by James R. Edwards
In the early 1900s a man standing on the deck of a small steamer laboring up the Ogowe river in French Equatorial Africa was pondering if there could be a single ethic valid for all of life. As he beheld the teeming life in the river and primeval forest, he realized that all life wills to live. The “will to live” became for Albert Schweitzer a clue to the meaning of the universe, from which he derived a life-affirming philosophy called “Reverence for Life.”
We share the will to live with all people, no matter who they are, where they are, when they lived, or what they have. We all are heirs of life. With the time, energy, talents and circumstances given to us we seek to live life as fully as possible. Not all people succeed to the same degree, of course, but all people hope to live well, fulfill their goals, be loved and remembered, and if possible, leave something of value to others.
There is no school for life except life itself. Nor can anyone live for us. The New Testament, however, provides several keys to the art and meaning of life contained in the Greek words bios, psyche, and zoe. Each term can be translated as “life,” but they provide three cardinal distinctions about what it means to be human.
Bios: Life as Quantity
The first New Testament word for life is bios. This term best sums up our modern Western understanding of life, but it is the least important term in the New Testament. Bios always refers to life as quantity. It is the easiest kind of life to talk about because it is measurable.
Bios is life in its appearances and manifestations. It is “surface” life, although not necessarily superficial life. It is what we need to keep body and soul together, as we say, although it ultimately fails to do that. The New Testament does not demean bios, but unlike our materialistic West it does not look to it to answer the ultimate questions of life. From Matthew to Revelation there are but ten occurrences of the noun.
Bios often is simply a neutral designation for financial assets, capital, possessions, or property. The poor widow in Mark 12:44 who cast her two lepta into the temple treasury threw in her “whole life.” The woman with the hemorrhage who touched Jesus’ garment in Luke 8:43 is described as having exhausted her “whole life” on physicians. (Surely she was not the last to do so!) The father of the prodigal son divided his bios, his “life,” with his sons (Luke 15:12). Whoever has “the life of the world,” says 1 John 3:17, and hardens his heart in the face of human need cannot say he has the love of God. Finally, Christians are told to pray that they might lead “a quiet and sober life” (1 Tim. 2:2), and soldiers are warned not to get distracted from duty by “daily life” (2 Tim. 2:4).
In each of these passages the word for life is bios, and in none of them is there anything wrong with it. We are not told that bios is bad or unspiritual, or that believers should do without it. Like other creatures, human beings must participate in the quest for food, shelter, comfort and freedom from threats to their existence. That is bios. But equally so, the New Testament does not consider these things “life”. They may create the conditions for life, but they are not life. Bios is to an individual what public works are to a community; police forces and fire departments are necessary, of course, but they do not usually count among the things that produce a “quality of life” in a given community.
In isolated instances, however, bios is used negatively in the New Testament. In the Parable of the Sower Jesus speaks of being “choked by the pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). In 1 John there is a distinct warning: “Because everything in the world, the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but of the world” (2:16). The word for pride in Greek, alazoneia, means pretense, boasting, or gloating in material things, and becomes a clear admonition against the seduction and pursuit of worldliness.
When I was a graduate student I bought my first life insurance policy. The insurance agent asked, “How much are you worth?” I balked at the question because it seemed to reduce my life to a matter of dollars and cents in a bank account. Forbes magazine annually lists the 500 wealthiest individuals and corporations in America. Their names appear solely on the basis of their material assets. How they achieved their fortunes, the value and quality of the goods and services they rendered, or how their profits are spent—these are not mentioned.
We judge entire nations by their gross national product, without consideration of the kind of people who live there, or the customs and values they hold. Colleges accept students on the basis of grade point averages and college entrance examination scores, and coaches recruit players by the average number of points per game. We often hear it said of someone who died relatively young that his or her life was “cut short”—as though the meaning of life depended on its duration.
