What Is Your Soul?
TO MANY of the non-Christian people of Malaya the human soul is thought to be a little, invisible man about the size of the thumb that corresponds in shape, proportion and complexion with the man in whose body it resides. The soul of a fat man is thought to be fat, and the soul of a thin man is thought to be thin. Other primitive peoples think of it as a little bird, as their shadow or as their reflection. Usually these people believe that the soul leaves the body through the mouth or nostrils when a person sleeps and returns when he awakens. For some people in Bombay it has been considered a crime to paint the face of a sleeping person because they think his soul will not recognize him when it returns and will not re-enter his body, thus causing him to die.
In the Celebes it has been the custom to fasten fishhooks to a sick man’s nose, navel and feet so that his soul can be caught if it tries to escape. It is thought to be a little invisible bird in Borneo, and when a man is injured his wife or kinswoman will go to where he was hurt and try to lure his soul back by strewing rice on the ground and calling to his soul. She then gathers up the grains of rice, carries them home and sprinkles them on the head of the injured man, again calling to his soul as a person would call a bird.
It is unlikely that you view the soul in the same manner as these people do. Instead of thinking of it as a little man or bird inside you that likes to come out through your nose or mouth and roam about, you possibly conceive it as something very small and invisible that remains in your body until death, at which time it leaves the body to continue your conscious existence elsewhere.
The Roman Catholic publication entitled “The Question Box” defines the soul in this manner: “The soul is the ultimate principle of our individual conscious life, the principle by which we feel, think and will. . . . The soul is a simple substance, i.e., it is not composed of separate parts; it is also a spiritual substance, i.e., its existence is independent of matter.” This definition, basically, is the concept of the soul that is generally held throughout Christendom. It is somewhat similar to the views on the soul expressed by the philosophers of ancient Greece. Cicero, for example, said: “Since the nature of the soul is not composite, nor has in it any admixture that is not homogeneous and similar, I conclude that it is indivisible, and, if indivisible, that it cannot perish.”
WHAT DO THE SCRIPTURES SAY?
Rather than turn to modern or ancient philosophers for an explanation of what your soul is, the best place to turn is to the written Word of the One that created human souls. The heavenly Father certainly knows more about the subject than any man does.
As you search his written Word, you may be surprised to find nothing about his giving man an immortal soul that dwells in the body of flesh and leaves it at death. You may point, however, to the passage that says, “Then the dust returns to the earth just as it happened to be and the spirit itself returns to The true God who gave it,” and inquire if this does not confirm the existence of an immortal soul in man. But look at the scripture again. It says nothing about the soul and nothing about immortality. If you want to consider the word “spirit” as meaning soul you will have to adopt the belief of the pagan Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who taught that the soul has a pre-existence, for the scripture says that the spirit “returns to God.”—Eccl. 12:7.
The word “spirit,” as used here, has the same meaning as at Genesis 6:17, which speaks about the destruction of living creatures at the great Flood. “I behold me! bringing in the flood even waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh wherein is the spirit of life, from under the heavens,—everything that is in the earth shall cease to breathe.” (Ro) The New World Translation says: “to bring to ruin all flesh in which the force of life is active.”
Rather than refer to an intangible something within the human body that leaves it at death and continues the person’s conscious existence in another realm, the word “spirit” merely means the life force that came from God and that animates all living things. It is used in this sense at Ecclesiastes 3:19, which says: “For there is an eventuality as respects the sons of mankind and an eventuality as respects the beast, and they have the same eventuality. As the one dies, so the other dies; and they all have but one spirit.” Or it can be said that they all have the same breath, for breathing is inseparably linked with the life force of a creature.
Generally the Bible uses the word “soul” to refer to the living creature itself. It is used in this sense at Genesis 2:7, which says: “Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” Thus the soul was the result of joining the body, made from earthly elements, with the breath of life that came from God. That is why the Bible also calls animals souls. “And God went on to say: ‘Let the waters swarm forth a swarm of living souls.’”—Gen. 1:20; Num. 31:28.
By keeping in mind that a soul is a living creature rather than something spiritual inside a living creature, you can understand why the Bible speaks of souls as being slain, falling into a pit, being torn as by a lion, being bought, and being fed with meat.—Ezek. 13:19; Job 33:18; Ps. 7:2; Lev. 22:11; Deut. 12:20.
What Elijah said when he resurrected a dead child does not alter this view and give support to the belief that man has an immortal soul that leaves the body. By saying, “O Jehovah my God, please, cause the soul of this child to come back within him,” Elijah was not thinking as the primitive peoples do who believe that the soul leaves the body and wanders about. What Elijah prayed for was not the return of a departed immortal soul, but for the return of the child’s life. Some Bible translations, such as An American Translation and The Emphasised Bible by Rotherham, use “life” here instead of “soul.” This is one of the instances where “soul” is used to refer to one’s life as a creature soul. Another one is where Jesus said: “Do not become fearful of those who kill the body but can not kill the soul; but rather be in fear of him that can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” This shows not only that the soul is not immortal and can be destroyed, but also that God can return to life a man that has been killed by wicked men.—1 Ki. 17:21; Matt. 10:28.
A resurrection, therefore, is the hope for future life of those in God’s memory. Instead of remaining a dead soul indefinitely when your life force leaves you, there is the Scriptural hope that God will restore your life force, that you may be a living soul once again. This resurrection from the dead will be to immortality as spirit creatures for some and with the prospect of eternal life as human souls for the majority. So, instead of having a soul that can separate from the body, you are a soul.