Digression 3: The Problem Of Soul And Spirit
The standard explanation about death runs something like this: 'The soul means the body or a creature, and sometimes refers to our natural 'life'; the spirit is the power or breath that keeps us alive, the life force, and refers at times to the mind and spiritual side of man'. It is easy to construct a 21st century parable along these lines: The soul can be likened to a light bulb which lights up when the current or spirit is passed to it, and then dies when God as it were turns off the switch and the spirit/ current goes back to the 'circuit'. Frequently, this all rings true; but there are a significant number of passages which pose problems, although they do not invalidate the truth of the above approach in dealing with many of the passages which mention the soul and spirit. The following points are presented really as a caveat against sweeping statements that can lead us into difficulty with orthodox opponents.
- "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul" (Mt.10:28). The soul and body seem separate here.
- "That thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth" (3 Jn.2). Physical health here seems to be different from the health of the soul.
- "My soul fainted within me" (Jonah 2:7)- and yet Jonah stayed alive physically (how else could he have prayed from the belly of the whale?). The soul is not the life here.
- "Let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator" (1 Pet.4:19). Yet many of Peter's readership would have lost their physical life in the fiery trial that came upon them; the committing of the soul to God surely has a more spiritual reference?
However, there is a difference between soul and spirit- they can be divided assunder (Heb.4:12), and it is true that generally the soul does refer to the natural, fleshly side of man, and the spirit to the more spiritual aspect. Yet because the spirit or mind is such a fundamental part of our life, the soul can at times be almost synonymous with the spirit. Thus we should not fear the death of the body (soul), but of the soul in the sense of the mind disposed towards God which we have developed. It is noteworthy that in many languages other than English there is no equivalent of the separate concepts of soul and spirit which we have. Sadly the Bible translations in those languages use the same word to translate 'soul' and 'spirit'- several African languages and also Hungarian and Polish are examples of this. There are numerous examples of the soul referring to the mind or spirit, in the sense that 'soul' fundamentally means 'you'- in every way, every aspect of us (Ps.103:1), including our mind or spirit:
- "That thy soul may bless me...that my soul may bless thee" (Gen.27:19,25). The use of the word "soul" in this and other passages is pointless if all it means is 'thou mayest bless me...that I may bless thee'. The soul here must therefore refer to something else apart from the person- in this case 'You- with the earnest, sincere desire of your mind'.
- The broken bread represents our Lord's broken body (1 Cor.11:24), or 'soul'. But not a bone of His body was broken; Ps.34:18-20 contrasts his broken heart with his unbroken bones. Thus the broken bread speaks of his broken mind, the breaking of his body ('soul') in a mental rather than physical sense.
- "The soul that eateth of it shall bear his iniquity" (Lev.7:18) shows how the phrase "the soul" is used rather than 'he that eateth', in order to indicate that the person did it with the conscious will of his mind or spirit. But "their soul abhorred (such) statutes" (Lev.26:43), and so God's soul or mind abhorred them (Lev.26:30,43).
- "Keep thy soul diligently" (Dt.4:9) is picked up in the Proverbs (which are largely a commentary on the Mosaic Law), in the dictum "Keep thy heart (mind) with all diligence: for out of it are the issues of life" (Prov.4:23). Thus the soul is paralleled with the heart or mind/spirit, hence the plea: "Lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul" (Dt.11:18). This seems to parallel the heart and soul- how can the word of God be mentally retained ("lay up") in the soul in the sense of the physical life or body? The believers being "of one heart and of one soul" (Acts 4:32) is another example of this.
- "Poured out my soul before the Lord" (1 Sam.1:15)- the inner mind poured out in prayer.
- "Let this child's soul come into him" (1 Kings 17:21) must be one of the clearest associations between the soul (life) and spirit (life force). It may even be consciously alluding back to Gen.2:7, where God put the spirit into Adam's prostrate body so that he became alive.
- "He that keepeth the commandment keepeth his own soul" (Prov.19:16), i.e. his spiritual man, in trim.
- God's soul delighted in the Lord Jesus (Is.42:1,6)- i.e. God rejoiced mentally within Himself. This is proof for God being corporeal.
- Jesus "poured out His soul unto death" (Is.53:12), the Septuagint version of which is quoted in Phil.2:7: "(He) made Himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form (mental demeanour) of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men". Phil.2 is describing the mind that was in Christ Jesus (v.5), and how especially on the cross He showed such extreme "lowliness of mind" (the context in v.3). Thus the Lord's pouring out of His soul refers to His mental pouring out in humility.
- "Lusts, which war against the (spiritual) soul" (1 Pet.2:11).
- A selection of other examples: Is.10:18; 53:10,11; 1 Cor.15:45 cp. v.44; 1 Kings 18:21,22; Gen.19:20; 1 Pet.2:25; Ps.34:2; Prov.2:10.