This mentality often can be seen in Americans traveling abroad. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 I was frequently in East Germany. The drabness and disrepair of the country usually left Americans depressed. But what Americans found depressing was generally only the exterior of the country, its bios. When they got to know the people, and particularly Christians, they usually discovered a strength of character, an uncanny wisdom, and, perhaps most surprising, an indomitable sense of humor—all quite contrary to the gray Communist environment. Bios alone was a poor judge of the society.
The rule of bios is that “more is better.” More pies, better mom; more wins, better coach; higher grades, brighter student; more degrees, more qualified applicant; more friends, better person; bigger church, better minister; more publications, better professor; more votes, better candidate; and above all, more money, more success.
There is an entire book of the Bible dedicated to the problem of bios. Its author simply calls himself Qoheleth, “the Preacher,” or Ecclesiastes in English. The Preacher is plagued by the ambitions of life, the striving after pleasure, wealth, fame, success. They are all futile, he maintains, because the sword of death hangs over life and eventually renders all human accomplishments meaningless.
Ecclesiastes has touched the weakness of bios, for its enemy is time. Someday our youthful figures will be lost, our energies will fade, our terms in office will expire, our books will go out of print, our savings and fortunes will vanish at death—if not by taxes, inflation and inheritances beforehand.
Not frequently God is referred to as the one “who does not look on the face of things.” God, in other words, is impartial and does not judge by external or superficial appearances. If we know anything about God, we know that God does not judge us by “how much we are worth,” to quote the insurance agent. God knows our hearts, God judges not by what we have but by who we are. As soon as we say this we are beyond the realm of bios and into the more important area of life as character, life as a psyche, which will be considered next.
Given the glut of Western materialism, it may be that people will be increasingly attracted to the reserve and balance of the New Testament view of bios. The things of the world and its quantitative judgments are presented neither as status nor standards of judgment in the New Testament. Such things did not furnish a norm of human value, nor were they the frantic chase of existence that they become for us. The New Testament agrees that we cannot live without bios, but it also warns that we ought not live for it. Bios is simply one part of life, like individual talents and abilities, to be made available for God’s purposes. The story of Barnabas selling a field and bringing the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to the needy typifies the early Church’s attitude toward bios: it is God’s possession, of which we are but stewards.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). That truth is easy to forget as we watch television, walk through shopping malls, and leaf through catalogs that come in the mail. We have managed to make ourselves quite comfortable in our earthly sojourn.
In the final analysis the definitive model of bios is the Incarnation. The Word of God chose to dwell in the body and person of Jesus who grew up in Nazareth and made a living as a laborer, and who later moved to Capernaum, called a few followers, healed the sick, preached to large crowds, and so forth. These are descriptions of bios, but they were not the end or the purpose of the Incarnation. They were the means by which the Word of God came to expression and could be apprehended. And so should bios be for us. The Incarnation is the definitive model for our bios, in which Christ would be reflected and through which he would be visible.
Psyche: Life as Quality
The Greek language had other and more important words for life besides bios. One of them was psyche, from which we get the word “psychology.” For each occurrence of bios there are ten of psyche. Psyche is important because it characterizes life, whereas bios simply describes it. Psyche is about the quiddity of life, about its essence rather than its attendant facts, its true nature instead of its accidental properties. Bios is something one has, but psyche is something one is.
If bios asks, “How much?”, psyche asks, “How well?” We learn bios by reading job applications, resumes and obituary columns, but psyche is found in graduation speeches, locker room pep talks, the words of a family at a hospital bedside, wedding vows, and poetry. Bios is the kind of life people strive for in their wage-earning years; psyche is the life displayed by children and the elderly. Psyche is about the inner life of thinking, feeling, willing and choosing that is epitomized by “heart” and “soul”. Psyche is the life of goals, values and commitments—the qualities that constitute character and personhood. If bios is counting the years, psyche is making the years count.
