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Technical Terms and Usages Preclude Innate Immortality

Books that will challenge your current Biblical perspective.
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by Leroy Edwin Froom

Excerpts from The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers - Volume 1 Chapter 9

"This magnificent Conditionalist Faith volume is characterized by your customary careful scholarship"— Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

An Examination of Nephesh, Neshamah, and Ruach

This chapter, and the one to follow, will take on more of a technical turn than has been our wont. But somewhere along the way we must pause to examine more critically the Old Testament terms that we have occasionally touched upon. And this is obviously the place. Some may not be too keenly interested in this semantic angle, but such a scrutiny is essential to a clear understanding of the ground we are traversing. Such a follow-through will more than repay the effort required to grasp the facts involved.

A. Must Understand Key Old Testament Terms Through Usage

Words represent thoughts, ideas. When employed to portray what can easily be seen—such as tangible and perceptible objects—there is far less likelihood of misunderstanding than when used to depict invisible things or abstract ideas. Moreover, the difficulty is inevitably increased when such terms have to be translated from the idioms of one language into the phrasings of another. And this impediment is intensified when rendering from an ancient tongue into a modern language. That is because of dissimilarity of thought, habit, customs, and forms of expression.

Furthermore, the presence of any parables, metaphors, and other figures of speech compound the difficulties. There fore the task of transferring the meaning with precision is not an easy one. Also, as is candidly admitted, the theological viewpoint of the translator has often had a definite bearing on the translation. But to these challenges we must now turn.

There are five Old Testament Hebrew key words that we must survey in order to determine their true import. And this must be gained through a comprehensive tracement of their Biblical usage. This point cannot be overstressed. The reason for this procedure will become increasingly apparent as we continue. These terms are (1) nephesh (soul), (2) ruach (spirit), (3) neshamah (breath), (4) she'ol (the grave) and (5) Ge Hinnom, or gehenna (devouring fire)—with their similarities and comparisons, contrasts and relationships.

B. Meaning of Nephesh in the Hebrew of the Old Testament

The word "soul" in the K.J.V. of the English Bible is translated from the Hebrew word nephesh in all but two cases. Since the word "soul" has more than one meaning in English, it is important to inquire what the word nephesh really means, if we are to understand the teaching of the Bible correctly.


The Hebrew word nephesh, like the English word "soul," has more than one meaning, some being not synonymous with the English meanings of "soul." Koehler and Baumgartner in their lexicon give the following meanings for nephesh:

1. Throat. 2. Breath, the breathing substance, making man and animal living beings; the soul (strictly distinct from the Greek notion of soul), the seat of which is in the blood. 3. Living being. 4. Soul as equal to living being, individual, person. 5. Breath, soul, personality. 6. Breath as equal to life. 7. Breath as equal to soul as the seat of moods, emotions, and passions.

Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libras, Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., vol. 2, pp. 626, 627.

Quite parallel with this is the general classification of the various usages of nephesh adopted by Bullinger in his lexicon: (1) "CREATURE"—"beast," "thing."

(2) "PERSON"—"man," "men," "him," "me," yourselves," "himself," "we," "he," "myself," "her," "thee," "herself," "thyself," "themselves," "dead," "body," "one," "any," "they," "own," "fellow," "deadly," "mortally," "soul."

(3) "LIFE" and "LIVES"—"ghost," "breath."

(4) "DESIRE"—"mind," "heart," "lust," "pleasure," "discontented," "will," "greedy," "hearty," "appetite."


With this much before us, perhaps it is appropriate to attempt a definition of nephesh. As a start, at least, we can quote a modern book that is the combined work of many scholars "with a thorough knowledge of modern scholarship and theology," to quote the jacket-flap description of the book. Here is the definition: "SOUL (nephesh) means the living being. We might render it 'person' or 'personality,' so long as we remember that in Heb. thought even an animal is a nephesh. In passages of dignified or poetic diction the word is used instead of the personal pronoun (my soul—I or me); or to give a reflexive sense (his soul—himself, etc.). Roughly speaking, it means mind as distinct from matter (to quote the terminology of a once familiar dualism), but always includes more than mind in the limited sense of the reasoning faculty. It includes feelings, interest, and inclination; cf. Jer. 15:1."


