Soul, spirit, and body. These words make their rounds in our Christian vocabulary, but I think it is fair to say that these words typically are said without much consideration of what is under context. Today we want to explore the rich Bible context of the words for soul and the body. I hope that in exploring this we will not depreciate the body for what it is, but understand its hope for resurrection and the eternal destiny of the soul.
Throats and Souls
What in the world does your throat have to do with your soul? Well, a lot actually. The word used predominately in the Bible for soul in its most literal definition means “throat” or “neck.”
And this is how it is translated into English in many passages. Consider a few examples of this usage in your Bible. In Psalm 69:1, the psalmist David is in the thick of turmoil here. He says, “Save me, God, for the water has risen to my neck.” This is one example where we see some wordplay here. The Hebrew people see your neck as this connection or bridge to life. And your life becomes endangered when you are on the verge of drowning. So David depicts his dire straits as water coming up and nearly drowning.
Perhaps the most famous example of this usage is from Psalm 42. Several devotional songs have been written from this psalm. Notice how the psalmists begin, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” While this may seem like a cute image of a deer longing for God, the reason the deer is panting is because it is dying of thirst. As the rest of Psalm 42 bears out, this is a psalm for help and deliverance. But notice the subtle wordplay where you drink water with your throat, but the psalmist uses this metaphor to describe his deep longing for God’s presence.
You Are a Soul … and a Body
The first time the word soul appears is on the second page of the Bible. “…Then Yahweh God formed the man [Hebrew adam הָֽאָדָ֗ם] of dust from the ground [Hebrew adamah הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man [Hebrew adam הָֽאָדָ֖ם] became a living soul [Hebrew nephesh לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ].” (Genesis 2:7 ASV). “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body.” This is sometimes attributed falsely to C.S. Lewis. But what I find interesting about this statement is that nowhere do the biblical authors seem to have this ideology. Rather the first time the word soul appears in the holy scriptures, humans are not given souls, but rather the dust *becomes* a soul.
Is there a distinction between your body and soul? Yes… and no. Even Jesus recognizes that there is a distinction between body and soul (Matthew 10:28 ESV). But Jesus’ statement here is in no way validating a low view of the body. The point here is that for the biblical authors your body is an integral component of your identity. It has been pointed out that the word soul functions more of as a life spark for man. It is who you are. But your body is an integral component of your soul, and should not be thought of as expendable or temporary.
Motivation for Godly Living
In many circles it seems that there is some significance given to the body, but that the body is ultimately expendable. But this is not the case for the apostle Paul. This emissary for King Jesus spends a lot of time talking about the connection between your body and how you should then live your life. Notice some often quoted but glossed over texts:
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2 NASB).
“Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits fornication sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NASB).
“Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-10 NASB).
“…According to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20 NASB).
So for the apostle Paul, he repeatedly makes this argument for godly living that since you have been bought at a price, what you do in your body matters and it has consequences. And so let us never consider that our body is somehow a damaged product. It has its limitations and struggles due to the power of sin in the world, but your body is no longer yours.
Hope for Bodily Resurrection
What surprises me is that the ultimate hope for the Christian is not limited to “going to heaven” (a phrase that is actually never used in the Bible), but the holy prophets and apostles appeal to the bodily resurrection as the hope in which we are saved. For the New Testament authors, the bodily resurrection is not another check off the itinerary list as part of the Judgment Day: rather it is a core event. And in this bodily resurrected state, it is then we will be with the Lord forever and ever (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
One of the biggest texts for me is Romans 8:18-25. I want to notice what the apostle Paul considers the hope of our salvation: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. … But we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies: for it is in this hope we were saved! Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
Some object to this with appellations to 1 Corinthians 15, which is ironic. It is ironic because 1 Corinthians 15 is precisely saying the opposite. “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body…” (15:44). What I find ironic here is that we completely gut the rest of the context in arguing this point. And also we need to be using the words “natural” and “spiritual” here as Paul uses them in chapter 2. The difference between natural and spiritual is not that one is immaterial or ethereal, and the other is dirt. The difference here is between what has become corrupted and what is incorruptible, what has become weakened by sin and what is strengthened by the Spirit of God (i.e. spiritual). Also, it is still a body, not a ghostly apparition.
