Do humans have a non-physical soul? (And how does modern science affect the question?)

@GJDS @Jon_Garvey @Humeandroid @John_T_Mullen @Joao @johnZ @jstump @Eddie

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OK, I’ll get us started: Classical Christian theology (and most pre-modern philosophy, as well) holds that human have an immortal, non-physical soul. This soul is the “form” of the body (to quote one conception), which is to say that it is inextricable from it, except by death. It’s also the part of us that lingers beyond death into the afterlife.

Anyway, it seems like the science of evolution makes it challenging to understand the origin of the soul. After all, an immortal soul cannot be partly immortal—it’s an all or nothing deal. So if humans gradually evolved, either human ancestors had souls that were partly immortal, or God gave a group of humans an immortal soul at some point (the Catholic idea, as I understand it). But this is problematic as well, because how did this soul pass to their ancestors (let alone other existing humans?). I think modern science is pushing us toward a re-evaluation of the concept of a soul.

This doesn’t even get into how modern brain science affects the discussion. Here’s a link from a series in our archive on the subject:

So on what basis can we defend the existence of an immortal, immaterial soul as modern Christians? And, if we don’t see the soul as different than the body (and non-physical), what does that mean for the afterlife? And how does the Bible’s insistence on a future bodily resurrection for all people affect the discussion?

Thanks in advance to all those who choose to chime in.

@bren @Connor_Mooneyhan @Aceofspades25 @PGarrison @loujost @Relates you are welcome to chime in as well. I’m trying to invite all of our “all-stars”.

OK, Brad, I’ll kick off. I think that, like so many modern discussions, the problems here are largely caused by the metaphysical parameters employed.

Firstly, the question of the soul as form is considerably more subtle in scholastic thought than indicated here. In Platonic thinking, the form of anything is immortal. In Thomistic thought, the soul is simply what makes the matter comprising a man or an animal what it is as a living being. Man’s intellect is, in that scheme, a special case, being immortal because mind is fundamentally immaterial. But form is immaterial even if it can never exist alone - or rather, it is matter and form that make a human being. That, incidentally, is not far from the Hebrew concept of dust and the breath of God causing the man to become a living soul (not to possess one).

Science has not done anything to overturn that logic - the “mind/body problem”, under materialism, is intractable. But as for the mixing of the immortal with the animal, we won’t resolve that without redefining Christianity as well as the soul, for Jesus in his flesh was both mortal man and immortal God, and the resurrection of the body in any formulation entails that what is mortal becomes immortal. One could add that in historical doctrine the Scripture, too, is both the words of mortal men and the eternal word of God.

One should also mention that Adam and Eve had access to the tree by which they would “live forever”. Whatever that means, even if it was (as some say) the presence of God that prevents death, we have immortality and mortal bodies potentially in the same space.

The second point, which perhaps clarifies the first, is the hidden assumption in your statement: “the science of evolution makes it challenging to understand the origin of the soul.” It only does so if you assume that everything human is the product of Darwinian evolution, which is actually a thoroughly scientistic position. Like all science, evolutionary science can at best only indicate what did happen, not that it was all that happened. As I said above, the mind-body problem and a number of other knotty philosophical issues cast grave doubt on the ability of any material process to produce consciousness, reason, and morality long before it gets to immortality.

It’s no easier to conceive of man being half-sinful than half-immortal, which is why some aspects of our existence must be seen in historical, not evolutionary, terms. Most fundamentally, we cannot be half in relationship to God - he must have revealed himself for the first time to someone historically as he did to the prophets in Scripture, and as he does in conversion when we are restored individually to the fellowship we lost through sin.

There is no doubt theological work to be done on anthropology: even when Thomistic hylemorphism is properly stated it’s not the last word. But taking evolution as the trigger for that can only lead to the same kind of category errors that have beset the discussion of the origin of sin.


Classical Christian theology, or the teachings of the Church, would commence with Adam and Eve. Here we have the human beings created by God from the material on this earth, and they were offered the gift of eternal life (or access to the tree of life). Clearly this does not square up with some type of entity (or form, whatever that is taken to mean) that is added and is immortal. The human being is the soul – and the Bible shows us that the soul (or human) who sins will die. Paul shows us that sin brings death, and he states that he is rescued from the body of death (and the sting of sin is death) into a new being in Christ. Indeed if there were such a thing or entity as a soul in addition to the human being, and it was immortal, than that entity would continue to exist, and the entire basis for redemption is lost – however such ‘fallen beings’ are often referred to as rebellious spirits or demons. Instead the Christian repents and is baptised in the death of Christ, and is resurrected as a new being in Christ. Eternal life is synonymous with communion with God, and saved by and through Christ resurrected.

