Published: 20 May 2024

The Immortal Soul? Part 2: “Soul” Biblically Defined

biblically defined

In the previous article, we observed that the concept of an immortal soul, capable of existing independently from our physical bodies, did not originate from the Bible but rather from Greek philosophers. In this post, we will explore the biblical perspective on the soul. This preliminary study is essential before examining passages often misinterpreted to suggest that the Bible endorses the inherent immortality of the soul and its ability to exist apart from the body.

So, here is our methodology in this, and the following, articles. First, we’ll examine the Bible’s description of the soul. Second, we’ll observe the usage of the term “soul” within the biblical context. Third, we’ll analyze various passages often cited as evidence for the soul’s ability to exist independently from the body. The goal is to allow the Bible to speak for itself without imposing traditional Platonic ideas upon the text.

The soul popularly defined

To most people, the body is the physical part of us that we can see and touch, while the soul is the invisible, intangible, and independent part that contains our thoughts, emotions, and personality. According to this view, the body and soul are separate entities that can exist independently of each other. When the body dies, people believe the soul continues on in some form.

We can compare this view to a car and driver. Just as a driver operates and directs a car, the soul animates and directs the body. The driver (soul) controls the car (body), guiding its actions. When the car stops working (when the body dies), people say the driver (soul) continues its journey. While this notion is the predominant view among Christians and non-Christians alike, the Bible’s perspective of the body and soul are quite different.

The soul biblically defined

In the King James Bible, the word soul first appears in 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

Nevertheless, Genesis 2:7 isn’t the first place in the Bible where the word appears. In fact, it appears three times in Genesis 1, but we don’t notice because translators render the Hebrew differently:

20 Then God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.” 21 So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:20-21 NKJV)

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind”; and it was so. (Gen. 1:24 NKJV)

Irresponsible translating?

Regarding this translation discrepancy, Fudge comments:

“The KJV has man become a ‘living soul’ in Gen 2:7 but translates the exact same Hebrew phrase ‘living creature’ in Gen 2:19, where it is applied to the animals. Snaith calls this ‘most reprehensible’ and says ‘it is a grave reflection on the Revisers that they retained this misleading difference in translation . . . The Hebrew phrase should be translated exactly the same way in both cases. To do otherwise is to mislead all those who do not read Hebrew. There is no excuse and no proper defense.'”1

Creatures, things, and souls

The words “creature,” “thing,” and “soul” in the above verses are all translated from the same Hebrew word – nephesh. The most basic meaning of nephesh (נֶפֶשׁ) is the breath “which makes a person and an animal a living being.”2 

“Nepes [ נֶפֶשׁ ] in the Old Testament is never the ‘immortal soul’ but simply the life principle or living being. Such is observable in Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, where the qualified (living) nepes [ נֶפֶשׁ ] refers to animals and is rendered ‘living creatures.’ The same Hebrew term is then applied to the creation of humankind in Genesis 2:7, where dust is vitalized by the breath of God and becomes a ‘living being.’ Thus, human being shares soul with the animals. It is the breath of God that makes the lifeless dust a ‘living being’—person.”3

Adam became a soul living being

What the creation account in Genesis is telling us is that both the animals and Adam were living souls (beings, creatures, things, etc.). They became souls when God breathed into their “nostrils the breath of life.” What the Bible is communicating is that, like the animals, humans are living beings. It is commonly said that the difference between humans and animals is that humans have souls while animals do not. The Bible flatly contradicts this. The real difference between humans and animals is that God created humans in His image and animals were not.

It is worth noting that modern Bible translations are a little more consistent in translating nephesh. In Genesis 2:7 they use the word “living being” instead of soul. This helps us to see that we do not have a soul (like a car has a driver); a soul is something we are. To be a soul is to be a living being.

Soul in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the English word soul translates the Greek word psuche (ψυχή). Psuche carries the same meaning as the Hebrew word nephesh and they exactly correspond.4 In fact, the Septuagint uses psuche to translate nephesh in the Greek version of the Old Testament.5

Like nephesh, psuche refers to the breath of life with its animating aspect making bodily function possible. It is the condition of being alive.6 In short, the New Testament uses the word soul in the same manner that the Old Testament does. There is no significant difference in meaning between the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psuche.7

This equivalence is evident in 1 Corinthians 15:45 where Paul quoted Genesis 2:7 using psuche to translate nephesh:

So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being [psuche];” the last Adam a life-giving spirit. (1 Cor. 15:45 BEREAN)

In case you are wondering, yes, the New Testament also says that animals are souls:

And the second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it turned to blood like that of the dead, and every living thing [psuche] in the sea died. (Rev. 16:3 BEREAN)

Soul is the whole self

In both testaments, soul denotes the whole self, not just the immaterial part. For example, in the Old Testament the way to say “Let me live” is “Let my soul live.” Compare the following verse from two different translations:

Let me [nephesh] live to praise You; may Your judgments sustain me. (Psa. 119:175 BEREAN)

Let my soul [nephesh] live that it may praise You, And let Your ordinances help me. (Psa. 119:175 NASB)

In exactly the same way, the New Testament uses psuche to speak of a person’s life: 

For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his life [psuche]? (Mark 8:36 CSB)

What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul [psuche]? (Mark 8:36 BEREAN)

Old Testament examples

Let’s notice a few Old Testament verses which show how “soul” represents a person’s complete identity. 

