The word ‘soul' is used in older translations of the Bible with a variety of meanings, some of which are translated nowadays as ‘life' or ‘mind'. However, the most significant meaning of the word refers to the immortal and spiritual part of human beings.

Soul and body

In medieval and early modern times, writers often described the body as a container for the soul, seeing the body as made of earth and the soul as a spirit trapped within it. This idea was partly derived from the Greek philosopher Plato, rather than echoing the Hebrew understanding of the indivisibility of flesh and spirit. For example, the words of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, describe how ‘the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life' (Genesis 2:7). Thus the soul is intrinsic to existence and permeates every aspect of human life. In the Bible, God's people are advised to love him with all their ‘soul' (Deuteronomy 6:5).

The soul and eternity

Christians believe that all human beings have a soul. Though born into a world which is affected by the ‘fall of humankind', every person is offered forgiveness of sins and the redemption of the soul through the sacrifice made by Christ when he died on the cross (see Big ideas: Judgement; Forgiveness, Mercy and grace; Redemption, salvation; Cross, crucifixion). Acceptance of this offer brings the gift of eternal life, a new quality of life which begins on earth and is fulfilled after death in heaven. However, it is also possible to reject God's mercy, which many Christians believe results in condemning the soul to hell, an eternal separation from God.

The soul in literature

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

In Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo describes to Jessica that there is heavenly music around them which is inaudible to the human, bodily ear:

Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it

Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

In Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus, Marlowe shows Faustus selling his soul to the devil (see Big ideas: Serpent, Devil, Satan, Beast) in exchange for twenty-four years of earthly power.

Graham Green's Brighton Rock

Graham Greene, in his novel Brighton Rock explores the character of Pinkie, a vicious young murderer who challenges God; Pinkie believes only in hell, not heaven, and commits acts of atrocity for which, he is convinced, God will not be able to forgive him. Nevertheless, the novel ends with the suggestion that, even in its final moments of life on earth, the soul may, ‘between the stirrup and the ground', seek and find God's grace.

Related topics

Big ideas: Judgement; Forgiveness, Mercy and grace; Redemption, salvation; Cross, crucifixion; Devils

Other cultural references

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

Green's Brighton Rock

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