Doctrine of Man (Part 7): Paul’s Use of the Anthropological Terms Sarks and Psyche

February 26, 2020

Paul’s Use of the Anthropological Terms Sarx and Psuche

Last time we looked at one of the most important of Paul's anthropological terms, namely soma or body. Today we want to turn to a second important anthropological term used by Paul in his letters, and this is the word sarx. I've already briefly mentioned this word sarx which means “flesh.” Theologians who are familiar with the word sarx know that in the New Testament the flesh is often used metaphorically as a term for the evil proclivity which is in human beings. This use of the term therefore is not referring to the physical stuff of our body. The scripture does not teach that our bodies are evil because they are material. But “the flesh” will often be used by Paul to represent fallen human nature.

This usage touches a very sensitive chord in theology because in Germany, where I studied at least, the Apostles Creed affirms “I believe in the resurrection of the fleisch” that is to say “the flesh.” In English we say “I believe in the resurrection of the body” but in German it affirms “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh (fleisch).” Theologians are quite rightly nervous about any sort of affirmation that the flesh in the sense of this evil fallen nature is going to be the object of the resurrection. Because of this they're prone to overlook the fact that Paul often uses the word sarx in a morally neutral sense to mean basically organic stuff – the material out of which an animal's body is made, the physical flesh, essentially “meat” if you will. In this morally neutral sense, to affirm the resurrection of the flesh is unobjectionable. It is equivalent to believing in the resurrection of the physical body. Let's look for example at 1 Corinthians 15:35-41 for Paul's disposition upon the nature of the resurrection body. Paul, imagining some Corinthian opponent of his doctrine, says,

But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

In this passage Paul uses three analogies to illustrate the notion of the resurrection of the body. The first analogy is that it is like a seed and the plant which springs from that seed. The body is planted in the ground as it is buried, and then just as a plant that is quite different will come from the seed so the resurrection body that comes from the earthly body that is sown will be vastly different from the earthly body. It will be a supernatural body endowed with powers and properties that this earthly body does not have.

To skip ahead, Paul's third analogy is from celestial and terrestrial bodies. The stars and the sun and the moon all have a different luminosity which is what the word “glory” refers to here. Just as these different bodies have different luminosities so the resurrection body will differ from the earthly body in being more honourable and more glorious than the body that is sown.

It is the second analogy that we want to focus on. It appeals to different kinds of flesh. Paul is clearly using the word sarx here in a morally neutral sense – biological flesh, if you will. He says there's one kind of flesh in man. There is another one in animals, and another one in birds, and another one in fish. Here he's using the word “flesh” in a morally neutral sense to mean basically meat or the organic stuff of which animals are made. Robert Jewett, in his book Paul's Anthropological Terms, draws attention to the fact in this passage of a striking departure from the technical flesh category and an appropriation of traditional Judaic use of sarx as interchangeable with soma. Here Paul is not using the word sarx in this moral sense but rather in a non-moral sense which is interchangeable with soma – the physical body. So in this passage Paul is not using the word sarx in the theological sense of fallen human nature, rather he basically uses it as akin to the body – the sort of bodies that exist in the biological realm. It's in this physical sense that the resurrection of the flesh is quite unobjectionable theologically. The resurrection body will be a physical body vastly different from this corruptible, mortal, dishonourable, and weak body that we presently possess, but a body nevertheless.


Student: I know this may not be exactly Paul's usage but I just wanted to comment though that in John 1:14 where it says “and the Logos became sarx” that seems to be enough. That's also another instance in the New Testament where it seems where flesh is used to mean a physical body. Obviously John is not saying that Jesus became evil, corrupt, human nature. That was the first thing I thought of when he mentioned the controversy . . .

Dr. Craig: Right. The word “incarnation” means literally “in the flesh.” That's a good passage to draw on.

Student: I agree with you about the morally neutral, but couldn't it also be like the dominion of different . . . a state? You know, the angels didn't keep their first state? So it'd be like a limitation. You could have the same physical flesh as an animal – man without knowing the Holy One is like a beast of the field. But he's given different dominion, I’m talking about in the pre-Fall state, than a regular animal. And then when Christ crowns him he has another state.

