The Wholeness of Life
Handle with Care
If something is valuable, you want to protect it.
And the more precious something is to you, the more measures you take to guard it from harm. This is why God is always concerned to defend the sacred gift of life.
In Genesis 4 when Cain murders Abel, God curses Cain for this sin while at the same seeking to shield him from harm—instead of death leading to more death, it’s God’s will that life be preserved. God’s protection of human life is seen throughout his law too, like in the cities of refuge, places you could flee to if you’d killed someone accidently and were worried about being struck down in revenge. More basically, God commands that it’s forbidden to take the life of your neighbour for selfish reasons: “You shall not murder” (Exod 20:13).
So why does God want to protect human life? In the previous blog post (“The Meaning of Life”), we saw that being created in God’s image means all people have an intrinsic dignity. Unpacking that a bit more, we want to focus on how all people have a soul.
Now, we know what the body is—it’s something we can see and wash with a bar of soap—but the soul is more elusive. How would you describe it, and what is its importance to our understanding of life?
The Bible doesn’t give us a tidy definition, but it does mention the soul often. From Scripture we learn that the soul is the invisible and spiritual aspect of a person. The soul is what relates to an individual person, particularly in their identity and standing before God. It’s also called the spirit of a person, like in James 2:26, “The body without the spirit is dead.” Or think of what Jesus said in Matthew 10, where He warned against those who can kill the body, “but who cannot kill the soul” (v. 28).
This means that a person has an outer life and an inner life. You have a body that is physically functioning on this earth—for instance, you probably consumed some food a while ago and your body is automatically digesting it, even now as you read! But you also have a soul that consciously informs and directs your believing, and loving, and worshiping.
The whole relationship between body and soul is impossible to disentangle. This is one of those areas of theology where it’s easiest to say what beliefs we don’t accept. What we reject is the long tradition of emphasizing the soul to the exclusion of the body. Some of the Greek philosophers, for example, said that compared to the soul, everything else was far inferior. Material things and physical objects don’t have true value; it’s the soul that lives on in immortality while the body reverts to dust.
We’ve probably adopted some of that thinking, for when we talk about everlasting life, we tend to picture spirits floating around in the clouds. No bodies, just ghostly beings, enjoying a perpetual playlist of harp music. It’s true that at death the soul leaves the body, but this separation isn’t the happy release imagined by the Greek philosophers. The Christian hope is not redemption from the body, but redemption of the body, looking forward to the renewal (and reunion) of body and soul.
For the body is much more than an earthly container for the soul. The Bible describes the body as something like a work of art from God’s hand, like in Job 10:8-12, “Your hands have made me and fashioned me, an intricate unity… Did you not clothe me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews? You have granted me life and favour, and your care has preserved my spirit.”
God clothed us with flesh, and He also gave our spirit—“an intricate unity.” Through his creation, we are more than physical, but an integrated unity of the spiritual and the material. You could say that we are “embodied souls.” For the whole body—flesh and blood, bones and organs—have spiritual significance. After all, it’s through the body that we experience our environment, enjoy God’s gifts, and relate to other people; and it’s with the body that we serve and worship the Lord here on earth. You couldn’t do any of this without a body, just as you couldn’t without a soul.
Killing Your Soul
Many today don’t understand how closely soul and body are joined. This has consequences: if the body is just a container, or merely a compilation of various biological systems that perform mostly independently of you, then it doesn’t really matter what you do with your body. But it does matter. Because God made us spiritual beings, embodied souls, it’s impossible to abuse the body without damaging the soul.
Sometimes we talk about “soul-destroying activities,” when being consumed by hatred, fear, or even pleasure can leave a person completely ruined. For instance, I recently read a novel about Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp during World War 2. The author strikingly described one of the camp commanders, a man who had committed much brutality: “This was a man whose soul had died and whose body was just waiting to catch up with it.” His soul had died—not literally, but because he’d done so much evil, discarded every moral standard and accepted wicked lies instead, there was nothing left inside him that was true, good, or beautiful. He was dead inside.
So many atrocities have happened because people didn’t recognize the dignity of humans as embodied souls. It’s been asked how something like the Holocaust was possible; as good Lutherans, the German populace surely knew the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” yet that didn’t prevent them from ending the lives of millions of Jews and other reviled people. How was that possible?
