I woke up one morning in the middle of May with a weird headache. Whenever I bent down or stood up, coughed or sneezed, I’d be seized with a sudden pain between the eyes. A couple of sneezes and it would hang on as a dull ache for the rest of the day. I quickly began dreading that familiar tickle that means a sneeze is coming on.
Google led me to the Mayo Clinic, which told me that what I have is known as a cough headache. Seriously. Not something exotic like Mannheim-Schlossen-Frankeweiz Syndrome, but cough headache. Big duh.
Since you’ve probably never heard of cough headaches, I can tell you that medical science recognizes two varieties. The first is caused by something truly terrifying growing inside of your brain (10%); the second is caused by… well, no one actually knows, but it won’t kill you (90%). The only way to rule out the fatal brain-rot type is with an MRI.
So I had an MRI at my local MRIs R Us and they confirmed two things: 1) I do have a brain; and 2) it is a very nice and healthy brain that shows no signs of alien infestation.
Good news. And, more good news, I have noticed that after 10 weeks of this thing, my headaches are gradually going away.
All told, I spent about $800 to find out that my headaches were idiopathic in nature, a fancy word that doctors use instead of shrugging their shoulders.
Eight hundred dollars can buy a lot of Milky Way bars. But to make you feel better about it, the MRI people give you this cool CD full of amazing images of your brain!
I’ve started carrying mine with me to parties and church potlucks. All I have to do is shout, “Hey, who wants to see my MRI?” and I’m suddenly the center of attention. Girls go ga-ga over medical imagery. If only I had known this in high school.
An MRI can unveil the hidden structures of the human body. It creates a sort of engineering blueprint, if you will. But it doesn’t show the whole picture. It fails to show the fine cellular structures that are the engines of life. It doesn’t reveal anything about the biochemical processes that energize our organs, the enzymes and proteins and hormones.
It doesn’t offer insights into the mind: memories, desires, beliefs, hopes and fears are all invisible to an MRI scan. And most importantly, it fails to tell us anything about that non-cellular core of human life, the soul.
In Christian theology, the soul existed before our bodies, and will continue to exist when our bodies die. Its true home is not this physical body but a timeless place where our Creator God lives.
Naturally, the existence of the soul is controversial, just like the existence of God is. Our entire life is lived in a concrete, material, time-and-space-bound box. We have no way of exploring or understanding some kind of non-material world, or non-material entities like the soul, with the tools at hand.
But we know that there is more to our every day experience in life than can be properly understood or described by purely mechanistic means.
For instance, I could describe Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, the New World Symphony, mechanically and materially, as a specific series of frequencies with certain tonal qualities, each lasting for particular lengths of time, each combining with others to create a complex soup of sound. But that kind of material description, while accurate, would fail to describe anything of the beauty of the piece, the pleasant emotions it evokes in an audience, or the musical themes that Dvorak was attempting to convey through his music. Music is a material phenomenon, but we understand and connect with music more through the non-material world of emotion than through our ears.
In the same way, an MRI conveys a certain truth about who we are, but not the whole truth. Its images are beautiful in their own way, and frankly remarkable. They are impressively concrete, and they tend to reinforce the prevailing ideas of our time, that we are a collection of material systems and biochemical processes, but nothing more.
Because an MRI fails to reveal the human soul, it is tempting to wonder if such a thing even exists. Is there some part of us that “lives” independently of our bodies, and continues to exist after we die?
When the Lord first called Jeremiah to be his prophet, he did so by reminding the young man that his life had been planned out even before he was born:
I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as My prophet to the nations. — Jeremiah 1:5, NLT
What does that Hebrew verb “knew” really tell us about the hidden realities of God’s Kingdom? Is the Lord merely speaking of an idea of Jeremiah, a hope or dream of Jeremiah? Or was God referring to something more, a spirit created by himself and breathed into the human life that became the man, Jeremiah?
Something is hinted at here, but left in mystery.
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus speaks of our souls going on to a place of judgment after we have died. (Luke 16:19-31)
Jesus also speaks of the soul as distinct from the body in Matthew 10:
Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. — Matthew 10:28, NLT
But the primary evidence for the human soul is in the central doctrine of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave. He died and came back to life, but was changed.(Luke 24:13-35) Jesus was somehow different enough in appearance that his disciples had difficulty recognizing him, until they heard his words and saw his actions.(John 20:24-29) During this time, he came and went suddenly as though unrestrained by space-time.(Luke 24:36) And after forty days, he left for good, rising into the clouds while they watched.(Acts 1:1-11)
We experience a great many things in this material world that seem greater than the material phenomena they arise from. We experience beauty and have an emotional response to its various forms, but are hard-pressed to define it, much less capture and process it by means of some experimental apparatus. We experience passions and emotions that arise from our physical minds and bodies, and yet these seem to us more than just activities of the mind, as if they are rooted in something timeless, something transcendent.
We experience longings, hopes, dreams and desires. We experience wonder and awe.
All of these things could, of course, have a purely bio-mechanical origin in the synapses of our brains. But down through human history, there has been a consistent, nagging suggestion inside of us of God, of eternity, of some sort of eternal fellowship between Creator and created, of some overriding design to the universe that implies a purpose, and a creative Artist who labors before an unfinished canvas.
The MRI machine did not manage to find my soul. But ever since I was old enough to hear, I believe Someone has been whispering to me, nudging me, leading me to the unshakable conclusion that there is more to life than this material body can ever know.