How are Immortal-soul proof-texts to be interpreted?
As we have seen in the previous article, the dead do not have consciousness of any kind; they know nothing and they feel nothing. People who die do not go to heaven or hell where they live on in a state of consciousness. They go to the grave where their bodies disintegrate because the life principle has been removed. They are sleeping, without any awareness of what is happening on earth or in heaven. The Bible clearly establishes that the righteous dead are not in heaven, and the wicked dead are not in a place of burning. They are in the dust of the earth waiting for the resurrection day. That day for the righteous will be the second coming of Christ. For the wicked it will be at the end of the millennium, at which time they will be raised for judgment and put to sleep for eternity.
The purpose of the present article is to examine Bible passages that are used as evidence by those who believe in the immortality of the soul. It will be shown that the true meaning of each passage in its Scriptural context rules out any suggestion that the soul is immortal.
According to Jesus, where can both soul and body be destroyed?
Jesus said: "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28).(1)
Immortal-soul advocates use this verse to point out the distinction between soul and body. They argue that the soul is the real self that dwells within the body during life, but lives on separate from the body after death. The problem for their view is that this verse proves that the soul, like the body, can be destroyed in hell. If the soul can be destroyed, it is not immortal and it will not suffer eternally in hellfire. The message of the text is that, although we should not fear man who can destroy the body, we should fear God who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell, and who will destroy the wicked at the end of time (Rev. 20:9, 14, 15; 2 Thess. 1:7-10).
The Greek word for "soul" (psuche) used in Matthew 10:28 means "life." It is the same word that is used four times in Matthew 16:25, 26. In the King James Version it is translated "life" in verse 25 and "soul" in verse 26: "For whosoever will save his life [psuche] shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life [psuche] for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul [psuche]? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul [psuche]?" Note how the translators have varied the translation of the same Greek word. Verse 25 indicates that one could lose his soul for Christ's sake. That would not be possible if the soul were an immortal entity within man. The loss of the soul for the immortal-soul advocate means going to hell. Obviously no one goes to hell for Christ's sake. It is possible, however, to lay down ones life for Christ's sake. The translators, who believed in the immortality of the soul, saw the problem for their view and translated the word psuche by "life," even though they translated it "soul" in verse 26.
The real message of Matthew 16:25, 26 is that eternal life will be lost for those who substitute selfish desires for the service of Christ. But eternal life will be given to those who love and serve Christ. The next verse puts the statement into its context: "For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works" (verse 27, KJV). Matthew 25:46 is parallel. Contrasting the wicked with the righteous, Jesus said: "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal" (KJV). "Everlasting punishment" is eternal loss of life, not an eternal life of loss (Matt. 16:25, 26). It is not a continuation of life in hell.
Matthew 10:28 is thoroughly consistent with Jesus' overall teaching that the "soul" or "life" of the unbeliever will be destroyed eternally. That being the case the soul is not immortal.
What did Paul mean when he said that "our inner nature is being renewed day by day"?
"So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day" (2 Cor. 4:16).
Believers in the immortality of the soul argue that the "inward man" (KJV) or "inner nature" (NRSV) is the immortal soul within the body. This text, they say, clearly proves a distinction between soul and body.
Undoubtedly there is a distinction between soul (or spirit) and body in the Bible. Since "soul" means "life" or "life principle," as it does in Matthew 10:28, obviously it is something different from the body. The word "soul" in Scripture does not always mean what it does in Genesis 2:7, where "a living soul" is comprised of both body and life principle (breath).
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote: ". . . glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Cor. 6:20, KJV). Textual evidence favors the omission of the words, "and in your spirit which are God's."(2) That is why these words are omitted in the New Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New English Bible.
In the New Testament, the "spirit" of a human (Greek pneuma) often refers to the mind or the emotions. For example, 1 Corinthians 2:11: "For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within?" The "spirit" here is the knowing part of a person, the faculty of comprehension, the mind. The New Revised Standard Version translates 2 Corinthians 2:13: ". . . but my mind [pneuma = spirit] could not rest because I did not find my brother Titus there." Note also 2 Corinthians 7:13: "In addition to our own consolation, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his mind [pneuma = spirit] has been set at rest by all of you."
But in Scripture, the "spirit" or "soul" is never a separate, immortal part of the person, existing within the body, and living on after the death of the body. Minds and emotions (spirits) do not go on functioning after the body expires (Eccl. 9:5, 6, 10), and the "soul" or "life" is lost when the body dies (Matt. 16:25, 26). God reserves the righteous for eternal life, and reserves the wicked for eternal death (Rom. 6:23). But, as our previous studies have demonstrated, there is no continuing, conscious life for any individual after the extinction of the body.
Paul also wrote to the Corinthians that, though he was "absent in body," he was "present in spirit" (1 Cor. 5:3). Of course, he was not a split personality, having his body in Ephesus while his real self was over in Corinth. He obviously meant what we mean today when we say that we are with someone in spirit. His thoughts, concerns, and prayers were much with the Corinthians, even though his entire person remained in Ephesus.
