The concept of a literal human soul seems very old-fashioned in today’s highly secularized world, where educated sophisticates equate “real” with tangible, visible, material. Our culture rarely uses the word “soul” except in a loose and metaphorical way, in reference to emotional and psychological realities. We say one’s soul can be “touched,” “troubled,” “elated,” by which we mean that life’s difficulties and trials or beauty and joys are spurring a person’s emotions or concerns. We say jazz or rock music “has soul,” by which we mean it elicits deeply emotional or excited responses. Nowhere in these contemporary uses of “soul” do we detect a necessary belief in the existence of an actual human soul. Yet I believe that the spiritual impoverishment of the Western world is largely due to the modernist/postmodernist mindset that questions even the existence of the soul, let alone its nature and relation to existence. And I am not alone in this belief.
In his 1978 Harvard University commencement address, titled “A World Split Apart,” Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian exile and 1970 Nobel Prize winner in literature, argued that “Hastiness and superficiality are the…disease of the twentieth century….” His words imply that, in its deep secularity, the West has succumbed to a superficiality and trivialization of what is valuable in life. The modern mind has dismissed the idea that man possesses a soul given by a transcendent Creator to whom he needs to be rightly related. Yet the consequences of rejecting the long-standing Western belief that the God of the Bible exists and is the only source for understanding ourselves are dire. Man exchanges belief in his own soul for a myth of freedom. If he has no soul and no God to whom he is accountable, man then believes he is free to define and cultivate a different concept of the self and the grounds of personal existence.
The Bible’s View of the Soul
In contrast to our culture, the Bible both assumes and asserts the existence of the human soul. The Old Testament (OT) uses the word nephesh and the New Testament (NT) uses psuche to refer to the soul and its various dimensions or aspects. In the OT, nephesh can refer to “the seat of feelings, desires, affections,” “the will,” “the heart,” or “that which breathes—that is, the vital force that animates the body and shows itself in breathing.” In the NT, psuche refers to “a living being,” “the source of feelings, both affections and aversions,” and “the inner essence of man that constitutes his immaterial and spiritual self as distinguished from his outer, physical self.” In short, the Bible views the human soul as the composite of one’s personal, immaterial, and spiritual existence in which one’s psychology and rationality exist. The Bible assumes that the soul is the deepest precinct of the human person. While the whole human creature—soul and body—bears the marks of the Creator, the Bible emphasizes the inherent importance of the invisible, immaterial aspect of humans: their souls.
In the biblical view, worldly rewards, as charming and attractive as they can be, are “like grass” whose greenness fades quickly. The world lures the soul; but while the world offers much—on its terms—its attractions are “thin” and temporal. A person can possess a soul that draws its life from this temporal existence, but the soul gained on the world’s terms is not capable of bearing the light and weight of eternal existence; it will die and be destroyed. The temporally oriented soul is not worthy of existing eternally. Thus God barred Adam and Eve from the eternality of the garden because of the condition of their souls, which were not yet worthy of eternal existence.
The Great Problem of the Soul
While the Bible asserts the existence of the human soul, it also reveals a problem. Two biblical texts, in particular, articulate what can be called the most profound dilemma confronting every living human being. The first text is Matthew 16:25-26:
For whoever wishes to save his life [soul-life] shall lose it; but whoever loses his life [soul-life] for My sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
This passage implies that one can “possess” one’s soul on the world’s terms or one can own one’s own soul on Christ’s terms, but not both. Here is the dilemma: every person must decide how to own, possess, or gain his own soul. A person can do it on the world’s terms or on Jesus’ terms. But a person cannot have it both ways. In the Apostle John’s language, each person must choose between “darkness” and “light”; either a person gains his soul in terms of the world (darkness), or he gains it in terms of Christ (the Light).
The second text is Luke 21:19, where Jesus says to his disciples, “By your perseverance you will win (gain) your souls.” Jesus is speaking to His disciples in the context of the severe trials and persecutions He knows are coming upon them because of their commitment to Him and His kingdom. And I would argue that Scripture shows that the truth Jesus reveals in this statement to the disciples also applies to the life and experience of all believers.
In his inimitable way, Søren Kierkegaard, in a collection titled Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, refers to the Luke passage and points out a perplexing paradox regarding the human soul. How is it that humans can possess a soul from birth and at the same time be required “through perseverance” to “gain their souls” in the course of this life? Kierkegaard asks, How can we come “naked” into this world with only one possession, our souls, and yet in some real sense not possess our own souls? He answers that a person owns a soul at birth that will be either gained or lost in reference to the world or to Christ. Kierkegaard makes two profound observations regarding what it means to be a human soul.
First, from the first moment of our life, we are “creatures of the world” in a most profound and fundamental sense. Being of the world in this sense is normal and not to be repudiated. In Kierkegaardian terms, “we are the world” [italics mine] in the sense that our very nature and existence is made of the same created stuff of which the rest of the world is made. The problem comes when we make evil choices. We “creatures of the world” become “worldly creatures” when the active posture of our souls is “in and of the world” and against God.
Second, the human soul is “a contradiction.” God created the human soul to be simultaneously finite and eternal. Kierkegaard points out this tension at the center of our daily human experience: we are finite, limited, earthbound creatures who were created for and presently long for infinite or eternal things. In short, he states that the human soul is “at contradiction with itself.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes affirms and explains the nature of this paradox; he tells us that God created us as mortal, physical creatures with “eternity in our hearts.” God’s plan was to create a being “in His image” and to give this being the profound task of looking to Him to find the answer to this finite-eternal contradiction. We can see in the promise of the fulfilled gospel, made known through Jesus and His teaching, that God planned this painful contradiction from the beginning. God’s gracious salvation is the only solution to our deeply felt need and incompleteness. God will take us from being profoundly incomplete creatures to being those filled with His life and glory. The completion of our incomplete, unfulfilled natures involves the dissolution of the finiteness of the creature into the eternality for which the creature was originally created. In these terms, the God-given task that the writer of Ecclesiastes ponders poetically is the human creature’s “gaining his soul.”
How We Gain Our Souls
How then do we gain our souls in our everyday experience? Luke 21:19 offers an important clue. Jesus told his disciples they would “gain their souls” through hupomone—patience, endurance, perseverance. So we, too, must gain our souls through an enduring, continually proven “believing” in the gospel. Against the attractions and securities the world offers, we must count on the love and mercy of God to supply our needs in the trials of life.
We gain our own souls away from the world through patient, enduring faith in our God and the promise of His gospel. Ultimately, only two persons have active “contact” with our souls. We do, as active owners of our own souls. And God does, as the transcendent Creator and Sustainer of all existence. Our souls belong to us, but they are also God’s. Only the gospel of Jesus promises the transformation of soul that we are here calling “gaining the soul.”
The soul of every human creature has a telos, an end or purpose. The meaning of telos is illustrated by the relationship between an acorn and an oak tree: all the oak tree will ever be is contained in the tiny acorn; thus the telos of the acorn is to become the completed and mature oak tree. Similarly, the soul God gives each person at birth has a telos to become what God created it to become. For the chosen believer, that telos is to become a mature, glorious creature whose nature and character God is well pleased to keep eternally in fellowship with Him. “Gaining one’s soul” is the process by which humans, through perseveringly choosing to live life in light of the truth of the gospel, fulfill the telos for which God created them.