The idea of an immortal soul which lives on after death is part of many people’s understanding of christianity. But it probably isn’t true. Here’s a short study of the Bible’s teachings on souls.
From the Concordance and Lexicons.
The best starting point is checking out what words are used in the Bible in the original languages, and what they mean.
- The word translated soul in the New Testament is the Greek psyche – no other word is translated soul as far as I can tell. The base meaning of psyche is breath, coming from psycho meaning to breath. That much is clear, but then it gets complicated and less clear.
- From that base meaning the Greek lexicons give a number of uses or meanings – spirit, soul, sentience, life force, breath of life, etc, but soul is the most common.
- Psyche is said to be the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew nephesh (= a breathing creature) from naphash (= to breathe). The word soul in the English Old Testament is almost always a translation of the Hebrew nephesh, but nephesh is translated many different ways, including life (this sometimes includes animal life), Nevertheless soul is the commonest translation.
- The use of nephesh in Genesis is very interesting. In several places nephesh is used to describe an animal (often translated as creature) but is also used in 2:7 in the phrase “the man became a living being/soul”, not “man was given a soul”.
There are other associated Greek and Hebrew words:
- The Hebrew ruach (= breath, wind) and the corresponding Greek pneuma (= wind, breath, spirit), are usually translated as spirit (e.g. Holy Spirit).
- The Hebrew chay (= alive) and the corresponding Greek zoe (life, vitality), are usually translated as life (e.g. eternal life).
The differences are not always easy to see but nephesh/psyche generally has the meaning of living thing, ruach/pneuma is the breath or spirit and chay/zoe is life itself.
What the experts say.
1. Bakers Evangelical Dictionary at BibleStudyTools.com says:
“Clearly, then, in the Old Testament a mortal is a living soul rather than having a soul. Instead of splitting a person into two or three parts, Hebrew thought sees a unified being, but one that is profoundly complex, a psychophysical being.”
It goes on to say the NT usage is similar, but more varied, and the word occurs less often. It can indicate a person, or a life, or stand in contrast with either body or spirit.
2. The Holman Bible Dictionary at StudyLight.org says:
“In the New Testament, the term psyche retreats behind the ideas of body, flesh, spirit to characterize human existence. In the Bible, a person is a unity. Body and soul or spirit are not opposite terms, but rather terms which supplement one another to describe aspects of the inseparable whole person. Such a holistic image of a person is maintained also in the New Testament even over against the Greek culture which, since Plato, sharply separated body and soul with an analytic exactness and which saw the soul as the valuable, immortal, undying part of human beings.”
3. NT Wright, an eminent christian scholar says:
“Paul’s, and the gospels’, usage [of psyche] is far closer to the Hebrew nephesh, which is the living, breathing creature: God breathed into human nostrils his own breath, the breath of life, nishmath hayyim, and the human became a living creature, nephesh hayyah (Genesis 2.7). …. Psyche here simply means ‘creature’, or perhaps even (in modern English) ‘person’. There are several other references indicating the same thing (e.g. 1 Thess 2.8; Phil 1.27; 2.30; Rom 2.9; 11.3; 13.1; 16.4; 2 Cor. 1.23.). All refer to the ordinary human life.”
“Further, there is never a hint of the psyche being immortal in and of itself. 1 Timothy 6 again, this time v. 16: God alone possesses immortality.”
4. Finally Wikipedia says:
“The concept of an immaterial soul separate from and surviving the body is common today but was not found in ancient Hebrew beliefs. The word never means an immortal soul or an incorporeal part of the human being that can survive death of the body as the spirit of dead.”
It seems clear, from both the Old and New Testaments, that we don’t have souls, we are in fact souls. And of course we are not immortal. We quite definitely don’t have immortal souls.
- We are mortal (“made of dust”). Without God’s intervention, we would return to the ground and that would be the end. But by God’s grace we have the christian hope of the resurrection of the body (see for example, 1 Corinthians 15:12-57, and the Apostles Creed).
- The idea of a soul as separate from the body and able to live on after the body has died, appears to come from Greek thought (specifically Plato and his followers), not from the Bible or Jewish thought.