Second Corinthians 4:16 simply means that the inner spiritual life of a person is renewed day by day as he or she turns to Christ for strength to face life's challenges. Jesus said, "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:63). As we receive His word into our hearts by the Holy Spirit every day (John 16:13), we are renewed spiritually and given grace to live for Christ. The same spiritual renewal is spoken of in Ephesians 3:16, 17: "That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith" (KJV). Christ lives out His life through the person who receives His Spirit into the life every day (Gal. 2:20).
2 Corinthians 4:16 does not teach the immortality of the soul. It teaches that our inner spiritual life must be renewed as we come to Christ every day.
Because Jesus and Stephen committed their spirits to the care of God, do we have evidence of their immortality?
"Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit'" Luke 23:46.
"While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit'" (Acts 7:59).
The Scriptural background to these prayers goes way back to Genesis 2:7: "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" (KJV). The body plus the breath of life produced a living soul. The word for "breath" in Genesis 2:7 is neshamah in the Hebrew original and pnoe in the Greek translation (the Septuagint). These words mean "breath, wind."(3) The breath that God breathed into the inanimate body gave it life. This same breath of life is spoken of in Job 33:4: "The spirit [ruach] of God has made me, and the breath [neshamah] of the Almighty gives me life." The breath of life (neshamah) is, therefore, the spirit (ruach) that God breathed into Adam's nostrils. The word ruach means "breath, spirit, wind." Referring to himself during life, Job said, ". . . as long as my breath [neshamah] is in me and the spirit [ruach] of God is in my nostrils. . . ." (Job. 27:3). Once again the "breath" and the "spirit" are identified. When this spirit or breath returns to God the individual dies: "If he [God] should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust" (Job 34:14, 15).
The Psalmist expressed the same thought when he described what happens to man in death: "When their breath [ruach = spirit] departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish" (Psa. 146:4).
This explains the description of death as given in Ecclesiastes 12:7: "Then shall the dust [body] return to the earth as it was: and the spirit [ruach = breath] shall return unto God who gave it" (KJV). This simply reverses the process as described in Genesis 2:7. Now God takes the life force back to himself and the dead body disintegrates. The "spirit" or "breath" that goes back to God cannot possibly be man's immortal soul. If that were so the spirit or soul of all humans, righteous and wicked, would go to heaven when they die -- an unbiblical conclusion. Moreover, the Bible teaches that animals have exactly the same breath of life as man, and this also goes back to God when they die: "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath [ruach = spirit]; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast [in this respect]: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Eccl. 3:19, 20, KJV). The next verse is a rhetorical question that he has already answered. His meaning may be paraphrased like this: "Who ever imagines that the spirit of man goes up to heaven, and the spirit of an animal goes down to the earth?" He has just asserted that such is not the case.
Of course there are some very vital differences between mankind and animals. Even though they both have the same life force from God, the distinctions are dramatic. Man was made in the image of God, with a moral nature, and the capacity to have communion with His Creator. Humans will face God's judgment and either be translated to heaven or destroyed in hell. None of this applies to animals. Nevertheless, the life force in humans and beasts is the same. If that life force were an immortal soul, we would have to argue that animals have immortal souls; an absurd idea.
In the light of the foregoing, consider Luke 23:46 and Acts 7:59; specifically the prayers of Jesus and Stephen committing their "spirit" or life force to God. They knew that they were dying. The life that came from God was being taken from them. That spirit or life force was the "breath" given to man at creation. If it were an immortal soul, then the soul of man must have existed prior to creation. This doctrine is acceptable to Mormons, but certainly not to those whose doctrinal understandings are based solely on Scripture.
The day Jesus died His human "spirit," "breath," or life force went back to God, but He certainly did not go to heaven as a conscious being that Friday afternoon. After His resurrection on the Sunday morning, when He appeared to Mary Magdalene, He instructed: "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20:17). Likewise Stephen did not ascend to heaven when the life force was taken from him. The righteous dead are not made immortal until they are raised at the second advent of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:51-54). Then they are taken to heaven to be with their Lord (1 Thess. 4:16-18). Jesus and Stephen were both praying that God would reserve them to eternal life with Him because they trusted wholly in Him. The prayer was answered for Jesus a couple of days later when He rose from the dead. Stephen's prayer will be answered when the saints are raised at the second advent of Jesus.
Jesus (as man) and Stephen did not have immortal souls that went to heaven when they died. They trusted God to give them back the breath of life (or life force) by raising them from the dead. In this sense they committed their lives into God's care.
What does the epistle to the Hebrews intend to teach when it says that Christian believers have come "to the spirits of just men made perfect" (heb. 12:23, kjv)?
The statement in context reads as follows: "But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel" (Heb. 12:22-24, NRSV).
The Greek dictionaries define the Greek word translated "spirit" (pneuma) to mean, according to context, (i) a blowing, breathing, wind, breath; (ii) spiritual state; (iii) state of mind, disposition; (iv) spirit beings such as the Holy Spirit, angels, and evil spirits.(4)
Hebrews 12:18-29 is not written for people who are already in heaven, but for Christian believers on this earth who are confronted with the challenges and temptations of everyday life. Paul, who is thought to be the writer, reminds the Hebrew Christians that they have not been confronted with the remarkable experience of seeing God's glory on Mount Sinai, of hearing His mighty voice, and seeing the earth shake as the law was proclaimed (verses 18-21). Now that Christ has died and risen again, the divine love and glory are manifested in other ways.
