You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.
- C.S. Lewis
What is the soul? Most people I think have this idea that the soul is some immaterial, spiritual entity that floats around somewhere in our bodies, and that continues to consciously exist after we die. This "soul" is separate from our bodies, and somehow represents our true selves apart from our physical existence. However, I want to suggest that this conception of the soul is not really a Christian idea. Rather, it is a syncretistic inflitration of ancient Greek spirit-material dualism wherein spirit is considered the "good" and the "real" while anything material (like our bodies) is evil, illusory, and ultimately to be discarded.
The genuinely Jewish and Christian conception of the soul is rather different. The world we translate "soul" in Hebrew is nephesh and in Greek is psyche (from which we get "pyschology", the study of the soul), both of which mean something like breath, or life, or animating force. In the text both words are often used in a way that identifies them not just as some separate "spiritual" part of a person, but rather as the essence of the whole person, their identity, their life force, their mind and body. (For a good study of all the uses of the words "soul" and "spirit" in the Bible, check out this site.)
In other words, the soul is not a part of our selves. It is our selves. As Lewis said in the quote above, we don't have souls, we are souls. The soul is the totality of who we are - mind, body and spirit. We should think of it not as a metaphysical "entity", but as a description of what I mean when when I say "I" and "me" and "myself". It is our thoughts, emotions, bodies, actions, all of it.
So when we say that God wants to save our "souls", we're not saying he wants to rescue some spiritual part of us and discard the rest. No, the saving of our souls is the restoration of our entire being, every part of us. This moves us past the Greek spirit-matter dualism since in the Judeo-Christian view of the soul our bodies are important. Our bodies are a part of our souls. I can't separate who I am from my physical existence.
For instance, my wife was born without a left hand - this disability is part of what makes her who she is. It has shaped her experiences, her personality, her self-identity - i.e. her soul. If her body were different, "normal", she wouldn't be quite the same person - her "soul" would be different. This also argues against another common misconception - that our "soul" is the unchanging core of who we are apart from all the things that happen to us. But if our soul is the totality of who we are, then how could we separate it from our experiences? Our experiences shape our identity - our soul. Our soul, i.e. our identity, grows and changes as we live our lives.
So what does this mean for the afterlife? If our "souls" aren't separate entities that can float away to heaven when we die, then doesn't that undermine Christian theology? Not really, since orthodox Christian theology has never really taught that our ultimate destiny was to be disembodied souls floating around in heaven. Rather, the Christian view of the afterlife is that we will be resurrected to perfected bodies that are wholly integrated with our minds, will, emotions, etc. and also in perfect harmony with God's Spirit - i.e. we will be whole "souls". Likewise, our vision of heaven is not an immaterial realm, but a perfected union of both heaven and earth.
I bring this up in part because I keep encountering Christians who don't seem to realize what the actual Christian idea of the soul and of heaven is all about, and also because this misconception on the part of Christians has led to unnecessary debates with my atheist friends as well. Most atheists I've met are adamant about not believe in the existence of a soul - defining it, along with many Christians, as an immaterial entity. When I tell them I don't believe in that kind of soul either, they accuse me of not sticking to traditional Christian theology. Unfortunately, what they, and many Christians don't realize is that my view is traditional Christian theology and that the idea of an immaterial soul is the distortion that has crept in from other sources. That's not to say that it hasn't become mainstream among many Christians, and indeed in some whole churches and denominations - however, I don't think it is how the Bible talks about the soul and I don't think it is how the earliest Christians would have thought about it. I think our theology would be richer and our conversations with atheists and others would be far more fruitful if we could return to this earlier conception of the soul as a descriptive term rather than a metaphysical term.
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