Dr. Craig: If I understand the question correctly, it would seem to me that man in his pre-Fall state had flesh in the morally neutral sense that we're talking about. He was a physical, biological creature. But the flesh in the theological sense didn't exist at that point because man wasn't yet fallen. The flesh in the sense of this evil proclivity within human nature that we wrestle against comes into existence through the Fall and through sin. So I would say in one sense the flesh already exists in a neutral sense but not in the theological sense.


Paul’s third anthropological term that we want to draw attention to is psuche from which we get our word “psychology” and “psychic.” It means “soul.” Psuche is “soul.” Paul teaches a dualism of body and soul with respect to human being. Look, for example, at 2 Corinthians 4:16 to 5:10. Paul writes,

[blockquote]So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

So we are always of good courage; 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. We are of good courage, 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 we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.[/blockquote]

In this passage Paul speaks of our outer nature – the body. He uses the metaphor of a tent which connotes frailty and transitoriness. A tent is not a permanent dwelling. It's going to be struck. The earthly tent represents our earthly body. He speaks then of the resurrection body that we shall receive as a house not made with hands. The contrast between the transitory, frail tent and this substantial building from God shows the immortality and incorruptibility of the resurrection body in contrast to the earthly body in which we live. In between our death and our eventual resurrection comes this intermediate state where we are without a body. Paul talks about being away from the body and at home with the Lord. He speaks of this state as a state of nakedness. In Greek literature this is a description of the soul existing without its body. Paul says it's not that we want to be in that kind of state. He says we'd really prefer not to be unclothed (that is to say, to have the body stripped away in death and to be naked). Rather, we would prefer to be further clothed. The verb here has the idea of pulling on top clothing like a sweater over a shirt without the necessity of undressing in order to put on that clothing. So Paul is saying here that we'd rather live until the return of Christ so that we receive our resurrection bodies immediately without having to go through the intermediate state of nakedness existing as a disembodied soul. But if we do go to be with the Lord by dying prior to Christ's return and so enter into that intermediate state, Paul says we still are of good cheer because to be away from the body is to be present with the Lord, and that is better than this earthly existence.

I think that you can see the importance of this body-soul dualism in Christian theology. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the Christian materialist who denies that there is any soul distinct from the body has to believe that when a person dies that person is simply extinguished. He literally ceases to exist. There is no intermediate state of the dead as the soul awaits the resurrection because there are no such things as souls. It seems to me that such a view is very difficult to reconcile with the teaching of a passage like this which I think clearly contemplates the existence of the soul in a disembodied state.

Paul does not always employ a uniform terminology of soma and psuche (body and soul). In the passage just quoted, for example, neither term appears until the very end when Paul finally uses the word “body.” Rather, metaphors are used to express the concept. Similarly, sometimes Paul will mix his terms. Look, for example, at 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Paul says, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here Paul uses three terms: the soma, the psuche, and the pneuma (or “spirit” – the Greek word from which we get our word “pneumatic” as in a pneumatic drill). Paul is here expressing the thoroughgoing nature of our sanctification. Every aspect of human being is to be sanctified. Nothing is exempted. But we should not infer therefore that for Paul there is a third immaterial component of a human being, namely a spirit. If the soul or mind is the self-conscious “self” (the “I”) then it's bewildering what a distinct spirit could be. It's more plausible to take “spirit” as a function or aspect of the soul. In any case, what's important is that we are not, in Paul's view, simply material entities. Rather, we have an immaterial component to our being called the “soul” or “spirit” which will continue to exist after the death of the physical body until its reunion with the resurrection body at the return of Christ.


Student: It seems to me that clearly Paul is talking to Christians, to believers, which raises the question of what about the non-believers? What sort of a state do they enter into? That will be kind of an acid test in terms of the point that you're trying to make.

Dr. Craig: I think you're right that would be important, and the closest thing off the top of my head that comes to mind here would be the notion of Hades, or in the Hebrew Bible Sheol. Hades is not the same as Hell which is Gehenna. Gehenna, or Hell, is the final state into which the damned are cast. But Hades (or Sheol) is that intermediate state between death and resurrection. You have, for example, Jesus in his parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man speaking about how Lazarus dying wakes up in Abraham's bosom in Paradise. But the Rich Man, when he dies, is in Hades and is in torment in the flame. He begs Lazarus to bring some water to quench his thirst, and the Lord says, No, there's a great gulf fixed between him and you and none can cross over even if they wanted to. We have to be very careful, I recognize, about using parables to teach Christian doctrine because parables are meant to illustrate a central point. You have to be careful not to push them too far. But this parable would seem to show that Jesus believed that unbelievers would exist in this intermediate state of being separated from God as they await the final resurrection. So that's a passage that comes to mind immediately, but you're right, our concern here is primarily with believers in Christ.

