Where are our souls before conception?

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on November 4, 2006 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A member of our church family writes:

“In the opening passage of Jeremiah’s prophecy, we read: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,’ and in Psalm 139:16 David said: ‘Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.’ It is clear from the Bible that from the womb, we are a person in God’s eyes. However, my question is about our souls.

“Since persons have eternal souls, where are our souls before conception?”

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This is a very good question; and a tough one too! What I’d like to do is, first of all, frame the biblical issues that deal with the whole matter of where our souls are before conception; and then, I’d like to bring that matter to bear on the passages you mentioned.

Basically, there have been three views as to the origin of the human soul. This first view would be one that we could call THE PRE-EXISTENCE VIEW. (Although I don’t believe you hold this view, your question somewhat uses the language of “pre-existence”; because it suggests that, because our souls will have an eternal future, they must also have had an eternal past.)

The pre-existence view would answer your question by saying that all human souls were created by God in the beginning of Creation; and that they are held ‘in storage’, so to speak, until they are joined to a human body. (Those who hold this view would naturally point to the passages you mentioned for support.) One form of this view would simply conceive of one pre-existent human soul per person whose physical body was yet to be formed. Once the human body is conceived in the womb, the soul is joined to the forming body. (This would sort of be like the sentimental idea of all the little babies up in heaven – just waiting to be born to nice mommies and daddies somewhere.)

Another form of the pre-existence view – a far more sobering and dreadful one – would be the idea that all human souls have existed eternally; but are confined to a human body as a form of punishment. In this form of the argument, human souls pass through a whole series of incarnations (many different human bodies) throughout history in the process of either paying off the debt of their sins, or incurring more debt as they go along. This view – basically the teaching of Reincarnation – has a long history in human philosophy. It’s found in ancient Greek and Hindu philosophies. It’s also found in modern philosophies such as Theosophy and New Age teachings.

Apparently, the early church theologian Origen held a view similar to the pre-existence view. He taught that creation was an ongoing event; and that the present state is only one “epic” in the existence of the human soul. This is a view, however, that proves to be incompatible with Christian faith and the Bible’s teaching concerning endless punishment, salvation, and eternal life; and it’s one that very few in the history of the church have held. The Bible gives no indication anywhere that our individual souls literally existed before we were conceived in the wombs of our mothers. It gives no indication anywhere of the human soul’s literal existence before the creation of Adam. Some forms of this view would also bring into question the whole need of redemption through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, since our sins could simply be atoned for over countless ages of repeated incarnations. It also calls into question the fall of man; because we’re left to wonder how it could be said in the Scriptures that all have sinned in Adam, if our pre-embodied spirits existed before Adam was born or where somehow held in distinction from the rest of humanity in its actual falleness in sin. And if it’s argued that human souls can sin in eternity past before existing in a physical body, what’s to stop the same soul from sinning again in heaven after leaving the body?

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That, then, leaves us with two other biblically supportable views. The first would be what we could call THE CREATIONIST VIEW. As the name implies, this view holds that each individual human soul is uniquely created at the time of conception. One of the main proponents of this view was the great Princetonian theologian Charles Hodge. In his systematic theology, Hodge wrote, “The common doctrine of the Church, and especially of the Reformed theologians, has ever been that the soul of the child is not generated or derived from the parents, but that it is created by the immediate agency of God” (Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 70).

Hodge defended the creationist view in three ways. First, he argued that it’s the view that most conforms with the marked distinction that the Scriptures makes between the body and the soul. He noted that God first created Adam’s body; and then He, as a subsequent act, breathed the breath of life in him (Gen. 2:7). Hence, God is called “the God of the spirits of all flesh,” rather than saying that He is the God of all flesh (Numbers 16:22). Hodge observed that the Bible presents the spirit as something God forms “within” a man (Zechariah 12:1), and that He gives to those “who walk on” the earth (Isa. 42:5).

