Chapter 2: What’s a Soul?
There are many other difficult questions tied up with this question: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Am I merely what I see or something more? Where am I going? Defining the Soul won’t necessarily answer all of these questions, but it will help make them clearer and help us to see those answers as we progress. Before we begin, let’s look at the Soul from a secular viewpoint:
“Is there anything else? We needn’t get spooky about it. Part of the ‘anything else’ might be human minds and personalities. Can we entirely account for our self-awareness, our minds, personalities, intuitions, and emotions, by means of a physical explanation? This is a matter of enormous significance for many of the questions we are asking in this book, and we will return to it frequently. If we are super-complex computing machines—the sum of our physical parts and their mechanical workings, which in turn exist as a result of the process of evolution—then science may ultimately be able to tell us everything there is to know about us. Even if no computer can ever assimilate the human mind, science may find another completely physical explanation. But we have, at present, no scientific reason to rule out the possibility that there is more to self-awareness, our minds, and our personalities than any such explanation can encompass. Is there such a thing as the soul? If there is, does its existence begin and end with our material existence? Despite some impressive advances in the field of artificial intelligence, and an increasing understanding of the way our minds work, certainly no one would claim to be able to say, except on faith, whether science will eventually be able to assimilate the phenomena of self-awareness, mind, and personality into the materialistic picture. If science can’t, then there is truth beyond the range of scientific explanation. Another part of the “anything else” may be what we call the supernatural. Perhaps, it is simply figments of imagination, psychological events, not so much to be explained by science as to be explained away. Or perhaps these are real events which are at present unexplainable because we lack complete understanding of the full potential of the physical world. If either is the case, then the supernatural ought eventually to fall into the realm of scientific explanation. However, if the supernatural world exists, and if it is inherently beyond testing by the scientific method, then there is truth beyond the range of scientific explanation. There may, indeed, be more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our science (if not our philosophy).” (Ferguson, K).
The main thrust, here, is that there are some things about human nature that are indefinable by science and only attributable to the supernatural, the soul being one of them. If the Soul exists, then we won’t be able to measure it or detect it in any sensory manner. The Soul is not part of science. The Soul is hard to define, mostly because it carries with it many connotations. For instance, if I were to say the word “tomato”, you would immediately know that I was talking about a red fruit that grows on a vine and goes great on sandwiches with bacon and lettuce. But, if I were to say the word “duck”, several possibilities might invade your thoughts. I have to give you the context of “duck”, as in, “the duck quacked,” or, “Duck!” For the same reason, Soul is hard to understand or define.
There are three primary obstacles to understanding the definition of the Soul. First, the word “Soul” in the English language is represented by several different words from the Biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek. As a result, some of the meaning of Soul and the various contexts in which it is used are lost in translation. Second, the Hebrew and Greek words can have a number of disparate meanings in their original contexts. As with any study of the Bible, the key to understanding what the author meant is the context in which the word is used. The third and, perhaps, most important reason is the fact that God revealed many things in His Word “progressively”, or over time. Sometimes, the progression took place over several generations or hundreds of years. God is constant and unchanging (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17), but He accounted for mankind’s maturation through His revelation. In Acts 14:16, Paul explained “In past generations, He allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.” Later, in Acts 17:30-31, he says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.” God brought His plan to the level of fruition we see today throughout thousands of years of teaching and significant events until finally, the time came for us to understand His will fully through His Word. The same understanding applies to how we understand ourselves; our Souls.
Robert Morey, in his book, Death and the Afterlife, indicated that “certain words may have a dozen different meanings, depending on the context and the progressive nature of revelation. The failure to avoid reductionistic and simplistic definitions is based on the hidden assumption that once the meaning of a word is discovered in a single passage, this same meaning must be present in every other occurrence of the word…. The resistance to the idea that what soul meant to Moses was probably not what it meant to David or Paul is based on their unconscious assumption that the Bible is one book written at one time. Thus, as we approach the Biblical term, which describes the immaterial side of man, we will not attempt to develop artificial definitions based upon the absolutizing of the meaning of a word in a single passage, but recognize that a contextual approach will reveal a wide range of meanings.” In fact, we use words all the time that meant something entirely different to people only a few decades ago. Words like cool, hot, neat, broke, and many others that have been adapted to pop culture and other arenas of society have several different connotations.
