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Do we have an immortal soul?

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by Richard A. Wiedenheft

Creation of Man

The first chapter of Genesis reveals that man was specially created by God in His very own image and likeness:

"Then God said, Let us make man in our image, in our likeness... So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:26-27).

Man was shaped in the image of God, but he was not composed of the same substance as God. God is spirit; God is immortal; He possesses self-inherent eternal life. Man, on the other hand, was formed from the elements of the earth as an inert, physical corpse of organic matter lying on the ground - until God breathed into him the breath of life. At that point man became a "living soul" (Genesis 2:27).

The precise nature of a "living soul" is at the heart of the discussion about what man is. To modern, orthodox Christian ears, the word "soul" denotes something that is immortal and conscious after death, something that goes to heaven or hell. But the Biblical usage of the word is quite different.

Living Souls

The Hebrew expression translated "living soul" in Genesis 2:7 is nephesh; it is used in several other places in Genesis 1 and 2 as well as throughout the Old Testament and in many of these passages it refers to animals. The Englishmen who translated the King James Version of the Bible rendered nephesh as "living creature" in Genesis 1:21 where it refers to sea animals; they rendered it "living creature" in verse 24 where it refers to land animals. In verse 30, this same Hebrew expression is used to describe all living things on the earth. In Genesis 2:19, Adam was asked to name every "living creature"— again, the Hebrew expression is nephesh. So, when we are told that Adam became a "living soul" we are not informed that he was given any inherent immortality or a soul (in the modern sense of the word).

Mortal Man

Every indication in the Old Testament is that, of and by himself, man is mortal creature, subject to decay and death; indeed, God told Adam after he had sinned,

"for dust you are and to dust you will return" (Genesis 3:19).

There is no reference here to a conscious, immortal soul going to heaven or hell or limbo when the body goes to the grave. Rather, the indication is that when the body returns to the dust, the conscious man, the "living soul", ceases to exist. Of course, it was not long before Satan appeared on the scene contradicting God's warning about sin and its deadly consequences. Tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit he said,

"You will not surely die...For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:4-5).

In a sense, the modern concepts of the immortal soul and reincarnation convey the same idea - that man is inherently immortal - that he won't really die. Ezekiel stated just the opposite:

"...the soul that sins, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20).

So, whatever a soul is, in the Old Testament sense of the word, it can die. Solomon, the wisest king of Israel, wrote about the fate of humans,

"As it is with the good man, so with the sinner...The same destiny overtakes all...For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten" (Ecclesiastes 9:2-5).

To be sure, Solomon, was writing from a human, temporal perspective - in a very melancholy mood at that; nevertheless, he corroborated the statements of Genesis that death is the cessation of conscious life. The Psalmist wrote that the dead do not praise God, that they

"go down to silence" (Psalm 115:17; compare with Psalm 6:5; 1 46:4).

The idea that death is merely a separation of a conscious, immortal soul from the body came not from the Bible but from Greek philosophy. Notice what Plato wrote in Phaedo:

"The soul whose inseparable attitude is life will never admit of life's opposite, death. Thus the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible... we believe there is such a thing as death? To be sure. And is this anything but the separation of the soul and body?...being dead is the attainment of this separation when the soul exists in herself and separate from the body, and the body is parted from the soul. That is death... death is merely the separation of the soul and body".

An interesting philosophy— very much in harmony with the modern concept of the soul; but it is nowhere taught in the Old Testament. Even modern theologians who believe in the immortality of the soul admit frankly that it is not taught in the Bible. Consider what The New Catholic Encyclopedia has to say about the Hebrew word nephesh or nepes:

"Nepes comes from an original breathe, and...thence, breath of life. Since breath distinguishes the living from the dead, nepes is used in regard to both animals and humans... After death, the nepes goes to Sheol rest, [Hebrew word for grave]. The above summary indicates that there is no dichotomy of body and soul in the Old Testament... other words in the Old Testament such as spirit, flesh, and heart also signify the human person and differ only as various aspects of the same being. The notion of the soul surviving after death is not readily discernible in the Bible. The concept of the human soul itself is not the same in the Old Testament as it is in Greek and modern philosophy... The soul in the Old Testament means not a part of man, but the whole man - man as a living being" (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, art. "Soul, Human, Immortality of").

In the whole of the Old Testament there is simply no support for the idea that a conscious immortal soul goes to heaven or hell (or some other place) at death. Rather, all indications are that conscious life ceases until the time of a future resurrection - as the prophet Daniel recorded

"Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2).

"As for you (Daniel), go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance" (Daniel 12:13).

Both verses compare death to a sleep, an unconscious state, which is to continue until the time of the resurrection.

