The Mind in Theological and Scientific Perspective

Sjoerd L. Bonting


As a tentative definition of the mind I propose: the mind is the complex of faculties involved in the processes of perceiving, remembering, considering, evaluating, deciding,1 emotion, and religious experience. Consciousness can be regarded as the living mind at work.

Subjects considered in this chapter are: biblical view (1), theology, philosophy and psychology (2), neuroscience (3), evolution of the mind (4), evolution of religion (5), death and resurrection (6), and, in conclusion, a discussion of the findings (7).

1. Mind in the biblical view

Old Testament (OT)

The Hebrew understanding of mind and thinking differs from ours.2,3 First, there is no abstract thinking for its own sake or psychological analysis. Secondly, no specific anatomical location is assigned to the mind; thinking, planning, willing, and feeling were thought to be functions of the entire personality, the body-mind unity.

Where the Hebrew word leb (literal: heart) is translated as 'mind' in the NRSV version (which is used throughout this essay), it can refer to the seat of recollection (Isa.65:17; Jer.3:16), to will and purpose (Isa.26:3; Jer.19:5), and to thinking related to past or future action (1Sam.2:35; Ezek.11:5), memory (Deut.4:9), technical skill (Deut.4:9); and love (2Sam.14:1). In other cases the literal translation 'heart' is used, where 'mind' would also apply, to indicate personality, inner life, character (1Sam.16:7; Gen.20:5); emotional states as joy or sorrow (1Sam.1:8), anxiety (1Sam.4:13), and fear (Gen.42:28); intellectual activities such as attention (Ex.7:23), understanding (1Kgs.3:9); and will or purpose (1Sam.2:35).2

In a few cases the words kelayoth (kidneys), meim (bowel), and kabed (liver) are used in a similar sense. The brain is never used; it was considered merely as 'the marrow of the skull'. There is no Hebrew word for body, but basar (flesh), its nearest equivalent, is sometimes used in a psychological sense: fear (Ps.119:120, Job 4:15); enjoyment (Eccles.2:3); as influenced by the mental state (Prov.14:30: a tranquil mind gives life to the flesh). All this indicates that the Hebrews considered the mind as an aspect of the body without seeing it located in any particular organ.

Then there is the question: What makes the mind come alive? For this 'life-principle' the OT uses the three virtually synonymous Hebrew words nephesh, neshamah and ruach. Nephesh is translated as 'life' (1Kgs.19:10), as the 'soul' leaving at death (Gen.35:18) or as 'breath' returning to God who gave it (Eccl. 12:7). It is interpreted as the personal 'yourselves' (Ezek.4:14; Lev.11:43) and as the emotions 'anguish' (Gen.42:21) and 'desire' (Deut.21:14). Neshamah is translated as 'breath' in the sense of life (1Kgs.17:17; Job 27:3). Ruach, which has the three-fold meaning of wind, breath and spirit, is used as 'wind' in Ex.10:13, as 'spirit' in Gen.45:27, Judg.15:19, 1Sam. 30:12, 1Kgs.10:5, and Hag.1:14, and as Yahweh's 'breath' in Ex.15:8 and Isa.30:28. It is also used for emo-tions as anger (Judg.8:3; Gen.27:45) and grief (Gen.26:35). For God's life-giving breath, neshamah is used in Gen.2:7, ruach in Ezek.37:9-10. In this sense, ruach is used as inspiring prophecy (1Sam.10:3,6) or extraordinary strength (Judg.14:6), and its loss as causing insanity when losing it (1Sam.16:14). In Psalms and Proverbs ruach is employed as a synonym of nephesh for the 'inner life'. In Isa.26:9 ruach is used in parallel with nephesh: my soul [nephesh] yearns for you in the night, my spirit [ruach] within me earnestly seeks you.

From this survey of OT texts it appears that the word leb on the whole represents the human mind in its various activities, while the words nephesh, neshamah and ruach represent primarily the life-giving principle, God's breath that makes the human person come alive and that is withdrawn at death. There is, however, some overlap between leb and the other three words, particularly when it comes to emotions. It also appears that no clear distinction was made between mind and soul.

New Testament (NT)

The NT basically follows the OT line in seeing human personality as a unity of mind and body, particularly in the synoptic gospels and the Pauline writings.2,4 The latter provide the most extensive treatment of the subject. For Paul the mind is the thinking, reasoning, reflecting and purposing aspect of the human self, while the body (soma) is the same self as the object of these activities. The mind enables us to comprehend God's revelation and to act upon it. Being human, the mind is capable of being corrupted (Rom.1:28; 1Tim.6:5), but also of recovery (Rom.12: 2). For Paul 'mind' is in some sense the whole human being and can often be taken as equivalent to 'character'.

Paul, writing in Greek, uses the word nous (mind) as an equivalent of the OT leb (Rom.11:34, 1Cor.2:16). It is the intellectual faculty of natural man, which can be morally good as well as bad (1Cor.14:14, Phil.4:7). Paul also frequently uses kardia (heart) in the sense of personality, character, inner life (e.g., 1Cor.14:25), and as the seat of intellectual activities (Rom.1:21), volition (Rom.2:5) and emotional states of con-sciousness (Rom.9:2).

