Do you have soul?
I imagine that most Christians believe they have a soul. I imagine most believers of all faiths believe in the soul, though what they mean by the term “soul” varies considerably. Surprising then is how unclear the concept of the soul is within Christianity itself. The Bible has two different accounts of the fate of the soul, and attempts to reconcile them are clumsy.
Some passages of the Bible suggest that when you die, your soul goes immediately to heaven. Jesus promised this to the thief hanging on the cross beside him when he says “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) At other times, Jesus referred to resurrection as ῇ ἀναστάσει, which most likely refers to the raising up of the dead at the end of the present age (Matthew. 22:29-33).
Other books of the Bible emphasize the resurrection of the body.
It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. (1 Corinthians 15:42-43)
The resurrection of the body at the end of days is so central to Christianity that it is included in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.
How these two views are reconciled.
The usual way these two views are reconciled is:
- Our soul goes immediately to heaven, where it resides in the Lord’s presence.
- Our body is buried until the day of resurrection.
- When Christ returns, we will be raised bodily from the grave.
- Body and soul reunited, we will be with the Lord forever.
It works but it’s clumsy.
I used to think the resurrection of the body was a weird idea. I still do, but I see its advantages. It is frequently argued that the Christian concept of the soul came from Plato, for whom the soul (psyche) is separate from the body, and always longing to be free of the body.
Plato has Socrates’ last words as these.
Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay our debt and no forgetting. (Phaedo 118 a-b)
Socrates wasn’t delirious from the poison he had been forced to drink. Asclepius was the god of healing. When a person who had been ill recovered, it was traditional to make an offering to the god. Socrates is saying that embodied life is itself like an illness. Health is the separation of the soul from the body, so that it can consort with the eternal Ideas, or forms (eidos). It’s not difficult to see how Plato was Christianized (or was Christianity Platonized?).
The advantage of emphasizing the resurrection of the body is that it asserts the value of the body and its experiences. The soul is not body, but it is distributed throughout the body so that soul experience is body experience (though not just body experience), which was roughly Aristotle’s view (De anima, 408b, 414a). It’s not difficult to see how Saint Augustine baptized Aristotle, so to speak.
Too often Christianity has been directed against the body, as though bodily needs, pleasures, and desires are bad. The embodied soul reminds us that we are not just our bodies, but we are also our bodies.
What is the soul?
From one perspective, the soul is just me: my sense of myself as a continuous entity over time, including my hopes, loves, and dreams. The ancient Greek term for soul, psyche (ψυχή), lends itself to this psyche-logical perspective.
George McDonald made the wise remark, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” Personhood is not based on having a body. A soul is required. Consider the physicist Stephen Hawking. His body is almost useless; he communicates using a single cheek muscle attached to a speech-generating device. Perhaps his body is a burden, but no one would question his rich personhood.
What’s God got to do with it?
The problem with making personhood the defining dimension of the soul is that the soul is left to itself. If I am my soul, what’s God got to do with it? Is he just a judge sitting on a white throne waiting to send me to heaven or hell? (Revelation 20:11-15)
I think it makes more sense to see our souls as merged with God at the same time as he breathed the breath of life into us. (Genesis 2:7). Pneuma (πνεῦμα), breath, is another word for soul.
Our souls do not belong to God, or if they do then we have the power to make them our own. But exercising this power is risky business, for we will have exiled ourselves from the presence that unites the universe.
Ashes to stardust
That the soul is sacred, shared in some way with God, does not mean that it is immortal in any personal sense. It will soon be Ash Wednesday, and we are reminded that we are mere mortals, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as it says in the Book of Common Prayer. The committal continues “in sure and certain hope of resurrection unto eternal life.”
I’m not exactly what “sure and certain hope” is. If it’s certain, then it’s not hope. If it’s not certain, then it’s just hope. I think it should run like this, “ashes to ashes, dust to stardust.”
We are stardust is not just a line from Joni Mitchell at Woodstock. Astrophysicists agree.
Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes. (Iris Schrijver)
At death we return to the basic elements of which we are made, and the cycle starts all over again. Our souls are sacred, an expression of the One who made it all, but the soul is not personal. It is what we share with God and the universe.
Do I know this? Of course not. It’s just a likely story, but one that has soul.
Karel Schrijver and Iris Schrijver, Living with the stars: How the human body is connected to the life cycles of the earth, the planets, and the stars. Oxford University Press, 2015.