The Human Soul: A Catholic Theological Response to Non-Reductive Physicalism


In the book, Whatever Happened to the Soul, the authors argue in support of a view they call non-reductive physicalism. According to this view, Nancey Murphy says the human person “is a physical organism whose complex functioning, both in society and in relation to God, gives rise to ‘higher’ human capacities such as morality and spirituality.”1 This view that ontologically we humans are only physical but that we have real freedom, consciousness and so forth, is supported by a number of Christian authors of different specializations today including the areas of neuroscience, philosophy, biblical studies and theology. These authors generally believe that individual human persons cease to exist when their bodies die but that they will be reconstituted by God in a future bodily resurrection.2 In this paper, as a believing Christian and a Catholic theologian, I offer some responses to non-reductive physicalism. In brief, while I agree with a number of points made by authors supporting non-reductive physicalism, I disagree with their denying that we human beings have immaterial immortal souls.

Christian authors who support non-reductive physicalism generally support a number of tenets of traditional Christian faith such as that God loves us, that human beings are created in the image of God and have free will, and resurrection of the dead. They, however, disagree with the traditional Christian view that we human beings have immaterial immortal souls. This “traditional” view of the human soul has been articulated and defended, for example, by many mainstream patristic and scholastic authors, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, and more recent authors such as neuroscientists John Eccles and Mario Beauregard, philosophers Karl Popper and Karol Wojtyla (who became Pope John Paul II), and theologians Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Benedict Ashley and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI).3 These authors generally hold that the human soul transcends the human physical body, that it is immaterial or incorporeal and immortal. In line with this, the traditional Christian view also affirms that the individual human person does not completely cease to exist with bodily death but that the person’s soul continues to exist in an intermediate state until the future resurrection of the dead.

In general Christian authors who support non-reductive physicalism argue that viewing human beings as only physical organisms ontologically is in accord with the Hebrew view of the Bible.4 They also consider this view to be in accord with empirical scientific data including the findings of neuroscience which demonstrate a tightening of mind-brain-behavior links.5 In general they argue that the traditional Christian view of the human soul, beginning with many patristic authors, was overly influenced by a Platonic “dualism.”

While it is true that patristic and later “traditional” Christian authors often borrowed some of the language and ideas from non-Christian authors such as Plato and Aristotle, in general they appropriated these critically. They accepted views which they considered to be true, to be compatible with Christian faith, but they did not accept views which they considered to be contrary to biblical teaching and God’s revelation. For example, although Plato believed the human soul survived death, a view also held by traditional Christianity, he also believed in reincarnation and that the human soul pre-existed the human body, beliefs not accepted by most patristic and later traditional Christian authors.6

In my view the traditional Christian view of the human soul can better account for all of the related data from the Bible and human experience than can non-reductive physicalism. Discussion of this will be arranged in three main parts in this paper: 1) Some Related Biblical Data; 2) Some Related Christian Traditions; and 3) Some Related Data of Human Experience.

1.) Some Related Biblical Data

There are a number of biblical texts, according to some good biblical scholars and theologians, which support the view that the human soul continues to exist in an intermediate state between bodily death and resurrection. This implies that the human soul transcends the physical body, that it is incorporeal or immaterial or spiritual. Without being exhaustive, we will consider here some of the most relevant biblical texts, as well as some related commentary by a number of biblical scholars.7

The Jewish Scriptures / Christian Old Testament

1 Samuel 28:3-19 begins by saying that the prophet Samuel had died and was buried in Ramah. King Saul asks a medium to consult a spirit for him even though this was forbidden in Israel. He asks her to bring up Samuel who appears as a ghost [“an ’elohim (a ‘god,’ or ‘elohim’ being) coming up from the earth.” According to biblical scholar James Turro, “this term is frequently reserved for members of the heavenly court.”8]. The ghost of Samuel then enters into a conversation with King Saul. A related scholarly note in The New Jerusalem Bible says that, “The narrator seems to share the popular belief in ghosts (though he regards it unlawful to consult them)…. The incident is presented as a genuine recalling of Samuel’s spirit…” According to biblical scholar Antony Campbell, the time of composition of 1-2 Samuel “covers the centuries from the beginnings of the monarchy in Israel to the exile and the postexilic period.” He himself argues that “a late 9th-cent. Prophetic document” lies behind the present text.9

