Last week, the world was shocked by the results of a five game Go match between 18-time World Champion, Sedol Lee, and AlphaGo, Google’s DeepMind AI program. The final score was a 4-1 win for AlphaGo. People interpreted this “Man vs. Machine” event as a victory for artificial intelligence (AI) over humans. Suddenly, a world dominated by AI, which seemed to exist only in the movies, hit people as a reality soon to happen in near future.

What makes this match such a big deal? One must understand a few things about the game of Go to know why AlphaGo’s win is such a shock to the world. Go is an ancient Chinese board game that is very popular in East Asia. The rules are very simple. It is played on a wooden board with a grid of 19 by 19 lines. The goal of the game is to win more territory on the board than the opponent by placing  black and white stones in alternating fashion. The simple rules, however, are deceiving. Go is an extremely complex game with a number of possible moves that exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. Due to its complexity, players must use their intuition and feel for each move. More than just a game, Go is played with the depth of philosophy, personality, beauty, and arts.

The intuitive nature of the game makes it extremely difficult for an AI to play. To create a computer that can win, Google employed a technique called the Monte Carlo Tree Search, along with a reinforcement learning system that uses deep neural networks. Now, what in the world does that mean? I am probably not the best person to explain, so I will let Google do the job. But if you are like me, forget all the fancy technology stuff. The important achievement by Google that made people fear AlphaGo is its ability to learn and to enhance its performance on its own. In other words, a computer no longer makes outputs based on  a set of rules implanted by humans, but can learn to figure out its own solutions in its “deep mind.” Such a highly intellectual program has proved that it can overcome human areas that require even intuition.

Imagine a world where these computers will become more prevalent. No wonder people have been freaking out over AlphaGo’s win. If computers can now do a better job than humans in majority of work fields by its intelligence, what will the future for humans look like? Experts had already predicted in 2013 that in the near future about 47 percent of total US employment will be at risk. For example, there are already robots writing articles in journalism. In the face of these realities, the win of AlphaGo sent alarm and fear through people’s minds. Even more stunning, researchers are now suggesting possible ways to enculture AI and teach them human values. AIs are now intruding into realms that were originally thought to belong to humans only.

The fundamental question that this phenomenon raised is “what exactly is human?” In contrasting AlphaGo and Sedol Lee, the media zoomed in on the fact that although AlphaGo had proved its superior intelligence, Lee demonstrated what it means to be a true human by his integrity, perseverance, honesty, and fighting spirit – the qualities a computer could never have. In other words, the consensus was that an AI can imitate all of a human’s intellectual abilities, but cannot possess the soul. Human intelligence can be replaced, but the human soul cannot.

This is a touching way of emphasizing humanity’s unique identity. At the heart of this concept, however, is the understanding of the body-soul relationship that sees the human body as not part of what defines human nature, but the human soul as its essence. Bodies are considered materialistic, whereas souls are spiritual. An AI can do the things that human bodies do, but it cannot do what human souls do.

As Christians, we must consider whether this dichotomy of body and soul is a biblical view. Can we simply draw a line between the two and give the soul the credit for all our humanness? There is a heap of philosophical discussions behind the body-soul relationship, but leaving that aside, I want to point out a few biblical views on body and soul.

When the Bible declares that man was created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), it refers not only to the soul, but also to the body of human beings. The image of God is not limited to the soul, but includes the whole person, body and soul. Bavinck, a 19th century Dutch theology, is helpful here: “Man has a ‘spirit’, but that ‘spirit’ is psychically organized and must, by virtue of its nature, inhabit a body. It is of the essence of humanity to be corporeal and sentient.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 559) Soul and body are not two unrelated parts of human nature, but as God formed man from the dust of the earth and then breathed life into him (Gen. 2:7), they together form the essence of human nature.

How are body and soul related then? How do they function in relation to each other? 2 Corinthians 5:1 refers to our body as our earthly home and 1 Thessalonians 4:4 urges Christians to control their bodies in holiness and honor. The precise relationship between the two remains a mystery, but what we do know for certain is that the two are so closely related that soul can affect the body, and body can affect the soul. For example, if I am physically not feeling well, it can also bring considerable impact to my spiritual health. Thus, thinking that we can do anything with our bodies as long as our soul remains intact is nonsense. Our bodies also belong to the image of God. As Christians, we have full responsibility to take care of our bodies according to God’s purpose and will. 

The most certain proof that human beings are created in the image of God is in the doctrine of the incarnation. The fact that God took on flesh reveals that the human body is an essential component of God’s image. In this respect, to make a sharp divide between the body as material and the soul as spiritual is to misunderstand Christ’s incarnation. Christ’s death and resurrection for human salvation is not just a salvation of the human soul, but a salvation of the whole person, including both soul and body. Our resurrection will not only be of our souls, but it will include our bodily resurrection as well (1 Corinthians 15). 

Both body and soul comprise the essence of human nature, created in God’s image. Due to sin, our human nature in both body and soul entered into a corrupted state. But it is only through Christ who Himself became man and took on a physical body that our human nature can be restored to God’s utmost glory.

