of the soul from the body.”34
It appears that in the time of Protestant orthodoxy, after the death of the prominent Reformers, who were under the influence of Greek (Aristotelian) thought, the idea of an immortal soul was set in stone for centuries as being the orthodox theological position. This is true for both Reformed theology and for Lutheran orthodoxy.
Only occasional voices, from a fresh study of the Bible, would come to new insights and more biblically based conclusions. New developments in biblical studies, in which traditional proof texts for the traditional Christian dogmas would be increasingly questioned by voices that approached the Bible more critically and independently, brought new perspectives on the biblical understanding of human nature.
Modern Challenges to a Dualistic Anthropology
Whereas the early church and most of the theologians throughout the Middle Ages and the period of the Reformation were constructing their anthropological understanding in response to (Greek) philosophical questions, in the modern era, new questions and anthropological proposals have arisen. Significant challenges to a dualistic anthropology have come from biblical scholarship, new scientific discoveries, evolutionary thought, and from the social sciences, bringing new anthropological understandings along with them.
Recent Biblical Scholarship
Long before modern critical scholarship, the Bible was scrutinized with open minds that challenged the predominantly dualistic view of human nature. However, with the rise of the historical-critical method and its critical stance toward ecclesiastical tradition, by the beginning of the 20th century, skepticism toward a dualistic understanding of human nature became more and more prominent among biblical scholars.
Writing in 1964, Roman Catholic scholar Ansgar Ahlbrecht stated that a large proportion of Protestant theologians in his day had repudiated the immortality of the soul.35 In 1959, a leading and representative German Protestant dictionary, Das Evangelische Kirchenlexikon, categorically stated that the idea of immortality is to be rejected.36 While this did not mean that the idea of an immortal soul had vanished from Protestant and evangelical theology, there were an increasing number of biblical scholars and theologians who questioned the traditional dualistic understanding of human nature.
Already in 1911, well-known biblical scholar H. Wheeler Robinson, in his book The Christian Doctrine of Man, pointed out that an unbiased analysis of the biblical text itself, especially the Old Testament, reveals that “soul” and “spirit” have quite different meanings than they do in Platonic circles. They are used of animals and humans alike and do not refer to an immortal existence after death.37
In the 1950s, two significant scholarly treatments of anthropology by biblical scholars appeared: one study of the Old Testament and one of the NewTestament. In 1953, Claude Tresmontand (1925–1997) published his remarkable book, Essay sur la Pensée Hebraique, which was subsequently translated into German. Amazingly, although Tresmontand was a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, he pointed out that the biblical anthropology of the Old Testament is very different from the traditional Hellenistic dualism that dominated Christian theology for centuries. According to Tresmontant, there is no body-soul dualism in the Old Testament.38
Around the same time (1955), a well-known New Testament scholar, Oscar Cullmann, gave the Ingersol Lecture at Harvard University on the topic “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead: The Witness of the New Testament.”39 In it, Cullmann masterfully compared the radical difference between the fates of Socrates and Jesus, showing that the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body were originally mutually exclusive and that the New Testament does not support a dualistic understanding of human nature. Cullmann was stunned by the vehement criticism he received on this particular lecture, which accused him of betraying a vital cornerstone of traditional Christianity.
Despite such opposition, more and more evangelical biblical scholars, especially in Great Britain, have come to similar conclusions and advanced the discussion in new areas such as the understanding of hell and eternal punishment. Noted British evangelical John Wenham, then vice principal of Tyndale Hall, Bristol, called for a reconsideration of the traditional doctrine of hell because he found the idea of an everlasting hell to be unacceptable and unbelievable.40 According to Wenham, “unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice. It is a doctrine which I do not know how to preach without negating the loveliness and glory of God. . . . It is a doctrine which makes the Inquisition look reasonable.”41 By 1991, Wenham emerged as a proponent of conditional immortality, stating “that God created man only potentially immortal.”42
One of the most important British evangelical writers of the 20th century, John Stott, quickly became an even more well-known proponent of conditionalism in the debate over hell and annihilism. In his famous debate with liberal Anglican theologian David Edwards, Stott was challenged by Edwards on the traditional Christian view of hell, which presents God as an eternal torturer. Stott responded that he found the traditional doctrine of hell emotionally intolerable.43 For Stott, the biblical texts spoke about an utter destruction or annihilation of the wicked rather than an everlasting punishment of them. While acknowledging the biblical “lake of fire,” into which the wicked will be thrown, he insisted that they will be annihilated and cease to exist eternally.