For the term nephesh Paul uses the word psyche, and for ruach the word pneuma. Psyche is translated as 'life' without psychological content (Phil.2:30); 'anguish' (Rom.2:9); 'heart' (Eph.6:6); 'soul' (1Thess.5:23). In the last three texts psyche stands for the emotional side of consciousness. Pneuma connotates mostly 'supernatural influences', rarely 'principle of life'. Frequently, it is used for 'human spirit', but in Rom.8:16 Paul uses it both for God's Spirit and the human spirit (that very Spirit bear-ing witness with our spirit).

In the synoptic gospels there is compared to Paul a change of emphasis rather than of content,. Jesus teaches: the need of a spiritual life (Lk.10:38-42) rather than an ascetic life (Mt.11:19), the weightier matters of the law are justice and mercy (Mt.23:23), the forgiving of sins (Lk.19:1-10), and the life beyond death. John has Christ bring the light of life to a world of darkness (Jn.8:12, 12:46). A distinction is made between sinfulness as a character attitude (Jn.8:34) and a single act of sin that can be forgiven (1Jn.1:9). This requires moral volition on our part (1Jn.3:3). John affirms eternal life through resurrection in Christ (Jn.5:28,29; 11:25,26).

'Soul' is a confusing concept.5 In the OT it is essentially the life principle, which at death is thought to depart (Gen.35:18). However, it is also used for the self as the subject of appe-ti-te and emotion, where also 'mind' could be read. In the NT it can mean 'life' that can be cared for (Mt.6:25), saved or lost (Mk.8:35), laid down (Jn.10:11), but it can also be the subject of emotion (Mk.14:34; Lk.1:46). Thus 'soul' varies between 'mind' and life-giving 'spirit' (leb vs. ruach; psyche vs. pneuma). For this reason, and also because it is frequently, but wrongly from a Christian point of view, associated with immortality, I avoid the further use of the term 'soul'.

Summarizing, we may say that in the biblical view 'mind' (leb; nous, psyche) is the thinking, reasoning, recollecting, planning, willing, and feeling aspect of the human self, enabling knowledge of God, capable of corruption as well as recovery. Mind, and thus the whole person, comes to life upon receiving God's life-giving 'spirit' (ruach, nephesh; pneuma), which is withdrawn at death.

2. Mind in theology, philosophy and psychology


In the patristic and scholastic periods the discussion was nearly entirely centered on the 'soul' and its involvement in sin and salvation.6 It was strongly influenced by Greek philosophy, Stoicism, Platonism and Aristotelianism, in succession.

Tertullian (c. 200), under stoic influence, saw the 'soul' as an entity with many functional activities, the rational and volitional (nous, mind) being the highest; it is centered in the heart, but the body is simply its instrument. Clement (c. 200), under Platonist influence, believed in a tripartite 'soul', consisting of an intellectual part (nous, considered divine and immortal), a part for passion, and one for desire. Origen (c. 225), also a platonist, assumed a unity of body, soul ('mind'), and spirit, close to NT thinking. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 370) has the Aristotelian form of a soul with vegetative, animal, and intellectual parts, independent of the body. Augustine (354-430) adopted Origen's idea of the unity of body, soul ('mind'), and spirit. He claimed that the soul is directly created by God, but is passed on from parent to child. This idea led him to affirm the doctrine of original sin.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) held that the soul is created by God and placed in the body, but is not transmitted to the descendants. The soul becomes capable of acquiring merit only upon the infusion of divine grace. Aquinas accepted free will, but "free will cannot be converted to God, unless God converts it to himself." Over against Aquinas' emphasis on reason, Duns Scotus (1264-1308) emphasized the will, both divine and human. The human will is to keep order in the rebellious constitution of humans but is corrupted by the Fall. He saw humans as a unity of body and soul in a unique individual, with the soul capable of knowing the spiritual intuitively.

The Reformers contributed little to the understanding of the human mind. Martin Luther (1483-1546) preached sola fides, justification by faith alone. For him faith was full trust in God, rather than intel-lectual assent. He maintained the doctrines of original sin and predestination. Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), the main theologian of the Lutheran movement, nuanced sola fides by assuming the need for cooperation between God's Spirit and human will in conversion. John Calvin (1509-64) maintained predestination, original sin, and loss of the free will after the Fall. Emphasis on God's omnipotence and neglect of God's mercy, led Calvin to the doctrine of 'absolute predestination', i.e. before creation God already predestined some of his creatures to salvation and others to damnation.


Philosophy took over the problem of the mind from theology during Renaissance and Enlightenment and the arrival of modern science.6 This period was marked by 'rationalism', a belief in the all-sufficiency of human reason, in opposition to all supernatural belief and dogmas.

