Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Soul man

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.

Hebrews 4:12
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...


jojo said...

Ricky, can you tell me about your theological persuasion? It would help me understand your perspective. PS I tried to continue an answer to your last post (twice), but was not able to get it to go.

Ricky Carvel said...


Your comments have to wait to be moderated by me before they appear on the blog. I usually do this within a day. Your comments (and my response) are now on the other post.

Regarding my theological persuasion, hmmm, tricky. I guess previous post in this blog should fill you in.

I was raised in a presbyterian church which emphasised the word over all else. Charismatic gifts and any form of spiritual experience were dismissed. It was a very dry variant of Christianity. I learned a lot about the bible through 17 years of exposure to this but actually couldn't become a Christian in this environment. There was little or no life. What I saw in that church didn't match up to John 10v10: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

When I left home I attended church and other Christian events out of a sense of obligation to my parents. It was there that I saw the Spirit working in Christians and I saw others experiencing and living 'life to the full'. In other words, I saw that Christianity was much more than simply words.

I became a Christian and experienced the Spirit of God.

But. I am also a trained scientist. I have degrees in Physics, Chemistry and Engineering. I have to use my brain on a daily basis. I'm the sort of person who has to question things.

So where I find myself is this. I know (through experience) that there is a God. I believe many things about that God, some based on the bible, some based on experience, some based on the teachings of others, but which of those beliefs (if any) are true?

That is what I am trying to work through in this blog.

Ricky Carvel said...

Oh, and for what it's worth, I try not to ally myself too strongly with any particular Christian denomination. On census forms etc, I usually choose 'Christian: other' as my 'religion'. I currently attend an episcopal church but have also spent time as part of two baptist churches, one presbyterian, one anglican and an independent evangelical church.

jojo said...

Yo, Ricky....
if the "life" wasn't there, don't be surprised. Even though the "word" was preached, it may only have been out of formality...I've seen it before. I believe that the fullness of life that you seek cannot be found in a charasmatic setting either. What really matters is, if you consider yourself a Christian, that you come to know Christ on a deeper level. In whatever way it works out afterwards, charasmatic or otherwise, is beside the point. I believe you know this. The reformers went to great lengths to stress this very point. While the form and facade were there, people were kept from the truth (that would set them free). I'm a new blogger, and I've posted a few links on my page just tonight....links that I hope you and others can get answers to the questions we all have. Faith is never without reason, and reason is the fuel of true faith. Check out the links on my page:

jojo said...

Ricky, the way I see it, the soul is a combination of body and spirit, and we all have one. At death the two are separated; at the resurrection they are reunited.
Christ, in John 3, is not saying that being born again is your spiritual birth, that you have no spirit before that event, rather, he is saying that being born again is a spiritual rebirth. This was in response to Nicodemus' asking, "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" Nicodemus was hung up on doing something to obtain entrance into the kingdom. Christ tells him, "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." In essense Christ is rebuking "Israel's teacher" because his focus was on a fleshly activity rather than on the activity of the Spirit. "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the spirit." (See Ezekiel 36:27 and John 6:35-65).

Ricky Carvel said...

What does 'rebirth' actually mean?

In John 3, Jesus says you must have two births, one 'of flesh' and one 'of spirit'. Everyone alive has had the 'flesh' birth but not necessarily the 'spirit' one.

The use of the concept of birth in this context does imply that the second event is the start of life in some way. From the context it does seem that spiritual life is non-existant before this event.

In John 6:53, Jesus says something similar regarding communion:
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

Once again, the concept that Christians have life and everybody else doesn't...

jojo said...

You are right in saying that we must have two births, and that the implication of the second event is the start of life in some way. Although we are born with a body and a spirit, both are corrupt; this is what scripture teaches. Therefore, we are born dead and we go about as dead men until God intervenes. Paul, in Ephesians 2 makes this clear, "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions---it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith---and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God---not by works, so that no one can boast."
So then, although we are born dead and walk about as dead men, we cannot know what life is until God does a work in us. This is what the concept of being born again is all about. Afterwards, we patiently await the redemption of our bodies at the resurrection. At that point both renewed spirit and renewed body are joined again as a renewed, incorruptable soul.

Ricky Carvel said...


You say:
'Although we are born with a body and a spirit, both are corrupt; this is what scripture teaches.'

The thing is, here we are discussing that the scripture clearly teaches not that we have a corrupt spirit, but that before being born again we either have no spirit or a dead spirit.

Where does the scripture teach that we have a corrupt (yet living?) spirit? (before being born again, I assume you mean).


jojo said...

As far as having no spirit before being born again, I have to disagree. James 2:26 says, "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead." Also, Paul in 1Cor 2:11 says, "For who knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him?" Now, as far as having a corrupt (yet living) spirit before being born again, go back to the Ephesians 2 passage I quoted earlier. He says, "you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live..." and, "All of us also lived among them at one time..." He goes on to say, "Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath." So, he is saying that while we were "alive", we were also counted as being "dead" because we were doomed (objects of God's wrath). This is what you might equate with having a dead spirit, which by grace through faith has been given new life (born again). He says, "God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions---it is by grace that you have been saved."