Soul-searching: In light of evolution, where did the soul come from?

A detail showing Adam and Eve from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo. (public domain)

There comes a time in every website’s life when it’s appropriate to do a bit of soul-searching. For GOE, that time has come.

“Where did the soul come from?” This is one of several secret weapons (see also: mutated goo argument) for Christians who deny evolution.

However, unlike the mutated goo argument — which is a shameless, shoddily constructed straw man at best — questioning how we can understand the soul in light of evolution is actually a very important exercise. I believe the existence of the soul should be affirmed; without it, fundamental aspects of the Christian faith (the dire effects of sin, the need for atonement, the opportunity to spend eternity worshiping God, etc.) fall apart pretty quickly.

It also must be said that nowhere in the Bible will you find the words, “And then, the LORD said, ‘Let man be given an incorporeal, immortal essence, and let it be called a soul, and in the future, let the word also come to represent the funky sounds of Motown,’ and it was so.” Ergo, exactly what the soul is, and where it came from, requires some conjecture regardless of whether you believe the universe is as old as the scientific evidence indicates or younger than the Great Barrier Reef.

But I digress. Back to soul-searching. I’ll discuss two broad possible theories of the soul’s origin for evolutionary creationists, both of which have their strengths and weaknesses.

1. The soul evolved. Under this view, the fall of man occurred when humankind developed sufficiently to understand the difference between right or wrong, and it chose wrong.

There is evidence that some of the aspects of humanity that might otherwise be correlated with our souls (such as our capacity for creativity, intelligence, a sense of morality) are not as unique to us as we might have first thought. Many different species of animals have been seen to be highly altruistic: helping injured and unrelated members of their group, for example, or even “adopting” orphaned animals of a different species.

To be sure, this might have nothing to do with the soul. Creativity, intelligence, even our consciences — it’s possible they are completely unrelated from our spiritual selves. But, still, could the soul have evolved?

I think so. Why not? If God did, in fact, use evolution to craft our bodies and those of every other living thing, then why would he not use a similar process to create our souls? Not only would it be consistent, but I could easily find in it reason to worship God: that he is such an incomparable creator so as to devise a process that creates diversity and life not just in a physical sense, but also in a spiritual one, all without having to circumvent the natural laws he previously established.

It also explains one curious aspect of sin: that it seems to run very much in line with what one might expect from our evolutionary heritage. In other words, I am tempted to have sex, overeat, oversleep and otherwise behave like a selfish pig. All of these would be perfectly predicted from an evolutionary perspective.

The biggest problem is, um, how in the world could a soul evolve? We understand evolution to be an incredibly long and tedious process — virtually infinite in its gradualness. If a soul could evolve, does that mean there are species alive right now that have some sort of strange, half-formed version of a soul inside them? Do chimpanzees, who are alike us in so many ways, also have a type of “transitional” soul that is just a tad less developed then ours? And if so, what does that mean? Will only part of them be in heaven? Or will their souls go to heaven, they just won’t be quite as eternal as ours?

It doesn’t make sense. And yet, if we believe the soul evolved, I don’t think we can say it is limited to the human race, any more than intelligence and morality are.

2. God intervened. This, perhaps the more orthodox view, would suggest that the human race arose by the evolutionary processes that scientists have identified, and at some point in the history of our species, God intervened and bestowed a soul upon us.

It’s possible that he could have chosen just two people to give this gift to (in which case the actual event probably played out very much like a literal reading of Genesis 2 and 3 would suggest) or a group of early hominids (in which case Adam and Eve would be representative of this group).

This, too, appeals to me for a couple of reasons. For one, it completely takes the soul out of the scientific realm, which I like because I don’t believe the spiritual side of humanity is something science can address.

For instance, I know I have the Holy Spirit in me; I have felt him move. But my doctor could do whatever tests on me he likes and he wont find proof of that. To him, I would look in every way exactly the same now as I did when I was spiritually dead. It would not bother me to suppose God interrupted the natural laws in order to impart the tremendous gift of the soul. In fact, it would seem a wonderful parallel to the way he intervened in my own life to offer me new life in him.

But there are weaknesses here as well. It’s arbitrary, for one thing. This theory would mean that, sometime in our history, for whatever reason, God just picked a handful of primitive apes and made them eternal in a way no other creature in the world is.