Verses 22-24 emphasize that Christian believers on earth have come to: (i) "Mount Zion and to the city of the living God"; (ii) "the heavenly Jerusalem" (cf. Galatians 4:26 ff.); (iii) "innumerable angels"; (iv) "the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven"; (iv) "God the Judge of all"; (v) "the spirits of the righteous made perfect"; (vi) "Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant"; (vii) "the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel." Then the instruction is given: "See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking" (verse 25).
Though some of the things or beings to which believers have come are in heaven and some on earth, the believers themselves remain on earth. If they were in heaven they would not need the intercession of the Mediator, nor would they be instructed not to refuse Christ who is speaking to them from heaven. Moreover, the church of the firstborn is still on this earth. Paul refers elsewhere to his fellowlaborers "whose names are in the book of life" (Phil. 4:3). Jesus instructed His disciples to "rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20). Those who are eventually translated to heaven at the second coming of Jesus are those whose names are retained in the book of life (compare Dan. 12:1; Rev. 3:5; 20:12; 21:27).
"The spirits of the righteous made perfect" (Heb. 12:23) are not disembodied spirits in heaven. In fact, there is no evidence in Scripture that there are any disembodied spirits of humans in heaven. The Hebrew Christians belonged to the church of the firstborn on this earth and have fellowship with those who have been made complete (or perfect) in Christ (Col. 2:10). Speaking of Christ's death a little earlier in the same letter to the Hebrews, Paul wrote: "But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, 'he sat down at the right hand of God,' and since then has been waiting 'until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.' For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (Heb. 10:12-14). The point is that there is cleansing from sin and present perfection in Christ for those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and who are being progressively sanctified. (See also Rom. 6:18-22; 8:3, 4, 9-10). Such a church of believers who are enjoying the indwelling righteousness of Christ by the Holy Spirit are accurately spoken of as "the spirits of the righteous made perfect" (Heb. 12:23). Their spiritual life has been brought into harmony with the will of God. They have become "servants" or "slaves" of righteousness (Rom. 6:18). The "righteousness of the law" is fulfilled in them (Rom. 8:4), and Christ, dwelling in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, is their righteousness within. The Hebrew Christians had the privilege of fellowshiping with genuinely born-again believers in the Church of Christ on earth. And Paul wanted the Hebrew Christians themselves to be "righteous [people] made perfect." (Compare Heb. 9:14; 10:19-22).
Every Christian believer, because of his or her relationship with Christ, may have such a vibrant spiritual life that the phrase, "the spirits of the righteous made perfect," may apply to his or her experience. This is Christ's ideal for His children.
To what did Paul refer when he wrote of "a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)" (2 Cor. 12:3, KJV)?
In context, the statement reads as follows: "It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven -- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person . . . was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses" (2 Cor. 12:1-5, NRSV).
First, we should note that Paul was speaking about himself. He was explaining how God had given him "visions and revelations" (verse 1; cf. verses 6-11). His purpose was to convince the Corinthians that he was a genuinely inspired apostle (verse 11, 12). In vision Paul had been caught up into paradise (verse 4), the third heaven (verse 2). Paradise is where God's throne is, and where the tree of life is (Rev. 2:7; 22:1, 2). Paul was not certain whether he was actually in bodily form in heaven, or only there in vision while his body remained on earth. The point is that Paul was still a human being living on this earth at the time he received his visions and revelations from God. He was not a disembodied spirit whose body had died and whose spirit was now dwelling in heaven. There is no evidence for the immortality of the soul in the passage.
The Lord sometimes gives inspired prophets visions and dreams in which they seem to be far away from their earthly place of dwelling. But such revelations do not prove that man has an immortal soul.
Why did Jesus speak of the dead by saying, "God is not the god of the dead, but of the living" (Matt. 22:32, KJV)?
Jesus said to the Sadducees: "For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?' He is God not of the dead, but of the living" (Matt. 22:30-32).
The whole passage of which this verse is a part (Matt. 22:23-32) is a discussion between Jesus and the Sadducees about the resurrection. They denied that there would be a resurrection of the dead (verse 23). They posed a hypothetical case of a woman who married seven brothers in turn and asked Jesus which of the brothers would be her husband after the resurrection. Jesus' answer focused on the resurrection: "For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven" (verse 30, italics supplied). Then he added: "But as for the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read what was said to you by God, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is God not of the dead, but of the living" (verses 31, 32, italics supplied). Jesus' point was that God is the God of the living because the dead will be raised in the resurrection, not because the dead are living in spirit form in heaven now. Mark introduces the statement with the phrase: "And as for the dead being raised . . . ." (Mark 12:26). Luke quotes Jesus as saying: "And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive" (Luke 20:37, 38, italics supplied).
The last phrase of Luke 20:38 may be translated: ". . . for to him [God] all are living." God views the things that will be as though they already are. Paul spoke of "God, who quickeneth [makes alive] the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were" (Rom. 4:17, KJV). Paul also wrote: "For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living" (Rom. 14:7-9, KJV). The Lord knows which of the dead belong to Him, and these are the ones whom He will raise at the second advent of Christ (1 Thess. 4:13-18; John 5:28, 29).
