bible christianity philosophy theology

embodied souls



…or both?

Some hold to the idea that there is no ‘self’ or ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, so to speak, but rather than we are complex biological organisms with complex biological functions; including complex mental processes which have caused some to imagine that we have a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’.

At the same time, there are those who hold to the idea that ‘they’ are primarily not their body, but rather their ‘soul‘ or ‘spirit’ or ‘self’. This spiritual entity is said to be the essence of who ‘you’ are, and is often said to be ‘immortal’ or ‘eternal’.

Varying views on this topic are not new. In the ancient world, the two main views we know of were either that humans were endowed with an immortal soul, or that they… well… were not so endowed.

Interestingly, the Judeo/Christian tradition has been thought to be in the former group – believing in an immortal ‘soul’ that ‘lives on’ after death. I’m convinced that this was not the case. I can’t argue in the necessary detail here, but suffice it to say this: While the Judeo/Christian writings do use the word ‘soul’ (Greek: psyche, Hebrew: nephesh), they did not view it as a separate ‘compartment’ of the person.

A classic example of the Judeo/Christian usage of this word is found in the famous Hebrew ‘Shema‘ prayer from Deuteronomy 6, which instructs to love the Lord your God ‘with all your heart, with all your soul (nephesh), with all your mind and with all your strength.’ humanThis is kind of a super Hebrew-parallellism. Much of the time, such parallels are 2 in length; giving a first thought, and then paralleling it with another (i.e. ‘…let justice roll like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream…’). The Shema prayer, however, contains a 4-fold parallelism; heart, soul, mind and strength. This is not a list of 4 components of a person, but rather a classically Jewish way of saying ‘you’. Love the Lord your God with ALL of YOU.

So, the Jewish view of the ‘soul’ is inseperable from the rest of ‘you’. One way of seeing this is to say that the soul is thoroughly and 100 percent ’embodied’; like software which is fully installed onto a computer. The software does absolutely nothing apart from the hardware, and the hardware is vastly more functional with the software.

24 replies on “embodied souls”

I’m back :)

Interesting post. One question I have is that if the soul is not separable from the body, where does an afterlife come into it? E.g. if the body and soul are inseparable what goes to heaven? We know the body decomposes in the ground (or is cremated lol) but if they aren’t separate doesn’t this imply the soul does too?


Very interesting, I quite like that theory, but Ian also has a valid point.

Of course using the computer analogy, the hard drive can be removed from the computer with relative ease… so the software is portable…

Ian and Jonathan, what if the popular understandings of heaven and hell and the afterlife that are leading to your question, are wrong? What if there is a future resurrection of the dead and a righting of all things (as the New Testament states), but there is no intermediate state where people float to heaven?

Does the NT really point to a disembodied soul heading to ‘heaven’?

Servant: I wondered about that too. The problem with Heaven, in my mind at least is that I’ve read or listened to a number of views that I rest only on the hope of a better life after death.

Talking of heaven, can any one shed light on the theory of Three Heavens? (An Old Testament Heaven, New Testament Heaven and Future Heaven – or something like that) I remember hearing a sermon on that some years ago by a pastor/teacher that I a lot of respect for?

Jonathan – while the hard drive might be portable it is hardware not software. Software can’t (meaningfully) exist without something to store it on.

Frank – something needs to be resurrected though, and if the body has decomposed, what is left to be resurrected? Sure an “omnipotent god” could recreate people from scratch but then the whole thing seems rather pointless doesn’t it?

Fun stuff guys…

The ‘3 heavens’ view seems quite foreign to me. ‘Heaven’ being a way of speaking of God’s dimension of reality as opposed to ours (earth); it wouldn’t itself be changed at any different stages, except for in its relationship to earth…


I hope I’m not trouncing in unwelcome with my crazy, “heretic” view. I just find this subject endlessly interesting. I come from a tradition that teaches the spirit and the body united are the soul of Man, thus resurrection becomes a reuniting of spirit with perfected immortal body. In this sense we agree with Jewish tradition that the soul is 100% embodied.

We think of the spirit as matter only more refined or pure, invisible to the eye and identical, a scaffolding on which the body is built. Other synonyms could include intelligence or life force.

While heart, mind, soul and strength may be parallel, but they each seem also to emphasize a different aspect of being. I recently posted a little harmless speculation on the subject.

While I am certain that this explanation is not scientifically verifiable, I think it has a certain internal consistency. Certainly it is no more a leap for me than he idea that the material body or brain is all that there is and life and consciousness are just tricks of chemical reactions and natural forces.