Some also object with phrases like “flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of heaven” or other miscellaneous texts about not being able to see God. But I think it is important for us to stop when we read “flesh and blood” and realize that Jesus describes his spiritual, glorified resurrected body as “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39). The phrase “flesh and blood” is actually a Hebrew idiom, and if you trace how it is used in the Bible (five other times), it is used to describe fallen, unregenerate, corrupted man (Matthew 16:13-17; Galatians 1:16; Ephesians 6:12; Hebrews 2:14).
Some also appeal to 2 Corinthians 5. But I encourage you to read past 5:1 if you have not recently, and read the entire context. The argument Paul is making from 5:1-10 is not that “our earthly tent” is torn down – and this is so much better. While in this present existence “we groan,” and we “long to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven,” which is what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 15. The dwelling from heaven and the building from God is not heaven: it is our resurrected body. But notice for the apostle Paul what it means to be dead and out of the body: “we will not be found naked … we do not want to be unclothed … what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.” (vv. 3-4). So to be outside of a body is to be naked: humans were meant to be embodied creatures. For the apostle Paul he desires earnestly to be in the presence of the Lord, but his ultimate hope is to be in his glorified body and in the presence of the Lord. It is not an either/or, but a both/and.
The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus
While some may still think of their bodies as expendable, simply housing what is truly important, the hope of the resurrection of the body is utterly crucial to our faith. Not only does Jesus debate strongly for it (Matthew 22:29-33), but it is for the resurrection from the dead that the apostle Paul most frequently preaches on (Acts 23:6). When Jesus was resurrected, at no point does Jesus discard his appearance. When he was risen, Jesus actually eats breakfast on two separate occasions with his disciples (John 21:12). He describes himself as “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39). In fact, even at God’s right hand, Jesus is still a human (1 Timothy 2:5).
What do we mean by resurrection? Well, I think we have a lot of examples of what resurrection meant for the people of God. Every time the dead are risen in the bible, it is in their own body: Lazarus (John 11), Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:40ff), Tabitha (Acts 9:36-43), Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12). And ultimately, of course, Jesus (Luke 24:39; Acts 2:31; 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). The difference between the resurrection of Jesus, the firstfruits of the dead, and the others raised is that Jesus would be raised never to die again: he was immortal, incorruptible.
And the resurrection from the dead that we long for is precisely this. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4 ESV). As John the Beloved writes, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2 ESV).
Where Does This Leave Us?
For some of us, we are comfortable with talking about the resurrection of the body. But I suspect for many Christians this talk is uncomfortable. I think that it is uncomfortable because we all, as the apostle Paul mentions earlier, “groan in this present existence.” The material body itself is not evil: it is part of what God called “very good.” A statue is not evil even if black paint is vandalized on the image: all it needs is to be cleaned. So our experiences in this body, whether it is cancer, sickness, disease, chronic pain, or death, does not mean our body is bad or subpar: it means it needs redemption. After all, this is how the Bible ends: that when we dwell with God “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
So as Christians, let us learn to love our bodies, which will one day be redeemed from the grave, redeemed from bondage, and will finally exist in all its created glory in the presence of our Savior.
Other Resources to Check Out
Brothers Wes McAdams, preacher for the Church of Christ on McDermott Road, and Jacob Rutledge, preacher for the Dripping Springs Church of Christ, talk about this important topic in this podcast episode. https://radicallychristian.com/redeeming-the-human-body-crosstalk-s3e10
The Bible Project, an animation studio in Portland, also has put out many resources on this topic. You can find their free resources on YouTube and on their website. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_igCcWAMAM and https://thebibleproject.com/podcast/you-are-soul/