What is body-spirit dualism and why should it be avoided?

We are very blessed, as a Christian church, to have letters passed down to us that were written in the first century; letters, for example, between the Apostle Paul to one of the new young church pastors called Timothy. The reason these letters were preserved was because they were both personal and official – designed to be read out to the congregations – and their content was highly valued and respected.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he wrote it as an encouragement to help Timothy carry out his ministry no matter what difficulties or hardship he would face. You see, at the time the letter was written there were heresies (false teaching) doing the rounds and people were being misled. The biggest heresy of the time was a kind of dualism called body-spirit dualism.

Body-spirit dualism is the idea that human beings can be divided into two separate parts: body and spirit, and that the body part is bad and the spirit part is good. Therefore, the dualist teaches that when you die, the good bit – the spirit – goes to heaven and the bad bit – the body – remains in the ground.

Why does this matter? Well, if you believe in dualism then it has implications for who Jesus Christ is and it has implications for how we live our lives in the here and now.

For example, if the body is bad then how could God – who is perfectly good and holy – inhabit a body in the physical person of Jesus Christ? At the time that Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, dualists were claiming that the physical body of Jesus must have been a phantom or mirage, or worse, that God had temporarily possessed a human being!

The second implication, and one that Timothy, as a church pastor, had to deal with was that people, accepting the concept of dualism were doing one of two things. They were either thinking that as they were really spiritual beings inhabiting a temporary physical body – one that would ultimately be destroyed – that they could treat that body however they wanted and they engaged with every kind of hedonism. Alternatively, they felt like they needed to subjugate the body and control it through self-flagellation and extreme discipline.

The heresy of dualism was prevalent in the first century church and it is also present today. Most people, including most Christians if you ask them, believe that the spirit part of us goes to heaven when we die — that we are ultimately destined for a heavenly spiritual home. However, this is not true, and it was so important to correct this false idea of dualism that the apostle Paul wrote unambiguous instructional letters, and it is why I, as a Christian pastor, am sharing this message today.

Christians believe in something called bodily resurrection – that, as far as we are concerned, here on earth, one day in the future, all will be resurrected with new bodies — just like Jesus.

If you were to look for the body of Jesus you will never find it. Why? Because it is not there. Jesus was physically resurrected. He showed the nail marks in his hands and feet. He walked and talked. He got hungry and asked his disciples for food! Jesus then bodily ascended to heaven where he still exists in physical form.

We too, like Jesus, will be resurrected with physical bodies. The incarnation of Jesus Christ (him appearing in bodily form) affirms the goodness of God’s creation — a creation that God describes in the book of Genesis as, “very good.” Dualism, being concerned with the spiritual over the physical, is a very dangerous doctrine because it gives us an excuse not to look after ourselves, other people, or the environment. I once met a Christian who told me we can trash this world because God is going to make a new heaven and a new earth, therefore we can burn more fossil fuels and throw away more single-use plastics. This is dualism. It is a heresy and it is very, very wrong.

Human beings are body, mind, and spirit. All three aspects of our being are interconnected and inseparable. Yes, often our bodies, minds, and spirits do not function as they ought, can be broken, hurt, or damaged, yet God affirms us as inherently good and worthy of His saving love. Being a Christian means trusting in the resurrection of Jesus Christ because it informs how we interact with the world. It means that we honour and respect all that is created and that we seek to be holistic in our care for others and the world around us. The body matters, the mind matters, and the spirit matters.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is why we can say with confidence that we will see our loved ones again, look them in the eye, hold their hands, hug them, laugh with them, and never leave their side.

Amen.