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Where Does Your Soul Come From? And the Body-Soul Distinction

the body-soul distinction

Few people in the West give any thought to the previous existence of our souls before this life. I certainly haven’t until writing this piece on the body and soul. In Eastern religions, there is the concept of reincarnation; and in various faith traditions, especially those of the esoteric sort, there is the idea that we all existed as formless souls in a heavenly abode. Although the concept of the preexistence of souls is not biblical, and neither does it belong to traditional orthodox Christian theology, it was taught by the great early Christian scholar, Origen, born in 185 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt. He taught that the human soul is immortal and existed before entering our earthly bodies in time and space. How he was able to know this, one can only guess.

 

Another view is that the human soul is created via biological processes in such a way that also provides potentiality for the immaterial soul at conception by parents. Joshua Farris[1] explains, “As parents supply the biological material, so they supply the soulish potentiality, which contributes to the generation of a person. It is also conceivable that a soul is integrated with the powers of a body and therefore a body functions in the emergence of the soul.” This view is called Traducianism and is an acceptable view in traditional Christian thought.

 

A more common view in Christian theology is Creationism. Here there is no mediated cause whereby human parents create a soul for their offspring. Instead, God directly creates the soul for each human being at the point of conception. The idea, as Farris[2] clarifies, is that the soul is such a substance that is unable to come into existence by material means, but only by a “higher-order transcendent cause.” The soul is then attached to the body by its Divine Creator, God.

 

I find the preexistence of souls or the concept of reincarnation biblically untenable, and it’s out of bounds for orthodox Christian theology. As a Christian, while one can be open-minded, we need to be very cautious especially when such concepts do not align with Scripture and Christian theology as is the case here. Traducianism and Creationism both have biblical merit and adhere to traditional Christian theology. Which of the two is correct, or most correct, I don’t know, but as I see it, both the parents and God are directly involved in creating the little human being at conception, they just have different roles to play.

 

The body-soul distinction, or the “mind-body” problem as it is usually called, seeks to answer the question about how the immaterial part of us, whether that be soul, mind, or spirit, relates to our physical bodies and brains. I realize that some people divide up the immaterial into various elements. This body-soul problem has been a question theologians, philosophers, and scientists have grappled with for centuries, and yet there continue to be numerous perspectives.

 

The ancient Hebrews of the Old Testament generally had a more holistic understanding of the human being, bordering on physicalism (also called materialism). Biblical revelation is progressive, so it shouldn’t surprise you that the biblical presentation of the body-soul problem is not consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrews of the Old Testament use the word nephesh, often translated as “soul.” However, like so many words in biblical Hebrew, it has a diversity of meanings, so one must pay careful attention to context. Here are some examples of how nephesh has been translated:

 

The seat of emotions (Deuteronomy 21:14)

A desire or longing for God (Deuteronomy 6:5; Isa 26:9)

Moral attitudes (Proverbs 21:10)

Appetite (Proverbs 23:2; Ecclesiastes 6:7; Isa 56:11; Mic 7:1)

Neck (Psalms 105:18)

Throat (Isaiah 5:14)

A corpse (Numbers 5:2; 6:11)

Life-force (Leviticus 17:11; Ps 30:3)

Soul (Psalm 86:13; Proverbs3:22)

 

Another interesting rendering of nephesh is the concept of the soul, life-force or personal identity in a disembodied afterlife (Genesis 35:18; Ps 16:10; 30:3; 49:15; 86:13; 139:8; 1 Kings 17:21–22). The ancient Hebrews believed that people continued to exist in Sheol, a place in the underworld of ghostly existence.

 

The Hebrew word, Ruach, has similar problems. It’s often rendered as breath, wind, or spirit. However, it refers more to God than it does to human personhood (Genesis 2:7; Job 34:14; Ezekiel 37:1–14). Joel Green[3] has commented that it’s difficult to draw any conclusion from the Old Testament that nephesh or ruach refers specifically to a soul separable from the rest of the human person. It’s inconclusive either way.

