The soul is a concept used primarily by people of faith. It is the part of us that continues to live eternally after death. It animates the body and is the seat of consciousness and willpower. A body cannot live without a soul. It can also be described as energy which, according to modern physics, cannot be destroyed but can only change form.
The belief in a soul separates believers from atheists who deny its existence and consequently life after death. For them, life is solely related to the physical body even though that does not explain consciousness, why or how life, much less anything at all, exists. An illustration of this is when a new human being comes into existence at conception. Scientists can only observe and describe the process. The deeper questions lie outside the realm of scientific knowledge because humans cannot create life. We are only conduits for it. God is the Author of life and the eternal Creator of everything including physical laws.
The Bible speaks about the soul right away in Genesis. There are two creation accounts that some think are different stories while others believe that the second story is an elaboration of the first. Here I will focus on the second story in Genesis 2:7. It says, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
In transliteration “a living soul” is nephesh hayyah. Hayyah means “living” and nephesh means “soul.” It also refers to personality or desire which are aspects of the soul.
God created Adam’s body first and he came to life once Yahweh breathed the eternal soul into his nostrils. We can see how the soul causes the body to live in 1 Kings 17:21-22. Here Yahweh heard the prayer of Elijah pleading for the “soul” of a child to return after he had died. God answered his prayer and the nephesh came back to the body of the boy and he was alive again.
In the first creation story man and woman are created in God’s image and He decided to let humans govern all animals. But it also tells us that animals have a soul. In Genesis 1:30 it reads,
And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.
This describes animals having hayyah (life). However, in the Hebrew it also has the word nephesh in combination with hayyah, which is the exact same wording as the description of the soul in the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7. In other words, though nephesh is only translated as “life” here, the Hebrew speaks of the soul. Animals thus have a nephesh hayyah just like Adam.
Nephesh hayyah is also used to describe all the sea animals and flying creatures Yahweh created in Genesis 1:20-21. Genesis 1:24 says that cattle, creeping things, and beasts also have a nephesh hayyah, as well as fish in Leviticus 11:10.
If people dismiss the idea of animals having a soul because the Bible does not explicitly depict God breathing the soul into animals, like He did with Adam, we could argue that women do not have a soul either since it does not say that God breathed the nephesh into Eve.
The Bible is riddled with passages where animals, as well as nature, praise God. You can find it in the Psalms, Isaiah, and the Book of Revelation among many places. It suggests that all of God’s creation are aware of God.
An illustration of this is the story of Balaam’s donkey. It demonstrates that animals are far more than soul-less animated beings. Balaam is called the “wicked prophet” because, though he knew God, he betrayed Him. The king of Moab asked Balaam to go and pronounce curses over Israel in return for money. Balaam was unable to fulfill that order because Yahweh had blessed Israel. Eventually he found a roundabout way to invoke God’s anger against Israel by enticing Israel to sin. However, while on his assignment, Balaam rides his donkey when she—the donkey—sees the angel of the LORD standing in the way. Three times the donkey had to sidestep the angel and each time Balaam hit her because he could not see the angel. Then Yahweh “opened the mouth of the donkey” (Num. 22:28) and she asked Balaam what she had done for him to hit her. Balaam answered that she made a mockery of him. Then he said that if he had a sword, he would kill her. The donkey responds that Balaam has ridden her all his life and asked if she had ever acted like that before. Balaam answered “no” (Num. 22:30). Then Yahweh opened Balaam’s eyes and he was able to see the angel of the LORD with a sword in his hand. Balaam bowed down and fell on his face. The angel of the LORD asked why he struck the donkey three times and said that he came to stand in his way because his way was perverse “before me” (as the angel is a representation of Yahweh), (Num. 22:32). He proceeded to say that, “If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.” (Num. 22:33).
Note here that the donkey could see the angel of the LORD without God opening her eyes, unlike Balaam. This implies that animals, arguably because of their innocence, can see the spirit world all the time. Humans can only do so when God makes an exception just as it was an exception for the donkey to speak in human language. Most of all, this illustrates the ignorance of the human, Balaam, rather than the donkey. He wanted to kill the donkey only to find out that she had saved his life. The angel of the LORD even specified that he would have killed Balaam, but not the donkey, had the donkey not avoided the angel (Num. 22:33). In other words, Yahweh defended the life of an animal before a human who was in the wrong.
