death, soul

Frank Answers About the Soul

Question: In your blog articles you have written about the resurrection of the body. If we are body and soul, when do we get a soul and what happens to the soul when the body dies?

Frank answers: Soul has been a confusing concept for Christianity. The Hebrew nephesh has been translated as “soul,” but it really means a “living being.” The Greek word for “soul” is psyche, from which we derive the term “psychology”. It can mean the life principle or the self. The Latin word for “soul” is anima, which means “alive” (as in “animated”).

Concepts of the soul have entered Christian thought from philosophy, not from the Bible. In Plato’s thought the soul was the non-bodily seat of reason, passion, and desire—precisely those things that animate us. But he thought of the soul as the spark of immortality in human beings; it precedes us and survives the death and decay of the body. Aristotle, in his book On the Soul (Peri Psyche), does not think of the soul as something separate from the body but as that which makes the body alive. Early Christian thinkers were influenced by Neo-Platonism which thought of the soul as a non-corporeal substance or essence. Augustine regarded the soul as a substance that uses the body, but also tried to emphasize the unity of body and soul. Thomas Aquinas retrieved Aristotle’s position and emphasized body and soul as principles of a living organism, not as two separate substances.

When does the soul join the body (ensoulment)? Religion and philosophy have differed on this. It has been a matter of discerning when the embryo shows signs of life and relationship. In the time of Aristotle it was widely believed that the human soul entered the forming body at 40 days (male embryos) or 90 days (female embryos). Views have varied from defining ensoulment at the moment of conception to the child taking the first breath after being born. Some have argued that ensoulment occurs at the formation of the nervous system and brain. Others have said that ensoulment occurs when the fetus is able to survive independently of the uterus (viability).

Obviously this has played an important role in the debates concerning abortion. The early Christians categorically condemned abortion as murder even though they didn’t yet have a well-formed concept of the soul. Yet Aquinas could see that the soul developed only after the body was conceived. Christianity must reject the idea of a pre-existent soul because the soul is inextricably linked with the body. Nor can the soul thrive after the death of the body because immortality was taken away from human beings as a consequence of the fall into sin. “The wages of sin is death,” as Paul said.

But then what happens to the soul at death? Scripture says very little about what happens to the soul between death and the Day of Judgment when Christ returns. It speaks more clearly about the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day, and the eternal life (or death) that will follow. “I believe in…the resurrection of the body” is an article of faith in the Apostles’ Creed.

As for the soul, some Christians believe in what is called “soul sleep.” The soul “sleeps” with the body in death until the resurrection. Proponents of this view hold that at death the soul does not leave the body; both soul and body sleep until the Day of Christ’s return. The soul has no consciousness as it sleeps; it is aware of nothing. This view is based on the biblical passages that speak of death as sleep (or unconsciousness). For example Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus had fallen asleep (John 11:11, 14). Stephen’s death is described as falling asleep (Acts 7:59). Paul describes Christians who had died in Thessalonica as “asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). In the Old Testament, we are told that David “slept with his fathers” (1 Kings 2:10), a phrase that is used to describe the death of many. Obviously, “sleep” is being used metaphorically in these and other passages since the dead are not literally sleeping as we know sleep with its purpose of renewing the body and mind.

To stress the unconsciousness of soul sleep, the soul sleep proponents refer to such Old Testament passages as Psalm 6:5, which says, “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks”? (KJV) They also cite Ecclesiastes 9:5, “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten” (KJV). This is why the Jewish wisdom tradition emphasizes living life to the full here and now.

Some have pointed to Scripture texts that suggest that the soul leaves the body at death. The gospels tell us that at the moment of his death, Jesus prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” and that “he yielded up his spirit” (Luke 23:46; Mt 27:50). Acts 7:59-60 describes the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, this way: “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Luke is consciously paralleling the death of Stephen with the death of Jesus. Ecclesiastes 12:7 describes death in these terms: “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” However, in all these passages it is the spirit (ruach, pneuma) that leaves the body, not the soul (psyche).  The fact that some translations use “soul” rather than “life” or “spirit” is the reason it is important (at least for pastors) to know enough Greek to look up what word the text actually uses. The spirit is the life-giving breath that comes from God. We would say that someone stopped breathing, which is one of the signs of death. This is a subtle but consequential distinction since “soul” carries with it so much philosophical weight in our understanding. These passages are simply stating that life went out of their bodies.