Hodge recognized the obvious fact that we all obtain our physical being from our parents. But he saw a clear antithesis between the fathers of our bodies and the Father of our spirits in Hebrews 12:9; “Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the father of our spirits and live?” This, he argued, supports the idea that the human soul is a unique creation, distinct from the natural process by which God transmits the material of human body from one generation to another.

A second way Hodge defended the creationist view was through the nature of the human soul. Since – as all acknowledge – the human soul is spiritual and immaterial, it must then be indivisible. The human body is material, and is therefore subject to division; since all of us have a body that is made out of a portion of our fathers and a portion of our mothers. But Hodge argued that the soul, being immaterial, cannot be subject to such divisions; and our souls cannot be made up of a part of our father’s soul and a part of our mother’s soul. If the soul were capable of being divided up and portioned out, as is true of the material body of Adam to all the rest of his offspring, then what we would have would either be one great human soul of which we are all just mere individual modes of existence, or we would have only a portion of the essence of a soul and not a whole one. Hodge argued that the only view that is consistent with the nature of the soul as we understand it is to see each human soul as a unique individual creation at the time of conception.

Third, Hodge argued that the creationist view is the only one that is consistent with the biblical doctrine of the nature of Jesus Christ. All Christians agree that Jesus was fully human in His incarnate state; and that He has forever embraced full humanity to Himself. He was made from the substance of a human being named Mary, and therefore had a human body and a human soul. But as Hodge argued, if the human soul is not a unique creation at the time of conception, then the only way we could understand Jesus’ soul would be as a portion of the soul of His mother; and since Mary was a part of fallen humanity, she then would have passed on a fallen soul to the Savior. Yet, the Bible is clear that Jesus was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:14). Jesus’ sinlessness in His human nature could only be possible if His soul had been created uniquely – and not something that was passed on to Him from the essence of the soul of His mother (Luke 1:35). Hence, the very nature of our Savior’s human soul demands that we hold to the creationist view.

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Charles Hodge was a giant of Reformed Evangelical Theology. But another giant was William G.T. Shedd, who was the professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the late 1800s. He argued a position for the creation of the human soul that was the opposite of Hodge’s. He is recognized as one of the greatest proponents of the biblical option that we could call the TRADUCIANIST VIEW (although this position was also clearly argued by Augustine fifteen centuries earlier).

The name given to this view comes from the Latin word that means “lineage”; and so, traducianism is the belief that the human soul is transmitted from one generation to another along with the human body. Shedd defined the traducianist view as asserting “that the entire invisible substance of all the generations of mankind was originated ex nihilo [that is, out of nothing], by that single act of God mentioned in Gen. 1:27, by which he created ‘man male and female’” (Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2, pp. 10-11). In other words, Shedd argued that God created all the aspects and the full essence of all the human family – both body and soul – at one time in the creation of Adam and Eve. And like Hodge, Shedd defended this position in three ways.

First, Shedd argued that the traducianist view, rather than the creationist view, was the one that is most favored by the Scriptures. He pointed to the Genesis 1:26-27 passage to show that both male and female together were called “man” (the Hebrew word for man being “adam”). God, Shedd argued, does not make man in parts but as a whole; since “Adam” = Adam and Eve; so much so, in fact, that they together are called “one flesh” (2:24). Eve was not made from the dust, as was Adam; but rather was made from Adam himself. And she was made in this way in the entirety of her person – soul and body – since we’re not then told that God then blew the breath of life into her as He had done to Adam. “This goes to show,” wrote Shedd, “that when a child of Adam is propagated, the propagation includes the whole person, and is both psychical [that is, concerning the soul] and physical [that is, concerning the body] . . . In and with them, was also created the entire human species: namely, the invisible substance, both psychical and physical, of all their posterity” (p. 21-22). Furthermore, Shedd argues, the Bible teaches us that, on the seventh day, God rested from all His creative work (Gen. 2:1-3); and the “all” would include even any work of creating a human soul (p. 25; see also Exodus 20:11, and Hebrews 4:4). We’re not told of any further creative acts after that – including the work of creating individual human souls.