The statement “… it seems like the science of evolution makes it challenging to understand the origin of the soul” does not make sense. I cannot see anything in evolution that comes close to discussing the soul, let alone salvation in Christ. What Biologos should appreciate is that materialists are dedicated to negating any spiritual aspect to humanity, and to this end, they are making up notions of brain activity that they believe is linked to intellect and spirituality. Thus we have had, from time to time, people trying to measure paranormal activity, or to perform experiments that they wanted to interpret within their materialistic framework. We can easily access the writings of such people, and many of them make it clear their intention is to somehow negate any notions of the spirit (or soul) of mankind, and instead provide some type of materialistic account (some even claiming it is all an illusion imposed on us by natural selection). This is not a scientific project, but a commitment to concoct something that sounds like science, to progress their ideology. We should not be deceived into accepting this backward thinking as scientific. A genuine scientist begins without presuppositions and ideological commitments and searches for new knowledge in whatever field she chooses. If the subject matter (such as a soul) is beyond the capabilities of normal scientific research, a scientist would accept this, not seek paranormal nonsense.


Brad, I’m not sure what you mean about passing a soul on to ancestors. Do you mean descendants?

From a broader perspective, we have to realize that science and material things are only a subset of reality. God, the creator, created the natural world, but is not therefore limited by the natural world. God has created and maintains things that are outside of the natural world. In other words, God is bigger. Thus, while the soul has been connected to the body (by God), it is not quite the same thing as the natural body, just as consciousness is not the same thing, and even life is not synonymous.

So a soul cannot be profitably evaluated as a concept, but can only be evaluated as a reality. We defend the soul on the basis of the reality, not on the basis that it would not exist if we didn’t defend it.

The reality is that Jesus said he would go to prepare a place for us. The reality is that Moses and Elijah came back to be with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. The reality is that graves were opened and various souls were seen at that time. Jesus promised paradise to the thief on the cross who confessed and repented. The reality is the prophecy of Revelation, which talks about the people around the throne of God. So life continues beyond death, and the soul of man is the essence of man, expressed in the body, but not dependant on it entirely.

Science cannot really verify or deny this reality, since science is a subset of reality and not the totality of reality.

The theory of evolution on the other hand, could be engaged with this, since the theory might be pushed by some to go beyond the limits of science. In that case, evolution has gone beyond science into non-material things. In the past the theory has had this influence by affecting social policy decisions such as eugenics, race determinations, slavery issues, value of human embryos, etc. It has also had the effect of leading to a denial of God and soul based on the associated premise that everything happens by itself due to natural laws, and that therefore God has no impact or involvement, and therefore God is immaterial (insignificant or irrelevant), and therefore likely does not exist.

Science of course would argue that such a conclusion is no more valid than the opposite conclusion. Science would argue that someone’s witness to emerging from graves, or Elijah and Moses appearing to Jesus, or Jesus statement are just as scientifically valid.

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Do humans have a non-physical soul?

As you know the phrase is usually “immortal soul.” However it is interesting to note that this phrase exists nowhere in the Bible. Therefore based on the Bible, the answer is No!

Why is this the case? First of all God promises everyone that they will have Eternal Life if they are saved through Jesus Christ, not because they have an eternal soul. This Eternal Life is eternal communion with God, that does not begin with death, but begins with the gift of God in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, when we are saved from sin through the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Eternality is based in our relationship to the Eternal One, not an eternal soul, which being eternal is immutable anyhow.

Second, the word/concept of the soul is a Greek philosophical concept. The word/concept of the spirit is more a Hebrew Biblical concept. Paul talks at length about the spirit, but sparingly about the soul. The Greek word for soul, psyche, is identified with the mind rather than the spirit. The mind/body problem is the psyche/body problem. Psychology is the science of the psyche/mind/soul.

Human beings are composed of a body, mind, and spirit, none of which are eternal in themselves, but all are eternal in and through Jesus Christ.

