What’s a soul?

by K.W. Leslie, 08 December
Soul soʊl noun. Lifeforce.
2. [in popular culture] The immaterial, spiritual essence of a human; considered immortal.
Soulish 'soʊl.ɪʃ adjective. Having to do with one’s lifeforce.
2. [in popular Christian culture] Fleshly.

One of the vexing problems of Christianity is we have certain words we use which nobody ever bothers to define. As a result, people guess—and guess wrong. Our word “soul” is probably the most obvious example.

Years ago, a newbie Christian asked his pastor what a “soul” was, to which the pastor replied, “Oh, you shouldn’t even try to define it.” The pastor figured a soul is a mystery, a concept way beyond human understanding. Best to leave mysteries alone, and not waste our time—or make ourselves nuts—trying to understand ’em.

I admit it’s kinda western of me, but I can’t agree: If you use a word and don’t know what it means, it’s foolish. If you don’t wanna know its meaning, you’re a fool. It might be a concept that’s too vast for our tiny little minds—but all the more reason we should tackle it. We learn a lot this way.

Christians don’t entirely understand the immaterial parts of ourselves. So we mix up the soul and spirit all the time. Popular culture is no help: It confounds spirit with emotion, and it confounds soul with sensitivity and creativity. If “you’ve got soul,” you’re either emotionally intense, or intellectually intense. Or you like Motown.

But some of the culture’s uses of “soul” give hints to its proper biblical meaning. The “soul” of a movement or endeavor is the person who inspires it, embodies it, gives it that spark of life. To “bare one’s soul” means to share every part of one’s life. A “soulmate” is someone you share your life with. And when a disaster happens and “souls were lost,” it means lives.

So what’s a soul then? It’s a lifeforce.

The bible’s words for soul are nefésh in Hebrew, psyhí in Greek. Both of them literally mean “breath.” ’Cause when we’re alive, we breathe, right? And when we no longer are, we don’t.

When God made the first human—

Genesis 2.7 KWL
The LORD God sculpted the human of dust from the ground.
God breathed into his nose the breath of life, giving the human a living soul.

The KJV says the human “became a living soul,” which is another valid way to translate it. Though most bibles nowadays simply translate nefésh and psyhí as “life.”

So yes, everything that’s alive has a soul. ’Cause it breathes. When it stops breathing, its soul has gone out. That’s right: Souls aren’t immortal. In humans they were meant to be; Adam and Eve were meant to live forever. But they lost access to the Tree of Life, so they died… ’cause now humans die.

The immortal soul.

I know; Christians tend to be really bothered by the idea of souls dying. Aren’t there passages in the bible which describe the soul as going into, or out of, šehól/“the grave” Jb 33.22, Ps 30.3, 49.15, 86.13 or šakhát/“the pit”? Jb 33.28, Is 38.17, Jr 18.20 Or going to hell? Ps 16.10, 86.13, Pr 23.14 (Actually, those verses about “hell” are also about šehól/“the grave”; it’s just a quirk of the KJV that gives people the wrong idea.)

The reason we have verses like this, is because the Old Testament regularly uses “my soul” as a synonym for “me.”

Psalm 30.3 KWL
LORD, you lifted my soul out of the grave.
You made me live, rather than go down into the hole.

Hebrew poetry, y’know. Parallel ideas. “My soul” equals “me”; “the grave” equals “the hole.” Like Christians who like to refer to themselves as “my spirit” (as in “I just feel in my spirit…” when they simply mean “I just feel”), the ancient Hebrews liked to refer to themselves as their souls. But these aren’t theological statements about where the soul goes after death. It’s about where they go after death: Into the ground. Into a grave. Buried and awaiting resurrection.

How do we know this? ’Cause there are verses about destroying one’s soul. Sometimes God’ll destroy it. Lv 23.30 Sometimes evildoers. Ps 40.14, 63.9 Sometimes we ourselves, Pr 6.32 though arguably that means we’ve ruined our lives, not killed ourselves. And of course there’s Jesus’s not-all-that cryptic lesson about how people may not kill the soul, but God might. Mt 10.28

Fact is, the soul isn’t immortal. It can die.

So where’d our idea of an immortal soul come from? Simple: Eternal life. When we turn to Jesus, we get eternal life. Jn 3.16 Or if we’re using synonyms for “eternal” and “life,” immortal souls. But we don’t have ’em yet. Jesus is the resurrection: Once he resurrects us, and we live, we won’t die. Jn 11.25-26 Then we have immortal souls. Till then, everybody dies. Ro 5.12 But thanks to God’s grace, everybody can live. Ro 5.21

When I was a kid in Sunday school, our teacher told us animals don’t have souls. She got that wrong. Like I said, everything that’s alive has a soul. Animals, trees, bacteria, fungi: If it breathes, even if it breathes carbon dioxide, it has a soul. (Or word “animal” actually comes from the Latin anima/“soul.”) Why’d she believe animals don’t have souls? Because she didn’t believe animals have immortal souls—more precisely, she didn’t believe our pets went to heaven. ’Cause we kids kinda wanted our pets to go to heaven.

True, animals don’t have immortal souls. Neither do we humans—yet. As for whether pets go to heaven: The bible is silent on the issue. For good reason: You’ve seen how insane people can act towards their pets. Now imagine if they thought they needed to evangelize their pets. For that matter all animals. Yeah; it’d be bonkers. We have enough trouble getting Christians to evangelize our fellow humans, much less every species under heaven. It’s why God hasn’t told us a thing about other species. Our responsibility is only to share the gospel with one another. Not Fluffy and Fido.

