Be afraid. Be very afraid.
When it comes to advances in science regarding the brain and our understanding of where our thoughts, emotions, consciousness, perceptions, choices, and more come from, some of our religious notions like the idea of the immaterial soul, or free-will, or sin might be shaken. That shaking however, so far seems to involve religious traditions and a few interpretations of the Bible, but not the Bible itself. Turns out the actual Scripture is holding up just fine.
Neuroscience, thanks to the use of brain scan technology, is a rapidly growing field of science that is in the process of revolutionizing psychology and our understanding of ourselves, but ironically Jesus and the Bible seem to have been saying similar types of things.
Some logical premise building first: If God is real, and the Bible was truly inspired by him, then it stands to reason that it would remain consistent with much of our own science. That’s not the case with church traditions or some interpretations of the Bible. Those things change all the time. In fact, discovering the truth about most anything, means also discovering what was not true. So while Christians may have to wait until reaching heaven before some arguments over interpretations are settled, it may be that some new scientific discoveries could actually help resolve some long standing debates.
Yeah, that’s probably wishful thinking, but at least the discoveries make the debates more interesting.
For instance, if neuroscience could prove (and some research makes a strong case) that our brain makes a decision BEFORE we are conscious of it, that seems to take away our ability to have free will over our own actions. If we have no real choice, then what about sin? How could God judge us?
You might be interested to know the Bible, i.e. Christianity, talks about our LACK of choice all the time. In fact, for multiple centuries Christians have been debating if human beings have any free will at all. That’s why there are churches with names like “Free-Will Baptist Church.” When the argument is so well known that we name churches after it, you know it’s a big argument.
Today neuroscience is asking the same question. Far from contradicting the Bible, this is where the secular world is catching up with the religious one. Let me be the first perhaps to welcome everyone to the party. And for the record, no matter what consensus the scientific community arrives at later, a large faction in Christianity will probably be looking at the other large faction saying, “See! Told ya!”
Some examples. The Bible has no problem admitting that in our natural selves we cannot please God, even if we wanted to. No one is perfect the Bible says. In other words, if you live to be a normal human being who can understand right from wrong, then regardless of your best efforts, you really have no choice when it comes to being a sinner. You will be one. Everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The Bible even says that in our natural selves, we are “slaves” to sin. That implies no choice.
Romans 7:18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.
Romans 8:7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.
While many are under the impression that to get to heaven requires joining a church and following the rules. The Bible doesn’t teach like that. The Bible teaches a core concept that by “grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9
And since it is by the grace of God, and doesn’t depend on my own doing, then it sounds like God understood all along the struggles that we all have with free will, self-control, bad choices, and mistakes.
One question neuroscience is asking as a result is this: What if you put someone else in charge of your decisions? Can you do that? For instance, even though you might be a slave to your own brain, can’t you do what your wife wants instead of what you want? Why not flip a coin and do whatever the coin says? You can join the military and all sorts of choices will be made for you. This is actually what Christianity asks people to do. Jesus prayed to the Father, “not my will but yours be done.” The Bible says in Romans 8 that those who are “led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” If I am led, then I’m not the one in charge of where we are going.
So the very thing neuroscience is asking as a solution to our possible lack of free will, is found right there in the Scriptures already.
Romans 8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
This is basically THE definition of how to live a “Christian life” by putting God in charge of you. People aren’t always perfect at it, and the Bible still says, “if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” -I John 2:1-2
The one thing that is warned against is living a life of sin, in other words, sinning habitually, regularly, as a way of life. By contrast, putting our faith in Jesus and allowing Him to be in charge of our decisions, and our choices, is how people “set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”
Interesting that the Bible would have known 2000 years ago just how important our minds are. Romans 12 even tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Renewing our mind is something we are learning when it comes to internet, pornography, food, or gambling addictions. Those addictions cause certain things to happen in our brain, as specific neurons fire together and wire together. It is believed that our brains actually become physically changed and predisposed to things like pornography or the internet and thus our “free will” isn’t so free. Our biology is working against us. It’s one reason why these things have been classified as addictions just as drugs or cigarettes, which are also difficult to break free from.
Again, it seems Jesus knew all of this. For instance, Jesus said if we lust after someone in our heart, then we’ve already committed the sin in our “heart.” Turns out, as far as the brain is concerned, that’s an accurate way to put it.
In fact, treatments to break free from such addictions require people to not only stop looking at pornography or the internet, but often to stop THINKING and dwelling on these things as well. The most successful alcohol treatments usually require someone to stop all alcohol use. Overcoming a brain addiction may require the same type of cease and desist efforts, thus allowing the brain to “heal” or to rewire itself for other things instead.
Jesus put it in those terms, too. He said if your eye causes you to sin, then pluck it out. Of course, he was speaking figuratively, but the idea is to get rid of the sin completely. Cut it out of your life. The best way to heal and change the brain is to quit firing the same neuro-pathways. Jesus put it in terms the people of his day could understand, but even with all of our science, we agree with the same principle.
Finally, if we could prove where consciousness comes from in the brain, or that our brains directly effect who we are as a person, this causes real questions about how much of a conscious “soul” there may be, or not. Then that would surely disprove the Bible right?
Well, the idea of an immortal, indestructible soul came from Plato, not the Bible.
Yeah that surprised me, too.
This one is tougher admittedly because the science is far from settled. The evolutionary and atheistic starting point assumes we are just animals and nothing exists beyond our bodies, so we are quick to interpret the evidence in that way. Truth is, no one knows for sure where consciousness comes from, but it does seem that almost everything about us is tied to our brains.
Does that mean there is no soul, that we are just bodies?
The Bible gives us some bare minimum clues. It says the “spirit returns to the Lord who gave it” when someone dies, but what does that mean exactly? Is that a conscious soul he’s talking about, or more of a life force? The Bible calls our spirit the breath of life, but is that breath of life a conscious thing? Is it aware of itself? You can interpret the idea in more than one way.
Hebrews 4:12 was talking about the Scripture and mentions “the separation of soul and spirit” but it also says in the same sentence “joints and marrow” and the marrow of the bone is part of the bone, part of the joint. They form one thing. And “soul” in the Bible, often speaks of the person including the body. Genesis says God breathed into man the breath of life and he BECAME a living soul. The whole man was a “soul” not that he had a soul and a body, but that he was a soul. The separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow” indicates things that are so closely put together that they cannot be separated without destroying the whole.
This is a very brief explanation of why not everyone believes in a conscious, indestructible soul like Plato did. The Jews believed the soul and body were intertwined so closely that only death could separate them. And no matter who is right or wrong, the importance of the body is very much in the Bible. When brain injuries or defects make real changes in someone’s personality, that doesn’t contradict the Scriptures.
It may, however, contradict Plato.
Don’t forget, Jesus resurrected with a body. He even ate fish after rising from the dead. All of the Bible promises, are promises for a bodily resurrection.
It’s interesting stuff to consider and learn about, but it isn’t so much a contradiction of the Bible as perhaps a light that may eventually clarify some long debated issues.