The Soul? (Untimely Meditations or Unfashionable Observations)

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

          Why would someone want to believe in a particular concept? That is the question people often forget to ask. We certainly inherit many beliefs from the culture we are born into. Tracing those beliefs back to where they originated can be a tricky matter—it is part archaeology and part psychology. One concept that has endured is belief in the soul. Typically a soul is seen as the essence of a person that is incorporeal, and goes on existing after the death of the body. Some people believe the soul passes on to an afterlife in heaven or hell following death. There are others who believe the soul can become reincarnated in another form. So where did the idea of “soul” come from?

It may surprise you to learn that belief in the soul does not originate with the Bible. The Hebrew word translated as “soul” in many English translations of the Old Testament has more the character of “life’s breath” than some immortal immaterial substance. In the work of translation it can often be difficult to find a word in the target language to adequately represent the word you are trying to translate. There is often no option for translators to have a “one to one” correspondence of words in a given translation. With the Bible, the Greek speaking authors of the New Testament generally used the Greek word the translators of the Septuagint had chosen to represent the original Hebrew concept. It would be a mistake to think the New Testament authors had in mind the Greek philosophical concept of the soul found in Plato rather than the Hebrew concept.

Sooner or later death is certain. “You are soil, to the soil you will return” reads Genesis 3:19b. Near-death experiences aside, death is observed to be permanent (there is a point at which no resuscitation is possible). Death can be very traumatic for those losing a loved one, and it isn’t generally pleasant to contemplate one’s own future death. What if the concept of “soul” was developed to deceive anxious persons into believing that their existence might have more permanence than death would seem to imply? Perhaps Socrates’ arguments for the immortality of the soul (in Phaedo) are a smokescreen to hide his own anxiety over his imminent death.

What I find fascinating about the Bible is how there is no talk about the migration of an immortal immaterial soul to a heavenly realm upon death. Rather, the Bible talks much more about the resurrection of the body (see N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope). Human immortality is not an intrinsic quality, rather it is a gift of God.


Nietzsche (by Lee Karl Palo) 001 (small)

Untimely Meditations or Unfashionable Observations are meant to provoke thought. They are not necessarily meant to convey the author’s actual opinion, and may be hypothetical in nature. The style is inspired by a certain oft-misunderstood European philosopher of the late 19th Century (he would have preferred to be called a European philosopher rather than a German philosopher) – “Dionysus.”


© 2014 Lee Karl Palo

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