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Maybe Jesus Did Believe in the Soul [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

We’re back to the series, Questions That Haunt Christianity. Here’s the question I posted last week from Matt:

Hey Tony! You might’ve already answered this, but since you don’t believe in a “soul” what did Jesus mean in Mark 8:36, etc.? Furthermore, in a post-metaphysical era, is eternal life (ie. heaven) something you still see as a viable endgame for Christians? I’ve been really struggling with my faith and the issue of souls, in particular. Reading your “Questions That Haunt…” book has been really helpful in many regards. Anyhow, I promise I’m not trolling. Just curious on your take. Thanks so much, Matt

In the comment section of the original question, Matt clarified:

Maybe I should have rephrased the question as such: “When Jesus is speaking about the ‘soul,’ is he affirming an actual entity that will exist forever, or is he merely speaking within the lexicon of his day to illustrate an abstract idea?”

That’s a great clarification, and it really gets to the heart of the question — or at least one aspect of it. For exegetical considerations of the words for “soul” in Greek and Hebrew, see the comments from Ric and Mark in that same comment section. I’m going to tackle it more theologically than exegetically.

Mark commented on the three “ontic states” of the human person that Paul suggests in 1 Thessalonians 5: body, soul, and spirit. The question we must ask is whether Paul, in listing these three, was attempting to develop a metaphysical catalog or whether, as Matt asks about Jesus, he was simply using the vernacular of his day. Surely Paul was deeply affected by Greek metaphysics, as NT Wright’s recent magnum opus successfully argues, so it seems quite likely that both Jesus and Paul are using the metaphysical categories available to them rather than establishing categories ex novo.

A more interesting theological corollary is the dual nature of Christ. If Jesus of Nazareth was at one human and divine, is there a similar bifurcation of natures in non-divine human beings?

Surely, Orthodox theology makes room for this in its doctrine of theosis — the concept that the spark of divinity resides in every human being. I explore that concept at length in next month’s book, Did God Kill Jesus?

And here’s another section of that book, in which I rely of Miroslav Volf’s concept of the “personal interiority” of Jesus’ divinity:

How is it that God could be tempted by the devil? Wouldn’t God know without doubt that Satan posed him no threat and offered him nothing of value? Not if Jesus’ divinity was somehow behind his humanity. One way to conceive of Jesus being God yet also truly experiencing the love, joy, heartbreak, and temptations of humanity is if his divinity took a backseat to his humanity. This does not diminish his divinity; rather, it is evidence of yet another act of humility by God in God’s long story of humility and self-limitation.

If this accurately represents the relationship between Jesus’ two natures, then it’s not unreasonable to believe that Jesus really was in anguish in the Garden and that he truly experienced despair at his abandonment on the cross.

That’s because Jesus’ humanity took center stage. His humanity was out front, touching and confronting the world. And, in full humanity, he was hoisted on a cross.

I have been persuaded not only by Volf, but also by Nancey Murphy’s concept of “non-reductive physicalism,” which is probably a post for another day.

Maybe Jesus did believe that there was some kind of non-material soul, and that this aspect of the human person is what resides with God for eternity. But I don’t think that Jesus spoke with nearly enough clarity about the soul to make this statement unequivocally. Further, both Jesus and Paul clearly believed in the resurrection of the body, so they at least believed that the soul and the body will both dwell with God. I can live with that.

See all of the past questions and answers here, or buy the ebook by clicking below. Submit your own question here.

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