Book Review of
Soul-Searching: The Evolution of Judeo-Christian Thinking on the Soul and the Afterlife by Luke Jeffrey Janssen
About the Author:
Luke Jeffrey Jansen is a professor of medicine at McMaster University with a PhD in medical science and a master’s degree in theological studies. He is the author of over 150 scientific and theological publications, and blogs regularly on the subject of faith and science at lukejjanssen.wordpress.com.
Chapter 1: Introduction
The first chapter of the book is dedicated to surveying the landscape of the Bible’s historical and cultural development. Many Christians overlook the fact that the Bible which they hold in their hands as a single book, developed over thousands of years and is the product of a multitude of transcripts. The Bible is not a single book at all but is comprised of sixty-six books that have been combined from a library of scrolls to make one coherent text. Janssen suggests that most people are used to parroting what they hear concerning theological issues without ever looking into or studying a topic for themselves. He says that as modern readers, we need to remember “the Bible was written for us but not to us.” He reminds his readers that the Bible came out of multiple cultural and historical contexts and that it has undergone multiple editions over the course of time.
As a historical piece of literature, there are several areas in which the Hebrew scriptures overlap or parallel other Ancient Near Eastern cultural texts. Janssen says that we need to keep in mind that the stories were first passed down within an oral culture, then they became written documents that turned into copies of originals. This brings into question the modern idea of inerrancy and how we might think about the Bible. The author states that the purpose of the introduction is to “emphasize the large role that humans have always played in the entire process” of the development of the Bible. For the non-academic reader, Janssen’s first chapter is a sobering reminder that the Bible is a very complex book. As modern readers, we often take for granted the history of translation which the Bible has undergone.
Chapter 2: Premodern Human Ontology: The Mind, Soul, and Spirit
In the second chapter, Janssen begins by discussing the anthropology of several different Ancient Near Eastern cultures. He starts by looking at the Prehistoric idea of anthropology in which humans began to recognise the fact that something changed when a person died. In turn, they began to see that death was connected to human breathing. He then explores the Mesopotamian anthropologies that believed in a distant non-relational God. This culture held to a form of substance dualism. As a result, they also believed that death meant a diminished ghost-like afterlife in a subterranean underworld. The Egyptian’s also believed in a form of substance dualism and a disembodied afterlife. This afterlife entailed a judgement by scales. The judged would either be annihilated by the gods as a consequence of their unrighteous life or be rewarded eternal bliss for a righteous life.
Janssen says that the Greek anthropology also consisted of a belief in substance dualism, the escape of the body and the existence in a disembodied afterlife. The Greeks told several myths that described what they believed the afterlife to be like, including existence in the realm of a place called Hades. In contrast to these views, the Hebrew’s saw man as a being made from dust, and they believed humanity returned to dust upon biological death. For the Israelites, there was no such thing as a disembodied afterlife. Janssen says that Hebrew understanding of Sheol is best understood as the grave, the place everyone goes when they die. For the Hebrews, there was no afterlife that entailed punishment or judgement like other cultures. Some scriptures present a faint hint of resurrection Janssen says, but many scholars believe that thought didn’t develop until the writings of the prophet Daniel who may have been influenced by Persian culture.
Janssen summarises by declaring, “the Hebrews seemed to believe that humans were created mortal and were destined for nonexistence in Sheol, while the Greek thinking Christians began to see humans as originally eternal heavenly spirits, now trapped in physical bodies and seeking to be liberated in order to rejoin the immaterial.” He closes the chapter by examining some of the developing theology of the Early Church and how anthropology has been influenced through church history. In this chapter, Janssen provides a helpful overview of some of the Ancient Near Eastern views on the afterlife and how they seem to stand in contrast to the beliefs that Israel held.
Chapter 3: A Synthesis of Modern Thinking on Our Inner Being
Chapter three begins with a discussion of monism versus dualism. Janssen begins to explore the Biblical data to determine how the Israelite anthropology evolved. His investigation through scripture attempts to determine which view scripture supports. He suggests that one of the biggest problems for the dualist approach is the ability to adequately answering the question, “how does the immaterial cause change in the material realm.” Also, the question of how and when someone receives an immaterial soul may be pondered as well. Is the soul pre-existent and then placed into a body at the time of conception? Does it develop over time as something that emerges, and if so, at what stage in human development does it solidify? At the same time, the monist view needs to be able to articulate how one might believe in the continuity of identity between death and resurrection. Janssen explores the ideas of Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia and how they might be related to how we think about our identity.
