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Christian Biblical Studies
THE BELIEF permeates many religions and popular culture, that when you die, an invisible, insubstantial entity departs your body and ascends or descends to a region of bliss or terror. The soul is assumed to be an inevitable consequence of latent immortality, the notion that eternal conscious existence is native to the human condition.
In a twist of irony, the atheist comes closer to the truth on this question than do most Christians. For it is to state the obvious to say that there is a vast difference between aliveness and deadness, else the very term ‘alive’ would have no meaning.
Is it consistent with observation to assume that a blow to the head sufficient to render one unconscious — and therefore oblivious — would, if delivered with lethal force, result in immediate awareness?
Contrast and Compare
The creation of man is neatly summarised in Genesis 2: 7. The King James Version puts it this way: ‘And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul’. The New International Version has, ‘living being’. In the New English Bible it is, ‘living creature’. [Emphasis ours.]
In each case, these expressions are the translation of the Hebrew word, nephesh, which signifies a‘breathing creature’. In the New Testament, the equivalent Greek word is psuche, ‘breath’. These words are variously translated throughout the King James Bible:
Old Testament: nephesh:
Leviticus 5: 4 (soul equated with an individual): ‘Or if a soul swear, pronouncing with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall pronounce with an oath, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty in one of these.’
Isaiah 1: 14 (God’s soul): ‘Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.’
Proverbs 19: 15 (a hungry soul): ‘Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep; and an idle soul shall suffer hunger.’
Isaiah 53: 10 (Christ’s soul): ‘Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.’
New Testament: psuche:
John 12: 27 (Jesus’ soul): ‘Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.’
Acts 2: 27 (Christ’s soul): ‘Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.’
Romans 13: 1 (the citizen’s soul): ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.’
Hebrews 4: 12 (soul and spirit different): ‘For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’
The soul is a combination of body, the breath of life, and at least some degree of independent intelligence. The lower animals — dogs, horses, cattle, birds — are all souls. That is, they are sentient entities, the result of body and breath, giving them the capacity to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Numbers 31: 28 (KJV, emphasis ours):
And levy a tribute unto the LORD of the men of war which went out to battle: one soul [nephesh] of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beeves, and of the asses, and of the sheep.
So, is there any material difference between the human and the animal? Or is the atheist correct in this regard, too?
The Beast Within
The promotion of evolutionary ideas by Darwin and Wallace in the mid- to late-nineteenth century exacted a toll on Christian belief. The damage was compounded by, among other things, the discovery of the mountain gorilla in Uganda in 1902 by the German explorer, Captain Oscar von Beringe. This man-like creature, organised in a social structure, with characteristics and displays of emotion not unlike humans, presented an unsettling spectacle and, to many Christians, seemed to weigh against the claim that man was a unique species, fashioned in the image of God.
In baffled retreat from the impact of the theory of Evolution, a growing body of Christians felt obliged to compromise their beliefs and so began a widespread desertion of faith in the Biblical account of the creation — a retreat which has continued, and accelerated, to the present. An unbridgeable chasm has opened in Christianity, with Evolution-believing Christians on the one side and Creation-believing Christians on the other.
The Biblical account of the creation of man makes plain that he is composed of ordinary earth elements, as are the animals. And with the fall man became subject to death and so dies as the animals die — his body decomposes and he ceases to exist. Death is the end of the soul. Thoughts and feelings are at an end, and the body from which the breath of life is absent returns to the ground from which it was fabricated, its life force relinquished. This fact does not contradict man’s uniqueness, nor render our faith vulnerable to the cynical attacks of the unbelievers.[fn1]
One notch down from the angels, the Scriptures declare man to be vastly superior to other living creatures (Psalm 8: 4-8). In other words, the image of God in man relates not to some spirit essence within him, but to his mentality and morality — his ability to think as God thinks and to attain virtue.[fn2] In this sense, although the human race is even now in the image of God, it is grossly diminished in its capacity, a mere shadow of the Divine intent when Adam was made.
At the start, everlasting life for Adam and Eve and their posterity was on offer, but made conditional on obedience. Had they not sinned but passed the test with flying colours, they would have lived forever on earth. In that event the notion of an invisible, never-dying soul would have been irrelevant, for they would never have experienced the death which was, supposedly, to introduce them into the ethereal state. To put it another way, the sentence pronounced against them was the negation of what their destiny would have been had they obeyed. Life and Death are as opposite as Light and Dark. To be in one state precludes being in the other.
The good news is that God, through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ Jesus, has promised that in the time appointed all mankind, secure in the memory of God, will be roused from the death condition (John 5: 28, 29). In Christ’s Kingdom all will be given the opportunity to regain the perfection that was lost in Eden and with it the privilege of life eternal, free from present corruption.
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