For the Intersection of the Everyday and the Sacred

Continuing the discussion about Souls

Last week I posted a view that I consider to be the biblical view of the person and the soul, but which I readily acknowledge may not (in fact is likely not) the majority view. As way of brief summary, let me say that my view is essentially that the bible does not ever actually describe anything that might be considered an immaterial soul. You are not distinct from your physical body in the way that would mean the one who is really ‘you’ is simply inhabiting your body, and the ‘you’ (which we would call a soul) will one day eject from this physical body. I maintain that such an idea comes not from biblical revelation, but from Platonism, and that there is no evidence that the pre-Christian Hebrews nor that the Church prior to the second century ever entertained such an understanding of theological anthropology (the theological view of humanity, and by extension, discussion of the soul). In fact, I went on to claim that the evidence we do have for the views of the ancient Hebrews and pre-second century Christians was that there isn’t a soul that is distinct from our physical self.

I would now like to extend that conversation. I will first briefly note what this might mean for using the term ‘soul,’ which I acknowledge has a long history, a good portion of which may not necessarily be connected to platonic dualism. Then I would like to continue the discussion to see what this might mean (if it is in fact the accurate view) for our understanding of life after death. Or, phrased differently, according to my view, where would I say that our loved ones are right now? But first, let me talk briefly about the term ‘soul’ and how we might use it constructively or to affirm past theological discussion, even if we reject the “traditional” platonic understanding of it as an immaterial thing.

So what do I mean by soul, then?

For the sake of brevity, we might simply consider that the soul is another way of talking about identity. This is not the same as the so-called “emergent” thesis, because the emergent view of the soul still maintains the existence of an immaterial thing. According to the emergent view of the soul (which has no connection to the emergent church), the soul arises out of our physical self in the same way that software can emerge from computer hardware (which might be transferable), or a song emerges from instruments. In these views there is still an immaterial thing (information or a song) that is distinct and separate from the physical object.

In contrast, by speaking of the soul in terms of identity, we are saying that the soul is the defining characteristic of your physical body. So, while an emergent view of the soul indicates that the soul is not tied to any particular body once it emerges (or possibly any body), an identity view of the soul, as I’m giving it, says the soul must be tied to your particular body. What this does do, unfortunately, is complicate matters with identity, especially given the fact that our cells are constantly dieing and being replaced, and that even the very atoms seem to have a remarkable amount of changeover. However, these problems are not unique to this view of the soul. Instead, this particular view (of the soul as our identity) simply eliminates the intervening problem of such problems and focuses on the actual problem (i.e. if your brain is transplanted to another body and a different brain is in your body; or even more complicated, your brain is divided and put into two bodies: which resulting person is you. On other views of the soul, the problem would be which body does the soul interact with (or is it divided) in addition to the problem of identity).

What about those who have died? Where are they now?

Now, with regard to the second half, what do we do with life after death. Essentially, we are left with three different options:

  1. What is usually termed soul sleep (and odd name given the actual content of the position) is one espoused by Martin Luther (among others). It indicates that for the person who dies, from their perspective they lose consciousness. Their next conscious moment is the final day of history when all the dead are raised. So from our perspective they would be unconsciously in the ground awaiting resurrection and the transformation of their bodies, but from the perspective of the person who dies they go to sleep and immediately wake up for the general resurrection. This has the advantage of suggesting that people wake up in heaven with all their other believing relatives and friends, rather than “waiting” on them. It has the disadvantage, of course, of not being quite as comforting to those of us left behind. Our hope would need to be more future in orientation than immediate, it seems.
  2. Option 2 is a fairly recent one, and I first read about it in an article by philosopher Dean Zimmerman (formerly at Notre Dame, currently at Rutgers). It is, in some ways, built upon the “soul sleep” model and posits that at death a small physical particle (or “seed”) is transported to God and it is from this that we are recreated. Now, one direction it is not usually taken (which I don’t see why it couldn’t be taken this way) is that the “seed” is transformed at that point in time. This would be one possible way to speak of us being in heaven with God. The clear problem (and likely why it has not been seriously taken this direction) is that this would be problematic when we move to speaking of the final resurrection of the dead. In the popular dualistic model people can argue that are immaterial souls are reunited with our resurrected bodies, but in a “seed” model where one is recreated in heaven immediately following death makes the later resurrection of your body moot.
  3. The final option, and the one which I tend to lean towards, takes into account the two very different structures of time: our experience of time as discreet sequenced events (i.e. each event is entirely distinct from the ones before and after it), and God’s experience (as the immanent Trinity) or eternity (or the absence of time). Since God’s time is not bound by the non-irreversibility of time we are able to say that God exists both now and in the future at the end of history. From the perspective of God in his eternal self, then, the resurrection of the dead is occurring. Thus, from one account of time, our bodies lay in the ground awaiting the resurrection of the dead. But on the other account of time, all of those who have already died are already present with the LORD. So in one manner of speaking we may very truly say that our brothers and sisters in Christ who have died are already present with God. Not only that, but when we really consider the nature of eternity, we can even say that they are not only present with God already, but they are present with our resurrected selves as well (as well as all of their descendents who have followed Christ in faith). It’s a bit odd to think about, but it nevertheless remains that in a very real sense we are already with our “dearly departed” in heaven.

