In my other blog, I posted an article about teleporters, like the ones you get in Star Trek. My friend Marcus responded with a long comment (that, due to an error, I have only just read) that took the discussion in a whole different direction. Essentially, he questioned the issue of the soul, which set me thinking...
What is the 'soul' and does everybody have one?
A quick search on an online concordance reveals that the word 'soul' (or 'souls') appears 113 times in the Old Testament (NIV) and the context of the word in virtually every instance is that of 'the depths of my being' - most instances of the word are in terms of doing something with 'all your heart and all your soul'. There is no suggestion of an immortal soul in the Old Testament, or that the soul is in any way distinct from the being or body. Specifically, there is no suggestion that the soul is that part of you which lives on after the body has died.
In the New Testament, several of the (23) instances of the word soul (in NIV again) are in exactly the same context as in the OT, that is, the soul is the 'being'. However there are a few verses which add an extra dimension:
Matthew 10:28 (and similar verses in other gospels)
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Here we find the belief, as uttered by Jesus himself, that the soul lives on after the body has died. Note that the soul can be destroyed in hell, not tormented or punished as is generally believed. Also note that both the body and soul are destroyed in hell, not the soul alone.
But the verse in Hebrews is a tricky one. It suggests that the soul and the spirit are not the same thing, but can be separated.
Here are Marcus's words in the comment he made:
'I'm not sure if I [believe in the soul]. Which may be shocking, but as a Christian, I find the classic "soul" to be a rather un-Christian idea. I mean, whilst St Paul does make a flesh/spirit divide, and whilst St John has overtones of the same, neither of them has a doctrine of the soul as the-spiritual-bit-of-us-that-lives-on-and-goes-to-heaven. [...] For the new Testament writers, the whole flesh/spirit thing isn't dualism (flesh is bad, spirit is good, so let's pretend we have no flesh just like Jesus didn't really have any, he just looked like it) but rather a way of seeing the world under the sphere of God's influence, and the world outside God's rule. '
He then went on to make an astounding observation:
'Look at John 3. Jesus clearly says that you don't have a spiritual life unless you have a beginning to that life which is a separate thing to beginning fleshly life. Yet we aren't then two persons, or one person in two bits, but a whole person able to wholly exist (and not perish) in God's love. That doesn't seem to me to say "everyone has a soul".'
Whoa! Marcus, you're right, in John 3 Jesus really does say that being 'born again' is your spiritual birth - that you have no spirit before that event. This has astounding implications for almost our whole theology of death, heaven and hell. If only those who are born again have a spiritual component which lives beyond death, then many of the problems associated with the 'how can a God of love send people to hell?' question can be resolved. But then again, Jesus does speak of hell too, so this can't be the only answer.
Now I'm confused. I'll need to think more on this, but I'd welcome your comments here before I say more...
Several days later...
Rather than post a comment on this blog, Marcus phoned me up last night. (In my experience, having a blog has actually reinforced a few friendships in the real world - I've kept up with folk online, but this has rolled over into real life too. Which is good.) We talked about many things but eventually got around to the subject of the soul again. Here are a few thoughts which came out of that chat:
What is hell? What does Jesus say about hell? Well, he tended to refer to hell in terms of Gehenna, which was the rubbish tip outside Jerusalem where 'the fire is not quenched'. This has been taken to imply eternal suffering in hell, but when you think about what is said, it really does look like Jesus talks in terms of people being destroyed in hell - the rubbish wasn't kept in Gehenna forever, it was burned and destroyed. And although I am always cautious to try and draw specific meaning out of Revelation, the same sense is apparent there - the 'lake of fire' at the judgement (Rev 20) is the 'second death' - that implies destruction rather than eternal torment.
The bible only speaks in terms of a physical resurrection. We have bodies now. We will have bodies when we are resurrected. OK, so they may be changed (1 Cor 15) a bit, but they will be bodies. There is no need for a concept of 'the part of you that lives on without a body' because there is no part of you that will live on without a body. We will always have bodies. OK, so there may be an apparent discontinuity of existence between when our earthly bodies die (sometime in the next 70 years or so) and when our new bodies are resurrected (at the end of 'time') but for us there will be no discontinuity - we leave this world and are resurrected in eternity. Eternity does not follow after time in a linear manner.
There were other things we discussed, which I may blog about in the future, but that's enough for now. Marcus pointed to Tom ('N.T.') Wright as an authority on these matters, so I may go away and read some of his writings on the subject. Watch this space for future thoughts...