Or how is abortion possible? For a long time, Christians have been arguing that life begins at conception; abortion is therefore wrong, because you are ending the life of a living being—a baby is small and helpless, but it is living, so to kill a preborn baby is immoral. Clear cut, right? But practically every bio-ethicist (believer and non-believer) recognizes that human life does begin at conception. An embryo has a full set of chromosomes and DNA; it is a complete and integral individual capable of development from the moment of fertilization. According to almost any medical or scientific standard, life in the womb is seen to be exactly that: life! There’s a recognition that a preborn baby is alive—so to ask the question again, how is abortion possible? How do people morally justify ending another human life?
Divorcing Soul and Body
These atrocities are possible exactly through the separation of soul and body. If a Jew belongs to a sub-human race, or if a baby is not a person (but just a body), it becomes legitimate to kill them. They’ve been dehumanized, degraded to a position where they have no real status. There’s a vast distance between you and them, so killing is no longer such an unthinkable act.
So much misery results from the devaluing of human life. Making other human beings your slaves, denigrating a whole group of people because of their race or colour, exploiting children for sexual pleasure, objectifying women in pornography, destroying your body with the use of drugs and alcohol—all of this arises because we take a wrong view of human life. When we say that a body is just a body, and when we think that what we do to it, or what we do in it, doesn’t matter, then the door is opened to great evil.
Yet if we discard God’s design for life, there’s going to be a price to pay. You can say that the child growing inside you isn’t a person and that you’re therefore free to end its life, but the reality is that so many women regret their abortions and feel a deep sense of guilt because of it. At some level they recognize that the life they agreed to end wasn’t just a mass of tissue, but a living soul.
In a similar way, our society asserts that sex is something external and strictly physical. You can have sex with someone (via electronic or bodily means) without any kind of commitment; after all, it’s just two bodies interacting, performing ordinary biological functions. But the physical experience of sex can’t be separated from the emotional and spiritual. We’re an intricate unity, so it’s little wonder that sex that is premised on a divide between body and spirit ends in disappointment; it’s no wonder that today’s hook-up culture knows endless dissatisfaction.
Many examples can be given. The point is, because human life today is misunderstood and poorly defined—because life isn’t considered in its true wholeness—life is cheap and it’s easily discarded or thoughtlessly ruined.
Scripture’s teaching leads us to say that our existence must be lived as body-and-soul, in a deliberate recognition of its unity and wholeness. We must know that our life cannot be sustained by bread alone, but we need the food of God’s Word (Deut 8:3). Or as Deuteronomy 30:20 says so profoundly, “The LORD is your life and the length of your days.” According to Scripture, the best life is one that is lived before God in loving fellowship with him.
The immense value of human life is seen nowhere more clearly than in the redeeming work of Christ. After life’s beautiful beginning described in Genesis 1-2, death starts run rampant—the just consequence and punishment of our rebellion. Yet God so values human life that He offers restoration through Christ. The Son of God took on flesh, and ultimately gave his own life for the life of others, to save us in body and soul. As He said in John 10:10, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” He paid the price for our whole life, from the moment of conception to the day that our soul departs. And even when a believer dies, Scripture teaches that we have God’s promise of new life. As we read in Romans 14:8, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
The Purpose of Life
So what do we use this life for? Because you’re wholly God’s possession in Christ, you have a holy purpose. Remember again our three central truths:
Life is a gift – so be grateful for it.
Life is sacred – so protect and promote it.
Life is from God – so it must be for God.
The purpose of life is expressed beautifully in Psalm 146, “Praise the LORD, O my soul! While I live I will praise the LORD; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being” (vv 1-2). That’s a high mandate for living, a good purpose for our earthly existence: “While I live, I will praise the Lord.” That is being truly alive.
As we’ve seen, not everyone knows this—in fact, many people are ignorant of their true purpose. But in a world where there is a lot of despair and emptiness, in Christ we have hope. In a world where there is so much senseless living and senseless dying, we’re allowed to know the path of life through Christ.
This gives us a calling to share our knowledge about the wholeness of life. Such sharing begins by seeing other people rightly, even if they’re lined up against us and criticising us. We should remember: “This person is a living soul. This person, for all that he denies and rejects, for all her tough language and rough exterior, is still a being who was made in God’s image.” So let us love them. By loving them and loving all people, we affirm life.
And because we know that it is God’s sacred gift, let us seek to protect and promote life in all we do.