And what of those who were not chosen? Because of how evolution works, we know there were many variant buds on the twig that became our species. So what of the closely related subsets of Homo sapiens who were left soul-less? Did they notice a change in their cousins? Did they sigh heavily and say, “Oh great, Adam and Eve got religion. Now they’re going to wear clothing and think they’re better than us”?

There is no doubt that the God of the Bible did, from our perspective, behave arbitrarily many times. He chose Abraham. He chose Jacob over his brother Esau. He chose the nation of Israel, then he chose Moses to rescue them. Gideon, Samuel, David, Isaiah, the list goes on and on. Then, he chose an ordinary girl named Mary to be the mother of the savior of the world, and 12 simple men of trade to be his disciples.

So, if he wanted to, of course he could have just picked out a couple of Neolithic farmers to become the first entries in the one created race he wanted to directly interact with. It seems to fit perfectly. But it still doesn’t answer all the questions this viewpoint presents.

Where do you think the soul comes from? Or, do you think I’m off my rocker for saying there’s a soul in the first place? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, or email me.

Tyler Francke

  • I think one’s view on traducianism vs creationism could have impact on how one approaches this issue. I can see how a traducian might be more sympathetic towards the idea of an evolving soul.

  • ngotts

    Option 1:

    It doesn’t make sense.

    Option 2:

    It’s arbitrary

    Quite so.

  • Peter

    I’m just going to play devil’s advocate and say: Don’t you think, if we’re going to use Occam’s razor, it’s a lot easier to just get rid of the soul concept altogether? The universe is complicated enough without Christianity. Why do humans need to have souls? As you said, animals exhibit altruism.
    Let me just reduce this to a crass example, because when I was a little kid first learning about evolution and being raised in a YEC family I asked myself this. If a human masturbates, it’s a sin. But when we first got our dog, he would start masturbating. That’s animal behavior.
    I’m confused about the difference between sin and animal behavior in some cases. The Bible refers to “the flesh.” I see the flesh as just…being an animal. For humans sex is sinful, for animals it’s normal.

    I’m just wondering WHY human beings need a soul. The concept of the soul comes from thinking that humans are special in some way, right? We can create things, we can talk. Basically we’re “smart.” But everything that differentiates us from other animals exists in the physical world, right? It’s all in the brain. We just have larger frontal lobes for instance.

    I mean, you’re basically starting with an a priori assumption that the soul exists because if the soul doesn’t exist Christianity falls apart. In this way you are doing the same thing that YEC people do by assuming that if the world isn’t 6,000 years old Christianity falls apart. However I would agree that Christianity DOES fall apart without a soul, since the soul is the thing that is stained by “original sin”; the soul is what Jesus came to cleanse.

    Sorry, I’m not trying to be antagonistic, just have a discussion because this stuff really gets me going. Have you had personal experiences with angels or Jesus or something? I’m just wondering why you assume that Christianity needs to be true. Do you know for sure that it’s true? Do you want it to be true?

    I just think there are so many problems with Christianity that if we’re going to be logical it’s easier just to throw it out. The Bible isn’t internally consistent. There’s the problem of evil (was discussing this with my mom the other day, it’s a MASSIVE PROBLEM when you want to argue that there is a God “whose love permeates all”) which goes along with the problem of hell. “Evil is the absence of God” or “Hell is separation from God”…I thought he was omnipresent? When you start getting into the omnis, we have problems. I think the ancient Greeks for instance didn’t have this problem because their gods weren’t omnibenevolent, they were fickle assholes. So it was much easier to explain why evil existed. I’m willing to admit that maybe “our minds can’t comprehend” the omnis, but…it’s just very hard to talk about a loving God who sends people to Hell to burn for all eternity, screaming in unending agony, and allows for World War II and the Holocaust to happen. I mean, Hell is like Auschwitz times infinite.

    Anyway, rant over, thank you for reading.

    • Hey Peter, thanks for the comments. I appreciate your thoughts, and I see a lot of value in your arguments. I will say that, for the record, I don’t believe Christianity “falls apart” without a soul. In fact, I know a number of Christians who don’t believe in the concept of a soul at all, or who at the very least do not believe in an eternal soul.