Hey Doc,
You’re more than welcome to comment on anything! I’m somewhat familiar with Mormon teaching. Would your tradition teach that the spirit of Man exists prior to our current embodied existence? And, further, is that related at all to Mormon teachings of (possibly the wrong term) ‘deification’? (Here I’m thinking of Joseph Smith’s words, ‘As we are now, God once was; as God is now, we can become…’ – from memory…)
I’m very interested…

Yes, our spirits are eternal, part of them have always been, and ultimate exaltation involves deification, literally recieving all that God has, and becoming one with Christ as Christ is one with the Father. While this doctrine can be quite startling and strange, even blasphemous to new ears, I find it utterly profound, adding depth and meaning to life.

That quote actually comes from the 5th president of the Church, Lorenzo Snow. While there is much speculation as to the meaning of the quote, my personal view is that if Christ was fully Man, then it is actually pretty standard to believe that as Man is, God once was. While we do hold Christ and the Father to be separate and distinct, Christ did say that he did nothing in this life but what he had seen the Father do. However, we really don’t have any solid detail as to what the first part of that couplet means. The second part, OTOH, is central to our understanding of the meaning of life.

However, I don’t want to hijack the conversation. Certainly this is at least a post of its own, likely a series of posts. It’s a topic over which much ink has been and will continue to be spilt and the most unique and distinctive feature of the LDS faith and theology.

Thanks Doc,
Good to be corrected about what I thought was a Smith quote being from L. Snow. Thanks for that…
Yes, probably too huge an issue to discuss deification, but on the topic of eternal spirits (which is quite relevant to this discussion), I don’t see it in Jewish/Christian thought.
I’m curious; (and I don’t, of course, want to begin a proof-texting cycle :) ) what Scriptures would Mormons point to in support of the ‘eternal human spirit’?
Thanks again,

Ok, I confuse easily. From a general Christian point of view, do we have a spiritual being as well as our soul, or is our soul the same as our spirit. Or is the spiritual side of us purely the Holy Spirit living inside of us?

If we have no way to spiritually leave our bodies to go to heaven, then how do we explain the many cases of ‘out of body’ experiences….

On a side note, it’s interesting (at least to me) to look back at most of what I assume about ‘being a Christian’. Essentially my early Christian days were spent in a series of pentecostal/charismatic churches where what the Pastor preached was the word of God, no need to question or investigate his claims because, well he was preaching the word of God!

I don’t know if it’s my being a little more mature now, or just the people I hang out with/church I go to but I’m more open to learning, exploring and investigating what my faith is based on…

Re soul/spirit/etc.:
Whatever our ‘soul’ and/or ‘spirit’ is, I think the Judeo/Christian understanding of it is very ’embodied’…
For quite a while now, I’ve quite simply taken a ‘skip to the end’ (for want of a better way of putting it) approach to what happens to ‘you’ after death…
We must remember, I think, that the Bible lays out no systematic and technical diagrams, charts, agendas or advance schedules of what this looks like.
Tom Wright talks about things in two stages:
1) ‘Life after death’ is an ‘intermediary state’ that is (in Scripture and other Jewish writings) not finely defined, but is –in his view– seen in described with terms such as “Abraham’s bosom” or “the Grave” or “with Christ”… (Wright often quotes a Maccabean text ‘…the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God…’, and thinks that this is a classic example of typical 1st century Jewish understanding of what happens after death.)
2) What he calls “Life AFTER ‘life after death’ ” is Resurrected, bodily life (1 Cor. 15 kind of stuff) in a renewed Heaven/Earth… (Wright consistently emphasizes this second/final stage as the what Christian Hope is all about – His latest book ‘Surprised by Hope’ is said to talk about this…)

Obviously, the doctrine of premortal is most apparent in Modern day revelation, and I think to really accept, you have first to accept that. However, there are various passages that at least hint at premortal existence and can be interpreted that way.
For example Jeremiah 1:5 -Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations

John 9:1-3- 1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.
2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

This passage shows that the disciples of Christ understood that humans had a premortal existence, and were inquiry as to whether poor behavior there might have resulted in a curse of blindness at birth upon the man in question. Christ does not challenge the assumption of premortal existence, but challenges their assumption that sin was the cause of the blindness.

You can also try Job 38:1-7
v 4 seems to me to indicate that Job was somewhere, more particularly v7 indicates that the Morning stars and the Sons of God were there at the creation

Others we use are Deut 32:8 (note- children of Israel at the end is better translated Sons of God from both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls); Ecclesiastes 1:7; Heb. 12:9,10;or Acts 17:28,29, all of which may be understood differently.

It is interesting to note that both Origen and Clement of Alexandria taught the premortal existence of souls. In addition, Jewish Apocryphal books 2 Enoch 23:5; 3 Enoch 43:1 both teach this concept quite explicitly.