The soul endows the body with a personality, willpower and intelligence and we can see all these traits in this donkey. Once this donkey could speak in the human tongue she even reasoned with Balaam. We already know that animals communicate with each other and humans, just via their own languages.
Animals are also part of the coming kingdom of God. Isaiah 11:6-9 says,
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
Animals did not transgress any commandment in the Garden of Eden, save the serpent who was the embodiment of the devil. Consequently, they were not punished and will not be subject to God’s last judgment. Hence, Paradise belongs to them. If eating continues in heaven Isaiah’s prophecy indicates a return to vegetarianism the way it was in the Garden of Eden for humans and animals before death was introduced. Animals were not originally created as a source of food but to keep Adam company (Gen. 2:9,16-20).
One instance where the content of the story tells us that animals have a soul is God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants. Yahweh laid down the (rain) bow, which was the sign of a warrior, as a promise to never flood the earth again. However, He also made this covenant with all the animals. In fact, He made it between Him and the entire earth (Gen. 9:13). Why would God make a covenant with any entity or being that does not have consciousness, which is a trait of the soul? A covenant is a two-way affair.
Does this suggest that not only humans and animals have a soul? Or could it be that some things are alive without having a soul such as plants? Or perhaps some things have a soul without being alive such as mountains and water. We do not know. It unambiguously states though that both animals and humans have a soul—meaning they all live on after death.
Only humans ate from the Tree of knowledge of good and evil which, alongside being created in the image of God, separates us from the rest of creation. This does not mean that good and evil are not present in the animal kingdom or that animals are unintelligent—they are not. They follow instincts and do not know the distinction between good and evil consciously in the way we do because they never ate the forbidden fruit in Eden. They are affected by the fall but remain in a state of innocence.
Jesus’ death is significant to animals, not just humans. He replaced and ended all future practice of animal sacrifice by symbolically becoming the sacrificial lamb—once and for all—when he was crucified at Passover. Yahweh had already expressed that sacrifice meant nothing if there was no righteousness. The prophet Amos (5:21) spoke on behalf on behalf of God and said, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
This is what God wants from us: righteousness and justice.
Some say that people in Biblical times did not have pets and therefore did not view them as we do today. This oversimplifies things. People who had farm animals and used them to travel also had a relationship with them just like people do today. The story of Balaam’s donkey is one illustration in the Bible and Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalus is another example from Biblical times. Cats in ancient Egypt were domesticated and highly revered and in India cows were, and still are, sacred. Horses are one of the most important animals in history and they play an important role in the Book of Revelation. They are featured in Revelation 6:1-8 carrying the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. In what is commonly understood as Jesus’ second coming (chapter 19) he returns riding on a white horse and is followed by his army who also rides white horses while clad in white linen (v. 14) to signify purity. Horses carried warriors and in Revelation it serves as a contrast to when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Contrary to popular belief that this was a sign of meekness and humility, it was the sign of kingship and riding in the name of peace. Horses, as well as donkeys, were not just a feature in the Bible like a piece of clothing. They are co-warriors in the coming Apocalypse, co-workers on farms, and in this way companions, living up to the original purpose God gave them during creation. We cannot be companions with someone who does not have a soul.
Jesus described Yahweh as the God who knows every little detail about His entire creation. In Matthew 10:29 Jesus said,
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.”
God’s final consent for life and death even includes every little sparrow. A tiny common bird may be sold for next to nothing at a marketplace but is anything but nothing to our Father in heaven. God loves every life He has created: they are all priceless. That is the message.
Again, the Bible reveals that animals have a soul, God loves them, and they will all be a part of the coming kingdom of God as they are not subject to the final judgment like humans. Most of all, animals do not only show traits like loyalty and intelligence, but they also love. They love life, their offspring, mates, friends, and sometimes humans and you cannot love without knowing God because God is love (1 John 4:8).
I will conclude with a passage from Job which is one of the most powerful books in the Bible. Job declares God’s omnipotence and says in 12:7-10,
“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.”
In the very last sentence the word “life” is in Hebrew nephesh while “breath” is ruah. It verifies, yet again, that animals have a soul. Most of all, it tells us that all animals know more than many humans about the one thing that matters the most: all life comes from God and our lives are in His hands, and His hands alone. We have a lot to learn from animals.