Sole Mates: Greek Philosophical vs. Biblical Concepts of Love
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Greek mythology and philosophy have had a profound influence on Western civilization, shaping everything from our idea of the location of the soul and our concept of hell, to our understanding of love. But Greek philosophy often conflicts with biblical theology, so as engrained as Greek thought is in our culture, we must be careful to not accept unbiblical ideas as sacrosanct truth. While the New Testament uses the Greek language to communicate different categories of love (agape, eros, storge, and philia), the Greek concept of marriage is actually quite foreign to the biblical texts and teaching and adopting it can be quite devastating to both individuals and marriages.
In Plato's Symposium, he summarizes the popular Greek origin myth of humanity which has long shaped our search for a spouse with the concept of the soulmate:
“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”
While the idea that men and women used to be a single being hasn't aged well, the concept of there being a single being in the universe who can "complete you" certainly has. Today, a full 60% of Americans believe in the concept of soulmates while only 23% do not, and of course storytellers throughout history have also used and promoted this idea to capture the hearts and imagination of countless romantics yearning for Mr. or Mrs. right. But is there any truth to this idea or is it just another trope of fiction? To answer that, we must look at the biblical principles surrounding marriage, love, and free will.
Certainly at first glance, the account in Genesis could appear to support the idea of "the one" for you in marriage. As Eve was created specifically as Adam's helpmate, it would be easy to simply conclude that all men have to search for their own "missing rib" in the world to complete them. But to do so would require one to ignore the rest of scripture on the matter. A much better reading of the creation account would acknowledge that Adam and Eve were only "the one" for each other due to the fact that there were no other options as the human population consisted of a grand total of two people at the time. Their children would have had a few more options in a spouse as the Jewish historian Josephus records that tradition ascribes 33 sons and 23 daughters to Adam and Eve. Regardless, once the earth was fairly populated due to God's command to humanity to be fruitful and multiply, the process of selecting a marriage partner would have looked a bit different than the early days of creation. It should be noted that marrying siblings or close relatives was not outlawed by God until His covenant with Israel under Moses in Leviticus 18:6-18 due to an increase risk of recessive genetic defects by that point in history.
But the rest of the biblical texts offer little to support the idea that there is only one person God has selected or created for each individual as a suitable mate. First of all, that would undermine the major biblical theme of free will and adopt a much more fatalistic and deterministic worldview. While Calvinists would certainly have an easier time reconciling the soulmate concept with their theology due to their more fatalistic leanings, the majority of the church worldwide leans more Arminian in their concept of man's free will. Without getting into that age-old debate though as I don't believe God's omniscience and man's free will are mutually exclusive, let's look at some biblical marriage practices and norms which might shed some light on this issue.
First of all, we should note that God's declaration of His design and intent for marriage found in Genesis, and reiterated multiple times in the New Testament, states, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a prescription of a process of two becoming one through the covenant and consummation of holy matrimony, not two already being one and simply finding their soulmate. Keep in mind that in scripture, both arranged marriages and "love" marriages are condoned, so how exactly one should go about finding their supposed soulmate isn't prescribed. But regardless of which method you believe to be more successful in producing good marriages, the statistical chances of success in finding "the one" are slim considering that in a world of around 8 billion people, 195 countries, and over 17,000 different people groups, it's the proverbial needle in a haystack—and most people don't even look beyond their local haystacks. How do you know that your soulmate wasn't born on the other side of the world? Are you certain they were born around the same time you were? How can you be sure they're "the one?" While the notion of a soulmate sounds romantic in theory, it's highly problematic in practice. Just consider the enormous logistical implications—if just one person marries someone else's soulmate, it creates a domino effect which screws up fate for an enormous swath of the population.
Furthermore, scripture warns that you can become one with a person whom you have even non-committal sexual relations with—hardly an argument for the concept of a soulmate.
Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, “The two shall become one flesh.” -1 Co 6:16 (NASB)
More sand in the gears of fate and soulmates would be the fact that God commanded widows to be taken care of by wedding them to the next of kin. Which man was her true soulmate? Were several men completely without a soulmate and therefore had to wait in line until their relative died? How would they know that ahead of time? The Sadducees tried to trap Jesus with a similar question in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.
“Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother as next of kin shall marry his wife, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; and the first married and died, and having no children, he left his wife to his brother. It was the same also with the second brother, and the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had her in marriage.” -Mat 22:24-28
Jesus' answer was quite shocking—she would be the wife of none of them because marriage is a temporal relationship which is ultimately superseded by our perfect relationship with God in eternity. You see, the idea of a soulmate is actually a rather dangerous one as it produces an expectation that your spouse will complete you. This desire and expectation ultimately will lead to disappointment, disillusionment, and likely divorce as it attempts to achieve through a flawed man or woman what only a perfect God can do—heal the aching human heart. In effect, this concept makes an idolater of you and a false god of your spouse, drawing both into the inevitably resulting hurts, wounds, and bitterness which will destroy your marriage. A spouse is a type and shadow, but the ultimate fulfillment is God—our true bridegroom and the only one who can fix our broken soul.
I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Rom 8:38-39
The biblical concept of eros love is not that a spouse completes you, but that they compliment you. God's design for man and woman was that they would help one another with complimentary strengths and giftings. It was sin which caused brokenness in humanity and all creation, so it is only a sinless savior who can reconcile us to the Father. In biblical terms, in order to be whole, man needs to find his redeemer, not his rib.
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” -Gen 2:18
An unhealthy focus on a spouse as a surrogate savior not only will result in unhealthy marriages, but also unhealthy relationships in general. Rather than allowing God to be our all in all and His agape love creating our sense of identity and fueling our capacity to love others, a focus on eros love to fulfill that role will ultimately lead to stunted relational growth and maturity. As our spouse's love isn't perfect, isn't limitless, and isn't unconditional, it's a rather shallow well to draw our identity from. Furthermore, as we look for a soulmate to complete us, it tends to idolize the romantic relationship at the expense of all other relationships. The reality is that we cannot get all of our physical, spiritual, and emotional needs met in one person. We need healthy relationships outside of the marriage in order to produce a healthy marriage. Without a significant infrastructure of peer and mentor relationships in our lives, we will be ill-equipped to succeed in a romantic relationship and the marriage will become more and more ingrown and unhealthy.
This pursuit of eros as a counterfeit of agape is similar to the characteristics of a cult. Both will idolize an individual and worship them, and both will either result in or require the devotee to withdraw from family and friends in order to fully focus on the object of one's worship. Using eros as a foundation for one's life will result in isolation and loneliness as it directs one's attention and energy inward and focuses on relational exclusivity. In contrast, basing one's life on God's agape results in a healthy and complete identity which allows our cup to overflow and be shared with others, producing healthy marriages, families, and friendships. Though quite controversial in the church, I would go as far as saying that a healthy marriage also at least allows, if not requires, healthy cross-sex friendships. For a great introduction to that discussion, I highly recommend Jonalyn Fincher's talk at Biola University.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. -1 Co 13:4-7
The broader problem of our cultural focus on eros love is that it is understood as a matter of the heart, or more specifically, a matter of emotions and feelings. Biblically, love is not merely a feeling, but a choice, a decision, and a commitment—a matter of the will. Feelings are fleeting and the heart is fickle, but according to scripture, love endures and according to Jesus, love isn't just a choice, but a command.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” -John 13:34
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? -Jer 17:9
The idea of a soulmate implies there is a single special someone out there who you will instantly and uniquely connect with and fall in love with. That phrase itself implies that love is a force of nature like gravity which we have no control over. That idea is actually detrimental to the practice of love and directly contributes to people giving up on their marriage as well as a host of other relationships due to being led by feelings. But love is a choice, made by free will, not something that happens to us. We choose to love God, we choose to love our friends, we choose to love our enemies, and we choose to love our spouse. Who we choose to love is up to us, not up to God, fate, or destiny. We choose our god, we choose our friends, and we choose our spouse.
But while the concept of a soulmate isn't biblical or beneficial, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be wise in choosing a spouse. There may not be one single Mr. or Mrs. right, but there are clearly a plethora of Mr. or Mrs. wrongs. Scripture warns of being unequally "yoked" (2 Co 6:14), using the imagery of two oxen pulling a plow alongside one another. If the beasts of burden are not equal in their strength and endurance, the plow will deviate from a straight path. This was a warning against marrying an unbeliever, but the principle applies within the body of Christ as well.
While single people tend to focus on physical attraction, chemistry, personality, and other such qualities, equally important are factors such as calling and spiritual maturity. Like the oxen's strength and endurance, if two believers don't share similar or compatible callings, they will struggle to keep the marriage heading in a straight path as they each attempt to pull in a different direction. Likewise, if they do not have a similar level of spiritual maturity, one will bear the bulk of the burden and struggle under the yoke of marriage, pulling the plow as well as the other ox.