Nephesh comes from the root naphash, a verb used three times in the Old Testament (Ex. 23:12; 31:17; 2 Sam. 16:14), in each case with the meaning "to revive oneself" or "to refresh oneself." The verb seems to go back to the basic meaning of breathing, and in the three times it is used the ordinary English reader might be tempted to translate it colloquially as "catch one's breath" or "take a breather," as after some extreme physical exertion. E. W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance, art., "Soul," p. 721.

A Theological Word Book of the Bible. Alan Richardson, ed., art. "Mind, Heart," p. 144. Nephesh as meaning the individual himself, is best illustrated by the portrayal of man's creation. As translated from the Hebrew in the R.S.V., it reads: "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" (Gen. 2:7). Since each person is a distinct unit of life, the uniqueness of individuality seems to be the idea emphasized in the Hebrew word nephesh. And since the obvious evidence of life is breath and breathing, it is easy to understand how nephesh is used of man as a living being. Thus the R.S.V. translation is an accurate rendering of the Hebrew word.

Nephesh is also used of animals, and is appropriately rendered "creature" in both the K.J.V. and R.S.V. Since animals breathe as evidence of life, the Hebrew use of the word here seems appropriate. As a matter of fact, animals are called nephesh chayah ("living creatures," K.J.V.) in Genesis 1. The basic idea that nephesh is the individual himself, rather than merely a constituent part of the individual, seems to underlie the various usages of nephesh. From this basic idea springs the idiomatic use of nephesh for the personal pronoun —"my soul" for "I" and "me"; "thy soul" for "you," et cetera, to use the common English translations in the Bible. The majority of the occurrences of nephesh may be properly translated by "person," "individual," "life," or by the appropriate personal pronoun.

There are also a substantial number of places in the Bible where nephesh applies to the inner being, if by this term we will understand nephesh as the seat of mind, heart, emotions, will, et cetera.

C. Nephesh as Translated in the English Versions


It seems proper to ask at this point whether the English versions really convey to the common English reader the true meaning of nephesh. A survey will reveal some interesting facts. One interesting and useful analysis is to be found in The Companion Bible, Appendix 13. The following facts and figures are taken from it:

Nephesh occurs in the Old Testament 754 times. In the K.J.V. and the R.V. it is translated "soul" 472 times, and by 44 different words in 282 other occurrences.

Nephesh is used of the lower animals only—in 22 instances.

Nephesh is used of lower animals and man—7 times. (The first usage of nephesh is Genesis 1:20.)

Nephesh is used of man as an individual—53 times.

Nephesh is used of man as exercising certain powers or performing certain acts—96 times.

Nephesh is used of man as possessing animal appetites and passions— 22 times.

Nephesh is used of man as exercising mental faculties and manifesting feelings, affections, and passions—231 times in 20 different ways.

Nephesh is used of man "cut off" by God, and being slain or killed—in 54 passages.

Nephesh is used of man as mortal, subject to death, but from which he can be delivered—in 243 passages.

Nephesh is used of man as actually dead—in 13 passages.

Finally, nephesh is used of man (all rendered "soul") as going (1) to she'ol, (2) to the "grave," (3) to "hell," (4) to the "pit"—hence a grave, (5) a "deep pit," and (6) into "silence."

[Based on Bullinger, The Companion Bible, Appendix 13, pp. 19-21. Complete references for each classification and use appear on these pages, which are thus invaluable for reference or study.]

Another summary presents the facts in a slightly different way. In the K.J.V. the Hebrew word nephesh is translated as follows: 471 times soul (every text in the Old Testament where soul is used except two, Job 30:15 and Isa. 57:16).

