Philosophy of Mind and the “Hyperpreterist” controversy

Philosophy of mind Theology / Biblical Studies

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I also published this blog entry over at the Preterist Blog.

I’m under no illusions about the fact that my view on the mind-body problem is a minority view in the history of Christian thought. I’m a physicalist. This puts me in the minority because, as well known Christian philosopher of mind William Hasker (himself a dualist of sorts) put it:

By all odds the most influential mind-body theory in Western civilization has been mind-body dualism. Dualism was first developed as a philosophical theory by some of the Greek philosophers, notably Plato. It was adopted by most of the Christian thinkers of the first few centuries and subsequently came to share Christianity’s dominance of European civilization.
Hasker, Metaphysics: Constructing a Worldview, Contours of Christian Philosophy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983), 65.

This is not such a terrible indictment on Christian theologians. It’s hard to live in a culture utterly saturated with a certain viewpoint without being influenced by it. As an almost inevitable result, “the Greek Fathers of the first three centuries of the Common Era (c.E.) drew upon various traditions within the Greco-Roman world from as early as Plato and Aristotle in formulating their language and concepts of the human person.” [Ray Anderson, “On Being Human: The Spiritual Saga of a Creaturely Soul” in Warren Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Maloney (eds) Whatever Happened to the Soul?: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 183.]

As the facts of history would have it in the pre-modern world, physicalism was a quiet voice amidst a loud dualist majority. As the facts of recent history would have it, the tables are turning on this state of affairs. In contemporary Christian philosophy and theology, there is a growing acceptance of physicalism as an expression of a biblical holisitc picture of humanity, evidenced by a flood of scholarly yet conservative books, articles, conferences and so on, advocating a real willingness to question the cultural baggage that Christianity has taken on board and a fresh willingness to revisit what the Bible has to say about all this. Christian dualism is still the majority view, but it is a majority in decline, a fact I take some pleasure in. If you’re a dualist, all of this may be a little unnerving. As Bob Dylan told us decades ago now, the times they are a changin’! I have no intention of dragging you kicking and screaming out of dualism in this fairly short blog entry, so don’t bother preparing for battle with me just now. The purpose of this blog isn’t to promote my views on that issue (however much I think those views would be good for your theology). However, it’s best to lay all my cards on the table right at the outset so you know what I am.

The reason I’m even broaching the subject is to draw attention to how philosophy of mind is related to the hyperpreterist controversy (controversy? OK, so in Christianity in general it’s not even a storm in a teacup, so insignificant is that movement, but you know what I mean). Hyperpreterism is necessarily a very dualistic outlook, even more dualistic than mainstream Christian dualism. Here’s why:

Evangelical dualists traditionally identify the persona – the mind or conscious self – with the soul. Thus, a person survives death because the soul survives death. Dualists naturally speak of a person being with the Lord in heaven. However, they do still emphasise that this is a temporary state of affairs. It’s wonderful of course (thus, they interpret Paul’s reference to departing and being with the Lord “which is far better” to be a joyful anticipation of the glory of heaven), but it’s still not quite as good as it could be. This is because evangelical dualists – because they are evangelicals – affirm the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the physical body and the hope of being re-embodied once more.

Hyperpreterism however takes dualism to another level. The hyperpreterist believes that any so-called “resurrection” is really not a dead thing coming to life at all (which is why I think it’s fair to say that they actually deny resurrection altogether), but rather the continued, unbroken survival of the soul entering a new body – one that was never dead, one that does not need to be raised from death, and (more importantly for my point here), one that is not physical at all – any more than the soul itself is physical. And since, according to a hyperpreterist, this is all the body that the person will ever have, any thought of a future physically embodied state is ruled out altogether. There is therefore absolutely no physical aspect to our eternal life. Fancy that – a “resurrection” where no dead things come back to life!

It would be obviously wrong to say that dualism naturally leads to hyperpreterism. It can, but of course it doesn’t usually (thank God!). Provided one accepts the orthodox belief that there really will be a resurrection of the physical body, no Christian dualist could become a hyperpreterist.

