Larry King Live on 16 March 1999 featured five panelists: Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhism Studies at Columbia University; Marianne Williamson, New Age author and spokesperson for the spiritistically channelled Course in Miracles; Rabbi David Aaron, expert on and proponent of Kabbalism, an occult/mystical/gnostic interpretation of Judaism; Deepak Chopra, charismatic spokesperson for a popular version of Hindu monistic thought; and Franklin Graham, head of Samaritans Purse, a Christian humanitarian organization, and son of Billy Graham, the renowned American evangelist.
What is the soul?
Though these five differed on many points, they seemed to be able to reach a consensus when it came to an understanding of ‘soul’. In fact, Deepak Chopra voiced agreement with Graham’s understanding of the soul. We have long heard Billy Graham say words like the following: ‘You have a soul and it will go to heaven or hell when you die’.
According to this idea, the soul is a mysterious, spiritual and immortal part of the human being that leaves the cold, dead body at death. Those on Larry King’s programme who believed in some form of reincarnation were able to agree together about the soul though, from their own traditions, they might have used other symbols to express the same thing.
Due to a revival of Greek philosophy in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., Greek dualism infiltrated the Christian church mainly through the work of Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica, which became the fountainhead of Catholic theology throughout the Dark Ages. Greek dualistic thought posits the theory that the mind, spirit and soul are good, even divine, while on the other hand, the body, flesh and matter are bad, the depository of evil. So it was the soul that mattered, the soul that needed saving; the body was simply a temporary prison for the soul.
Soul and self
Confusion concerning the nature of the soul has a powerful influence among the people of Mill Valley where I minister at the Miller Avenue Baptist Church. Though the doctrine is not biblical, and is absent from the teaching of the early church, the idea that the soul is the focus of evangelistic efforts persists in many Christian traditions. Franklin Graham was concerned about the ‘soul’. He should have been concerned about the whole person, body, mind, soul and spirit.
So many in my community believe in reincarnation that Graham’s doctrine on the soul would not be troublesome for them. The soul? Well, they say, it needs purifying and experiences endless lifetimes anyway. These people do not like to think that they will be resurrected to stand before the judgement of God. ‘My soul’ is one thing; ‘myself’ is another.
The biblical doctrine is one of bodily resurrection, not the floating away of an immortal soul. We are whole, integrated beings, though the Bible writers spoke variously of mind, heart, body, flesh, spirit and soul for the sake of emphasis. A person is all of these and more, a whole being responsible to God in the totality and indivisibility of his nature. What we are in total will be raised from the dead, either to eternal life or eternal death. We do not have immortality in and of ourselves. The truth of it is found in 1 Corinthians 15:53: ‘For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality’.
‘Soul confusion’ must be countered by the truth of the resurrection, even if it means parting from long established ways of thinking and preaching. Let us not give the unconverted comfort by implying that they only have some ethereal ‘soul’ to be concerned about. They themselves may hear Jesus say, ‘I never knew YOU; depart from me, YE that work iniquity’ (Matthew 7:23).