The mind-body problem was a major issue in the struggle between dualism and monism. Dualism is the idea that mind and body belong to different and separate categories (René Descartes, 1596-1650). Monism is the position that mind and body do not exist as distinct kinds of entities (Baruch Spinoza, 1632-77). Since dualism is incompatible with both the biblical view and the findings of neuroscience, I shall confine myself to monism. Three types of monism can be distin-guished: 1. physicalism which maintains that the mind consists of physical entities and is not something different from the body; 2. idealism which claims that the mind is all that exists and that the external world is either mental itself, or an illusion created by the mind (George Berkeley, 1685-1753); 3. neutral monism which holds that there is some neutral sub-stance, of which both matter and mind are properties (Spinoza). Idealism and neutral monism seem to be incompatible with both the biblical view and current neuroscientific insights, so will not be considered further here.

This leaves physicalism, which has been the dominant idea in the last century. Reductive physicalism asserts that all mental states and properties will eventually be explained in terms of physiological processes and states, which is incompatible with biblical thought. Non-reductive physicalism recognizes that the brain is the substrate of the mind, but acknowledges that mental processes are not identical with the neuronal processes observed in neuroscience. There is a 'property dualism' between them, as some call it.

Types of non-reductive physicalism are: behaviorism, identity theory, and functionalism. Behaviorism focussed on behavior because of the difficulty of studying introspection, but is out of grace now. Identity theory (J.J.C. Smart, 1956) operates on the premise that mental states are identical to the firing of certain neurons in certain brain regions. However, a mental state like pain can occur in many different species, and it seems unlikely that in all cases the same brain state would operate. This led to functionalism (Hilary Putnam a.o., 1967), which characterizes mental states by their causal relations with other mental states and with sensory inputs and behavioral outputs. For example, a kidney is characterized scientifically by its functional role in excreting waste products and retaining desired substances; for a functionalist it doesn't matter how the kidney is made up; its role and its relation to other organs define it as a kidney. Linguistic philosophers, however, claim that trying to fit mental and biological states together is a 'category error'. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) said: "...we use the word mind without any difficulty until we ask ourselves 'What is the mind?' We then imagine that this question has to be answered by identifying some 'thing' that is the mind."


How did psychology, the science of the mind (psyche), deal with the problem? First introspection was used, but this was found to be too subjective to arrive at predictive generalizations and thus to provide a theory of the mind. Then the attention turned to behavior as the expression of mental states, without making any assumptions about the mind or even its existence. When behaviorism was found not to provide further insight in the mind, it was succeeded by cognitive psychology, in which the mind is seen as an information processing system, which permits the use of computational models to study the functional organization of the mind. Again, this did not produce much further insight in the mind itself before use was made of the findings of neuroscience.

It seems clear that theology, philosophy and psychology have not provided a deeper under-standing of the mind and its activities, basically because of the lack of data and in the case of theology the concentration on the soul and its moral aspects. This changed with the advent of non-invasive scanning techniques in the 1980s. They have provided high resolution structural and functional information on the living brain, which played a leading part in the development of a new branch of science, called neuroscience.

3. Mind and neuroscience

In the next three paragraphs I provide a brief description of the nervous system and the modern scanning techniques employed in studying it.

The brain is the control centre of the central nervous system, which is made up of nerves traversing the body to the brain (afferent) and from it (efferent). It consists of over 100 billion nerve cells (neurons), each linked to up to 10,000 other neurons. The cerebellum ('small brain') is the site of integration of sensory perception and motor control. Neural pathways connect it with the cerebral motor cortex, which sends commands to the muscles. The spinal cord, an extension of the brain down into the vertebral column, transmits nerve signals from the periphery to the brain (touch, proprioception, pain, temperature) and vice versa. The mind is relieved by the fact that several functions are performed autonomously (unconsciously), such as the regulation of blood pressure, fluid balance, body temperature, and breathing. The high activity of the brain is indicated by the fact that it utilizes 20% of the body's total energy consumption, although it represents only 2% of the body weight,.

A neuron has a cell body with short dendrites in one direction and a long axon in the opposite direction. Each axon connects at a synaptic gap to a dendrite of the next neuron in the chain. A nerve signal is conducted along the axon as an electric spike. When it arrives at the synaptic gap, it causes release of a neurotransmitter, which triggers a spike in the next neuron. The synapse is a non-linear system, which makes synaptic transmission subject to 'critical avalanches' or 'chaos events'.7 After transmission the neurotransmitter is re-moved from the synaptic cleft by re-uptake or by degradation. Examples of neurotransmitters and their actions are:

- Acetylcholine - voluntary movement of the muscles

- Norepinephrine - wakefulness or arousal

- Dopamine - motivation, desire

- Serotonin - memory, emotions, wakefulness, sleep and temperature regulation

- Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) - inhibition of motor neurons

- Glycine - spinal reflexes and motor behavior

Detailed knowledge of the neural circuits that operate in the various functions of the brain has become available in the last twenty years through the application of four advanced scanning techniques:

- Computed tomography (CT): a series of X-ray pictures taken along the brain and integrated by a computer program.

- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): stimulated radio wave emission by nuclei precessing in a magnetic field produces 2- or 3-dimensional images with a high degree of anatomical detail. Sequential scans allow observation of structural changes over minutes.

