Early in my career of teaching systematic theology, a student arranged an appointment with me in my office. After the customary small talk, he cut to the quick: He was experiencing multiple physical problems, plagued by insomnia, digestive and excretory problems, blood in his urine, lethargy, and attention deficit. He wondered what spiritual causes could lie at the heart of these physical symptoms, and he wanted my advice about how to become well again. I hardly needed to probe much, but my questions caught him off guard because they focused on physical matters: What are you eating? His answer: “junk food.” Are you scheduling rest periods? “Too busy for relaxation.” How are you exercising? “No need for that.”
Becoming irritated with my line of questioning, he said that because his body was going to be sloughed off at death anyway, he did not need to be concerned about eating well, resting well, and exercising well. I countered with an observation: His body was (literally) breaking down before his eyes, and he would soon be no good for himself, his family, and the church ministry for which he was preparing through his seminary studies. And, I added, I thought the problem was a physical one, not a spiritual one. But that was not the answer a “spiritually minded” evangelical like him was accustomed to hearing. Besides, this student had come to me with an expectation that I would share something with him from the Word of God. But I was not prepared to do so.
This encounter plunged me into a crisis: As a professor of theology at an evangelical seminary, I wondered what I should have shared with this student from Scripture that would have helped him with his physical problems. If you found yourself in a similar situation, what would you communicate?
At best, evangelicals express an ambivalence toward the human body, and at worst manifest a contempt for it. Many abhor their body — often because of tragic experiences with it (like physical or sexual abuse). Other Christians, due to either poor or non-existent teaching on human embodiment, consider their body to be a hindrance to spiritual maturity, or even inherently evil.
However, in my study of Scripture, I have discovered a remarkable perspective toward the body, one which affects how we live out our existence as created beings, how we view and experience our salvation, and how we trust and obey God as maturing believers in Jesus Christ.
The human body is an essential aspect of human beings during their earthly existence and, following Christ’s return and the resurrection of their body, in the age to come. Specifically, the body is the material component of human nature distinct from— but intimately linked with—the immaterial component, commonly called the soul (or spirit). Only between physical death and the return of Christ will human existence be a disembodied one. The soul (or spirit) will survive death and continue to exist while the body is sloughed off, but this is an abnormal condition (2 Cor 5:1-10). Embodiment, therefore, is the state of human existence between conception and death, and again after the resurrection of the body and for all eternity. The normal state of human existence is an embodied existence.
The Created Body
Human beings are this way because God designed them so. This was true of the first man, the first woman, and it is true of each and every human being since the original creation, as God is intimately involved in fashioning human life from the moment of conception. As David extols God in a psalm, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb…. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Ps 139:13, 15).
Embodiment is God’s creative design for human beings, who should be grateful for their physical existence. Moreover, the church is called to minister to people as holistic human beings created in the image of God. This worldview entails treating all people — both Christians and non-Christians alike — with respect for their inherent dignity. Furthermore, the church should be engaged in helping the poor and marginalized through deeds of mercy, communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone, and discipling Christians by addressing their many needs — intellectual, emotional, volitional, physical, educational, and socio-economic.
The Gendered Body
As embodied creatures, human beings are either male or female (Gen 1:26-27); indeed, gender is a fundamental reality of human existence. Unlike secondary characteristics such as hair and eye color, height, and body type, gender is a primary characteristic. God does not create a generic human being and then add on gender; rather, he creates a human being either as a male person or as a female person. Human genderedness means that a man is conscious of and knows himself as a man, he relates to other human beings as a man, and as a man he relates to God. Similarly, it means that a woman is conscious of and knows herself as a woman, she relates to other human beings as a woman, and as a woman she relates to God. Try as I might, even urged on by my wife, I cannot see life from her — a woman’s — perspective. Human beings are perspectivally gendered — as designed by God. Accordingly, men and women should be thankful for the gender with which God created them, and any sense of superiority or inferiority because they are male or they are female is wrong and dangerous. Gender differences should be celebrated, and men and women should learn to enjoy personal, pure relationships with the other gender.
The Sexual Body
An important aspect of gender, and hence of human embodiment, is sexuality. Indeed, God created human beings as both male and female so that they could fulfill the cultural mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). This universal command means that the majority of human beings will be married, and the general portrait that arises from Scripture is that marriage is between a man and a woman who commit themselves to living in a monogamous relationship. Sexual intercourse is to be enjoyed within the bounds of this covenantal framework and is designed for several purposes, including pleasure, procreation, and unity. Tragically, the fall into sin wreaks havoc with human sexuality, and Scripture presents instructions intended to help people overcome temptation and failure in this area. In no uncertain terms, Paul warns against sexual immorality, placing it into a category by itself by explaining that “every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (v. 18). This heinous sin wrenches away one’s body from its rightful membership and unites it in membership with the body of someone other than one’s spouse.