“Pointless? Not at all.”

If things occurred as I described them, the existence of the soul is entirely irrelevant. A no-soul theory of people could just as easily work and given the ghost in the machine interpretation of consciousness is gradually disappearing from neurology, there doesn’t seem to be any need to postulate a soul any more.

It seems to me the only way a soul can be anything more than another expression for the emergent properties of neurology is to separate it from the body, which of course is itself fraught with problems.

What I was responding to, Ian, was this comment:

something needs to be resurrected though, and if the body has decomposed, what is left to be resurrected? Sure an “omnipotent god” could recreate people from scratch but then the whole thing seems rather pointless doesn’t it?

Your statement about pointlessness here, seems to relate to a future resurrection. The answer to that is – no, it is not pointless at all.

Though I am confused as to why you, an atheist, would bother pointing out that something could be pointless… in your world view, isn’t everything ultimately pointless? Or do you have some deep sense that there must be a point to things?

Thanks for the comment!
I would say that the Jeremiah text speaks of fore-knowledge and intent (from God’s perspective) rather than events happening (from Jeremiah’s perspective) before his ‘earthly life’…
As for the John 9 passage, I see no hint at all of anything to do with pre-mortal existence. Jesus is countering a popular idea that the physical condition of a person could be the result of their parents’ behaviour (or their own)…
The Job passage, if anything, speaks against the idea of Job’s pre-existence; the rhetorical questions following verse 4 suggest the answer ‘nowhere’.
The other passages, indeed, ‘may be understood differently’… :)
I’ve got to go, but will try to look up the other references…

“Your statement about pointlessness here, seems to relate to a future resurrection. The answer to that is – no, it is not pointless at all.”

If it requires the entire reconstruction of a person to exactly match how they were before they died, I can’t comprehend the point of this? For starters the person died for a good reason (heart attack etc) so presumably the reconstruction would be sometime before that reason took hold (otherwise the person would promptly die again) which raises an interesting issue for those who died from genetic causes… So almost certainly the person needs to be changed in order to live again, and given we have readily identified the connectedness of the body and “soul” this necessarily changes the “soul” too doesn’t it?

“in your world view, isn’t everything ultimately pointless?”

Ultimately pointless yes, but then theists face the same problem. It is an infinite regress of “points” that is quite insoluble. Things can and do have intermediate points though, or at least can be said to act as if there was a point to it.

The early Christians believed certain things about the resurrected body of Jesus – two of which are relevant here.
First, they believed there was continuity with his pre-resurrection (pre-R) body (the pre-R body having been ‘transformed’ into the post-R body). Some details: scars still in post-R body & was recognisable to disciples (though strangely so).
Second, they believed there was dis-continuity (the post-R body was a new kind of ‘body’ altogether). Details: Physical (able to eat fish/bread and be touched) yet able to enter locked room.

The implication for the hope of bodily resurrection in the future is discussed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. He uses the analogy of a ‘seed’ becoming a ‘plant’ or becoming ‘further clothed’ (continuity and dis-continuity). The new body is said to be ‘imperishable’, meaning that whatever the person died from will not matter. It’s a picture of final and full restoration. A restoration that is awaited and worked toward in the present. Where there is brokenness, loneliness, sorrow, pain and greed, we work toward final renewal by way of repairing these with wholeness, community, comforting, and generosity… This begins to hint at the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: ‘…thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…’


Let us take an example: I die. My body is cremated (or buried to subsequently decompose – same effect). There is now exactly nothing of my physical existence left. Since my body is gone any emergent properties of that body are also gone. There is literally nothing left. What happens now?

The funny thing about emergent properties is that they are the best place to find chaos in action. Tiny changes to initial aspects of the system can lead to quite dramatic changes in that emergent property – identical twins are a classic example – such that events around my death would have lead to changes in who I was. The only way resurrection could work would be for “god” to choose how he wanted me to be and to resurrect me to match that. I am sure you can see the logical nightmare that idea raises :)

Thanks Ian,
I’m not sure how much further we can take this… :) As long as God is “god” – we’ve gone about as far as you can, maybe? :)

Hi Ian,

As long as we are talking about the Biblical God here, I think we can be quite sure that He knows what makes up a person and can find all the pre-existing substances He needs to resurrect someone.

When you speak of the decomposed body and you say “there is literally nothing left” are you saying someone’s death creates a vacuum? ;)

“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”

– Psalm 139:13-16

God knows how to resurrect a decomposed person, if planet earth contains the elements necessary for natural selection and evolution to create a human, then God has no stress on His toolbox when it comes to resurrection. He is well equipped, I think.

Comments are closed.