The "Soul" in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the word "soul" is translated from the Greek psuche which is virtually equivalent to the Hebrew nephesh. There is no indication that the soul of the New Testament continues in a conscious state following death. Rather, the evidence is that psuche, like nephesh, refers to a living mortal being who can die. Consider several verses.

Mark wrote that Jesus came to

"...give his life [psuche] as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

Isaiah had written that Jesus

"...poured out his life [nephesh] unto death" (Isaiah 53:12)

Clearly Jesus' nephesh or psuche was given up, it was poured out, it ceased to exist; it was not merely separated from His body as Greek philosophy would have one believe. John, in the book of Revelation wrote that when the second angel poured out his bowl,

"...every living thing [psuche] in the sea died" (Revelation 16:3).

Consider the following statement from The New Catholic Encyclopedia:

"The soul in the Old Testament means not a part of man, but the whole man as a living being. Similarly in the New Testament, it signifies human life: the life of an individual conscious object" (Matthew 2:20-6:25; Luke 12:22,23; 14:26; John 10:11,15,17; John 13:37; Acts 27:10,22; Philippians 2:30; 1Thessalonians 2:8).

"Recent exegetes... have maintained that the New Testament does not teach the immortality of the soul in the Hellenistic sense of survival of an immortal principle after death" (The New Catholic Encyclopedia art. Soul, Human, Immortality of, In The Bible).

Eternal Life Is God's Gift

The Greek concept of the immortal soul assumes that individuals already possess eternal life - that the only question is where this eternal life is spent after death. In stark contrast, many Bible passages portray immortality strictly as a gift to be given by God. Paul refers directly to the fact that God alone has immortality (1Timothy 6:16). In a well-known statement to the Romans, Paul insists that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. In other words, the normal consequences of sin is death; but immortality, the opposite of death, is something that man does not have of and by himself; it comes only as a gift from God (Romans 6:23). "He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life" (Romans 2:6). According to this verse immortality is something we seek after, not something we already have.

John echoes Paul's statement.

"And this is the testimony. God has given us eternal life, and this Life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life" (1John 5:11-12; compare with 1John 3:14-15).

Jesus, referring to Himself, prayed to the Father just before He was crucified,

"For you granted him (Jesus) authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:2-3).

If man is inherently immortal and his life continues eternally beyond the death of the body, these passages don't make sense - unless, of course, one redefines death as separation of soul and body, a definition not supported in the Bible. If, however, death is the absence of life and consciousness, these statements make very good sense.

Death Compared to Sleep

Throughout the Bible, death is compared to sleep. Notice a couple of Jesus' statements:

"Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going to wake him up" (John 11:11).

"The girl is not dead, but asleep "(Matthew 9:24).

Matthew records that at the time of Jesus' death,

". . . the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many" (Matthew 27:52,53).

If these saints were already experiencing the bliss of heaven, it would have been cruel to bring them back to frail human existence to live and then die again; but if they were truly asleep, unconscious, it would have been a blessing to them and to all who were witnessed to by their new lives.

The Apostle Paul referred to dead Christians as sleeping until awakened by the last trump at the resurrection (1Corinthians 15:51 and 1Thessalonians 4:14;5:10). Daniel wrote of both believers and nonbelievers as sleeping - until they are resurrected:

"Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2).

Notice that the focus is on the resurrection - not on a reward in heaven or punishment in hell experienced by a conscious immortal soul at death.

A Spiritual Element In Man?

What then is man? To be sure he is a special, glorious creation, made in the very image of God— with the potential of living for eternity in God's kingdom. Certainly, there is a dimension of his being that separates him from animals - it is a spiritual dimension, a capacity to understand spiritual, eternal, godly things. Several passages of the Bible indicate what might be called a "spirit in man"— a spiritual ingredient that makes a man human, that turns an animal brain into a human mind, that gives him the capacity to reason and plan and to consider spiritual questions. Paul refers to a "man's spirit" in 1Corinthians 2:1 1. Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, wrote

"...the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

Perhaps this "spirit in man" is what the Holy Spirit unites with when a person experiences conversion.

On the other hand, these passages are far from definitive. It's possible Paul was simply referring to "a person's very self, or ego" (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, under pneuma); and Solomon could have been referring to a man's breath. But if there is a spiritual essence in man, and I believe there is, it is not conscious apart from the body. It is not an immortal soul. And regardless of whether a person is a Christian or not, his "spiritual essence" returns to God at death - perhaps waiting like a computer record to be plugged back into a conscious body at the resurrection - thus preserving the personality and character of the individual.

The important fact is that, although man does not possess an immortal soul, he can receive eternal life through accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Then he enters the heavenly kingdom of God and receives the promise of eternal life - which will be given when Jesus returns to this earth as King, of kings and Lord of lords.