      Personally, I do, and I do believe it is an important concept to the Christian faith as I understand it, though I don’t believe my faith would instantly fall apart were I ever convinced otherwise.

      Incidentally, I have had what I believe to be a personal experience with God that set me on a path of faith that I had otherwise been uninterested in. If you’d like to hear more about that, I recount that story here on BioLogos. I look forward to chatting with you further.

      • Peter

        How do they accept Christianity without a soul? Isn’t a soul the thing the “original sin” is attached to? The soul is the part of you that goes to Heaven or Hell…I’m just wondering how a Christian can be a Christian without believing in a soul. Could you tell me about that theology?

        • Not every Christian has the same concept of original sin. I, for one, do not believe scripture teaches “original sin” as some sort of guilt that was conveyed to everyone in the world, regardless of what they do or don’t do. In other words, I don’t believe it is something that “attaches to people,” even though I do believe in the soul. I believe original sin is not inherited guilt but rather, an inherent disposition toward sin, which I consider to be very much a physical part of us and largely a product of our evolution. Indeed, most of the time the apostle Paul writes about our sin natures — i.e. “original sin” — he writes about as something that is inherent in our flesh, the physical part of us, not our spirits.

          Honestly, I don’t fully understand the theology of Christians who do not believe in the soul at all, but I would guess that they believe the resurrection and eternal life is something wholly physical and bodily, for which there is some scriptural support. The idea that there is a soul, but it is not necessarily eternal, is somewhat popular in Christianity, often known as annihilationism, and it, too, has some biblical support. Basically, it is the idea that those who are condemned to hell do not suffer eternally, but their souls are eventually destroyed and their suffering at that point ceases. My understanding is that even Billy Graham was supportive of this idea.

    • In His Image

      Peter, I’d like to play Christ’s advocate. I realize you wrote this a year ago, but still thought it good to answer some of the things you said from a Christian perspective. We need a soul, because we wouldn’t be “human” without one. We were created in the image of God, with a body, soul, and spirit. (The animals were not) Can people act like animals, sure, for some that acting is easy, but the soul enables us to act like God, and when paired with Christ, we can be like Him. Two quick things to note, you said sex is a sin, but it isn’t a sin, in fact God said “be fruitful and multiply” however sexual immorality (fornication, adultery, homosexuality, beastiality, etc) and any perversion of sex including sex outside of marriage is where sex became sinful. But sex within marriage and within God’s design was never called sinful in the Bible. Also masturbation you said is a sin, but the Bible doesn’t say that either, but it does say lust is akin to adultery, and hate akin to murder. My point is sin isn’t merely a physical action it is joined to the conscience and the heart(soul) of man. So yes it is imperative for a Christian to understand that we have souls. One can not love God nor their neighbour with just physical actions while hating them on the inside and assume all is well. That is the lesson of the Pharisee that self righteousness, and adherence to the physical law can not save. Ones righteousness needs to exceed that of even the Pharisee and that can only be done through Christ. To speak about Christians who reject the concept of a soul, is to speak about the Sadducees, who denied angels, the spirit, soul, and the resurrection of man etc. They are in error because they don’t understand God’s word. You may wonder why I am a Christian, and I would say it started by faith, but was quickly confirmed by His Holy Spirit in my life. I have been witness to miracles(in my own life and others) and know stories of angels and the supernatural in the lives of family friends. So I can say that I know who I have believed in and know that He is able to keep me. Salvation isn’t merely from death and hell, but also from sin(sinful nature) that is why we must be born again. To have new life, apart from the sinful nature, and that life can only be found in Christ. As to the problem of evil, I think you may find what the apologist Ravi Zacherias has to say on that point. To logically question why is there evil you must already be assuming that there is a moral law, and if a moral law then a moral law giver(God). But if you do read this then check out Ravi’s answer on YouTube I think you’ll find it interesting.

      • Peter

        Hey, thanks for your response. Yeah, I think I need to do much more digging into Christian philosophy. I will check out Ravi Zacherias.

        • In His Image

          Good to see you’re still around 🙂
          Nice to hear.
          I’d like to hear your take on him. you may also find John Lennox interesting