Many of the ethical issues our culture is wrestling with have an underlying issue in common. The growing confusion we see around us on matters such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, transgenderism, and sexual promiscuity all flow downstream from our lack of understanding of what the human body is and means.
One person who has sought to account for this confusion and to offer a corrective is Nancy Pearcey, professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University, where she is also a scholar in residence. Many will be familiar with her previous books, such as Finding Truth and the award-winning Total Truth. Her latest, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality, addresses the worldview that lies behind the huge cultural shifts we have recently experienced in the West—and provides a biblical account of what it means to be made in God’s image as men and women.
What drew you into thinking theologically about the body?
At first my goal was to explain the secular roots of the moral issues we are bombarded with in the news every day, such as abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, and the hookup culture. Typically we respond to each of these issues separately. But we will be more effective if we recognize they all share a common underlying secular worldview—one that denigrates the body in favor of the mind, and thus undercuts human dignity and destroys human rights.
Yet when my grad students read an early draft of the manuscript, they said, “Thanks for giving us a critical grid to recognize the secular view, but we need help understanding the biblical view!” That’s when I realized that even Christians need a better grasp of the beauty and appeal of the Bible’s view of the body.
What are some ways we can see a negative view of the body behind issues in the news today?
Take abortion. Most bioethicists today concede that life begins at conception. The evidence from genetics and DNA is too strong to deny it. But they argue that simply being human is not enough to qualify for legal protection. The fetus has to earn the right to life by becoming a person, defined in terms of mental abilities—a certain level of self-awareness and cortical functioning.
This reasoning splits the human being in two: body versus mind. At one stage, the fetus is treated as nothing but a biological organism—merely a body. At that point, it can be killed for any reason or no reason, picked through for sellable body parts, then tossed out with the other medical waste. Only at some later point is the fetus said to become a person, defined by mental or cognitive capacities.
So arguments for abortion assume a fragmented, dualistic view of the human being—one that denigrates the body in favor of the mind.
Arguments for abortion assume a fragmented, dualistic view of the human being—one that denigrates the body in favor of the mind.
By contrast, a Christian ethic respects the human body as part of a created order that “declares the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1). The implication is that the human being is a psycho-physical unity. The body has value and dignity as an integral part of the whole person.
Scripture proclaims the profound value of the material realm as the handiwork of a loving God. That’s why biblical morality places great emphasis on the fact of human embodiment. Respect for the person is inseparable from respect for the body.
You say today’s headline-grabbing issues all share a common underlying worldview. How does that worldview explain other issues, like homosexuality?
Here, too, the secular ethic splits the human being into two parts—body versus mind. On the level of biology, physiology, anatomy, and biochemistry, no one really denies that males and females are counterparts to one another. That’s how the human sexual and reproductive system is designed. The body has a built-in telos or purpose.
To engage in same-sex behavior, then, is implicitly to say: Why should my moral choices be directed by the body’s telos? Why should the structure of my body have any say in what I do sexually? Why should it inform my psychological identity? The implication is that what counts is solely my mind, feelings, and desires.
This is a profoundly disrespectful view of the body.
Where does such a negative view of the body come from? Every ethic stems from a view of nature—in this case, from a materialist view that says nature is a product of blind, material forces. The body is reduced to a collection of cells and organs that the mind is free to use for its own purposes, like any other natural resource.
Listen to how the outspoken lesbian feminist Camille Paglia defends homosexuality: She acknowledges that nature has made us male and female—that humans are a sexually reproducing species. But then she asks, Why not “defy” nature? After all, “Fate, not God, has given us this flesh. We have absolute claim to our bodies and may do with them as we see fit.”
In other words, if our bodies are mere products of blind, material forces, then they convey no moral message; they give no clue to our identity; they have no inherent purpose we are obligated to respect.
In Love Thy Body, I tell stories of people who rediscovered the significance of their bodies. Sean Doherty was once exclusively attracted to other men. Today he is married to a woman and has three children. What changed? Sean says he stopped defining his identity by his sexual feelings and “started regarding my physical body as who I was.”
His goal, Sean says, was not to try to change his feelings directly, which rarely works. Rather, it was to “receive or acknowledge what I already had (a male body) as a good gift from God.”
At stake in the sexuality debate is a worldview question: What kind of cosmos do we live in? A cosmos of atoms bumping around by purely material forces? Or a cosmos teleologically ordered by a divine purpose, which provides rational grounds for our moral decisions?
How can a better theological understanding of the body help Christians engage in the public square?
