/ Apologetics / What is the Soul?

What is the Soul?

Craig Smith on March 14, 2015 - 10:08 am in Apologetics, Craig Smith, Theology, Tough Questions

Our culture is filled with references to the human soul.  From horror movies to romantic comedies, the soul is front-and-center.  But is there good reason to think that it actually exists?  Where does it come from? What exactly is it?  Let’s tackle each of these in abbreviated, but hopefully still useful, ways.

Does the soul actually exist? 

Obviously those (or at least most of those[1]) who hold to a Christian worldview will need little convincing of this fact.  The Bible speaks regularly of the human soul and/or spirit which appears to be distinct from the human body.  While there are instances where the Hebrew or Greek terms for soul (nephesh/psuchē) are used symbolically or poetically of a human’s deepest desires,[2] the most common usage treats the soul as a discreet component of the human being.  The same is also true of the parallel term, spirit (ruach/pneuma). There is considerable debate among theologians whether the terms “soul” and “spirit” refer to the same thing or to two different things which are part of human makeup.  For the sake of simplicity we will not engage this question here but will concentrate simply on questions about the soul.  

So, biblically speaking, it is widely recognized that the existence of the soul is assumed by Scripture and this is often a sufficient answer for most Christians.  But is there evidence for the soul’s existence apart from Scripture?  There is.  In fact, there is a growing body of purportedly scientific evidence for the soul’s existence (check out this article at Psychology Today) and there are a number of non-Christian and even non-religious philosophical arguments that strongly support the existence of the human soul (check out a few here).  Near-Death Experiences are thought by many to be evidence of the soul.  Further, while certainly not irrefutable proof, the apparent trans-cultural pervasiveness of human belief in the soul cannot be entirely discounted as evidence for its existence.  So, without getting into complex detail here, suffice it to say that there is good reason to think that the human soul is a real, rather than fanciful, thing.

Where does the soul come from?

Within the context of a Judeo-Christian context, there are essentially two views, known as the Special Creation View and the Traducian View.

The Special Creation View argues that each human soul is the result of a unique act of divine creation; that is, God makes each human soul separately and implants it into the human body which is produced by human procreation.  Most adherents of the Special Creation View believe that God implants the soul into the body at the moment of conception, though there are variations on this belief that include the moment of birth and the moment of conversion.  Biblical evidence for the Special Creation View includes Psalm 139:13-14 ( For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.  14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.)  The Special Creation View is probably the dominant view among lay Christians.

The Traducian View,[3] which is likely the dominant view among Christian theologians, argues that human souls are generated during procreation, analogous to the ways human bodies are generated; that is, in the same way we pass genetic material to our children, we also pass non-physical, spiritual material to them, resulting in offspring who are both physically and spiritually related to us.  Adherents of the Traducian View point to the fact that Scripture speaks only of a special act of creating a soul for the first human, Adam (Gen 2:7[4]).  There is no mention of God creating a soul for Eve, yet it is obvious throughout scripture that women have souls.  The assumption is therefore that Eve’s spiritual nature was contained within/alongside the physical seed of Adam’s rib from which she was formed.  The Traducian view is also thought by many to better account for the inheritance of a sin nature and the fact that Scripture implies that God ceased creating ex nihilo after the 6th day.[5]

Of these two views, I personally find the Traducian View to be the one most consistent with the full teaching of the Bible.  This view does not imply that God had no hand in our individual creation, but only that the “base materials”, both physical and spiritual, out of which we are made has been inherited from our ancestors.

What is the soul?

The answer to this question is, to some extent, already implied by the answers to the previous questions:  the soul is the non-physical component of human beings.  It is difficult for us to think of non-physical things as being concrete or, to put it more properly from a philosophical perspective, discrete, so there is a tendency to think of souls as ephemeral, wispy things with no actual substance.  But this is not the case. The soul is a concrete, distinct, substantive thing.  The soul is not a thought or an idea.  It is an object, albeit a non-physical one which exists alongside/within the human physical nature.  Without getting into some very complex philosophy here, suffice it to say that the soul appears to be the seat of the human consciousness and identity.  Think about this:  what does it mean that we say things like “my body” except that we are inherently pre-disposed to think that the essence of who we are is somehow distinct from our bodies? 