Another prominent evangelical theologian who questioned the traditional doctrine of hell on moral grounds was Clark Pinnock. He wrote: “I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed. How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any moral standards, and by the gospel itself.”44
It seems that such moral concerns about the character of God and His justice were the driving force behind many evangelical hesitations about hell.
By the mid-1980s, more and more evangelical scholars began raising questions about the traditional view of hell and the corresponding anthropology. Edward W. Fudge, with his widely read book The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, comes to mind.45 But the number of evangelical scholars promoting annihilism had reached such proportions that Anglican evangelical theologian Peter Toon stated: “In conservative circles there is a seeming reluctance to espouse publicly a doctrine of hell, and where it is held there is a seeming tendency toward a doctrine of hell as annihilation.”46 In 2011, Alister McGrath noted that since “the 1980s, a growing internal debate has developed within Evangelicalism concerning a network of eschatological issues, centering on the issue of immortality.” He expects the debate to continue “and perhaps extend further into the Christian community.”47 Some even claimed the idea that “the doctrine of eternal punishment is the watershed between Evangelical and non-Evangelical thought.”48
Indeed, modern biblical scholarship may provide a greater threat to a dualistic anthropology in the Christian tradition than the findings of science and the conclusions of evolutionary thought. In dealing with the Bible, modern scholarship is opening up the content of God’s Word. While some biblical scholarship has been produced by individuals who deny the infallibility of the Bible and work from historical-critical premises, fundamentally they have still referred to the Bible itself as a witness against traditional orthodoxy with regard to the nature of human beings, a conclusion that is hard to resist. Beyond these biblical and moral concerns, there have been more challenges to other anthropological aspects from new scientific discoveries and from developments in social thought.
New Scientific Discoveries and Evolutionary Thought
Under the expanding influence of the theory of evolution, a totally new account of human origins emerged. This new paradigm changed, among other things, modern understanding of the dignity, worth, and sanctity of human life and has had significant implications for ethics and other theological concepts. A naturalistic and evolutionary understanding of humanity leaves no place for a supernatural origin of human life. It also poses a problem for the idea of an immortal soul. If humans evolved gradually from primitive ancestors, at what point did the soul come into existence? If more complex forms of life evolved from primitive forms of life, the mental capacities of humans gradually emerged from organisms that were virtually unconscious. Thus, “there was no longer a need to postulate a spirit or immaterial substance to account for the psychological and intellectual capacities of human beings. At every level of evolution, mental capacities are a function of the operations of the neuro-cerebral system.”49 With such a materialistic understanding of human life, where does sin occur and, in its wake, death? If there was no Fall, there is no need for God’s salvation, and consequently no need for Jesus to have come to this earth and died a substitutionary death for us. There is no need for a resurrection and hence no need for a second coming of Christ to create a new earth without sin and suffering. Too little attention has been given in theology to the significant dogmatic consequences of evolutionary thought.