From where does the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel come? The abode of the dead in the Jewish Scriptures is called Sheol. It is generally pictured as a resting place. Some texts “suggest that inactivity and perhaps even unconsciousness are the lot of the departed.” See, for example, Job 3:13, Ecclesiastes 9:10 and Psalm 88:10-12. Some other texts, however, “suggest that at least on occasion the inhabitants of the underworld are conscious and active.” See, for example, Isaiah 14:9-10. The practice of consulting the dead through mediums which was widespread in the ancient Middle East indicates belief in an afterlife. So does the forbidding of such practices in Jewish scriptures (e.g., Leviticus 19:31), since there would be no need to warn against such practices “if the Israelites did not believe the dead existed or that they could be consulted.” With regard to the narrative of the deceased Samuel communicating with King Saul, theologian John Cooper says, “…dead Samuel is still Samuel … He is the very person who was once alive …. Although this is a highly unusual occurrence, Samuel is nonetheless a typical resident of Sheol …. Although he implies that he is resting, it was still possible for him to ‘wake up’ and engage in a number of acts of conscious communication. Activity is still in principle possible for the dead even if they are usually ‘asleep.’” Some later texts in the Jewish scriptures also express the hope that the dwellers in Sheol would be reunited with their bodies in a future resurrection. See, for example, Ezekiel 37; Daniel 12:2; and Isaiah 24-27. All of these as well as some other Old Testament texts imply belief in an intermediate state between bodily death and resurrection.10

Jewish Apocryphal Literature / Deuterocanonical Books

Between the time that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were written, there were some Jewish writings that are often referred to as intertestamental or Jewish apocryphal literature. Within this literature one sees some developments as well as diversity of views with regard to the afterlife. For example, some of these writings express the view that within Sheol there is a place of punishment for the wicked called “Gehenna,” whereas the righteous are taken to “Paradise.” One group within Judaism, the Sadducees, did not believe in bodily resurrection, whereas another group, the Pharisees, did.11 These views continued into the time of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament as we will see below.

A few of these writings which were part of the Jewish Septuagint, the “Old Testament” scriptures used by many Christians in the early church, are called “deuterocanonical” by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. They are considered to be part of the divinely inspired scriptures or canon of the Bible.12 One of these books, 2 Maccabees 15:11-16, reports Judas Maccabeus’s vision of two deceased just men, the high priest Onias and the prophet Jeremiah interceding with God for the Jewish people and the Holy City. Biblical scholar Neil McEleney says that these two just men represent the law (embodied in the priesthood) and the prophets. “The vision … illustrates the author’s belief in the intercessory power of the saints.” 2 Maccabees 12:44-5 approves of praying for those who have died. Concerning this McEleney says that the author “sees Judas’s action as evidence that those who die piously can be delivered from unexpiated sins… This doctrine, thus vaguely formulated, contains the essence of what would become (with further precisions) the Christian theologian’s teaching on purgatory.”13 Related to this deuterocanonical teaching Pope Benedict XVI, an outstanding theologian in his own right, in a recent encyclical “On Christian Hope,” says in part:

Early Jewish thought includes the idea that one can help the deceased in the intermediate state through prayer (see for example 2 Macc 12:38-45; first century BC). The equivalent practice was readily adopted by Christians and is common to the Eastern and Western Church…. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death--this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today.14

