My controversial view of Conditional Monism

Why this blog? Because of recent question, comments, confusions, and disputes concerning the Humanity and Sin course’s session on the “Constitution of Man” (part 1 and 2) of The Theology Program, I thought that I had better take some time and both think out loud and better qualify where the sessions were going and where my thoughts are at present.

The Issues at Hand

We must first review some of the issues. My purpose is not to rehash what was already covered in the session, but to give a basic review of the issues so you can place this blog in context and so I can both explain and share my convictions and, indeed, concerns with more clarity knowing that we are all on the same page (or at least in the same novel!). What is the constitution of man? What is the basic ontological make up of humanity? There are three primary positions that have been held by Christians concerning this issue:

  1. Physical Monism
  2. Trichotomy
  3.  Dichotomy 

Physical Monism

This is by far the minority view within historic Christianity (if it even deserves that much credit) and is primarily know through a variant called “soul sleep” held by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Evangelicals should not automatically react to this association through a knee jerk “guilt by association” fallacy that is so easy to commit. As is the case with all views, they stand or fall first on the testimony of Scripture and then the witness of the Spirit through the historic Christian faith. 

We must first recognize that this view at best borders on the lines of an historic Christian heresy (although never formerly charged in any creed of council) and is not recognized as a legitimate option from a Scriptural standpoint by most if not all systematic theologians. Most basically, Physical Monism (note: distinct from metaphysical monism) is the belief in a completely unified constitution of man. There is no distinction between the body, soul, and spirit or immaterial and material. Terms such as “soul” and “spirit” function in the Bible as characteristic or attributes of the whole just like the terms “mind” and “flesh.” Strengths of Physical Monism:

  • Recognizes that there is a holistic view of humanity’s constitution. harmonizes well with modern views of the brains relationship to sinful dispositions (e.g. genetic tendencies toward alcoholism and homosexuality), memory, personality, and genetics.  

  • Seems to harmonize better with the Old Testament understanding of personal eschatology.Emphasizes the value of the material self and therefore escapes the tendency toward a dualist view of the world (i.e. the spiritual is good, the physical/material is evil).

Weaknesses of Physical Monism

  • Primary and most important weakness of Physical Monism is that New Testament revelation decidedly teaches that there is a distinction between the immaterial (soul and body, or spirit, soul, and body) and the material (body). (Among others, see 2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Matthew 10:28; James 2:26; Philippians 1:23-24; Luke 16:19-31). This distinction becomes a separation at death where the immaterial part of man goes to a waiting place with Christ (called “paradise” by Christ; Luke 23:42-42). The Old Testament saints simply had less revelation about the intermediate state of existence between death and resurrection and therefore spoke from their ignorance.

  • Also makes the mistake of failing to realize that while being whole people (body and spirit) is the ideal and complete state of being for humanity, there can, is, and will be a breach in this whole by death brought about by sin.

TrichotomyTrichotomy is the belief that the constitution of man is diverse being made up of three separate and distinct entities, the body, soul, and spirit. Although Trichotomists will define each of these entities variously, most would distinguish between them in this way: Body: all that is physical including the brain and all its neurological chemical functions and pathways.

The memory, personality, and will

That which relates to God in an way that is beyond any explanation.
At death, according to the Trichotomist, the soul and the spirit go to the intermediate state of existence as united yet separate entities. In life, these three entities interrelate, yet have their own distinct functions and wills (i.e. Matt. 26:41, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”).Strengths of Trichotomy

  • Recognizes the necessity of distinguishing the constitution of man into a plurality in order to explain the clear teaching of the New Testament about an intermediate state of existence.  

  • Recognizes that the “self” is not whole without a materially transcendent part that is integral to a person.

Weaknesses of Trichotomy

  • Fails to recognize that the Bible often uses descriptive terms to speak of different aspects of man’s nature. This does not necessitate a constitutional division of the person. For example, does Mark 12:30 promote a four-fold division of the constitution of man? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

    and with all your and with all your and with all your .”

  • Distinguishes between the soul and the spirit while the Bible will often use them interchangeably. Everything that the spirit is said to do, the soul is also said to do (See Grudem, Systematic Theology, 476-477 for a list).