- Functional MRI (fMRI): measures neural activity in specific regions of the brain, as changes in blood flow due to metabolism associated with neuronal activity, e.g., in synaptic re-uptake of neurotransmitters.

- Positron emission tomography (PET): monitors glucose metabolism and neurotransmitter activity in specific brain regions. Combination with a CT scan provides precise location. It requires injec-tion of a positron-emitting substance, usually F-18 labelled fluorodeoxyglucose.

Spatial resolutions of 1 mm and time resolutions of minutes can be achieved with these techniques.

After this brief explanation of the nervous system and the scanning techniques employed in studying it, I now describe some of the findings obtained in the recent decades.

Neural network interaction: Mental activities are carried out by neural ensembles of several neurons, linking distinct (and distant) regions of the brain.8 They synchronize their activities, with tasks requiring much effort leading to low-frequency responses (about 28 Hz), and effortless tasks to higher frequency (about 45 Hz).9 Episodic psychiatric disorders without visible anatomical damage, such as depression, might be due to loss of synchronicity in a neural network.

Personality: Our unique personality appears to depend on a specific structure and function of the brain. Scanning shows differences in brain activities in different personalities. Optimists have a high activity in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, parts of the limbic system that processes emotion and memory.10 Progressives have a higher activity in the anterior cingulate cortex than conservatives.11 Depressed persons show reduced coupling between prefrontal cortical area 25 and the amygdala. Extroverts show a high activity in the orbitofrontal cortex Neurotics have a high activity in the insular cortex. In drug addicts the synapses in the mesolimbic region are flooded with dopamine, by increased release (amphetamines), by blocking of reuptake (cocaine), or by blocking of GABA release (heroin, morphine; GABA inhibits the dopamine effect).12 Addiction is due, in part, to powerful memories of the drug experience and to an increased number of dopami-ne receptors; relapse is facilitated by a decreased prefrontal cortex activity, which controls compulsive behaviour.

Mirror neurons: These are paired neurons, a 'Self' neuron and an 'Other' neuron, that permit us to experience what others see, feel, experience and think, to imitate others and to have 'empathy'.13 The 'Self' neuron is repressed, when the 'Other' neuron is activated, such as when a monkey sees another monkey perform the action. In children mirror neurons are likely involved in learning and language acquisition. In autistic persons the mirror neurons for action, feeling and thinking are dys-functional, which may explain their lack of empathy. In schizophrenia distinction between 'Self' and 'Other' may be impaired, leading to delusions and hallucinations, e.g., ascribing 'voices' to 'others'.

Plasticity: Neurons grow or disappear depending on age, circumstances and training. This plasticity is most pronounced in early life, but recently it has been discovered that new neurons grow from stem cells in the adult brain. Neurogenesis occurs in specific regions (cortex, hippocampal dentate gyrus, olfactory bulb).14 Another type of plasticity is the takeover of the blocked activity in one region (e.g., after a brain infarct) to some extent by another region. This may explain why rehabilitation and psychotherapy at advanced age have a favorable effect on cerebral structure and function. In Parkinson's disease plasticity is lost through the death of dopaminergic neurons. Both dopaminergic drugs and deep brain stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus can halt this process, at least temporarily, but by different circuits.15 Chronic stress causes loss of nerve connections in the hippocampus and an increase in the number of dendrites in the amygdala.

Memory: Three types of memory are recognized: (1) Sensory memory is established within 0,2-0,5 sec after perception of a maximum of 12 digits, and is lost in about the same time; (2) Short-term memory is established by transfer of sensory memory, but is limited to 5 digits; it lasts for minutes and involves transient neuronal patterns in the frontal and parietal cortex; (3) Long-term memory results from the conversion of short-term memory in the hippocampus (but is not stored there) by repetition or train-ing and lasts from 3 months to lifetime; it involves changing of neuronal connections (plasticity)16 and is consolidated during sleep. Suppression of emotional memories appears to occur by a two-phase neural mechanism.17 Damage to the hippocampus may cause memory deficit accompanied by difficulty in imagining the future.18 The basal ganglia, in cooperation with the prefrontal cortex, appear to act as a filter to prevent remembering irrelevant information.19

Self awareness (body, memories, place in society): The medial prefrontal cortex, in co-operation with the precuneus, seems to bind together all memories and perceptions relating to oneself, a role similar to that of the hippocampus in creating memories.20 In Alzheimer's disease the first damage occurs in precuneus and hippocampus, both involved in the formation of memory, of images of one's past and future. In the vegetative state due to brain damage there is no awareness (only reflex movements, not on command). In a woman in vegetative state, studied with fMRI, spoken sentences triggered activity in the superior and middle temporal gyri (understanding speech); when asked to imagine walking through her house, this elicited activity in the network involved in spatial navigation (premotor, parietal and parahippocampal cortices).21 So a year after her accident she had become minimally conscious with a fair chance of recovery.

