In family circles or during a meeting with good friends, there is often a discussion about topics or matters that we otherwise do not think too deeply about. One of the questions that can then arise spontaneously in people with religious interest is: how do you imagine a “soul”? What is that? With great certainty, the most diverse answers will be found. Some see in their imagination the soul as a cloud or angel that hangs permanently above our heads, while those with a more philosophical predisposition prefer to use phrases such as “our deepest inner being”. In any case, there is a good chance that the participants will not have become much wiser by the end of the exchange.
For such matters, it is best to first consult the Bible. In the Old Testament we find the Hebrew word Nefesh, which is usually translated as “soul,” although it primarily means “breath”. That word is reminiscent of the second creation story (Gen. 2:7), in which God breathed into man the “breath of life”. If one considers the various contexts in which the soul is spoken of in the pre-Christian Bible texts, the conclusion is that this refers to a rather vague part of man that is spiritual and inner in nature, but can have different meanings, depending on the intention of the writer. So we can assume that a well-defined soul doctrine did not yet exist in those times, but that the awareness that man is a dual being, with a body and a spirit, did live among the sons and daughters of Jacob.
Even the Gospels do not go directly into this subject. In the letters of the apostle Paul, who deals thoroughly with many questions of faith, one finds a passage that speaks of the soul as a separate entity, distinct from our spirit and our body: “Then may the God of peace himself sanctify you whole and all; your spirit, your soul, and your body remain pristine and blameless until the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1Tes. 5:23). In Matt. 22:37, Jesus also says something that points to the soul as a separate but essential element of man: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind.” In the Magnificat, Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Lk. 1:46).
Heart and mind are usually associated with our spiritual functioning in our current thinking, but it is difficult for the secularized person to situate the soul. In fact, the mind is an expression of our cerebral capacity, which is largely determined by the quality and good cooperation of the neurons in our brain. This is therefore mainly something physical, i.e., material in nature (a kind of “biological supercomputer”). Our mind is not spiritual, although it can delve into spiritual matters, which is why it is sometimes referred to as our “spirit”. As far as our heart is concerned, that is of course only a pump muscle, but metaphorically this means the seat of our deep emotions. They can be spiritual in nature, but also the result of purely physical desires. Thus, in the words of Christ quoted, only the more difficult-to-define soul remains as an entity that has no physical aspects. The same distinction can be found in Paul’s words: body and mind on the one hand and the soul as the other part of our intrinsic duality.
But that doesn’t tell us much about what the soul actually is. How did it come into being? Do animals also have a soul? Our body and mind have a spirit (which we mainly see with the eyes of faith), but they are easy to define in material terms. Our soul, on the other hand, is purely spiritual, and to know more about it, we can only call on the sources of our faith. An important instrument for this is the rather neglected but incredibly rich “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, which we owe to St. John Paul II. In it we find various considerations about the relationship between body and soul, but the paragraph that best reflects the meaning of the human soul is the following: “The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created directly by God: it is not ‘produced’ by the parents. The Church also teaches us that the soul is immortal: it does not perish after its separation from the body at death, and it will reunite with the body at the final resurrection.” (CCC 366).
This means that every human being is the bearer of a unique and immortal spiritual core element, given to us by God at our origin, i.e. at our conception. So that is also the most obvious meaning of the “breath of life” that God gave to Adam. In fact, all other living beings have also been given a “breath of life”, which we can consider to be the spiritual driver of the way in which each life form expresses and unfolds. But the separate mention of the injecting of this into Adam means that God has given man an extra dimension, with several special aspects, that we can deduce from the Bible. First, his soul contains an image of the Creator. Secondly, it will live on forever, and thirdly, it will reunite with his body at the time of its rebirth or resurrection.
It is also thanks to this divine gift that man feels the need and is given the opportunity to contact the Creator, of which he carries the image within himself. But this gift too must be cherished, and God’s image may lose its luster and value, if it is not used by man to grow toward God. The soul is connected to the free will of man, this elusive ability, through which he / she can call himself a “I”, able to make completely independent decisions. If the soul of a man with his free will is kept pure, as God has given and intended it, then – after earthly life reunited with the body – it will be welcomed by God into his eternal kingdom. If the human will turn against God, then his soul degenerates and can even create in it a false image of God. If this process of degeneration is not stopped, man will finally be irrevocably cut off from his Creator, Redeemer, and End Goal.
In summary, we can say that the soul is a spiritual gift that is given to us personally by God at our origin and that enables us to communicate with Him. It was first given to our ancestors Adam and Eve. It contains the image of God, full of love and truth, and makes us long for Him. The soul merges, as it were, with the spirit that naturally guides our human body with free will. That free will can align with God’s will by keeping his image intact and keeping his commandments. But we can also use that will to blur his image in our souls, or even to wipe it out and long to focus on other images that we then make our “god”.
The Bible tells us how God first gave the soul to Adam as a “breath of life.” Because of their disobedience, the image of God was disturbed in the first human couple and contact with Him was partially broken, which continued with their descendants. In Jesus Christ, God sent us his Son as a second Adam. After his death and resurrection, he blew over his apostles and thus gave them a second “breath of life”: the Holy Spirit who restores our souls.
When we pray for this in faith, God also sends us his Holy Spirit, to heal our souls, to better direct them to Him and to set us on the path to our eternal salvation.