(I preached on this topic a few years ago, and have since added some new thoughts.)
Is it possible that some humans do NOT have a soul–while some animals DO?
The most awful news stories on the internet leave us wondering at the ANIMAL behavior of some humans:
*A mother sets her infant on fire in the middle of a highway.
*Terrorists kill school children.
By contrast, the most touching news stories leave us wondering at the HUMAN behavior of some animals:
*A dog refuses to leave the grave of a puppy.
*A dog goes out onto a highway and pulls over to the sidewalk a dog that has been struck and killed.
Is it possible that some humans do not have a soul–and some animals DO?
First, let’s be clear what we’re discussing. What is a soul?
In the Old Testament, the “soul” is illustrated by one of the Creation stories. Genesis 2:7. God forms the man from clay like a potter, and BREATHES into the man’s nostrils. That Hebrew word for “breathe” is “nephesh.”
“Nephesh” is the Hebrew term for the essence of a person. Soldiers lose limbs; some people are born without organs. But whatever is the essence of a person for which we say, “This is a human being,” THAT is “nephesh.”
In the New Testament, a story echoes the Creation account of God breathing life into the man. It occurs in John 20:22. After the Resurrection, Jesus meets the Apostles, and BREATHES on them. He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
This Greek word for “spirit” is “pneuma” (as in “pneumonia”). So, as in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, the portrayal of the “breath of life” is literally–the breathing of God’s Spirit into a person. In other words, the essence of a soul is–spiritual.
Likewise, in the New Testament, the Greek word specifically used for “soul” is–“psuche” (like “psyche”). It means–the essence of a person.
So these words from the Old and New Testaments help us define a “soul”. It does not depend on physical appearance. No matter what a person looks like, whatever is the essence for which we say, “That is a human”–THAT is the soul. The meaning heavily leans towards something intangible, spiritual.
One word of caution, though: As “airy” and intangible as the soul may be, the biblical writers did not like pitting the spiritual against the physical. Some Greek philosophers did this–they regarded the spiritual as more important than the physical.
Woody Allen put it this way: “The mind is into philosophy, poetry, music–but the body gets to have all the fun.”
In Greek philosophy, the body’s appetites degraded one’s existence, holding down the soul from rising up to glory. So there were some sects that believed: Neglect the physical–it’s only the spiritual that counts.
In the time of Alexander the Great, there existed a Greek philosopher who believed so devotedly in the neglect of the physical that he wore no clothing and had no possessions, except that he lived in a large, ceramic jar. His name was Diogenes. His fame reached the emperor.
One day, when Alexander had conquered that area of Greece where Diogenes lived, he sought out the philosopher–and found him sunning himself in the nude. Alexander stood over the man and said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes,” replied Diogenes. “You can move–you’re blocking the Sun.”
But a character like Diogenes is not found in the Bible. Because in the Scriptures, not just the spiritual but the physical is valued. (This is why Jesus heals people of physical ailments.) In other words, the soul was not just one aspect of a person’s life–only the spiritual. The soul IS the person. Body and spirit together are valued.
Thus, it is slightly inaccurate to say that a person HAS a soul. A person does not HAVE a soul, as though the soul could be detached from the person like jettisoning a backpack. Rather, a person IS a soul.
There is a company called “Toys R Us.” In Madison, Wisconsin, there’s a company called “Rugs R Us.” That’s what a soul is: A soul is us. Each person is a soul.
The Scriptures never put down like Greek philosophers the physical aspect of personhood, as though only the spiritual counts. But, in the end, the soul IS essentially–spiritual. Jesus says, Do not fear people who can kill the body, for they can not touch the soul.
And when death occurs, many of us believe the person goes to some type of after-life. The physical remains behind. What goes on is the spiritual. So–bottom line–the soul is a person–the essence of a person–in the end, the spiritual core of a person’s being.
One more thing. In the Scriptures, the soul is not something people are BORN with. It is something GIVEN to us–by God.
This is what makes a soul–and thus a human life–so highly valued. The soul harbors the spirit of God. Another way of saying this is: God is invested in each person. No matter what WE think of a person, God values that individual.
But not everybody knows this! There are people who have not yet discovered that they are valued by God–and thus go through life resorting only to their own panicky nature, with horrendous consequences for themselves and others whom they hurt.
Still, no matter what WE may think of a person, that person IS a soul, valued by God.
Okay, then, what about animals? Do animals have a soul?
The Bible is silent on this topic. Animals rarely appear in the Scriptures–except to have their throats slit and their carcasses burned as a sacrifice to God. Dogs are regarded as filthy scavengers. Thus, even today in Iraq, American soldiers learned how insulted the locals felt whenever a soldier with a bomb-sniffing dog went into a house. They regarded the dog as filthy. The person at a press conference who threw a shoe at President Bush shouted, “Cursed dog!”
Sheep are mentioned favorably in the Scriptures, but only in metaphors involving a good shepherd guiding helpless creatures. Doves get an honorable mention as symbols of peaceful behavior.
Otherwise, there are only two places in the Bible where animals are spoken of with some relationship to humans approaching fellowship of spirit.
One is the parable told to King David by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12): He tells of two men, one rich, the other poor. The rich man possessed sheep and cattle galore. The poor man had only one little lamb. “He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.”
In the end, the rich man takes the poor man’s little lamb, and slaughters it for a feast.
David erupts in anger!
We feel the explosion of David’s anger. The stealing from the poor man his only lamb is not only a matter of injustice–but a matter of FEELING. We know how crushed the poor man is to lose the little pet that he loved so dearly.
This is the ONLY place in the Bible that I can find some feeling of fellowship of spirit between a human and an animal.