Free will: Benjamin Libet had persons make a hand movement at a clock signal (full rotation of clock in 2,5 sec) and then to indicate at what clock time they were aware of their intention to make the movement; electrodes on the head recorded the activation of the motoric cortex (readiness potential).22 The readiness potential amazingly preceded awareness by 500 msec; movement followed awareness by 200 msec. Some conclude from this experiment that there is no free will in 'willing' a movement, only in stopping the movement. A better explanation is that seeing the signal for movement (and knowing that this means a command to make a movement) activates the motoric cortex after which it takes 500 msec to become aware of this.

HPA axis: The mind also interacts with the body by means of the so-called hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Neuronal impulses travel from the cerebral cortex to the hypothalamus, which then secre-tes certain compounds to the pituitary gland, which in turn releases certain hormones that stimulate the adrenals to secrete other hormones. In this way the mind can influence the action of various physio-logical functions. For instance, various types of stress affect the immune system, raising the vulnerability to infection and cancer.23 Conversely, the condition of the body can in-fluence the mind, e.g., inflammations can lead to depression through stimulation of the immune system.24

4. Mind in evolution

Early multicellular organisms had a single nerve cord that extended through the body of the animal. In arthropods, such as insects, a primitive brain was formed from the nerve cord, comprising a three-part cerebrum and optical lobes. In vertebrates the nerve cord changed into the spinal cord, and the brain then comprised the cerebrum, cerebellum (each with a left and right hemisphere) and spinal cord.25 In mammals the neocortex, the top six-fold layer of the cerebrum, appears. In pri-mates the neocortex is characterized by its foldings and large prefrontal cortex. The latter is the seat of the higher functions, such as sensory perception, motor commands, spatial sense, and, in humans: conscious thought, and language. Apart from the threefold difference in volume, the microscopic structure of human and primate brain differs only in some minor details for which no functional significance is known.26

Neither are there great differences between the human and chimpanzee genomes. They differ in only 1,2% of their 2,4 billion basepairs. The corresponding genes are involved in smell, hear-ing and protein breakdown, but these are hardly relevant for mental capabilities.27 More important is the degree to which genes are co-expressed with other genes. When such co-expressed genes are grouped in networks, it is seen that many connections noted in humans are mis-sing in chimps, as many as 17,4% in the cortex.28

How can we explain the superior mental capabilities of humans as com-pared to non-human primates? Actually, these differences are not as great as we may think. Many traits that seem to be peculiar to humans are found in chimpanzees, other monkeys and even lower animals.29 Chimpanzees, our nearest relatives, are social creatures capable of empathy, altruism, self-awareness, cooperation in problem solving and learning through example and experience. They make simple tools such as stick spears to hunt smaller primates for meat, use stones to crack nuts and sticks to extract termites from their nests, fold leaves to collect water from tree hollows, scoop algae from stream surfaces, and pound juicy palm fibre to pulp for food. Young chimps watch nut cracking by adult chimps, learning by example. Learning begins at age 1 yr, and at age 3 to 5 they can master three-object tasks. At age 3 they learn to stack blocks; humans do so at age 1. Two-month old chimps make eye contact with the mother, after 1 yr they are able to maintain the gaze as the mother moves around (at same age as humans). Young chimps outperform college students in some memory tasks, such as memorizing the place of numbers 1-9 in ascending order on a computer screen (humans memorize only 4). They cooperate in obtaining food from the other side of a fence; bonobos, a dwarf chimpanzee species, do even better in cooperative tasks and share food more readily. Chimpanzees show empathy, e.g., in consoling the loser in a fight, mediating in a conflict, grooming an animal with cerebral palsy, and in a mother carrying her dead daughter for days on her back. Rhesus monkeys, after training, did as well as college students in adding up to 20 dots, suggesting an evolutionary continuity of basic mathematical skills in humans and other primates.30

Does language capability distinguish humans from the animals? The FOXP2 gene that is needed for all vocalizations, whether shrieks, songs or sentences, is present in all vertebrates.31 It produces a protein that binds to the DNA of some 100 genes, either switching them on or off. It is thought that the FOXP2 gene thus coordinates the 100 or so muscles of face and mouth involved in producing sounds or speech. Neandertals had the gene, but we don't know whether they had developed a spoken language. In speaking disorders of children mutations of the FOXP2 gene have been found only in a very few cases.

The statement in Gen.1 that only humans are God's image bearers is in line with the fact that humans and chimpanzees show an opposite mental development. At birth they have about the same brain size and perform about equally in various tests, but after about 18 months the human baby leaves the chimpanzee far behind in brain size (adult human 1350 cc, chimpanzee 385 cc) and mental performance.

Various factors may have contributed to the evolution of the human brain:

Bipedalism: Originating in Australopithecus, this freed the hands for grasping food and other objects, while relieving the jaw. This permitted the development of throat, tongue and mouth, which eventually enabled language. The use of the hands for food gathering and defense required coordination with the eyes, leading to increased cerebral volume and complexity. Narrowing of the pelvis caused earlier birth, necessitating the carrying of babies in the mother's arms, thus leading to stronger bonding;

Diet: The invention of fire making, possibly 200.000 yrs. ago by Homo erectus or else 165.000 yrs. ago by Homo sapiens,32 introduced eating of cooked food. The energy saved on digestion provided energy for the expansion of the human brain.