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Comments (11)

Topic: Do we have an immortal soul?
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Carol says...
Existence after death?

Php 1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Php 1:22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.
Php 1:23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
Php 1:24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

2Co 5:8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

How can Paul say these things if we cease to exist when we die?

05/27/2011 - 06:46
17th July 2017 6:58pm
James says...

Those who will ultimately cease to exist are unbelievers, those who have rejected Christ as their Lord and Savior. They will perish eternally. The wages of sin is eternal death. However, those who are Christ's will receive the gift of eternal life. "Whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but has everlasting life" (John 3:16). Therefore, as a believer, Paul is looking forward to the death of the body when he receives that gift:

"For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'" (1 Cor. 15:53)
05/27/2011 - 12:28
17th July 2017 6:59pm
Kelly says...
Carol, Re: Phil. 1:23 and II Cor. 5:8. Suppose I tell my family, "I am so excited about us leaving Saturday morning and spending a week on the beach in Florida." In that statement I have made no mention of the 18-hour road trip to our destination. It's the goal that I'm focused on and not the means of getting there. Paul knows the sleep of death to be a totally unconscious experience void of any knowledge of the passing of time. In Europe, people are buried six feet below the arena of two world wars and are completely unaware of what was happening just above them at ground level. On the day of our Lord's coming and the resurrection, Paul will not know that he has been in the grave any longer than the man who has risen from his casket in the funeral home while friends and family members were attending his funeral. Snap your fingers twice in rapid succession with the first snap representing death and the second snap representing resurrection. The fraction of a ... Read More
17th July 2017 7:01pm
Trent says...
Are you saying that hell does not exist? To me this seems to be removing the concept of hell altogether.
09/02/2011 - 17:54
17th July 2017 7:01pm
Nicholas says...
Hi Trent,
To answer your question, I'd recommend you look around this website further. There are a lot of articles that refer to what hell is. We don't believe in the non-existence of hell, but rather what people think hell is.
02/10/2013 - 15:07
17th July 2017 7:04pm
Jeremy says...
Two questions,
What do you have to say about Matthew 10:28?
Then what about the parable of Lazarus and the rich man?
I understand it's a "parable" but it still represents a reality does it not?
Thank you
08/24/2015 - 18:43
17th July 2017 7:05pm
Marius Ciobanu says...
There is too much to say in response to this post so I will try to just hit 1 point .
In your Ecclesiastes passage it is obvious that the dead know nothing because they are dead and no one will argue with that but that has nothing to do with the soul. Even Solomon mentions shortly after
"and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it." (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
In the text where Jesus pours out his life for man as in Mark 10:45 and Isaiah 53:12. Then you mention that "Clearly Jesus' nephesh or psuche was given up, it was poured out, it ceased to exist. ; it was not merely separated from His body as Greek philosophy would have one believe"

You are saying that Jesus Christ, God incarnate ceased to exist? Since you clearly stated that he was not merely separated from his body. You have some serious explaining to do.
08/27/2015 - 15:44
17th July 2017 7:06pm
Lucia says...
Surfing the web, I just happened to come across this article, and was delighted to see that Richard Wiedenheft is still with us in a sense. He was a godly, very intelligent, servant-hearted believer who lived his faith, and accomplished a great deal in one short life (he passed away a few tears ago). So good to see that he (and his wonderful family) are still a blessing! As he pointed out, the immortal soul was an idea that the Catholic Church picked up from the Greeks. I think this was because it was found to be useful in intimidating folks into purchasing indulgences to rescue themselves and family members from purgatory. It's noteworthy that the great Catholic theologians paid more attention to ideas from Greek philosophy than they did to the Word of God: 1 Timothy 6:15, 16, and Roman 2:5-8 especially. The Greeks also held to the idea that the universe itself is eternal, a notion adhered to by scientists until the 1960's, when the work of Penzias and Wilson brought to light ... Read More
17th July 2017 7:07pm
Bryce says...
I'm working on a thesis, "conditional immortality or is there a part of everyone that is spirit and therefore is eternal in nature"

One thought that arises is that if we are created mortal and only receive eternal life if we accept Christ then at that point, we are told, that our eternal life begins. Can eternal life by definition have a beginning point? Comments?
10/22/2016 - 21:53
17th July 2017 7:08pm
Nic says...
Proof Positive! Matthew 10:28 Magnificent proof of our immortal souls. Some argue that it goes on to say that God can destroy our soul so it is not immortal. Of course God can destroy it, but otherwise, in the light of God, and as we go about our lives (and deaths), our souls are immortal. Wonderful proof from the pages of the Bible. May all believe and be Catholic - the mother faith.
17th July 2017 7:09pm
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