Anyone reading this article is certainly aware of the many troubles the church encounters in this area of human sexuality: rampant sexual immorality, adultery, homosexuality, sexual abuse of children and women, pornography, “sexting,” prostitution, and other problems. Cognizant of these many challenges, we should never lose sight of the fact that human sexuality, and sexual intercourse between married couples, are wonderful gifts from God for his embodied creatures — gifts that should be celebrated and enjoyed.
The Disciplined Body
Paul’s reminder to Christians “that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), while specifically directed at the problem of sexual immorality, has a broader application: Human beings are to respect and care for their body, and such attention requires physical discipline. Elsewhere, the apostle gives instruction to Timothy: “train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim 4:8). Using the metaphor of athletic preparation for the Isthmian games, Paul urges his disciple to focus on training in godliness, which would include study of Scripture, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines.
Bodily discipline includes regular exercise, good nutrition, proper rest and sleep, and avoidance of body-harming substances. Insights from exercise physiology and nutrition can be helpful in this regard. It would be embarrassing to ask when was the last time you heard a sermon on physical discipline or participated in a Sunday school class about diet and exercise. While it is not my purpose to minimize the importance of practicing spiritual disciplines, a proper theology of human embodiment corrects a much-overlooked aspect of Christian living and church education: physical discipline in regard to eating, exercising, resting, and avoiding harmful substances is an important component of life in the human body. When spiritual disciplines call for accompanying physical activities like fasting, solitude, temporary celibacy, and the foregoing of other legitimate bodily pleasures, the goal should always be increased spiritual vitality and never the punishment of the body as an opponent or enemy of spiritual maturity.
The Body and the Worship of God
When most Christians think of worshipping God, they imagine singing songs of praise and thanksgiving, listening to the Word of God read and preached, praying corporately, and the like. Few would consider the role of their body in worship. In a popular definition, Archbishop William Temple described worship as involving a person’s conscience, mind, imagination, heart, and will — with no mention of the human body! Scripture, however, presents an active, physical involvement in worship: the raising of hands, indicative of both blessing God (Ps 134:1) and pleading for his help and mercy (Ps 28:1-2; 88:8- 10); kneeling, bowing, and falling down, exhibiting humility and abject shame before the Lord (Rev 4:9-11; 5:8-14; Ezra 9:5-6; 2 Chron 6:12- 14; Ps 35:13-14; Neh 8:5-6); dancing or leaping, manifesting intense joy (Ps 149:3-4; Ex 15:20- 21; 2 Sam 6:14-17); and clapping and shouting praise to God (Ps 47:1-2; 66:1). Certainly, many cultural realities must be considered in this discussion, but embodied human beings qualified to worship God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24) are to engage in this activity with the entirety of their being — and that includes their body.
Worship, then, involves bodily participation as Christians physically express their praise, confess their sins, plead for divine mercy, and exalt in God’s blessings, which are also tangibly exhibited by the tangible rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Unsurprisingly, then, Paul urges Christians “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).
The Future of the Body
Finally, for those who have died as Christ-followers, who exist as disembodied beings in heaven with the Lord (2 Cor 5:1-9), the return of Christ will result in the resurrection of their bodies. They will be brought back to life with glorious, renewed bodies. For those who are still alive at the second advent, the return of Christ will result in their bodies being instantaneously changed into glorified bodies. In both cases, these resurrected and glorified bodies will be imperishable, glorious, powerful, and dominated by the Spirit (1 Cor 15:42-44; Phil 3:20-21; Rom 8:11).
Embodiment is the future hope and blessing for human beings. Thus, as fallen and sinful human beings are called to salvation through Christ, and they are not just “souls to be saved,” but the human body is included in this divine work. Indeed, against the prevailing view held by many Christians, death resulting in disembodied existence in the presence of the Lord is not their ultimate hope. Rather, the resurrection and glorification of the body at his second advent, leading to embodied existence in the new heavens and the new earth, is their ultimate hope.
As divine image bearers created for embodied existence both now and in eternity, we do well to live our human embodiment cognizant of the rich instruction given in Scripture and here developed in a brief article. Whether we are confronting questions from people experiencing physical problems, addressing the uniqueness of human genderedness and sexuality, struggling personally with gluttony or sloth, selecting clothes to wear, expressing our worship through physical acts, praying for the sick, or pondering the mystery of the life to come, Scripture provides abundant teaching that corrects wrongful attitudes toward the body and underscores the wonderful reality of human embodiment.
Editor’s Note: This article is revised and adapted from Gregg R. Allison’s 2009 paper Toward a Theology of Human Embodiment, published in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Used with permission.