Updated: Jun 23
As a pastor, I peddle in the unknown. For instance, when I conduct a funeral, I often make proclamations about what happens to a person when they die. Given that these are moments of intense grief and sorrow, I always try to reassure family and friends that their loved one is with God. The truth of the matter is I have no idea what has happened to them. None of us do. I would like to believe their loved one is with God, but I don’t know for sure. It’s all speculation.
The general consensus among modern Christians is that our souls separate from our bodies after death and then make their way into heaven (if you’ve been good) or hell (if you’ve been bad). My theology is such that I don’t believe anyone goes to hell, but if I’m being honest, I’m even conflicted about the idea of humans having a soul at all. Historically, the notion that humans have a soul is not original to the Christian faith.
The inventor of this idea was Plato (428-347 B.C.E.) in his writing Timaeus. Interestingly, for hundreds of years, his idea remained firmly planted in the Greek sphere of influence. The ancient Hebrews didn’t really have a concept of the soul. They were very concrete thinkers, which is why they are constantly debating the idea of resurrection in the New Testament. For the ancient Hebrews, if you’re going to have an afterlife, you literally need to inhabit a new body.
I know this might be shocking, but Jesus likely never believed humans possessed a soul. As a Hebrew, it simply would have made no sense to him. I find this to be rather ironic given the intensity with which many Evangelical Christians proselytize to “save souls” from hell (see footnote). What is striking to me about this Evangelical obsession is how much Plato’s concept of the soul still resonates. After nearly 2400 years, the soul is the primary way humans envision afterlife. The question I’ve been contemplating is why do I, and so many other people, feel the soul is real?
This is a very hard question to answer because, whether you realize it or not, belief in the soul leads to a litany of different problems. Let’s start with the most obvious—if humans do have a soul, where did it come from? Christians will often point to Genesis chapter 1 where God creates humans in the image and likeness of God:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. – Genesis 1:27 (NRSV)
The image of God with which we are imbued is often interpreted by modern theologians as the soul. This interpretation is derived from the fact that it doesn’t make much sense to say that God looks like humans or visa-versa. The problem with using this Genesis verse to account for the presence of a soul is that it backs us into a corner. The claim that humans are a special creation of God is a beautiful idea. Where that idea doesn’t make much sense is if you accept the scientific evidence that humans evolved from lower primates. When exactly did humans acquire a soul? When we finally broke away from Homo erectus and became Homo sapiens or did Homo erectus have a soul like us?
Speaking of other species, this raises another important issue: Are souls limited to humans? I know many people who would like to believe that they will be reunited with their dogs and cats in the afterlife. I cannot definitively say whether they should or shouldn’t expect meet Fido in the afterlife. Like you, I’m not exactly sure where to draw the line. I’m good with most mammals having a soul, but what about reptiles? Do snakes and gila monsters have souls? What about insects? Maggots? Bacteria?
Perhaps it would help for us to define what a soul is supposed to be. If we use Plato’s definition, then the soul is the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being that is immortal or eternal. In many ways, the soul is considered the essence of the person. If you strip everything else away, then the soul is the part of the human that is most indelibly you. However, once again, the idea of the soul begins to break down because we fall into the Buddhist trap of trying to define who we are as humans (if you are interested in learning more about this idea, fast forward this video to 11:30 where Ajahn Chandako begins drilling down into the Buddhist concept of non-self).
Every second you live, you are a different person. Case in point, you will be a different person after you finish reading this article compared to when you began. The person who you are in the present is the compilation of all the memories and experience you have had up until that point in time. Even the physical composition of your body is constantly in flux. The cells in your bloodstream and the neurons in your brain are never the same from one moment to the next. As a result, you can never point to a singular moment in your life and declare with absolute certainly, “This is who I am.” That was who you were in that moment.
The point being, if the soul is the essence of who we are, what exactly is that essence? If the Buddhists are right and there is no “you”, does the soul somehow encompass the totality of who we are? Personally, I have always assumed that the soul carries with it the memories we accumulate throughout our lifetime, both conscious and subconscious—remembered and forgotten.
However, if this is true, then does that mean the soul is simply some element of our conscious existence? Are we confusing that part of our brains that makes us aware of our existence with something spiritual and eternal? Clearly, when we envision a soul, the essence of that soul would be a continuation of our conscious existence beyond death.
I’ve sometimes wondered if the evolution of consciousness is what creates a soul. Given that evolution is happening all over the universe, when a creature’s brain evolves a certain level of conscious awareness, does that also simultaneously imbue that creature with a soul? Or is the reality much simpler: does consciousness create the illusion or feeling of a soul?
All of these questions leads me to wonder: if the soul is real, then where does the soul reside? Within the brain? Within the body? Socrates, Plato’s teacher, locates various aspects of the soul in different parts of body. Reason is located in the head, while the spirit is located in the top third of the torso and the appetite is located near the navel (Timaeus 44d, 70).
When I look at Plato’s description, I immediately find myself contemplating the consistency of the soul. In other words, what is the substance of the soul? We know that memories are stored in neurons, but souls don’t have neurons. Souls are purely spiritual, so how do the memories pass the barrier from the very physical neuronal brain matter into the very metaphysical soul matter?
Moreover, when we envision our souls, they are often reflections of our physical bodies. Depending on when you die, your body is going to look very different. Does a person’s age determine the “look” of the soul? In other words, if you die at 98, will your soul look 98 for all eternity or is the look of your soul malleable, able to adjust to your peak physical form?
I don’t ask these questions simply to be flippant. I ask these questions because they present a major impediment to me believing the soul is real. However, if I’m being honest, what really keeps me up at night is the prospect of ghosts. I don’t mean to say that I’m scared of ghosts. I’m talking about the connection between ghosts and souls. A ghost is the soul of a person who is stranded on earth.
According to all those ghost hunter shows, a ghost is a soul that doesn’t know its dead and hasn’t fully crossed over into the afterlife. I’m sorry, but that sucks! I love the idea of my soul going to heaven. I don’t particularly like the idea of my soul going to hell. And I am deathly afraid of my soul being trapped in some state of limbo where I can never escape because I’m too stupid to realize that I’m dead.
Of course, I am mostly joking about the whole ghost thing, but if you believe in the existence of a soul, then ghosts become a possibility. Also, since we’re on the topic of ghosts, what does it say about God that God would allow our soul to exist in an eternal state of limbo? The idea that God would abandon our souls on earth until we realize we’re dead is not exactly consistent with the Christian notion of a God who loves us unconditionally. Even though I don’t believe in hell, I would rather go there if it means I’m aware of what’s happening to me.
Okay, so where does all of this leave us? You might think after breaking down the concept of the soul into such minutia, my conclusion would be that I cannot believe the soul exists. But, in fact, the opposite is true. For whatever reason, the idea of the soul, the idea that there is continuation of consciousness after we die is something that I cling to in spite of all the logic that speaks against it.
The reason why I cling to it so strongly is what I’m going to address in part 2 of this post where we will talk about NDEs or Near Death Experiences. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear your reflections concerning the existence of soul. Write to me or leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Footnote: If you’re wondering how the idea of a soul crept into the Christian faith, the explanation is simpler than you might imagine. As Christianity floundered in the Holy Land among the Jewish people in the late 40s and early 50s C.E., the faith found a base of support in the Greek world. Therefore, as Christianity transitioned from a predominately Jewish faith to one dominated by Greek Gentiles, the idea of the soul became more common place and begins to appear in some of the later writings of the New Testament.