Well, mine may not be the most popular view, and I’m certainly aware that I may be completely wrong. Still, I know mine is a minority view and I’d love to know what you think. There was a good bit of conversation last week and I think it would be good to have that again this week.


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11 thoughts on “Continuing the discussion about Souls

  1. I’m with you on option 3, Trey, and have been for a long time.

    C.S. Lewis used the analogy of a train journey for time when talking about how God could give all of His attention to each of us at any moment, the idea being that God is not on the train and so has all of the “other” directions to come at it from (Lewis put it better, but I don’t have the book to hand at the moment).

    I have thought of death in a similar manner: If time, and life, is us on the train forced to go forwards along the track, then death takes us off the train and off the track into the eternal now of God. Thus, as you say, the resurrection occurs for us at that point, which it turns out is the same point for everyone. Note that this doesn’t mean that the train journey won’t end at some point (the “day of judgement”), though it doesn’t necessitate it either.

  2. Well stated, Trey! I tend to lean in your direction. Not only is God’s “time” different than ours, we live in a three dimensional world. How many “dimensions” has God created. Some scientists believe there are as many as six or more. We can’t begin to fathom what He has made! Thanks for sharing … Dave 🙂

  3. I was reading your first two perspectives and the whole time I was thinking I hope he considers the difference in time (temporal vs. eternal). I lean towards that position as well. I have not, as of yet, studied a lot of scriptures with the subject in mind.

    Dave, quantum physicists now believe there are at least 11 dimensions. I am not an expert on the subject (I don’t think I even qualify as an amateur), but I do love to listen to people who are experts. Imagining the 10th dimension by Rob Bryanton is a great video series.

    In one video he talks about the possibility that in higher dimensions possible universes that are larger (i.e. have better outcomes) create a sort of gravity, so that the best possible outcome is drawing all other possibilities to itself.

    • I wouldn’t mess around with Rob Bryanton’s stuff. It’s not all that accurate (and sadly less helpful than it seems). At least with his first video set of “imagining the 10th dimension.” It’s fine through the first three dimensions, but starts to get messy with number four, and then just completely blows it on the other dimensions. The thing is, there is no one dimension that is “the” fourth dimension (just no one dimension is the third, or second, or fifth). We can say that our observable space time is four dimensions, but we could easily say that time is the second, or third, or first, etc. Also, when you go to higher dimensions it’s a bit more complex than compressing previous dimensions down to a point (you can’t really do that) and another dimension is not the same as a “fold” or mobius strip. When scientists talk about multiple dimensions, they mean for them to be taken as occuring in our single universe (of space-time). Bryanton has unfortunately mixed together various (and competing) theories from quantum physics of the multiverse, string theory, and loop quantum gravity (he says little about the last one, but it is one of the other serious competitors). If you can find the clip from Carl Saagan’s “The Universe” where he talks about the four dimensional equivalent of a cube/square (i.e. who’s measurements along all four axes are equal) and the “shadow” it would produce in three dimensions we can get a better idea of what multiple dimensions are actually like.
      Multiple dimensions are actually mathematical measurments and it is theoretically possible to arrive at a very high number of dimensions mathematically. The reason that 10 (or 11 apparently, though I hadn’t heard that) seems to be at the top end of the number is because the math begins to break down if we get any higher. Whether this is just an inherent quality of the math or we simply can’t figure out the math is up for debate as I understand it.
      Superstring theory does make use of multiple mathematical dimensions, but not in the way that Bryanton seems to think it does (again he mixes up competing theories and doesn’t quite get any of them right). Physicists, for the most part, don’t really need to “imagine” these upper dimensions (though it might be helpful, they recognize that such exercises are limited and may be inaccurate), instead theoretical physics is more concerned that the math works. Experimental physics (which is not as widespread when dealing with these) simply takes observable data and sees how well it does or does not match up with what would be predicted by the theoretical models (thus either adding confirmation or making it less likely, in which case either the measurement was wrong or the theory needs to be tweeked).
      In sum, while I watched the videa and thought it was interesting a few years back, after speaking with people engaged in physics and mathematics, they pointed out what should have been obvious to me (but wasn’t because it is a slick presentation), that the presentation just isn’t all that accurate.