The only other place where animals are mentioned on a par with humans is found in the gloomy writings of Ecclesiastes. Let’s remember–the writer of this work is bemoaning how meaningless life is. He writes (3:19b-20) that all creatures are alike. “All have the same breath [the word in Hebrew is “ruach”, spirit]; man has no advantage over the animal. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”
This is not an elevation of an animal to the status of a human soul; rather it is a devaluing of human life to that of a creature. Human and animal alike follow the same course of life–living and then dying. What’s the use?
That’s the gloomy outlook of Ecclesiastes. But it is the only place in the Scriptures where an animal is said to have the same “breath” of life as a human.
Thus, we must look elsewhere to find if animals have a soul. Since the Bible does not address “soul” except for humans, we must look at the very nature of “soul” to see if animals have it.
A soul is portrayed as life being breathed into us by God. Thus, a soul harbors the Spirit of God.
What influence does the Spirit have in a soul’s life? These gestures are called “fruits of the Spirit.”
Last January, I participated in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Fantasy Camp at their spring-training facility in Bradenton, Florida. One of the veteran Pirates at the camp was a catcher from the World Series championship team of 1979–Ed Ott. Ed Ott today has a horse farm. He told me this story one day when we were supping together in the dining hall.
There were two horses in a stable. The one horse had plenty of hay to eat. But the other horse on the other side of the wooden wall had no feed at all. The one horse would take some hay in its mouth, and hold it up for the other horse to eat!
It’s just one example–but how does a person explain unselfishness by a horse?
Another fruit of the Spirit, breathing life into an individual, is: intelligence. I don’t mean IQ. I mean, being able to function intelligently through the ups & downs of life. Humans are cautioned not to be naïve. The world isn’t a safe place. God cares about how we live. “Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.”
If you’ve ever read the book Seabiscuit, there’s a scene that defies easy explanation. For years, Seabiscuit was not a promising race horse. He looked odd, with knock-knees. He wasn’t winning. He seemed lazy, wouldn’t work hard. One day, however, a trainer looking to buy a horse visited the corral. He spotted Seabiscuit. The trainer didn’t even see the horse work out–he only looked in the horse’s eyes–and saw something unmistakable. Seabiscuit was putting everybody on! This horse could RUN. It’s just that he didn’t want to run for this particular set of owners and trainers. And so he was loafing–seemed lazy, wouldn’t work hard. The visiting trainer immediately arranged for the horse to be bought. The rest is history.
A trainer looking into a horse’s eyes could see something that nobody else could see. That speaks well for the trainer. But it also speaks to some intangible quality about this horse!
Now, these are only two examples, and they’re examples from animals who are highly intelligent (horses). But ANYBODY who works closely with animals–pet-owners, kennel owners, vets, etc.–could tell similar stories.
Let’s raise the standard a little higher, to test whether an animal has a soul.
Let’s remember–a soul is GIVEN to us–by God. Thus, a soul is not an isolated thing–like a lonely cactus in a desert. A soul–by definition–exists IN RELATIONSHIP. There are two beings involved–God giving the gift, and the human receiving it.
A soul does not exist by itself; it exists in relationship.
When people die, we believe they still have a relationship with God and with loved ones. Thus, the truest test of a soul is: Can a soul have a relationship with someone who is not physically present? When we pass on, we are no longer physically present with others, but we still have a relationship with them. That is the truest test of whether a soul exists. It exists not by itself–but in relationship–and ultimately, can have a relationship with others who are not physically present.
When I was the pastor of a church in New Jersey, one member was a young woman whose father was a veterinarian. This young woman had a pet rooster. The rooster was so protective of the woman, that her husband–a heart surgeon who would arrive home often late at night from the hospital–would have trouble finding a way into the house, because the rooster would head him off at one door or another, preventing him from getting in! The rooster was protecting her owner, the young woman.
Eventually, the woman was told by her father, the veterinarian: A rooster is a farm animal–not a house animal. It isn’t meant to live in a house; it’s meant to live outdoors.
So, sadly, the woman one day put the rooster in her car and drove a distance to a farm. There, she turned over the rooster to a farmer.
TWO DAYS LATER, the rooster showed up at the woman’s house!
The distance hadn’t mattered. The rooster still felt some kind of yearning to be with the original owner. In other words, the rooster longed to be with someone who was no longer physically present.
One other factor must be considered. And that is–the nature of God’s graciousness. God is not aloof, holding back until summoned. Jesus tells us how widespread is the eagerness of God to reach out with love. To think that this love applies only to human beings is to dare limit the graciousness of God.
But, as I say, not everybody KNOWS how badly God desires relationship with them. And so people resort to their own devices. And the result is ruined lives. People can live an animal-like existence, exhibiting the worst behavior. Only when they are given relief–from hunger, from danger, from isolation–are they secure enough to allow the gentler, generous characteristics to surface: unselfishness, compassion, etc.–so that the breath of God truly can be seen in this person’s life.
Animals go through the same process. If forced to live an existence close to death, they can’t be expected to act as if they’ve got a soul. Wolves in the wild are an example, killing off a weakened leader. But once animals DO feel safe, and have a predictable source of food, we see qualities surfacing that are human-like: like love, playfulness, concern for others…
Studies tell us that mammals generally are more intelligent than reptiles, possessing a larger and more developed brain. And so the idea of not just a mammal but even a reptile having a soul may be doubtful. But, again at the Pirates’ Fantasy Camp, I remember one participant, a young woman, who back at her home in California, owned a pet, and she told me that this pet was incredibly protective of her, and the pet showed delight every time Julie returned home from work. The pet wasn’t a dog or a cat. It was 6-foot-long iguana!