Spirit, Soul and Life: Humans and Animals

“Spirit” and “soul” – which, either or both, marks the difference between humans and animals?

As mentioned in “Bumblebees, Cherries, and Trinities, both Divine and Human – Trinity Sunday,” the elusive “Life Principle” makes the chemistry of the cell aim in a completely different direction than the way the cell will operate without it – it is the difference between being “alive” and decay.  As mentioned previously [Spirit, Soul and Life – The “Life” of Plants], the most likely match to this “life principle” would be the Hebrew word CHAY or “living.”

Since “soul” is modified by “living,” reasonably then, the “soul” is a greater package than just what affects the chemistry.  One would think of it as that elusive set of abilities that interprets the world: mental abilities, emotions, passions, and many other things which make each living creature what it is.

In the past, particularly intelligence between man and animal was thought to be not merely a difference of “degree” but of “kind,” and that obviously is what makes the distinction between the two.  However, that argument might be eroding. The ape has been shown to use tools, and some experiments using AMESLAN (the American Sign Language of the Deaf) have seen apes as not merely mimicking but also initiating conversation, asking questions, at about the level of a five-year-old.  We often hear of the intelligence of dolphins and whales.

Can they also tap into the “higher” intelligence abilities, especially in the abstract – how likely is it that they pursue philosophical concepts, or are they mercifully spared that kind of mental oppression?  How likely are we to see whales leaning back in an Athens-like amphitheater debating whether light is a wave or packets of energy; or dolphins wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; or apes discussing between democracy, oligarchy and despotism as the best form of government?  Until we figure out their language, we will never really know for sure.

However, a difficulty here is that if the distinction between man and animal is based upon intelligence, then the results mentioned above might be strongly feared: perhaps this will tear down the uniqueness of the human!  Perhaps then evolution has been right all along when it insists that mankind is merely no different than any animal, other than having a larger brain.  Although there are points that can be discussed here, any triumph from the evolution camp is short-lived, since the Bible itself already applies “soul” to both human and animal without distinction.  It then is no scandal to discover that animals can have such “soul” qualities as intelligence, even if they may not be at the same level as the human counterpart.

When “Blood” is equated with “Soul / Life” (NEPHESH) in Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:11, 14, and Deuteronomy 12:23, it is of interest how Leviticus 17:13 commands respect and honor even of the Blood-life-soul of animals (when killed in the hunt) by pouring out the Blood and covering it with earth, “for the Soul of all flesh is its Blood in its Soul” (awkward, I know; but perhaps the clumsiness is in the strangeness of the concept to us).  Of course, the honor is based on that the Blood-Soul is a special and unique gift from God.  Perhaps we also should have more respect for what God has bestowed upon the animals, for instance, as in the difference between survival and trophy-hunting.

So, if the soul is something we share with animals, then would the distinction be that humans have “spirits” and animals do not?  This does get a bit tougher.  In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “spirit” is also the same for “breath” and even for “wind.”  How and when does one choose which meaning to translate, and are the differences between these three meanings that cleanly different or do they actually overlap to some degree?  Two examples in particular are the following:

For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity.  All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust.  Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth? [Ecclesiastes 3:19-21]

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You hide Your face, they are troubled; You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth Your Spirit, they are created, and You renew the face of the earth.  [Psalm 104:29-30]

What should be done: should the translator be consistent between which concept is chosen, or is it proper to slide between concepts, so that the same word means “breath” here, yet in the next verse it is translated as “spirit”?  Is the choice made because the text makes us change the concept, or is it that we simply don’t like what it would say if we didn’t juggle the meanings – is this a proper translation technique?

So do animals have a “spirit” or do they merely have “breath”?  Ecclesiastes does mark a difference between man’s which ”goes upward” and the animal’s which “goes downward” – but if this is merely talking about “breath” then the contrast really lacks meaning, especially considering the size of such animals as apes and elephants.  However, if the word leans more to “spirit,” then the difference becomes more significant.

The passage would then suggest a difference not in degree but in kind.  It would affirm that the human “spirit” that “goes upward” echoes the “burden” of God’s “breath” as indicated in Genesis 2:7, which animals are never identified as having.  It must also be remembered in that verse is the declaration that Adam’s creation required a special, unique and personal act by God, so also Eve’s creation, in contrast to the creation of the rest of what we call the animal kingdom.  As well, humans have been uniquely singled out not only by God choosing to have the fellowship of Covenant with them but also that He became of all creatures, not an animal, not even an angel, but a human.

Even so, one might wonder how decimated this “spirit” in man has become by the rebellion of sin, as to whether what is left now does simply resemble what the animals have, despite the human’s uniqueness.  This may be what the Bible is referring to when humans are now more oriented to “the flesh” and not to “the spirit” [Romans 8:4-13; Galatians 5:16-17] thereby making them in reality not much different than the animals, and why modern psychology attempts to define its view of humanity based upon its observations of animals (although it must be realized that psychology starts with no desire to consider a God-“breathed” aspect to humans).

Yet Ecclesiastes and Psalm 104 suggest that animals have “spirits,” though of a different kind than humans, yet one may wonder just how much their spirit has been decimated as well.  Perhaps this is what is alluded to in Romans 8:19-22, where all creation is declared as being subjected to futility and bondage.  Can we say that animals may have a sense of conscience and of wrongdoing?  A dog, after piddling on the floor, who looks so ashamed with tail between its legs, does raise the question whether there is a sense of conscience, as rudimentary and short-lived as it may be.

Both Colossians 1:23 and Mark 6:15 speak of the Gospel being “preached to every creature,” which St Francis of Assisi took literally.  Revelation 5:13 declares worship of God from “every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them.”  Is this merely the writing technique of using personification, or does St John really mean “every creature”?  If they are capable of actual worship (that is, not mimicry), would this not also indicate a spiritual side?

For in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … all thing were created through Him and for Him.  He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together…  [Colossians 1:16-17]

Perhaps the end product of this examination is the realization that creation is not man-centric but God-centric, that we are not the exclusive proprietor of its value and worth.  Rather its estimation lies in the delight and pleasure that God takes in all of creation, and of His interaction with it.  If animals do have a more significant role than merely to populate the earth for the sake of mankind’s sport and dominance, does that reduce the value of humanity, or does actually increase the honor that we have in leading a more complex creation?  And in realizing this, does this not declare a greater God Who is far more involved with His creation than we can possibly imagine, even to where  “Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? And not one of them is forgotten before God” [Luke 12:6]?

One is reminded of the child who when the new baby is brought into the home, thinks that with this competition that he will become less – not as important and loved as before -, but instead he discovers that there is a lot more love and value that surrounds him now as the big “older brother” than he first imagined.  So also it may be worthwhile to stop before we immediately reject that animals have more complexity than we have first assumed and consider whether it really does make us less.  Rather it may suggest that God’s creation is greater than we have supposed, and that that would indicate a greater honor for us who were entrusted with the responsibility to care for this world as God’s representatives.

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