  4. Mr. Medley,

    In regards to your concept of us being with the Lord already while, according to our linear thinking and experience, living here on Earth, I quite agree that this seems like a “best solution.” In fact, it is one that my friends and I have kicked around for many years.

    In regards to the soul, this is, for me, a much more intriguing notion. I have generally accepted the Platonic version of man as a spirit, soul and body. Your idea is really different and has a lot of implications for how I read scripture. Rather than speculate further on what seems to me to be a perfectly obvious notion of time (If I could conceive of it, it couldn’t be very difficult!), could you elaborate further on your notion of a soul? For example, what did pre-Christian Jewish scholars consider the soul to be? Did they even have a definition?


    • The word in the Old Testament generally translated “soul” is the Hebrew nephesh (transliterated) which more commonly means “life” or “life force.” Pre-Christian Jewish scholars had no concept of an immaterial soul, they merely understood the life/life-force of a person to be their God-given identity, but not really distinct from the physical person.

  5. Last week you expressed how the idea of a soul being distinct from the body can lead to rationalizing sins against the body. However, the idea that a soul is merely one’s conscious self creates similar problems. If the soul is merely one’s conscious self, then what of those people who have diminished capacity, mental disability or mental illness? In the past, this tendency to equate the soul with one’s conscious self has justified treating people who were perceived to have diminished capacity, mental disability or mental illness as mere animals. It has been used to justify racism, sexism and poor treatment of the elderly.

    As physical beings, we tend to place greater emphasis on physical truth, e.g. something is not true if it is not measurable through the scientific method. For instance, that is why people have tried to conduct scientific research on whether prayer works. However, there are some things which we are not able to measure physically because they are spiritual. Things like prayer working, angels, the soul, morality. Although there may be physical evidence of these things, we cannot measure the truth of these things through the scientific method or through any other physical way. Our conscious self can be measured, to some extent, using the scientific method because our conscious self is physical. However, I believe that our soul is more than just our conscious self; it is something spiritual; that breath of God to give us life.

    I don’t have the benefit of a seminary education so I don’t know what is in the texts that were used to translate the Bible into English, but the Psalms are full of verses which mention the mind, heart or spirit. Psalm 51, for example, uses both the words heart and spirit (HCS translation). Is the Psalmist just using different words to mean the same thing?

    • I don’t mean to say that our “soul” is our “consciousness” (though I may have said/implied that by my language choice), but is instead our “identity.” In looking at Old Testament passages that use the terms translated soul and spirit we do need to put them in context. The word most frequently translated “soul” is the hebrew (transliterated) “nephesh” and the word most frequently translated “spirit” is the hebrew (transliterated) “ruah” (or ruach, it’s a hard ‘h’). Often times, the word ruah refers to the Spirit of God, often present with us. In part of Psalm 51 this seems to be the case (v. 11), but other times it doesn’t seem it can mean God’s spirit (v. 17). As a side note the word more commonly means “wind.” The word “nephesh” more commonly means “life” or “life-force.” So we might understand it as identity (as I have taken it) or as the thing that keeps us alive.