Do humans have an eternal soul? No, but they do have a non-physical spirit, since both human spirit and the Holy Spirit are relational and not physical.


Two quick responses.

  1. To a skeptic, the crucial opening question is not “do humans have a soul?” or even “do you believe that humans have a soul?” but “do we have any good reason to believe that humans have a soul?” This stance applies to gods, demons, fairies, Russell’s teapot, and so on. Regarding souls, the only “evidence” on offer involves religious/philosophical position statements. I conclude that no, we don’t have any good reason to believe in souls. Note that this is not the same thing as saying “no, humans don’t have souls.”

  2. Given that souls are assertions and nothing more, it is not clear to me how evolution or neuroscience or any other scientific discipline makes it “challenging to understand the origin of the soul.” As long as souls have no basis in science or physical reality, they may be “understood” in any way that seems right to whoever is thinking about them. There may be “theological” problems, borne of past commitments to related assertions, but none of those problems are rooted in biology. Put another way, a person committed to the existence of souls has nothing to fear from evolution on that score.


@Humeandroid wrote:

David, Greetings.

I am a little puzzled. You said before that you love ancient wisdom, and you take the persona of a fine philosopher, but you say you reject statements based on philosophy.

Surely you are familiar with the Dialogue by Plato entitled The Death of Socrates where Socrates discusses life and death with his disciples before he executes his own death sentence by drinking the cup of hemlock. So you reject his reasons for believing that he had a soul?

I am a bit of a skeptic about the soul also as I have explained above, but I find that there is truth in the fact that a person is more than his/her body, and even more than his/her mind (psyche/soul) and body which is what Socrates, Plato, and the Greeks thought.

I understand that as a skeptic, you do not believe in God, but as a skeptic, Are you saying that you do not believe in Reason?

Dear Roger,

If you think that an appreciation of the wisdom of the ancients precludes the rejection of any “statements based on philosophy,” than you are very, VERY deeply confused about the use of reason and the nature of wisdom.

I’m not sure, but perhaps you have decided to privilege certain positions of certain philosophers, which would explain (partly) why you think it appropriate to condescend to those who prefer the positions of different schools of thought. I note that you refer to what “the Greeks thought” as though “the Greeks” were nothing more than followers of Socrates and Plato. Epicurus was Greek, and so was Aristotle. Surely you know that there are ancient schools of thought, including Greek thought, that reject the notion of a “soul.” Are you really “puzzled” that a 21st-century scientist might agree with Epicurus against Plato?! Do you really believe that a lover of ancient wisdom must prefer the same ancient philosophies that you do? I think you should reconsider your approach.

I read and studied the Phaedo at age 18, as a believer. Then, I found it fun to read (because I find Plato invigorating) but found the whole Forms business to be oddly religious and almost ad hoc. I recall a rollicking discussion in our classroom on this subject, with intriguing arguments on both sides, but nothing compelling in favour of Forms. (I think it’s clear that Forms were at the heart of Socrates/Plato’s arguments in the Phaedo.) Now, decades later, I’m not a believer, and still find Forms and perfection to be phantasmic and useless. For me, if there are convincing arguments for the existence of “souls,” they are not to be found in Forms.

As for whether I am a good sceptic, I can only suggest that you reflect on Russell and Hume and any of a constellation of “fine philosophers” who would surely agree with my position. I will end with a quote from my “persona,” the real David Hume, who seems to claim that there is no good reason to postulate a soul, and adopts a sceptic’s view of the proposition. Perhaps both he and I should be treated with a little more respect?

“By the mere light of reason it seems difficult to prove the Immortality of the Soul. The arguments for it are commonly derived either from metaphysical topics, or moral or physical. But in reality, it is the gospel, and the gospel alone, that has brought life and immortality to light.”

First of all, a full disclaimer: I am agnostic on the question of whether or not there is an afterlife.

In spite of this, I still don’t think this needs to be an issue for Christians that affirm the scientific consensus on human origins. This is because dualism is an unnecessary Christian belief.

Why believe in some magical invisible essence that follows our bodies around? What is the evidence for this? Would it really change any essential Christian doctrines if it turned out to be false?

What if instead we were just material beings and our minds are just something that comes about as a result of neuronal activity in our brains.