Psyche is an invisible and immeasurable element that, though difficult to describe, is essential to quality. It may be something we recognize without the need or even ability to explain, like the difference between a delightful fragrance and an unpleasant odor, or between art and obscenity. If we can avoid its morbid connotations, death illustrates our point. Imagine a corpse lying in a coffin, a body that looks so much like the person you once knew that you might say it is “sleeping.” But it is not sleeping. It is no longer a person. It lacks that intangible but essential element, “the breath of life.” The Hebrews spoke of this as nephesh, often translated “spirit”; or as lev, the “heart.” The Greeks called it psyche. It is epitomized in Genesis 2:7, the Greek translation of which reads: ”And God formed the human being from the dust of the earth and breathed upon his face the breath of life [psyche], and the human being became a living person [psyche].”
Jesus said that “life [psyche] is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Matt. 6:25). Psyche, in other words, is always more than bios. People refuse to live at the level of bios alone; they inevitably search for meaning. Victor Frankl, a young Viennese psychologist, was deported along with his bride of six months to Auschwitz during the Second World War. His wife perished in the gas chambers the day they arrived. Frankl was consigned to a barracks. Withered by work, deprived of food, clothing, warmth, and space, he saw life degenerate to a savage struggle for survival. But Frankl discovered that even in a concentration camp most people choose life over death. They choose to hope rather than despair, to carry on, to remember the past, to find a way to the future. Those who failed to choose simply died. But survivors found some means to aid them—a photograph hidden under a straw mat, remembrance of a beautiful scene or act of kindness, a memento from a loved one, a verse from the Bible. Often the spark of life was sustained by intangibles. That became Frankl’s message to the world: if people could find a reason to live in Auschwitz, they can find a reason to live in any circumstance. (See Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.)
Most people would sooner part with bios than psyche. They would rather be relieved of their goods, sometimes even life itself, than to be shamed and dishonored, for example. The will to live precedes the means to live; it takes something at the level of psyche to sustain life at the level of bios. This is evident in nature itself. A baby bird falls from its nest. A child takes it home, feeds and waters it, and provides for its biological needs, only to watch it die. Something that the parent bird gives is more important for survival than material provisions. And what is true of animals is even truer of humans. Most of us have known someone dying of cancer, for example, who willed the prolongation of life in order to celebrate a graduation or wedding of loved one, after which they died.
Nowhere is the power of psyche stronger than in children. There is a book of art from the concentration camp at Teresienstadt in Czechoslovakia by children who knew they were dying. On scraps of paper and rags they drew pictures of flowers and green fields, houses with fires in the hearth, blue skies and sunlight, and rainbows. Amidst gruesome bios, the psyche of the children in Teresienstadt broke through in bold color.
As a professor I see something similar emerge from a generation of older students returning to college to complete their education. From age 25 to 75, many from broken homes, broken marriages, broken careers, broken self-images, they struggle against great obstacles “to make something of their lives.”
This defining element of life is psyche. I mentioned that time is the enemy of bios. The enemies of psyche, however, are complacency, indifference, apathy, or busyness. Muscles do not develop without resistance, and neither does character develop apart from trails. Trials do not automatically build character, of course; it depends on our response to them. For most of us the important breakthroughs in self-awareness and grains in character came at points of hardship. The same is true for those individuals who claim your respect as mentors and models: they are usually people who have known adversity and suffering. The poet was right, “Whoso suffers most hath most to give.”
It is our psyche or soul, to use a spiritual term, the command center of personhood, that God wills to claim and transform. The gospel of course makes any number of claims on our bios—our personal ethics, for example, or our use of time, money, or our treatment of the poor. But the fundamental claim of the gospel is on our psyche, from which everything else flows. “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good . . . for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). If the tree is God’s, the fruit will be also. Our psyche is the greatest gift we have to give God, and ultimately the only gift God will accept. If we do not give God who we are, God will not accept what we have. No amount of bios can compensate for the surrender of psyche.
Often we must part with one thing in order to gain another. So it is with psyche. The only way we can preserve it is to surrender it to God. “Whoever would save his psyche will lose it,” said Jesus, “but whoever would lose his psyche for me and the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35). Indeed, only in the surrender of psyche are we granted a greater life, the life of God, zoe. “Whoever loves his life [psyche] loses it,” said Jesus, “and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it to eternal life [zoe]” (John 12:25). God is not unlike a parent trying to teach a child to ride a bicycle. The training wheels that once helped a child stay upright in time frustrate and hinder the child’s progress in riding. The parent must then take a wrench and remove them. It is an awkward and sometimes fearful moment when the child loses the security of the training wheels in order to gain the freedom of a real bicycle.
