Immortality of the Soul
The soul that sinneth, it shall die.—Ezekiel 18:4
What is an immortal or undying soul? A Christian might say a person is both body and soul. A common view is that the body is the physical flesh-and-blood “shell” temporarily housing the soul. The soul is the nonmaterial aspect, made of spirit, and at death leaves the body, continuing to live consciously forever in heaven or hell. Many have a strong and emotional connection to this doctrine, taking comfort at a funeral in believing their loved one is at peace in heaven and watching over them.
The idea of an “immortal soul” predates the founding of today’s major religions. The ancient Egyptians believed that the soul of man is separable from the body, and immortal. This Egyptian idea emerged centuries before Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam were established.
The pagan Greeks adopted the concept of an immortal soul from the Egyptians. The Athenian philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.), a pupil of Socrates, popularized this new concept of an “immortal soul” throughout the Greek culture.
The ancient Jewish communities were deeply influenced by Greek philosophical ideas. In the Jewish Encyclopedia’s article “Immortality of the Soul” we read:
“The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is ... nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture. … The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato its principle exponent.”
The early Christian Fathers—Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophulus, Irenaeus, and Polycrates—denied the conscious state of the dead, and the eternal misery of the wicked. However, many of the early theologians, including Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine, were closely associated with Platonism. The influences of pagan Platonic philosophy on Origen and Augustine are profound. Philosopher and cultural historian Richard Tarnas, Jr., emphasizes this influence:
“It was Augustine’s formulation of Christian Platonism that was to permeate virtually all of medieval Christian thought in the West. So enthusiastic was the Christian integration of the Greek spirit that Socrates and Plato were frequently regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints.”—The Passion of the Western Mind, 1991, p. 103.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God; it is not “produced” by the parents. It is immortal, that is, it does not perish when it separates from the body at death. At the moment of death, a soul goes either to purgatory, heaven, or hell, and it will be reunited with the body at the final resurrection.
The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox views are similar. They believe that after death, the soul is judged individually by God, and then sent to either “Abraham’s bosom” (temporary paradise) or hades/hell (temporary torture). At the last judgment, God judges all who have ever lived. Those deemed righteous go to heaven (permanent paradise), while the damned experience the “Lake of Fire” (permanent torture). The Orthodox Church does not teach that purgatory exists. Most Protestant denominations have similar beliefs.
Does the Bible actually teach that man has an immortal or undying soul? A logical first step to answer this question would be to examine every text in the Bible, that use the terms “immortal soul” or “undying soul.” This is quickly accomplished since neither expression is found in the Bible. Consider then Scriptures with the words “soul” or “immortal.”
“Soul” in the Bible
“God said, Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20, NASV). This is the first occurrence of the word soul. The word “creatures” is from the Hebrew word nephesh, the same word often translated “soul” in the Old Testament. In this case the word for soul is applied to creatures in the sea. There are other instances where the Hebrew word nephesh is applied to animals: “God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, Now behold, I myself do establish my covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and with every living creature [nephesh, soul] that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth” (Genesis 9:8-10, NASV). Clearly the same Hebrew word translated soul in the Old Testament is also used for animals as living creatures.
Here is another early use of the word “soul”: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). We are not told man has a soul, but that man became a soul. The soul is here defined as a combination of both the body (dust) and the breath of life to produce a living, breathing person. The New American Standard Bible translates it: “Man became a living being.”
The Bible teaches that man is mortal, not immortal. The apostle Paul plainly tells us that we will be changed at the last trump. How will we be changed? “This mortal will have put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53, NASB). So we must now be mortal, not immortal. Immortality is something that, if faithful, we receive at our change. It is not something we already have.
Paul also wrote: “To those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life” (Romans 2:7, NASV). Clearly we do not possess immortality because Paul says we are seeking it.
Finally, Paul stated that Christ “alone possesses immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16). If Christ only had immortality (the Father being excepted, see 1 Corinthians 15:27), then we do not have immortal souls.
Can the Soul Die?
If the soul were truly immortal, the soul would be indestructible. But is it? To answer this question, let’s consider some Scriptures that contain the Hebrew word nephesh (Strong’s #5315) or the Greek word psuche (Strong’s #5590), both of which are translated “soul” in the Bible.
“It came about when he [Abram] came near to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, This is his wife; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I (“my soul,” nephesh) may live on account of you.” (Genesis 12:11-13, NASB)
Abram was afraid that his soul would not live or simply that he would die. If the Hebrew word nephesh meant an indestructible immortal soul, Abram’s soul could not have died.
Jesus viewed the soul in the same way: “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul [psuche]; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28, NASV).
This verse clearly speaks of the possibility of the destruction of the soul. Jesus is actually referring to the possibility of permanent extinguishment of life by God for the incorrigible.
Ezekiel provides further confirmation: “The soul who sins will die” (Exekiel 18:4, NASV). God told Adam if he ate of the tree, he would “surely die.” Sin results in death: “So death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12, NASV). Every soul [person] sins and, as a consequence, every soul dies (Romans 6:16,23).