Social life: Living in families began among Australopithecus afarensis, as witnessed by the 'First Family' of 13 individuals, whose fossils were found in Ethiopia. The challenge of living in a social group stimulated the evolution of primate intelligence, as shown by the fact that baboons clearly distinguish between 'me' and 'not me' when hearing a playback of baboon calls,33 and that neocortical volume (relative to total brain volume) increases with primate group size.34

Cultural development: Chimps, macaques and tamarins, like human infants, have the ability to distinguish goal-directed from random action.35 Children at age 2,5 yrs. have the same cognitive skills as chimpanzees for dealing with the physical world, but have more sophisticated cognitive skills for dealing with the social world.36 Cooperative behaviour in non-human primates is mainly limited to kin and reciprocating partners but is virtually never extended to unfamiliar individuals.37 When a monkey dies, cortisol levels in closely-related females rise, indicating stress, but no such response is detectable in other females of the group.38 A specific type of tool use, taught to a single chimpanzee, spread to 30 of 32 group mates, but not to an unrelated group.39 The extinction of the Neandertals, who were sophisticated toolmakers and good hunters, has been ascribed to a lack of the working memory that permitted Homo sapiens to solve novel problems after a rewiring of the prefrontal and basal ganglia.40 Another possibility is that Neandertals lacked the analytic language that Homo sapiens had mastered.41

5. Mind and the evolution of religion

When did religion originate and how did it develop? The first question is difficult to answer for a period without written documents. Burial with signs of ritual is widely taken to indicate a beginning of belief in life after death. The earliest known case is a Neandertal burial site, dating from about 100,000 years ago, of a child with two small stones, one on the skull and one on the heart region, which were of a type of rock found only 100 km away from the place of burial.

On the basis of archeological findings and studies of existing primitive peoples the development of religion is commonly described as a three-stage-processs: animism, polytheism, and monotheism.42

Animism: Primitive, nomadic humans, feeling utterly dependent on nature, saw every natural object trees, rocks, streams - as endowed with a spirit. These spirits were thought not only to control the existence of its object (a tree spirit makes the tree grow and spread its branches; a stream spirit makes the water flow) but indirectly also to influence human life by providing timber, water, etc. Rituals were used to ensure the favour of these spirits and to ward off evil..

Polytheism: Gradually, these spirits came to be seen as deities with a personality, whom one had to please with gifts, sacrifices, in order to survive. These deities were given a name, and were usually associated with forces of nature: storm, rain, and thunder. In addition, tribes commonly adopted a territorial god, such as the Canaanite Baals and Els in the OT. Gradually, one deity came to be seen as more powerful than the others; this deity is featured as a creator god in the ancient creation stories.43

Monotheism: In the OT we can trace the extended struggle that it took for the people of Israel to advance from polytheism to monotheism.44 Interestingly, this transition occurred in tiny Israel rather than in the great nations of Egypt, Greece and Rome. During the Exodus the Israelites chose Yahweh, the territorial wilderness god from Mount Horeb, as their guide and protector, but still only as a tribal god. After many instances of apostasy, related in Judges, Kings, Chronicles, their experience during the Babylonian exile led to the conviction that Yahweh is the universal, omnipresent God, the God of all peoples (Is.49:6), the Creator of everything that is, the eternal and only God (Isa.43:10; 45:5-7,18), to whom the cosmic forces are small and insignificant (Isa.40:12-15,28). Yahweh also came to be experienced as a loving and caring God (Isa.40:11), who seeks a personal relationship with his human creatures and who gives them the Law to live by. This posed the question: How can the perfect Yahweh forgive transgressions of his divine Law without compromising his perfect justice? Initially this led to the image of a vengeful god, who ruthlessly punishes the sinner. The prophet Jeremiah predicted that the old covenant of Mount Horeb would be replaced by a new covenant "written upon the heart" (Jer.31:31-34), but he failed to answer the problem that to the ancient mind a valid covenant required the blood of a sacrifice. Other prophets predicted the coming of a Messiah (Mic.5:2-5; Zech.9:9-10), the suffering servant in Second Isaiah (Isa. 42:1-4, 49:1-7; 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12), who will bring reconciliation between Yahweh and his people.

Trinitarian monotheism: Six centuries later the Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth (again a small minority) recognized in him the promised Messiah, who through his death on the cross brings reconciliation, a new covenant. Through their experience of his resurrection they came to see him as the incarnate Son of God. The pentecostal experience in Jerusalem led to the awareness of the Holy Spirit as our lasting link with God the Father. The Christian Church was born, which grew rapidly and spread over the entire world. During the first four centuries AD the experience of the Apostles was formulated by the Church in the trinitarian monotheistic doctrine of the one God in three persons, Father-creator, Son-redeemer, Spirit-communicator.