What is definitely true, however, is that in order to be a hyperpreterist, one must be a dualist. If one is a physicalist, then when the body dies, we die (unless one believes in a physical intermediate state, which creates some very strange complications that I won’t go into here). If physicalism is true, then unless there is a physical resurrection of the dead, we are doomed. If physicalism is true, then without the resurrection our only hope is in this life and we may as well eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!

In a way I’m glad that I became a physicalist well before I had heard of hyperpreterism. This way, I cannot be accused of adopting physicalism as a way of combating hyperpreterism. Of course we should not start professing a point of view just because of its apologetical value. We should profess it with a clear conscience because we have become persuaded that it is true. That being said, however, all I want to point out is that physicalism, that re-affirmation of a holistic, biblically grounded view of human nature (as I see it to be), naturally rules out the heretical undermining of the doctrine of the resurrection that the hyperpreterist movement presents.

I appreciate that not everyone has a keen interest in the subject of philosophy of mind, of theological portraits of human nature. You don’t need a strong interest in that subject area. I do have such an interest, and for about a decade now I’ve been enjoying the revived interest that theologians and Christian philosophers are showing in it (that phenomenon has been going on for a few decades now, long before I got interested). I think that the reward of coming to a better informed and hopefully more biblical view of humanity is reason enough to dive into it, but if that alone doesn’t do it for you, perhaps the way that the issue interacts with the discussion about hyperpreterism might arouse your interest enough to take another look.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Kenny April 2, 2010, 4:25 pm

    I think the popularity of physicalism among contemporary Christian philosophers and theologians is a passing fad (one that I myself was swept up in for a while, but I got better). But I too digress 🙂

    The digression aside, must a hyperpreterist be a dualist? I’m not so sure. A hyper could believe that we are identical to our bodies, but upon death we become something immaterial (a view which, given the logic of identity entails that upon death our bodies become something immaterial). This view has some weird implications (e.g. it entails that corpses aren’t identical to the bodies of the individuals who died). But, oh well, it’s not like the hypers aren’t committed to some wacky things already (and, even more main stream physicalist views have entailments in the neighborhood of this – e.g. Van Inwagan’s view of material objects entails that there are no such things as long dead corpses). Or a hyperpreterist could take a Van-Inwagen-on-the resurrection inspired view, except just have it that at death bodies are immediately assumed into heaven, made alive again and replaced by replicas.

    I’m don’t know if any hypers out there adopt either of these views. But I don’t see why they couldn’t consistently do so. I’m not saying that any of this is very plausible. But what’s a little more wackiness added to wackiness anyway?

  • Glenn April 2, 2010, 5:04 pm

    Kenny, surely anyone who thinks that our presently existing bodies continue to exist as physical bodies after death, but that we live on in an immaterial form, is a dualist. I hereby stipulate that this constitutes a dualistic view.

  • Kenny April 2, 2010, 5:30 pm

    Right (Well, maybe not – there is a lot one might be able to get away with here by adopting some sort of temporary identity position, but setting that aside, and accepting the stipulation …). But what I was saying is that hyperpreterists, qua hyperpreterists, are not committed to such a view. They can think that our presently existing bodies become something immaterial and then live on or they can think that our presently existing bodies remain physical and go up to heaven. As I pointed out, there’s a bit of weirdness associated with these views when it comes to explaining what corpses are (these views entail that they are not the bodies of deceased persons), but oh well.

  • Glenn April 2, 2010, 5:39 pm

    Hyperpreterists believe that our present bodies die and are buried (they’ve been to funerals, after all!). They believe that the resurrection body is a different body.

  • Kenny April 3, 2010, 1:38 am

    Even if all of them actually believe that, they are not committed to that view qua hyperpreterists. And the latter is what is of interest here. I agree that the view I am proposing they might have requires a whacky view of corpses. But then, so does, say, taking seriously Peter van Inwagen’s model of the resurrection(one that he himself does not actually believe to be accurate) that you yourself put forward as a possibility on your podcast. They are no worse off, in this respect, then some orthodox materialists who believe in an afterlife are.