Several of the stories of the dead being raised in the Bible describe the life or spirit  returning to the body. First, there is the example of Elijah raising the widow’s son from the dead. “Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again. The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; and the life of the child came into him again, and he revived” (1 Kings 17:21-22). A second example is Jesus’ raising of Jairus’s twelve year old daughter from the dead. “And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and he called out, ‘Child, get up’. Her spirit returned, and she got up at once” (Luke 8:53-55). In neither case is the text speaking of the soul “returning” into the body, as if it were some substance or essence that could have an existence of its own apart from the body.

Let me also note that in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 St. Paul pointedly states that he would rather be “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” He sounds a similar note in his letter to the Philippians when he says that he is torn between living and dying: “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Philippians 1:23-24). Paul’s definition of death is “to depart and be with Christ,” which is “far better” than living his life on earth. Paul is obviously describing an imminent “being with Christ” before the resurrection since there is no mention of the Last Day or the final resurrection in the immediate context. These are enigmatic statements, and could be interpreted as reflecting Paul’s existential world-weariness rather than any specific beliefs about the afterlife.

The soul (pysche) is what makes us uniquely who we are. As phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty say, “I don’t have a body, I am a body.”  We are created as bodies and our minds are part of the body. Our souls, our personalities, may even be shaped by our bodily experiences, such as illness, and our mental conditions, such as traumas. Our souls have no life apart from our earthly bodies and our resurrected bodies. On the other hand, our bodies need our souls to give our bodies—to give us—a personal uniqueness so that we are more than a biological machine.

Because our souls have been shaped by our bodily experiences, there has to be some kind of purification of the soul—of ourselves—before we are fit to inhabit the new creation. It’s one thing to be justified by faith; but we also need to be sanctified—made holy—in order to be in the presence of the Holy God. Purification of the soul was the thought behind the Western development of the doctrine of purgatory. Purgatory was rejected by the Protestant reformers and a comparable teaching never developed in the Eastern Churches. Some modern Catholic teachers, perhaps Pope Benedict XVI among them in his encyclical On Hope (Spe salvi), suggest that purification takes place in the light of the presence of Christ when he comes “to judge the living and the dead.” So we may hope!

Pastor Frank Senn

Images: Above – Robert Blake’s illustration of “The Soul Hovering Over the Body” for Robert Blake’s The Grave.

Below – Hans Holbein’s “Dance Macabre” as Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise and lose their immortality.



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    Jerry Kliner

    Certainly the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37) amidst the “Valley of dry bones” is potent: flesh and blood come upon the bones of the dead, and yet they are not “alive.” The message seems clear here: it takes more than simple “enfleshment” to live–the “breath” of God must be breathed into the body, just as it was in Genesis 2, to live. So, just as the body cannot live without the soul, the Resurrection of the Body must also take place.

    As to when “ensoulment” takes place…well, that has the possibility of leading us down all sorts of deep heretical and tyrannical rabbit-holes. I can agree that there are all sorts of variants of this branch of speculative theology, but here science aids us; at the moment of conception the embryo has a unique genome that cannot help develop into a person. Whether “ensoulment” has taken place is at best a secondary concern; we cannot say definitively one way or the other. Sadly, some will use this speculation as a way to deny the human dignity of the unborn. Ultimately, because we cannot say, the burden should reside in the human being. Likewise, at the end of life, we (all too often) cannot say definitively when the soul has departed (sometimes we can guess, but often it is a nuanced issue…) and the burden should again fall upon the inherent human dignity.

    Pax Christi;
    Pr. Jerry Kliner, STS

    • Frank Senn

      Ezekiel 37 is a great text foreshadowing the resurrection. As you say, the breath (ruach) must be spoken (prophesied) into the bodies to make them come alive. We need breath in order to live. But ruach is not “soul,” it is “breath.” It has also been translated as “spirit”. The closest the Hebrew Bible comes to “soul” is nephesh, “living being.” The Greek pneuma (soul) conveys more the sense of the self as a unique personality.

      We can be pro-life without a concept of ensoulment because life comes from God; soul is what develops in us on the basis of our bodily experiences, undoubtedly already in the womb. Making these linguistic and conceptual distinctions is important because there’s often a lot riding on our understanding.

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