What Is the Soul?

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Image by Photoholgic. Adapted for Redemption of Humanity. Used under licence.

The Bible’s Answer

The Immaterial Aspect of Humans

The Bible teaches that the soul is the immaterial part of every human—the centre of one’s personhood—which is separated from the body temporarily when we die, and united with the body once again when Jesus Christ will return to resurrect all people’s bodies and judge the world (Philippians 3:20–21; John 5:28–29; 2 Timothy 4:1).¹ The soul is also known as the spirit in the Bible, since the two terms are often used interchangeably. Jesus clearly distinguished the soul from the body when teaching his disciples to trust in God and not fear their opponents:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28, ESVUK)

As we can see here, although humans can kill the body, they can do nothing to the soul. Only God can punish or reward our souls (and bodies, when Christ returns) after we die by sending those who reject Christ to Hell, and those who believe in him to Heaven (John 3:16–18). The Bible also distinguishes the soul from the body in Hebrews 4:12:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

Here, we see that the immaterial part of humans—soul, spirit, and heart—is distinguished from the material part of humans—joints and marrow. Although there are some Christians who believe that the spirit is not the soul, the point of this passage is not to explain the human anatomy, but rather to teach that the Word of God cuts through to our innermost parts and whole being: the physical and spiritual part of us—whatever we may call them.

The Soul Lives on After Death

The Bible describes the body as a tent in which the centre of one’s person dwells (i.e. the soul), and Paul said that he would rather be: “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:4–8) Furthermore, when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, we are told that “her spirit returned” to her body:

And all were weeping and mourning for her, but he said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” 55 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given to her to eat. (Luke 8:52–55)

This proves that when someone is raised from the dead, their soul/spirit is united with their body once again. The Bible also teaches that in between Jesus’ death and resurrection, he went “in the spirit” to proclaim to “the spirits in prison”:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Peter 3:18–19)

Most Christians interpret this as Christ proclaiming his victory over sin and death to the unbelievers who had died. If humans really were just a body, and not a body with a soul/spirit, Jesus would not have been able to do this. (Which refutes the “soul sleep” heresy.) We should all heed Jesus’ words about God: “He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:29–32) Christ’s followers who have died may be dead in the flesh, but their souls are experiencing comfort and rest with him right now in Paradise (Revelation 6:9–11, 14:13). The wicked who have rejected Christ, however, “have no peace” after they die (Isaiah 57:20–21; Revelation 14:11).

Other Meanings of the Word “Soul”

In biblical usage, the New Testament word for soul (psyche) and the Old Testament word for soul (nephesh) can also be translated as “life”, referring to “the life principle”—beings or creatures that have the breath of life in them. (See: Genesis 1:30, 2:7; Matthew 16:25–26) In certain contexts, “soul” can refer to the whole self, or the total person—referring to both the body and spirit. For example, in 1 Peter 1:9–10, the “salvation of your souls” refers to the salvation of the whole person (body and soul), not just the spirit of humans: ²

Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:9a–10)

Similarly, when Mary spoke of her “soul” and “spirit” in her song of praise, she appears to have been speaking about her whole being, rather than just one part of her being:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, … (Luke 1:46–47)

The Bible also sometimes describes the soul as being the essential inward nature of all people, without the adverse implications found: ³

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

Reference List

1. Engelbrecht, E A (Ed) (2009). What Happens When We Die? The Lutheran Study Bible (p. 1750). St Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

2. Hindson, E E, Mitchell, D R (Eds) (2010). 1 Peter. The Zondervan King James Version Commentary: New Testament (p. 738). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

3. Bruce, F F (Ed) (1979). 1 Peter. Zondervan Bible Commentary: One-Volume Illustrated Edition (p. 1595). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

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