As the overturning of Roe v. Wade brings a renewed urgency to conversations surrounding abortion, it is important to be precise about the language we use in these discussions. A thoughtful Twitter thread by David Dzimianski brings attention to a key distinction that is often overlooked: “Pro-lifers say ‘Life begins at conception’ but what they mean is ‘Full human personhood is realized at conception.’ These are two utterly different discussions.” Dzimianski then points to both philosophy and theology’s ambiguity on the question of when full personhood is realized, arguing, “While we rightly hold that there is value in even the possibility of personhood, possibility must carry less weight in our legislation than actual objective personhood.”[1] If we must weigh one against another, Dzimianski argues, the ethical claim of the pregnant person is greater than that of the unborn.

Dzimianski does well to draw our attention to the freighted phrase, “Life begins at conception.” Clearly such statements appeal to the sacredness of human life specifically, and, as Dzimianski notes, they carry unstated assumptions of full personhood. In what follows, I will consider one of the assumptions that might be behind such a statement—the idea that a “soul” is present at conception. Because the idea of consciousness is difficult to posit at conception, if pressed, many pro-lifers might turn instead to the idea of a soul, perhaps believing that this is a tenet of Christian doctrine. It is not my intention to argue for or against this idea per se, but I do want to argue that the idea of a “soul” is not nearly so straightforward in Christian theology as one might suppose. The Christian tradition is not united on what it means to have a soul or, indeed, whether you have one at all. (Please forgive the excessively broad strokes of what follows and consider this an invitation for further investigation of your own!)

Early Christian theologians drew on the competing influences of Hebrew Scriptures and Greek philosophical traditions to construct their anthropology. Benjamin P. Blosser explains that the Hebrew term nefesh, translated to psuchē in the Septuagint and usually rendered “soul” in English Bibles, “is better understood in terms of ‘life principle’, i.e. the totality of consciousness, bodily life.”[2] Blosser argues that the Hebrew Scriptures “exclude any kind of soul-body dualism, or even a theoretical recognition of something like an ‘immortal soul’ distinct from the body.” Central to the concern of the text is the place of the human person within their community, especially the “larger religious history” of the community.[3]

For their part, Greek philosophical traditions—themselves a hot mess of conflicting ideas—offered the idea of a separable, immaterial soul,[4] and thereby a body/soul dualism, to Christianity. However, this dualism did not necessarily entail the soul=good/body=bad Gnosticism that early Christian writers argued against so vehemently. As Sophie Cartwright writes, “Soul/body issues were now also shaped by a commitment to bodily resurrection (as diversely interpreted), the incarnation and the goodness of creation.”[5] Although the human person was generally understood by the patristics to be made up of body and soul (with a third element, such as spirit [psuchē] or mind [mens/nous], sometimes added), exactly what this looked like or how these elements were understood to relate to each other differed. The patristics frequently turned to the union of body and soul as a way of explicating (imperfectly) the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ’s person.[6] In other words, body and soul were understood to be integrally united, like Christ’s natures.

Early Christians held a variety of theories as to how and when souls might begin. In traducianism, the soul is understood to be generated naturally through biological processes. Your soul is, in a sense, inherited from your parents, just as your body is.[7] Another theory was that our souls were pre-existent, possibly hanging out in heaven until being joined with our bodies (the 2020 Pixar movie Soul plays with this kind of idea).[8] And finally, the theory that arose in the fourth century out of “intellectual desperation”[9] was creationism: “the belief that each soul is created immediately by God in the womb.”[10] As Blosser explains, this theory sits uneasily with the idea of original sin (which is supposedly inherited biologically), a difficulty that Augustine found vexing but was unable to satisfactorily resolve.[11] Despite this inconsistency, creationism became the dominant theory. 

