Was Jesus a Monist or a Dualist?
by Shawn Ferguson
Anthropological monism[i](hereafter, simply monism) is roughly the view that the human being is intrinsically tied up with the physical in such a way that when the physical ceases to live (i.e. death) the human being ceases to exist. Different forms of the view can be more nuanced than this, but it will suffice for our purposes here. The key point is that, on monism, there is no immaterial self who survives the death of the body. It follows that if it can be shown that a person can survive the death of the body (as a spirit, or some such immaterial substance), monism, as we have defined it here, is firmly defeated.
Of course, showing that the person survives the body is no easy thing, especially when dealing with a naturalist, or anyone else who doesn’t accept the authority of the Bible. But many Christians have come to embrace monism as well, attempting to show that the Bible nowhere teaches that the immaterial self can exist apart from the body. In this article, I’d like to offer what I take to be a definitive Biblical refutation of monism[ii], which, if successful, should settle the matter for all Christians who take the Bible as authoritative.
Consider the following passage in which Jesus refutes the Sadducees denial of the resurrection:
But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage,how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I amthe God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are therefore greatly mistaken. (Mark 12:26-27, NKJV)
At first this passage is rather puzzling. Jesus’ conclusion does not seem to follow from His premises. His argument goes something like this:
1. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living only.
2. At the time of Moses, after Abraham’s, Isaac’s, and Jacob’s bodies were no longer living, God said that He was their God.
3. Therefore, at the time of Moses, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were still alive, even though their bodies were not.
What this argument proves is 3: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were still alive without their bodies in Moses’ day. Presumably it was extrapolated from this fact that they were still alive even in Jesus’ time, and we can make the same extrapolation for our time. This seems to be definitive proof, from the very mouth of Jesus, that those whose bodies have died are still alive. End of discussion.
The problem, of course, is that Jesus doesn’t state this (3) as the conclusion. He explicitly states the conclusion to be that the dead will rise. What have we missed here? Does this prove that monism is false, or what?
The first thing we need to see is that, regardless of Jesus’ stated conclusion, 3 follows logically from His argument. If God is not the God of the dead, and God said that He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob after their bodies had died, then it follows logically and inescapably that these men were still alive at that time, without their bodies. Jesus clearly took His argument to show something more as well, but this fact in no way diminishes the necessity of 3 given His stated premises. It cannot logically be denied.
That being said, how did Jesus go from the stated premises to the conclusion that the dead will rise? It must have been a good argument because “…after that no one dared question Him.” (Mark 12:34, NKJV) What are we missing?
When I first started thinking about this, a solution struck me quite suddenly: The Sadducees denied the resurrection because they saw the impossibility of identifying a future resurrected self with a former self which had ceased to exist. Without continuity, there can be no identity.
Let me explain this further. If something ceases to exist, it would seem that that thing is lost forever. Even if God could somehow recreate an entity with all the same features, even if He could recreate a human in the future with the same memories as the former, would it be anything more than just a copy? It would seem that it couldn’t be identified with the former entity. Once something ceases to exist, it’s gone forever. The Sadducees rejected the resurrection because they were first-century monists, so Jesus defeated their monism to show that their rejection of the resurrection was ungrounded.
Again, the Sadducees denied the continued existence of the self after the death of the body, and as such they saw the impossibility of a future resurrection. At best, it would be a future re-creation with copies of former things. When Jesus proved to them that the self does continue to exist after the death of the body (3), He effectively undercut their very reason for rejecting the resurrection. It all made perfect sense, as long as my surmise about the Sadducees proved correct. And I had great confidence that it was, because it seemed to me the only logical reconciliation of the facts.
It didn’t take long to find evidence confirming my theory. The first century Jewish historian Josephus gives us some telling information about the Sadducees. He writes plainly: “But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies…”[iii] Speaking of the Sadducees elsewhere, Josephus states, less clearly: “They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades…”[iv] These statements seem to align perfectly with my theory about the beliefs of the Sadducees, and how this informed the way in which Jesus argued. Josephus clearly states that the Sadducees denied the existence of the self after bodily death.
If this were all we had, it would certainly be enough, but it seems that Scripture itself provides some evidence for the accuracy of my inference[v]. In Acts 23, we find Paul at a hearing before the Jewish council where he is standing trial for the Gospel. Realizing that some are Pharisees and others Sadducees, Paul seizes the opportunity to use their differing beliefs to his advantage.
But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both. And there arose a great cry: and the scribes that were of the Pharisees’ part arose, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God. (Acts 23:6-9, KJV. Emphasis mine.)[vi]
In the bolded section of this passage, we have Luke telling us that the Sadducees deny the resurrection, there being “neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.” This is somewhat enigmatic, to be sure, but the best interpretation seems to be that the Pharisees accepted the resurrection because they took the personhood of the individual to continue its existence after bodily death in the form of something similar to an angel or spirit (angels being spirit beings[vii]). This is why Luke says that the Pharisees confess both. It would seem that there are three things to be confessed here: the resurrection, angels, and spirits, but the Greek word here rendered (accurately) as “both” indicates two things only. It makes sense if what Luke is telling us is that the Pharisees confess a resurrection because they confess a disembodied existence in the form of something akin to angel or spirit, but not both angel and spirit. There is really only one thing indicated by the either/or phrase: a disembodied person, so the dual “both” is grammatically accurate.
This interpretation also helps to explain why the Pharisees then came to Paul’s aid: They thought that perhaps an angel or spirit like being (a disembodied human) had appeared to him, thus confirming (at least within the context of their ongoing debate with the Sadducees) the resurrection by establishing existence after bodily death.[viii]They certainly were not keen to confirm his story about a resurrected Messiah, and they may not have even understood the centrality of such a doctrine to Paul’s theology at this point.
So, with the Sadducees’ denial of the soul’s existence after death established, my deduction about how Jesus’ argument leads to His stated conclusion is rendered much more probable. In any case, the conclusion that the person outlives the body (the antithesis of monism) is firmly established by Christ’s argument, and thus monism is defeated. Abraham’s body has returned to the dust, but Abraham lives on, and soon he shall be embodied afresh.
[i] Anthropological monism must be distinguished from metaphysical monism. Anthropological monism (the form we’re interested in here) says that the human being consists of one basic, physical substance which constitutes a human being (or that a second substance is dependent upon the physical for its functioning), and that it is therefore impossible for the person to survive the death of the body. This is at odds with anthropological dualism, which holds that the person can survive the death of the body because the person is constituted by two distinct substances. Metaphysical monism, on the other hand, as espoused by Parmenides, for example, states that there is only one real substance that exists (not just with respect to persons, but with respect to reality as a whole) and that all appearance of distinction is illusory or due to changes in density or quantity of the one true substance. This latter view is irrelevant to the present discussion.
[ii]For a thorough and substantive biblical defense of anthropological dualism (the view that the person does survive the death of the body, because human beings consist of two distinct substances), see John W. Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2000).
[iii]Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 18.16.
[iv]Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 2.165.
[v] N.T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2003), 131-134. The following argument is developed more fully by Wright, whose version cannot be recommended highly enough.
[vi]The KJV is here quoted because it renders the pertinent section—the emphasised verse—of the Greek passage more accurately than many other modern translations.
[viii]For a more thorough discussion of this passage, and the light it sheds upon other passages of Scripture, see N.T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2003), 131-134.