At present, and indeed as God intends to be true for eternity after our resurrections, our souls express their activity through the physical body.  So even though “I” am not exactly synonymous with my physical body, my body is an integral part of my existence.  Consequently, we cannot really imagine what it is like to “be” without a physical body or to “think” or “remember” without a physical brain, though properly speaking, such activities likely only use the physical body in the same way that a computer operating system expresses itself through, or uses, the physical computer.  A computer cannot “remember” anything without the RAM chips, but the RAM chips are not actually what “remember” things.  They hold the data which the operating system uses to “remember.”

Because of this close relationship between the soul and the body, it is difficult, if not impossible, to entirely separate the things which are rooted in our souls and the things which are rooted in the body.  In most instances, what we are and do come from both of our components, physical and spiritual.  But, this close connection between our bodies and souls can be severed without the destruction of the soul.  Consequently, the soul is the part of human existence that survives the death of the body; being non-physical it is not dependent on the physical body for existence, but only for expression in the ways with which we are familiar. It would appear from Scripture that souls separated from their bodies by death are still capable of observation, remembrance, communication, etc. (see Rev. 6:9-10) though it is not possible for us to really imagine what such activities look like in a disembodied state.  Perhaps most importantly, if the soul is the seat of our true self, then the fact that the soul is not destroyed by the death of the body also means that “we” survive death.  Death is therefore not the end of our existence. 

 

Obviously, this is a very short article to address issues as complex as the existence, origin and nature of the soul, but hopefully it will provide some good food for thought and further reflection.  What further questions do you have?  What additional thoughts does this article spur?  Let us know in the comments below!

[1] There are a few otherwise orthodox Christians who do not believe that all human beings – or even any human beings - have souls.  For instance, there are some Christians who believe that a human being gains a soul only after becoming a Christian. There are also some Christians who believe that human bodies are actually the souls that Scripture speaks of.

[2] For instance, see Genesis 34:8  8 But Hamor spoke with them, saying, "The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter; please give her to him 1in marriage.

[3] From the Latin for “seed”.

[4] Note that when it says that God “breathed” into Adam’s nostrils and he became a “living being” (literally, “living soul”) there is a play on words happening because the word for “breathed” and the word for “soul” are very close in Hebrew.

[5] Many theologians believe that God created ex nihilo (meaning out of nothing) only up until the 6th day of Genesis 1.  In fact, if this view is correct, the creation of Adam’s soul would have been the last act of ex nihilo creation.  From that time on, any additional acts of creation are done via re-working/molding/fashioning/etc. materials from the initial creation.

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  • March 16, 2015

    DNA does not reflect an Adam and Eve – how can you propose that they existed with no scientific evidence. Similarly for the soul – there is no mechanism proposed as to how it works or what it does.

    Chris P
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    • March 25, 2015

      How an we propose that Napoleon existed on the basis of DNA evidence? I’m not even sure what that would mean. There is no such thing as DNA evidence of Napoleon because you would have to have the man’s body to draw the DNA out. We believe in Napoleon’s existence inferentially: that is, there are many observations which are best explained by his actual existence. In that sense, the existence of the entire human race could be taken as evidence of Adam and Eve’s existence. Even from an evolutionary perspective, there is no “DNA” evidence of the proposed first living cell, but it is assumed that there must have been such a thing or else there would be no living things now. So the biblical assertion of Adam and Eve and the naturalistic evolutionary assertion of an “Adam” cell are fundamentally similar claims, at least from a philosophical perspective.

      As for the “mechanism” for the soul, again, I’m not sure what you mean. Perhaps you could clarify? For many years, evolutionary theory had no proposed mechanism to explain genetic variation on which natural selection could operate. Does this mean that evolutionary theory was stupid or ridiculous? I think not. People used to have no “scientific” proposed mechanism for thunder either…but it clearly existed sans such a proposed mechanism. An explanatory mechanism – or even a “proposed” one – is utterly irrelevant to the real existence of a thing.

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