Table of Contents
Part VI: A Fresh Look at the meaning
of the Word "Soul".
raised by such a view of the soul as presented here may seem
great enough to cast very serious doubts upon it. But there are
problems of a very similar kind if the soul is taken to have
an existence in its own right and not merely as a resultant.
It is this fact that has prevented the development of a simple,
clear, and completely satisfying definition of the exact constitutional
nature of man. The continuance of two camps, the dichotomists
and the trichotomists, each of which may be quite convinced of
the rightness of its own views, is sufficient proof that either
alternative leaves unsolved problems. According to the picture
we have tried to draw, the truth lies not exactly in the center
but at the extremes, man being both a dichotomy and a trichotomy,
depending upon how one looks at the matter.
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The problems which we shall rather
briefly examine are actually common to either view. For example,
the question of whether a child becomes a soul from the moment
of conception, or at some time during embryonic development,
or only at birth is a point which either camp must consider.
At the other end of the life cycle, the fate of the soul as such
has still not been defined to the complete satisfaction of all
parties. The fate of the body and the spirit is stated in Scripture
without equivocation. But the soul's fate is not nearly as clearly
stated, the word She'ol being anything but definitive.
In fact it is its indefiniteness that has given to human imagination
the wide freedom to define it in an extraordinary number of fantastic
ways, which have very little to do with Scripture. It has been
like an empty frame around an untouched canvas, inviting every
artist to paint any picture he chooses. This fact is sufficient
proof of the uncertainty which surrounds the meaning of the word
consequently the fate
of that part of man which is termed the soul. The destiny of
the whole man is, to my mind, as clear as it can be, once his
spirit has been clothed upon by a new body. But until that resurrection
brings about the re-emergence of his soul, the fate of the soul
is still open to debate. We have to face also the fact that in
many passages in the Old Testament the words "soul"
and "spirit" appear to be interchangeable, as though
they were synonymous terms. This must also be accounted for by
Of course, there is nothing new in these
observations. It is quite fascinating when studying the writings
of the early Church Fathers to find that they, too, were driven
by the very logic of things to a consideration of these same
issues. The very fact that such problems continue unsolved, or
solved only in part and to the satisfaction of a few individuals,
should be a sufficient warning that what we have to say in this
Paper will certainly not close the issues. The only contribution
one can hope to make is to define the problem a little more accurately.
In science, progress of understanding
results almost entirely from the more exact definition of the
problem. If one can ask the right questions in the right way,
he has already gone a long way towards finding the answers. The
same is very probably true in the realm of theology. We turn,
then, to the beginning of the life cycle.
If the spirit that is given to
the body by God at the drawing of the first breath results in
the emergence of the soul, the question arises, What is the nature
of the unborn child which has not yet drawn its first breath?
Does it possess a soul? The possible experimental evidence for
the possession of a soul lies, as far as I know, in two phenomena
only: first, prenatal movements, and secondly, prenatal "recollection"
recorded by hypno-analysis. Let us consider these two briefly.
Manifestly, in normal circumstances,
the embryo has life. It is not clear at the present time what
kind of life this is. Obviously it is not an independent kind
of life, the connection between the embryo and the mother being
of an absolutely vital nature. Experience and experiment show
that when the embryo has developed to a certain point it possesses
a nervous system which renders it as a whole capable of some
response to certain kinds of stimulation or irritation. From
a purely physiological point of view, such responsiveness does
not tell us too much, because a severed frog's leg can be made
to kick, an extracted heart to beat, an amputated leg to sweat,
and a man with his head cut off to run up to a dozen paces, thereby
demonstrating that such reactions can take place in an organism
that is far from
complete. These mechanisms,
some of them vital to the continuance and homeostasis of the
organism, can evidently be made to operate for a limited time
when the whole organism as such does not exist. Presumably, therefore,
the reverse may be true. If that which has been deliberately
rendered an incomplete organism can so respond, one might assume
that a similar kind of response could occur in that which has
not yet become a complete organism. In other words, such responses
to stimulation or irritation are not proof in themselves of the
existence of a whole child -- body, soul, and spirit. They are
evidence rather of some intrinsic responsiveness of all living
tissue on a purely chemico-physical plane. A demonstration of
this lies in the fact that the embryo may have life in this sense
and yet in due time be stillborn. Not until the newborn child
has drawn his first breath, aerated his lungs, and thereby initiated
the mechanism for the oxygenation of its own blood, can the dependence
upon its mother be severed by cutting the umbilical cord. The
independence rests upon drawing a first breath, and, as I understand
Scripture, it is at this moment that the spirit is given to the
body and the child becomes a person, an individual.
