Wait, animals have souls? What?!
Well, they actually don’t have souls. They are souls.
Here’s the thing: I think many Christians won’t be able to track with this idea, but that’s mainly because we have a very different concept about the word soul (or nephesh) than that of the ancient Jews. Those are the people who gave us the Scriptures.
You see, here’s what we get in Gen 2:7:
Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
So, this is the flow we see:
- God formed the body of the human (‘adam) from the dust.
- He, then, breathed his breath into this body.
- The human became a living being (or living creature, as the ESV says).
In Hebrew, the phrase living being is nephesh hayah. And nephesh is the Hebrew word for soul. The KJV translates this phrase as living soul.
But notice a very important detail in Gen 2:7: The human didn’t get a soul. Rather the human became a living soul, a living being. Hence why I would offer that humans don’t get or have souls. Rather, they are souls. We are living beings. Or we might say that to be a nephesh hayah is to be alive and animated.
Now, we may hear people talk about humans as tripartite beings, meaning we are made of three parts: body, soul and spirit. Some may also try and connect this to God’s triune nature as Father, Son and Spirit. But I think that is trying a bit too hard. For those who hold to a tripartite view, you may also hear them propose that a) the spirit is the good part and b) the soul (the mind, emotions and will) is the not-so-good part that we cannot really trust, at least as long as it’s not yielded to the good part, the spirit.
Yet, look back at the first use of nephesh with humans. Again, humans don’t get souls; they are souls or living beings (nephesh hayah). This is important.
But what does this have to do with animals?
Interestingly enough, the phrase nephesh hayah is used four times in Gen 1-2 when referring to all the varying animal types.
So, some may argue that, “animals don’t have souls,” and subsequently add that, therefore, animals don’t “go to heaven” because they don’t have souls (at least that was what I heard as a young Christian). Yet, while animals technically don’t have souls – remember, souls aren’t something we have – animals are living beings (nephesh hayah).
That’s what Scripture offers, at least. See these key passages below:
1) In Gen 1:20-21, we see the phrase (nephesh hayah) used with both water and winged creatures. As a side note, one may contend that this phrase is only used in connection with water creatures, but I’m fairly certain it’s implied for winged creatures as well.
2) In Gen 1:24, this important phrase is applied to land creatures.
3) Later on in Gen 1:30, the same words are employed as the writer summarizes about all animal creatures. Someone may point out that the passage says, “everything that has the breath of life in it.” Thus, here we have evidence that the soul is something we have not something we are. Yet, I think this fails to understand how the phrase is regularly used elsewhere, which we’ve pointed out. Even more, with this phrase in v30, the words has and in are not really found in the Hebrew. Hence, again, we are souls, living beings who are alive.
4) Finally, in Gen 2:19, we are told that, whatever the man called each living creature (nephesh hayah), that was its name.
These are four instances where the same phrase used for humans (nephesh hayah in Gen 2:7) is applied to animals. Very different than we may have been taught.
Of course, let me be clear that humans are distinct from other living creatures (other nephesh hayah). Humans are the only ones stamped with the image of God. But all creatures are nephesh hayah.
Now, the point of this article isn’t really about animals – though I believe a proper theology of animals as living beings is needed. Rather, it’s to point out that we have a very foreign idea about the soul, the nephesh hayah, at least according to the Scriptures.
I would propose humans do not have three parts: body, soul and spirit. Rather, we are whole living beings (nephesh hayah) given both a good body and the good breath (or spirit) of life, which allows us to be the living beings that we are.
So when we read in Heb 4:12 that “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit,” for early Christians, they were not expecting a division of two internal parts, mainly soul and spirit. Rather, this potent imagery speaks of exactly what the final words of the verse and the next verse state:
“it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
A proper discernment, judgment and revealing takes place when the life-giving and effective word of God is at work!
To end, I think it is worth watching this short, 4-minute video below from The Bible Project. I think they do well explaining the Jewish concept of nephesh.