Do immaterial things like the soul and mind exist or is everything made of physical matter? To make sense of this world, this question is an important one for us to consider.

It is important because there is an eternity worth of significance that depends on the true answer to this question.

According to the story of naturalistic materialism (atheism), “no, immaterial things don’t exist.” All that exists is matter. In the words of Carl Sagan,

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

But does this story match with the story we encounter in reality?

Christianity provides a different story that speaks of material and immaterial things. Concepts of souls, minds, angelic beings, and God. Christianity is a story big enough to fit both the physical and non-physical things we encounter.

Which story gives a better explanation of the world we find ourselves in? A true, good, and beautiful story would obviously be the better story. And that is what we are ultimately seeking!


While there are many nuances of atheism, the belief that God does not exist, the most common type of atheism is naturalistic materialism. Naturalistic materialism believes that everything that exists is physical matter and is governed by the laws of nature. In other words, there is not anything that exists that is not material in nature.

Thus, ideas of immaterial things like spirits, souls, and the supernatural have no place within reality. Consequently, naturalistic materialism is a worldview because it is a theory of everything. In other words, it is an attempt to explain how the world and everything in it really is.

Are the Mind and Brain the Same Thing?

However, if the world is this way, things like thoughts, memories, ideas, knowledge, and the mind must necessarily be material things. Some argue that these things are merely brain states, and our cognitive functions are entirely a physical phenomenon of the brain. Advancements in the mapping of brain regions and the functions of the regions through neuroanatomy and neurophysiology are sometimes used as evidence for the truth of all things being physical. Nancey Murphy has written considerably on this and speaks to it in her co-authored book “Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature.” So are our thoughts, beliefs, and memories physical manifestations of the brain?

Similarities Do Not Equal Sameness

Something must share the same essence or essential properties for something to be the same as something else. For example, two balls can be of different colors, yet both are referred to as balls. That is because the attribute of color does not make something a ball. However, you cannot say something is a ball with 90° angles. Therefore, being spherical is an essential property for defining a thing to be a ball.

Likewise, for ideas, thoughts, and beliefs to be physical, they must have the essential properties of what it means to be physical. Additionally, material things would need to share the same essential properties as thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. Yet, we can quickly demonstrate essential differences between the two things.

While there are other differences, for brevity’s sake, I’ll mention two. Remember, one essential property difference is all that is necessary to negate ‘sameness.’

The Intentionality of Thoughts, Ideas, and Beliefs

First, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs have what is called intentionality. That means they are “of” or “about” something. For example, suppose I am thinking about my favorite ice cream. In that case, my thought has the intentionality or is about Blue Bell Cookies & Cream ice cream. Yet, material things don’t have this same property. The computer I’m writing this article on is not “of” or “about” anything. It just is. The chair I am sitting in isn’t “of” or “about” something. It just is.

Working this example in reverse, try to have a thought, idea, or belief that doesn’t have a subject or term. Said differently, have a thought, idea, or belief about, not anything. If you tried this and you’re thinking about a black void or blank space, then that is still something.

Therefore, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs cannot be reduced to being material things because they do not share the same essential property of intentionality.

Where is That Thought Located?

Second, physical items can be described in terms of their location. For example, my keyboard is in front of me, and my chair is underneath me. However, where is my thought about my keyboard and chair? To say that it is in my brain isn’t true because if we were to open my brain, we wouldn’t find the thought of my keyboard and chair. Not to be gross, but if we split open our brains, we wouldn’t witness our thoughts spilling out on the floor. Thus, physical items are proximate to other physical items, whereas thoughts, ideas, and beliefs do not.

Again, it seems absurd if we reversed this example and tried to remove the proximation of physical items. What does it mean to say a chair exists that isn’t physically located anywhere? It seems absurd. That is because a spatial location is necessary for a material thing.

Physical things do not share the same essential attributes as thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. Therefore, they cannot be the same thing.

But what conclusion does this lead to?


As human beings, we are sense-making beings. Therefore, we seek to make sense of the world around us. If we can’t make sense of the world, it creates angst or unsettling feeling inside of us.

This is a topic for another article, but suffice it to say that to have a satisfying view of the world, that view must make sense. Otherwise, we will have difficulty living a consistent life with our beliefs. Naturalistic materialism doesn’t provide holistic answers to the non-physical things we encounter and is an impossible worldview to live with consistently.

So, what is a better story?

A Body & Soul Story

Christianity provides a substance dualism story of humanity. In this context, substance dualism means that human beings are more than just physical bodies. Instead, human beings are both a physical body and an immaterial soul. In more technical terms, this is a dichotomist view of mankind.

So why is this a better story?

It is a better story because it answers how we make sense of the non-physical properties of ideas, thoughts, beliefs, knowledge, and the mind. All these things have the properties of non-material things. Furthermore, accepting the immaterial existence of the soul explains how these immaterial things can be personal. My mind. My thoughts. My beliefs.

Going a bit further, it also protects our identity.

Who Are You?

Another essential idea that links the soul to personal experience is understanding who you are versus what you are. If everything is physical, then your body and its parts are also linked to who you are. For example, your arm is just as much ‘who you are’ as your right eye. But we would never look at John after losing a toe and say, “I don’t know who that is.”

That is because there is something that grounds who John is other than physical parts. Of course, the physical parts contribute to John’s being a human. But furthermore, those physical parts are equally involved in ‘what’ John is, as is the non-physical existence of John’s soul. Yet, the soul essentially grounds the ‘who’ of John’s being.

And this is where the beauty of the Christian story comes forth!

Peering Beyond Death

The non-physical soul is what persists beyond the decay of the physical body. The soul maintains the ‘who’ of mankind into eternity, beyond the grave, and it then is reunited with a resurrected and perfected body when Christ returns.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” [NASB] We take comfort in this statement that our personal existence persists beyond the grave, absent of the physical body, and in the presence of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

However, we won’t remain in a disembodied state for eternity. We will have resurrected bodies that are made perfect and glorified. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.” [NASB] This is important because, as seen in v35, Paul leads up to a description of the future resurrected bodies of Christ’s followers. His description in 1 Corinthians 15:42 says, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body; it is raised an imperishable body;”.


Understanding the properties of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs allows us to understand what they are and align them with what we experience in the world. We can recognize the truth of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs as immaterial things. Christianity provides us with a true story to shape our worldview in this respect.

Furthermore, the existence of an immaterial soul provides us with a coherent expectation of eternity. Death is no longer the end of our existence, which would void our lives of any ultimate meaning and purpose. Instead, we are given a story of eternal existence. Our lives do ultimately matter and have a purpose. Thus, Christianity provides us with a good story that satisfies our deepest longings.

Finally, we recognize that behind all of this was a Creator who made the world and placed each of us within a story. Each story of ours is inside of a bigger story. His story. We are given the opportunity through an immaterial soul and a future resurrected and perfected body to be united with Him in a future world restored, sinless, painless, filled with love and contentment. Therefore, Christianity provides us with a beautiful story of a relationship experienced now and into the eternal future with a loving Creator that redeems us from the brokenness and discontentment we experience today.


  1. Zac

    Great introduction to the discussion! Always a fascinating topic, and the law of identity is powerful philosophically – though, rhetorically it may not seem as potent to many. Would love to have a follow-up discussing near-death experiences in the future. Thank you for the post!

  2. Doris

    Very interesting. Would love to hear more on this topic.