Please say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake, and on account of you my life [nephesh] will be spared.” (Gen. 12:13 BEREAN)

The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people [nephesh], but take the goods for yourself.” (Gen. 14:21 BEREAN)

Then prepare a tasty dish that I love and bring it to me to eat, so that I [nephesh] may bless you before I die.” (Gen. 27:4 BEREAN)

It will be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall humble yourselves [nephesh]. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to keep your Sabbath.” (Lev. 23:32 BEREAN)

and said to Moses, “We are unclean because of a dead body [nephesh], but why should we be excluded from presenting the LORD’s offering with the other Israelites at the appointed time?” (Num. 9:7 BEREAN)

If a man is found kidnapping a person [nephesh] from among his fellow Israelites, and regards him as mere property and sells him, that kidnapper must die. In this way you will purge the evil from among you. (Deut. 24:7 NET)

New Testament examples

Here are some New Testament examples showing that the word soul represents the entire person.

“Get up!” he said. “Take the Child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, for those seeking the Child’s life [psuche] are now dead.” (Matt. 2:20 BEREAN)

And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons [psuche] in all. (Acts 7:14 ESV)

There will be trouble and distress for every human being [psuche] who does evil, first for the Jew, then for the Greek; (Rom. 2:9 BEREAN)

A soul is a person’s whole being

These passages, and others like them, show that the word “soul” speaks of someone’s complete identity – their whole person. The Bible uses nephesh and psuche in a way that identifies an individual as an inseparable whole. Humans are souls, that is, we are an inseparable combination of a body and an inner self that is “the seat and center of the inner human life in its many and varied aspects.”8 

These words, nephesh and psuche, are not speaking of an immaterial part of us which exists as a spirit that can detach from the body. “What man is can only be understood in a wholistic way. Man does not possess a soul and a body, rather he is both soul and flesh, full of life and potential activity.”9

While these words can refer to one’s inner being, they typically represent “the total person, both one’s physical and nonphysical composition. In fact, nefesh is so identified with the whole person that ironically it can denote a non breathing corpse! (e.g., Lev 21:11).”10 Likewise, psuche serves as a metonym “to represent the whole person.”11

The mortal nature of the soul

The Bible’s “equation” for all of this is “body + breath of life = a living soul.” None of this is to say there isn’t a non-material component of humans. Clearly our hearts and minds are an immaterial aspect of our existence. Nevertheless, the Bible never indicates that this immaterial part of us can exist apart from our bodies.  

We comprehend this concept in reference to animals; when they stop breathing they are dead completely. There is no immaterial part of them that continues a separate existence. However, our tendency to resist this concept regarding humans stems from our inclination to think in the terms of ancient, pagan, Greek philosophy rather than in biblical terms.

If the body is mortal, so is the soul. The soul cannot be immortal if it cannot be separated from our mortal bodies. Regardless, for the children of God, this is not the end of the story: 

51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—52 in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must be clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Cor. 15:51-53 BEREAN)

Understanding the biblical definition of the soul challenges us to reconsider traditional views and align our beliefs with the truths of Scripture.


  1. Fudge, Edward William. The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition (p. 32). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  2. Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardson, eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed., version 3.7. 5 vols. Leiden: Brill, 2000. s.v. “נֶפֶשׁ,” 2:712.
  3. Elwell, Walter A. Entry for ‘Soul’. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.
  4. Newman, Lester I. “The Concept of the Soul in Plato and in Early Judeo-Christian Thought,” 1958. 116.
  5. ROBECK, JR, C. M. Bromiley, Geoffery W., ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised). Accordance electronic ed., version 1.4. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.
  6. Bauer, W., F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, eds. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3d, Accordance electronic ed., version 2.8. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. BDAG, s.v. “ψυχή,” 1098.
  7. Silva, Moisés, ed. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis. Second edition. Vol 4. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014. 727.
  8. Bauer, W., F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, eds. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3d, Accordance electronic ed., version 2.8. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. BDAG, s.v. “ψυχή,” 1098.
  9. Schweizer, R. Eduard. Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Accordance electronic ed., version 4.3. 6 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
  10. VanGemeren, Willem. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Vol 3. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1997. 133.
  11. Silva, Moisés, ed. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis. Second edition. Vol 4. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014. 730.