We have spent two weeks talking about the soul, and this will be our final week on this topic as part of this series
We’ve seen that the soul is what makes you you. It’s what gives you your individuality, your uniqueness. The soul is, in a word, you. It’s what makes you conscious—aware that you exist and aware of your surroundings, aware of what’s going on around you. It’s your “self.”
We’ve seen that the soul is separate from our body; it’s not a part of our body. Last week, we even considered the idea that the soul is what makes our body. The soul is not a physical thing; it’s a spiritual thing, a heavenly thing. It transcends the physical. It is heavenly.
Now, there’s no getting around that Christianity is about the spiritual, the heavenly. Christianity is not about earthly things; it’s about heavenly things. I think I’ve used the image in here before that in our lives here on earth, we have one foot in the physical and one foot in the heavenly. We live as human beings here on earth, but that’s not all we are, and that’s not what we really are. The Bible tells us our true home is in heaven. The Bible tells us we are not just physical beings here on earth; we are children of God. After all, the Bible says that God is our Father.
So where we really belong is not here on earth; it’s in heaven. The Bible tells us that. The Bible tells us that our true home is in heaven, that we are just passing through here on a journey to our true home in heaven. That’s why the Bible tells us not to get too caught up in the things this of this world, tells us not to love the world, tells us not to strive for the things of the world, tells us not to be like the world.
Jesus Himself referred to His followers as “not of this world.” Now obviously, we are, at this time, in the world, but we are not of the world. We’re here, but we’re strangers here, strangers in a foreign land. We belong somewhere else. That’s because we are really spiritual beings. The soul is who we really are, and since the soul is spiritual, that means we are spiritual. We are heavenly beings just here on earth for a short time. That’s what the Bible teaches.
In the modern world, though, it’s not very popular to think of it like that. The modern world thinks of things in terms of science, and science says there is no spiritual; there is nothing but the physical. Science tells us we are nothing more than a group of atoms and molecules that came together by chance, and that when we are dead, nothing about us will remain. According to science, you’re born, you live, you die, and that’s that. There is no point to anything, no reason for it all, no meaning to it all. The whole universe is just the result of meaningless chance combinations of atoms and molecules. And that includes us.
But Christianity tells us we are not just a chance collection of atoms and molecules. Christianity tells us that what we see around us is not all there is. Christianity tells us that what we see is only the surface of another, much greater reality. In fact, Christianity tells us that what we see in the physical realm is not true reality at all—true reality is found in the heavenly realm, with God.
The soul is the heavenly part of us. It’s the “true reality” part of us. It’s the part of us that exists independently of our body, independently of the world and the physical universe. The soul is not of the physical universe.
And now, as the final thing to consider about the soul, let’s look at some interesting things Jesus said in the Gospels, things that many times, we don’t stop and consider.
The first one is from John chapter 9. Jesus and the disciples are walking around, and they come across a man who was born blind. The disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.” Then Jesus healed the man so that he could see.
This is a familiar passage, yet there’s something in there that’s easy to skip over. The disciples asked Jesus if this man had sinned to cause himself to be born blind. Think about that. How could he have sinned to cause himself to be born blind? That would mean he would have had to sin before he was born. So did he sin in his mother’s womb? There’s no hint anywhere else in the Bible that people sin in their mothers’ wombs. That’s simply not a concept found in the Bible. Everywhere we find sin in the Bible, we find it in the context of someone born. And notice that in His reply, Jesus didn’t turn to them and say, “Are you crazy? How could someone sin before they were born?”
Keep that in mind as we look at something else from the Gospels. Matthew chapter 16 says this, “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'”
By the time this passage happened, John the Baptist was dead. He had been beheaded. And of course Elijah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets were long dead. So what were the disciples saying?
There is nothing in the Gospels to indicate Jesus went around saying, “I’m John the Baptist; I’m Elijah; I’m Jeremiah.” We have no hint that Jesus ever identified himself as one of those people, so why would people think He was one of them?
Now let’s consider something else. This is a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon. The Wisdom of Solomon is a book found in the Apocrypha. That’s a section of scripture between the Old and New Testaments, and it’s considered a part of the Bible by all Christians except some Protestants. There is a sentence in there where Solomon says, “As a child I was by nature well endowed, a good soul fell to my lot; or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body.” “Being good, I entered an undefiled body.” What does that mean?
