Save Our Souls


There’s a saying that I’m sure you’ve come across on occasion: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” It’s often misattributed to C.S. Lewis, but I don’t think he ever actually said anything of the kind. It shows up several times before Lewis, usually in wording pretty close to that, but we don’t know for sure how it started. The idea it reflects it pretty similar to the Gnostic belief that the material world is an illusion meant to hold us back. While it was rejected by orthodox Christianity, it kind of seems like it managed to sneak back in. References in the New Testament suggest a bodily resurrection, as also mentioned in the book of Daniel, apparently a favorite of Jesus. When this general resurrection didn’t happen, it became more common to think of souls as going to Heaven or Hell after death. Some Christian denominations still hold that the bodily resurrection will eventually occur, while others largely disregard it. The thing is, if the soul can live on eternally without the body, it kind of makes life on Earth somewhat irrelevant. Sure, the mainstream belief differs from the Gnostic in that it affirms the reality of material things, but a human lifespan is apparently a drop in the bucket compared to how long a soul can exist.

I must admit to being curious as to what exactly people think a soul is, and how the concept developed. It’s the animating force of the body, but at the same time it also seems to encompass a person’s mind and identity. As such, it’s still YOU moving on into the afterlife, not just a collection of spiritual energy.

I can’t say I’m sold (souled?) on the idea myself, as it seems to me that the prevailing wisdom is that identity is stored in the brain and can’t be separated from it. I think the idea that personalities can simply cease to exist is inherently disturbing, however, so different cultures came up with different ways they could live on. I’m not saying it isn’t a tempting idea, just that I find it unlikely. While there are still debates now as to whether, say, animals have souls, some of the oldest known religious beliefs are animist ones in which even non-living things do.

Of course, back then no one knew about cells, so there wasn’t as much of a line of demarcation between life and non-life. Also, I’m not sure whether animists believed that souls could be separated from bodies, so the implication isn’t necessarily that a rock can have an eternal afterlife.

The Wikipedia article on ghosts suggests that the soul was commonly associated with breath, since living things stop breathing when they die. That could be why ghosts are often thought of as wispy, like frozen breath on a cold day.

It also appears to be a pretty old belief that the dead still look like they did in life. This would probably be essential if you’re going to recognize the spirit of someone you knew, unless that information is just automatically filtered into your mind or something. While it’s tempting to think of a soul as pure energy, I don’t think that really fits with the common understanding. Ghosts can float around and walk through walls, but they’re also frequently regarded as interacting with physical objects.

In reading about mythology, I’ve come across many different concepts of the afterlife and the world of the dead. The Greek Asphodel and the Hebrew Sheol are more or less shadowy underground realms of eternal boredom. I think a lot of people would rather just cease to exist than go there, but I guess at least you can still occasionally keep in touch with your living friends and relatives, like when Odysseus chatted with the shades.

There are also many variations on souls being rewarded or punished for their deeds on Earth, and often in ways that suggest they still have some physical substance. After all, if you no longer have a body, you would think you wouldn’t need to eat and couldn’t feel pain, but the honored souls were still said to spend their time feasting and the damned burning in fire.

Tantalus‘ punishment in Tartarus consisted of being denied food. Some cultures that practice ancestor worship will offer food to their late predecessors, and it seems that ancient Egyptians thought they could bring some things with them to the afterlife. Some old Egyptian and Mesopotamian beliefs held that the next life wouldn’t be a place of eternal reward, punishment, or boredom; but rather another life much like on Earth. It seems common now to regard these very physical descriptions of the afterlife as merely symbolic, and maybe they were always intended to be. There’s really no way to tell until someone makes a trip there and back, and I don’t mean that Heaven Is for Real kid. Indeed, people who claim they’ve seen Heaven or Hell often have ideas suspiciously close to the popular conceptions that they’ve almost certainly learned about before.

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4 Responses to Save Our Souls

  1. Bryan Babel says:

    “The thing is, if the soul can live on eternally without the body, it kind of makes life on Earth somewhat irrelevant.”

    Except that life on earth is where and when the decisions are made about what the conditions of that eternal existence will be. C. S. Lewis in “The Problem of Pain” posits that a morally neutral temporal/spatial field is necessary for us to have the ability to exercise free will.

    For other points in your post, consider these quotations:

    “Another [belief] is embodied in the tenet that the souls of the departed become angels. In Judaic and Christian doctrine, the angel creation is distinct from that of human beings, and a Jew or a Catholic would as little dream of confusing the distinct conception of angel and soul, as in believing in metempsychosis [reincarnation]. But not so dissenting [Protestant] religion. According to Druidic dogma, the souls of the dead were guardians of the living; a belief shared with the ancient Indians, who venerated the spirits of their ancestry, the Pitris, as watching over and protecting them. Thus, the hymn ‘I Want To Be An Angel,’ so popular in dissenting schools, is founded in the venerable Aryan myth, and therefore of exceeding interest; but Christian it is not.

    “Another tenet which militates against Christian doctrine, and has supplanted it in popular belief, is that of the transmigration of the soul to bliss immediately on its departure from the body.

    “The article stantis vel cadentis Fidei, of the Apostles, was the resurrection of the body. If we read the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles with care, it is striking what great weight, we find, is laid on this doctrine. They went everywhere preaching–1. the rising of Christ; 2. the consequent resurrection of the bodies of Christians. ‘If the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised; and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ This was the key-note to the teachings of the Apostles; it runs through the New Testament, and is reflected in the writings of the Fathers. It occupies its legitimate position in the Creeds, and the Church has never failed to insist upon it with no faltering voice.

    “But the doctrine of the soul being transported to heaven, and of its happiness being completed at death, finds no place in the Bible or the Liturgies of any branch–either Greek, Roman, or Anglican–of the Church Catholic [Universal]. Yet this was the tenet of our Keltic forefathers, and it has maintained itself in English Protestantism, so as to divest the doctrine of the resurrection of its grasp on the popular mind.”

    –Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, 1894.

    “On an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) hylemorphic view of human nature, when the body dies, the person dies. A-T regards the soul as the form of the living body, the principle which is responsible for all of its characteristic activities, from the lowest vegetative functions to the highest, intellectual ones. For a human being to die is just for the matter of his body to lose this form or soul. The soul carries on, but not as a complete substance, and thus not as the complete person. More to the point, the body does not carry on at all; its matter takes on different forms — of bone, meat, and the like, and of the chemicals that existed virtually in the body while it was alive. Certainly it loses the capacity to carry out the functions characteristic of human life — walking about, engaging in intelligent conversation, etc. ”

    –Edward Feser, Catholic philosopher.

    • Nathan says:

      Except that life on earth is where and when the decisions are made about what the conditions of that eternal existence will be.

      True, but that essentially makes the physical world into more of a testing ground than a reality unto itself.

  2. I sometimes see it as being the pure essence of life within you. It’s channelled into the universe through your body and brain, and is obviously shaped by that, but the soul is the Undying Constant. Actually I don’t know what I’m talking about and am blabbering intangible thoughts at the moment.

    • Nathan says:

      I think the modern concept of the soul is more or less a combination of both of those things. It’s partially the spark of life within a person (or other living thing), and partially the part of someone that goes on after death. These two ideas can be taken independently; I believe Aristotle thought the soul was real, but inseparable from the body. Still, they usually seem to be combined nowadays.

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