Where is my soul?I wondered. One of my high school classmates had just asked me a question regarding the location of my soul. As I sat there unsure of how to respond, my mind could only draw up the fact that I had always assumed my soul to be, well, just there. Somewhere. Considering how casually the term “soul” is tossed around in both Christian and spiritual circles, it’s a wonder that more people haven’t raised the objection against this intangible thing. I’ve heard the argument of intangibility used against God, but even among non-believers, critics, or atheists, a similar argument or questioning of its existence and place of dwelling seem far less common. So where is the soul?
Perhaps you’re already fiddling in your chair as you read: “But the soul isn’t tangible,” you rebut. “It’s the innermost essence of who we are,” you continue. “It’s the spirit trapped inside our physical flesh, that which will be released from our bodies upon mortal death. The flesh is the prison of our true, eternal identity – that’s what the soul is.”
Plato and the Church
And you know what? I agree with you, that is, IF we’re discussing the soul as understood by the great Greek philosopher Plato. The aforementioned description is entirely accurate in terms of the soul’s place within Platonic dualism (in other words, anthropological dualism) and Gnostic schools of thought. It is, on the other hand, a far cry from what we see in Scripture. Yes, the Church has long accepted this notion. I, as an example, was certainly raised with this understanding. Perhaps you’ve long held to this notion as well, this accounting for a similar position or presumption as indicated by the italicized arguments in the first paragraph. It’s time we take hold of that which we profess, nonetheless, for the “soul” in Scripture and our subsequent understanding or misunderstanding of the concept carries great implications for how we approach our lives. Although we can agree that Plato was a great mind, it’s time that we properly and intellectually separate ourselves from his particular school of thought. Let’s re-think all of this together.
The Soul in the Old Testament
Rather than immediately examining the soul’s place in New Testament literature, it is crucial that we first take a look at its understanding in the Old Testament in order that we might establish the Hebraic understanding. If Plato’s definition of the soul was founded on the existence of two distinct entities – the soul and the flesh (anthropological dualism) – the Hebraic concept of soul, in Hebrew translated nefesh, is partially understood as a physical animation, a life force, a breath, a movement, or as a synonym for selves (Gen. 2:7). More importantly, however, nefesh is not dualism, but monism. Rather than seeing an existence of two (soul and body) competing or contrasting entities, monism stresses a holistic approach. In holistic thinking, body and soul, among many other things, are one. There is no distinction.
Thus, the Hebraic and Old Testament understanding of the soul encapsulates every facet and fiber of the human being. Unlike Greek or Platonic dualism where the soul is a conscious entity and a prisoner of the body, Hebraic anthropology understands the soul to be the entire being. If this is true in the Old Testament, does the New Testament hold a similar or differing opinion?
The Soul in the New Testament
Matt. 6:25 – “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Mark 8:35-36 – “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Mark 10:45 – “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
John 13:37 – “Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.'”
Acts 2:41 – “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.”
Romans 13:1 – “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…”
Philippians 1:27 – “…Whether I come to see you or am absent and hear from you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel…”
Ephesians 6:6 – “…Doing the will of God from the heart.”
After reading the above passages, you’re probably wondering what any of them have to do with this discussion on the soul. It surely appears as though none of them are even remotely pertinent to the topic we’ve been covering. However, that’s exactly my point. The English translation impairs our ability to see how the New Testament is so heavily influenced by its Hebraic roots, particularly in terms of concepts such as the soul. You see, though you cannot literally see it in the passages above, an examination of the Greek text reveals something visibly clear – the Greek word for soul, ψυχη (pronounced soo-kay), is actually used in all of the verses above.
Ψυχη and all of its variations occur roughly 103 times in the New Testament. It is primarily translated as soul, but it is also commonly translated as life and persons. Additionally, ψυχη is sometimes found to be used to mean everyone, living, being, me, you, selves, heart, and mind. It is not, on the other hand, used to describe an entity that dwells somewhere within the human existence. Sorry Plato. There’s no dualism here; it’s monism again.
Considering all of this, it is indisputably lucid that the New Testament understanding of the soul continues exactly as it is in the Hebraic heritage; it is a holistic thought that fully embraces and yet is still a piece of the bigger picture. Thus, every physical trait, every emotion, every action, every intellectual thought, and every breath constitutes one entity. Simply and essentially put, in both the biblical and Christian thought, we are souls. As a consequence to such thinking, our lives ought to be more holistically focused. In Part 2, we will discuss the implications of understanding ourselves to be souls or holistic beings.
NRSV (The Harper Collins Study Bible)
Louw, Johannes P.; Nida, Eugene Albert: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York : United Bible societies, 1996, c1989, S. 1:344
Dr. David Matson, Hope International University