Bill Tammeus, on his blog “Faith Matters,” has raised the question about the soul and how it is defined. Raising the issue of the soul was a prelude to some reflections by Bill upon “underdeveloped” souls. His post got me thinking about the biblical portrayal of the soul. The definition of a soul is a complicated task depending on context, era, and cultural/ethnic group, i.e., Greek, Roman, Jewish or other. But, here are some basics for understanding the soul from a biblical perspective.
Soul is the English translation of the Greek word psyche. Other English words, however, are also used for psyche besides soul, such as life, heart, and mind. One of the most frequent translations, depending on context, is “life.” Psyche at one level is something that all living creatures have, including animals (Rev. 16:3). It is physical life. For example, the psyche, the physical life, is what the enemies of Jesus were seeking to destroy in Matt. 2:20.
Yet psyche is also more than physical life. Take for example the passage in Mark 8:35 (parallels in Matt. 10:39; Luke 17:33; and John 12:25), “The one who would save his/her psyche will lose it. He/she who loses his/her psyche will save it.” It seems clear that one can lose physical life, but something, “true life,” still survives and transcends the cells, corpuscles, and cartilage. That true life is the essence of who we are, our “soul.”
However, one must never equate psyche with an immortal soul as if it is some wispy-misty thing stuck within our bodies like smoke in a bottle after shooting off a bottle rocket. Note that in John 12:25 one is called upon to hate one’s psyche. Can one hate one’s “immortal soul?” It doesn’t make sense. As the writer Eduard Schweizer says, “Psyche is the life which given to man (sp) by God and which through man’s (sp) attitude towards God receives its character as either mortal or eternal.” As humanity, we shape (or misshape) our souls in relationship to God and existence.
The soul, psyche, is ultimately given by God and lived out before God. Since the psyche is God given, it can be God taken. In Matt. 10:28 we see God as the one who can destroy both the body and psyche, i.e., the whole person. [Again, here is a perfect example that the soul is not immortal. It can be destroyed]. Humanity, however, can only kill the body not the psyche.
Perhaps one way to think about the soul and all that the word means is that the soul encompasses all that we are (mind, spirit, and body). In the biblical perspective, no division exists between body, spirit and mind. This divisional concept is a Greek concept and typically encountered in many Christian contexts. Perhaps another way to think of the soul is that a person does not have a soul; a person is a soul.
In Acts 27:37, a scene placing Paul and companions in the midst of a sea storm and coming shipwreck, the writer notes, “And all of us in the ship were two hundred and seventy-six souls (psyche).” The ship is bigger today, 6 billion souls. With a new decade looming on the horizon, I pray for peace in 2010 for all the souls on board this ship of the world.