What is a Soul?

 
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There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights.”A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They’re all mammals.” So said Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). 

Think that’s extreme? Actually, some object that Newkirk’s statement gives special status to animals. Michael W Fox, vice president of the Humane Society, made it stunningly personal: “The life of an ant and the life of my child should be accorded equal respect.”

If you’re tempted to dismiss such sentiments as mere ravings of activists or shock statements calculated to gain publicity for an organisation’s agenda, meet Peter Singer, considered by some to be the most influential bioethicist alive. Singer declared, “The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.”

But that’s not what the Bible tells us. “What is man?” the psalmist asked and in the next breath he declared, “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings” (Psalm 8:4, 5). Only a few centuries ago, William Shakespeare could still declare, “What a piece of work is a man! . . . The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

How did human value plummet from being “the beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!” to what architect and author, Richard Buckminster Fuller, described as “a self-balancing, 28-jointed adapter-base biped; an electro-chemical reduction plant”?

Humans As Complex Machines

The great moral issues of the past century-and-a-half—genocide, slavery, abortion, the role of women, euthanasia—all centre on the nature of human beings. In every case, some human beings claim the right to destroy, enslave or deny dignity to other humans whom they regard as inferior. If humans are no more than complex machines or animals, we protest in vain when misogynists carry out their natural instincts in fulfilment of their predatory natures.

If these views reflect reality—if we humans are just another species among the many—why do we care? 

Strangely, environmentalists and animal-rights activists and ethicists such as Singer, while contending that humans deserve no special consideration above other animals, insist that humans take an active role in protecting the rest of nature. And that demand resonates with our sense of responsibility. They would be astonished to learn that the concept of humans as nature’s caretakers comes from the Bible.

Humans As “Breathing Creatures

Perhaps surprising to some, the Bible agrees with science on our human similarity to other living creatures. The word for soul in the Old Testament comes from the Hebrew nephesh, which literally means, “a breathing creature.” 

Rather than separating human beings from the animal kingdom, this word links us to it, for more than 20 times, the word nephesh in the Bible refers to creatures other than humans. Sometimes nephesh refers to both humans and animals at the same time. 

Of course, a “breathing creature” can stop breathing and die, which the Old Testament affirms more than 30 times. For example, when Joshua conquered the city of Makkedah, he killed “everyone” (nephesh) within it (Joshua 10:28). 

Taken together, the many occurrences of the word nephesh in the Old Testament confirm humanity’s similarity with animals, not our differences from them.

By the time of the New Testament, the language and culture of the Greeks dominated the world. Thus, the New Testament writers substituted the Greek word psuche for the Hebrew nephesh. And, again, psuche can refer to animals as well as humans, and it can die or be killed (Revelation 8:9; 16:3; Acts 15:26; Romans 11:3; Luke 9:24).

Humans As Mortal Beings

The Bible clearly teaches that immortality belongs only to God. In Romans, Paul contrasts the “immortal God” with “mortal man” (Romans 1:23). Humans may seek immortality, but eternal life remains the gift of God. The apostle told the Corinthians that, at the second coming, we humans who are strictly mortal beings will put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53, 54). And in his first letter to Timothy, Paul directly states that only God possesses immortality (1 Timothy 6:16).

Even the earliest accounts of the Old Testament clearly attest to the mortality of human beings. Because of their sin, God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden, lest they “reach out [their] hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22). Without access to the tree of life, they would die.

If we humans don’t possess an immortal soul that distinguishes us from the other animals, does this validate the viewpoint that gives us the same moral status as ants and slugs? Obviously not! Virtually every detail of the Creation account testifies to the unique status of humanity.

In Genesis, God brought the entire plant kingdom into existence simply by speaking. On the fifth day, He populated the waters and the skies by saying a few words. On the sixth day, He created all land-based animals—except for humans—with His word.

Humans As Sculpted By God

But when it comes to God’s creation of humans, the narrative pace slows and the focus narrows. In its sparse prose, Genesis affirms that God “formed” man and “breathed” into him. We can almost see God cradling Adam’s head in His hands as He bestowed the kiss of life. God lavished the same personal attention on Eve, sculpting her from Adam’s rib. God invested the creation of humanity with His personal attention, because they alone are created in His own image.

In God’s image, as His stewards, Adam and Eve received dominion—authority over and responsibility for—the rest of creation (Genesis 1:26, 28). And we still feel that responsibility. That’s why environmentalists, animal-rights activists and philosophy professors who deny our special status can still appeal to it.

What is man? The Bible clearly portrays human beings as the special object of God’s love, the crowning achievement of Creation, the caretakers of the planet. And our rebellion against Him only reveals a greater depth and scope of the Creator’s unimaginable love, when His Son came to die for our fallen race.

Does God equate the value of even fallen humans with the rest of the animal kingdom? Of course not! In an age when humans devalue humans, we can take comfort that God loves all His creatures, but He loves us infinitely more. 

“Aren’t two sparrows sold for only a penny? But your Father knows when any one of them falls to the ground. Even the hairs on your head are counted. So don’t be afraid! You are worth much more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29–31, CEV; underline added).* 


* Scriptures quoted from CEV are from the Contemporary English Version, copyright © American Bible Society 1991, 1995. Used by permission.