Huldra Forsvant (Theodor Kittelsen)

Huldra Forsvant (Theodor Kittelsen)
Huldra Forsvant (Theodor Kittelsen)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


On the weekend Little e asked me what a 'soul' was. Geez, can you not wait until your mother gets back before you ask the hard ones?  It came about because this song had been on high rotation in the car.  I was pretty stumped, and stumbled around trying to find an answer.  The best I could come up with at short notice was that 'it's a bit like your heart'.  I know, lame.

Having now had longer to think it through I think I could find a better answer. What would be your answer to the question, and how would you put it in words that a 5 year old would get?

I just typed 'soul' into Bible Gateway, and it came up with 95 results. The majority of the Old Testament examples are used in conjunction with 'heart', almost always about loving and following God with 'all your heart and with all your soul'.  The examples from Job talk about the 'bitterness of soul'.

Then you get to Psalms, where the word occurs a lot, and it really seems to refer to a persons' inmost being, their essence, the part that only God sees.  Sometimes it's the souls' anguish, sometimes it's the souls' joy.  Also interesting is the way the psalmist talks to his soul, almost like it were a separate entity to be encouraged, comforted and cared for--

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 42:10-11)

And then Jesus refers to the soul a lot too, again as the inmost part of a person, but also as the immortal part of a persons' being. Some of Jesus' hardest hitting words seem to be in the context of the discussion of our souls--

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)

What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matthew 16:26)

But also some of His most comforting words as well--

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:29)

He also said these heart-breaking words about His own soul--

My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death (Matthew 26:38)

The New Testament continues with some other pretty interesting contexts for 'soul'.  The word of God, the Bible, is described as being 'sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit' (Hebrews 4:12)

And one of my favourites,

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. (Hebrews 6:19)

Finally, you get to Revelations, and we hear about the 'souls' of those who have died and face Jesus-

And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)

Pretty interesting, I reckon. Were I to answer the question now, I'd describe the soul as the most inner, centre part of a person, their core, and their essence. Also the part that feels things the deepest. And as the immortal part that is invited to spend eternity with God.


Ben McLaughlin said...

I might adjust my stance on the 'immortal' part after reading this on wiki--

Protestants generally believe in the soul's existence, but fall into two major camps about what this means in terms of an afterlife. Some, following Calvin,[57] believe in the immortality of the soul and conscious existence after death, while others, following Luther,[58] believe in the mortality of the soul and unconscious "sleep" until the resurrection of the dead.[59]

Other Christians reject the idea of the immortality of the soul, citing the Apostles' Creed's reference to the "resurrection of the body" (the Greek word for body is soma σωμα, which implies the whole person, not sarx σαρξ, the term for flesh or corpse). They consider the soul to be the life force, which ends in death and will be restored in the resurrection.[citation needed] Theologian Frederick Buechner sums up this position in his 1973 book Whistling in the Dark: "...we go to our graves as dead as a doornail and are given our lives back again by God (i.e., resurrected) just as we were given them by God in the first place.

Deb said...

Yeah, I'm not sure explaining the words to They Might Be Giants' lyrics is ever going to be easy. Ahh, but it takes me back to highschool days! I listened to Birdhouse while folding the washing just now.

Ruth said...

Ben - I loved this post. Much to think on, and thinking Biblically. Love it. Thankfully my kids haven't yet asked me what 'soul' means!

Ali said...

Well, my friend CS Lewis has been known to say "You don't have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body." That is more like Calvin I think.

I like some of Buechner, but don't know that he's altogether in the "evangelical" camp.

Ben McLaughlin said...

Deb- you're not wrong.. "blue canary in the outlet by the light switch that watches over you" say what?

Ruth- Thanks, I'm glad it prompted some thinking:)

Ali- What a great quote. I'll have to memorise that one.

I get what you're saying I think.. it's the body that dies and resurrects, not the soul- therefor the soul IS immortal?

Stuart Heath said...

How to explain this to a 5-y.o.? Tough question, Ben — too tough for me, I'm afraid.

One thing, though: I'm not comfortable with the idea that that the soul is the 'immortal bit', nor that 'I have a body'.

I *am* a body (and soul and/or spirit — whatever these things are). Humans are complexes, not simplexes. We were made this way in the beginning, and in the new creation, we'll be fully embodied, too.

It's only for that short period while we're in heaven (i.e. between when we die and when Jesus returns) that we seem not to have bodies. And this is an unnatural state — part of the curse of sin and death. When the enemies of sin and death are finally defeated and the earth and all things are renewed, we'll get our bodies back — just in immortalized form :)

Ben McLaughlin said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this, Stuart, you raise some really good points. I look for a 'stance' too quickly, when as you say, it's such a complex thing.

I hadn't really thought much either about the idea that we'll only be in heaven for a short period.. a strange concept.

Stuart Heath said...

Yeah, I know. Seems like our culture's been pretty deeply infected with the idea that the world is bad and we can't wait to be rid of it. (Thanks, Socrates.)

But yes, as Philippians 3:20–21 puts it, we're not waiting to go to heaven; we're waiting for heaven to come to us. And when the saviour comes, he'll, you know, *save* the world rather than vaporize it so that he can assign us a cloud and a harp.

Stuart Heath said...

P.S. If you'd like to know more about this, Byron wrote an article for Salt magazine which is a good summary. He posted it on his blog. At the end, he also linked to a 16-part series which gives more detail. You know, in case you're wondering how to use up all your spare time:

Ali said...

Hey Ben,

Turns out CS Lewis probably never said that, and there is a good discussion of what perhaps is wrong with taking it out of context here on this post (and how the resurrection makes a difference):