This dependence meanwhile is of
a special kind. While there is no direct connection between the
mother's blood and the blood circulating in the embryo, there
is a very real indirect connection in the placenta wherein, by
osmotic action and by diffusion, nutrients pass from mother to
embryo in exchange for waste products returned in the opposite
direction by the same process. The medium of transport is via
the bloodstream in each case, and therefore it might be said
-- since the soul is in the blood -- that if the child has soul-life
at all, it is by proxy, being dependent upon the soul of the
mother. One might perhaps conclude, therefore, that the spirit
of the mother because of its direct influence upon her own soul
could influence in turn the child she carries. This could conceivably
be the reason why Elizabeth's child leapt in her womb when she
found herself face to face with the "mother of her Lord"
(Luke 1:44), her own spirit being so greatly moved by the encounter.
If this should be thought an entirely fantastic idea, that spirit
should by such indirect means influence the body, we need only
to remind ourselves how an angel rolled away a stone from a tomb
which had required several men to put it in position. We do not
know enough yet to state precisely how the spiritual acts upon
the material; we only know that it does. I am well aware of the
controversy over the matter of whether the spiritual condition
of the mother does actually influence her unborn child in any
way. I do not think this controversy is by any means at an end
yet. There is evidence
both for and against such interaction.
It is well known that by the technique
of hypno-analysis it is possible to recover from a subject experience
long since forgotten. By a process of "regression"
the subject is carried back to any given period of his life and
asked what is taking place. Some quite remarkable instances of
long-forgotten events being recovered in considerable detail
and re-told with great vividness are on record. It seems that
there was no limit to the "distance" in the past which
could be recovered, and much therapeutic use was made of the
technique. With developing confidence, analysts began to probe
further and further into the past with responsive subjects until
events occurring even in infancy could be recalled. A bold attempt
was then made to go one step further and recover events which
had occurred even prior to birth. In the course of time, it was
reported that events had been "recalled" by one subject,
afterwards verified by the parents, which must actually have
occurred only a few days after conception had taken place and
therefore prior to the actual formation of the brain as an organ
of consciousness. This led some analysts to claim that personality
or, rather, "awareness," was possible independently
of the brain and it was felt that this was a real blow against
materialism, because it seemed to imply that the "person"
in question had a real existence as such before the organs of
his body had been differentiated. This claim met with considerable
skepticism, although the events recalled had proved to be quite
Subsequent investigators decided
that if a subject under hypnosis had really regressed to, let
us say, the age of ten years, then their level of education and
intelligence should be concordant. Assuming normal schooling,
a subject in this condition should be familiar with certain mathematical
problems, but not with others. When this test was applied it
was not found to be true in all cases, the subject sometimes
having knowledge which he could not in fact have possessed at
that time. This seemed to challenge the technique, although many
remarkable regressions of undoubted validity had in the meantime
been achieved. It was felt that in some way, and particularly
where the events recalled were not actually distressing, the
subject was somehow seeking to supply the hypnotist with the
kind of information he expected.
Probably the most serious criticism
thus far brought against this method of recovering past events
is the fact that it can be made to work, not only for what has
happened previously, but also for what is yet to happen in the
future. Thus an individual can be "progressed," rather
than "regressed." For example, a medical student under
hypnosis described in
detail the diagnosis and operative treatment which he was yet
to perform in the future, on a woman with an abdominal ailment.
In another instance a young woman recovered the events which
were to happen when she reached the age of 70 and described them
in some detail and in the appropriate tone of voice.
In the present state of our knowledge,
I am not sure that we can attach too much importance to so-called
recollections of events prior to birth, unless, of course, we
make the rather unprovable assumption that the mother's recollection
of her experience was somehow communicated to her unborn child.
The evidence from hypnoanalysis, as I see it, has not yet proved
conclusively that the child in the womb possesses any consciousness.
Even the events recorded in Genesis 25:26 in which Jacob took
hold of the heel of his brother Esau as the two were aborning
need not mean any more than that the contact of Jacob's hand
at that moment was just such as to cause him to take hold by
a kind of reflex action. In fact, the very wording in this verse
seems to bear this out.
As a matter of fact, for centuries
there was some doubt in Christendom as to whether a child had
a soul even after it was born until it had received a name. The
name was, of course, given at baptism. Infants who died before
their baptism were usually buried in a special cemetery, since
it was not believed that they had achieved the status of persons,
and their fate after death was therefore unknown. They could
neither be treated as animals and given no burial whatever, nor
as Christians and buried in hallowed ground. According to my
thesis, if a child has lived independently for any length of
time, no matter how short the time might be, it has become a
whole person -- body, soul, and spirit. But the position taken
by Medieval ecclesiastics shows that they did not assume that
the fetus automatically had achieved a soul merely because of
its having come to birth.
Curiously enough, this Medieval
concept was developed along lines not altogether unlike those
of Jewish teachers. For these ecclesiastics concluded that unbaptized
children went to a "place" to which they gave the name
"limbo," a place about which so little was known that
imagination was allowed to supply the details with gay abandon.
