Today we’re going to start a two-part series talking about the soul. What exactly is the soul?
Studies show that about 80% of all Americans believe there is some part of a person that survives the death of the body. The popular idea is that a person is composed of two parts—a body, which will one day die, and a soul, which goes on living after the body dies.
This idea is not a uniquely Christian idea. Remember, 80% of Americans believe that some part of a person survives the death of the body, yet only a little over half of Americans claim to be Christians. So this idea that you have a soul that lives on after the death of the body is not necessarily tied to Christianity.
Some versions of Christianity talk about the soul a lot, but other versions of Christianity rarely if ever mention the soul. Mainline Christianity, for example, today seldom talks about the soul. There is a lot of disagreement within Christianity over the very idea of the soul. Christians do not agree on what the soul is, and some Christians don’t even believe there is any such thing as the soul.
One reason for this disagreement is that there is no explicit definition of soul given in the Bible. There is a Greek word used in the biblical manuscripts that, in some places, is translated into English as “soul” and seems to mean what we think of as the soul. But, sometimes that same word seems to refer to other things. Sometimes it’s translated as “life,” sometimes it’s translated as “people,” and sometimes it’s even used to refer to animals. It’s a Greek word which has a lot of different meanings.
There is no unique word in the Greek manuscripts of the Bible for what we think of as “soul.” But that’s not uncommon in ancient languages. Ancient languages are primitive compared to modern languages; they were not as advanced as modern languages. Ancient languages didn’t have nearly as many different words as our languages do today. In ancient languages, one word could mean several different things, depending on the context in which it was used. And so we are at a handicap to start with because of the Bible being written in an ancient language, because exact shades of meaning were often not possible to express. Ancient languages just didn’t have enough different words to do that.
That’s one reason the concept of the soul is the subject of so much disagreement in Christianity.
But there’s another reason. There’s yet another Greek word in the biblical manuscripts that also has multiple meanings. It’s a word that’s often translated either as “spirit” or “breath.” But, in addition to those uses, it’s also used on other contexts where it seems to refer to the same thing we think of as the soul. So here’s yet another word in the biblical manuscripts that, sometimes, means “soul,” but usually means something else. It most often means “spirit.”
It’s very confusing. What’s the difference between spirit and soul? Are they two different things, or in some contexts do they refer to the same thing? Why is one Greek word sometimes used for soul, but another word that usually means “spirit” is also sometimes used for soul? It’s so confusing that some Christians make a distinction between soul and spirit in these contexts and say a person is composed of three things—body, soul, and spirit. But most Christians, me included, take the position that soul and spirit, when used in this context, are just two different words for the same thing. I do not believe that soul and spirit, when used in these contexts, are two different things. I believe two different words were sometimes used to express the same concept. I base that on my own study of the Bible and the contexts in which these different Greek words are used.
As we saw earlier, the Bible never gives a clear definition of exactly what it means when it talks about the concept of the soul. But from looking at what the Bible says about the soul, we get some clues. One clue comes from a passage in the book of Ecclesiastes. There’s a phrase in there, talking about when someone dies, that says, “The spirit returns to God who gave it.” “The spirit returns to God who gave it.” This is one of the places where the Greek word we talked about earlier, that’s usually translated as “spirit” or “breath” is used, but it refers to the same thing we usually think of as the soul.
This verse says that upon the death of the body, the soul returns to God. This tells us a lot. It indicates that the life of the soul is independent of the life of the body, because when the body dies, the soul does not die; it returns to God who gave it. The soul does not die when the body dies. This passage indicates that the source of the soul is God. The soul comes from God.
The fact that this passage says the soul “returns” to God indicates that the soul was with God before it inhabited a body here on earth, that it had an existence with God before it was here in a body on earth; in other words, the soul existed before the human being was born.
That’s not the way most Christians think of it, though. Most Christians believe a person’s soul is “born,” so to speak, at the same time the person is born, that the soul comes into existence at the same time a person’s physical existence begins. That’s what most Christians believe, because that’s what, for the past 1400 years or so, organized Christianity has said. There was a time when that was not what organized Christianity said, but it has said that for the past 1400 years or so, and so that’s what people believe.
But whatever organized Christianity might say, and whatever some preacher might say, this passage from Ecclesiastes does indicate that the soul had an existence before the person was born into the world as a human being. There are other passages in the Bible that indicate something similar.
For our purposes today, the important thing we want to get from this verse from Ecclesiastes is that the soul has an existence independent of the body and continues to live after the body has died.
Keeping that in mind, let’s look at another passage, something Jesus said in Matthew and Luke: “Fear not those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
This also indicates that the soul can exist independently of the body. It talks about killing the body but not killing the soul, which necessarily means that the soul has an existence independent of the body, since killing the body does not necessarily kill the soul. In other words, the death of the body does not necessarily mean the death of the soul.
So, from the book of Ecclesiastes and from the words of Jesus in two of the Gospels, we have indications that a person does have a soul, something that is able to exist independently of the body and which survives the death of the body. There are many other places in the Bible that say the same thing; I just picked out those two as examples.
Now that we have a basis for saying there is such a thing as the soul, we need to consider what the soul is. So let’s stop and think. Your body is the physical part of you. The physical, material part of you is your flesh and blood, your body. But we’ve seen there’s another part to you—your soul—that’s able to exist independently of your flesh and blood body. Since it’s able to exist independently of your physical body, the soul is obviously not a physical, material thing. It does not have physical existence, flesh and blood existence. The soul is a non-physical thing, a spiritual thing. It does not exist in the physical world; it has a spiritual existence. The soul is a non-material thing, in other words.