  • Glenn April 3, 2010, 2:02 am

    Actually they are committed to that view qua hyperpreterists. Their interpretation of the “spiritual body” is one wherein that body is not our current body, and has no ontological continuity with anything physical. To give up that view would be a fundamental rejection of the hyperpreterist view of resurrection. For that reason if you reject dualism, then you must reject hyperpreterism as well by virtue of rejectng dualism.

    Whatever whackiness Van Inwagen’s view might have when it comes to corpses, it obviously isn’t (and in principle could not be) dualistic, and that’s what’s of interest here.

  • Kenny April 3, 2010, 2:11 am

    Okay. If that view is essential to their position then they are committed to dualism. I wonder a bit whether that view is essential to their position (even if they all hold it, that does not mean that their view of eschatology requires them to). But I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of hyperpreterism to say.

  • David Hillary September 10, 2016, 8:37 pm

    Hi Glenn, interesting combo. However, may I suggest you have taken the individual body view and ignored the collective body view. If the resurrection body is a collective body, and that body is a political-spiritual body of God’s elect, the nature of the resurrection life is not personal, and so no personal conscious afterlife is implied. The nature of the death of Adam, on the day he ate (Gen 2:17), and the nature of the death of Israel (Hosea 13:1), and the nature of the death of Judah (Ez 37:11) was spiritual and, for the latter two, national-political. Now the promise to Israel was re-unification and resurrection as a nation with the Holy Spirit, that is a spiritual and national resurrection (Ez 37, Is 25:6-8, 26:19, Hos 13:14, Dan 12:1-2). So, given the collective and national nature of the resurrection promise, the personal participation in it by Daniel and the other saints who had died before it was fulfilled is metaphorical and symbolic. They saw the salvation they spoke about, but didn’t — personally — participate in its full realisation because it was not for their day (1 Pet 1:9-12). Note that Jesus states that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive to God before the resurrection (Luke 20:38). Even before the resurrection, the Hebrews writer writes that the dead surround the living as witnesses. It appears that this language is metaphorical. Personally they are dead and buried, metaphorically they — by way of their examples of faith — surrounded the living even before the resurrection.

    The spiritual nature of the resurrection body is attested to by Paul who explicitly identifies it as such and declares that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:35-57). In his extended discourse on the resurrection and the resurrection body, Paul confirms not only the spiritual nature of the body, and its different nature from the old body, and that flesh and blood cannot inherit it, but that the resurrection doctrine he taught was from Hosea and Isaiah, which he quotes, and as also recorded in the book of Acts. If you put together the meaning and interpretation that Jesus and the Apostles put on Old Testament prophecy and its spiritual manner of fulfillment, you have parallel images: the kingdom, the messianic temple, the body, the remarriage, the new birth, the new creation, the new heaven and earth and so on. Now all these images refer to the spiritual life of the collective community of the elect, and none of them refer to a personal afterlife. Why should the resurrection be any different? It is obviously NOT about a personal afterlife in Ez 37, Is 25-26 and Hos 13, and when studied carefully NOT in Dan 12 either. So why should it change in the New Testament given their stance that they were teaching the fulfillment of those prophecies?

  • Glenn September 12, 2016, 2:30 pm

    David, Paul was a first century Jew who did not throw out his concept of resurrection.

    You say “Now the promise to Israel was re-unification and resurrection as a nation” while citing Daniel 12:2 as a proof-text, but Daniel 12:2 offers no support for that idea. Daniel said that many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Nothing there implies that the “those” are corporate entities, so that “many of those who sleep” would be one or more corporate entities.

    For Paul – or any first century Jew – the idea of the resurrection of the dead happening while all people remained in their graves would have been nonsense. I think your reading of Hebrews is simply mistaken, reading it as though people are literally standing around watching us. But why suppose this meaning?

    Similarly, your reading of the word “spiritual” to mean ethereal or non-physical is not a usage that Paul could identify with. This is the man who contrasted the carnal (psuchikos) man with the spiritual (pneumatikos) man in the here and now, before death. But Paul knew that both of these men were physical creatures. So to cite his reference to a spiritual body as though this means it is not material is not persuasive, especially in light of Paul’s own description of the resurrection in that same chapter – it is sown a natural body, it (same “it” that was sown) a spiritual body. The thing that died and went into the ground will be raised. This is Paul’s view.

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