The living believer in Christ need have no fear of death because even after his death Christ is still his Lord, who has a complete record of his faithfulness and plans to raise him on the resurrection day.
What did Paul mean when he wrote: "we are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8, KJV)?
The immortal-soul advocates use this passage (2 Cor. 5:1-10) to prove that Paul was looking forward to being a disembodied spirit in heaven. The context indicates otherwise. The three possible states to which he refers are: (i) "our earthly house" (verse 1); (ii) the "naked" or "unclothed" state (verses 3, 4); (iii) "a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (verse 1, KJV). The "unclothed" state is, in fact, the intermediate condition between the earthly and heavenly state. In the earthly state the believer has an earthly body. In the heavenly state he will have an immortal, incorruptible body. But in the "naked," or "unclothed" state he will have no body at all because it has gone back to the dust, and the life force has been removed by God. As we have seen above, this life force is not a conscious, immortal entity.
Paul was looking forward to the resurrection of the body at the second advent (Rom. 8:11, 22, 23; Phil. 3:20, 21; 1 Cor. 15:4-44). His focus was not on being a disembodied spirit after death but on being with Christ on the resurrection morning (2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Cor. 15:51-54).
Paul wrote: "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you" (Phil. 1:21-24). He does not, however, tell us in this passage when he will be with Christ. As far as the dead person is concerned the interval between the moment of death and the resurrection at Christ's coming is no time at all. After death the next thing he knows is that he is in the presence of Christ. Hence, Paul's desire to lay down his burden was not in view of a wish to be a disembodied spirit being in heaven after death. It was in view of his wish to be raised to be with Christ on the resurrection day.
For the Christian believer death is a state of unconsciousness followed by eternity with Christ. Death is rest from labor, and the resurrection is an eternity of restfulness. What greater blessings could the Lord bestow upon us?
How do we answer the argument that, since man is made in the image of God, and God is immortal, therefore man is immortal? (Gen. 1:26, 27).
When man was made in the image of God he was not, therefore, given all of the characteristics of God. God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). Of course man does not have, and never did have, these characteristics, even though he was made in God's image. Humans were made in the image of God in outward resemblance and in character. (See Exod. 33:22, 23; Ezek. 1:26-28; Gen. 5:1; James 3:9.) Our first parents had continuing life with no deterioration or expectation of death until the point at which they chose to sin (Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:21).
Never in Scripture are the words "immortal" or "immortality" used in reference to mankind in his earthly, fallen existence. Christian believers "seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life" (Rom. 2:7, KJV). They do not have immortality now; they are looking forward to it. Immortality at the second advent (1 Cor. 15:51-54) is possible because Christ earned it for us on Calvary (2 Tim. 1:10). By comparison with earthly humans, God "only hath immortality" (1 Tim. 6:16).
Every believer has the assurance that Christ will bestow immortality upon him at the second advent.
The Old Testament speaks of the souls of dying people departing. What does that mean? (Gen. 35:18; 1 Kings 17:17, 21, 22).
Genesis 35:18 describes the death of Rachel: "And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni . . . ." (KJV, italics supplied). The Hebrew word translated "soul" in this verse is nephesh.
1 Kings 17:17-22 describes the death of the widow's son at Zarephath and Elijah's prayer that resulted in God raising him from the dead. When he died, "there was no breath left in him" (verse 17, KJV, italics supplied). The Hebrew word for breath used in this verse is neshamah. Elijah's prayer to God resulted in the child being raised from the dead: "I pray thee, let this child's soul [nephesh] come into him again. And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul [nephesh] of the child came into him again, and he revived" (verses 21, 22, KJV, italics supplied).
The Hebrew word translated "breath" in 1 Kings 17:17, neshamah, according to the Hebrew dictionaries, means "breath," "breathing thing," "spirit of man."(5) It is the word used in Genesis 2:7: "And 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" (KJV). Hence, the life force that was given to man by God when He created him left the widow's son when he died. Neshamah does not refer to a conscious, immortal part of the child that went on living when he died. It simply refers to the life from God that was taken away from the child at death.
As we have seen, both Genesis 35:18 and 1 Kings 17:21-22 use the Hebrew word nephesh, translated "soul" in the King James Version. Rachel's "soul" left her at death, and the child's "soul" came back into him when Elijah prayed for him. It is important to know what the Hebrew word nephesh means. According to the Hebrew dictionaries it means: "breath," "respiration," "life," "soul," "spirit," "mind," "living being," "creature," "a person," "self."(6) Never does nephesh refer to a part of an individual that can have conscious existence independent of the body. Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament has an excellent article on nephesh, as the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek word psuche. We quote part of the article for the purpose of clarifying the true meaning of nephesh. (The Hebrew words will be transliterated in brackets):
"The deciding mark of the living creature is breathing, and its cessation means the end of life. Hence the root . . . in the form of the noun . . . which occurs 755 times in the Hbr. Bible, denotes 'life' or 'living creature'. . . . In 1 K. 17:17 lack of . . .[neshamah or breath] causes the departure of . . .[nephesh] which returns when the prophet gives the child breath again, for . . . [nephesh] alone is what makes a living creature into a living organism. . . . Yet one should not conclude that the . . . [nephesh] is an immaterial principle which can be abstracted away from its material sub-structure and which can lead an independent existence. The departure of the . . . [nephesh] is a metaphor for death; a dead man is one who has ceased to breathe. . . . [Nephesh] is the usual term for man's total nature, for what he is and not just what he has. . . . The . . . [nephesh] is almost always connected with a form. It has no existence apart from the body. Hence the best translation in many instances is 'person' comprised in corporeal reality. The person can be marked off and counted, Gn. 12:5; 46:18; Jos. 10:28; 11:11. Each individual is a . . . [nephesh], and when the texts speak of a single . . . [nephesh] for a totality, the totality is viewed as a single person, a 'corporate personality.' Hence . . . [nephesh] can denote what is most individual in human nature, namely, the ego, and it can become a synonym of the personal pronoun, Gn. 27:25."(7)
In fact, a lifeless body is sometimes spoken of as a nephesh in the Old Testament. It is a dead individual. (See Num. 5:2; 9:6, 10; Haggai 2:13.)