 

It shouldn’t surprise us that the authors of the Old Testament had no interest in developing a philosophy or theology of the body-soul distinction. And aside from a handful of verses that reference such a distinction, neither does the New Testament offer us a specific understanding of the material and immaterial makeup of human personhood. The meanings of words like flesh, body, spirit, soul, and heart are quite diverse and nuanced from book to book in the New Testament. The New Testament authors were much more interested in telling us about Jesus, proclaiming the good news, and helping the church grow. Therefore, it’s difficult to come up with a cohesive biblical solution to the body-soul problem.

 

Furthermore, Hellenist (or Greek) culture was a powerful influence in the ancient world when the New Testament was written (the fact that the original New Testament manuscripts were written in koine Greek demonstrates this). The Greek philosophers had two main schools of thought, among several others. The first is the Platonic school which supposed that the material world is made up of shadows of pure spiritual forms. In other words, you have your physical body, but there is a higher and purer part of you, and this is your soul or spirit. Your body is merely a shadow of your spiritual form which is far superior. The second is the Aristotelian school which seeks to ground everything in earthly experience, and therefore, sees the soul as the form of the body.

 

Even though we are offered a clearer view of the body-soul relationship in the New Testament and early Christianity than we get from the Old Testament, the problem of the body-soul distinction and the question, "Where do souls come from?" remains a challenge for many. 


 

This blog post is an edited section from a chapter titled Body-Soul in my book, Embodied Afterlife: The Hope of an Immediate Resurrection. If you found this discussion interesting and would like to read the entire book, click: Amazon or Takealot.

 

 

*Image of silhouette in forest by Johannes Plenio available from pexels.com.

 


[1] Farris, Joshua R. 2020. An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 135.

[2] Farris, Theological Anthropology, 136–37.

[3] Green, Joel B. 2008. Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 84.

6 Comments


I read the introduction to Embodied Afterlife, and really want to read it. I've never heard this before. By the way, I'm just down the road in PE, and we actually attend Bible study with a couple who were missionaries in Kenya for 14 years. And our neighbors were also missionaries in Kenya.

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Wow, yes. I'm in St Francis Bay, I make a trip to PE once in a while. Small world knowing other missionaries who were in Kenya. I primarily worked with German missionaries, so it's unlikly I know them. Come to think of it I did meet one couple from SA, but I don't remember thier names. Glad you enjoyed the introduction to Embodied Afterlife.

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Thanks for your reflection, Robert. I choose to think of human beings as being souls rather than having souls. While I cannot pin that to specific biblical verse, I think that the bible does reflect the great complexity of what we are as humans - physical beings, emotional beings, relational beings but also transcendent beings in that we can be conscious of transcendent being or God, and consciously relate to such transcendent being; and we can consciously think about intangible things like meaning, identity, becoming. Human beings are always more than what we can describe. So, I think to say human beings are souls captures the mystery of what we are but doesn't reduce human beings to the sum of…

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Hi Mike, good to hear from you again. Yes, great comment. While “being souls” is certainly better than “having souls,” it seems to disregard our physical properties which are just as important. You mention other properties as well, those are important too. So how do we account for the material and immaterial of a human being? I love the idea of “unified wholes” suggesting body and spirit (and what not). But this also has some challenges as Hagen Jünger highlighted in his comment. Thanks for your insightful contribution, Mike!

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Mar 09

Hi Robert. Do we know each other? You invited me as a friend on Facebook. I'm Hagen Jünger, but commented as a guest.

Either way, am enjoying your articles. I'm not a theologian, but enjoy looking at the ideas within Christianity where the church struggles to have unanimous agreement. And this is one of them. When God created man, He breathed life into him, and he became a "living soul". Is that correct? If so, it would show a very close connection between material and immaterial, and that life is tied to the spirit/soul. But Jesus seems to clearly separate the soul from the body in various passages and parables. And then Paul still takes it further by stating "the…

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Hi Hagen, I see we have mutual FB friends. Yes, I like the way you highlight the “close connection between the material and immaterial, and that life is tied to the spirit/soul,” I think that’s exactly the point. Yet, as you say, there are passages that separate the soul from the body, but at the same time there are other passages that offer different perspectives. I discuss some of this in detail in my book, “Embodied Afterlife.” The question is whether one can find a satisfactory solution or interpretation that upholds both biblical perspectives simultaneously? I happen to agree with you regarding the creation of the soul, it seems to make the most sense, but whether our soul occupies physical…

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