One of Shedd’s strongest Scriptural arguments in favor of the traducianist view is from Hebrews 7:9-10. There we read that Levi (the head of the Jewish priestly tribe), who would not be born for another 400 years, was said to have paid tithes unto Melchizedek through Abraham; “for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him” (v. 10). The writer of Hebrews treats Levi as if he had real existence in Abraham. But if, as the creationist argues, Levi’s only real existence in Abraham was in his physical aspect alone, then the argument that the writer of Hebrews was presenting would be meaningless. “The ‘paying of tithes’ which led to the statement is a rational and moral act, and implies a rational and moral nature as the basis of it” (p. 25).

Secondly, Shedd argued for the traducianist view from the theology of human sin. The Bible clearly teaches us that the sin of Adam was a sin that brought guilt, not only upon himself and his wife, but also upon all their posterity (Romans 5:12). But the participation of the offspring of Adam and Eve in their sin could not have been as individuals; it would have had to have been a participation in the form of an entire and complete race that was “in” Adam. “This supposes that the race-form is prior to the individual form; that man first exists as a race or species, and in this mode of existence commits a single and common sin” (p. 29). Human nature existed as a unity in Adam before it was individualized in the birth of his offspring; and it was this “nature” that sinned “in” Adam.

Not only is the imputation of the guilt of Adam’s sin to his posterity best explained by the traducian view, but – as Shedd argues – so is the inclination to sin that we inherit from Adam. There have been, as best we can know, six thousand years of generations from Adam’s soul to the souls of people living today. And if each individual soul is a special, individual creation – and the immaterial aspect of human beings is not passed along to each generation as is the material aspect – then it becomes difficult to account for the fact of our individual natures being as corrupted and as guilty in sin as was Adam’s without adopting a traducianist view.

Third, Shedd argued from human physiology. Man is seen as a union of soul and body. A body without a soul is not considered a whole man. And we know from experience that the development of the immaterial aspect of a man keeps pace with the development of the material aspect, because the two are in union. (It isn’t our destiny to be a glorified spirit alone, for example; but we are promised to be joined to a glorified body as well.) The traducianist view, according to Shedd, is the view best accounted for by the fact of this union. In addition, Shedd argues that there is no example in nature that we can point to in which one aspect of an organism is created subsequent to another aspect; and this fact is analogous to the traducian view. (Organisms may grow in bulk, and later aspects may appear as the organism develops; but these changes are inherent in the organism itself, and there isn’t something “created” later and then added on to the organism.)

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So; which of these two views is the correct one? They both have their strengths. I have personally found the traducianist view to be the most compelling logically; but the creationist view to be the most compelling Scripturally. And what’s more, they also both have their apparent problems. If the creationist view is true, for example, then it seems that we have the problem of God creating a new sinful soul for each individual; but we know that God could not be personally charged with creating a sinful soul. And if the traducianist view is true, then it seems we have a problem of explaining how Jesus could be fully human – born as He was from fallen humanity – and still Himself be sinless.

Perhaps the most balanced view was the one presented by J. Oliver Buswell in his systematic theology. He wrote that all that the Bible says on the subject of the sinless humanity of Christ “can be consistently adhered to on either of these two theories;” and that “on biblical grounds we cannot firmly establish either the traducian or the creationist view of the origin of the human soul.” And he adds this important note; “As between these two views, it does seem to me that there is a certain obvious fact which has been neglected in the historical discussions, and that is the perfect uniformity and regularity of the arrival of a soul whenever a human life begins to be. In our ordinary thinking when we observe such perfect uniformity and regularity in other matters, we usually ascribe the results to the secondary forces which God has created and which He maintains by His divine providence. For this reason, and for this reason only, I am inclined toward the traducian view, but I do not feel that it can be firmly established on the grounds of any explicit scriptural teaching; and it does not seem to me that to go beyond the facts of experience and the teachings of Scripture in this matter is futile” (J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of The Christian Religion, vol. 2, p. 252).