If all the properties, memories, thoughts and desires that make us who we are are known by God then God could simply recreate our minds in new bodies and this needn’t be any more difficult than it is for us to copy software from one machine to another. We don’t need souls to be resurrected and for our minds to be restored into new bodies.

So if we discard the notion of a soul, this becomes a non-issue. There doesn’t need to be anything magical that separates us from australopithecines. The only question for Christians now is: Will God choose to resurrect australopithecines or even their earlier ancestors? The correct answer for
Christians should be the honest one: We don’t know who God will resurrect and who he won’t resurrect.

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Thank you for these thoughts, Ace. I quite agree, the Biblical view of resurrection as the basis eternal life with God is not dependent on the concept of an Immortal Soul, but God’s ability to make all things new. God can resurrect who and what God chooses to resurrect. Christians believe that God will resurrect all those in Christ which is fine with me, but how God makes that decision is not for me to completely understand. That is God’s decision that only a good and loving God can make.

My disagreement is with this statement. Humans are not simple physical beings. We are physical, rational (mental), (and spiritual beings.) Our brains are basically different from the rest of our bodies. Our brain is not a muscle that gives us the power to move. Our brain or mind processes non-physical information, so what it does is non-physical. Of course our computers mimic the brain and do some of the same things as it does, so they are mental and non-physical in what they do also.

In a real sense all living things, even plants, are able to process information to some extent, and therefore are mental, as opposed to non-living things, (which have not been computerized.) Humans are special and different, but not exactly unique in this area. People are unique in their ability to make decisions about their lives and determine the purpose of their lives, which is the spiritual dimension of human life.


Dear David,

Thank you for your response. I am sorry that I struck a nerve, but glad that you were moved to straighten me out. If I may, I would suggest that in the future you say that you love the ancient wisdom of Epicurus, rather than the open statement of just “ancient wisdom,” which I would think includes the Bible and much more which you reject.

I too am skeptical about Plato’s forms, however Roger Penrose and Mario Livio point to the basis of Plato’s thought in geometry and say that mathematicians see Plato’s forms as the basis for mathematics and the natural laws of science. Therefore they see something different from what we see and find no contradiction between “forms” and science.

It appeared from what you said before that you rejected any argument that was theological or philosophical. Although Scientism does claim that Science is the only arbiter of Truth, it seemed strange that David Hume would make that kind of statement.

Again there is confusion about whether we are discussing the Psyche or Mind as part of our model of what as person is, or the Psyche as the basis of eternal life. I choose basically to discuss it as the first. Many people do not know that Plato did espouse a tripartite view humans, Body, Psyche, and Spirit, before Socrates espoused the dualistic view on the last day of his life.

Finally, while I agree with Hume that the life of Jesus Christ is the best evidence for eternal life, that does not mean that the arguments of philosophy do not have a place. From where I sit it appears that the philosophy of Socrates and Plato prepared the Hellenistic Greeks to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ and overthrow their old pagan religions.

Christian theologians used Greek philosophical concepts like the Soul to explain Christianity, and while it helped to make many Greeks Christian, it also distorted the faith to some degree. Now we need to purge our understanding of the faith of these Greek adaptions which no longer make sense in this scientific age.

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One of the main problems when skeptics like yourself get involved in specific issues involving the immaterial (in this case “How does evolution affect the traditional theological concept of the soul?”) is that the discussion can end up ignoring the actual question and trying to defend or attack the very existence of the immaterial itself. Interesting, but diverting from the matter in hand.

For the person committed solely to scientific evidence, no evidence for the immaterial can, in principle, be found. It is simply impossible for the activity that investigates material efficient causes to draw conclusions about what is not material, like (in Ed Feser’s example) sweeping a field with a metal detector and declaring there is no architecture or pottery buried.

The other side of the same coin is that material processes cannot, in principle, produce non-material outcomes. So as I hinted above, to investigate evolution for clarification on “the soul” is a wild goose chase. If non-material elements exist in human beings then Darwinian evolution alone has no way to produce them, and I include in that formal causation in the Aristotelian (not Platonic) sense and final causation in the Christian sense.