Dichotomy, like Trichotomy, recognizes the pluralistic constitution of man. However, Dichotomists believe that there is no constitutional separation between the spirit and the soul. Man’s essential nature is material (body) and immaterial (soul/spirit/mind/heart etc.). The immaterial part of man is more than a characteristic of the body in that it, like in the Trichotomist’s view, transcends the physical (note: not the same as saying that it is transcendent) and eventually separates from the body at the point of physical death. The immaterial is the essential “you” while the body houses and allows expression of the “you.”I believe that the Dichotomist’s view is essentially the view that answers the most questions and has the fewest biblical, theological, and philosophical pitfalls. While this is the case, as I expressed in class (and the reason I am writing this blog), I do believe that there is a problem in the ensuing perception that this view necessarily communicates.

Conditional Monism (CM; called in class “Conditional Unity”)Conditional Monism is the belief in the unity of the human constitution during life. A person is not made up of a body and soul (spirit); a person is a body and a soul (spirit). If a person is lacking in any part, he or she is not a complete person. Essentially speaking, Conditional Monism is no different than Dichotomy with the primary distinction is that of perception. Conditional Monism believes that there is an immaterial part of man that is separated from the body at death. In the case of a believer, his or her immaterial part goes to be with Christ and await the resurrection in an intermediate state of existence.The Conditional Monist is somewhat agnostic concerning the details of the intermediate state of existence, only knowing that it is better for believers since they will be in the presence of Christ. Paul says concerning this in his letter to the Philippians, But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.” (1:22-23; emphasis added). If it is better to be in this disembodied state with Christ, this implies a consciousness of existence for the disembodied person who can discern his or her state of being and enjoy the presence of Christ. But we must recognize that while the intermediate state is “very much better,” there is also the idea in Paul’s mind that there will be some anxiousness due to the lack of physical expression through a body.

2 Corinthians 5:1-4 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life.Paul doesn’t suppose that the ultimate state of existence is that of a non-embodied nature (which I imagine to him, as to us, is very mysterious), but to simply have an immediate and instantaneous replacement of our old sinful bodies with the new “heavenly bodies.” Paul’s thoughts are toward the resurrection at the coming of Christ. This illustration will help to capture what I perceive to be Paul’s thoughts about death, the intermediate state, and the resurrection in relation to the constitution of man.

Conditional Monism recognizes the essential role the body plays in cooperate whole of human constitution and personhood. Once death occurs, something truly tragic has happened. The body and the soul (spirit) have separated. The person become “fractured” in a very real sense. In the case of a believer, this fractured person, while in one sense better because he or she is with Christ is also anxiously longing to be rejoined to the body.This view seeks to consider and confront current challenges that are being presented from science, both neurological and psychological. There has been much discovery as of late in both these fields leading many with the perception that there is no other recourse than to adopt a strict form of naturalistic physical monism. These neurological discoveries tend to necessitate that practitioners seeking to solve cognitive issues in their patients to equate the psychical with the physical. For example, depression, formerly primarily thought of as a “spiritual” condition, has been physically linked to chemical imbalances in the brain that can be altered through drugs without the need of a priest or pastor. Memory and personality, previously linked to the “soul” have physical characteristics that can be altered by trauma to certain parts of the brain. Consciousness, a vital part of “personhood,” is now wholly equated with the activity of the brain. Once the physical brain ceases to function, so does the consciousness of the person. Physical death, in this sense, is equated with the complete cessation of the entire person’s existence.
I have experienced many of these issues in my personal life that have caused me to ponder deeply about these matters. My sister experienced an acute form of depression that changed her overnight. She went through a terrible divorce and was in a custody battle. Her doctor persuaded her to take some anti-depressant drugs that he thought would be beneficial to her in handling the situation. One week after taking these drugs she had an overnight acute change in her personality and will. Until this point, she had an active spiritual life. She was heavily involved in Church and evangelism. She was my biggest encouragement, both financially and emotionally, while I was in seminary. She actually enrolled in Dallas Theological Seminary and took many classes with me. We talked all the time about the Bible, theology, and our love for Christ. The change was sudden and drastic. Whether it was from mounting stress of the divorce or some adverse reaction to the drugs, I don’t know.