We know this much for certain then: the human soul does not pre-exist the birth of a human being in eternity past, but is the creation of God that always faithfully makes its appearance in concert with the beginning of that human life. Just when God creates the soul, or what process He uses, is not something that is revealed to us with absolute certainty in the Scriptures. But we are on safe ground in giving God the full credit for sovereingly creating the whole each human individual, and for providentially superintending the process of secondary causes (parents) by which each individual man or woman – body and soul – is brought into being.

Now, this might not answer all our questions; but the debate between these two views does, at least, give us a biblical frame-work within which to think about the passages you brought up.

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And that leads us (finally) to the passages you brought up. First, you mentioned Jeremiah 1:5; where God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” On the surface, this would appear to suggest that Jeremiah’s soul pre-existed his body – before he was formed in the womb. But we know this cannot be, because of the Scriptural arguments we’ve just considered.

I would suggest that understanding this passage in no way requires a literal pre-existence view of Jeremiah’s soul. His soul was, as we have seen, either created by God at the time of his birth, or was transmuted to him through his parents as a secondary means under God’s providential guidance. Instead, what this is speaking of is the fact that God sovereingly “chose” and “appointed” Jeremiah to this ministry before he was born – completely apart from any merit of Jeremiah’s; and (perhaps most important to Jeremiah himself), apart from any natural ability on his part.

So, why does it use the “language” of pre-existence? Though we don’t hold to a literal pre-existence of the soul, we must recognize that the Scripture plainly speaks of a kind of “pre-existence” of a man. This is something that the German biblical scholar Franz Delitzsch wrote about in his book, “A System of Biblical Psychology.” He suggested that this Scriptural “pre-existence” is an ideal one that includes not only man in general, but each individual as well; a “pre-existence” that includes the whole man in his entire make-up and history. It’s a “pre-existence” in the sovereign mind and purpose of God that is so sure and certain, that God can speak in the Scriptures of the man yet unborn not merely as a future prospect but “as a present object of divine contemplation in the mirror of wisdom”. This “pre-existence” is nothing less than the divine purpose of God for a man, from which his birth into the world of time is but “the historical realization of an eternal fundamental design” (p. 46).

This is not a literal pre-existence, but rather a pre-existence of purpose. When God sets His purpose on someone, he or she might well be said to “pre-exist” in the mind of God as surely as if he or she were already born; because God’s plan for them will be absolutely fulfilled in history. God spoke that way about King Cyrus, who allowed the exiled people of Judah to return to their land. Almost a hundred and fifty years before he was born, God spoke of Cyrus by name and said, “He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, ‘You shall be built,’ and to the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’” (Isaiah 44:28). God even says that he had held Cyrus’ “right hand”; long before he was born to have a right hand to hold! (Isaiah 45:1).

So when God speaks of someone “pre-existing”, He is using a figure of speech. But it is a figure for a wonderful reality – that of God’s unfailing purpose for that man or woman. I believe the same principle is at work in the second passage you mentioned – which, by the way, illustrates this principle wonderfully. David praises God and says, “For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them” (Psalm 139:13-16). God “saw” David, being yet unformed; but this “seeing” was in the plan and purpose of a sovereign God. God even wrote all of David’s days, long before those days would be realized in David’s own experience; and those days were as sure as if they had already happened.

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This ought to be a great comfort to us. The God who wonderfully created our bodies, and also our souls, has had us in His plan from before we were born. We can say that we “pre-existed” in His sovereign purpose; forever in His mind, and loved by Him as if we already were, and then eventually brought into being – both body and soul – by His mighty providence and in accordance with His perfect plan, in order to walk in that eternal love. We can say that Jesus actually took our literal sins upon Himself and died for us on the cross, even though we had not yet been born to have committed those sins And even today, as believers, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

This was a great question. Thanks for asking.

In Christ’s love,
Pastor Greg

(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)

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