An agnostic open to other sources of knowledge may well find plenty of empirical evidence for the immaterial: my “no-religion” son-in-law, some years ago, found himself saying when the phone rang, “That will be my mother telling me my grandfather’s died.” Grandfather was previously well, mother didn’t often phone - but it turned out he’d unexpectedly taken his own life. Most people have some such anomalous experience which they refuse to reject even if they don’t understand it. Sometimes they do understand it - somebody recovers suddenly from illness at the time they later discover their Church prayed. The empirical evidence can be assessed in such cases - but evaluating it through science cannot conceivably endorse any immaterial cause.

So this discussion ought to proceed in the context in which Brad set it: “as modern Christians”, that is, accepting the assumption of the immaterial, in that we are doing theology from belief in God, or it is going off-topic.

If that is so, right ways to investigate “the soul”, it seems to me, are ways that are capable of dealing with the immaterial because they themselves involve the immaterial.

And so it is legitimate to address it, as those like Aquinas or even Plato did, from purely philosophical reasoning, since logic is itself immaterial. Is there a logical necessity for the soul, and what characteristics must it have if so? That involves the same orderly mental processes that are used in science, but which precede it and develop the metaphysical basis on which science can be done. But they are more versatile than science, though they include it.

Secondly, it is legitimate to involve the other half of intelligence, intuitive reasoning, just as scientists do all the time (though it’s a well kept secret, cf Kuhn, Eddington, Polanyi etc). Intuitions seldom stand alone, but provide the insights to be tested by other means.

Thirdly, divine revelation is essential in an area for which, though we have direct experience (we know we are “us”, for which there is no persuasive material explanation available) we cannot fully know ourselves. What does inspired Scripture say about souls? How does it relate to cultural milieu (and how does the cultural milieu relate to true knowledge, because even ancient Egyptians might have good insights)? Importantly, does it encourage us to bother with the issue, or suggest that we spend our efforts on other matters?

I’ve not made any positive contribution to the actual matter in hand with this, but here’s a thought. Resurrection is the firm Christian hope: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be at the wedding feast of the Lamb. That implies there is a principle of continuity, technically a “universal” of human identity. One could place that in God’s mind, so that he somehow recreates us as us - that makes it akin to a platonic form, re-instantiated in new matter. A bit like a soul. Or this universal could reside in our constitution, in which case if you don’t call it “the soul” you call it the same thing by another name.

But it doesn’t reside, by any means I can conceive, in anything to do with Darwinian evolution.

The initial impression from these posts is that it requires an obvious response on the subject “soul” – yet on reflection statements such as:

Anyway, it seems like the science of evolution makes it challenging to understand the origin of the soul. After all, an immortal soul cannot be partly immortal—it’s an all or nothing deal. So if humans gradually evolved

become extremely provocative, because of the “if humans gradually evolved then …?” This approach exhibits extraordinary sophistry – after all, using if this or that, is a way of circumventing any burden of proof on the part of those who make such statements. “If” denotes doubt, but combining it with a statement leaves a reader with the thought that the science of evolution has shown X, and since X is so, then what do we make of this?

I guess I would seek clarity of thought, and I would ask Brad to respond to these sentences:

“If the human soul evolved, how do we show this with the science of evolution”

Or, “If proponents of evolution (such as our own humeandroid assert) proclaim the notion of soul is irrelevant, or nothing more than an assertion, how do we justify discussions on the ‘science of evolution’ and then on the human soul?”

Or, “If, as many of us state, soul is synonymous with self-identity, why would anyone invoke such nonsense as ‘the science of evolution’ for serious discussion?”

I ask these questions because I think it is necessary to reflect on this topic.

@Jon_Garvey, thank you for your comment.

In a real sense I agree with you simply because how can one discuss the possibility of something existing with someone who takes for granted that it does not exist? On the other hand I take issue with the dualistic assertion that you make, which is something is either material, meaning “physical and natural” or immaterial meaning “spiritual and divine.”

One argument that I have used with those who say that the universe is natural and physical, is then to say that humans must be supernatural, because Nature and the physical cannot think. Humans being able to think then are super, that is superior, to nature.

However we know that humans are not supernatural meaning divine. Humans are natural, but are created in the Image of God, meaning that we have divine attributes, the ability to create, the think rationally, and to love. As the Bible makes clear we stand between God and the physical world. We are a part of the universe, but we are not bound by the physical and social world.

