Published: 6 May 2024

The Immortal Soul?, Part 1

Immortal Soul

As Paul nears the end of 1 Timothy, he writes

He alone is immortal and dwells in unapproachable light. No one has ever seen Him, nor can anyone see Him. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen. (1 Tim. 6:16 BEREAN)

Paul’s point in this passage is “not that God is the only immortal being but that he alone inherently possesses immortality.”1 We know there are other created beings who are immortal (angels, demons, etc.), but God gave them immortality. God, by His very nature, is immortal – no one granted it to Him. 

By extension, most people assume that humans are also immortal by nature. The immortality of the human soul is a widely held belief, often seen as self-evident. This assumption permeates both secular and religious worldviews. It is a foregone conclusion that the human soul is immortal, and this is rarely, if ever, questioned. Nevertheless, the Bible is clear that God did not create humans with immortal souls. 

What does the Bible say?

The following passages are quite clear on the matter of human mortality:

To those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, He will give eternal life. (Rom. 2:7 BEREAN)

Romans 2:7 says we seek immortality. People do not seek what they already possess.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6:23 BEREAN)

Romans 6:23 says that eternal life is a gift we that the faithful receive from God. God doesn’t need to give us what we already have. 

53 For the perishable must be clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come to pass: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor. 15:53-54 BEREAN)

1 Corinthians 15:53-54 emphasizes human mortality. In the end when death has been fully defeated, the faithful in Christ will become immortal. If we are immortal by nature, why do we need God to clothe us with immortality?

And now He has revealed this grace through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the gospel, (2 Tim. 1:10 BEREAN)

If we already have immortal souls, why does Jesus need to illuminate the path to immortality by means of the good news? 

Mortal from the beginning

22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil. And now, lest he reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever…” 23 Therefore the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. (Gen. 3:22-23 BEREAN)

Many people think God created Adam and Eve as immortal beings. Regardless, Genesis 3:22-23 shows us they were just as mortal as you and I. Think about it, why would immortal people need a tree of life?

People often interpret the above passages as saying that immortality and eternal life are not about mortal human souls being granted immortality. Instead, they view them as metaphors for a spiritual existence in heaven. Conversely, those who have “immortal” souls and face condemnation to the lake of fire supposedly experience “spiritual death.”

Starting with the next blog post I’ll begin to address some of the common misconceptions and/or objections to the Scriptural concepts related to human mortality. For now, let’s look at how the idea of immortal human souls has become so pervasive in the church despite a lack of biblical support. If the Bible doesn’t teach that the human essence is immortal, how has it become so pervasive in church teaching? 

Where does the idea of the immortal soul come from?

The soul and body are an inseparable unity

First, we should note that the Bible’s concept of a soul is different from ours. Biblically speaking, our souls do not have any kind of existence apart from our bodies. Consider the creation of Adam:

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. (Gen. 2:7 KJV)

Recent translations say, “man became a living being.” This wording captures the biblical intent much better. When God created Adam, He didn’t give him a soul, Adam became a soul. The soul is not something we possess; it is something we are. We are an inseparable unity of the material and the immaterial. We are a body made of dust which has the spark of life which came from the breath of God. The Bible calls the combination of our body and inner self a soul – the whole person. 

The Bible teaches that the soul and body are inseparable and mortal. Pagan philosophy teaches something else.

Pagan influences on Jewish thought

“The ancient Hebrews had no idea of an immortal soul living a full and vital life beyond death.”2 It is striking that the notion of the soul and body being distinct and separable did not reach consensus among Jewish rabbis until the third century AD!3

As the Jewish Encyclopedia puts it, “The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture.”4 It was not the Old Testament Scriptures which led later rabbis to conclude that the soul was separable and immortal, but Greek philosophy. The Jewish Encyclopedia goes on to say, “The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato.”5

Pagan influences on Christian thought

Unfortunately, early Christian thinkers were also influenced by extra-biblical ideas about the soul:

“[B]oth Socrates and Plato believed in the immortality of the soul. And Plato affirmed that, far above this world of fleeting things, there was a higher world of abiding truth. All of this many early Christians found attractive and useful in their attempts to respond to charges that they were ignorant and unbelieving. Although at first these philosophical traditions were used for interpreting the faith to outsiders, soon they began influencing the manner in which Christians understood their own faith.”6

“Many Christian writers of the second and third centuries wanted to show their pagan neighbors the reasonableness of the biblical faith. They did that the same way the Jewish apologist, Philo of Alexandria, had done it long before. They wrapped their understanding of Scripture in the robes of philosophy, choosing from the vocabulary of worldly wisdom the words that sparkled and adorned it best. Paul had often warned against contemporary philosophy (1 Cor 1:19—2:5; Col 2:1–10), but these apologists, zealous for their new-found faith, set out to battle the pagan thinkers on their own turf.

They freely borrowed the Platonic conception of the soul, the chief characteristic being its separability from the body. When these Christian defenders argued for the resurrection and last judgment, they often used the pagan doctrine of immortality to show that these things were not ‘logically absurd.’”7

Plato’s contribution to church doctrine

It may be shocking, but it is undeniable that modern thought about the nature of the soul entered into the church’s teaching through none other than Plato:

“It should first be noted that the idea of the immortality of the soul (namely, that after the body dies the soul or immaterial aspect of man continues to exist) is not a concept peculiar to Christianity . . . The concept of the immortality of the soul was developed in the mystery religions of ancient Greece, and was given philosophical expression in the writings of Plato.”8

So blatant was the merger of pagan and biblical thought that the Christian author Tertullian (160 – 240 AD) said, “I may use, therefore, the opinion of Plato, when he declares, ‘Every soul is immortal.’”9

Scripture vs. human philosophy

In their zeal to show the reasonableness of their faith, and to evangelize their pagan neighbors, the early church made a horrible blunder. While their intentions were good, they erred by elevating human wisdom to an equal footing with Scripture and then attempted to blend the two. N.T. Wright echoes Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 6:16:

“Platonists believe that all humans have an immortal element within them, normally referred to as ‘soul.’… In the New Testament, however, immortality is something that only God possesses by nature and that he then shares, as a gift of grace rather than an innate possession, with his people.”10

So, where does the idea of the immortal soul come from? It does not come from the Bible. Instead, it comes from pagan Greek philosophers, mainly Plato. Plato’s influence entered the church’s consciousness as early as Tertullian in the second century AD. Gnostic sects also contributed to this idea because it fit neatly with their false teachings about the purity of the spirit and the evils of the material body.

Regrettably, the church has never purged this false teaching. However, there is a glimmer of hope. Fudge comments that, “although the doctrine that every soul is immortal is still the majority view, it is increasingly regarded as a post-apostolic innovation—not only unnecessary but positively harmful to proper biblical interpretation and understanding.”11

The myth of the immortal soul

Despite its popularity, the notion of the immortal soul is a myth. In fact, according to the Bible, the soul is not separable from our body. Soul is a word that the Bible often uses to speak of the totality of a human being (i.e., the whole person). This is not to say immortality is off the table for humans. The Bible is explicit that God will give eternal life to all those who are in Christ. Nevertheless, we do not yet possess immortality.  

It’s time we left this myth behind. The ancient Hebrews had no concept of it. Jesus, the apostles, nor any of the New Testament authors ever taught it. It is a post-apostolic innovation. It is not a teaching that comes from the Word of God.

References

  1. Mounce, William D., Pastoral Epistles. Vol. 46 of Word Biblical Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
  2. Smith, Morton, and R. Joseph Hoffmann, editors. What the Bible Really Says. Prometheus Books, 1989. 35.
  3. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/immortality-belief-in-a-bodiless-existence.
  4. https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8092-immortality-of-the-soul.
  5. https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8092-immortality-of-the-soul.
  6. González, Justo L. . The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (pp. 22-24). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  7. Fudge, Edward William. The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition (p. 20). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  8. Hoekema, Anthony A. The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1979. 86.
  9. Tertullian, Resurrection of the Flesh, 3.
  10. Wright, N. T.. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (pp. 160-161). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  11. Fudge, Edward William. The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition (p. 23). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.