- When Jesus talks about God destroying body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28), he is talking about the destruction of physical bodies and the life or self that is contained within them. I believe he means what he says, that we are not immortal, and those who refuse God’s grace forfeit eternal life (see Hell – what does the Bible say?).
- This more biblical view of soul meaning a living person removes some of the difficulties christians have faced of trying to determine when the soul enters the body at birth and leave sit at death. These questions are no longer applicable.
First I just want to thank you for you site, as a person who is new to Christianity I find it very interesting and have found a lot of possible answers to theoretical issues I’ve been having. I really appreciate how you outline many views to each theoretical problem, this is something a lot of sources do not do and I find it very helpful for further research.
I am struggling to fully understand this article though, If you say the body and soul are inextricably linked, then what happens to a Christians body and soul after death? I take it from this and a few other articles you have written that you believe non Christians souls cease to exist much as what atheists suggest.
Hi flunderbunk, and welcome. I love that name, and I enjoyed visiting your website. I certainly wish you well with your daughter.
Thanks you for your kind words. I set up this website for exactly that reason. I have been a christian for 50 years, I have asked a lot of question in that time, found answers to a few of them, and I read a lot. So I hoped to share some ideas with others asking similar questions, and hoping for feedback and ideas in return. Please feel free to continue to explore and comment. You may also be interested in my other site, Is there a God?, which looks at reasons to believe and difficult questions non-believers ask.
I don’t think we can know all the answers to the questions you ask, but I think:
1. People are more than physical beings. It is hard to see how we could make rational and moral choices if we were just physical. So we can see ourselves as “body and soul”, with the body being the physical and soul being the spiritual/emotional/ethical.
2. When people die, I believe the natural and obvious thing happens – our bodies decompose. There is no immortality in us, and nothing to live on after we die. Unless God did something about it, that would be the end.
3. But christianity teaches that our great hope is to be resurrected. God will raise us to new life. It would appear that we will be physical, but not in quite the same was as we are now – just as Jesus was physical but different after his resurrection.
4. I’m not really sure about the fate of non-believers, or those who don’t seek God. I think ultimately their life ends. Conventional christianity would say that they are first raised to life, face the judgment of God, and then their life ends – and the book of Revelation talks about “the second death”. But I’m not sure. Once we die, we are out of time, and perhaps God’s judgment happens in the instant of death. I really don’t know.
That is about as much as I can say. I think it accords with New Testament teaching and common sense, but I cannot feel certain about it.
Thanks for your questions. I hope that provides some food for thought. Best wishes.
Hi, I have a question that’s kind of similar to flunderbunk’s above. If we assume that this view of the soul is accurate, then where do regenerate believers go when they die, but before the resurrection? There seems to be a lot of scriptural support for the idea that we’re in some intermediate spiritual stage with Christ in that time and I think many would say that it is our souls. Thanks.
Hi Elijah, I think this is an interesting question, but not really important, so I think we haven’t been given an answer to it. But my guess (for what it’s worth) is that once we die, we are outside time, or at least outside the world’s time, and that asking what happens in some in between time is probably not reflecting that. My guess is that when we die, we experience immediate transformation and enter heaven immediately (from our perspective), regardless of the timing of events in this world. That’s as much as I think I can say. Thanks.
1Th 4:16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first. If the dead in Christ rise first, then those NOT in Christ will rise after!
Re 20:12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
Re 20:15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
Da 12:2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Hi Andrew, thanks for your contribution. Was there something you wanted readers to get from those passages?
Thank you unkieE, Yes, I wanted people to see from Scripture that no part of us goes to heaven at death, but that we await in the grave, in the dust,for our resurrection when Jesus returns (1Th 4:16). The soul dies Ezekiel 18:4, 20. This going to heaven thing demeans the powerful resurrection of some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Thank you.
Can you explain this paragraph from Luke 16?
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: 20And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, 21And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; 23And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. 25But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. 26And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. 27Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: 28For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. 29Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. 30And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. 31And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
Also, how to explain John 14 as below?
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. 4And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.
Thanks for commenting. Do you think those passages are contrary to what I have written here?
