Reflections and Blog

The Danger of Dualism

As I think more this week about the sermon and Ecclesiastes 5:13-20, I’m reminded of how we Christians must guard against a certain kind of material-spiritual philosophical dualism.

One idea popular in the ancient Greco-Roman world was that the material world was inherently inferior or evil and that spiritual world was inherently superior or good. This thinking often led people either to indulge themselves freely in physical pleasures (after all, the body is hopelessly corrupt and only the spirit really matters) or, conversely, to subdue themselves in rigid asceticism (the evil body must be denied all physical pleasures so that the good spirit can be set free). Such dualistic thinking found its way into the early church, too, and moved some to excuse immorality (1 Cor 6:12-14), to command abstinence from marriage and foods (1 Tim 4:3), and to deny that the Son of God actually had a physical body (1 John 4:2-3). The medieval church also tended to carry an anti-material worldview, believing that true spirituality consisted of denying oneself physical pleasures (taking monkish vows of poverty, celibacy, and the like) to follow a life of isolated prayer and contemplation. Even today, Christians often regard material things with a mixture of suspicion and guilt.

Now, to be sure, the Bible does warn us not to be devoted to material things in idolatry (Eccl 2:1-11; Mt 6:24; 1 Timothy 6:10) and warns that two marks of a false teacher—even the prosperity preachers we see today—are greediness for immorality and material gain (2 Pet 2:3, 14-15; Jude 1:4, 11). The Bible also commands and commends a life of self-control (Gal 5:23; 2 Tim 1:7; Prov 25:28; Mt 18:8-9). Nevertheless, the Bible does not regard material things as inferior or evil at all but as good, even a means by which we know and enjoy the God who is Spirit! Consider that God declared his entire physical creation in the beginning to be “very good” (Gen 1:31), calls upon his people even now to enjoy with thankfulness the good gifts of God’s physical world (Eccl 5:18-20; 1 Tim 4:3-5; 6:17), and promises to bring his people at the end of history not into a wholly spiritual world but into a recreated material world with recreated material bodies and new material delights to enjoy (Rom 6:5; 1 Cor 15:20; Lk 24:36-43; Mt 26:29; Isa 65:17; Rev 21:1; 22:2).

Really, there is a false dichotomy in pitting the material against the spiritual. Those who misuse the material and worship the gift over the Giver commit evil in their spirit and will receive condemnation (Rom 1:21, 25), but those who reverently use the material and worship the Giver through his material gifts both please and glorify God (1 Cor 6:20; 10:31).

Ecclesiastes 5:18, Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward.

Questions to Consider:
1. Ultimately, are believers in Christ heaven-bound or earth-bound?
2. Where are you taking time to reverently and thankfully enjoy the good gifts of God’s material world?
3. Where has your enjoyment of God’s creation become idolatrous, and what do you need to change so you can “flee idolatry” (1 Cor 10:14)?