      In order to get at the meaning of these two words, it may helpful to go back to one of their earliest uses in the bible. Both words (nephesh and ruah) are used in the Genesis 2 account of the creation of man. God “breathes the breath of life” into the man. Or God “blows (a verbal form of ruah) the ruah of nephesh” into the man. Thus it seems that these are related to life, living, life-force in some way. The terms also seem to be largely (though not always) interchangeable in reference to humans. We do the same thing with “soul” and “spirit” today. Whatever the case may be, I think we can all agree that these are things which have their origin in God, but are in some way part of who we are (or identical with who we are?). I think that we can take nephesh to be simply “life” (in fact sometimes that makes better sense of a verse than “soul” because people can’t take souls from other people in the sense they are commonly understood). And I think we should take “ruah” to be something like the essential quality or essence of our being. We use spirit in this way sometimes (“the spirit of the age,” “the spirit of the law,” etc.) and that seems to be how the Old Testament Hebrews (prior to understanding the Trinity) understood “Spirit of God” (The presence of God in his essential character). Given that, I think we can probably continue to use Spirit, so long as we don’t take it, when used of people, to be this immaterial thing. Using Spirit in this sense works well with Psalm 51. David does not want God to abandon him and is expressing that, at that moment, the defining characteristic of his being is “broken” before God.

      Nephesh as life does not exclude “identity,” in fact sometimes when we talk about someone’s “life” this is what we mean, but it is not limited to that. [Though I should mention that a large number of German Philosophers of History (following from Wilhelm Dilthey) seem to think that identity can only be known genuinely in reference to the whole of a live life.] I think, therefore, that “life” may be a better way to understand the term than “soul.” Sometimes the word should just mean “life.” In those instances where “life” can be taken to be “identity” we may still have room for debate about how useful/necessary “soul” is as a term. I will likely, however, continue to use the term “soul” for practical reasons.

      With respect to those with diminished mental capacity (either through disease, injury, or from birth), I think understanding “soul” as “identity” still works well enough. Who they are, what there identity is, is not limited to who they appear to be at any point in time, but extends well beyond that, to something beyond what we can observe. While we may begin to grasp our own identity through conscious awareness, we don’t fully gain an understanding of identity this way. In the same way, those with a diminished mental capacity have an identity that is broader than their present experience as such a person (though I do think it includes elements of that present experience). Identity is a bit of an interesting way to take it, though, because it’s not a “thing” in the same way a platonic soul is, and it is also immaterial. Taking into account the omnipotence and omniscience of God, then, our identity is only fully known by God, who granted it to us by attending to our very conception and development in the womb and beyond.

      While I recognize the dangerous shift to only take seriously those things that can be physically quantified, I don’t think this is necessarily the case. Social sciences, for instance, exist in this odd area of studied things that can almost quantified, and almost qualified, but don’t exist in either (somewhere between hard sciences and humanities). Whereas the humanities are not generally quantifiable at all. Literature analysis cannot be measured in that way. Philosophy deals with broader concepts. Yet much work in these fields assumes an entirely materialist understanding of the world. Mathematics, too, exist in a weird realm as it is unclear (and subject to debate) whether mathematics correspond to reality, exist merely as pragmatic tools, or are instead pure abstractions with no necessary real world correspondence even if they are often used in that way. In other words, I don’t think that saying we don’t have separate immaterial souls means necessarily that we diminish all non-material things. In fact it seems very difficult to continue speaking of God in anything other than non-material terms.

      In the end, I recognize I could be wrong about this. However, I do want to emphasize that the popular way of understanding the soul is not the only way to understand it and that there are many in Church history and pre-Christian Hebrew history who did not have a concept of the immaterial soul as it is now popularly conceived. I believe thinking of the soul in this way could really change the way we read the bible and think about God, his historical acts, and especially the incarnation of God in Christ. Sorry if this response seemed to ramble; I’m writing it kind of stream of consciousness, so I may not have filtered well.

  6. Pingback: Do You Have A Soul? « Christianity 201

  7. “I believe thinking of the soul in this way could really change the way we read the bible and think about God, his historical acts, and especially the incarnation of God in Christ.” Yes it does. Also our attitude to death, grief, disability etc. http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2012/featured-article/defining-conditionalism-conditional-immortality/
    What about the soul? By Joel Green might also be of interest http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2010/book-review/review-of-body-soul-and-human-life-the-nature-of-humanity-in-the-bible-by-joel-b-green/

  8. Pingback: Where is heaven « whytheology

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