Let’s look at another passage, this one from the book of Second Enoch. The book of Second Enoch is recognized as scripture by a few Jewish and Christian groups. “All the souls of men, whatever of them are not yet born, and their places, were prepared for eternity. For all the souls are prepared for eternity, before the composition of the earth.”
There was in fact the belief, in some forms of Judaism existing before, during, and after the time of Jesus, that at some point before the creation of the world, God created the soul of every person who would ever exist. This belief is found not only in the passage from the Wisdom of Solomon and Second Enoch but also in the Jewish Talmud.
The Talmud is one of the central religious texts of Judaism. It’s not seen as scripture, but it is important. The Talmud consists of teachings covering a period of about 700 years, from roughly the time of Jesus up to about 1300 years ago.
Parts of the Talmud teach that before the creation of the world, God created the soul of every person who would ever exist. These souls exist in the spiritual realm, and as human beings are born on earth, souls gradually get implanted into human beings.
The idea was that God created these souls to be united with Him, but they need to have a human body and a human life to be able to have real union with God and truly be with God. Only through a process of development in a human lifetime could they achieve union with God.
Now let’s move from ancient Judaism to ancient Christianity. There was an early Christian leader named Origen who lived in the early 200’s. He was an important figure in early Christianity, and some of his writings have survived. Origen believed that before God created the world, He created a number of spiritual beings Origen called “logika.” These logika were created close to God, and God intended them to remain close to Him, but they grew tired of that and tried to stake out on their own. They wandered farther and farther away from God. They needed a way back to God. To bring them back, God created the universe and the earth, and gave these logika a human body. These logika are what we call “souls.” God gives souls a human life so they can develop and begin the process of drawing back to Him. The process of reunion with God, though, is not completed as a human being. After the death of the human body, the soul enters a spiritual state where it can develop more. If the soul doesn’t develop enough in that state to have union with God, it is sent back to be a human being again, and the process begins all over. Eventually, even though it might take a number of tries, every soul develops enough to be reunited with God. According to Origen, all souls are eventually reunited with God.
Here is the belief that a person’s existence does not begin with their human existence, but that every person’s essence, every person’s soul, was created by God before God ever made the physical world. Origen believed that each one of us was originally created as a spiritual being and had an existence as a spiritual being. That’s our soul. And then, as human beings are born on earth, the souls get implanted into human bodies to have a human life.
You might have noticed that this idea contains a belief in reincarnation. Remember, the idea is that God created a bunch of souls, but they drifted away from God. God’s plan of salvation is that a soul gets a life as a human being in a human body, then when the body dies, the soul moves to a spiritual state. During both of these phases, hopefully, the soul progresses to union with God. If not, then after the spiritual phase, the soul is again born into a human body, and the process starts over. The process keeps going on, i.e., the soul keeps getting reincarnated, until it does achieve union with God.
Another early Christian writing has survived, this one from a man named Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote about 350 years after the time of Jesus, was an early Christian leader who is considered a saint in virtually all forms of Christianity who venerate saints. He wrote this, “Christians are all confused about the preexistence. Some say we lived in families there, and in tribes just as we do here, and that we lost our wings when we came down here and will get them back again upon earth.” Here again is the belief that we had an existence somewhere else before we became human beings on earth.
A prayer has survived from a man named Synesius, an early Christian leader who lived only a few years later than Gregory of Nyssa: “Father, grant that my soul may merge into the light, and be no more thrust back into the illusion of earth.” This is an idea similar to Origen’s—a person’s soul is reincarnated again and again until it reaches a certain state of development and no longer has to be reincarnated.
Synesius also wrote this, “It is possible by labor and time, and a transition into other lives for the imaginative soul to emerge from this dark abode.” Again, here is the belief that you are reincarnated over and over again until you reach the goal, at which point you don’t have to be reincarnated again.
So, there were people in ancient Christianity who believed that, at some point in the past, God created the souls of every person who would ever live. These souls are given human lives in human bodies as part of a process of development. Any one soul might inhabit one human body after another until it reaches the goal of development.
