Spirit, Soul and Consciousness

One critical question related to a discussion of life, death, and life after death is, “What exactly are we?”  For example, are we just a physical body whose chemical interactions create the illusion of thought, self-awareness and experience of an external world?  Or are we just a mind (whatever that is) that experiences an external world that is an illusion (Think the movie, “The Matrix” here).  Or does the external world really exist, our brains and their chemistry really exist and our conscious self is really something that is not formally part of this universe, but interacts with this universe via the brain.  The last theory is a dualism favored by scientists who are not wholesale devotees of materialism (the idea that the only real things are measurable things).

The Bible is dualistic.  Body and soul are mentioned many places.  While body and soul were not to be separated, they can be.  I am both my body and my soul.  Hence, the promise of the resurrection of the body and not just an eternal heavenly separation of the soul from this world.

In one passage, Hebrews 4:12, a third category is introduced.  It states, “(the Word of God is) Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even is dividing soul and spirit…”  The words soul and spirit are clearly not synonyms here.  To what do they refer?   “Soul” in Greek is psyche.  “Spirit” is pneuma.  We use these roots in many words, but do we understand what the writer meant, and do these words relate to what we have learned about the brain?

Materialists want us to believe that our whole experience of consciousness is merely brain chemistry.  They point to the fact that electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain can give us sensory and emotional experiences.  They also refer to imaging from PET scans that show brain activity in certain parts of the brain for any conscious experience.  True materialist devotees then extend this connection to a form of fatalism, suggesting that we have no freewill of any form.  Our bodies simply do what our brain chemistry makes us do, and brain chemistry is strictly cause and effect according to the laws of physics.  It’s the perfect excuse.  “Was I speeding, officer?  I couldn’t help it my brain made me speed.”

Besides being morally absurd and not corresponding at all with our own experience of self, this theory doesn’t explain well the experience of people put in a medically induced coma and cooled down for brain surgery.  They have no PET activity nor access to either their senses or a scientist’s probe, still one Arizona woman experienced being out of her body and accurately described all the activity in the surgical suite.

I personally believe that our brains are the interface between our consciousness and body and not the source of our consciousness.  Our pneuma is something non-physical.  It can experience Heaven or Sheol.  It can even experience the Earth without our bodies in certain conditions.  Our spirit also interfaces with our brains to create chemical and electrical activity (our psyche) driving our body to interact with the world.

Physical death disconnects our pneuma and psyche.  Hebrews 4:12 says God’s Word is powerful enough to kill.  More importantly, it is powerful enough to make alive. We are more than interesting chemistry.  We are a created being with self-awareness for a reason.  We are meant to know ourselves and to know our Creator.  Despite the sin that results in a division of soul and spirit, we have a Savior that values body, soul and spirit and redeems them all.

Author: tdwenig

Tom is the Senior Pastor of the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Evansville, IN. He has served his congregation since 2000. He has a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO

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