What I do know is that her stability was changed overnight. Without getting into the detail (which would take quite a while), she woke up on a Friday morning shaking and saying that somehow she had lost her mind. We did not take it too seriously until she attempted suicide two days later. She survived this attempt. We then began a series of neurological and psychological testing and treatments that lasted two years. I went with her to most of these as the doctors tried to explain what had happened to her. While most were willing to concede the great mystery of the brain, they were all in basic agreement as to the cause—she had a chemical imbalance in the brain. According to them, it was simply a matter of finding the right drug combination to correct the imbalance. Interestingly, most of the doctors that we went to were all Christian psychiatrists or psychologists. Of course, they were willing to concede the “spiritual” aspect of this matter, but I had trouble finding any distinction they would make between the two in practicality. Could it be that they believed the chemical imbalances in my sister’s brain were so closely connected to the spiritual that they were willing to concede to the same treatment for both? When the anti-depressants and anxiety medicine was ineffective, they suggested neurological shock therapy (ECT). During ECT an electronic current is passed through the brain causing a gran mal seizure. The idea is that the chemically imbalanced brain balances for a short time. My sister went through seventeen ECT treatments. Each time I would go with her since following the procedure she would have memory loss of varying degrees. I remember sitting in a room with a TV watching the news each time with family members of the other patients. All of us would have our own unique and tragic story of how we got to this point. Listening to the stories only added to my confusion. I recall the hopelessness in the eyes of one wife who’s husband was on his seventieth treatment, all of which had very little success. Since the institute would not allow more than seventeen, she said that this was his last hope. If this does not work (and the look in her eyes told me she knew it would not) then he was going to take his own life. There was nothing she could do. I don’t know what happened. My sister would always come out of the two story building next to the waiting room with a confused yet upbeat look on her face. She would look through the glass windows to the waiting room and see me sitting there. When our eyes met, she looked surprised and excited to see me. It was like she was saying in her mind “Hey, there is Michael, he is in this dream with me?” I would come out and meet her. The doctor would have me sign the release and then hand her over to me like a father giving away his daughters hand at a wedding. I would take her hand and walk with her.Each time she would whisper in my ear, “Why am I getting ECT.” The first time I heard this, I was surprised that she knew what ECT was. She seemed to be back to normal for a time. She would forget all that had happened over the last year. The suicide attempt, the divorce, the loss of her child were all confusing memories that I would do my best not to recount. But her insistence all seventeen times made me tell her. Then she would slowly begin to remember. After twelve hours, she was back to her depression. Like I said, this went on for two years. During this time, I saw Angie (that was her name) change in so many ways. She went from being a stable Christian who trusted in God and shared the Gospel, to a depressed person who questioned God’s existence. I was by her side most all the time, just as confused as she was, without any answers. She took her life late one night in a hotel room not to far from me. One of the books she read during this time was called What to do When My Brain is Trying to Kill Me. That is an interesting title considering our current topic. Who is the “me” and how does it relate to the brain?

Before we consider the implications of this and how I believe it fits into Conditional Monism, let me tell another personal story. My mother, as can be expected, did not and has not done well since the death of my sister. She, like any parent would, blamed herself for Angie’s death. She attempted to gain grandparents rights to Angie’s 3 year old son, Drew. This began (prolonged?) a battle with Angie’s ex-husband who did not want Drew to be exposed to our “crazy” family. This lasted for two years as well. My mother experienced much depression, but she held very strong. She was a woman of faith that, although very angry with God, did not give up this faith. She told God, “Although I am mad at you, I am still going to do what you want me to.”

Two years after Angie’s death, my mother had a massive brain aneurysm that ruptured while she was driving down the icy road (she was 55—this happened Feb 06’). She survived the brain aneurysm, but, as happens many times, had a massive stroke ten days later. During brain surgery to clip the aneurysm, they noticed much dead brain tissue in her frontal lobe. They removed all the dead tissue. Research of the effects of “scraping” the brain in such a way informed me that both memory loss and personality change were strong possibilities.  

After six months of being in the hospital with very little recovery we moved her to a brain trauma rehab in Arkansas. According to the doctors and therapists, if she does not continue to receive specialized care, she would not recover any more. For the last two months my family and I have alternated going to the rehab on weekends. Her recovery has been slow at best. She is awake with her eyes open more now than she sleeps. Her left side is completely non-functional. She does not speak much and when she does, it is very difficult to understand. Her sentence structure is misplaced and her comprehension is very limited. We are not sure what she remembers, not even sure if she knows exactly who we are.

The English teacher who was my spiritual inspiration throughout my entire life is now being subject to conversations that are not unlike the ones my wife and I have with our two year old son. Her personality is the same and different. She always had a tenderness toward those in need. I remember growing up and her always taking in one of her students who was going through trouble at home. She seems to have this same tenderness and sweetness to everyone she contacts at the rehab, both patient and employee. One employee said that she “was a breath of fresh air.” Yet at the same time, there is something very different.  