We are not unlike children. We do not part easily with bios, and less so with psyche. But in adversity we learn what really matters in life. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that it was in the Gulag, the Stalinist horror camps, that he learned the two most important lessons of life: what is in the heart of man, and the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Have we not said, or heard others say, “I hope I never have to go through anything like that again, but I wouldn’t trade what I learned for the world”?
If we make life our chief goal it eludes us. Only if we lose it for something greater do we get it back. Like happiness, life does not come when we make it our main concern. The practice of hedonism often shows that people who put happiness first end up unhappy. Happiness is a by-product of seeking something greater than itself. It is like looking for a faint star in the night sky. You often cannot see anything when you look at the place where the star is supposed to be. But move your eye a few degrees from the spot and you will see more than when you were looking directly at it. So it is with life. Only in the surrender of our psyche to Jesus Christ can we preserve it. Only in giving up what we have and what we are for what we might become do we receive, by God’s grace, the eternal life of zoe.
Zoe: Life as Quintessence
We have considered bios as life as quantity, and psyche as life as quality. Bios is life that we have, psyche is life that we are, or perhaps that which we make of what we have. All people participate in bios and psyche simply by being human. All people develop character and become persons as well. By its very nature life launches us on a quest for meaning and personhood, and this we call psyche.
The New Testament also speaks of a third kind of life, zoe. Zoe is the life that characterizes God, and also the life that God wills to share with his people. It is the most important of the three words for life in the New Testament. The source of zoe is God alone, which makes zoe quintessential life, God-intended existence. Zoe is unimpaired life, the divine genetic code imparted to creation itself. Since it bears the integrity of the one God, zoe does not appear in the plural form. God is never identified by bios in the New Testament, nor even by psyche. Whenever the New Testament speaks of God’s life it uses zoe.
Since zoe is unique to God, we do not inherit it in the same way we do the other kinds of life. As humans we come packaged, so to speak, with bios and psyche, but we must receive zoe from God. It is possible to live and die without knowing the third kind of life, for zoe comes only as a gift by faith. This is not to say that bios and psyche are not gifts of God as well. They are, although until we receive the God-life of zoe we do not fully recognize them as such. Those who receive the God-life gain a new perspective that bios and psyche also come from God, and that we are indebted to love and serve God with them with all our labors and all our heart (Eph. 6:6, Col. 3:23).
Just as people are ultimately dissatisfied by bios, so too are they discontent to live for psyche alone. In his famous prayer, St. Augustine confessed, “O God, you have created us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This longing for a fuller dimension of life lies at the root of one of the classical arguments for the existence of God. Based on the nature of God, the ontological argument begins with humanity’s inveterate sense for a more complete life than bios or psyche afford. The existence of a longing for God that cannot be accounted for in the phenomenal world, continues the argument, must itself be a residue or vestige of something beyond this world, pointing to the existence of God.
At creation God imparted his nature, his zoe, into humanity. Genesis 2 depicts God compacting the earth (Hebrew, adamah) into the form of a human (Hebrew, adam), and breathing his own life into it to create a living being. God’s breath of life is rendered as zoe in Greek, and the person created as psyche. The garden where Adam and Eve originally lived was ruled by God as well, for at its center was the “tree of life” [zoe]. These sublime images signify that God intends humanity to share in his life—and that one cannot experience life as God created it without doing so.
But just as bios and psyche have their enemies, so too does zoe. Unlike the enemy of bios in time and of psyche in complacency, the enemy of zoe is sin, a knowing disobedience of God’s will and willful resistance to the divine pattern. In unforgettable pathos Genesis 3 narrates the first and formative transgression of the created order. As far as we can tell, at creation God ordained that humanity would evolve in unbroken progression from bios and psyche to full communion with himself in zoe. That intention was broken, however, when a conscious act of rebellion on the part of humanity caused it to be separated from God’s original purpose. From that point on humanity forfeited zoe, the quintessence and crown of existence, but not without a vestigial knowledge and longing for it. In contrast to the original integrity of zoe, the chief characteristic of life after Eden is its dividedness between good and evil, pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and hate, peace and war. Like Moses, humanity stands on a lonely summit in sight of the promised land, but unable to enter.