Nowadays, many consider the development of religion, as sketched here, as a mere human construct. Therefore, it is not surprising that brain scanning techniques have been applied to study cerebral activities during meditation. In a pioneer study, electroencephalography (EEG) was applied to nuns during contemplative prayer.45 Three phases could be distinguished, all of which were accompanied by an increased alpha wave: (1) a phase of concentration and inner recollection; (2) a phase of libidinal concentration on Christ as the object of desire; (3) a phase of ecstatic encounter with the object of union. Each phase continued as the next one arrived. The changes in the alpha wave reflected the depth of contemplation reached, as determined by the questionnaires completed by the subjects.

Later EEG studies showed increases in alpha wave (8-13 Hz), theta wave (4-7 Hz), and in experienced meditators also in beta wave (20-40 Hz).46 Alpha wave activity is associated with calm and focused attention; theta wave activity with reverie, imagery, and creativity; high beta activity with highly focused concentration. By means of PET scanning of meditating Buddhist monks the effects could be localized. Prefrontal lobe activity (attention and concentration) was increased, while parietal lobe activity (sense of orientation in space and time) was decreased. The latter effect agrees with the claim of meditators that during meditation their self becomes united with all creation and with the divine.

A few years ago, a claim was made that 'the God gene' had been found.47 Participants in a 1000-subject survey were asked to complete the 240-question Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI). One of the traits measured is spirituality or self-transcendence. Nine genes involved in the release of monoamine neuro-transmitters such as serotonin (regulating mood experience) were then studied. There was a correlation between the TCI score and the gene VMAT2 (vesicular monoamine transporter). Persons with cytosine at a particular site of this gene had a high TCI score, those in which this cytosine was replaced by adenine had a low score. The cytosine-type VMAT2 was therefore considered to be a gene for spirituality. The finding of an increased serotonin level in meditating Buddhist monks suggests that this gene might confer their meditating skill, but its presence was not determined in this study.

To conclude from these studies that religious experience and spirituality are merely a function of neurons or genes, as some do, is in my view a form of unwarranted reductionism. I suggest that transcendent thought and spirituality are the result of the interaction of divine revelation with the human mind, mediated by the Spirit. Since humans are said to be created in the image of God (Gen.1:26,27) and this image was not lost by the fall (Gen.5:1; 9:6), such interaction would seem to be possible.

6. Mind in death and resurrection

What happens to the mind at death in the light of the expected resurrection on the last day? On biblical grounds I have concluded that a living person is a body-mind unity made alive by God's life-giving Spirit (section 1), and the body-mind unity appears to be confirmed by the neuroscientific findings (section 3). Biologically, we can say that at death the mind stops functioning (flat EEG), and the body begins to decompose. Theologically, we can say that at death God withdraws his life-giving Spirit. About the death of Jesus, John writes: he 'gave up his spirit' (Jn.19:30; NRSV), but the Greek text actually has to pneuma, the spirit. The synoptic gospels all have: 'breathed his last', which can be taken as referring to 'breath' as well as 'spirit'.

At the resurrection a new body-mind unity is made alive by God's spirit, as metaphorically described in Ezek.37:1-10. About the resurrection body we see some glimpses in the accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus. In some sense the resurrection body must resemble the natural body because Jesus is recognized by the women and the disciples (Mt.28:9, 17; Jn.20:20), although he is not immediately recognized by the men going to Emmaus (Lk.24:16), by Mary Magdalen (Jn.20: 14) and by the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias (Jn.21:4). The most striking difference is the ability of the risen Jesus to walk though a closed door (Mt.28:9; Lk.24:36; Jn.20:19, 26; 21:4) and in a moment to appear, disappear and appear at another site (Mt.28:9; Lk.24:36; Jn.20:19). This suggests that the resurrection body is not bound by the laws of space and time, as Jesus was - like us - during his life on earth.

But now the question arises: What occurs in the interim period between death and resurrection? The bible is vague on this. In the OT there is Sheol, the abode of the dead (Gen.37:35; 42:38; 1Sam.2:6; Job 14:13) and rarely in later and apocryphal writings Gehenna, the place of eternal punishment of the dead (Dan.7:10; Enoch 18:11-16, a.o.). In the NT Sheol does not occur, only Gehenna translated as 'hell' (Mt.5:22; Mk.9:43; Lk.12:5; Jas.3:6). This is strange, because the idea of eternal punishment following death conflicts with the resurrection of all dead persons on the last day with judgment (Dan.12:2: "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt"; Rev.20:12-15: "all were judged according to what they had done").

