Getting to grips with the soul

by Richard on June 26, 2012

The notion that “the real me” is a soul inhabiting a body of flesh is deeply rooted in Christian believing, but the more I think about it the more troubling I find it.

Partly that’s because it is a notion which is very deeply challenged by recent discoveries about the brain. We know beyond doubt that certain brain injuries, for example, can have a profound impact on personality, emotions, memories, even self-awareness — all those things claimed for the soul. It is becoming steadily more difficult to cling to the idea of a soul which animates the body, and leaves the body at death.

More important, I’m no longer convinced that this is true to the Biblical understanding of our humanity. In the second creation story (Genesis ch 2), God forms the man from the dust of the earth and breathes life into him. It is the breath of God which animates Adam, not a seperate individual soul. For much of the Hebrew Bible, what is emphasized is the finality of death. The grave is a place of disintegration and forgetfulness. As the body decays, so does the personality. For example, Ecclesiates 9:4ffBut he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished … Enjoy life with the wife whom you love , all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun … for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going
or Psalm 6

In death there is no remembrance of thee;
in Sheol who can give thee praise?

or Psalm 88

Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave, or thy faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are thy wonders known in the darkness, or thyy saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

It’s a thread that runs through the Hebrew scriptures — a man does not “have” a soul, he is a soul. Future hope lies not in an afterlife, but in posterity. This is, of course, not all there is to say about death in the Old Testament but sufficient, I hope, to demonstrate that the roots of Christian faith go deep into thinking which is essentially materialistic. A Christian understanding of death cannot simply ignore these roots.

So where is Christian hope in all this?

I believe it is a misunderstanding to say that Christians believe in an immortal soul which leaves the body at death. That language can sometimes be helpful (at times of bereavement, for example) but in reality Christian hope is found not in the survival of the soul, but in resurrection, a very physical thing. Paul may speak of glorified bodies, but they are still recognizably bodies. There is little sense from Paul of an understanding of human personality completely seperate from the body. We are not of ourselves immortal, but we do possess a “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

‘Body’ and ’soul’ are inseperable and indistinguishable. The spiritual and the material are not merely linked, they are bound together inextricably. Salvation is concerned not merely with the spiritual, but ultimately with the whole creation.

We can’t ditch the language of “the soul”, but perhaps we can recover something of the materialism that lies in the foundations of Christian faith. So many of the issues that face us would look different if we did.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 06.26.12 at 3:20 pm

‘Body’ and ’soul’ are inseperable and indistinguishable.

Not “indistinguishable” — I think we can and must still distinguish metween material and non-material aspects of human being. But it is certainly true, as Ray Anderson summarises (in On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology [1982]), that “The only interest biblical anthropology has in the body is that it is an ensouled body … [and] The only interest biblical anthropology has in the soul is its bodily state.” In short, biblically speaking, the human being is a psychosomatic unity.


Richard 06.26.12 at 6:23 pm

I know what you mean, but I don’t think I can agree. Are there any non-material aspects of human being?


Kim 06.26.12 at 7:17 pm

I’m concerned about materialist reductionism, that, for example, would shrink mind to brain — or love to a neuronal epiphenomenon. I would resist any monistic understanding of the human. This, after all, is the agenda of the New Atheists who are scientists — their scientism being a crass materialism.


Kim 06.26.12 at 10:21 pm

Actually, Richard, I suspect there’s less than Rizla dividing us. Interestingly, I recently had a converstaion with a colleague who, unconcerened about whether or not the tomb was empty, reduces the resurrection of Jesus to an event in the life of the believer. Yet he argues for a radical politics. I told him that without the bodily resurrection of Jesus his politics lacks a material basis for praxis and hope. Docetism goes all the way down.


Richard 06.26.12 at 11:31 pm

>> “Actually, Richard, I suspect there’s less than Rizla dividing us”

I’m sure you’re right. Of course I agree with you about reductionism - to say that human being is material is not to say it is merely so.

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