What is a theology of the body? It is easy for us to see our bodies as disconnected from our spirituality. Yet the Bible teaches us much about the purposefulness, value, and even sacredness of our bodies. Developing a biblical theology of our bodies provides crucial context for how we treat each other and how we engage numerous cultural questions.
What am I supposed to teach my kids?
This is a question that keeps me up at night.
A few years ago, I was in a gas station in a rural part of Arkansas when a transgender woman (a biological male with long hair who was wearing a dress) walked in. I had just run in to get a fountain drink and we wound up speaking niceties to each other for a few moments. I was caught off guard to see a transgender person in such an out-of-the-way location, and then I noticed something I’ll never forget. There was a mother with a couple of kids, and she was staring at this person with the meanest look on her face, a look of contempt and disgust, and her kids were watching her.
I get it. This world is confusing. Culture war ideologies are relentless and changing at a breathtaking speed. It’s easy to find myself making other people into enemies to be beaten, or to just want to stick my head in the sand and ignore it all. But….
What am I supposed to teach my kids? I suspect that part of the reason that woman was looking at the transgender person that way was because she realized her kids were being introduced to a world that she wasn’t ready to talk to them about. And my hunch is that her response to that transgender person taught her kids something she might not have intended to teach.
“What am I supposed to teach my kids?”
Maybe her look of disgust was because of the way she sees it talked about in the news or on social media, or maybe it’s because of how the temperature has been turned up on our national dialogue, but Gender Dysphoria is a real thing that people have, and it is still listed in the DSM VI as a mental health disorder. It’s also being trumpeted as a cause of moral progress and sometimes people with gender dysphoria get used by culture warriors as either a weapon or a shield.
And it’s easy to get caught up in the ideology and find yourself treating a person like a problem or an issue and less than an image bearer of God. But Christians don’t fight with people, we fight for people. As Paul says in Ephesians, “Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers.”
My wife and I are trying to disciple our five children in the way of Jesus, and they’ve got lots and lots of questions…and maybe yours do, too. It’s a confusing time to raise a family. Heck, it’s a confusing time for everyone.
Understanding Our Era
So, a couple of years ago I set off to find some answers. I read the British Christian intellectual Carl Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, where Truman talks about the philosophical underpinnings of how we got here as a society. How we arrived at believing that what I feel inside of me is the most important reality. How we got to a place where an acceptable societal definition of freedom is this: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
“My wife and I are trying to disciple our five children in the way of Jesus, and they’ve got lots and lots of questions.”
The book is a helpful roadmap of how Western society got to this moment. But the most helpful part to me was toward the end when Trueman, a Presbyterian, said to people like me that Christian leaders need to rediscover natural theology and engage with the work of people like Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
Theology of the Body? Is that a real thing? I’d been a pastor for 20 years and never even heard that phrase before!
But I was intrigued by the recommendation, and I’ve spent the past year reading and engaging with JPII’s work, and it is profound, helpful, and, I think, very timely.
It’s important to know that Theology of the Body is not a hit piece for a culture war. It was actually a weekly teaching JPII did for the Catholic Church during his first five years of being the head Bishop of Rome. And, even though it was in the 70’s, John Paul was not just responding to the Sexual Revolution. He was Polish, and he was also responding to the Holocaust.
Because both movements are built on the same basic philosophy: the belief that human bodies don’t really matter. The idea that human dignity is not inherent to everyone in the same way, and that your physical self, unless you are young, fit, and beautiful, is largely irrelevant.
“Both movements are built on the same basic philosophy: the belief that human bodies don’t really matter.”
So, what is a Theology of the Body? Glad you asked. Let’s dive in.
Genesis is unlike any other ancient Creation text. Unlike the other Mesopotamian stories of creation, this God creates the world deliberately and not out of need. He’s not trying to make slaves to do His work for Him. He doesn’t create with violence and war (ancient creation myths were called Theo-maches, or “War of the gods”) but out of generous love. And this God makes man in His image.
Being made in God’s image itself isn’t unusual. Other creation stories had a similar feature…kind of. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, explains: “In the ancient world it was rulers, emperors, and pharaohs who were held to be in the image of God. So what Genesis was saying was that we are all royalty.”
“So what Genesis was saying was that we are all royalty.”
The original audience of Genesis wasn’t 21st century modern Westerners or 19th century scientists. It was Israel. Picture Moses sitting down with the tribal leaders of Israel the night before the Tabernacle was consecrated and telling them this story. “Once the whole world was filled with God’s sacred presence, and God wants this whole world back! Lift up your head, Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. You are not slaves. You are full image-bearers of God.”
Immediately after God makes Adam, there is a bizarre scene of the presentation of the animals to see if there is “any suitable helper for him.” If this doesn’t strike you as weird, it’s only because you grew up hearing this story. God makes the first human, and then it’s like God is showing Adam an episode from the Discovery Channel. Why? What do we make of this?
God is letting Adam see that he is unique in all of God’s creation. While all of God’s creation deserves care, human beings are alone in their status of being like God and being truly free.
