What does it mean to have a soul or spirit?Do they exist? Who has one - humans? animals? plants?Where does it reside - in the body? in the mind? in a celestial realm?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The question is unclear with respect to any distinction between “soul” and “spirit,” a distinction that exists to many theologians, as the Book of Hebrews (4:12) refers to the word of God that “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”  For purposes of discussion, however, given that the question asks what it means to have a “soul or spirit,” it will be assumed that the words are being used interchangeably, as they often are in such discussions.

It is not possible to definitively trace the origins of the concept of a “soul,” as its references in literature occur at least as far back as the 700s B.C. when Homer is believed to have been writing his epic works The Odyssey and The Iliad.  In The Odyssey, for example, the youth Elpinor is described as having “tumbled right off the roof and broke his neck, and his soul went down to the house of Hades.”  As noted, the concept of a soul is central to much of the Bible, as in Genesis, which, in describing the creation of man, refers to God breathing life into the body of Adam “and man became a living soul.”  The Christian concept of a soul followed from that formed in the Book of Genesis, and took perhaps its finest and most deliberative form in the Book of Mathew, in which the gospels state:  “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul,” and, again, when Jesus warns his disciples against temptation: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul.”

Whether one believes in the concept of a “soul” is, clearly, entirely dependent upon one’s personal beliefs, and in such discussions there is no right or wrong answer.  It is a matter of belief.  Different religions and different sects within religions have their own concepts or beliefs regarding the existence of the soul, whether it exists in all living things or only in humans, and whether it lives on in perpetuity.  Within Islam, for example, deep historical schisms exist between sects, most prominently between Sunni and Shi’a, but all believe in the existence of the soul.  A mystical branch of Islam, however, known as Sufism, believes that souls reside in all living things. 

The soul is not believed to exist within any particular part of the anatomy.  There is a sense among many that the heart, traditionally associated with emotion, is synonymous with the soul, which distinguishes the purely mental thought processes that occur within the brain from the emotional connotation that resides in descriptions of the heart.  We know that the heart is at the center of the human circulatory system, and that thought occurs in the brain; the emotional response to certain circumstances occurs in the brain and in the digestive system, but is philosophically associated with the heart.  Consequently, the emotional connection between heart and soul.  From a more pragmatic perspective, though, the soul could be considered to inhabit the entirety of the body.  Whether it exists in all living things is, again, dependent upon one’s personal beliefs.  Many believe that the soul departs the body following the death of the human form and ascends – or, depending upon one’s concept of evil, descends – to heaven or Hell.  Again, it is entirely a matter of personal belief.  There is no answer, and there is no right or wrong answer.

Wiggin42 | Student

From a science fiction perspective, having a soul is what makes us different from artificial intelligence. For instance in Asimov's I, Robot, the various prototypes of robots are far more physically and mentally advanced than humans. Yet, its always two humans that are sent to solve any glitches or coding errors in robots. Another android could never be sent to do that human task because robots are inherently incapable of thinking and feeling outside their programming. Your spirit is what makes you separate from a functioning automaton. I believe your soul and free will are tied together because your emotions are linked to your spirit. 

tyler-k | Student

In the Buddhist religion, there is no clear definition of a soul. In fact, some interpret the Buddha's teachings to say there is no soul. He wrote that the things that make up our bodies and beings are constantly flowing and changing, therefore making it impossible to have an "eternal soul." Buddha teaches and strives for Enlightenment, which can be comprehended in some ways as total freedom from the self and the mind. This does not allow for a soul, which most believe makes up what we are as humans. 

I believe that what a "soul" is depends simply on each individual's personal beliefs. Some people may base their beliefs on a specific religion or religious text. Others may base it off of the simple rules of life and what they have experienced. The soul is a very complex concept, and I do not believe that one solid definition can be given to it. 

Chantelm | Student

Your spirit is what is living in you right now. You do not see spirits but they do exist. Your soul is what could be saved. After you die your soul either goes to heaven or hell. We are a spirit being, we live in a body and we possess a soul. The real person inside of us is our spirit. Our soul consists of our mind, will and emotions. Our bodies are obviously what we live in while we are here on earth. 

The moment we accept Christ, our spirits become brand new. We are a completely new person, we are born of God, and we are made alive with God:

2 Corinthians 5:17, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: 

Our spirits are made right with God, and raised to new life the moment we accept Jesus, but our souls (minds) can carry much spiritual grime and dirt over from our past lifestyles. Our souls are transformed by the renewing of our minds and by the washing of the Word, as the Bible makes clear.