Based on that, we can say that each person is composed of two parts: a physical part—the flesh and blood body—and a spiritual part, the soul. The soul is the spiritual part of a person, it exists independently of the body and does not depend on the body for its existence. The soul existed before the body existed, and the soul will continue to exist after the body dies.
Where exactly is your soul? It doesn’t have physical existence, so it doesn’t have a physical location. I guess you could say it’s “in your body” as long as you’re alive, but if your body died, it would no longer be there. According to the book of Ecclesiastes, it would go back to God.
What does the soul do? Why do we have a soul? What’s the point of it? To answer those questions, let’s think about life and about what life is.
If you ask a scientist what life is, you might get an answer like “a living thing is something that grows, renews and sustains itself, and then dies.” That’s pretty much the standard, generalized definition. Notice, though, something very important about that. The standard definition of life does not tell us what life is; it tells us what a living thing does. The definition of life tells us that a living thing starts small, grows, renews and sustains itself, and then dies. That’s how a scientist defines life—by what a living thing does. Science does not define life by telling us what life is.
That’s because science doesn’t know what life is. Science knows what a living being does—it grows, renews and sustains itself, and then dies—but science does know what life itself is. Science can tell us about the biological processes that happen during the life of a living organism, but science doesn’t understand what is behind the biological processes that happen during life. Science does not know what it is that makes some things alive and others not alive. They know that the things which are not alive, things like a rock or a piece of steel, don’t have the same biological processes going on inside them that things that are alive have, but they don’t understand what it is that makes some things have those biological processes and be alive and other things not have those biological processes and not be alive.
Why is a cat alive and a rock not alive? Because a cat has certain biological processes going on inside it, and a rock does not. But why does a cat have those biological processes going on and a rock does not? Science can’t answer that.
What causes one group of atoms and molecules to combine together to produce something that’s alive, like a cat, while another group of atoms and molecules combine together to form something not alive, like a rock? What’s the engine driving the biological processes we call life? Science doesn’t know the answer to that.
Science knows what life does, science knows at least some of the chemical and biological processes involved in life, but science does not know what life is, what causes it, what’s behind it.
Religion, though, does provide an answer. In most religions, the soul is seen as giving life. Think about it. What do we think happens when a person dies? The soul leaves the body. If you go to the funeral of someone who has died, and there’s a body lying there in a casket, the general idea is that the soul has departed the body. When the soul is in a person, that person is said to be alive, but when the soul is no longer inside a person, that person is said to be dead.
Keep that in mind while we go back and think of something we talked about earlier. We talked about how, in the Greek manuscripts of the Bible, we find a Greek word that is sometimes translated as “soul” in English. But we also talked about how that same word has a number of other, different meanings. One of those meanings is “life.”
Let’s look at an example: All four Gospels report Jesus saying, “For whoever would save his life will lose it.” The word in there translated as “life” is that Greek word that’s sometimes translated as soul, sometimes as life, sometimes as other things. So this passage could read, “For whoever would save his ‘soul’ will lose it.” In this one Greek word, in this context, there’s an interchangeability of meaning. You could say, “For whoever will save his soul will lose it,” or you could say “Whoever will save his life will lose it.” “Soul” and “life” are so intimately connected that they could be used interchangeably in this passage.
That’s why we can say that the soul is what gives a physical body life. The soul is what makes a physical body alive. The soul gives life, and when there is no soul, the body is dead, no longer alive.
Now we can finally define what a soul is. The soul is the spiritual part of you that makes your body alive; the soul is what gives life to your body, which would otherwise be as dead as a rock. The soul is what brings the energy of life.
But there’s more to the soul than that. The soul is who you are; it is what makes you the individual you are. The soul is what gives you the unique characteristics that make you different from anybody else. The soul is what makes you a unique individual, the unique combination of personality, outlook, beliefs, thought processes, everything that makes you uniquely you.
But there’s even more. The soul is your consciousness. Consciousness is awareness, your awareness that you exist and that things are going on around you.
Basically, the soul is what you would call your “self,” the individual you are, your conscious awareness. In a word, the soul is you, you as an individual.
That leads to a very important, basic belief of Christianity. Christianity promises us eternal life. Christianity says that in eternity, we will still be who we are. We will still be individuals. In eternity, you will still be the same individual, the same person, you are now. Of course, you will be perfected, but your individuality, your uniqueness as a person, your awareness that you are you will still be there. Your soul won’t just merge with “the universal consciousness of the cosmos,” or something like that. You will still be “you” in eternity.
I will still be me in eternity. You will still be you in eternity. We will be perfected, but we will still be the same individuals we are. We will carry our individuality and our uniqueness with us into eternity. Eternal life is for each one of us as a unique individual; we will still be “who we are” in eternity.
So what is the soul? The soul is the spiritual part of you that makes you alive. It is who you are. It is what makes you a unique individual. It is your individuality. It is what makes you conscious—aware that you exist, aware of who you are, aware of what is going on around you. It is your consciousness. The soul is, in a word, you. It is the essence of you.
In next week’s podcast, we’ll look further at the idea of the soul, and as we do so, we’ll look at the nature of reality itself, an intersection of religion and science.