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Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII


Part IX


Part VI: A Fresh Look at the meaning of the Word "Soul".

Chapter 3

Some Problems

     THE PROBLEMS 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.
     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 She'ol and

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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 both parties.
    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

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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

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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 factual.
     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

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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

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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

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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.
     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?

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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