The Significance of the Soul
When two very different movie previews aired back to back with a common theme between them, it launched Shepherd Project into a discussion of the soul. Does the soul actually exist? What isthe soul? When does it come into existence? (We wrote an article discussing the main theological views on these questions here.) But you might be wondering why it matters. It’s actually a critical discussion and it affects the way we view a variety of topics, whether you realize it or not.
In my local town of Castle Rock there has been a heated debate over prairie dogs. A land development company is putting a shopping mall on top of a prairie dog town, which means the critters will either have to be re-located or re-moved (which is polite talk for “exterminated”). Responses have been varied. Of course, there are those who don’t care all that much—they are, after all, rodents and as such they aren’t really in much danger of disappearing permanently. Others are passionate about saving them. One woman took a hundred of the prairie dogs into her garage in a suburban neighborhood to protect them. Others have been picketing (some in tears) and trying to stop the development, holding up signs that call it a “holocaust” and claim that the company “murders” and “puts profit before lives.”
What does this have to do with the soul? A lot, actually. Really, there are two major spiritual principles involved in this discussion. The first is the soul. Do prairie dogs have souls? If so then their deaths really are something on a level with the holocaust and we really are obligated to do everything we can to save their lives. If not, then maybe “murder” and “holocaust” are overly strong terms and their deaths, while not necessarily something to be celebrated, aren’t something we have to give our own lives to prevent. At this point in the discussion, the other spiritual principle kicks into play—stewardship. The question becomes one of our responsibility (as given by God) to steward and care for the earth (and especially for those who are unable to care for themselves).
The purpose of this article isn’t necessarily to tell you how to respond to the Castle Rock prairie dog debate or others like it, but rather to awaken you to the understanding of why the question of the soul is so important. Before we can think well about a thing, we need to be aware of the deeper underlying questions that need to be answered in the first place. Once we see the real issues, then we can begin our quest to understand how to think Biblically about them. We can search scriptures for answers, pray for understanding, seek out the opinions of others who are more learned than we are…but why would we do that if we aren’t aware of the questions? If the prairie dog question is simply a matter of “normal” people vs. “tree huggers,” or “people who care about innocent lives” vs. “monsters” (depending on your perspective) then we are missing the point.
If, however, we recognize the deeper issues, we can give greater respect and deference to those who disagree and use these cultural disputes as opportunities to enter into more meaningful discussions with others, whether they are like-minded or not. For example, the prairie dog discussion can transition from a black and white polarizing discussion about whether or not big business or rodents matter more into one where we ask questions like, “Why are you so passionate about saving a few prairie dogs?” and “Do you think prairie dogs have souls?” or “Do you think the life of a prairie dog is as valuable as a human life?… Why or why not?” Suddenly you’re in a discussion where you are learning about someone instead of trying to prove a point, while you are simultaneously opening doors for discussions with them about how man was made in the image of God…
The prairie dogs are just one example, one application of the soul question. We wanted to provide you with a list (a fairly extensive one, though certainly not exhaustive) of areas where faith and culture intersect around this issue of the soul. We hope this will do a few things for you. First, we hope it will encourage you to think more carefully about what you believe about the soul. We hope it will raise your awareness of the need to be able to think theologically and clearly, to be able “give an answer to anyone who asks you” about “What is the soul?” and/or “Where does the soul come from? / When does it come into existence?” Secondly, we hope it will help you to both recognize and take advantage of these places where the culture naturally gives us a segue into the discussion. Our culture is full of hypotheticals and real moral dilemmas, both in actual life and in fantasy (via movies, etc.)—situations to which our response will be determined by our understanding of the soul—and whether or not we know exactly where we stand on the issue, the opportunity is there to engage in the discussion with others and to help them see the larger, more important, underlying issues.
That being said, here are some of the areas in our culture which touch on this question of the soul in one way or another:
- Artificial Intelligence – There is no end of movies, shows, etc. in which artificial intelligence becomes sentient. Is this possible? If so, does that mean a robot can have a soul? Is there a difference between intelligence, thought processing and the soul? What exactly IS a soul—the ability to feel, the ability to think, or something else?