She gets very irritated and distracted by everything. She listens intently to all peripheral conversations and happening making it hard to keep her attention. She rolls her eyes at everyone. I don’t know why, but it is one of those rolling of the eyes, that suggest she is saying “would this person leave me alone?” She does this even when the person is still speaking to them. She does not swallow any pills, but chews them all up–no matter what they are. Her eating habits are different as well. She eats like she does not know when to stop. As well, she will begin to eat the food of anyone around her, just taking her fork and sticking it into their food and taking it away. While this does cause us to laugh, it, along with the rolling of her eyes makes me think her sense of propriety and respect has been diminished.
All of us in the family long for her to come back to us, knowing that “she” may not come back at all. But this brings up the question: if “she” does not come back, who is she now? If the soul of a person includes their personality, and this personality transcends the physical, where is my mother? Is she stuck in this body somewhere trying to break free? Is there a separate consciousness that is fighting to come back? Is the real “her” hibernating somewhere, awaiting the resurrection so that “she” can express herself once again without the impediments that have clouded our view of her? I believe that this personality change that she has undergone and this memory loss that has occurred is “her.” It is simply the effects of the fall that are taking its toll on who she is and misrepresenting all that she can and will someday be.C

onditional Monism sees the spirit (soul) and the body as so intricately linked that what affects one affects the other. My sister was affected by chemical depression. This chemical depression was an issue of the whole person, material and immaterial. The effects were not isolated. Her change in attitude concerning God was brought about by a combination of thought patterns that can be explained both physically and spiritually.Conditional monism sees both the material and immaterial as so connected that when one part of the constitution of a person is affected, it affects the other. When the brain is damaged, as is the case with my mother, the spirit is damaged. Not only this, but just as the spirit can sometimes provide the strength to heal the body, so also the body can sometimes provide the strength to heal the spirit. Exercise can make the spiritual life more vital, and prayer can make the physical life less stressful. My mother’s memory loss and my sister’s shock therapy did change them physically and spiritually. This does not mean that it affected their standing before God, but it does mean that sin and its effects on this world are tragic and real. It does mean that the resurrection is our final and ultimate hope. In the resurrection, who will my mother be? Who will my sister be? The answer is this: they will be complete and whole, physical and spiritually united, and exactly who they were supposed to be without sin. Those elements of their personality, physical and spiritual, will be expressed unadulterated and uniquely.Questions to consider (thinking out loud):

  1. I had a Christian teacher of physiology at seminary once say that he never meet a demon that was not afraid of Zoloft. Implication, he did not really believe in demon possession in the 21st century. But, considering conditional monism and its implications, could it be that physical medicines actual do effect demons? Could it be that by the grace of God, Zoloft has replaced the priest/pastor as the primary exorcist?  


  2. If the way we think is tied so completely to the brain, and the brain is tied so completely to the spirit (soul), and if they have pills that keep people from getting angry, and anger is still a sin then are these pills anti-sin pills? Can you take a drug that would keep you from murder? Can you take a drug that would make you less selfish? Can you have brain surgery that would remove or alter the part of your brain that is the cause of a perverse or over active sexual appetite? Most importantly, what if we can find the part of the brain that is tied to doubt, discouragement, and disbelief? It is possible that we can change a person with a disposition toward disbelief to a person who is disposed toward belief? Maybe we drug people and then tell them about the Gospel? If this is the case, would God honor this? Would it be an act of His grace?  


  3. While we would all agree that there are miraculous occurrences that transcend any known physical explanation, is it possible that prayer, hope, and faith all produce a physically healing of the brain and body that is not miraculous at all in the traditional sense? Maybe prayer, hope, and faith change people not simply because God intervenes in the natural state of affairs to produce a miraculous change in the person due to their prayer, but because it is the way God created the relationship between the spirit and the soul. We say that laughter is a great healing medicine, right? We maybe we need pills that make us have a better sense of humor.

My examples have become more radical, laughable, and come close to bordering on the heretical, I agree. But these types of anthropological and ethical dilemmas are around the corner. The question becomes, when does all of this cross an ethical and moral line? I don’t have the answer to this. But what I do believe is that the body and the soul (spirit) are much more connected than we think. I can also say that this way of thinking makes the resurrection all the more necessary for humanity to truly be redeemed.

3 Responses to “My controversial view of Conditional Monism”

  1. Thank you, this was very helpful as a developing theologian and a relative to people with similar issues.

  2. Greetings – I know this is a very old thread, hopefully you’ll find the question!

    Do you see Conditional Monism/Conditional Unity as essentially the same as Hylomorphism? Per my reading of Geisler’s Systematic Theology what you describe as Conditional Monism in this post sounds very similar to what he describes as Hylomorphism.

    In any case, bless you for your material on this topic… greatly appreciated food for thought from someone who’s been chewing on this topic quite a bit lately.


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