Published: 3 June 2024

The Immortal Soul? Part 4: The Spirit Returns to God

Spirit Returns

In this series of blog posts we have allowed the Bible to establish the meaning of the word “soul.” We have learned that we are a living soul composed of our bodies and the breath of life that God has given every living creature. The unbiblical, yet popular, concept of the soul is that it continues a conscious existence after the biological death of the body. However, the Bible communicates that the soul is an inseparable combination of mind and body and that one does not survive the other. In fact, both the Old and New Testaments portray death as sleep in which we rest, unconsciously, until the resurrection. What then, does Ecclesiastes 12:7 mean when it says, “the spirit returns to God?”

There are several passages in the Bible which are traditionally interpreted to teach the immortality of the soul and its conscious existence in the intermediate state between death and the resurrection. We will now turn our attention to these passages and see if they do indeed teach these things.

Ecclesiastes 12:7

One such passage is Ecclesiastes 12:7 whose context is that of old age and dying:

the dust returns to the ground from which it came and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Eccl. 12:7 BEREAN)

Our approach to such verses will be to read the passage as the original readers would have. This means we must interpret it in light of the context in which its author wrote. Therefore, we will not interpret the passage through the later Hellenistic influence that introduced the Greek notion of an immortal soul which can separate from the body. Instead, we’ll exclusively use the Bible as a commentary on itself. To properly interpret Ecclesiastes 12:7, pagan Greek philosophy must be set aside so that the Bible may speak on its own terms. 

Extra-biblical influences

So alien is the concept of body/soul dualism to the Bible that “[t]he ancient Hebrews had no idea of an immortal soul living a full and vital life beyond death.”1 In fact, it was not until the third century AD that the notion of the soul and body being distinct and separable entities reached consensus among Jewish rabbis.2

It is a well-established fact that the adoption of human dualism crept into both Judaism and the Church through Greek influences.3 To paraphrase N.T. Wright, we have been buying our mental furniture for so long in Plato’s factory that we have come to take for granted what he taught as Scripture.4

As Joel Green put it, “we are so accustomed to a dualist reading of these texts that we fail to see immediately or even entertain how they might make sense within a monist anthropology. That is, the “narrative” within which we read the data shapes profoundly what we take to be obvious and self-evident.”5

David Tatum has a well written overview of the concept’s evolution titled, The Historical Development of the Immortal Soul.”

What is “spirit” in Ecclesiastes 12:7?

In Ecclesiastes 12:7, translators render the Hebrew word “ruach” (רוּחַ) as “spirit.” Like many Hebrew words, ruach has a wide range of meaning, so we cannot translate it using a single English word.6 Translators often render ruach as air, blast, breath, cool, life, mind, raging, or wind.

“The most basic meaning of ruach is variously defined as ‘blowing,’ ‘air in motion,’ and ‘wind.’”7 Ruach as “moving air” is clearly seen in Ezekiel’s experience in the valley of dry bones:

7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded. And as I prophesied, there was suddenly a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 As I looked on, tendons appeared on them, flesh grew, and skin covered them; but there was no breath [ruach] in them. 9 Then He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath [ruach]; prophesy, son of man, and tell the breath [ruach] that this is what the Lord GOD says: Come from the four winds [ruach], O breath [ruach], and breathe into these slain, so that they may live!” 10 So I prophesied as He had commanded me, and the breath [ruach] entered them, and they came to life and stood on their feet—a vast army. (Ezek. 37:7-10 BEREAN)

Ruach is breath

The entry for ruach in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis elaborates:

“The rendering of ruach as breath is similar to wind in that breath also connotes the movement of air. Occurring 10x in connection with neshamah, breath, ruach can be used to refer to the life-sustaining function called breathing or breath. This breath is the essence of life (Gen 6:17; Job 12:10; Isa 38:16; 42:5; Ezek 37:5-14; Mal 2:15-16). As such the OT is clear in its teaching that such breath is a direct result of the divine, creative power of Yahweh graciously bestowed upon his creation (Job 27:3; 33:4; Ps 104:29, 30; Zech 12:7).Thus, to possess this breath is life, but the departure of this breath is death (Ps 146:4 Eccl 12:7).”8

Let’s take a look at a few more verses which demonstrate the aspect of ruach which, in context, refers to moving air or the breath of life.