I have witnessed this dynamic many times within the context of ministry. A young person feels called to missions and wants to come on staff and go to the field so after their training, they return home to tie up loose ends and fund raise. Lo and behold, when they return home they meet someone who catches their eye and they get sidetracked with a romantic relationship. My advice to them is always the same—if you feel called to missions and your romantic interest does not, do not even think about pursuing that relationship, regardless of how spiritually mature they are. The outcome is always the same—a failure to pursue the calling of missions. Because when two become one, two must live in one location and the calling of the comfort and convenience of home always wins out. When two are unequally yoked, one gets dragged along by the other, sacrificing their dreams, vision, and calling, often causing bitterness and resentment which then sows the seeds of destruction in their marriage.
Scripture does not teach the idea that there is one person out there for you, it teaches that the person you choose becomes the one. God honors your free will and binds you to your spouse through holy matrimony—a covenant relationship bound by God and witnessed by all who attend the ceremony. That covenant is then sealed by the consummation of that relationship on the wedding night and from that day on, that relationship is exclusive, until death do you part. Monogamy is exclusively taught in scripture as it protects the sanctity of the marriage, protects the value and health of both the man and the woman, protects the resulting children, and even protects the society (see the article Generational Genocide).
Some may argue that polygamy is present in the Bible, and that is certainly true, but there is a difference between description and prescription. Adam and Eve was the pattern given by God—one man, and one woman—and all throughout the Old Testament that was the Hebrew cultural norm. Where there was deviation from that norm, there was always trouble. Whether it was Abraham with Sarah and Hagar, Jacob with Leah and Rachel, or the politically polygamous kings of Israel (which was strictly forbidden, see Deut 17:17), two or more wives was always depicted in a negative light and with real consequences in scripture. Still, polygamy wasn't explicitly outlawed by God in the Old Testament, which Jewish scholars view as allowing some flexibility in extenuating circumstances though not the ideal. However, the New Testament clearly instructs lifelong, monogamous marriage and this ideal shaped Western culture's view of holy matrimony.
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate... I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” -Mat 19:4-6 & 9
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. -1 Co 7:1-11
An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife... -1 Ti 3:2 (NASB)
When we deviate from monogamy, it destroys the individual, it destroys the family, and it destroys the society (again, see the article Generational Genocide). When we accept non-biblical ideas of love and romance such as the Greek mythology of soulmates, it likewise has dire consequences. Truth sets us free but anything else, regardless how romantic or innocent it may seem, leads to bondage. God is love (agape), and due to love, God gave us free will because without free will there can be no love. We must choose to love God and we must choose to love others—whether that love is philia, storge, or eros.
The concept of soulmates removes the element of free will and reduces eros love to a predetermined and statistically hopeless win/lose selection process guided only by passion (potentially supplemented in Christian circles by prayer). This concept may have offered Greek society an explanation as to why some marriages appeared to be more happy or fulfilling than others, but it also created a belief that another human being is supposed to make you happy and fulfilled, and that is a recipe for disaster. Even Socrates joked that he purposefully chose to marry a difficult woman in order to make himself a better person and a better philosopher. So, if one must adopt a Greek philosophical approach to marriage, his would be the more biblical one to absorb.
Socrates' concept of marriage—that iron sharpens iron and that through the heat and friction of the crucible of marriage both become a little better, more mature, less self-centered, and more tempered and balanced—actually aligns quite nicely with biblical concepts. There isn't another human being on the planet who can complete you, but the lifelong process of marriage can certainly refine you if you allow God to use it to discipline you.
...the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son... No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. -Heb 12:6 & 11
This passage probably won't be used in many Christian wedding ceremonies, but it is a much more realistic view of marriage that prepares people for the commitment required once the honeymoon phase is over and the feelings have diminished. This understanding may not sound as appealing as the hopeless romantic view, but it is a clear improvement in that it is not hopeless. It removes fate from the equation and puts the individual back in control of the quality of their marriage and relationships.
Rather than the endless process of trial and error in finding your soulmate and externalizing any issues of happiness, the biblical idea of a sole mate shifts the cause of an unsatisfying marriage to the more uncomfortable internal reality. The infamous, "It's not you, it's me" line used in the breakup of a romantic relationship is actually the honest first step in reconciling broken relationships. We have to understand that our happiness is not the purpose of life and our purpose is not dependent upon another human being—our joy, our love, and our purpose are all a direct result of our intimacy with God. That is why Paul didn't put marriage on the pedestal that most tend to and actually encouraged believers to remain single—so they could devote all their time to their relationship with "The One." Because, to quote a few classic hymns, Jesus is the only one who can truly be the lover of my soul and the only one who can save a wretch like me.