Evolutionary thought has become the pervasive influence in our society and even in theology. It is amazing to see how some evangelical scholars and theologians who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and sign their affirmation every year show an amazing flexibility and incongruence in their theology when it comes to making accommodations to evolutionary explanations for the origin of life on earth. This is not consistent. We may sometimes wonder how Platonism could have such a pervasive influence on Christian theology and why it became so influential. What Platonism and Neoplatonism were to the thinking world and the Christian Church in the first centuries, evolutionary thought has become today. We should be exceedingly careful not to marry ourselves to the latest scientific attraction, because whoever enters into such a covenant will soon be a widower. Or, in the words of Malcolm Jeeves, professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland: “It also happens that theologians can be found tilting at scientific windmills long since dismantled and, perhaps what is worse, some are found modifying their doctrines to fit the supposed contours of what they perceive to be the current scientific landscape while, unbeknown to them, it has changed yet again.”50
The influence of Platonism in the early church did Christianity no service and has significantly distorted biblical teachings. Nancey Murphy of Fuller Theological Seminary has succinctly stated that “at great risk of oversimplification, I am suggesting that the adoption of a dualist anthropology in the early centuries of the church was largely responsible for changing Christians’ conception of what Christianity is basically all about.”51 In a similar manner, the adoption of evolutionary thought, no matter how powerful and attractive it might appear, will have a similar effect upon Christian theology, including Seventh-day Adventist theology, and will distort the message and mission of the church.
Another recent challenge that has impacted our understanding of human nature lies in the area of neuroscience. Brain scientists and others have noticed the direct causal influence of cerebral functioning on states of consciousness. Mental capacities such as thought, memory, understanding, and self-awareness have been found to correlate to specific areas of the brain. The scientific evidence seems to point in one direction. Consciousness, mental capacities, and personality characteristics are rooted in the brain and the organism, not in some immaterial substance or unobservable entity called the soul.
From an evolutionary perspective, there is no longer a need to postulate a spirit or immaterial substance to account for the psychological and intellectual capacities of human beings. At every level of evolution, mental capacities are a function of the operations of the neuro-cerebral system. In many cases, these findings are interpreted in a purely naturalistic way, and so it is no surprise that the notion of a separate soul in the human being becomes superfluous. We might applaud these new scientific findings, because the traditional view of the soul, and particularly the idea of an immortal soul, is being discredited. But if everything in human beings is reduced to purely naturalistic and materialistic causes, the freedom of the human will is also affected, because human thought becomes little more than organic reactions, placing in doubt whether the soul and the will even exist. In this context, the following statement written in 1869 shows profound insight: “The brain nerves which communicate with the entire system are the only medium through which Heaven can communicate to man and affect his inmost life.”52
This glimpse of the sublime workings of God in human beings encourages the seeing of humanity as a unity, a wholistic being, where both physical (i.e., bodily) and spiritual dimensions interact and influence one another. It also opens up a completely new understanding of human nature, where the bodily reality and physical dimension of human existence are taken seriously. Taking bodily life seriously brings the realization and appreciation that the human being never exists apart from the body. Even our resurrection will be a bodily resurrection. It will not be just some form of mental remembrance in the minds of the believers, as liberal scholarship has suggested. The Easter joy of the early disciples was expressed in Luke 24:34 when they exclaimed: “‘The Lord has really risen’” (NASB, italics supplied). The Greek word used here is a form of the Greek word ontos. The resurrection of Jesus provides a new ontology, a new reality of human existence, which is foundational for new spiritual life in the body. This is precisely why the bodily resurrection is so decisive for faith and Christian life.
Returning to the subject of human bodily existence, one function of the mind, working precisely in and through our body and its bodily functions, is to develop character. Character is not restricted to the mind and thinking alone but becomes visible in appropriate action, which is a bodily manifestation. Thus, character is connected with bodily existence and is a distinctive mark of human individuality. And it is character alone that can be taken to heaven. Character has to do with restoring the image of God in us, of making us more like Him.
Related to this is our understanding of health. The integration of health and anthropology is unique to Seventh-day Adventists. Our “health message” implies something much broader than merely what we eat and drink; it includes exercise, work and rest, sunshine and water, forgiveness, peace of heart and mind, how we dress—in short, how we live as bodily creatures. We do all these things not because we want to live a few years longer than the average person and live healthier and, hopefully, happier lives. We practice such a life-changing lifestyle because we are convinced that our body will be more receptive to spiritual things, to God’s communication with us through the nerves of our brain, so that we will be closer to God and understand Him will more fully. This is a beautiful insight for which there is no need for apology. The health message is indeed the “right arm”53 of our message as Seventh-day Adventists. Separate the health message from this spiritual insight, from our understanding of human nature, and it becomes a mere fitness program, with humanity as the center of attention rather than the God who wants to communicate with us and be in fellowship with us in the best possible way.