118 times life (life's, lives). 29 times person. 15 times mind. 15 times heart. 9 times creature. 7 times body. 5 times dead. 4 times man. 3 times me. 3 times beast. 2 times ghost. 1 time fish.

Nephesh is also translated one or more times as we, he, thee, they, her, herself, him (and other forms of the personal pronoun), and as will, appetite, lust, thing, breath, etc.

One thing is abundantly clear from this analysis. The Hebrew word nephesh was used in a variety of contexts with a variety of meanings. This is common in a language that is as word poor as Hebrew. To present the correct meaning it is necessary to use many different English words, depending for guidance on the context.


Let us now turn to the Revised Standard Version, and make some comparisons. At the time of this writing the R.S.V. is the latest group-produced English translation of the complete Old Testament. Others are in preparation, and may reveal additional facts for our quest. A check of the computer-produced Concordance of the Revised Standard Version reveals that the words soul and souls are used 200 times in the Old Testament. A cross-check with the English man's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance, which lists every text in which nephesh occurs, with the English translation in the K.J.V., reveals that only 190 times is nephesh translated soul in the R.S.V.

This is interesting, for it reveals that the translators were aware of the difficulties presented by the word soul and have used the other English meanings of nephesh in 281 more cases than the K.J.V. In the R.S.V. many of the uses of soul for nephesh refer to the mind, will, emotions, desires. In a few cases soul is retained where life or person would be appropriate.


One text in particular is worthy of mention because it is often used by those who believe in an immortal soul that can separate from the body. In the R.S.V., Genesis 35:18 reads: "As her soul was departing (for she died), she called his name Benoni." It would appear that here the revisers did not follow the principles they had been using in the other texts. Nephesh could very well have been translated life, since the text goes on to explain that she died.

These figures are based on a comparison of The Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance, Young's Analytical Concordance, and Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. There are probably minor errors in these books, so the figures vary slightly.

Several modern translators have recognized this, for they translate this verse in harmony with Hebrew usage to give the correct English meaning.

Berkeley: "With her last breath—for she expired— . . ."

Fenton: "But she breathing out her life—for she was dying— . . ."

Moffatt-. "As her life went from her (for she died) . . ."

Knox: ". . . her life was ebbing away in her pangs . . ."

Quite parallel to this text is 1 Kings 17:21, 22:

"And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child's soul come into him again. And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived."

This child was dead, for in verse 17 it is said, "His sick ness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him." He had stopped breathing. Here the R.S.V. continues the use of the word "soul" from the K.J.V., but again in apparent violation of its principles in other texts. Several modern translations follow the Hebrew consistently:

Moffatt: ". . . the child's life came back and he revived."

Knox: ". . . the boy's life returned to him, and he revived."

Berkeley: ". . . the life of the child returned to him, and he lived again."

Smith-Goodspeed: ". . . the life of the child came back to him again; so that he lived."

Rotherham: ". . . the life of the boy came again within him and he lived."

It should be added that in the new Jewish Publication Society translation, of which only the Pentateuch is available at present, the translators have designedly omitted the English word soul altogether, because in their opinion it does not correctly represent the Hebrew meaning in any text.


It is now possible to draw some definite conclusions about nephesh.

(1) "Nephesh" is not an independent entity—something that is separate, or separable, from the individual himself; something put into one when he is brought into being, and that lives on after he is dead, a sort of double, another self. There are not two personalities in man. Man is an integer, a single personality, a unit.

(2) "Nephesh" does not denote something peculiar to man alone, distinguishing him from the animals beneath him in the scale of being. There is assuredly a radical difference, a fixed gulf, between the lowest type of man and the very highest order of brute or beast. But nephesh is not the differentiating factor, for the term nephesh is applied to lower animals as well as man.

(3) "Nephesh" definitely does not designate something in man that is immortal and indestructible. If nephesh does not denote a separate entity that may survive death and separate from the body, is it possible that the word "spirit" can carry such a connotation? The English word "spirit" is often the translation of the Hebrew word ruach. So let us study this word to discover its real meaning.