The Christian New Testament

Concerning everlasting life, the main focus in the New Testament is on bodily resurrection in the light of Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. Nevertheless, a number of texts present Jesus, his disciples and the respective New Testament authors as also believing in an intermediate state between bodily death and resurrection. Let us begin by considering the Gospel according to Luke 23:43 which reports Jesus on the cross saying to the dying thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” With regard to “today in Paradise,” biblical scholar Caroll Stuhlmueller says, “Jesus’ reply, his last words to any person on earth, puts the emphasis upon ‘today’—before the sun sets.” Concerning “With me,” He tells the thief that he will not be simply in Jesus’ retinue (syn emoi) but will also be sharing his royalty (meth’ emou).” She says, “paradise” is“A word derived from Old Persian … used … in the NT for the abode of the righteous (Ap 2:7; 2 Cor 12:2-4).” Catholic theologian Benedict Ashley, referring to a biblical commentary by G. B. Caird, says, “By the time of the Pharisees, the rabbis taught that at death there is judgment and the shades of the unrighteous go to a place of punishment in Sheol called Gehenna, and the just to a place of happiness called Paradise, like the garden of Eden. It is evidently to this that Jesus refers on the Cross .… to the good thief…”15 With regard to this passage, Anglican bishop and biblical scholar Tom Wright says, “… in Luke, we know first of all that Christ himself will not be resurrected for three days, so ‘paradise’ cannot be a resurrection. It has to be an intermediate state.”16

Luke 16:19-31 reports Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. When they die, the poor man goes to the “bosom of Abraham” but the rich man goes to Hades. They are forever separated. With regard to this parable, Stuhlmueller says that the image of “Abraham’s bosom … is expressive of either the eschatological banquet (5:34) or of an intimate fellowship with Abraham (both known in rabbinical literature… in Hades [refers to]Hell, Sheol, abode of the dead. Enoch [a pre-Christian Jewish apocryphal book] ch. 22 speaks of adjoining quarters for the evil and the good in this abode of the dead and seems to imply that they remain there till the judgment and general resurrection. This notion corresponds to the rabbinical teaching…”17

With regard to the question, where was Jesus himself between his death and bodily resurrection, on the original Good Friday and Easter Sunday respectively, let us consider first of all Eph 4:9-10 which reads: “(When it says, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far about all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)” Although some exegetes interpret his descent “to the lower parts of the earth” as a “description of Christ’s incarnation and earthly life,” biblical scholar Joseph Grassi says, “According to some [other] exegetes this would mean the region of the dead, as in the creeds, ‘he descended into hell.’ In support of this theory they cite the parallel in 1 Pt 3:19 and 4:6.”18 These parallel texts respectively say that when he was put to death Christ went “in the spirit” and “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison…”(1 Pet 3:18-20) and “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”(1 Pet 4:6; cf. Jn 5:25). With regard to these and some other related New Testament passages, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was composed by a number of outstanding theologians and promulgated by Pope John Paul II, says in part:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the ealm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there… Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell”—Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer; which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.”(Roman Catechism I, 6, 3) Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him…. The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.19

In Phil 1:21-24, the apostle Paul, imprisoned and perhaps facing death, says: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me: and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” With regard to this passage biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer says, “To ‘be with the Lord’ was the expectation of Paul for the parousia (1 Thes 4:17; 5:10). Now—due to the proximity of death—he realizes that another possibility exists, to enter sooner than the ultimate resurrection into a state of companionship with Christ in glory (cf. 2 Cor 5:2, 6-8; Col 3:3). Paul’s words indicate that he reckons with an intermediate state in which the deceased Christian is ‘with Christ’ after death and before the resurrection.” Another biblical scholar Brendan Byrne says in part, “Death is gain, not—as in certain strands of Greek philosophy—in the sense of welcome release from bodily existence, but as intensifying the union with Christ, who has already passed through death to resurrection. Resurrection remains the ultimate goal…. Paul seems to envisage here a ‘being with Christ’ in some (disembodied) state prior to the general resurrection (cf. 2 Cor 5:2-4).” In a related New Testament passage, 2 Cor. 5:1-10, the Apostle Paul says in part: “…even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”(verses 6-10) Concerning this biblical scholar John O’Rourke says, “This passage has been the object of much discussion. At least eight general classes of interpretation can be found. Among Catholics perhaps the most common” interpretation “…is that which sees here … the doctrine of the possession of essential beatitude by the just (prescinding from purgatory) following the particular judgment.”20