So, how is the word “Soul” used in God’s Word? What does it really mean, and how should we think of it today? The word for “Soul” in the Bible is used in at least four different ways. It is translated from the Hebrew word “nephesh”, and the Greek word “psuche”, which both basically mean “to breathe”. Breathing indicates life. One of the basic tests a medical doctor or coroner will use today to establish the death of a person is whether he or she is breathing. If there is no breath, there is no life. So, to breathe, in Scripture, indicates that something that sustains life in a human being is present. The first way the term is used is simply as a synonym for a person. Moses wrote: “All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons (nephesh)”, (Exodus 1:5; Deuteronomy 10:22). Apparently, Moses understood (ostensibly by way of revelation) that people are Souls and not simply the physical beings we sense. This is an important distinction, since Moses most likely was defining people from the perspective of God, through Whom Moses perceived his knowledge of Israelite history.
Second, the word “soul” is used to describe the form of life that man has in common with animals and that ends when he dies. In Genesis 1:20,24, and 30, God spoke of the nephesh hayyah—literally “soul breathers” or “life breathers” (often translated as “living creatures” or “life”—cf. Leviticus 11:10; grammatically the phrase is singular, but it bears a plural meaning). In Proverbs, we see in regard to animals: “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” (12:10). Hebrew scholar Hugo McCord noted: Then the translators realized that the first meaning of nephesh is “breath,” and so Genesis 1:20,24,30 and Genesis 2:7 all fit together in understanding Moses as saying that all animals and man, too, are breathers. Breathers, coupled with hayyah, “living,” the translators thought, would be well translated, in the case of animals, as “living creatures,” and in the case of man as a “living being”. Once more, it’s easy to see a distinction made between the Soul man possesses and the life force animals carry until they die. Both humans and animals live, but only humans are beings with a special place in Creation.
Also, the idea of the soul is used to refer to the varied emotions or inner thoughts of a person. This fact might explain why nephesh is translated “heart” (15 times), or “mind” (15 times) in the Old Testament (KJV); and why psuche is translated as “heart” (1 time), and “mind” (3 times) in the New. In His discussion with a lawyer, Jesus said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul (psuche), and with all thy mind,” (Matthew 22:37). In Acts 4:32, Luke recorded how, on one occasion, “the multitude of them who believed were of one heart and soul (psuche).” Our innermost self is tied to many other aspects of who we are. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that our emotions would be tied to our Soul. We are all basically formed and designed in the same way, not just physically, but spiritually. So we all can have similar feelings and understandings through our comparatively designed Souls.
Finally, the word “soul” is used in Scripture to designate the portion of a person that is immortal and never dies. For example, in commenting on Rachel’s death at the birth of her son, Moses wrote: “And it came to pass, as her soul (nephesh) was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-oni: but, his father called him Benjamin,” (Genesis 35:18). Yes! Your Soul, who is who you are, will go on forever! You as a person will never die. It’s an amazing realization, but as in the case with Rachel, her Soul departed from her body and went someplace else. But where? More on that later. The important thing to understand for now is that you are an immortal Soul with an eternal destiny. Ultimately, you will live on after physical death. That can be either a very comforting fact or a very disconcerting one.
Christ warned His disciples: “And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul (psuche) and body in hell,” (Matthew 10:28). In His discussion with the Sadducees in Matthew 22, Jesus quoted from Exodus 3:6, where God said to Moses: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Christ then went on to say (22:32): “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living”—a fact that the Sadducees’ opponents, the Pharisees, already accepted as true (cf. Acts 23:8). But, when God spoke with Moses (c. 1446 B.C.) about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, those three men had been dead and in their tombs for hundreds of years. Since, from Christ’s own words, we know that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” the point is obvious; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still must have been living. But how? The solution to the problem, of course, is the fact that while their bodies had died, their immortal souls had not. When the apostle John was allowed to look into the book “sealed with seven seals” (Revelation 5:1), he “saw underneath the altar the souls (psuchas) of them that had been slain for the word of God” (Revelation 6:9). Each of these passages is indicative of the fact that there is within human beings a soul that never dies and that we are Souls with bodies, not bodies with souls. This fact is what makes us special and eternal. Don’t let that knowledge escape your grasp.