As for the kids who want their pets to be in heaven with ’em: Maybe God has something set up for them. Maybe not. When you’re there, ask God. He can do anything; if you ask him rightly and sincerely, perhaps he’ll bring back your dead pets for you. That is, if you remember to make that request: You might find heaven distractingly awesome, and forget.

The soul, and amateur Christian psychology.

In Galatians and Romans, when Paul described how we humans tend to think about sin, he used the terms “flesh” and “spirit” to describe the different parts of our consciousness… which war against one another.

  • Flesh (Greek sarx) represents what the rabbis called the yecher ra/“inclination [towards] evil,” Berakot 9.5 the self-preservation instinct gone wrong, the self-centered, self-focused, selfish and sinful impulse.
  • Spirit (pnéfma) represents the yecher tov/“inclination [towards] good,” the Holy-Spirit-influenced, God-centered, God-focused, selfless and moral impulse.

Humanity’s problem is we listen to the flesh, not the spirit. Nor the Spirit.

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry (a field named for the Greek word psyhí/“soul,” y’notice), wasn’t unfamiliar with the bible. Nor unfamiliar with Paul’s discussions about flesh and spirit. But in trying to describe the human consciousness his way, he didn’t wanna use New Testament terms. Too much religious baggage attached to them; he didn’t want one of us Christians objecting, “That’s not what Paul meant.”

In his 1923 essay Das Ich und das Es (“The Ego and the Id”), Freud identified three parts of the consciousness, or soul:

  • Id (Latin for “it”): Our unconscious, unthinking, carnal desires. Our instincts. What Paul called “flesh.”
  • Superego (Latin for “greater-[than]-me”): Our ideals. The way we know things oughta be. What Paul called “spirit.”
  • Ego (Latin for “me”): The part of us which chooses between id and superego: Which to follow, which to suppress. The part which does the rational decision-making. Well… it’s not always rational. But it does pick a side.

Freud went way farther than Paul ever did: In his thinking, the id/“flesh” is entirely unconscious. We don’t think about it. When we do, once we do, it’s not id anymore—it’s ego. Really, the ego is more of a conscious id. For the most part we just follow our instincts. The flesh will not be denied.

For the longest time, Freud and psychiatry weren’t popular among Christians. A lot of that comes from Freud’s atheist ideas about God: Christians considered his work the fruit of a poisonous tree. Going to some psychiatrist to sort you out, instead of confessing your sins to fellow Christians, seemed… well, kinda devilish. (And Scientologists believe the very same way.) Even though psychiatry has a better success rate than confession alone, many Christians still eye it suspiciously.

So what some Christians have chosen to do is repackage Freudianism to make it sound more Christian. How they did it was to put Paul’s labels back on things: The id is “the flesh,” the superego is “the spirit,” and the ego is “the soul.” As you recall, “my soul” is a biblical synonym for “me,” and who’s gonna decide whether I follow the flesh or the spirit? Right you are: Me. My soul.

Here’s the problem: These Christians will use Paul’s terms “flesh” and “spirit,” but what the really have in mind is “id” and “superego”—as Freud defined ’em. Not the scriptures. Not Paul. Freud was right to use other terms for his ideas. Christians aren’t wrong to borrow Freud’s ideas—so long that we know they’re Freud’s ideas, ’cause we know Freud isn’t infallible. They are wrong to disguise Freud as bible. We need to be crystal clear about where our ideas come from.

If you’re talking about “my soul,” but really you mean Freud’s idea of the ego—and how the ego is the conscious id, and tends to follow our instincts—you’re gonna get a very inaccurate idea of the soul. It’s not gonna be a lifeforce. It’s instead gonna be an extension of our fleshly impulses. Or, as Christian pop psychology puts it, our “soulish” impulses.

Fleshly impulses, and your soul.

Here’s the problem with equating the soul with the Freudian concept of the ego: The scriptures describe the soul as being able to do righteous things. Not just bend towards unrighteous things.

  • Mary’s soul praised the Lord. Lk 1.46
  • David’s soul thirsted for God. Ps 63.1
  • The psalmist’s soul rested in God’s goodness. Ps 116.7
  • We’re to love God with all our soul. Mk 12.30
  • Jesus’s soul—hardly unrighteous!—grieved. Mk 14.34
  • Jesus’s soul was also troubled. Jn 12.27

See, when we talk about “soulish deeds” as if they’re negative, we forget Jesus had a soul. For that matter, the LORD describes himself as having a soul, Lv 26.30, Is 1.14, Jr 5.9, Zc 11.8 and how can we describe God’s “soulish” activities as anything other than righteous?

See, the soul is a lifeforce. God’s lifeforce is good. Ours can be good—if we commit it to God. If not, it’s gonna follow the flesh. It can go either way. Just like the id, in Freudian thinking, can choose either the id’s primal impulses, or the superego’s high ideals. When my soul gets disheartened or restless, I should say along with the psalmist,

Psalm 43.5 KWL
What’s your despair for, my soul? What’s your moaning within me?
Be patient with God. Keep praising him! My God is salvation before me.

But if I’m stuck on the false idea that negativity is typical soulish behavior, I’m not gonna correct my soul; I’m gonna reject it. I’m not gonna replace my negative emotions with positive ones. I’m gonna assume negativity, despair, or depression are my lot in life. And it’s not! My soul can follow God. And should.

The Christian soul, now that we’ve turned to God, now that we’re indwelt by the Holy Spirit, now that eternal life is our inheritance: The soul is no longer doomed to make fleshly, self-focused choices. Total depravity needn’t corrupt every little thing we do any longer. God’s our way out. He’s made our souls able to do good deeds, produce good fruit, and follow him. It’s wrong to equate “soulish” with evil.

So stop it.