So, how does knowing body-soul relationship impact my life? It becomes part of our worldview as it shapes our understanding of this life and our hope for the life to come. When believers die, their souls are made perfect in holiness, while waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. What happens to the body then? The Bible teaches us that even in death, our bodies will still be united to Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Thus, it is not only our soul, but both our body and soul that is saved in Christ and in fellowship with Christ. Not even death can separate us from union with Christ. This brings the most wonderful comfort for all Christians to know that our whole human nature, both body and soul, will be restored to a perfect relationship with God through Christ who has conquered death. 

Posted by Eunjin Kim

Eunjin is a native Korean born in Seoul. After completing a B.A. in English Literature and her M.Div. in Korea, she moved to the States for further studies. She finished her Th.M. at Duke Divinity School and is now a Ph.D. student at Westminster Theological Seminary studying Reformation history. She is happily married to WTS alumnus, Jang Won Lee. Her interests include 16-17th century Reformed theology and history of biblical interpretation. She particularly loves chicken wings, Korean bbq, sports, and Korean dramas.

2 Comments

  1. Still unclear about what the relationship is between the soul and body…is the soul a distinct aspect of who we are? Is it the whole human being viewed from a certain angle? (http://nagasawafamily.org/paul-terms-human-person.pdf) Is it a substance that is responsible for certain aspects of who we are? Is the soul something IN us that we have, or is it simply a short-cut for describing a unique *relationship* we have with God that other beings don’t – one where we are conscious of God and responsible to him?

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness in this article even as I continue to wrestle with this stuff…

    Reply

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jeremy! You are right that this is a complicated issue. I wrestled with this stuff too as I was trying to write the post and to be honest, I still don’t have everything figured out yet. But here are couple thoughts that may answer some of your questions.

      Soul and body are two distinct substances of who we are. Hodge, in his Systematic Theology, calls soul and body as “two essential elements in the constitution of man.” There are many Scriptural texts that support this point, Gen. 2:7 being the obvious one, and Gen. 3:19, Eccles. 12:7 are a few that speak on soul and body as two distinct substances. This distinction has been important in church history as there were those who would see soul and body as one entity and as a result deny the intermediate state. The soul must be able to exist independently of the body as a distinct substance in order for our intermediate state to make sense.

      As for the article you mentioned, I don’t agree that body and soul is a way to view the whole human being from a certain angle. The author refers to body, flesh, mind, heart, spirit, soul, and will as all different angles of understanding humanity. But I think the author is confusing the distinction between words that describe the essential substances of human being (body, soul) and words that describe a particular aspect/function of these substances. For example, will is something that occurs in the soul, something that the soul does, not a distinct entity from the soul. Mind and heart are simply different aspects of the soul, not distinct substances like the soul. It is true that Scripture sometimes enumerates these words like they are distinct substances. A good example is Luke 10:27, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” Are “heart”, “soul”, “strength”, and “mind” all distinct substances of human nature? I don’t think so.. The words simply refer to soul in all its faculties, which are used interchangeably in Scripture. Also, from what I understood from the article, what the author is suggesting sounds sort of like a heptachotomy. Not three, but seven! Three caused enough trouble in church history, giving rise to heretical thoughts. Gnostics would be one example, who thought that only “body” and “soul” were of human essence, whereas “spirit” in man was part of divine essence unaffected by sin. I think the dualistic understanding of human essence is crucial because it relates to how we understand the incarnation, the fall, and the future state.

      As we recognize the distinction though, we must also be careful not to overlook the unity. I think this is the part where it gets more complicated and we have to acknowledge that there is a mystery to the union of how the body and soul function in relation to each other. All we can be sure of is that the unity is an organic one. The soul affects the body and the body affects the soul. The soul recognizes things that belong to the body. The soul sees, hears, and feels through the body. On the other hand, we see many instances of our emotions affecting our bodies like when we blush when we are embarrassed. There are things that are done independently too. At the same time though, the body does not exist without the soul. I think this is pretty much what we can say for certain on body-soul unity without speculation.

      So, I would be comfortable saying that soul is something IN us, but I see the danger in people hearing that and thinking in a physical or material sense. Like it’s something that occupies a certain limited space from the top of my head to the tip of my toes. I don’t think we can think of soul in that way. But it is definitely something that we have that makes us who we are that thinks, wills, makes judgment, loves God, etc. And I think it’s more than just a way to describe our relationship to God. It is a substance, an entity. So when we die, our soul will immediately “be made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q & A. 86) If a soul is merely a short-cut for describing a relationship, I don’t think we can say that it is received into the heavens. For it to be made holy and received into the highest heavens, it has to be a some kind of substance.

      I hope this explains a little bit more of what I was trying to say. It is a tough topic and I must say, I am not philosophical enough to be able to think of this in more depth. If you are interested, one book that might be helpful is John Cooper’s Body, Soul & Life Everlasting: Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. Again, thanks for raising some really important questions!

      Reply

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