The first passage is a parable, which generally addresses a specific issue, and we should be wary of drawing too much from the setting of a parable. So in this case, I take it that the message of the parable is God’s concern for the poor and his judgment of those of us who are rich and don’t use our wealth to help the poor. I don’t think it teaches us anything about heaven and hell, and I am surprised anyone thinks that, because if it did, it would teach us that people in hell could talk to people in heaven, which I doubt anyone believes.
But the parable does presuppose belief in an afterlife, or life in the age to come. But in the Bible, this doesn’t mean we have an immortal soul, but occurs because God resurrects us. And so I believe we will go to be with him in the next life, as John 14 says.
Does that explain what I think and answer your question?
Luke 16:19-31 has been the focus of much controversy. Some take the story of the rich man and Lazarus to be a true, historical account of events that actually occurred; others consider it a parable or allegory.
Those who interpret this narrative as a true incident have several reasons for doing so. First, the story is never called a parable. Many other of Jesus’ stories are designated as parables, such as the sower and the seed (Luke 8:4); the prosperous farmer (Luke 12:16); the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6); and the wedding feast (Luke 14:7). Second, the story of the rich man and Lazarus uses the actual name of a person. Such specificity would set it apart from ordinary parables, in which the characters are not named.
Third, this particular story does not seem to fit the definition of a parable, which is a presentation of a spiritual truth using an earthly illustration. The story of the rich man and Lazarus presents spiritual truth directly, with no earthly metaphor. The setting for most of the story is the afterlife, as opposed to the parables, which unfold in earthly contexts.
In contrast, others maintain that this story is a parable and not an actual incident that occurred. They point out that Jesus’ standard practice was to use parables in His teaching. They do not consider the above arguments strong enough to warrant classifying the story as anything but a parable. Also, there are some aspects of the account that do not seem to agree with the rest of Scripture. For example, can people in hell and people in heaven see each other and speak to each other?
The important thing is that whether the story is a true incident or a parable, the teaching behind it remains the same. Even if it is not a “real” story, it is realistic. Parable or not, Jesus plainly used this story to teach that after death the unrighteous are eternally separated from God, that they remember their rejection of the Gospel, that they are in torment, and that their condition cannot be remedied. In Luke 16:19-31, whether parable or literal account, Jesus clearly taught the existence of heaven and hell as well as the deceitfulness of riches to those who trust in material wealth.
I really believe that we go to paradise first.
Then we get ressurected.
Jesus also said that on the cross.
To the thief you will be with me in paradise.
It seems also that Studylight, Biblestudytools, And NT wright agree with an intermediate state.
Yeah, people like to have an opinion on it, but I doubt anyone really knows. But I see no problem with thinking this either.
The idea of the immortal soul is as ancient as man himself-the ancient Egyptians and Greeks believed it. The Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato believed it, and the latter wrote it up and published it widely. The people who framed Christian beliefs after the Apostles died, such ass Origen and Tertullian, were greatly influenced by what Plato had said about the soul and incorrectly incorporated it into their teachings.
Yes, that’s my understanding too.
Hebrews 11:39-40 sheds interesting light on this question of when Saint’s receive their reward of eternal life and immortality. After listing many heros and martyrs through the ages, the author points out that none of them has yet to receive their promised reward. That, in fact, they await it until we all receive it at the Return of Christ, as spoken of in 1 Thess 4:15-17. Some theologians and scholars refer to it as Soul Sleep, but I think that is a misnomer, since it still implies an indestructable, immortal soul, which is not supported in biblical text.
The Bible is clear in Genisis how God created man. It is equally clear that God will recreate those who have died. The second is as much a miracle as the first, and leaves it as a mystery unexplained. The author of Hebrews placed the rewards of the afterlife in the context of faith, and left it to us to decide if we believe that God will extend it to all of us in his time.
Hi “Simple Truths”, thanks for your thoughts. We are a lot in agreement I think. I don’t think we need to worry much about timing after we die, because I believe we move into a different time. From one perspective we are resurrected when Jesus returns, but Jesus was able to say to the thief “Today I will see you in paradise.” The reality is what matters, I think, not the timing from our limited perspective.