In my opinion the mind (psyche) /body is both a key scientific question and an important philosophical/theological question, because it examines the structure of God’s creation and ourselves. The Psyche is immaterial as I have explained to AceofSpades, but it is also natural as it has evolved with the rest of life on this planet.

I would take this to indicate that God the Father is behind evolution using the Logos (Jesus Christ) to create humanity is God’s own Image and an environment for humans. God did it as God is the Source of everything, but it is still natural because God uses natural tools that God created. In Psalm 139 David says that YHWH “created my inmost being, … knit me together in my mother’s womb.” v. 13. I do not think that this denies genetics or evolution, but says clearly that YHWH works through natural processes.

Scientism, as evidenced by the New Atheism of Dawkins & Co., denies that the mind is immaterial and thus there is any difference and separation between the psyche and body. This is clearly not true, but their materialistic monistic world view forces them to this conclusion. Those who uphold the traditional Western dualistic psyche and body view are hard pressed because traditionally as I have stated the psyche is non-material and is eternal and thus divine in nature.

The traditional view is not accurate, nor is it Biblical, which is why it needs to be corrected. Darwin to a large extent brought this problem to light with his theory. We can correct this problem by having the correct understanding of evolution, developing a new triune understanding of humanity and nature, and renewing our belief that God is in charge, even though God is not the immediate cause of what takes place.


Actually, I didn’t suggest that dichotomy at all. I mentioned God, who is clearly immaterial but assumed in the question under discussion, to make the point that we ought to be agreed on the existence of the immaterial as a category.

You’ll note that later I went on to suggest the immaterial tools of logic/mind etc are what is suitable to address the question of the soul. These are not necessarily spiritual or divine, but they aren’t material.

In Aristotelian-Thomist thought, too, the soul is simply the form that gives matter its essence, or nature - ie you join the human form to a lump of stuff and get a person (likewise for a dog or whale). In that system, the human soul is not eternal because it’s divine, but because it’s rational, and reason is an immaterial thing.

Do I agree? Not entirely, but as I suggested it’s actually hard to do without the idea of soul as “form” once one posits eternal life, in the body or out of it, because to say that God recalls puts all your memories, thought patterns etc into a new and similar body is the same as saying that he preserves your form. The only difference from the Thomistic “eternal soul” is that the form is preserved in God’s memory, rather than independently.

To Aquinas, the soul is still the essential form of the entire human being, so that it exists after death only in a very attenuated form until the resurrection, when it gets back into gear by “informing” the resurrection body. In that way, it seems to be equivalernt to the biblical idea of “spirit” (though the New Testament has adopted some of the later Hellenistic way of talking, so “soul” and “spirit” are used, I think, imprecisely which is why, perhaps, too much thinking about the details may be unwise).

The OT picture, though, is of the spirit (as breathed into Adam in Gen 2) animating “dust” to result in the “life” or “soul” (Heb nepes). That’s a kind of dualism between spirit and matter, though exactly how it relates to the concept of the “spiritual body” as opposed to the current “body of flesh” is a good one for discussion.


Reading these posts over the weekend, it’s become clear that I was less than clear with my initial comments. That I fully concede. Part of the problem with this discussion is, as you and others have pointed out, that the word “soul” has such a variety of meanings. Depending on what meaning you choose, it might sound like I am suggesting that evolution is responsible for creating a spiritual entity, which is not what I meant. I also was not meaning to suggest that humans are reducible to the material. What I was trying to do (apparently unsuccessfully) is talk about the soul in a way that brings science and faith into mutual conversation, instead of assuming that one must steamroll the other (or that they have little to do with each other). Put directly, for me as a Christian, science and the Scriptures are both ways to understand what it means for me to be human.

We don’t—if by “soul” we mean that spiritual part of a human which necessarily belongs to the transcendent. Such a thing is not explainable by evolution, because evolution only explains how the natural world works and makes no comment on the world beyond. However, evolution does show that species are not fixed, and therefore there is no “first” of the species, at least biologically speaking. Thus, either God gave a human soul to hominids who were sufficiently human for his purposes, or the human soul is not categorically different than the soul of our evolutionary ancestors. For many Christians, neither option is attractive, and we have received letters from people who reject evolution because of precisely this question.