Summarizing the above, we arrive at these conclusions: (1) the root meaning of the word nephesh is "breath"; (2) because breath is essential to life, nephesh came to mean "life"; (3) because life is enjoyed by each living person, nephesh came to apply to an individual; it came to be used for the personal pronoun; (4) never does nephesh refer to a quality or a part of an individual that exists separate from the body.
Now it is very easy indeed to understand Genesis 35:18 and 1 Kings 17:21, 22. Rachel's "soul" (nephesh) that departed when she died was simply her breath or life. She ceased to be a living individual because the life force had departed. Just so, the widow's son died when the breath of life left him. When Elijah prayed for the boy, God gave him back his life (nephesh), and once again he became a living, breathing individual.
A study of the Hebrew and Greek words for "soul" in Scripture reveals that the word never means a disembodied, conscious entity. A soul is either the total personality, including body and life force, or it may refer to the life force (breath) itself, or to some other aspect of human personality that is always connected to the body. In fact, at times a dead body is spoken of as a "soul," simply because the body represents the person who has expired. Therefore, Rachel and the widow's son died when life departed from them, and the boy was raised up when God gave him life again.
Why does the book of Revelation depict the souls of dead martyrs crying out for vindication? (Rev. 6:9-11)
First, it should be pointed out that the book of Revelation is full of prophetic symbolism. No one would wish to conclude, for example, that the four living creatures or the 24 elders, or the Lamb, of chapters 4 and 5 appear exactly in heaven as John saw them in vision. God gave John a series of symbolic visions which we can accurately interpret by comparing Scripture with Scripture.
Second, if we are to regard the "souls under the altar" of Revelation 6:9 as literal, we have a strange picture indeed. Why are they congregated under the altar in heaven? Their lot really does not seem to be very pleasant after all; they seem to be very unhappy people in dire need of vindication.
Third, why should these dead martyrs be crying out for God to "avenge" the injustice done to them, if their wicked enemies went to hell at death, as the immortal-soul advocates believe? Surely the vengeance against those who killed the martyrs was already being poured out, if the immortal souls of the wicked go to hell when they die.
Fourth, it is very important to understand that the "altar" of Revelation 6:9 is not the altar of incense in heaven. It is an allusion to the altar of burnt offering that was in the court of the ancient Israelite sanctuary or temple (Exod. 27:1-8; 29:12-18; 38:1-7). How do we know this? John's vision was of people who had been sacrificed. The only place where Israelites were to offer sacrifices was by the altar of burnt offering in the court of the sanctuary (Lev. 17:1-9). In the offering of animal sacrifices, the excess blood was poured at the base of the altar of burnt offering (Lev. 4:7, 18, 25, 30). The life (Hebrew nephesh or Greek psuche = "life" or "soul") of the animal was in the blood (Gen. 9:4; Deut. 12:23; Lev. 17:10, 11). When the blood of the animal was poured beneath the altar, that represented life being poured out; the life of Christ poured out for us (Heb. 10:1-9; Ps. 22:14), and the lives of Christ's people being sacrificed for Him (2 Cor. 1:5; Phil. 3:10; Heb. 11:37).
The souls under the altar of Revelation 6:9-11 do not refer to living, conscious, immortal souls of dead people in heaven. These "souls" or "lives" are a symbol of those whose blood was poured out for Christ's sake. Their blood is crying out to God from the ground in a metaphoric sense as the blood of Abel cried out for justice (Gen. 4:10). As we have seen above, the Hebrew and Greek words for "soul" (nephesh and psuche) never refer to a part of a person that can have existence separate from the body.
The message of Revelation 6:9-11 is a beautiful symbol of God's continuing concern for those who have laid down their lives for Him. He has a record of the injustice dealt to them, and this record cries out for their vindication. They are judged worthy in heaven and told to "rest yet for a little season" (verse 11, KJV). At the second coming of Jesus they will be awakened from the sleep of death and given their eternal inheritance (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
What did Peter mean when he wrote that Christ preached to the "spirits in prison"? (1 Peter 3:18-20)
Those who believe in the immortality of the soul interpret this passage to mean that when Christ died He went down to hell and preached to the wicked souls who had been destroyed in the flood. Why would Christ do that? To give them another chance? Then they must have been in a place like purgatory and not irrevocably lost at all! Unfortunately for this view, the Bible never teaches that those who die lost are given another chance. Compare what else Peter has to say about the people who were lost in the flood (2 Peter 2:4-9).