Our understanding of human nature has many practical consequences in other areas of theology, too. Good systematic theology is good biblical theology, which will always foster and bring forth good practical theology. It is rarely the other way round.
There is yet another recent development that has far-reaching consequences and implications for our understanding of human nature and biblical anthropology. In the past, human beings have been understood to be the special creation of God. Since the 19th century, a naturalistic understanding of the origin of life through evolutionary processes has captured the attention of the masses. But despite these significant and diametrically opposed differences over the origin of life, human beings have been seen as persons with a given sexual identity, born with a particular gender. Interestingly, this also is an identity that has distinctive bodily connotations: Human beings are born either male or female.
However, in 1949 Simone de Beauvoir published her influential treatise The Second Sex, in which she offered a detailed analysis of the oppression of women and laid out ideas foundational for contemporary feminism. Beauvoir was a companion of Jean-Paul Sartre and an influential existentialist thinker in her own right. As such, she believed that existence precedes essence; hence, her famous dictum: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”54 She held that the social construction of what it means to be a woman has been the foundation for the oppression of women. In 1955, sexologist John Money introduced a terminological distinction between sex as biological and gender as role.55 Since then, others have advanced the gender discussion to various political and legislative levels. It is in this political context that the term “gender mainstreaming” has arisen. First proposed in 1985 at the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, it has since been further developed through the efforts of the United Nations, which describes a process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programs, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic, and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality.
From a biblical perspective there is full equality between men and women. Equally clear is the biblical teaching, affirmed by Jesus, that God created human beings as male and female, with only two distinct sexes. Any attempt to introduce gender as distinct from one’s biological sex, as something not biological, not given at birth, but rather something that is only socially conditioned and constructed is subversive to a biblical anthropology. In the present gender mainstreaming debate, the very categories of “man” and “woman,” of male and female, are being questioned. So, it should come as no surprise that some now advocate the possibility of changing one’s gender identity and that it is possible to have more than just two genders. There is also discussion of transgender.
Taking into consideration all of the above-mentioned aspects, Thomas Metzinger is certainly correct in his observation that “there is a new image of man emerging, an image that will dramatically contradict almost all traditional images man has made of himself in the course of his cultural history.”56 We are experiencing significant and far-reaching attempts to change our perspective of what it means to be human. The debate is not just limited to the issue of the mortality or immortality of the soul and the state of the dead. At a much more comprehensive level, many other aspects of our human nature are affected, such as our understanding of human sexuality and our human sexual identity, including how we see homosexuality and the roles male and female members of the church have in God’s creation.
Having briefly traced the understanding of human nature throughout Christian history, we conclude with a brief prospect for the future. To assist Adventist study of systematic theology and church history, a decisive effort on the part of Adventist scholars and church leadership is needed to enable constructive work and to fund original research in the area of anthropology. More must be published on this topic and made available to a wider readership, as was the case with Froom’s works. Since Froom, no similarly vast and comprehensive Adventist investigation into anthropology has been done. While the work of Froom is not without its deficiencies, it has shaped the thinking of many for decades, even beyond the boundaries of the Adventist Church. Theologically sound scholarship at the highest scientific level as well as publication on the popular level is needed.
Seventh-day Adventist scholars are needed who can make serious contributions and add credibility to the discussion—scholarship free of apologetic overtones and that is thorough, solid, and most of all, faithful to the Bible and fair in how we deal with those who hold different views. This is how we would like others to treat our expositions of faith, and so they deserve the same respect and tact. Such foundational studies will defend our faith in the long term far more effectively than less-careful apologetic attempts.
Frank M. Hasel, PhD, is Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES