Published: 27 May 2024

The Immortal Soul? Part 3: Tradition is Dead Wrong

Souls

The Bible doesn’t portray the soul as having a conscious existence in the afterlife while awaiting resurrection and reunion with the body. That idea comes from Greek philosophy. In this article we’ll notice a sampling of verses which demonstrate how the Bible uses the word soul. As stated previously, our methodology in examining this topic is as follows. First, we’ll examine the Bible’s description of the soul (previous blog post). Second, we’ll observe the usage of the term “soul” within the biblical context (this article). Third, we’ll analyze various passages often cited as evidence for the soul’s ability to exist independently from the body.

Although some of the passages we’ll examine in this article may revisit concepts from the previous article, it’s important to reinforce the idea that the soul is not a separate entity which inhabits our bodies. Instead, it is a biblical concept representing the inseparable combination of our body and immaterial inner being. In other words, the soul is not something we have; it is what we are. Said yet another way, the soul is the summation of one’s body and inner being.

Things that are true about the soul

The following Old Testament verses provide further evidence that the Bible’s use of the word “soul” (nephesh in Hebrew) encompasses both the body and the immaterial aspects of our being such as our heart, mind, or spirit. 

Souls breathe:

And to every beast of the earth and every bird of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth—everything that has the breath [nephesh] of life in it—I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Gen. 1:30 BEREAN)

Souls are members of households:

Later, Esau took his wives and sons and daughters and all the people [nephesh] of his household, along with his livestock, all his other animals, and all the property he had acquired in Canaan, and he moved to a land far away from his brother Jacob. (Gen. 36:6 BEREAN)

Souls offered sacrifices:

When anyone [nephesh] brings a grain offering to the LORD, his offering must consist of fine flour. He is to pour olive oil on it, put frankincense on it, (Lev. 2:1 BEREAN)

A soul can touch:

Or if a person [nephesh] touches anything unclean—whether the carcass of any unclean wild animal or livestock or crawling creature—even if he is unaware of it, he is unclean and guilty. (Lev. 5:2 BEREAN)

Souls eat:

But if anyone [nephesh] who is unclean eats meat from the peace offering that belongs to the LORD, that person must be cut off from his people. (Lev. 7:20 BEREAN)

Souls can be eaten: 

But you must not eat meat with its lifeblood [nephesh] still in it. (Gen. 9:4 BEREAN)

Souls can die:

He must not go near any dead body [nephesh]; he must not defile himself, even for his father or mother. (Lev. 21:11 BEREAN)

Souls can shed tears:

But if you will not listen, my soul [nephesh] will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the LORD’S flock has been taken captive. (Jer. 13:17 ESV)

Souls can be taken captive:

28 These are the people Nebuchadnezzar carried away: in the seventh year, 3,023 Jews; 29 in Nebuchadnezzar’s eighteenth year, 832 people [nephesh] from Jerusalem; (Jer. 52:28-29 BEREAN)

The following verses demonstrate that the New Testament views the soul (psuche in Greek) in the same manner as the Old Testament.

Souls can be baptized:

So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people [psuche] were added to them. (Acts 2:41 CSB17)

Souls can die:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life [psuche] for the sheep. (John 10:11 BEREAN)

Souls can be ostracized:

Everyone [psuche] who does not listen to Him will be completely cut off from among his people.’ (Acts 3:23 BEREAN)

Souls are subject to secular governments:

Everyone [psuche] must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God. (Rom. 13:1 BEREAN)

These scriptures show that the soul is much more than just a spiritual essence. Our physical lives and everyday actions deeply connect with the soul. Whether it’s breathing, touching, or eating, the soul is an integral part of who we are. This view from both the Old and New Testaments highlights the soul’s comprehensive nature, blending the physical and spiritual aspects of our existence.

What happens when we die?

What does a correct understanding of the soul suggest about our existence between death and the resurrection (the intermediate state)? That’s the question all this is really leading to, is it not? We’ll discuss this more in subsequent articles, but for now, let’s just notice what the Bible says.

How the Bible describes the intermediate state

Old Testament

For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest (Job 3:13 BEREAN)

so a man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens are no more, he will not be awakened or roused from sleep. (Job 14:12 BEREAN)

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, because the memory of them is forgotten. (Eccl. 9:5 BEREAN)

Whatever you find to do with your hands, do it with all your might, for in Sheol, where you are going, there is no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom. (Eccl. 9:10 BEREAN)

For there is no mention of You in death; who can praise You from Sheol? (Psa. 6:5 BEREAN)

Consider me and respond, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death, (Psa. 13:3 BEREAN)

New Testament

After He had said this, He told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to wake him up.” (John 11:11 BEREAN)

For when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep. His body was buried with his fathers and saw decay. (Acts 13:36 BEREAN)

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— (1 Cor. 15:51 BEREAN)

13 Brothers, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who are without hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, we also believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him. 15 By the word of the Lord, we declare to you that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will be the first to rise. (1 Th. 4:13-16 BEREAN)

The sleep of death

In light of these verses, it’s evident that the Bible consistently describes death as a state of sleep, a period of rest where the dead know nothing and await resurrection. This view aligns with the biblical teaching that the soul is the sum of both body and inner being, rather than an immortal essence separate from the body. 

This contrasts sharply with Platonic philosophy, which suggests a conscious existence after death. Many verses, traditionally interpreted to support the idea of an immortal soul, show a greater influence from Platonism in people’s interpretations than from the Bible. Understanding this distinction is crucial as we examine what the Scriptures truly say about life, death, and the hope of resurrection.

Disembodied souls?

Although a lengthy quote, the following summarizes the New Testament’s teaching well:

“The biblical doctrine of immortality differs from the Platonic doctrine in several important ways. First, in the NT immortality is not an inherent characteristic of the rational part of the human soul but a natural attribute of God alone (1 Tim. 6:16). Second, the NT depicts immortality as a future acquisition gained by the righteous through a resurrection transformation effected by God, not as a natural property of every rational soul. Third, whereas Platonic anthropology is dichotomistic so that only release from corporeality achieved at death enables the soul to reenter its true abode in the world of Forms, NT anthropology is basically monistic so that the destiny of the Christian is somatic immortality, with the spiritual body being the organ of resurrection life.

Fourth, according to the NT, possession of immortality depends on one’s relationship to the second Adam, not the first Adam. It is death or a propensity to death, not immortality, that man inherits from Adam (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22). Deathlessness and imperishability result from union with Christ (1 Cor. 15:22f., 42, 52–54). Fifth, for Plato assurance of immortality was grounded in belief in the soul’s divinity, but for Paul it was based on the fact that God gives all believers His Spirit as a pledge of a resurrection transformation that will result in immortality (2 Cor. 5:4f.). Sixth, although both Plato and NT writers understand immortality as involving “becoming like God,” for the Christian this means conformity to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; Col. 3:10), rather than “a never-ending union with true Reality” (Rohde, Psyche, p. 475).”1 (emphasis added)

Our interpretive choices

As we explore the biblical perspective on the soul and the state of the dead, it becomes clear that we face a choice in interpretation. We can either view the Scriptures through the lens of Platonism, with its notions of an immortal soul, or we can allow the biblical authors to speak on their own terms, absent pagan influence. 

The verses we’ve examined demonstrate that the soul is not a separate entity but rather the sum of one’s body and inner being, intimately connected with physical life. This understanding challenges prevailing traditional ideas and calls us to reexamine our beliefs in light of the biblical narrative. 

In the articles ahead, we’ll examine this topic by setting aside extra-biblical philosophies with pagan origins. Instead, we’ll focus on uncovering the truths within the Scriptures themselves.

References

  1. M. J. HARRIS, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “Immortal,” 2:811.