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Soul, spirit, body, mind, etc.

About the "soul." What is it? The belief's origins.
The words "Nephesh" and "Psuche" in the Bible.
When does the soul enter the body and
human personhood begin?

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What is a person made of?:

Many Christians believe that people are composed of:

  • A material or physical part: This consists of our visible bodies consisting of flesh and bones, a brain, sensory organs, etc. At death, all of these decay and are often returned to fertilize the earth.

  • A spiritual or immaterial part: This consists of either a soul, or a combination of soul and spirit. These components survive death and are usually considered immortal.

    Christians differ in how they view the immaterial part:

    • Dichotomists believe that this part is composed of a body and soul.

    • Trichotomists believe that this part consists of a body, soul, and spirit.

Many Christians, non-theists, Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists etc. believe that a person cannot be divided into multiple parts in this way. They believe that a person is a:

  • Psychomatic Unity: A person consists of a unified whole. Most or all of the attributes traditionally assigned to the soul are actually functions of the human brain.

Supporters all three positions are generally certain that their position is the only true one. Christians are able to justify their diverse beliefs by interpreting biblical passages in different ways. There appear to be only two explanations of their multiple interpretations of the Bible:

  1. The Bible is ambiguous. It is impossible for readers to derive a clear understanding of its meaning in at least some passages.

  2. The Bible is clear and unambiguous. However some Christians reject this clear understanding and substitute their own opinions.

Neither of these two explanations are particularly comfortable to the average Christian.

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Origins of the concept of the soul:

A common belief is that the concept of a soul originally arose from personal out-of-body experiences (OBEs). One member of the group that maintains this web site had such an experience when she was in a hospital operating room, near death from an ectopic pregnancy. During an OBE, the individual feels as if their soul has left their body and is acting independently, perhaps floating around the room or going to other locations. Belief in a soul flows naturally from such an experience.

Another belief is that belief in a soul arose logically from the very human fear of death. It was obvious to ancient humans that when a person dies, their body starts to decay and will eventually be reunited with the earth. To calm people's fear of death, even primitive religions usually have some form of afterlife:

  • Ancient Celts believed that one's death in this world causes a person to be born again in another, similar, and parallel world. Death in the latter world causes one to be reborn in the first world. Something containing the essence of the person must travel between the two worlds. It must be invisible and non-corporeal, because it cannot be seen or otherwise sensed as it leaves.

  • The ancient Hebrew Scriptures refer to a soul or spirit of a person leaving the body at death and traveling to Sheol -- an underground world of the dead, perhaps located in a hollow space in the center of the Earth. There are close parallels between Hebrew and other ancient cultures. According to the Faith Defenders web site:

    "The Ugaritic ars and Accadian su alu clearly refer to the netherworld. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Greek parallels to Sheol clearly meant the place of departed spirits. The Ethiopian Si’ol cannot mean anything other than the netherworld, the place of conscious life after death." 1

    Sheol, or its equivalent in other religions, was typically viewed as a place where everyone -- the good and the bad -- went after death to eke out an energy less existence in isolation from God or the Gods.

    2nd Maccabees was probably written during the 1st Century BCE. It forms part of the Apocrypha which is included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. Along with passages in the Books of Daniel and Isaiah, they discuss concept of a Heaven in the presence of God and the reuniting of one's soul with a glorified body will take place.

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About the Biblical passages containing the Hebrew word "Nephesh" or the Greek word "Psuche" translated into English:

  • Old Testament: The word "nephesh" is translated in the King James Bible and English Revised Bible as "soul" 472 times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). However, in another 282 places, "nephesh" is translated into one of 44 different words or phrases, such as: person, persons, any, man, etc. 2

  • New Testament: The word "psuche" -- which means "breath" in Greek -- occurs 105 times in the original manuscripts of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). They were initially written in Greek. It was subsequently translated into English in the King James version. as:
    • "Soul" 58 times.
    • "Life" 40 times.
    • "Mind" 3 times.
    • "Heart" once.
    • "Heartily" once.
    • "Us" once, and
    • "You" once. 3

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When does the soul enter the body?

The early Christian Church accepted the view of Pythagoras, a Greek, that the soul entered the body at the moment of conception. In reality, there is no "moment of conception." It is a process that lasts for hours.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE) suggested that an embryos receives a human soul and thus becomes a human person at the time of its "formation." This happens when it first develops a form that appears human. For male embryos he believed that this occurs at 40 days after conception. He regarded female embryos as reaching "formation" at 80 days.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274 CE), the Christian theologian, picked up Aristotle's ideas and included them in his great work, Summa Theologica. He believed in "delayed animation" -- that an embryo does not become a human person until the passage of many weeks after conception. He wrote that the "fetal matter" contributed by the mother joined with the seminal fluid supplied by the father to produce non-living matter. This was successively infused by a vegetative soul to become an vegetable, later by an animal soul to become an animal, and finally after 40 or 80 days by a human soul to become a human person.

The Roman Catholic Church originally accepted Aquinas' theories. However, Pope Sixtus V rejected them in 1588 CE, by issuing a Bull that automatically excommunicated members of the church if they performed abortions at any stage of gestation. This position was reversed a few years later by Pope Sixtus V. In 1869, in Bull Apostolicae Sedis, Pius IX reversed Sixtus V ruling and re-enacted the penalty of excommunication for both early and late abortions. This is the Church's current position. 4,5

However, the Church does not currently take a definitive position of precisely when a soul enters the body -- and thus when the life of a human person begins. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, wrote a document that was approved by Pope John Paul II saying:

"The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable." 5

Protestants in the pro-live movement who oppose abortion access, typically believe that the soul enters the body during the process of conception, and that this is when human personhood starts. Other commonly found beliefs are that human personhood begins:

  • When the embryo's heart starts to beat.
  • When the embryo first starts to look like a human.
  • When quickening occurs and the mother feels the fetus move.
  • When sentience is attained. The higher functions of the fetal brain first occur and the fetus attains a level of primitive consciousness.
  • When the fetus has half-emerged from its mother's body.
  • When the umbilical cord has been cut and the newborn is breathing on its own as an independent human person.

To our knowledge, no dialogue is occurring among people holding diverse views on when human personhood begins. Thus the question will probably not be settled for the foreseeable future.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. :Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna," Faith Defenders, undated, at: http://www.faithdefenders.com/
  2. "Nephesh," Appendix 13 to The Companion Bible, at:http://www.ecclesia.org/
  3. "Psuche," Appendix 110 to The Companion Bible, at: http://www.ecclesia.org/
  4. "Was St. Thomas Aquinas wrong about when human life begins?," Catholic Answers, undated, at: http://www.catholic.com/
  5. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Instruction on respect for human life in its origin ...," Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at: http://www.vatican.va/

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