The Soul of America

An Examination of Western Culture’s Soul

By Vin Sparks

Science can’t help us here. There is no scientific evidence for the existence of the soul. There is no observation to be made, no experiment to be conducted. Everything we have on the existence of the soul comes to us from somewhere other than empirical evidence.

The earliest discussions on the nature of the soul are found in Greek philosophy and in the sacred writings of some of the major religions in the world. From there the concept of the soul takes on a life of its own through many different doctrinal writings, works of fiction, television shows and movies.

What do you believe regarding the soul?

• Is it, as in the movie Ghost, a manifestation that looks like it’s host and cannot move on to the afterlife until unfinished business is attended? Do the souls of good people disappear in a soft burst of comforting light while the souls of the wicked are dragged off screaming to hell by demonic spirits that resemble ink spots.

• In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146, the soul is given a will of it’s own in that the poet asks it directly why it allows so much attention to be given the body, which will end up in death eaten of worms, and so little attention is given the soul. Does the soul have a life of it’s own?

• Do we believe that the souls of people linger on after the death of the body to haunt the living? This is the picture painted by countless authors, both fiction and non-fiction, and by Hollywood. From the good purposes of the ghost of Jacob Marley (Charles Dickens) to the abject horror that results from the ghostly influences on Jack Torrance (Stephen King), the souls of the departed are depicted as exerting influence on the living by lingering around after death. Is this what we believe?

• Or do the souls of the departed linger in a quieter, less intrusive way, silently watching their charges, stepping in only when absolutely necessary as does Clarence Odbody, the guardian angel in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life? Or maybe the souls of the departed become angels?

The very earliest mention of the soul anywhere in writing appears to be in the first book of the Bible (ca. 1400 BC) – Genesis 2:7:

“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 word soul here is translated into English from the original Hebrew – nephesh. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (5315) gives us the following definition:

nephesh (neh’-fesh): a soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, passion, appetite, emotion

In the King James, it is translated 428 times as soul, but is also translated person (30), heart (15), creature (9), body (7) and even mortal (1).

In the Old Testament passages below, the Hebrew word nephesh is translated in bold. We don’t appear to be talking about an immortal, intangible part of a human that is conscious and aware beyond the death of the body.

• These are the sons of Rachel, who were born to Jacob: all the souls were fourteen. (Genesis 46:22)
• Then you shall appoint your cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee there, that has killed any person unawares. (Number 35:11)
• Neither shall he (high priest) go in to any dead body… (Leviticus 21:11)

The New Testament word translated soul is the Greek – psuche’. Strong’s (5590) gives us the following definition:

psuche’ (psoo-khay’): the vital breath, breath of life, the human soul, the soul as the seat of affections and will, the self, a human person, an individual.

In the King James, it is translated soul 58 times, life 40 times, mind 3 times and heart once:

One example is Jesus Sermon on the Mount, during which He taught His listeners the value of life. The original Greek New Testament word for soul (psuche’) is translated here as life.

“Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t your life more than food and your body more than clothing?”  (Matthew 6:25)

Further, Wikipedia’s treatment of the noun, soul, is from the Greek (psukho) and cites New Testament scripture (Revelation 8:9) in defining the word as life (the state of being alive). Interestingly, psukho literally translates “I blow” which seems to reference the original usage of the Hebrew form in Genesis – God breathing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils.

The resource goes on to offer a definition of the soul in terms of an immaterial part of a human being which is immortal but ascribes this line of thinking to the Greek philosophers citing Xenophon, Homer and Plato.

It seems the biblical use of the word “soul” is interchangeable with the word “person”. There is little indication that when the Bible speaks of the soul that it is referring to an abstract part of our being that is conscious and lives on after we die. The concept of the soul living on past the death of it’s body in some form seems to have it’s origins exclusively in Greek Philosophy.  Scripture doesn’t support the idea of an immortal soul.

This leads to a question:

When did Greek thought infiltrate Christian teaching on the afterlife?