I completely agree with you that the success of science does not suddenly mean that all talk of the transcendent must bow to materialism, or else prove itself scientifically. This is profoundly arrogant, and I suspect you would agree. I was not meaning to phrase the discussion in a way that used science like a hammer. I’m interested in how evolutionary processes affect our complete understanding of the human person—in conversation with Christian theology and tradition. I don’t have any profound insights to offer, other than to digest the thoughts of others and consider the subject myself (disclosure: I’m barely 27 and not nearly as well-studied as many on this page). To that end, I’m grateful for the contributions made by others in my own thought processes.


Thus, either God gave a human soul to hominids who were sufficiently human for his purposes, or the human soul is not categorically different than the soul of our evolutionary ancestors. For many Christians, neither option is attractive, and we have received letters from people who reject evolution because of precisely this question.”

I think this type of thinking summarises the problem as I see it. If we commence with the proposition that any material account, including an evolutionary one, cannot deal with the subject matter such as soul, spirit, God, then the next step would be to cease discussing materialism or evolution – we simply accept its inability to address our topic. The either/or then becomes, either evolution gives a full account of these matters, and we will continue the discussion (which inevitably means we accept materialism and atheism), or we accept that revelation is the only source of knowledge on God and the human spirit and continue that discussion.

I note that materialists and atheists are happy to accept the proposition that Darwinian evolution cannot provide mechanisms of how evolution took place that would satisfy many scientist (including myself), yet they do not have trouble believing it. Yet some seem to quibble and argue when we suggest that we may not fully understand the details within Science on how human beings are endowed with the human spirit, or may be guided by the Holy Spirit in understanding revelation. Does this mean there is greater belief and faith in Darwin, than in God? I think instead that Christians feel the pressure from various areas, that seek to disregard the teachings of the Faith, and the advances of the various Sciences may intimidate us into believing anything that sounds scientific must be true and a yardstick by which all truth can be assessed. On the conversation between evolution and our understanding of the human person within the Christian tradition I suggest we expand our horizons to include all of the physical and bio-sciences, and not focus only on evolution or biology. In any event, you have my overall comment on the subject you wished to discuss.


This is by way of a reply to Brad in the light of your reply.

Part of the problem is the old (to some of us) philosophical one that since Descartes, the material and the immaterial have had a gulf fixed between them. I don’t think it’s possible to bridge that gap without revising ones metaphysical understanding. Much better than revising the theology, which isn’t broken.

For example, Brad’s question about whether God gave a soul only to qualifying hominds or whether it’s basically the same as that of animals unconsciously associates the idea of the soul with some separate and optional immaterial principle, like Descartes’ ghost in the machine.

To Aquinas (as a paradigmatic alternative to Cartesianism), although the human soul was a special example because of our rationality, the soul of an animal or a man is simply its immaterial formal cause: what makes it a living example of that species in the first place. At one level that’s entirely natural, because there wouldn’t be any natural forms without form, self-evidently. At another, it points to the creative power of God (however he creates) because it is he who gives form to matter.

In contemporary terms there are very strong connections to the concept of non-material information in this, which includes but is not restricted to the semantic DNA sequence. This has all kinds of resonances that are entirely relevant to human souls as a product both of nature and of God - the unification Brad is seeking.

For example you have the “It from bit” approaches most popularised now by Paul Davies, but inherent in many older thinkers including Arthur Eddington and other reflective quantum theorists. These consider information to be as primary to reality as matter. Taken seriously that alters entirely what “science” is, and it’s becoming increasingly reactionary not to take it seriously.

Or you have the information theory approaches like that of Bill Dembski in his thought-provoking Being as Communion.

Theologically you also have the resonances between Christ as the Logos (“Word”) through whom God speaks the order of creation into being, and the image of God in man, which is the image of the true Image (the Son) - thus tying the creation of man particularly closely to the Person of the Logos (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes is excellent on this conection, but Athanasius anticipated him, and Paul Davies, by 1600 years).

In that theological and metaphysical context, God’s coming upon an adequate hominid in which to implant a soul is just the wrong kind of language ever to draw things together. Rather, the “information” which the Logos brings into being in creation “informs” the stuff of the world to become man, a living soul. Man is of a piece, even if the “soul” (used in the sense of “form” or “information”) can be distinguished conceptually from the material composition of man.