D. Ruach and Neshamah Have a Variety of Meanings


The Hebrew word ruach occurs some 380 times in the Old Testament. In the majority of cases (some 360 occurrences) it is translated by three English words—"wind," "breath," and "spirit." Thus the same word is used to carry several different meanings, and the context must indicate the English word that best translates the Hebrew meaning.

In the case of the translation "spirit," the word has several different applications. It is used 76 times in the sense of vitality, courage, temper, or anger. It is used to describe the living principle in man and animals 25 times; as the seat of the emotions 3 times, mind 9 times; as will, volition, or heart, 3 times; and as moral character 16 times. As applied to God, ruach, "spirit," is used some 90 times." The word is also used of angels, both good and bad. Since God and the angels are usually invisible to human sight, they may be considered spirit beings, spirits, and are so spoken of in the Bible.

Since breath, wind, moral character, vitality, principle of life, and spirit beings are all invisible, the underlying idea of ruach seems to suggest an invisible force, power, or being, which acts to produce visible results. We are dealing with man and his nature, and we may therefore properly ignore all the uses of ruach (spirit) that refer to God and angels. We are interested in breath as evidence of life, and in the principle of life with which God has endowed man.


In Hebrew there is an approximating synonym for ruach in the word neshamah. In fact, it is this word that is used in the record of the creation of man. "The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [neshamah] of life; and man became a living soul" (Gen. 2:7). Neshamah is not a common word, for it appears only 24 times in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. It is translated 17 times as breath; 3 times blast; 2 times spirit; once souls; and once inspiration. It is used with ruach in two compound expressions:

"breath [neshamah] of the spirit [ruach] of life" (Gen. 7:22, margin),

"blast [neshamah} of the breath [ruach} of his nostrils" (2 Sam. 22:16; Ps. 18:15, with "thy" in place of "his").

Neshamah and ruach are also used in poetic parallelism in a number of verses:

"By the blast [neshamah] of God they perish, and by the breath [ruach] of his nostrils are they consumed" (Job 4:9).

"All the while my breath [neshamah] is in me, and the spirit [ruach] of God is in my nostrils" (Job 27:3).

"But there is a spirit [ruach] in man: and the inspiration [neshamah] of the Almighty giveth them understanding" (Job 32:8). "But it is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand" R.S.V.

"The spirit of God [ruach] hath made me, and the breath [neshamah] of the Almighty hath given me life" (Job 33:4).

"If he set his heart upon man, if he gather unto himself his spirit [ruach] and his breath [neshamah]; all flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again into dust" (Job 34:14, 15).

"He . . . gives breath [neshamah] unto the people upon it, and spirit [ruach] to them that walk therein" (Isa. 42:5).

These figures are based on The Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance and Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. There may be minor differences in the count in different concordances, so no claim is here made for absolute accuracy. But the exact number of times a word is used or translated a given way is not of prime significance to our quest.


Consider Job 33:4, before cited, for a moment. The "spirit of God" is obviously identical with the "breath of the Almighty." And "the breath of the Almighty" is the source of the "breath of life" (or "breath [that is] life")—as in Genesis 2:7—which God "breathed" into man's "nostrils," thereby causing the inanimate Adam to become a "living soul [being]."

When neshamah and/or ruach are used in this sense they refer to the life principle which God imparts to each new individual on this earth. It is equally clear that the same life principle is given to the animals also. In the announcement of the Flood to Noah, God said, "Behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven" (Gen. 6:17). In the description of the flood catastrophe, in fulfillment of this threat, it is recorded, "And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, and every man: all in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died" (Gen. 7:21, 22). Parenthetically we should say right here that the "breath of life" common to all breathing creatures does not degrade man to the level of a beast or elevate a beast to the level of a man. God has organized the various creatures of His hand with different qualities and natures. Just as the breath of life does not make a lion like a rabbit, neither does it make a man like a beast. Man made in the image of God is far removed from even the most intelligent animal.


