Soul Confusion

Chapter 27

The March 16, 1999 television chat show, Larry King Live, featured five panelists: Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhism studies at Columbia University; Marianne Williamson, New Age author and spokesperson for the spiritist-channeled Course in Miracles; Rabbi David Aaron, expert on and proponent of Kabbalah, an occult/mystical/gnostic interpretation of Judaism; Deepak Chopra, charismatic spokesperson for a popular version of Hindu monistic thought; and Franklin Graham, head of Samaritans Purse, a Christian humanitarian organization, and son of Billy Graham, the renowned American evangelist. 

One thing they could all agree upon is the idea that human beings have souls, though there were disagreements about the origin, nature, capacity, and meaning of “soul.” Indeed, there is a great deal of confusion when it comes to what the soul actually is. This is an attempt to express the Christian or biblical view of the soul. 

What is the soul?

Though the five spokespersons differed on many points, they seemed to reach a consensus in understanding “soul.” In fact, Deepak Chopra voiced agreement with Graham’s understanding of the soul. We have long heard Billy Graham say words like: “You have a soul, and it will go to heaven or hell when you die.”

Historically, the concept of soul has been around for tens of thousands of years. The “soul” concept had its beginning in what is called “animism,” the idea that in all things lived a spirit or a soul, a spiritual entity that was core to the object. And the object could be a tree, a river, a mountain, an ant, a bear, a rock, a human being—anything at all. 

According to this idea, the human soul is a mysterious, spiritual, and immortal part of the human being that leaves the cold, dead body at death. Those on Larry King’s program who believed in some form of reincarnation were able to agree together about the soul from their own traditions, though they might have used other symbols to express the same thing. 

Confusion concerning the nature of the soul has a powerful influence among the people of Mill Valley where Miller Avenue Church is. Though the doctrine is not biblical and is absent from the teaching of the early church and several successive centuries afterward, the idea that the soul is the focus of evangelistic efforts persists in many Christian traditions. Franklin Graham was concerned about the soul. He should have been concerned about the whole person—body, mind, soul, and spirit. 

So many in our community believe in reincarnation that Graham’s doctrine on the soul would not be troublesome for them. The soul? Well, they say, it needs purifying and experiences endless lifetimes, anyway. These people do not like to think that they will be resurrected to stand before the judgment of God. “My soul” is one thing; “myself” is another. 

Total Resurrection 

The biblical doctrine is one of bodily resurrection, not the floating away of an immortal soul. We are whole, integrated beings, though the Bible writers spoke variously of mind, heart, body, flesh, spirit and soul for the sake of emphasis and illustration. A person is all of these and more, a whole being responsible to God in the totality and indivisibility of his nature. What we are in total will be raised from the dead, either to eternal life in heaven or eternal death in a much darker place. We do not have immortality in and of ourselves. This truth is found in 1 Corinthians 15:53: “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (NKJV). 

Soul confusion must be countered by the truth of the resurrection, even if it means parting from long-established ways of thinking and preaching. Let us not give the unconverted comfort by implying that they have only some ethereal soul to be concerned about. 

A Brief History of the Soul 

Animism was a direct fore-bearer of shamanism, which probably developed twenty to thirty thousand years ago in Siberia. At first, as the scholars say, it spread both west and south and east. West into Europe, south into Africa, and east into what is now Alaska, and all the way southward down to the tip of what is now known as Argentina. This last point is clearly seen in the religions of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, which are nearly all based upon shamanism, which involves belief that shamans, with a connection to the otherworld, have the power to heal the sick, communicate with spirits, and escort souls of the dead to the afterlife. The inner dwelling of a soul, completely independent and separate from the body, became and still is a well-established spirituality. 

Probably more Christians than not hold to the idea of a soul that is somehow inside the body and survives biological death. It was a widely held belief in the Graeco-Roman world in the fourth century, which is when Christianity started to incorporate the idea into its theology, and it has remained ever since. Greek dualistic thought posits the theory that the mind, spirit, and soul are good, even divine, counterbalanced by the body, flesh and matter, which are bad, the repository of evil. Therefore, it was the soul that mattered and the soul that needed saving, while the body was simply a temporary prison for the soul. 