Janssen concludes that “a majority of Christians and possibly all non-Christians seem to think that a substance dualism in some form is central and essential to Christian theology.” However, he states “it is not.” He goes on to explore how human beings are constantly changing over time. Our bodies are developing, growing, decaying and in flux over the entire course of our lives. Here he explains that our identity is more tied to our actual memory than it is to our bodies. He says “it is actually the continuity of one’s personal memories and life experiences which is most important.” Janssen says that Augustine himself struggled with the idea of the origin of the soul and how it came into existence. Augustine wrote, “I have therefore found nothing certain about the origin of the soul in the canonical Scriptures.” Several ideas in regards to the soul’s origin have been suggested such as; their pre-existence as stars, that God creates them at birth, or that they are somehow a creation of the combination of the sperm and egg of the parents. In this chapter, Janssen attempts to apply both the dualist and monist understanding of anthropology to modern questions of identity and science.
Chapter 4: The Afterlife
In the fourth chapter, Janssen explores the ideas of the afterlife and the beliefs of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. Each culture had its own beliefs on the afterlife, but there is a large degree of overlap. Many cultures developed documents that describe the belief in an afterlife in which they told stories of those that had descended and returned from the underworld. The Hebrew culture is said to have struggled with worshipping idols of different cultures and adopting practices of necromancy in which they offered sacrifices to the dead and the pagan god Molech. Janssen explores the Old Testament texts showing that the Hebrews believed that Sheol was not a disembodied underworld, but that it was used synonymously with other words that all indicate the end of life and decay in the grave.
A very telling indicator of Hebrew thought is that none of the “Old Testament authors or characters ever indicate their wish to end their days on earth in the same manner as was described for either Enoch or Elijah.” This suggests that they did not believe in a disembodied afterlife beyond death. In addition, Sheol is portraited as a place that “needs rescue from”, it is not a desirable place to go by any author. Janssen says that “the Hebrew Bible never indicates any form of punishment after death.” He says that it is only after Christianity becomes Hellenized that those ideas begin to develop. He then moves on to exploring the differences he sees between the Old and New Testament scriptures and how the Hebrew understanding of Sheol developed into the Greek understanding of Hades. After this, he looks at how the Hebrew understanding of Eden and Paradise are developed in the New Testament as a disembodied afterlife in heaven. He goes on to propose that how we understand the language of heaven and the kingdom of God may need to be revamped.
Chapter 5: Change
In the final chapter, Janssen asks the question, how has Judeo-Christian thinking evolved? He proceeds by suggestion the following answers.
The Judeo-Christian understanding has evolved in the following ways:
- There has been a shift from a Hebraic monistic understanding of anthropology to a Greek dualistic understanding of anthropology.
- There has been a shift from a communal and relational understanding of the Imagio Dei to an individualistic understanding of the Imagio Dei.
- There has been a shift from the belief that death is the end of life and is non-existence to belief in an intermediate state of being that includes judgement and separation.
- There has been a shift from a physical and material understanding of Eden or Paradise to an immaterial hope of Heaven as a non-material being.
- There has been a shift from the temporal punishment of Gehenna as death to the belief in eternal conscious torment for God’s enemies.
- There has been a shift from the belief that God’s physical creation is fundamentally created good to the belief that matter is evil and sensuality must be suppressed.
- There has been a shift from the hope that God will restore his initial physical creation to the state in which he originally designed it to the hope of escaping earth and going to an immaterial spiritual realm.
Janssen suggests that for some Christians, the answer will be to appeal to the progressive revelation of God over time. This would, in turn, validate all of these shifts in thought. On the other hand, there have been others that suggest that several or all of these shifts in thought have been a move away from God’s revelation as a result of outside cultural and religious influences. He rightly points out that in all of these shifts, we should maintain a Christocentric approach to how we reading scripture. He fears that modern developments such as the belief in the inherency and infallibility of scripture will divide us and lead us to divide over scientific truth and discovery. In the end, he suggests that the monist view is the Biblically accurate one. He believes that the dualist stance attempts to pit the Bible against science and in doing so, divides Christians and pushes away the non-believer. In his final words to the reader, he says he would like to echo the words of Joel Green who wrote, “I demonstrate that those views of the human person which are consistent with what we are learning from the natural sciences present no fundamental challenge to Biblical faith.”
Janssen does a great job at examining the debate between monism and dualism applying both science and Biblical exegesis in his argument. In his book, he engages with the Bibles historical, cultural contexts from which it was birthed. He also traces the development of thought on the soul over time and how it has changed and developed in church history. I would highly recommend this book as a resource on the topic of the historical development of the topic of the soul and how modern science brings a voice into the theological discussion.