There is nothing in the Old Testament that even hints that ruach as the life principle has a separate conscious existence, that it is the man himself as distinct from the body. It is given to man when he comes into existence, and is withdrawn, or surrendered, when he dies. It is a gift from God, and in one sense always belongs to Him, though man may call it his own while he lives. The preacher in Ecclesiastes 8:8 depicts the helplessness of man when God withdraws the principle of life —his breath: "There is no man that hath power over the spirit [ruach] to retain the spirit [ruach]; neither hath he power in the day of death."

No, man does not have an undying spirit that continues in conscious existence in another sphere. There is one more text in which ruach appears, translated "spirits," which may trouble some. It is Numbers 16:22, with the same expression occurring again in chapter 27:16. It reads: "And they fell upon their faces, and said, O God, the God of the spirits [ruach] of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?" The new Jewish Publication Society Torah renders this as "O God, Source of the breath of all flesh." This would appear to be a better English rendering of the Hebrew meaning, and clears up any difficulty the text might seem to present.

E. Relation of "Spirit" or "Breath" to Life and Death


The "breath of life," or "spirit," which brought life originally to man, is expressly declared to have been in breathed by God. The patriarch Job in characteristic Hebrew parallelism, in referring back to the creation of man, utters these impressive words: "The spirit [ruach] of God hath made me, and the breath [neshamah] of the Almighty hath given me life" (Job 33:4). And in speaking of man's death, Job states that it is brought about by the reversal of the creation process—God gathering back to Himself His "spirit [ruach] and his breath [neshamah]" (Job 34:14), which He originally inbreathed, or infused, into man. Hence the spirit that God takes back from man at death is God's own vitalizing spirit, or breath, imparted to man, and then returning to its originating Source. This appears also in Ecclesiastes: "Then shall the dust [by metonomy, the body] return to the earth as it was: and the spirit [ruach; not nephesh, soul] shall return unto God who gave it" (chap. 12:7).


In death man's ruach (spirit) goes back to God, from whom it came when man was formed. While it is the presence of the spirit, or breath, of God that bestows life on man, it is to be particularly noted that God's "spirit," or "breath" (Job 33:4), is distinct from the life it has brought into being—just as cause is different from effect. This differentiation is highly important. If the life of man were identical with the spirit that produced it, it would possess all the essential attributes of the spirit. But this is safe guarded in the Scripture account, which describes the spirit as the cause of life, but distinct and distinguishable from it. Thus the effect may perish, but the cause does not perish. The life of man may disappear and become extinct, while the spirit, or breath, from the Almighty does not. It simply returns to Him from whom it came.

Man has the breath, or spirit, of God within him. But the spirit may be withdrawn, since it is only a loan from God for the duration of man's lifetime. Job significantly describes life as "all the while my breath [neshamah] is in me, and the spirit [ruach] of God is in my nostrils" (Job 27:3). Job knew that his spirit, or breath, was not his own, with an independent and innate right to keep it, but was the spirit, or breath, of God in his nostrils—subject to withdrawal at his Maker's will. Job recognized himself as intrinsically but "dust" (Job 10:9; 34:15).


As the entrance of the spirit into man originally gave him life, so in the same way the restoration of the spirit, at the resurrection, renews his life. This is foreshown by Ezekiel's vision of the valley of the dry bones—then "very dry" (Eze. 37:2) and entirely lifeless, having once had life but now with "no breath [spirit, ruach] in them" (v. 8). And then through the action of the figurative "WIND" [breath, or spirit, ruach] life was restored by God's causing His spirit, or breath, to enter into them again. Thus:

"Behold, I will cause breath [spirit, ruach] to enter into you [the dry bones], and ye shall live: and I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath [spirit, ruach] in you, and ye shall live." "And shall put my spirit [ruach] in you, and ye shall live" (Eze. 37:5, 6, 14). The life that was relinquished when the spirit left the body is thus renewed. And it was this renewal, or restoration of the spirit, or breath—the breath of God that caused life —that was the hope and the promise of a future life for the Old Testament worthies. When they knew they were dying, and were soon to sink back into their original earth, they commended their spirits into the safekeeping of God. Thus the psalmist David, upon the prospect of death, said: "Into thine hand I commit my spirit [ruach]: thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth. ... I trust in the Lord" (Ps. 31:5, 6).

