Paul on the “Soul”—Not What You Might Think

Many Christians throughout history have thought that the “soul” was an immaterial part of the person, and of more importance than the body. Moreover, the “soul” has often been regarded as the immortal or eternal part of the person.

Plato versus the Old Testament on the “Soul”

We have now come to understand that this view of the “soul” ultimately goes back to Plato. In Plato’s anthropological dualism, the human person is constituted by body (partaking of mortality, change, and impermanence) and soul (the higher, eternal part of the person; in some sense, the true person). Plato understood soul (psyche) as essentially mind and regarded it as divine (he called it “the god within”).

Plato’s anthropological dualism (the split in the human person) corresponded to his broader ontological dualism (the split in the nature of reality). He thought that the finite, changeable realm of physical existence, along with sense perception and bodily desires, was manifestly inferior to the divine, immaterial realm of rational intelligibility (the “Forms” or “Ideas”), which existed eternally and without change.

In contrast to the Platonic view is the Old Testament vision of a good creation; God made the cosmos (including materiality and embodiment) and pronounced it “very good” (Gen 1:31).

Likewise, the Old Testament understanding of nephesh (the Hebrew word typically translated “soul”) is very different from Plato’s idea of the soul. It’s core meaning is simply organic life (the semantic range of the term includes other uses, but this is basic). This core meaning shows up in Genesis 2:7, where God creates the first man to be a “living soul” (that is, a living organism).

Paul on the Contrast of “Flesh” and “Spirit”

But doesn’t the Apostle Paul have a contrast between flesh and spirit? Isn’t this an anthropological dualism, a contrast between two parts of the person?

It is true that Pauline language about “flesh” and “Spirit” can sound dualistic. But when Paul uses “flesh” in the negative sense (note that he sometimes uses it positively) he means the power of corruption in the world and in human life, and does not mean the body per se. Likewise “Spirit” refers to the power of God to transform our lives, including our bodies at the resurrection. So “flesh” and “Spirit” are contrasted as two powers that can affect every dimension of life; they are not two realms or two parts of the human person. And they lead to two different ways of life.

Paul typically contrasts following the way of Christ (led by the Spirit) and following the values of this corrupted world. The key here is that God’s good world has been infected by sin (the world is not the way it was meant to be), so we need to resist the present order of things and follow Christ’s way. Since Christ’s way is a radical alternative to this world, it will involve denial and possibly even suffering.

But the ultimate result of suffering for Paul is glory—the resurrection and the age to come. The end point is the world redeemed from its corruption. So, while Paul is brutally honest about the real ethical and religious distinction between good and evil (which he sometimes terms spirit and flesh), he does not identify the created order with evil. Indeed, he affirms that creation will be redeemed.

“Soul” Is Not the Opposite of Body for Paul

Interestingly, “soul” (psyche) is never contrasted to the body in Paul.

Soul isn’t part of Paul’s typical anthropology. He doesn’t think of a human as body and soul; he does speak of the inner person and the outer person, which is more phenomenological, since we experience an inner and an outer of our life, but he doesn’t treat them as separable pieces of the person.

In one place (1 Thessalonians 5:23) Paul mentions spirit, soul, and body, meaning something like lock, stock, and barrel (he is not giving us his theoretical anthropology).

Beyond that, both the word “soul” (psyche) and the adjective “soulish” (psychikos) show up in Paul as value-laden terms. The latter is translated “natural” in English versions, and it tends to have a negative valuation. Let us look at two main examples of this Pauline usage.

“Soul” and “Soulish” in 1 Corinthians 15

The first example is from 1 Corinthians 15, which describes our present mortal/corruptible body as a psychikos (natural) body, in contrast to our future immortal resurrection body as a pneumatikos (spiritual) body. When Paul says “spiritual” he doesn’t mean immaterial. Platonists have often read this as a reference to an immaterial body, whatever that means. but Paul means a body enlivened, empowered, and transformed by God’s Spirit.

This is clear from his contrast in the same chapter between Adam and Christ. Drawing on Genesis 2, he says that Adam was created a living soul (we saw that “soul” in Hebrew usually means a living/breathing organism). So Adam is a psyche/soul. He does not have a soul. The point is he is a mortal organism.

But Paul says that Christ was raised a life-giving Spirit. Is Paul denying the bodily resurrection?

Not at all. He means that Christ’s resurrection, which came about by the vivifying power of God’s Spirit, has the potential to impart the same life to us also (this is a central theme in Paul’s letters)—both in the present (to enable us to live a new life) and in the future (when even our bodies will be redeemed).

But my main point in referencing 1 Corinthians 15 is that Paul contrasts not soul and body, but soul (mortality) and (God’s) Spirit (the power of new life). These are not two realms or two parts of the person, but our original human status (which is now corrupted by sin) and the transformation we can expect from the resurrection.

“Soulish” in 1 Corinthians 2:1-3:4

The second example requires us to go beyond most current English translations, back to the King James Version (KJV) or the American Standard Version (ASV), which are more literal (but the current translations are not wrong).

In 1 Corinthians 2:1-3:4 Paul addresses the wisdom of God (which is from the Spirit of God, and which we can’t grasp unless we have God’s Spirit) with the folly of the world. Here he contrasts “the Spirit who is from God” with the “spirit of the world” in 2:12.

Then Paul goes on to distinguish those who are spiritual (pneumatikos; 2:13, 15; 3:1), who have God’s Spirit, from 1) those who are psychikos (the “natural man” in KJV; 2:14) and from 2) those who are sarkinos (the “carnal man” in KJV; 3:1, 3).

When I heard this passage preached from the KJV (long, long ago), the distinction was made between being spiritual, natural, and carnal (three levels of spirituality, if you will).

Pretty much all modern translations now (correctly) identify psychikos (soulish/natural) with sarkinos (fleshly/carnal) and often translate them the same, sometimes with “unspiritual” or “natural.” They correctly treat soul and flesh as equivalent here.

So living according to the flesh means living as one who accepts the ordinary, fallen world (= soul) as normative (both flesh and soul are contrasted with living according to God’s Spirit). Living according to soul/flesh is equivalent to living according to the “spirit of the world” (2:12).

So while “soul” (psyche) can have a somewhat neutral value in reference to human mortality (which is our original, created status), the adjective “soulish” (psychikos) refers to our current mortal life, which is now fallen, and is thus an overwhelmingly negative term in Pauline theology.

What About the “Salvation of the Soul”?

That phrase is found in 1 Peter 1:9 and in Hebrews 10:39 (neither written by Paul), and in both cases “soul” means the whole person (as a living organism); soul is not contrasted with body (compare modern translations to see this).

But Paul himself could never speak of the “salvation of the soul”!

In contrast to Plato (and the Platonic worldview that the church has often inherited), Paul doesn’t think of “soul” as a part of the person. Rather both “soul” and “soulish” designate for Paul the mortal (now corrupt) world that is passing away.