To be “conscious” is to be “aware.” The general term for a person’s thoughts, emotions, sensations, and general awareness is human consciousness. Scripture does not explicitly define what human consciousness is, though the Bible provides perspectives on it. A biblical view of human consciousness might be summarized as “the soul’s awareness of itself and its surroundings.”
However, defining human consciousness is notoriously difficult. Exploring consciousness means probing the deepest questions about what it means to be human. Such discussion typically involves a long list of mysteries and dilemmas. Some concepts are unresolved; others present competing or apparently contradictory truths. The Bible gives us practical ways to understand some such issues. On other details Scripture is silent, and we’re left to untangle questions on our own.
Biblical terms related to this subject should be carefully understood, especially according to their immediate context. Ancient terminology did not distinguish between the “mind” and the “heart” to the same extent seen in modern languages. That’s not to say emotions and intellect were never distinguished. Rather, it means words translated as “heart” in Scripture are not necessarily references to “pure feeling.” In some cases, what the Bible refers to as “the heart,” a modern writer might well label as “the mind.”
Where it touches on human consciousness, Scripture describes it as follows:
• Human consciousness is part of being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 139:14). Human beings are composed of distinct-yet-unified members, such as the body, soul, and spirit. There is an intimate and unavoidable connection between those members, yet they are not identical. This is similar to the relationship among the members of the Trinity, and it contrasts both with entirely physical animals and entirely spiritual angels. Another aspect of this “image-bearing” is that man is capable of self-awareness and objective thinking.
• Human consciousness is influenced—not initiated—by the body (Romans 7:23; Ephesians 5:18; 1 Corinthians 6:12). Physical factors influence awareness and thinking. However, the consciousness is not the same thing as the material body. Nor is it an uncontrolled, mindless effect of material processes. Myriad questions about this relationship are often referred to as “the mind-body problem.”
• Human consciousness is distinct from the “self” (Colossians 3:2; 1 Peter 1:13; Romans 12:2). Our conscious thoughts are something “other” than our own selves; we are aware of this distinction. Human beings can deliberately influence their own thoughts and perspectives. We retain some level of control over such things, or, at least, we can deliberately seek to change them.
• Human consciousness is perceived only by the individual and God (1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Corinthians 2:11; John 7:24). An enormous barrier to scientific study of consciousness is that it cannot be directly measured or observed. It can only be subjectively reported by the consciousness itself. Likewise, no human being can ever know with absolute certainty what another person is feeling or thinking. This is a fundamental reason to be cautious when attempting to judge others (Romans 14:4; John 7:24).
• Human consciousness is not the same as the “conscience” (1 Timothy 4:2; 1 Samuel 25:31). The conscience is one narrow part of consciousness. The conscience is a God-given emotional reaction to conflict between our values and our thoughts and actions.
• Human consciousness is an integrated part of the whole (Matthew 22:37; Hebrews 4:12; Psalm 103:1). While Scripture implicitly distinguishes between mind, body, soul, spirit, intellect, heart, and so forth, all these are meant to be entirely focused on the will of God. So far as our daily lives are concerned, fine-tuned distinctions between these are irrelevant. All that we are, and that which we can control, should be submitted to God to the best of our ability.
The relationship between soul, spirit, mind, and body includes human consciousness and is indescribably complex. The existence of consciousness—at least, our own individual consciousness—is impossible to deny. When philosopher René Descartes attempted to create an absolute starting point for all human knowledge, he began with the self-evidence of his own human consciousness: “I think, therefore I am.” The Bible may not give details on the nature of consciousness, but it accurately reflects ideas that our experience confirms.