He made the same committal that Christ later made (Luke 23:46). It was because he had been redeemed that David was able to commend his spirit with confidence into the hands of God. Reiterating then: God gave man his "spirit" at creation. But man forfeited his right to the causative spirit, and in consequence it is rendered back to God at (the first) death, going back to Him to whom it belongs.

And while the spirit is rendered back to God as a forfeit because of the original sin, its restoration is pledged by covenant through Christ. It is the believer's in promise—a promise that will not be broken, for it is "impossible for God to lie" (Heb. 6:18). It is kept safe for him. The separation is for the time when the sleeper lies silently in the dust of gravedom, which passage of time will seem as but the twinkling of an eye.

F. Fundamental Distinction Between Man and Beast


We would once more stress the fact that there is no justifiable basis for the frequent assertion that the inbreathing of the "breath of life" into man's nostrils made the resultant "living soul [nephesh chayah]" immortal. Man is not intrinsically the breath of life. He simply has the breath of life. Adam had life through the "breath of life," or "spirit of God," that was inbreathed, infused, or inspired into him at creation (Gen. 2:7). This principle and provision of life came to man from God, the sole origin of life, and at death it goes back to God, who gave it (Eccl. 12:7). To die is to expire, and to expire is to emit the last breath. Death is therefore the separation of the "breath of life" from the body. Man's present physical life, as with all the animal creation, is dependent upon the breath. When that is gone, both man and beast die. In that respect man has no pre-eminence over the beast (Eccl. 3:19). And this is irrespective of whether good or evil. Such is God's universal law.


But, in the sight of God there is a vast difference between the nature and character and value of the respective lives of man and beast. Man was expressly made in the "image" of God (Gen. 1:26, 27; 9:6; cf. 1 Cor. 11:7; 15:49); the beast was not. Furthermore, man's power of speech, his moral nature, his distinctive capability for religion and worship, and his capability of constant progression and fellowship with God are totally different from that of the brute creation, which ever remains at the same level of intelligence, and does not have fellowship with God. Man is a "son of God" (Luke 3:38); the beast is not.

In addition, a fundamental difference was established by God in the relationships and destiny of man and beast. Thus man was given dominion over the lower animal creation (Gen. 1:26); never the reverse. And while both man and beast return to dust, the brute simply ceases to be thereafter, whereas man sleeps under the watch care of God until the resurrection. According to the Word, man's "spirit," or "breath," goes back to God who gave it (Eccl. 12:7; cf. Num. 27:16; Job 12:10; 34:14, 15; Ps. 104:29, 30; Isa. 42:5; Zech. 12:1; Heb. 12:9), and is hid with Christ in God awaiting the glad reunion of spirit, or breath, and body at the final resurrection day.


Such are the fundamental distinctions between man and beast. They are as far apart as the poles, and were so designed, created, and kept by God. At death the beast permanently ceases to be, has no awakening, no future life. That is its end. But redeemed and regenerated man will be called forth from his sleep by Christ the Lifegiver, to a life that measures with the life of God, and in eternal communion thereafter with God.

Let none say, then, that because both have life and breath from God, man has no fundamental pre-eminence over the beast. There is no pre-eminence in this—that both die, or cease to live. They both expire. But there the similarity ends. Upon man alone will be conferred the gift of immortality, to be bestowed at the Second Advent and its concurrent resurrection. Thus man is indeed the crown of creation, made in the "image of God" (Gen. 5:1; Acts 17:29; 1 Cor. 11:7).

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