Why would Christ preach only to those who were lost in Noah's day? Why didn't He preach to the rest of the lost? The truth is that the passage is not talking about Christ descending to a place of immortal lost spirits when He died. There is no such place described in Scripture. Death is a sleep, and when Jesus died He slept in the grave until the moment of His resurrection. When the wicked were destroyed in the flood, they were put to sleep, reserved "unto the day of judgment to be punished" (2 Peter 2:9, KJV).
The Holy Spirit used Noah as a preacher of righteousness for 120 years (2 Peter 2:5). The "spirits" to whom Noah and Jesus preached were living human beings, in prison spiritually because they had forsaken the only true God (see Isa. 42:7; 61:1; Luke 4:18-21). The Scriptures a number of times speak of living humans on this earth as "spirits" (Heb. 12:23; Num. 16:22; 27:16). Never in the Bible is a "spirit" (pneuma) the disembodied, immortal spirit of a human being in heaven or hell. The word pneuma means "wind,""breath,""spirit." It was used often in the sense of "person," or in reference to an aspect of personality inseparable from the person. (See 1 Cor. 16:18; Gal. 6:18; 2 Tim. 4:22; cf. Phil. 4:23).
Just as the Holy Spirit plead with people before the flood, so He pleads with us today to be reconciled to Christ (1 Peter 3:18).
Did jesus tell the dying thief that he would be in paradise that day? (Luke 23:43)
The immortal-soul advocates argue that Jesus preached to the spirits in hell after His death (1 Peter 3:18-20; discussed above). But, on the basis of Luke 23:43, they assert that Jesus went to paradise when He died? Exactly where was Jesus after death?
Paradise is heaven (2 Cor. 12:2, 4; Rev. 2:7; 22:1, 2). Jesus did not go to paradise that Friday afternoon of the crucifixion. On the next Sunday morning, after He had risen from the dead, He said to Mary Magdalene: "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father" (John 20:17, KJV, italics supplied).
The punctuation of Luke 23:43 in English and in modern Greek Bibles does not represent the punctuation of the original author. There was no such punctuation in the ancient Greek manuscripts. The correct punctuation of the text is as follows: "Verily I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise." Jesus promised this dying believer that he would be in heaven with Him on the resurrection morning at His second coming (1 Thess. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:51-54).
Praise the Lord, every believer in Christ can claim the promise made to the dying thief. Even though we should die, we will be raised to be with Christ in paradise.
If the soul is not immortal, how do we explain that after his death Samuel appeared to king Saul? (1 Sam. 28:7-19)
A number of facts establish certainly that this passage does not teach the immortality of the soul:
1. Saul went to the witch of Endor because "the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets" (1 Sam. 28:6, KJV). Because of his persistence in rebellion against God, the Lord withdrew from Saul and left him to the control of evil demons. (Compare 1 Samuel 16:14-16). In conversation with the spirit that the witch called up for him, Saul admitted: "God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do" (1 Sam. 28:15, KJV).
Had Saul repented of his sin, God would have heard his prayers and delivered him from his enemies. A later Bible writer explained why God allowed Saul's life to be taken: "So Saul died for his transgression which he committed against the Lord, even against the word of the Lord, which he kept not, and also for asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit, to enquire of it; and enquired not of the Lord: therefore he slew him, and turned the kingdom unto David the son of Jesse" (1 Chron. 10:13, 14, KJV).
Since God had departed from Saul and would not answer his prayers, and since God later condemned Saul for going to the witch of Endor, it is inconceivable that God would use the witch to give Saul an inspired message. Since Samuel was a prophet of God during his lifetime, we can assume that the being which appeared to the witch of Endor was not Samuel, but an evil spirit impersonating Samuel. God was not speaking to Saul, and He never speaks at the request of mediums controlled by evil spirits.
2. The witch of Endor is described in the King James Version as one having "a familiar spirit" (1 Sam. 28:7). The Hebrew words for "familiar spirit" are ba'alath-'ob. 'Ob means "necromancer," or "medium." This is a person who claims to foretell the future through alleged communication with the dead; a conjurer, wizard, sorcerer. God had specifically commanded that such evil spirit mediums should be put to death in Israel. Any one consulting spirit mediums was to be cut off from Israel. (See Lev. 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deut. 18:10, 11.) Saul had previously obeyed the divine commands in this respect by expelling the spirit mediums: "And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land" (1 Sam. 28:3, KJV). Are we now to believe that God would speak to Saul through a witch, the very kind of person that He had commanded should not be permitted to live? Such an idea is unthinkable!
3. In response to the witch's incantations, "Samuel" came up, not down (1 Sam. 28:11, 13, 14, 15). If the appearance had been truly Samuel's immortal soul, it would have come down from heaven, not up from the depths of the earth. The evil spirit impersonating Samuel was called Samuel by the Bible writer only because the story is told as the events were perceived by those present.
4. Saul did not see the spirit being. He only had the word of the witch that it was Samuel (verses 13, 14). What Saul "perceived" (verse 14) was what he understood, even though he did not see the manifestation. Are we to believe the word of a condemned practicing witch that Samuel was actually present?