Christian theology continued to hold to a body/soul conception of the human person through to the modern era. Medieval theologians understood the soul to have a variety of qualities borrowed from the Creator: the soul was immaterial, indivisible, simple, immortal, eternal. However, in modernity, this anthropology began to shift. Instead of envisioning a soul that had substance of its own, philosophers began to understand personhood in terms of a “self” or “consciousness.”[12] English philosopher John Locke represents one of the major shifts in this direction. Unlike some other thinkers of his time, Locke retained his Christian faith and was very concerned with the implications of this philosophy for theology and ethics. Without a concept of a substantial soul, how could someone’s identity be maintained across the dissolution and reassembling of matter that would need to take place in the resurrection, such that they could stand before the Judgment Throne of God?[13] In light of these concerns, Locke began to consider new ways of assigning identity across time, such as consciousness and memory. Locke was also the first to suggest that perhaps “matter might think.”[14] Although Locke himself did not take this idea to its end, he prepared the way for other thinkers to consider that consciousness itself could be “an emergent property” of matter.[15]

As philosophers have continued to rethink aspects of human personhood in a variety of ways—such as emphasizing the material conditions that we are born into as definitive for the self (Marx and Engels) or the ethical demand of the Other as constituting the self (Levinas)—many Christian theologians have borrowed from and developed these insights in turn. For example, theologian Rowan Williams understands the human person as “consciousness” that is both embodied and relational.[16] He finds the idea of an “independent soul” as inadequate “language” for describing human personhood.[17]

Hopefully, this very brief sketch of a few of the contours of Christian theological anthropology shows just how provisional Christian theology of the human person has been throughout history. I would argue that there are four fixed points for a Christian anthropology—a) that each human being is created in the image of God (imago Dei), b) that God took on our humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, thereby granting even more sacredness to human (embodied) existence, c) that we look forward to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, and d) that each human being is beloved. Anchored in these essentials, Christians can and should critique conceptions of what it means to be a human person and the very real implications these hold for the life we share in common, while also acknowledging that Christian theology has room for multiple conceptions of the human person that remain faithful to the Christian witness.

So: Do we have souls at conception? Do we have “souls” at all? I suggest that neither answer is definitively given in the Christian tradition. And as we continue to have high-stakes conversations about the ethical intricacies surrounding abortion, it is worth carefully examining the assumptions that may lie beneath the terms being used.  

Image: Ein Sterbender empfielt seine Seele Gott (A dying man commends his soul to God) by Meister von Heiligenkreuz


[1] David Dzimianski (@DavidDzimianski), Twitter thread, June 27, 2022, https://twitter.com/DavidDzimianski/status/1541402246327443456.

[2] Benjamin P. Blosser, “The Ensoulment of the Body in Early Christian Thought,” in A History of Mind and Body in Late Antiquity, ed. Anna Marmodoro and Sophie Cartwright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018): 207–223, 208.

[3] Blosser, 208, italics removed.

[4] Blosser, 210. Blosser notes that this is Plato’s contribution, rather than the other Greek schools (209–210).

[5] Sophie Cartwright, “Soul and Body in Early Christianity: An Old and New Conundrum,” in A History of Mind and Body in Late Antiquity, ed. Anna Marmodoro and Sophie Cartwright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018): 173–190, 173–174.

[6] Brian E. Daley, “Nature and the ‘Mode of Union’: Late Patristic Models for the Personal Unity of Christ,” in The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God, edited by Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, SJ, and Gerald O’Collins, SJ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 4–9.

[7] Blosser, 207, 212.

[8] Blosser, 207.

[9] Blosser, 216.

[10] Blosser, 207.

[11] Blosser, 222–223.

[12] Raymond Martin and John Barresi, Naturalization of the Soul: Self and Personal Identity in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2000), 15–22.

[13] Martin and Barresi, 13–14, 18.

[14] Martin and Barresi, 50.

[15] Martin and Barresi, 52.

[16] Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 36–38, 52–53.

[17] Williams, 46.

2 thoughts

  1. Well said. Clear and fair. This is an important discussion, with implications beyond the abortion issue. If we do not have souls — and there is no evidence that we do — then who or what would survive our physical deaths?

    1. It’s a good question! As I mentioned, Locke wrestled with this, as well, and turned to the idea of consciousness or memory as a way of understanding personhood across time and death. I don’t have a definitive answer to the question (I don’t think there is one), but I would suggest that a Christian response should be framed within the four anchor points I mentioned. Specifically, I think a Christian response needs to hold fast to a belief in the resurrection of the body. Jesus’s body is transformed at the resurrection, but his wounds that remain make it clear that there is continuity as well as discontinuity in the resurrection process. He is the same person both before and after his physical death. I also think we need to hold to a belief in our belovedness. Although we don’t fully know or understand what lies on the other side of death, we are assured that neither life nor death will separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus (Romans 8).

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