The Bible does not regard the trial in Eden as a “coming of age,” as modern psychology is wont to view it, but as a fateful and disastrous fall from a sublime dimension of existence. The flaming sword before Eden symbolizes that paradise cannot be reclaimed by mortals, that apart from a second imparting of the divine life, humanity has no share in zoe.
It is precisely this second chance, the recovery of zoe in Jesus Christ, that is heralded in the New Testament. Through obedience to the divine will the Son of God won for humanity what it had lost through disobedience. Paradise had been regained, as Milton put it. The life of God is uniquely present and active in the Son of God: “This is eternal life, that they might know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent” (John 17:3). Since zoe is of God, and in the resurrection of Jesus it defeated the last enemy of death, zoe is immortal. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that zoe is everywhere linked to Jesus Christ, and frequently characterized by “eternal.” “This is the testimony,” declares 1 John, “that God gave to us eternal life [zoe], and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has this life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have this life” (5:11-12).
Consider the meaning of this verse: “We were buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the father, so also shall we walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). The word for life here is zoe, the God-life that comes as a gift by faith. Here the Apostle Paul teaches that zoe is mediated to us only through Christ, and that it begins to take effect not after death but already in this life.
Perhaps we can illustrate this by considering the resurrection. The gospel promises that Christians will be raised or resurrected after they die. But what will there be to resurrect? Surely God has no interest in bringing our spiteful tongues, biting envy, acrid bitterness, our callousness and indifference, our selfishness, violence, hatred and wars, and above all, our self-justifications of all these things into his eternal and holy presence. Such things have no part in zoe, and there will be no place for them in heaven. If these constitute our lives there will be nothing to resurrect—and everything to damn.
Some Christians assume that when we die everything will change and we will instantly become creatures of light. That is a fantasy. Why would you want God to do something after you die that you refused to allow him to do while you are alive? Resurrection is not magic. It is a transforming of something already present in earthly existence to a higher plane, a fuller, unfettered realm of freedom and love; it is the transplanting of a struggling sprout from the leached ground of this world to the rich loam of the world to come where it can bear fruit forever. What is the “something” that must be present now, even if only weak and incomplete, that will be transformed and transplanted later? It is zoe, the God-life that comes to believers by faith.
This provides a clue why the New Testament speaks in uncompromising terms about the “dying” (or even the “killing”) of the old person of bios and psyche in order to be raised “to walk in newness of life.” As Paul says, “whenever Christ is manifested, who is your life, then also you will be manifested with him in glory” (Col. 3:4). The expressed correlation of the Christ-life, zoe, with your life is the reason why Christians speak of the necessity of Jesus for salvation. There is no possibility of salvation apart from Jesus Christ because it is by the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth that God overcomes human sin and reestablishes zoe, the God-life in the world. Whenever anyone repents of willful resistance to God’s will and turns to Jesus Christ in faith, God implants the seed of anew life within the God-life of zoe that nurtures one in daily life, and that bears witness to the world. In contract to the natural life of bios and psyche, zoe alone is eternal, and it is zoe that God will resurrect and complete in the last day.
The New Testament thus teaches that there are three possible realms or dimensions of life, not three separate compartments of life. Zoe does not exist simply alongside bios and psyche. Rather, it infuses them and transforms daily existence itself into the sphere of God’s compassion and concern, and the means of his glory. In every dimension of existence—bios, psyche and zoe—we are indebted to love and serve God. “Whatever you do in word or in deed, do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). •
James R. Edwards is Professor of Religion, Jamestown College, Jamestown, North Dakota, and a minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!
Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!
Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access for only $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!
Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.
*Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.
from the touchstone online archives