Flourishing in the fourth century was a revival of Greek philosophy, mainly dualism of the Neo-Platonic or Neo-Aristotelian varieties.1 

1 Dualism, among other things, viewed the body as bad, even evil, while the mind, spirit, soul, were good and connected to the divine. The body then became the prison house of the soul, which supposedly pre-existed and entered human bodies, transmigrated or left them upon death. The Eastern concepts of karma and reincarnation are dependent upon this understanding of soul.Over a millennium later the reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, both ministers (priests) in the Roman Catholic Church, retained their Church’s doctrine of the soul, despite expounding salvation by grace through faith alone. Only the more radical reformers, the Anabaptists, looked for their theological foundations further back in history before Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354–430), the great Pauline theologian, who incorporated the construct of the separate existence of the soul in the human being. The famous Augustine, one of my heroes of the Church, nevertheless was steeped in Greek philosophy and blended the dualistic concept of the soul into his Christian views. Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225– 1274), another great theologian, then included the Greek influenced doctrine of the soul in his Summa Theologica, minus the portion about the transmigration and pre-existence of the soul that was common to Greek philosophy. 

The Christian Protestant denominations originating out of the Reformation inherited the concept of the soul. From Luther comes the Lutheran denominations; from John Calvin and John Knox come the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, followed by the Congregational churches, the Anglican Church, and by extension both American Episcopal and Methodist churches, plus all the offshoots from these denominations. Not all the Baptists, who followed the Anabaptists, rejected the Greek influenced soul view, but many did. Pentecostals and charismatics hold a variety of concepts about the soul. 

Biblical Passages Having to Do with the Soul 

We first encounter the word “soul” in Genesis 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” And the reader would be correct in protesting, where is the word “soul?” The version quoted is the English Standard Version (hereafter ESV) and has replaced “soul” with “creature.” And why? Because “creature” is a better rendering of the Hebrew nephesh than soul. The point is that God created a human being. Adam and Eve were actual people. 

The King James Version (hereafter KJV) and older English versions of the Bible translated nephesh as “soul,” and so the term stuck. Furthermore, soul has come to acquire something close to the idea of “ghost,” and not because of anything biblical. And in fact, in Job 11:20 and Jeremiah 15:9, the KJV translates the Hebrew nephesh with ghost. 

In Deuteronomy 6:5 we find the greatest of the commandments: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The Hebrew word for soul here is from nephesh. The point of the commandment, however, means that we are to love God with all of us— all of who we are—and thus the bringing together of three words that were commonly used to describe different aspects or characteristics of all that is human— heart, soul, might.2 

2 Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and inserts the word “mind” along with heart, soul, and strength. See Mark 12:30 and Luke 10:27. Thus Jesus interprets the fulfilling of the greatest commandment to include the mind; thus love of God is conscious and thoughtful.

Many Christians, including editors of biblical texts, unreasonably retain how the KJV translated many words, due to the extreme, yet appropriate popularity of that version of the Bible; therefore, the word “soul” pops up frequently in the Old Testament. But it means creature, person, or living being, and it does not refer to something ethereal and separate from a body. It is better said that a human being is a soul. To say a human being has a soul is not a biblical construct. If you disagree, please investigate the issue and do not simply rely on tradition. 

There are literally dozens of passages in the Old Testament where it is clear that the English word soul really means person. For the purposes of this essay, two examples will be given that are characteristic of the lot. The first is from Exodus 1:5, and the KJV is, “And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls: for Joseph was in Egypt already.” Two times the word “souls” appears, and in both cases the Hebrew word is nephesh. Now the same verse in the ESV: “All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt” (Exodus 1:5). In one instance, nephesh is translated “descendants” and in the second “persons.” The ESV gives the most natural of the translations and is more accurately reflective of the Hebrew writer’s mindset. 

The second example is from Psalm 6:3-4, and the KJV is, “My soul is also sore vexed: but thou, O LORD, how long? Return, O LORD, deliver my soul: oh save me for thy mercies’ sake.” In both cases soul is nephesh. The same verse in the ESV reads, “My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD–how long? Turn, O LORD, deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.” Nephesh is the Hebrew word translated “soul” in “my soul” and “me” in “deliver me.” In the first instance the ESV translators have the emotional experience of the writer in mind – King David’s emotional state of mind to be exact – and so the term “soul” meets the literary requirement to better convey emotion. In the second instance “me” is more appropriate, as David is directly referring to his person. This second instance from the Psalms illustrates a wide range of translation possibilities, but “soul” speaks to us in a poetic manner. 

The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture known as the Septuagint, or LXX, is a translation made by Jewish scholars in Alexandria Egypt in the early part of the second century before Christ. In it, psyche is used in place of nephesh in both passages, Exodus 1:5 and Psalm 6:3-4, and this is consistently the case throughout the translation. 

Turning our attention now to the English versions of the New Testament, we see that psyche is sometimes translated “soul.” With the exception of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, the New Testament was written by Jews who inherited the Jewish understanding of the soul. Jews did not believe, in complete distinction from the Greeks, that the soul was anything other than the whole person. Old and even new translations of the New Testament tend to pull toward the KJV and translate psyche as soul. Again, we are looking at tradition. 