The 'near-death experiences' (NDE) of persons resuscitated after cardiac arrest seem to provide some information.48 Up to 30% of them report that, having entered ‘the other world’, they saw in a flash their entire life as in a 3-D movie with an experience of judgement. This would suggest that at death we are not judged so much as that we judge ourselves, in answer to the question: Am I able and desirous to live in God's presence, thus to believe in him, yes or no? In the intermediate state there may then be an opportunity for further spiritual growth, until at the last day we shall judge ourselves definitively to either living eternally in God's presence (heaven) or to existing for ever in his absence (hell). In the presence of the light of Christ there will be full disclosure, such that our self-judgement cannot be false. Neither does this mean 'universalism', acceptance of all humans. The Doctrine Commission of the Church of England expressed a similar view.49 This still leaves the question as to what remains of the person in the interim period. I have attempted to answer this question by means of a digital photography metaphor.50 When I take with my digital camera a vacation picture in full color and high resolution (5 million pixels), and transfer it as a series of millions of ones and zeroes to my computer, then with a few mouse-clicks I can present the picture in its full glory and relive the vacation experience. Now consider what makes me (and all of us) unique: it is my genome, the collection of all my genes, and my mind. So I suggest that the Creator makes a perfect digital picture of my genome and mind and stores it in a heavenly computer. During my lifetime, update-pictures are made to record my physical and spiritual development. This digital picture collection is retained in the heavenly computer. At my death and on the last day the entire picture collection is shown to me for my 'self-judgement'. And if I say 'Yes!' to God, the picture is 'printed' out on the last day in heavenly format and quality in a single, three-dimensional form (like a hologram), to which God imparts his life-giving spirit. And there I am, come to life in the resurrection body. If God determines that I need spiritual growth during the interim period, he makes the digital picture collection available for updating.

7. Discussion

A survey of the biblical data on the mind reveals the position that humans are a body-mind unity and that there is no real distinction between mind and soul. For this reason, I prefer to eliminate the 'soul' concept, considering the mind to encompass both our intellectual and spiritual faculties. This view is supported by current neuro-scientific insight. The central nervous system pervades the entire body and is intimately linked with the various organs. The mental functions influence many organic functions, and vice versa (HPA axis). However, we must recognize that neuro-science shows us only the biological substrate of the acting mind, but does not explain the essence of the functioning human mind. Thinking it does, constitutes an unwarranted form of reductionism.

It is regrettable that the patristic and scholastic theologians shifted their thinking to the soul and its moral aspects, thereby neglecting the mind. And this has not changed in the work of modern theologians. Keith Ward wrote a book "In Defence of the Soul", which is actually an attack on materialism, rather than a discussion of the relation between soul and mind.51 Philip Rolnick in his "Person, Grace, and God" takes into account the findings of neuroscience, but distinguishes between soul and mind as a 'twoness' that is to be unified and that has a higher and a lower level.52 While not stating this explicitly, Rolnick seems to think that the soul serves religious experiences and the mind intellectual activities. To me this seems to be an unnecessary, even undesirable, compartmentalization of the mind, for which there is neither scriptural warrant nor neuroscientific support.

A surprising finding is that in the evolutionary development of the mind we see no clear demarcation between non-human primates and humans, only differences in quality and refinement. This is true for brain microstructure, genome, tool making, mathematical skills, vocalization, and diverse traits (empathy, altruism, self-awareness, cooperation, and learning). Traditional theology assumed that God introduced a soul at the creation of the first human and repeats this at the birth of each human being.53 Brunner tried to reconcile this with the evolution of the body by assuming, without much argument, the introduction of the human soul at some point in the hominid line, e.g., when transcendental awareness arose.54 However, there is an evolutionary development of religion, which theologically may be seen as a deepening interaction of divine revelation with the human mind. And we are still uncertain where transcendental awareness may have begun. The evolution of religious belief is repeated in broad outline during individual human development.55 Hominization is thus a continuous process of physical ànd spiritual development in human evolution as well as in the growth of each individual.

In section 5 I briefly mention that synaptic transmission appears to be subject to 'chaos events'.7 This is a very important finding, because it means that our mental processes are open to God's influencing of chaos events through the action of the Spirit, as I have explained elsewhere in a general sense.56

Rather than the insertion of a soul, I conclude that God brings life to the body-mind unity by means of the life-giving activity of the Spirit.57 At death God withdraws the life-giving Spirit, the mind stops functioning and the body begins to decompose. In the biblical account there is no surviving soul, in contrast to Greek philosophy and much popular belief. In the resurrection on the last day, we shall appear in a transformed body-mind unity. From the scarce biblical data I have constructed a metaphorical idea for the interim period between death and resurrection. It is regrettable that insufficient attention is given to creation theology in the endless debate between resurrection sceptics and defenders of the resurrection of Christ and, derived from this, the resurrection of the dead.58 


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33. Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics; the Evolution, of a Social Mind, University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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48. P. van Lommel et al, Near Death Experience In Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: Prospective Study in the Netherlands, The Lancet, 358, 2039-2042, 2001. In this extensive clinical study it was concluded that medical factors (clinical death, cerebral anoxia, medication, psychological factors) cannot account for the occurrence of NDE, particularly the judgment experience and the effects on later life. Now in bookform: Pim van Lommel, Eindeloos bewustzijn [Endless Consciousness], Ten Have, Kampen, 2007 (in Dutch).

49. Doctrine Commission, Church of England, The Mystery of Salvation, The Story of God's Gift, Church House Publishing, London, 1996.

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51. Keith Ward, In Defence of the Soul, Oneworld, Oxford, 1998.

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56. Sjoerd L. Bonting, ref. 50, 115-124.

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58. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology, 3rd ed., Blackwell, Oxford, 2001, 397-405.

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