Do Plants have Souls?

I just got home from church. We have bible studies at church on Monday nights. Today's topic was on the book of James 3:13-18. The discussion lead to the body, spirit and soul of a person and the body and soul of an animal. By definition in a dictionary it says that whatever has life has a soul, what about plants? They have life, they breath, so can you help me? Another question is what is the soul? What is the difference between soul and spirit?

The passage in James speaks of two kinds of wisdom –earthly wisdom versus spiritual wisdom. Often times we find that earthly wisdom chooses to define that which it does not understand and hence complicates the answer with inaccurate information.

The question you have comes from the Apostle Paul's understanding of human life versus the life of all creation. In 1 Corinthians 15:39 he teaches that the physical substance of all flesh differs in the species created by God: All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish. This would indicate that there could also be a difference between the life man has versus the life of animals and plants. This concept is verified in the creation account in Genesis. In chapter 1, God created animals and plants to be “living” creatures. The Hebrew for this life is the word “chay" which signifies “raw life.” In Genesis 1:26-27 the life man receives is patterned after God: Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. In Genesis 2:7, we are told that the difference is the “breath of life.” Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. The Hebrew word describing man’s life is not “chay” but “chay nephesh” Hence we conclude that there is a difference in the kind of life lived by mankind versus the kind of life lived by animals and plants.

This difference is determined by that part created in God’s image. Since God is an eternal being, reason states that man is an eternal being. By observation, we know the human body is not eternal and, like all physical things, it ages, dies, and decomposes. Hence, there must be something else about human life that is eternal which shall never cease to exist. We have always referred to this as the “soul.” However, this concept is a bit complicated. There are two words used in the Bible, especially the New Testament, which refer to this concept. One is “psuche” translated “soul” and the other is “pneuma” translated “spirit.” Occasionally “pneuma” is translated “breath.” This is why we call fluid in the lungs “pneumonia” as it affects our ability to breathe.

This concept of “breathing” is shared with plant and animal life. Animals take in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. They require gaseous oxygen to live. Plants take in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. While gaseous carbon dioxide is preferable, they can survive in a dormant state while immersed in water. In Genesis 6:17 God destroyed all animal life: "Behold, I, even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life, from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall perish." We are told in Genesis 7:15 that “all flesh in which was the breath of life” entered the ark with Noah. Plant life was not included. This shows us the basic difference between plant and animal life and contributes some to the understanding about the soul.

However, there remains a difference between this shared form of life with animals and the life of human beings. Consider the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here he tells us that in addition to the physical body there is also a “spirit” (pneuma) and a “soul” (psuche). Throughout the Bible, we are constantly reminded that man consists of two things: a material substance (the body) and an immaterial substance (the soul). Perhaps the best known example of this concept is in Matthew 10:28, "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." 1 Corinthians 5:3 and 3 John 2 also indicate this dual nature. Yet the part we refer to as the soul is indeed two things also – the pneuma and the psuche. These are so closely tied together in the human being as to be indistinguishable from each other. That there is indeed a difference between the psuche and the pneuma is understood from Hebrews 4:12 where we are taught that the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul (psuche) and spirit (pneuma), of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

We can conclude several things from these points. First, all creation shares one thing in common – a perishable body. Second, there are different forms of living beings – animals and mankind. Third, the difference between animals and mankind is the nature of our soul. An animal has a life force called “chay” but a human being has a life force called “chay nephesh.” Our life force is eternal, but an animal’s life force is not.

There is one final point to recognize about our soul. This eternal life force houses our intellect, our being, and our personality. It is what we actually are. Numbers 16:22; Zechariah 12:1; 1 Corinthians 2:11; and Hebrews 12:9 all show this aspect of us being contrasted with God’s spirit.

We conclude the following from these scriptures. First, there are two common elements shared by human and animal: a physical part called the body and a life force that animates the body. Second, the life force in humans is superior to that of animals. An animal has a certain amount of intelligence, but cannot compete with that of a human being. An animal’s life force will eventually expire. A human being’s is eternal. This difference can only be explained by God who tells us that that which we share with animals has been upgraded to that which is the very image of God.

You are an eternal being. You had a beginning, but you will never cease to exist. The question that each of us must answer is, Where we will spend eternity? Will we live forever in heaven or suffer eternally in hell. As the Apostle Paul affirmed, Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death (Roman 7:25-8:2).

David Baker

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