Let us consider some examples. One is Matthew 2:20: “Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life” (KJV). “Life” is psyche, so the KJV used the proper word, thus revealing that the KJV translators knew the correct translation. The ESV also has “life” here. We will remember that psyche is the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew nephesh

Matthew 10:28 is a passage that convinces many that there is such a thing as a soul indwelling human beings. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” The word “soul” appearing twice in the verse, is in both places the Greek word psyche. Here is another example of English translations yielding to the early English versions of the Bible, especially the King James Version. The usage of the word is likely a proverbial manner of speech commonly used and understood in that day, and not to be taken literally. 

Notice, Jesus does not mention the “spirit,” which is the English word used to translate the Greek “pneuma.” This point is important because we can clearly understand that Jesus is teaching that the death of a Christian, by whatever means, will not prevent that Christian from being in heaven after death. In addition, the killing of the body does not prevent a Christian from being with the Lord in heaven because of the resurrection of the body, which will be the reality for all believers in Jesus. It is not a “soul” that gives or guarantees everlasting life, but the new birth given by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Another example is Matthew 10:39: “He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (KJV). “Life” in both places is psyche

Mark 3:4, and the KJV now, is helpful: “And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?” Here “save life” uses psyche for life and is the antonym for “kill.” Obviously, Jesus has in mind a person and not a ghost, soul, or something else of an ethereal nature, which, according to some, could not be killed anyway. 

And this is the problem with importing into the Judaeo/Christian Scripture the concept of a soul that does not die or cannot be extinguished. The biblical worldview is resurrection. Jesus was resurrected; even He had no soul that survived the crucifixion. Furthermore, when Jesus cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46), “spirit” in the sentence is from the Greek pneuma and can be translated spirit, breath, or wind. It was essentially an idiom, a statement that would have been well understood by those who heard Him and that meant simply, “Father, as I am now dying I trust in you” – a final confession of faith. 

In the Parable of the Rich Fool Jesus describes a successful farmer who prospers greatly to the point he plows all his gain back into his business and grows increasingly wealthy. This fictional character even boasts: 

“And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, be merry. But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? (Luke 12:19-20) 

“Soul” in Jesus’ parable stands for the rich fool himself. The farmer is smugly speaking about and to himself. 

Jesus uses, as He often did, the folksy and picturesque communication styles common to that era. And then we consider what it would mean that only an ethereal soul was to be extracted. What about the flesh, the mind, the heart, the spirit? 

Going now to the Book of Acts, chapter 2 and verse 41: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” 

Peter preached the Pentecostal Day sermon in Jerusalem, the first Christian presentation of the Gospel, and 3,000 hearers were converted, and subsequently were baptized. The “those” are referred to as “souls” at the conclusion of the verse. Not sure how souls would be baptized, but no of course, the people who were saved by the power of the Holy Spirit were baptized. This is a rather clear instance in which people are referred to as souls. 

Then a look at 1 Corinthians 15:45. First the KJV: “The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” Soul is psyche and spirit pneuma. The ESV translates it, “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Adam was a person, not something without a body. Jesus is the last Adam, the one who brought life and not death. 

The passage, Hebrews 4:12, for many seems to seal the existence of a soul apart from a body. 

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 

The author of Hebrews draws upon three instances in the minds and poetry of people of that era that are so closely entwined that nothing on earth can separate them. Only God is able to do so. Indeed, the Creator God is all powerful and nothing is beyond Him. Point is here that the phrase “of soul and of spirit” does not give credence to the existence of a separate entity called the soul, which most people living in the Graeco-Roman world would have believed in. It was a fitting point of reference for the biblical writer. 

The words of the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 1:9 “. . . obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” are often cited by those who support the concept of a non-material soul. Peter writing to those who had never had the opportunity to see Jesus in the flesh, said that they still had “the salvation of your souls.” 

We are more than a soul; we are people who are to receive salvation. Our bodies will be changed in an instant and we will be in the presence of God and not just an ethereal soul. 

Another one of the passages often used to support the concept of a soul that is separate and distinct from a person is Revelation 6:9, and this having to do with the opening of the fifth seal: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who have been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” 

We note that “souls” comes from psyche first of all. These souls are “under the altar.” One might question here: Are souls visible or invisible? The author of Revelation, John the Apostle, could see the souls. Now going on to verses 10 and 11 we see something very interesting. 

They [the souls] cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. 

The souls were given white robes. Do we easily imagine souls wearing clothes? These souls are actual Christians who had been martyred. An ethereal or non-physical entity wearing clothes? 

There is a second passage from Revelation that deserves our attention, Revelation 20:4. 

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 

John “saw” these who had died a martyr’s death. By their appearance he knew who and what they were—not floating apparitions with ghostly features, but actual resurrected Christian people.

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