Theology of the Body: “God is letting Adam see that he is unique in all of God’s creation.”
This is really important. Adam is fundamentally different from the animals in that he has freedom. Adam is not determined by bodily instinct.
This is important because we live in a world where the secular sexual narrative is that male desire cannot be contained. You have to release it or it’s unhealthy. That’s Freud.
But in the words of the theologian Christopher West, “If you can’t say No, then what does your Yes really mean?”
So, Adam is learning his unique place in the world. He was given freedom because he was called to love, and without freedom, love is impossible. Adam realizes that love is his origin, his calling, and his destiny.
He is beginning to realize that, unlike the animals, he is invited to enter a covenant of love with God himself.
And then God puts Adam to sleep and makes them male and female. He splits the Adam.
God takes a rib (although the word is translated rib, it actually connotates something like a cornerstone for a sacred building) and makes Eve. And when Adam sees Eve for the first time, he breaks out into poetry. “She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Why? Because a man’s body doesn’t make sense by itself. A woman’s body doesn’t make sense by itself. They were made for each other.
Theology of the Body: “A man’s body doesn’t make sense by itself. A woman’s body doesn’t make sense by itself. They were made for each other.”
Genesis 1 ends by saying they were naked and felt no shame. Can you imagine? We live in a world of shame, everyone has some kind of insecurity about their body, but in the beginning, it was not like this.
Why God Gave Us Bodies
Christopher West has a helpful thought experiment here: Imagine you are taking a shower and you are by yourself. You don’t feel shame. However, if you are taking a shower and a stranger walks in, what would you do? Cover up. Why? Because you inherently know your body is good and it’s not meant to be used by others. If you flip this around, you can sense a slight echo of what Adam and Eve felt. They knew their bodies’ inherent goodness and they were able to offer them to each other as a gift.
And the word for that is communion. This may strike you as odd. But this is why the number one metaphor for God and His people in the Bible is marriage. From the Prophets to Paul to Jesus, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible says our bodies are not just biological—they are theological. They tell the story of God. Every belly button is a reminder that we were made in love, for love, and to love. Love is our origin and our destiny.
Theology of the Body: “The Bible says our bodies are not just biological—they are theological.”
The first time Adam and Eve saw each other, their bodies called out for communion with each other. Genesis tells us that the genders are not meant to be competitive; they are generative. Because when a man and woman come together, in the natural course of events, they create a third. Just like the inner life of God, who is both three distinct persons and yet One.
Christians have historically believed that God is a Trinity, and that the members of the Trinity are always giving, self-emptying, self-donating in an eternal relationship of love and generosity.
Now you can disagree with that, you can hate that, you can say that is regressive and repressive. You can be post-Christian, but at least you should know what it is you’re leaving. Christians don’t hate anyone, at least we’re not supposed to, not anyone with a body. Because that’s someone who images God, whether they believe in God or not. Whether they honor God or not, they are imaging God.
Theology of the Body: “The first time Adam and Eve saw each other, their bodies called out for communion with each other.”
Here’s how the apostle John said it:
“We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:19-21)
The body and only the body makes the invisible visible. It shows the world the image of God.
To quote the theologian Darth Vader, “Search your heart; you know this is true.”
You aren’t just meat. You aren’t just a machine. People aren’t just means to an end.
You are worth more than your world tells you. In fact, you are worth more than you know. Not for anything you have done. But because God saw fit to make us, and us alone, in His image.
This is why mass shootings bother us so much, no matter what we believe. It’s why secular atheists look at the Holocaust and say it’s pure evil. Even though they might not be able to articulate why. It’s why we know in our bones that sexual abuse is somehow worse than other forms of physical abuse, or that no matter who you are or what you believe, you probably have some concern about what porn is doing to us, our families, our kids, our own souls.
Theology of the Body: “You are worth more than your world tells you.”
Here’s how Pope John Paul says it:
“There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person but too little.”
The problem with the secular view of the body and sex is that it separates the soul from the body. Another word for that is death. The secular world says that bodies are insignificant. They literally signify nothing.
So, what about you? What do you think our bodies signify? Why are they important? Are we just the apex species, or do our bodies point to something?
So, that’s what I want to teach my kids. A comprehensive vision of the way of Jesus that has just as much to say about Jesus’ teaching of non-violence as it does about sexual restraint and a person’s sexual identity, because they are all rooted in the same belief of a human being’s sacred dignity.
Theology of the Body: “They are all rooted in the same belief of a human being’s sacred dignity.”
I believe that each human body, male or female, shows a glimpse into the nature of God. And I’m going to treat you accordingly. Because how can I say I love God who is invisible and yet hate my brother or sister whom I can see?
That’s how I hope to treat and see people, no matter what they do or do not believe, how they behave or how they look. Because God made us in His Image, and then became one of us too.
That’s a theology of the body.
And it is good.
For further reading on a theology of the body, I recommend the following resources:
- A Theology of the Body Explained by Christopher West
- The Genesis of Gender by Abigail Favale
- Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Truman