Student: When we witness or share the Gospel, our purpose is to bring a person from their fallen state to saved, or sanctified, state. This process basically involves three things. One is the anchor of the spirit. The second is the projection of that spirit. The third is the manifestation of the spirit. I thought these three things…. Maybe the pneuma … maybe it's the person's anchor. The spiritual anchor like we talk about alignment like with God's Word, that we understand what God wanted us to be, or what he revealed himself to be. We align ourselves with him. So it's the core of our faith or the connection between us and God. The psuche may be the projection. We want to anchor from the deceiver, Satan that deceives us with all kind . . . from the Garden of Eden all the way with all kinds of deception. We want to move that anchor back into with God. And psuche is our projection. It's like we want to go there but we are, like Paul says, I want to do good but I couldn't. I'm bound and I'm hopeless. So maybe that part is that projection. And then as we mature in Christ that projection gets materialized or manifested more and more in soma. I wonder whether the resurrection they are talking about – the fallen flesh becomes saved and lives eternally with God – that process goes through this what I talked about this anchor, this projection, and this manifestation process. It is a wonder.

Dr. Craig: This is a very elaborate scheme that you've just laid out, and I guess I just don't see any New Testament basis for this elaborate scheme. I would certainly resist any suggestion that the flesh, as it's understood theologically to be this evil proclivity within human beings, will be in any way resurrected. I'd say on the contrary it will be destroyed. Flesh in this sense (in the theological sense) is not a thing. It's not a constituent of human being in the way that psuche or the physical flesh or physical body is. It just represents the fallenness, the evil, the God-opposed nature of human beings apart from him. That's something that I would say, thank God, will be completely done away with.

Student: Could you tell me when Hell was created? Is that why we have Hades and Sheol? That after the resurrection then Hell is created?

Dr. Craig: This is a good question, and I would say that in a sense Hell doesn't exist yet.

Student: You mean now?

Dr. Craig: Yes. It doesn't exist now. What exists now would be Sheol or Hades – this realm of the disembodied dead, of souls without their bodies. These souls can either be in Paradise (like Lazarus) or at home with the Lord (as Paul says). Paul says he wanted to die and to go to be with Christ for that is far better. So even in this disembodied state it brings a closer fellowship and relationship to Christ. In that sense it is better than this present state. But it's not as good as the final state which will be the resurrection of the body and the complete integration of soul and body in a redeemed humanity. That's the best state. That's what Paul wanted but, you see, he was in a catch-22 situation because in order to get to the best state he had to go on living in the worst state! In order to improve the present state he would have to die and go to be with Christ even though that's not optimal. It's at least better than this. He found himself in a real catch-22 situation where in order to have the best state you have to go on living in the worst, which is not very desirable.

Student: It is very interesting because the Bible says that Hell is created for the devil and his angels. And the devil is still roaming around on the Earth here.

Dr. Craig: Yes, it does. And this will be the final state that will be brought about after the resurrection of the body. By the same token, this also implies that in a sense Heaven doesn't exist yet either. That will be the final state for resurrected believers – the new heavens and the new Earth. What exists now is this intermediate state of disembodied existence prior to the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.

Student: On the Luke verse, I'm a believer in Hades for the departed until the end time – the resurrection and the judgment. But I don't think it's a parable. Jesus doesn't describe it as a parable, and a name is mentioned (of Lazarus) where names are not mentioned in the other parables. So I think it's a correct rendition. But also you could link with it Jesus went and preached (and also this is a plug for trichotomy) to the spirits in prison.

Dr. Craig: Yes, there are other passages that speak of the intermediate state that one could appeal to. That was one that came to my mind, but there is a passage at, I think it's in 2 Peter, where it says that Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison who formerly did not obey during the times of Noah. That's a very difficult passage to understand. Is he talking there about angels who fell in Genesis 6:1-4, or is he talking about human beings and their spirits (which is what I think maybe you're suggesting)? It's an open and controversial question.[1]


[1]           [1]Total Running Time: 30:43 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)