The best way to answer is with another example. The split between body and mind is even easier to recognize in the transgender narrative. According to a BBC documentary, at the heart of the debate is the idea that your mind can be “at war with your body.”
And in that war, the mind wins. What counts is not your biological sex but solely your feelings, desires, and sense of self.
But why accept such a demeaning view of the body? Kids down to kindergarten are being estranged from their own body. The inner conflict between body and mind has a fragmentating, self-alienating effect on the human personality.
The solution is to recover a higher view of the body. A 14-year-old girl who lived as a trans boy for three years, then de-transitioned to reclaim her identity as a girl, wrote an article saying, “It’s not conversion therapy to learn to love your body.”
In Love Thy Body, I show how to move beyond a negative message—the “Thou shalt nots”—and reach out to people with a positive message. The biblical ethic overcomes the dichotomy separating body from person. It heals self-alienation and creates internal harmony and wholeness.
Of course, humans are much more than biological beings, but Scripture presents the created differentiation of male and female as a good thing. The question is: Do we accept that created structure or reject it? Do we affirm the goodness of creation or deny it?
What are some of the resources the Christian faith gives us for thinking positively about our bodies? How is the Christian faith good news for the body?
We need to recover our own heritage. Christians have faced a similar challenge in the past. The early church emerged in an ancient culture permeated by world-denying philosophies like Manichaeism, Platonism, and Gnosticism, all of which disparaged the material realm as evil. The body was denounced as a “prison.” The goal of salvation was to escape from the material world—to leave it behind and ascend back to the spiritual realm. Gnostic cosmology even taught that there are several levels of spiritual beings, and that it was the lowest-level deity, an evil god, who created the world.
In this context, Christianity was revolutionary. For it teaches that matter was created by the highest God, the supreme deity—and therefore is intrinsically good. In Genesis, the material world is repeatedly affirmed to be good.
An even greater scandal in the ancient world was the incarnation—the claim that God himself entered the material realm, taking on a physical body. The transcendent God broke into history as a baby born in Bethlehem.
When Jesus was executed on a Roman cross, we might say he “escaped” from the material world, just as the Gnostics taught we should aspire to do. But what did he do next? He came back—in a bodily resurrection! To the ancient Greeks, that was not spiritual progress. It was regress. Who would want to come back to the body? The whole idea of a bodily resurrection was utter “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23).
Finally, what will happen at the end of time? God is not going to scrap the idea of a material world in time and space as though he made a mistake the first time. He is going to restore, renew, and re-create it, leading to “a new heaven and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21:1). The Apostles’ Creed boldly affirms “the resurrection of the body.”
Today secular culture is falling back into a dualism that denigrates the material realm, just as ancient paganism did. Now, as then, it is orthodox Christians who have a robust basis for defending a high view of the human body.
Why do you suppose this view has been so neglected among Protestant evangelical Christians?
It’s true that a negative stance toward the body has filtered into the church at times, leading many to assume that Christianity is against any form of pleasure or enjoyment. But the source of that negative attitude was not Scripture; it was the Platonic and Gnostic philosophies that engulfed the early church. Because these philosophies regarded the physical world as inherently evil, they taught that holiness could be attained by physical deprivation—fasting, poverty, the rejection of sex and marriage, and other forms of asceticism.
The ascetics of the ancient world were looked up to as “spiritual athletes” (the word asceticism is derived from a Greek term for athletic training). As a result, they influenced even Christians. This explains why there are still strains of Christianity that teach a stern, tightlipped asceticism—as though holiness consisted in saying no to fun and pleasure. They speak of the body as though it were shameful, worthless, or unimportant. They treat sexual sin as the most wicked on the scale of sins. They hold an escapist concept of salvation, as though Jesus died to whisk us away to heaven.
Of course, spiritual disciplines such as fasting can be helpful, but they should not be motivated by the mistaken idea that the body is evil or worthless. Paul warns his readers not to submit to rules like “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Such “harsh treatment of the body” does not produce genuine holiness (Col. 2:21, 23).
Unlike asceticism, the Bible does not treat the body as the source of moral corruption. Instead it insists that sin originates in the heart. In Scripture, the word heart does not mean our emotions, as it does today; it means our inner self and deepest motivations. That’s why Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt. 15:18–19)
There is a reason the Ten Commandments start with the command to love and worship God above all other things: when our hearts are centered on God, only then are we empowered to fulfill the rest of the commandments that deal with behavior—what we do with our bodies.