- Abortion – When does the soul enter into a baby? If it’s at conception, then abortion is murdering a human soul. If it’s at birth, then abortion isn’t murdering a soul, only tissue.
- Creation-Care – Is there a hierarchy of value with creatures, are humans intrinsically more valuable than other creatures? Do all living creatures have souls?
- Universal soul – Is there one, universal soul that we all share and/or are a part of? (Like in Avatar and in various religions which teach that there is a universal soul and/or a mother earth that we are all a part of.) Is there a universal spirit that we can tap in to or connect with through meditation, etc.? Or do we each have separate, individual souls?
- Euthanasia – Is assisting a human being in passing from this life to the next inherently immoral? Is preservation of the soul’s habitat (the body) the most important thing to consider or are there other, equally important considerations?
- Near-Death Experiences – Are NDE’s evidence of the human soul and, if so, do NDE’s provide us with data to consider when formulating our theology about human existence and the afterlife?
- Racism – Are some people inherently superior to others? If we believe that all mankind was created with a soul and in the image of God, then is there any justification for saying that some races are superior to others?
- Personal eschatology – What happens to us (our souls) immediately after we die?
- What makes humans valuable? Are they more valuable than other created things?
- Cremation/How we handle our body after we die? – If our soul is the essence of who we are, then does it really matter what happens to our physical bodies?
- Organ donation – Is our soul tied to our body in any way? What if we could donate our brain? Are our brains/thoughts/ability to think the same as our soul, or different? (If they are linked, then would donating our brain give someone our soul as well? …
- Where does the personality reside? Is this a question of the soul, or just of the brain? Is personality part of the soul? What about things like preferences, weaknesses, predispositions (i.e. alcoholism, homosexuality)…
- Cloning – Does cloning affect the soul? If something is cloned, does it have its own soul, or is the soul cloned as well? In some ways, this is the Dr. Frankenstein question—can man ever create life? How can man create a soul?
- Twins – Are their souls unusually connected because they shared in their creation? If a soul is part of the (metaphysical) DNA they inherit from their parents at conception, then would identical twins share their soul? Do identical twins have a different connection soul-wise than fraternal twins or basic siblings?
- Hauntings, the supernatural, psychics, communicating with the dead, etc. – What happens to the soul after you die? If there is no soul, then this supernatural communication issue isn’t even possible. So anyone who believes in this at least agrees that there is a soul. The next question is what happens to it after death…and that will depend on what you believe the soul was created for and whether or not you believe in God.
- Reincarnation – What happens to the soul after you die? Does each person have a unique soul, or are souls recycled? Can multiple people throughout time have shared one soul?
- Sin nature, inherited sin – Where does the soul come from? How do we inherit our sin nature? Is that something we are born with, or are we inherently good people? Are souls born innocent? Is sin passed through Adam’s seed to all? And if so, is this why the virgin birth was so important, because Jesus was not from Adam’s seed, therefore not inheriting a sin nature?
- How much of our spiritual character is inherited from our parents? Conversely, how responsible are we to our human offspring for their soul development? This affects things like adoption and sperm donation. If your offspring isn’t just the result of your physical DNA but is also the result of your spiritual DNA…then how does that affect the way you think about things like alternative fertility options and adoption and parental responsibility?
- Does my dog go to heaven? Do animals have souls? And what about psychics who say they can talk to pets? Is this possible if you don’t believe animals have souls?
- Death of children before age of accountability – If a child dies with a sin nature, but is not yet old enough to make a decision for Christ, what happens to the soul? (This is at the root of different theological positions on infant baptism.) Perhaps similarly (although this gets more into the question of what saves a person), what about a person who dies with unconfessed sin?
- Miscarriage – What happens to the souls of unborn children? Do they even have souls?
- Do plants have souls?
It is our hope that you will be challenged to not only think more carefully about some of these issues for yourself, but also to enter into discussions with others about these issues and use them as opportunities to share your faith with others.