In 2 Cor 12:2-4, the Apostle Paul speaks of a man who fourteen years before had a vision, in which he was not sure whether he was in or outside his body, who was caught up to the third heaven, into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words. In humility Paul speaks of himself here in the third person.21 With regard to Paul’s saying he did not know, God knows, whether he was in or outside his body during this vision, does this not imply that Paul understood the human person to transcend one’s physical body? It seems that such a view can be reconciled with a human person having both a body and immaterial soul, but not with physicalism including non-reductive physicalism.

Revelation 6:9-11, describing a vision of John, reads: “…I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete…” With regard to this passage, biblical scholar Jean-Louis D’Aragon says, “This altar (see 8:3; 9:13; 14:18; 16:7) is the heavenly counterpart of the altar of holocausts in the Jerusalem Temple….” The cry of the souls “does not express a desire for vengeance, which would not be in accord with the teaching of Christ (Lk 6:27f.). The martyrs call for the securing of justice. God would not be just, nor the Lord of history, if he did not punish injustice…. A white robe … means the victory of the martyrs and their sharing in the happiness of eternal life (7:13-17). The individual victory of each martyr is assured as soon as he is with Christ…” With regard to the part of the text which reads “until the number would be complete,” D’Aragon says, “In accordance with Jewish eschatology, Christianity holds that the last judgment will not come until the number of the elect, determined by God, has been completed…”22

A number of the above biblical passages present human beings as being conscious and able to communicate after their death. And yet, according to the New Testament view the general resurrection of the dead had not yet taken place. With regard to this 2 Tim 2:17-18 reads: “...Hymenaeus and Philetus ... have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place.” Anglican bishop and biblical scholar Tom Wright says, “In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet.” John Cooper, who analyzes various New Testament texts related to the time of the resurrection, concludes that although there are some variations in language, New Testament authors believed the general resurrection of the dead was in the historical future. For the Apostle Paul this will occur with the parousia, the Second Coming of Christ.23 Biblical data thus contradicts both the non-reductive physicalist view that there is no intermediate state as well as the view that the resurrection occurs immediately at death.

At the time of Jesus, there was some diversity of views among the Jews concerning the afterlife. For example, according to the New Testament, the Saducees did not believe in spirits, angels and bodily resurrection, but the Pharisees, Jesus and the early Christians did. With regard to this consider, for example, Acts 22:30-23:11 which reports that the Apostle Paul was brought before a meeting of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Part of this passage notes that: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.”(Acts 23:8) During a dispute between the two groups some of the Pharisees say in part, “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”(Acts 23:9), that is, to the Apostle Paul. There is a wealth of biblical material related to angels, intelligent personal spiritual beings created by God without real physical bodies. Contemporary theologian Benedict Ashley defends the real existence of angels as compatible with an evolutionary view of the physical universe.24 The Bible also presents God as “Spirit” (see John 4:24), as invisible and transcending the visible created universe (see Rom 1:16-25). The biblical data concerning angels and God supports the view that there is more to reality than what is physical. Such a view is compatible with the traditional Christian view, which we will consider further below, that the human person is a profound union of an invisible spiritual soul and a visible physical body. With regard to the question of consciousness which we will also consider further below, we can note here that God and angels are presented in the Bible as personal conscious beings without bodies including brains. Although the second person of the Trinity took on a human body with the incarnation, God the Father and Holy Spirit did not. God the Son or Word was also conscious before the incarnation. Therefore, consciousness does not necessarily require having a physical body and a brain.

