Do we have a soul?

So I recently attended and presented at a conference on the soul and body at Oxford. It seems, however, that the theme actually shifted to talking about identity generally, which was identified as the soul, rather than the soul as a separate thing.

A reason for this shift was a general skepticism surrounding the idea of a platonic soul. If you are unaware of that term, it is the conception of the soul most frequently portrayed in popular media. A sort of “ghosty” type of thing that is identifiable as us, and yet has no material form. While some medieval theologians might have taken exception to the fact that it is sometimes portrayed as visible, the idea still seems to accurately reflect this idea of the soul. According to that view, then, people are essentially embodied souls. In other words, the you that is you (i.e. your soul) is simply occupying and manipulating your body, which is not you.

The problem is, this is not the biblical view of the soul. It is clearly platonic (whether we have Augustine or Rene Descartes or someone/something else to thank for its pervasiveness is another issue). The Hebrew Bible always and only refers to people as entire units. There is nothing separate from the body. When someone loses an arm, their body doesn’t lose an arm the person does. There isn’t a separate soul. Alister McGrath noted that if you take every instance of the word soul in the Old Testament and replace it with life, the verses would read just the same, and sometimes more clearly than by retaining the word soul. I feel comfortable sharing this bit of his talk, of course, because it is a fairly uncontroversial (and not generally disputed claim); I doubt he’d object.

The New Testament doesn’t seem to help very much either with the idea of a Platonic soul. In fact, the New Testament is adamant that the thing which is raised and transformed into an eternal thing is the entire body, not jut a separate soul. That’s why Jesus’ bodily resurrection is important. That’s what Paul is going on and on about in 1 Corinthians 15. There isn’t a separate soul independent of our bodies. Instead our identity (or soul) is a way of talking about ourselves, and in particular our minds, even if it “emerges” in some way. This is a very subtle shift in thinking that I think might be very important.

While I certainly believe that God can and will transform our bodies into something new and eternal when Christ returns, this has the potential to transform our thinking about the physical world. If we are platonists about the soul, then we devalue the physical body. This leads to all sorts of problems. The body then becomes something of a prison to escape, something that is constantly our adversary, not who we are. This can lead to self-loathing, self-abuse, willingness to take abuse and unhealthy attitudes about sex (for instance, the idea that, even when married, sex should not really be a source of pleasure ever). It also leads to a devaluing of other aspects of creation. But if, instead, we believe that our bodies are the source of our identity/soul rather than something our soul inhabits, then we begin to value it. We feel we must take care of it and, within appropriate ways we can celebrate aspects of it: athletic ability, a good steak (in moderation), a slowly sipped cup of coffee. We can appreciate our physical stuff, because that’s the thing that we are, and that’s what Jesus is redeeming and beginning to transform. It also means we value other people’s bodies. They are not tools to be used for personal gain, objects to be oggled, but when you see someone else’s physical form you are looking at another person. That is important and is something we’ve lost. If we begin to recapture it, it means that our bodies, our blood and sweat and tears, our aches and pains and joys, the tickling that my kids love, the feeling of a warm mug in cold hands, all of this matters in a way we can’t even fathom yet.

But what do you think? Should we instead hang on to the platonic notion of the soul? Does it have more biblical grounding than I’m giving it credit? Does this idea have some other pitfalls?

  8 comments for “Do we have a soul?

  1. September 25, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    I think the idea that there is no “soul” as a separate thing is an essential truth and one that most Christians have lost. You are perfectly correct in that it is only when we see ourselves as “inhabiting” bodies that we can see the body as essentially dirty and unworthy–our own or other people’s.

    It is true that we are more than just a lump of stuff, there is an inner life of thoughts and emotions, so we do need some way to talk about that, and also about the fact that we are the sum total of both: hence we have body, spirit, and soul. In effect two bits and the whole.

  2. Beth
    September 26, 2012 at 12:08 am

    As humans, parts of us are physical and connected to the earth (the way that our bodies were created by God in Genesis) but we also have a spiritual essence that is unearthly (the breath of God to give us life and the image of God we were made in). I think the idea that my soul or spiritual self is distinct from my physical self helps me to understand how man is but a breath (Psalm 39:5) but has eternity in his heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

    The beauty of human life and why it should be cherished is that human life is a combination of the physical and spiritual in a way that exists in none of God’s other creations (angels are purely spiritual while cats are purely physical). Can God’s other creations truly appreciate things like loyalty, justice and love in the way that humans do? The intersection of the spiritual and physical in us causes us to feel the weight of sin and the joy of forgiveness. I don’t think that the idea that our soul is a distinct, non-physical part of us diminishes that beauty. In life, the physical self and the soul cannot exist separately, that is what life is, at least that is what human life is.

    If my soul cannot be separated from my physical self, then what happens to me after I die but before the resurrection? Does my spiritual self just sit there dormant in my dead and still decaying body?

    If I live long enough to have dementia, my brain may deteriorate to the point where I no longer have the ability to mentally believe in Christ. Does this mean that I’ve lost my faith and my salvation? If my soul is a part of me that is distinct from my body and mind, then my salvation is assured because my soul will have faith despite my mind betraying my faith.

  3. Anonymous
    September 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I appreciate your thoughts Trey. I do wonder how we should talk about the human spirit/soul in light of the Holy Spirit of God. If God is Spirit, and we are made in the image of God, aren’t we, as CS Lewis says, spirits with bodies? What does Paul mean when he says, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord?

    I do agree with you bringing a more wholistic view of the person–body and spirit.

    • September 26, 2012 at 2:56 pm

      From my reading of Lewis, I do not believe that he is saying that we are are spirits who just happen to have acquired bodies, but that we are embodied spirits (or spirited bodies). That is to say I am the fusion of the two, and either without the other is not truly “me”.

      That does not mean that there may be times when it appears as if one or the other is absent. If I am in a coma it would appear as if my spirit/soul has in some sense left my body, and there are times when I may feel as though my spirit is somewhere other than my body (in a vision, for instance).

      As for your comment from Paul, please look at it in context:

      “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
      So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”

      Notice that the body he is talking about being absent from is this present, earthly, body, but that when we leave it to appear before God we will have the new body He has prepared–i.e. we will still be body-and-spirit. This is just the second part of our salvation, just as once we were a fallen spirit in a fallen body, now we are a new spirit in a fallen body, then we will be a new spirit in a new body.

  4. October 16, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Some thoughts on away from the body, I do not think it shows a seperate soully bit. You might appreciate some of the other articles on the site which reflect on these issues eg

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