This is true whatever instruments Christ uses in creation,including evolution if one wishes to see it as “the means God uses to create”. Otherwise the material world becomes a quasi-autonomous agent rather than an instrument, and thereby divorced from God’s special providence. That’s the incoherent “free creation” (demiurge) hypothesis which ought no longer to have a place in a monotheistic “Evolutionary Creation”.

In my view the “slippery slope” you describe is largely because the metaphysics of modern science follows Descartes and bundles everything immaterial into a corner, thus privileging the material considerations that science investigates wearing blinkers that exclude all but efficient causation.


Jon and Brad,

The subject has been discussed in a very wide ranging manner for a long time (I will put to one side the information option for now). An informative paper is by A. Grosso, “After the Relational Turn: Recent Studies in Personhood”, Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical, 40:1. This provides a critical review of several recent interdisciplinary studies of human nature, personhood, and the self. I have lifted two paragraphs to illustrate the range of opinions:

(A) … studies from the sciences adopts an avowedly interdisciplinary perspective, and includes insights gleaned from genetics, evolutionary theory, neuropsychology, sociology, and archaeology… a detailed introduction to contemporary genetic theory … in the end judges that genetics is not able to provide a comprehensive account of human nature . Similarly … reviews a number of evolutionary theories (both pre-modern and modern) but likewise concludes natural selection is ultimately incapable of accounting for the full range of the human experience. … recent studies in neuropsychology and argues nonreductive physicalism does a better job of accounting for the correspondence between mind and brain than can either dualism or monism… any account of human nature must include some consideration of the social dimensions of human identity and experience, and outlines some of the more important forms of social attachment … and draws on archaeology and paleontology in order to highlight the difficulties involved in efforts to clarify human distinctiveness by way of morphology.

(B) “… two theological reflections on human identity… in a more focused and extensive manner on a problem that crops up …, namely, the doctrine of the imago Dei… resolutely grounds his account of human distinctiveness in the doctrine of the incarnation and suggests christology provides the most stable foundation for any consideration of not only the doctrine of the imago Dei but any comprehensive account of human identity… the concept of human nature signifies an eschatological reality”.

Christianity has provided the most coherent and stable understanding of the human soul/identity/spirit, and has show us that this enables us to understand our responsibility regarding our motives and actions, and takes us beyond this to understand why repentance and a ‘re-birth’ is crucial to becoming truly human, before God and man.

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Now maybe we are getting somewhere although we are far from a conclusion. We seem to understand that we are discussing the soul in two senses, one is the soul as an aspect of a person, which is the way it is used in the NT and the other is the soul as the source of eternal life, which is not in the Bible, but seems to dominate current thinking among many people.

A huge problem with our understand of the Biblical point of view of the relationship between the human spirit and the philosophical understanding of the soul is that our language and culture has been shaped primarily by the Greek view, rather than the Biblical or Hebrew view. The Greek philosophical model of humanity is dualistic, body and mind or soul (psyche.) The NT Biblical model of humanity is triune, body, mind, and spirit. Let me make one clarification here, the mind in the triune model is narrower than the dualistic model, in that the psyche includes the emotions, while the mind as most modern people see it is primarily a thinking machine.

The basis for tripartite humanity is based primarily on Jesus Who insisted that goodness must be based on a pure or loving heart. Mt 5:8, 15:8, 15:18-19. Also from the Psalms of David, “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” Now we no longer see the “heart” as the seat of our personhood, but we do talk about a person who has a good spirit. In the Psalm David uses the Hebrew poetic form of parallelism to say the heart and spirit are the same thing.

Also in Luke 1 Mary begins her song, “My soul magnifies the LORD (YHWH) , and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Again the parallel structure indicates that the soul and spirit are the same thing. What she is saying from the context is that she is praising God from the bottom of her heart so to speak, which is better represented by the spirit which is clearly spiritual, rather than psyche, (soul or mind) which still has residual intellectual meaning. The Greeks thought that the essence of goodness was right thinking, and this is true of many Westerners today in and out of the Church.

Finally we have a statement by Paul who largely ignores the soul in favor of the Spirit in 1 Cor 2:11 where it confirms that we can understand the thoughts of God when God the Father communes with us through the Holy Spirit to our spirit.

The Image of God which is triune has been corrupted by sin, is restored through salvation which allows humans to commune freely with God the Father though the Son and the Holy Spirit.