With regard to the early Christians and Jesus believing in spirits or ghosts see, for example, Luke 24:36-43, which reports the Risen Jesus appearing to the disciples and speaking to them. The passage reads in part: “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’”(verses 37-39) Concerning this passage, biblical scholar Léopold Sabourin says in part that the Greek pneuma in verses 27 and 39 must mean a “ghost,” “the appearance of someone who has died…. To understand Lk 24:39 correctly it is necessary to presuppose that the disciples recognized Jesus but believed they were only seeing his ‘spirit’ and not his true resurrected humanity.” Commenting on this same passage in a biblical commentary, Michael Patella says in part, “Maintaining that the resurrected Jesus is a ghost is more comprehensible to the disciples than believing that he is risen. With this Jerusalem appearance, paralleled in John 19:19-29, Luke presents an apology for those who deny the reality of the resurrection…. This passage introduces the nature of the glorified body, a reality that goes to the heart of Christian belief. The resurrected life that Christ initiates goes beyond spiritual existence in eternity. It is a new life involving the glorified body…”25 Earlier during the public ministry of Jesus, Mt 14: 22-33 and Mk 6:45-52 report Jesus walking on the water. When the disciples on the boat see him they are frightened and think they are seeing a ghost until Jesus identifies himself. While these passages taken together show that the early Christians believed that our final goal includes bodily resurrection, something non-reductive Christian authors also believe, these passages also indicate that the early Christians believed in the real existence of ghosts who, according to Jesus, do not have bodies. This is not surprising in the light of the narrative of the appearance of the ghost of the prophet Samuel to King Saul in the Jewish scriptures which we considered above. This belief in ghosts is compatible with the traditional Christian belief of the intermediate state of the human soul between bodily death and resurrection, something Christian non-reductive physicalist authors deny in spite of the biblical data supporting such a belief.

Of interest, Joel Green, one of the main biblical scholars who supports non-reductive physicalism, says, “Evidence of a body-soul dualism in the New Testament may also be traced in a text like Matthew 10:28, ‘Do not fear those who put the body to death but are unable to kill the soul’... In this text, the Greek term psyche probably refers to the disembodied soul that lives on beyond physical death…” In spite of acknowledging a biblical text like this which supports belief in the intermediate state, Green opts for a physicalist anthropology. Among other things, to support his view that the human person ceases to exist at bodily death, he refers to some Jewish biblical texts which seem to present Sheol, the abode of the dead, as a place of inactivity and unconsciousness.26 With regard to such texts, as well as other biblical texts which we have considered above which support the view of human souls continuing to exist in an intermediate conscious state between bodily death and resurrection, it seems to me that we should appreciate a development of theology and teaching within the Bible itself concerning the afterlife. We certainly find this with regard to belief in bodily resurrection, which is not presented in earlier parts of the Bible, that is, in much of the Jewish scriptures, but is clearly affirmed in the New Testament. In a somewhat similar way we see signs within the Bible, which was composed over many centuries, of a developing understanding of Sheol, the abode of the dead, and the intermediate state. Within the Bible we see a number of other such developments in understanding and theology, for example, related to the law, God’s salvation, and the one God being a Trinity of three divine persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It seems to me that any good theory of biblical interpretation needs to take seriously not just some biblical texts which seem to support one’s position, but all related biblical texts. Related to developments of understanding and theology within the Bible, the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church speaks of God’s pedagogy and progressive revelation. God’s revelation was completed in Jesus Christ.27

2.) Some Related Christian traditions


Although there are some differences, many of the Fathers of the Church, Christian writers in the first few centuries following biblical times, held that the human soul is incorporeal, created by God, does not preexist the body, is immortal, death is the separation of the soul from the body, and that there is an intermediate state between bodily death and resurrection. Related to the intermediate state a number of these authors also speak of a particular judgment of each human person when they die and purgatory.28 These beliefs should not be surprising to us since they are in line with biblical teaching as we considered above.

Thomas Aquinas

With regard to Christian theological views during the Middle Ages, due to the limits of this paper, we will only consider here some of the related views of Thomas Aquinas (13 Cent. A.D.). His “Thomistic” philosophy and theology have had an enormous and lasting influence. Aquinas, with a good knowledge of the Bible, the Fathers of the Churchand philosophy, adapted Aristotle’s hylomo phic theory, the soul

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!