If man is a soul, as opposed to man having a soul, why do some Scriptures speak of “my soul,” “his (or her) soul,” and “your soul” as if we possessed our soul? Here are some examples:
“Prepare a savory dish for me such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat, so that my soul [nephesh] may bless you before I die” (Genesis 27:4, NASV).
The phrase “my soul” has been translated “I” in the Good News Bible, “myself” in the Companion Bible and “me” in the Basic English Bible. As indicated by these alternative translations, and many others, the phrase “my soul” in the King James Bible refers to Jacob as “I,” “myself,” or “me.” It was not the invisible “soul” of Isaac that blessed Jacob, but Isaac himself.
“Thus says the LORD, Do not deceive yourselves [nephesh], saying, The Chaldeans will surely go away from us, for they will not go” (Jeremiah 37:9, NASV). The New American Standard Bible correctly translates the Hebrew word nephesh as “yourselves,” since it makes better sense than to translate it “your souls.”
“For the wicked boasts of his heart’s [nephesh] desire, and the greedy man curses and spurns the LORD” (Psalm 10:3, NASV). Here the translators did not translate the word nephesh as soul.
The fact that the soul refers to the physical flesh-and-blood person, not some separate nonmaterial aspect made of spirit, is demonstrated by Scriptures that attach human characteristics to the soul. Here are some examples.
“Any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person [nephesh] who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people” (Leviticus 17:10, NASV). Here a man eating blood is a soul (Hebrew: nephesh), but if a soul were spirit and nonmaterial, it would not be able to eat blood.
“As cold waters to a thirsty soul [nephesh], so is good news from a far country” (Proverbs 25:25). If a soul is spirit, it would not literally be thirsty for cold waters.
“In thy skirts is found the blood of the souls of the poor innocents: I have not found it by secret search, but upon all these” (Jeremiah 2:34). If a soul is spirit, it cannot have blood, as does a human body. Jesus demonstrated that spirits do not have human bodies when he said, “Spirit hath not flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39).
If readers of the English Bible realized that the Greek word psuche, often translated “soul,” is also translated “life,” they would see that the Bible does not teach that souls are immortal. Translating these words “life” is sometimes appropriate, when one understands that it means the existence resulting from the combination of the physical body and the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). Here are some examples:
“Take no thought for your life [psuche—soul, being], what ye shall eat” (Matthew 6:25).
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life [psuche—soul, being] for the sheep … even as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life [psuche] for the sheep” (John 10:11,15, NASV).
“Who have risked their lives [psuche—soul, being] for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26, NASV).
“And a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life [psuche—soul, being], died” (Revelation 8:9, NASV).
If the Greek word psuche referred to an immortal soul, these verses would be saying the soul eats, dies, risks death, or is a sea creature. None of these things could be true of an immortal soul.
Body, Soul, and Spirit
“And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Many say this proves the immortality of the soul. However, many also believe that the words “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably in the Bible referring to the immortal soul. In this case it would be illogical and redundant to say that both the soul and spirit are preserved, for clearly Paul is describing three distinct things: body, soul, and spirit.
Although it is true that every Christian has a fleshly body, life (soul), and the holy spirit, Paul could not have been discussing individuals since the bodies of the Thessalonian Christians were not preserved; they have returned to dust, like all bodies. The words body, soul, and spirit are singular, not plural, because Paul is speaking to the collective church at Thessalonica, not the plurality of all the individuals in that church.
The terms body, soul, and spirit are figuratively used of the church collectively. The true spirit has been preserved in the “little flock.” Its body is discernible today, and its soul, its activity, and its intelligence, is in evidence everywhere as a light and a witness to the world.
Saying the soul is immortal makes God a liar since he told Adam if he ate of the tree he would die (Genesis 2:17). Satan told Eve she would not die (Genesis 3:4). If the soul is immortal, Adam did not die since his soul must live forever.
If the soul is immortal, and consciousness continues after death, why did Jesus say, “Lazarus sleepeth” (John 11:11) as if he were merely unconscious? He was dead four days (vs. 39). Surely Jesus would not have retrieved Lazarus from the bliss of heaven.
If the doctrine of the immortality of the soul were true, the Bible would contradict itself. Jesus said that the hour is coming when all in their graves will come forth (John 5:28,29). Why bring them forth from the grave if their souls were already in heaven? Would their physical bodies need to be joined to them in heaven? If physical bodies were needed in heaven, how have these presumedly immortal souls survived without them?
Realizing that the soul is mortal explains why the church can be described as seeking immortality (Romans 2:7). The sleeping, unconscious dead will one day be awakened from their graves (John 5:28,29; Job 14:11-15; Psalm 17:15; Acts 24:15, 16). At that time, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). “Many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths” (Micah 4:2). In God’s kingdom on earth, mankind will be raised from the dead and have their first real opportunity to learn God’s ways of righteousness because Satan will be bound and will no longer be able to deceive the world (Revelation 20:3).