What is the soul? This question has been asked and answered many times over the years. And the answers to this question vary considerably. The nature of the soul is challenging to define fully, and I make no claims to having anything like a complete understanding of the topic. But this article will take a brief survey of the Bible and see what it has to say.
The Soul in Greek Thought
It may seem strange to discuss the Greek conception of the soul in a paper about what the Bible teaches. But it is important to understand some of the influence that Greek thought has had on the Christian perspective of the soul.
For the early Greek philosophers, the soul was quite distinct from the body, forming a dualism. The soul was immortal but imprisoned within a mortal body.
Many of their schools of thought held that the souls are housed in a series of physical bodies until they become virtuous enough to finally escape the cycle. This is similar to the reincarnation of eastern religions, and it may be that the Greeks were somewhat influenced.
While Christianity rightly rejects the idea of reincarnation, the duality of soul and body is a concept that is shared with many Christian thinkers. A look into what the scriptures say will help determine if that view is valid or not.
The Soul in the Old Testament
The Hebrew word nepeš is the word translated as “soul” in the Old Testament. It is found 754 times in the Old Testament and is also translated into a variety of other English words, including being, life, me, you, heart, people, and creature.
Most of us are familiar with the account of God’s forming of Adam in Genesis chapter 2. God formed him from the dust, breathed into him the breath of life, and he became a living soul (nepeš) or being. But this is not the first usage of nepeš in the creation account.
In Genesis 1:20, God created the living creatures (nepeš) that inhabited the seas. And in Genesis 1:24, God created living creatures (nepeš) on the land according to their kinds. And finally, in Genesis 1:30, God gave the green plants to everything that had the breath (nepeš) of life in it.
Some other places where nepeš is used are shown below:
“Adam named every living creature (nepeš)” (Genesis 2:19). “God will demand an accounting for the life (nepeš) of a human” (Genesis 9:5).
“Abram took his wife, Lot, their possessions, and all of the people (nepeš) they had acquired in Harran and went to Canaan” (Genesis 12:5). “The angels told Lot and his family to flee for their lives (nepeš)” (Genesis 19:17).
“Shechem’s heart (nepeš) was drawn to Diana” (Genesis 34:3). “For a serious injury, you are to take life (nepeš) for life (nepeš)” (Exodus 21-23).
“If any member (nepeš) of the community sins unintentionally” (Leviticus 4:27). “Priests must not go near a dead body (nepeš)” (Leviticus 21:11).
“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul (nepeš) and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
As you can see from this brief list, the Old Testament concept of the soul is not what we often think about. In the Old Testament, every living creature is a soul (nepeš), not just humans.
And nepeš is used to refer to the whole person, not just some non-corporeal part of the person. A nepeš can die, and it can be acquired by another person as a slave. All those usages are contrary to how most of us think of the soul.
The one passage listed above that could be used to support a soul distinct from the body is Deuteronomy 6:5.
But considering other uses of nepeš, you have to wonder if the Deuteronomy passage is listing discrete parts of a person or if it is referring to the whole person and all that they are.
The Soul in the New Testament
In the New Testament, the Greek word psychē is the word translated as soul. This word is found in the New Testament 102 times and is also translated as life, heart, mind, you, and man, among many others, with life being the most common word.
Psychē is frequently used to refer to the whole person. But at other times, it is distinct from the body.
The following list will give you a sampling of how this word is used in the New Testament:
“Do not worry about your life (psychē), what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25).
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (psychē). Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul (psychē) and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life (psychē) as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
“Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life (psychē) for the sheep” (John 10:15).
“Men who have risked their lives (psychē) for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26).
The passage in Matthew 6:25, at first glance, seems to separate psychē and body. But if that is really the case in this passage, you would have to consider what value food and drink have to a non-corporeal entity.
This would seem to be more a matter of parallelism where psychē and body are just two different ways of saying the same thing.
Matthew 10:28 is clearer in its distinction between the psychē and the body. Satan can destroy the body but cannot harm the psychē.
1 Thessalonians 5:23 also supports a distinction between the body and the psychē, although it adds a third component, the spirit.
But if we consider the psychē as an immortal non-corporeal part of us, then the passages that refer to laying down our psychē or risking our psychē become more challenging.
And when Jesus laid down his psychē for us, he was certainly referring to his physical life rather than giving up his immortal self.
Most of the time, it seems like psychē is used in a very similar fashion to nepeš, referring to the whole person. The physical and spiritual components of life are tightly bound together. At least until separated by physical death.
The Soul and the Body
It should be clear from the way that nepeš and psychē are used in the Bible that a clear distinction between body and soul, our corporeal and non-corporeal parts, is not supported. That distinction is one that has been adopted into Christianity from Greek thought.
In the scriptures, I am a soul rather than a soul living in a body. While some passages support some form of distinction between the two, the bulk of the Scripture does not make that distinction. So much so that at death, it is the soul that is said to die.
The great creatures of the sea and the beasts living on the land are also identified as souls. A soul is a living, breathing, and probably thinking being. It is not unique to humans. What is unique to us is that death is not the end for us.
The Soul after Death
So, what happens when the physical part of me ceases to function? When I die? What happens to the non-corporeal part of me, that part we often identify as the soul?
I have written more about that here. But in short, we are, for a time, unclothed. Absent from our bodies but present with the Lord. And looking forward to the resurrection at the end of the age when we will again be united with a body and be complete.
What Does This Mean?
So, what is the soul? Is it more than just the non-corporeal part of a person? The Bible seems to teach that it is. The soul is an integrated living being comprising both physical and non-physical parts. And that is true of both humans and animals.
While a distinction might be drawn between the corporeal and non-corporeal parts of a person, it is like drawing a distinction between a person’s arm and leg.
They are not the same thing, but they are both necessary for a complete person. Even so, both the physical and non-physical portions of me are necessary for a complete person, a soul.
A soul will be temporarily unclothed in death. But, at least for believers, that unclothed state is temporary. At the resurrection at the end of the age, it will be reclothed with a new body, one that will last for eternity.