In our discussion of the nature of the soul, we have said in
effect that the return of the spirit to God and the body to dust
led inevitably to the disappearance of the soul as such. When
one asks, Where has the light gone that has been switched off,
or, Where has the green gone when the plastic sheets part company,
we are apt to say, "They simply disappear -- Who knows where."
This is really
the basic meaning, I
think, of the well-known word She'ol, the place of the
departed soul in the Old Testament. Like the Medieval Scholastics,
the Jewish rabbis filled this very vague term with all kinds
of fantastic meanings, some of which were preserved by Christian
tradition and have influenced our own thinking when we read the
Old Testament. This has nothing whatever to do with the question
of whether there is a place of punishment for the unsaved. In
my own mind, hell is as real as heaven. I cannot stress this
conviction too strongly because this whole subject of the nature
of the soul can quickly become a hotbed of misunderstanding,
and I should not want to be misquoted on this score. As already
stated earlier in this Paper, the question of the state of the
believer (and, for that matter, the unbeliever) between death
and resurrection to glory (or to shame) is more specifically
dealt with in another Doorway Paper ("Time and Eternity,"
Part I in Volume 6). I do not believe for one moment that there
is any salvation here or hereafter outside of Christ; and I do
not believe there could possibly be any meaning to the term "heaven"
unless the same reality is attached to the word "hell."
My impression from the study of the Old Testament in the original
is that the word She'ol was not the definitive or descriptive
term we suppose now, but simply a word which in the final analysis
meant "Who knows where?" And when Old Testament writers
spoke of the soul as departing to She'ol, their uncertainty
as to what happens to the soul did not in the slightest degree
cause them to have any doubts about what happened to the spirit.
The spirit they were certain returned into God's care, the fate
of the soul was unknown.
On the other hand, because the
soul was the instrument of consciousness whereby we discover
one another and the world around us, it was often taken to mean
the living person as a conscious being. They loved life,
these Hebrew people: the great promises of God to them were essentially,
in their view, promises for this life. So long as a man enjoyed
the power of all his senses, so long as a man even in his old
age like Moses and like Caleb were not one whit dimmed in eye
or ear, the blessing of God was upon him. In this sense, it was
a man's soul that assumed such great importance to them, even
in the sight of God. The only command of the Decalogue with a
promise involved long life here and now, "that thy days
may be long in the land. . ." It is no wonder, then, that
the word soul (nephesh) came to be so important and that
when the soul was gone, it should seem that everything was gone
and mourning for the dead was accordingly intense. Thus I believe
that, when speaking exactly the Hebrew theologians would have
admitted that it was really the
spirit which had departed
and could not be retained when the time came. Yet in common parlance
they would speak on occasion of the soul departing, and of the
soul returning when life was restored (1 Kings 17:22). Because
all sentience disappeared with the expiration of the last breath,
the whole complex of senses -- feeling, hearing, seeing, etc.,
-- were summed up in the single word nephesh, derived
from a Hebrew root which means "breath." Thus it comes
about that there are many, many passages of Scripture in the
Old Testament in which we find the word nephesh or "soul"
where we might have expected to find the word "spirit."
It is these passages which seem so strongly to contradict this
thesis. Yet rightly understood, I do not believe they really
do. And when the Lord spoke of a man gaining the whole world
and losing his own soul, He was addressing Himself in all seriousness
to people who looked upon the soul, i.e., the senses, as man's
most precious possession, simply because in a very real sense
they do represent the person.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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This brings me to one further point
regarding the analogy of the two sheets of coloured plastic.
We used the yellow to symbolize the body and the blue to symbolize
the spirit. Suppose the yellow and the blue become soiled. When
they are overlapped, the green which emerges is doubly so. In
life, the soul thus becomes more degraded than either the body
or the spirit as such, though its degradation results directly
from the sinful spirit in a corrupted body. If by the grace of
God the spirit should be wiped clean, then some advantage accrues
in the soul. When, in the resurrection the body, is at last made
perfect, its indwelling by a purified spirit will result naturally
in the appearance of a perfected soul. The clean sheet of blue
overlapping the clear sheet of yellow likewise results in a pure
green; the analogy is complete.
While only the spirit is pure,
yet the green must always appear soiled, a fact which, if our
analogy is right, should discourage us from ever claiming sinlessness
while we continue to inhabit this, to use Paul's words, "body
of death." A perfect, incorruptible, resurrected body is
as fundamental to the ultimate perfection of the saint as a regenerate
spirit, and to promise a man some kind of spiritual existence
in the hereafter without a real body is to promise him nothing,
for a human spirit without a human body cannot possibly fulfill
its aspirations for a true manhood.
These aspirations for true manhood
were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. What of His soul?