5. "Samuel" appeared as an old man bowed with his face to the ground. Do immortal souls retain the bodily appearance they had in old age on earth?
6. "Samuel" told Saul: ". . . and to morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me" (verse 19, KJV). The next day Saul committed suicide (1 Sam. 31:4). If he went to be with Samuel's immortal soul, surely he would have gone to
heaven. Do wicked men who are rejected by God and who commit suicide go to heaven when they die?
Saul turned away from God and consulted a medium of evil demons. Because Saul's life was in the Devils's hands, the Devil could predict what would happen the next day. When the evil one is in charge of a life he can destroy it at will. An evil demon impersonating Samuel predicted Saul's eternal doom.
What is meant by Isaiah's description of the destruction of the wicked: "Their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched" (Isa 66:24, KJV)?
The fire that destroys the wicked is unquenchable because, like the fire that burned old Jerusalem, nothing can put it out until it has done its job of consuming the lost (Jer. 17:27).
Why does Isaiah speak of the saved in the new earth viewing the "carcases" of the wicked? (Isa. 66:24). Note first that he does not describe the saved as viewing disembodied immortal souls suffering in hellfire. The Hebrew word translated "carcases" means "dead bodies," or "corpses." In Isaiah's description, worms and fire are devouring dead bodies, not immortal souls.
What is meant by the phrase, "for their worm shall not die"? Some would have us believe that the undying worm is the immortal soul. That would be a strange way indeed for the inspired prophet to describe the soul. In the Hebrew poetry of the text, the "worm" is parallel with the "fire." They are the forces of destruction, not the objects being destroyed. Hence, the meaning of the passage is that, when they are being viewed by the righteous, the dead bodies of the wicked are still in process of being consumed. The simple imperfect tense of the Hebrew verbs suggests the following translation: ". . . their worm had not died yet, nor had their fire been quenched." At the time at which the dead bodies of the wicked are being viewed by the saved, they have not yet been consumed.
Why does Isaiah depict the saved as viewing the burning of the dead bodies of the wicked? It must be understood that Isaiah's description of the new earth (Isa. 65:17 - 66:24) would have been fulfilled in every detail if Israel had not failed in the mission given it by God. Since Israel rejected Christ, and the Christian Church inherited its spiritual blessings and evangelistic program, Isaiah's prophecy must be interpreted in the light of later revelation concerning the new earth state. Whereas Isaiah's new earth for Israel incorporated such things as old age and death (Isa. 65:20), the final new earth foreseen by John the Revelator contains no suffering, death, or destruction of any kind (Rev. 21:1-5). And whereas in Isaiah's new earth, the righteous would see the dead bodies of the wicked, in John's new earth the wicked have been finally consumed (Rev. 20:14, 15). The long life followed by old age and death, and the burning of the wicked in Isaiah's prophecy can now be viewed as metaphoric descriptions of the eternal life of the righteous in a world where their is no death, and where no wicked person dwells. Before the establishment of the final new earth the wicked will be reduced to ashes (Mal. 4:1), for their mortal souls will perish. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezek. 18:4, KJV).
Praise the Lord that each one of us can have a part in the earth made new where sin, suffering, and death are no more!. If we die before Jesus comes again, we will be raised and given immortality (1 Cor. 15:51-54). If we live until His coming, we will be made immortal beings with the privilege of spending eternity in a universe free from the curse of evil.
How do we explain the bible statements that refer to the "everlasting destruction" of the wicked?
A number of times in the New Testament the destruction of the wicked is said to be "everlasting" or "eternal." For that reason some interpreters of the Bible have assumed that the immortal souls of the wicked will burn in hellfire for eternity.
Speaking of the destruction of the wicked, Jesus said: "The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12). "Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41) "And these [the lost] go away into eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46).
Paul wrote of the kind of destruction that will be meted out upon unbelievers: "These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints" (2 Thess. 1:9, 10).
Do these statements of Jesus and Paul imply that the wicked will burn eternally. The answer is no. The fire is unquenchable because, like the fire that burned old Jerusalem, nothing can put it out until it has done its job of consuming the lost. Jeremiah presented God's prediction to His rebellious people: "If you do not listen to me, to keep the sabbath day holy, and to carry in no burden through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates; it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched" (Jer. 17:27). Jerusalem was destroyed as Jeremiah had predicted, and the fire burnt out. "They burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels. . . . to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah" (2 Chron. 36:19, 21).
Sodom and Gomorrah suffered "a punishment of eternal fire" (Jue 7). But the wicked people in those cities are not still burning. Those cities and their inhabitants were reducted to ashes. "By turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly" (2 Peter 2:6).
At the end of time, the wicked will be reduced to ashes. "See the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. . . . And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts" (Mal. 4:1-3). Where would the ashes come from if the wicked went on suffering in the flames for eternity?
In speaking of the punishment of the wicked, both Jesus and Paul used the adjective "eternal" or "everlasting." The Greek adjective used in the New Testament is aionios. This adjective and its corresponding noun aion (eternity), do not necessarily mean never ending. Often they refer to a period of limited duration. For example, this present "world" or "age" that is coming to an end is a number of times spoken of as this aion (Matt. 13:39; Eph. 1:21; 2 Tim. 4:10; 1 Cor. 2:7).
Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament points out that "the meaning of . . . [aion] merges into that of a long but limited stretch of time. In particular, . . . [aion] in this sense signifies the time or duration of the world, i.e., time as limited by creation and conclusion. At this point we are confronted by the remarkable fact that in the Bible the same word . . . [aion] is used to indicate two things which are really profoundly antithetical, namely, the eternity of God and the duration of the world. This twofold sense, which . . . [aion] shares with the Heb. . . . ['olam], points back to a concept of eternity in which eternity is identified with the duration of the world."(8)
Thus in the New Testament, the words "everlasting" and "eternal" may mean a period of limited duration. Paul wrote to Philemon concerning the slave Onesimus: "Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever" (Philemon 15). The phrase "for ever" translates the Greek adjective aionios. It does not mean that Philemon would have the services of Onesimus for eternity. It means that Onesimus would serve Philemon until he died.
Liddell and Scott's Greek English Lexicon comments on aion (eternity) and aionios (eternal) that the noun may mean a "period of existence. . . . lifetime, life. . . . space of time clearly defined and marked out, epoch, age. . . . this present world." The adjective aionios (eternal) may refer to "holding an office or title for life, perpetual. . . ."(9)
Thus "eterntiy" may refer to a period of unending duration or a period of limited duration. And "eternal" may mean as long as the nature of the subject allows.
What is the nature of those who are taken to heaven at the second coming of Jesus? They are given immortality when Jesus appears (1 Cor. 15:51-54). Therefore they live eternally, because beings who are immortal can never die (John 3:16, 36; Matt. 25:46).
What is the nature of the wicked upon whom the fire is reigned at the end of the millennium? They are still mortal beings! Paul taught that "the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23).
The eternal punishment of the lost is eternal death, the opposite of eternal life. Because the lost are mortal, they can die and will die in the fires of the last great day. If they lived on in the fire for eternity, they would have eternal life, not eternal death. In the phrase "eternal fire" the word "eternal" refers to the limited period of intense suffering which comes to an end when the wicked die. The fire is eternal because it brings the world (aion) to an end. The fire is eternal in its results. The death of the wicked is an eternal (never-ending) death. That is what Jesus meant when He said of the lost: "These go away into eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46).
"Forever" does not always mean unendingly throughout eternity. It is an English translation of aion or aionios (Greek) or 'olam (Hebrew), which we have seen sometimes mean a period of limited duration. Jonah spoke of his experience in the belly of the whale: "I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever" (Jonah 2:6, italics supplied). But he was in the belly of the whale "three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17). Gehazi and his seed were to be lepers "forever" (2 Kings 5:27). They were lepers until death. Israel were instructed to observe the Passover "for ever" (Exod. 12:24, KJV). But the Passover ceased to have significance when Jesus died on the cross (1 Cor. 5:7).
These facts enable us to explain the statements in the book of Revelation that speak of the sufferings of the wicked at the end of the millennium: "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever [eis aionas aionon] There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name" (Rev. 14:11). "And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever [eis tous aionas ton aionon] (Rev. 20:10).
In each case, the Greek phrase means as long as the nature of the subject allows. Because the wicked are moral beings, they suffer forever in the sense that their suffering continues until their lives expire. They have no rest and no freedom from torment until they are reduced to ashes.
Jude 13 and 2 Peter 2:17 indicate that the lost will suffer blackest darkness "forever." What better way could there be to describe the darkness of eternal extinction. The Psalmist pointed out that no one will be able to discover where the wicked are after they have been destroyed, because they will have been entirely consumed. "Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there" (Ps. 37:10). "The wicked perish, and the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish -- like smoke they vanish away" (verse 20).
God is merciful in bringing the sufferings of the wicked to an end. Certainly the period that Jonah was in the belly of the whale must have seemed to him like forever. And the sufferings of the lost will seem to them like forever. But the Lord is too loving and merciful to permit them to suffer unendingly, for eternity.
Are you willing to commit your life, as Stephen did, to the care of the eternal Life Giver? The Lord pleads with you to turn from fables to the truth of His Word, and to find in Christ your assurance of salvation. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul opens the door for the deceptions of spiritism and the errors of purgatory and eternal hellfire. We can rejoice that God's Word delivers us from these deceptions and errors. And we can rejoice that Christ suffered to deliver us from sin and destruction.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16).
1. Unless otherwise stated, the Bible quotations in this article are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.
2. Kurt Aland, et al, The Greek New Testament (New York: American Bible Society, 1966), 1 Cor. 6:20.
3. Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906, 1951), s.v. neshamah; William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University Press, 1957), s.v. pnoe.
4. See Arndt and Gringrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. See also Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), vol. 6, pp. 332-451
5. See Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament.
6. See Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament.
7. Gerhard Kittel (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), vol. 9, pp. 618-620.
8. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 202.
9. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), s.v. aion, aionios.
© Copyright 1998 by Erwin R. Gane, All Rights Reserved. This document may be freely distributed via the following means - Email (including listservers), Usenet, and WorldWideWeb. It may not be reproduced for profit including, but not limited to, CD ROMs, books, and/or other commercial outlets without prior written consent from the author.