Now let’s go back to some of the things we saw in the Gospels. Think about the passage where the disciples asked Jesus if a blind man had been born that way because he sinned. Now we can understand why they asked that. They believed the man had a past life of some sort. In other words, when he was born as that particular human being, it was not the beginning of his existence. He had had a previous existence.
Think about the passage where the disciples told Jesus people thought He might be one of the dead prophets. They obviously believed it was possible for a dead person to reincarnate as someone else.
So, the idea of preexistence; that is, that you existed in some form before you were born into this present human life, and the idea of reincarnation, were present in some forms of ancient Christianity. In fact, we see traces of them in scripture itself.
But obviously, Christianity today doesn’t believe in reincarnation, or at least, no major Christian denomination officially does. So what happened?
Well, in the early 300’s, the Roman Emperor Constantine decided he could use Christianity to unify the Roman Empire. But Christianity itself wasn’t unified. There was not one set of Christian beliefs; there were many different Christian beliefs. Constantine recognized that if he wanted to use Christianity to unify the Roman Empire, Christianity would have to have a set of standard, official beliefs.
And so he established The Church, Christianity as an official arm of the Roman government, and charged the officials of his church with deciding on one, official set of Christian beliefs. Over the years, Constantine’s church officials did decide on an official set of Christian beliefs, and that’s the set of beliefs we inherited as Christianity, the set of beliefs on which both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity are based.
What they decided went in the direction of sin and forgiveness. They decided Christianity was about getting your sins forgiven. They rejected all other interpretations of Christianity.
Remember, the interpretation of Christianity we saw from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Synesius was more about souls returning to God. “Salvation” meant souls progressing and returning to unity with God. But in The Church’s official interpretation of Christianity, “salvation” was about getting your sins forgiven. Those two were incompatible, and in about the year 550, The Church declared that anyone who held beliefs like Origen and Synesius were “anathema,” which means anyone who held those beliefs would be formally cursed by The Church and, basically, would go to hell. That was a lot of incentive not to buck The Church.
And so, over the years, those earlier beliefs gradually disappeared from Christianity, and it became the official Christian belief that nothing about you existed until you were born a human being, and that you are born a human being only once.
Exactly how widespread the beliefs in preexistence and reincarnation were in ancient Christianity is something we will never know, but we do know they existed to such an extent that The Church felt it necessary to formally denounce them.
Some vestiges of those beliefs remained in Christianity. The idea expressed by Origen that after a soul’s earthly life it went on to a further period of development in the spiritual realm eventually resurfaced in the late 11th century as the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. And, the idea of the goal of successive reincarnations being the reunion of the soul with God exists in modified form today in Orthodox Christianity, where “salvation” is defined as “union with God.” The Orthodox do not see this as being achieved through reincarnation, though, but Orthodox Christianity does retain an idea associated with it—the possibility of further spiritual development after the death of the human body.
So, although ancient Christian ideas of preexistence and reincarnation were eventually rejected by institutional Christianity, some fragments of them remain today. And, interestingly, studies show that about one fourth of American Christians believe in reincarnation.
I’m not necessarily saying I believe in reincarnation, and I’m certainly not trying to get you to believe it. But one of the things I want you to get from listening to this podcast is exposure to the full range of Christianity, not just one corner of it. I don’t want you to just be exposed to one little set of beliefs, one person’s ideas, one person’s take on it. That, in my mind, is one of the biggest problems in Christianity today. People are just getting exposed to one little corner of Christian beliefs, and they think that’s all there is.
I want to remind you of a verse from Second Corinthians. It says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” We don’t know all the answers. In this life, we never will have all the answers. We don’t see the complete picture here on earth. We won’t see the complete picture until we get to heaven. That’s why we walk by faith, not by sight. This side of heaven, we’ll never have the complete picture. But one thing I do believe, and something that I am absolutely convinced of is that when we do get to heaven, and when we do see the complete picture, we’ll see that things are not as bad as we thought they were. We’ll see that God really had defeated evil. We’ll see that the good really did win. And we’ll see that the good not only won for us, it won for all people, in ways we could not even imagine.