“O God (if there is a God), save my soul (if I have a soul).”
Such, allegedly, was the tentative prayer of a soldier whose life was in mortal danger on the battlefield.
But what is the ‘soul’? Does it have a separate existence apart from the body?
It needs to be recognised immediately, I think, that the biblical terminology is fluid, rather than fixed. I don’t think, for example, that anything can be proven from any single use of the word psychḗ in the New Testament. Mk 8:36 and its parallel Lk 9:25 plainly show that ‘soul’ and ‘self’ can be used inter-changeably. Paul’s reference in 1 Thess 5:23 to ‘spirit and soul and body’ by no means proves that human beings are tri-partite: he may mean nothing more by this phrase than ‘your entire selves’.
It is tempting to think that the soul is merely another word for ‘life’, and that it has no separate existence apart from the physical body. This is the view of ‘physicalists’ such as Nancy Murphy and J. P. Moreland. There are certainly a number of biblical passages that appear to teach no more than this (Gen 2:7, for example). One feature of this view is that it stresses the physical nature of the resurrection. However, proponents of this view will struggle to explain what happens to the ‘self’ between death and resurrection, since there would nothing left except decaying flesh.
The majority position among Christian thinkers, then, has been that the soul does have a separate existence apart from the body. This view makes sense of biblical passages such as Lk 23:43 and Phil 1:23, both of which apear to teach some kind of continued existence for the self, apart from the body.
In the words of Osterhaven (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology), then,
‘The soul in Scripture is conceived to be an immaterial principle created by God, which is usually united to a body and gives it life; however, the soul continues to exist after death in human beings (Mt 10:28; James 5:20; Rev 6:9; 20:4), a condition which is ended at the close of this age (1 Cor 15:35-55).’
Early Christians were influenced by Greek thought. Pythagoras, for example, believed in the transmigration of souls. Platonic and Neoplatonic thought influenced Origen, who considered that the soul was equivalent to mind, and also that it had a pre-existence. Tertullian followed Stoic thinking, regarding the soul as having a ‘corporeal substance’.
If the soul is a separate entity, apart from the body, then this raises the question of its origin. Augustine rejected the Greek idea that the soul was originally a part of God. Jerome and others thought that the soul was a direct and individual creation of God at the moment of conception or thereabouts (passages such as Num 27:16; Eccle 12:7; and Isa 42:5 are cited in favour of this view). Tertullian favoured the doctrine of traducianism, which holds that the soul – just like the body – is inherited from the parents. This view, which is supported by appeal to passages such as Heb 7:9f, seems to provide some explanation for universal original sin.