Google+ Followers

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Do We Humans Really Have A Soul As Well As A Body?

Some years back I attended a lecture given to a gathering of mental therapists by a prominent neurologist from California. In his lecture he emphasized that all mental illnesses are a result of chemical disruptions in our neural systems. From his viewpoint there is no such thing as a soul. About the same time as that lecture Nancey Murphy served as one of the editors of the book  Whatever Happened to the Soul? In the book Murphy defends what she calls "nonreductive physicalism." She rejects any kind of nonmaterial entity such as mind or soul. The seat of consciousness and all mental activities is the human neural system. We are aware of what's going on and of what is happening only and always because of our chemistry and our nerves. That position agrees with what I heard from the Californian neurologist. As a believer in Christ Murphy believes humans are also creatures made by God and that God will resurrect them in the coming age. However, she believes that human identity is totally bodily identity. We are bodies—nothing more and nothing less. Human life has no existence independent of the body.

In previous blogs I wrote about Kevin Kelly and Ray Kurzweil. For them the day is coming in about 35 years when human identity will be completely identified with computer software. They call this day the Singularity, a day comparable to the beginning of the universe itself. Kurzweil coined this use of the term in his 1995 book, The Singularity is Near. In other words, though our bodies (hardware) may be destroyed, our consciousness, our minds will continue to reside and exist in the realm of mathematical abstraction (software). Thus humans will transcend, go beyond what is called human existence today. They will be immune to destruction. By means of that same computer software humans will be able to reconstruct bodies in any manner they choose. In what Kelly calls the technium, humans will exist, but in a radically new and unimaginable manner. Kurzweil wrote about this in The Age of Spiritual Machines, published a year after Murphey's book.

Let's take a look at this issue. Does the soul exist? Are we both spirit and body? Are we humans composed of two parts, a material body and a nonmaterial soul? To answer those questions I turn to the Scriptures, the Bible and the revelation given to us by our Creator himself. By the way, if you'd like to read a rejection of the positions of Murphy, Kurzweil, Kelly and others by a Christian scientist and philosopher read William Demski's article Are We Spiritual Machines?

Turn with me to the Scriptures. To begin with we will study the Hebrew Old Testament. On another day we'll go to the New Testament to see how all the promises about man are to be fulfilled in Christ.

The Hebrew which has three words relating to this issue: Nephesh, Ruach  Neshamah.


The KJV translates Nephesh with a wide variety of English words. Other translations will vary in the translations into English. For now I stay with the KJV to illustrate:
  • Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, 2:19 - creature
  • Genesis 1:30 - life
  • Genesis 2:7; Joshua 10:35 - soul
  • Genesis 14:21 - persons
  • Genesis 23:8 - mind - dead
  • Exodus 4:19 - life
  • Exodus 15:9 - lust
  • Exodus 23:9 - heart
  • Leviticus 11:10, 46 - living thing or creature
  • Leviticus 21:11 - body
  • Leviticus 22:4,11 - dead body
  • Ecclesiastes 6:7 - appetite
  • Isaiah 19:10 - fish (even fish are alive)
Ruach also has a variety of translations.

  • Genesis 1:2 - Spirit (of God)
  • Genesis 3:8 - cool (of the day)
  • Genesis 6:17 - breath (of life)
  • Genesis 8:1 - wind
  • Genesis 26:35 - mind
  • Genesis 41:8 - spirit (of Pharaoh)
  • Isaiah 25:4 - blast
  • Ezekiel 37:8 - breath
  • Ezekiel 42:16-19 - side

Neshamah is translated with several words as well:

  • Genesis 2:7 - breath (of life)
  • Job 33:4 - breath (of the Almighty)
  • Joshua 11:11 - (any left to) breathe
  • 2 Samuel 22:16 - blast (of God's breath - Ruach)
  • Job 26:4 - spirit
What shall we make of all this? Notice that we find no carefully outlined definition of man as body and soul. In the Hebrew view man is flesh like all other kinds of creatures given life by God's breath (Ruach). Nephesh is not a part of man. No, Nephesh is man, man with life, alive as are all creatures of God. Man as a living creature of God is a person, an individual. What distinguishes him from the other creatures that have breath and life is the image of God (Genesis 1:27; 5:1; 9:6). He is the highest of God's creatures, made to be in fellowship with God, made to rule over all the rest of the living creatures. He is, however, a creature, made from the matter, the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). 

This person has appetites and desires, emotions and thoughts. Since Nephesh is man's life, it departs at death (Genesis 35:18) or returns if a person revives (1 Kings 17:22). After death the Old Testament does not see souls in the underworld as did the Greeks. Rather the O.T. sees shades (rephaim), a weak, pale replica of man from whom breath has gone (Proverbs 9:18; Isaiah 14:9-10) confined to the pit called Sheol. To be fully human again that shade must be given bodily life. His body must be restored and he must again begin to breathe, eat, drink, laugh and rejoice in God's presence (Ezekiel 37:1-14).

Will this happen? Will complete and full life be restored? Yes indeed. The Psalmists rejoice that the fellowship with God enjoyed while yet breathing will continue even beyond death. God will not abandon His child, but show him the path of life and eternal pleasures (Psalm 16:10-11). He will ransom the believer from the power of Sheol and receive him into glory (Psalm 49:15; 73:24).

Thus the Hebrew man is not a combination of a material body and a non-material soul. He is rather a whole, unified creature of God, made in God's image. He is not divided. He is a unity. In that sense the Hebrew man is close to what Murphy wrote about in the book quoted above. What must be emphasized, however, is that this man continues to exist after death, albeit in a weakened form. And he is always before God and answerable to Him even in the pit of Sheol

Whether alive or dead then we who trust in the Lord and all His promises are His and with the dead we await His promise of  a resurrected body in the renewal of all things created. But more of this the next time as we look at the New Testament and the fulfillment of all God's promises in Christ.