Then the man and his wife heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the breeze [ruach] of the day, and they hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Gen. 3:8 BEREAN)

He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze [ruach] that does not return. (Psa. 78:39 BEREAN)

When You hide Your face, they are terrified; when You take away their breath [ruach], they die and return to dust. (Psa. 104:29 BEREAN)

When his breath[ruach] departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. (Psa. 146:4 ESV)

Animals also have a spirit

The next two verses are of special note because they show that man and animals alike have the same kind of breath or spirit!

For the fates of both men and beasts are the same: As one dies, so dies the other—they all have the same breath [ruach]. Man has no advantage over the animals, since everything is futile. (Eccl. 3:19 BEREAN)

Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and the spirit [ruach] of the animal descends into the earth? (Eccl. 3:21 BEREAN)

Thus, to state the obvious, to have breath is to have life and when our breath (ruach/spirit) departs, we die.

Does “spirit” in Ecclesiastes 12:7 simply mean “breath?”

When interpreting this passage, we have two choices. Like the Platonists, we can view the verse as saying that some immaterial part of us survives the body and returns to God. Alternatively, we can confine ourselves to the biblical context and view the verse as speaking of our breath returning to God. The NET Bible takes the latter approach:

and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the life’s breath [ruach] returns to God who gave it. (Eccl. 12:7 NET)

Most English translations use the word spirit in this verse, but there are a few that more correctly render it breath.9 The NET Bible has a note related to ruach in this verse:

“The likely referent is the life’s breath that originates with God. See Eccl 3:19, as well as Gen 2:7; 6:17; 7:22.” 10

At death, God takes back what He gave

The dying process described in Ecclesiastes 12:7 is the opposite God’s life-giving creation of Adam: “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7 BEREAN).

“The process described here is the reversal of Gen 2:7. The end of life is the dissolution (not annihilation; the Israelites never speculated how the ‘I’ was in Sheol; cf Eccl 9:10). Humans return to the dust (Gen 3:19) whence they came, while the life-breath given by God returns to its original possessor. This is a picture of dissolution, not of immortality, as if there were a reditus animae ad Deum, ‘the return of the soul to God.’ There is no question of the ‘soul’ here, but of the life-breath, a totally different category of thought.”11 

Murphy explains that this passage reflects the idea that when a person dies, their physical body returns to dust, and the breath of life given by God returns to Him. This interpretation aligns with other Old Testament texts that describe God as the source and owner of life, but it does not imply a belief in the immortality of the soul as understood in later theological contexts. In short, Murphy maintains that the verse focuses on the return of the life-breath to God, not on a disembodied immortal spirit returning to its Creator.​

Our worldview shapes our conclusion

Our worldview shapes our conclusion about this passage. If we view it from a Platonic perspective, we see a disembodied soul returning to its Creator where it consciously awaits the resurrection. Seen from an exclusively biblical worldview, we observe the reversal of Genesis 2:7 where the body returns to dust and the breath returns to God who gave it. 

Interpreting Ecclesiastes 12:7 necessitates a return to the ancient Hebrew understanding of the soul and spirit, free from the later influences of Hellenistic philosophy. The Hebrew term ruach, often translated as “spirit,” fundamentally refers to the breath or life-force given by God, not an immortal essence that lives on independently of the body. By grounding our interpretation in the cultural and theological context of the ancient Hebrews, we respect the Bible’s original message and avoid imposing external concepts that distort its meaning. 

As we have seen, the biblical narrative consistently portrays the soul as a unified entity comprising both body and breath, with death being a state of unconscious rest until the resurrection. To understand Ecclesiastes 12:7 faithfully, we must ignore later theological ideas and let the Bible speak for itself. The “spirit” returning to God means the end of life, not the survival of an immortal soul.


  1. Smith, Morton, and R. Joseph Hoffmann, editors. What the Bible Really Says. Prometheus Books, 1989. 35.
  3. Newman, Lester I. “The Concept of the Soul in Plato and in Early Judeo-Christian Thought,” 1958. 181.
  4. Wright, N. T.. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (p. 153). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  5. Green, Joel B. “Three Exegetical Forays into the Body-Soul Discussion: Criswell Theological Review.” Criswell Theological Review 7, no. 2 (2010): 5.
  6. VanGemeren, Willem. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. 5 vols. 3. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1997. 1073.
  7. VanGemeren, Willem. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. 5 vols. 3. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1997. 1073.
  8. VanGemeren, Willem. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. 5 vols. 3. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1997. 1074.
  10. W. Hall Harris, eds. The NET Bible Notes. 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019), paragraph 46758.
  11. Roland E. Murphy, Ecclesiastes, vol. 23A of Word Biblical Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 120.