Many people think the Bible says we have an immortal soul destined, at death, for heaven, hell or purgatory. What does the Bible say?
Does the Bible talk about the immortal soul?
What happens to us after we die? Where are our loved ones who have passed on? Will we ever see them again?
Everyone needs to know that life has purpose, that death isn't the permanent end of our existence. The most common Christian belief regarding the afterlife is that people possess souls and at death their consciousness in the form of that soul departs from the body and heads for heaven or hell.
Most religions teach some form of life after death. The ancient Egyptians, for example, practiced elaborate ceremonies to prepare the pharaohs for their next life. They constructed massive pyramids and other elaborate tombs filled with luxuries the deceased were assumed to need in the hereafter.
In some civilizations when a ruler died others who had accompanied and served him in his life were put to death so they could immediately serve him in the afterlife. Wives and other relatives, servants, sometimes even household pets joined him in death and a supposed entrance into a new life on the other side.
Belief in the immortality of the soul was an important aspect of ancient thought espoused by the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato, in Phaedo, presents Socrates' explanation of death: "Is it not the separation of soul and body? And to be dead is the completion of this; when the soul exists in herself, and is released from the body and body is released from the soul, what is this but death?" ( Five Great Dialogues, Classics Club edition, 1969, p. 93).
Socrates explained that the immortal soul, once freed from the body, is rewarded according to good deeds or punished for evil. Socrates lived ca. 470-399 B.C., so his view of the soul predated Christianity.
Plato (ca. 428-348 B.C.) saw man's existence as divided into the material and spiritual, or "Ideal," realms. "Plato reasoned that the soul, being eternal, must have had a pre-existence in the ideal world where it learned about the eternal Ideals" (William S. Sahakian, History of Philosophy, 1968, p. 56). In Plato's reasoning, man is meant to attain goodness and return to the Ideal through the experiences of the transmigration of the soul. Thus secular philosophies sanction the idea of the immortal soul, even though the Bible does not. Believe it or not, God's Word teaches something entirely different.
History of a Controversial Teaching
The doctrine of the immortal soul caused much controversy in the early Catholic Church.
Origen (ca. 185-254) was the first person to attempt to organize Christian doctrine into a systematic theology. He was an admirer of Plato and believed in the immortality of the soul and that it would depart to an everlasting reward or everlasting punishment at death.
In Origen De Principiis he wrote: "... The soul, having a substance and life of its own, shall after its departure from the world, be rewarded according to its deserts, being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its actions shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this ..." ( Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, 1995, p. 240).
Origen taught that human souls existed before the body but are imprisoned in the physical world as a form of punishment. Physical life, he reasoned, is a purification process to return humans to a spiritual state.
Later Augustine (354-430) tackled the problem of the immortality of the soul and death. For Augustine death meant the destruction of the body, but the conscious soul would continue to live in either a blissful state with God or an agonizing state of separation from God.
In The City of God he wrote that the soul "is therefore called immortal, because in a sense, it does not cease to live and to feel; while the body is called mortal because it can be forsaken of all life, and cannot by itself live at all. The death, then, of the soul, takes place when God forsakes it, as the death of the body when the soul forsakes it" ( Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, 1995, p. 245.)
The influences of pagan Platonic philosophy on Origen and Augustine are profound. Richard Tarnas, in his best-seller The Passion of the Western Mind, points to this influence: "... It was Augustine's formulation of Christian Platonism that was to permeate virtually all of medieval Christian thought in the West. So enthusiastic was the Christian integration of the Greek spirit that Socrates and Plato were frequently regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints ..." (1991, p. 103).
Centuries later Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) crystallized the doctrine of the immortal soul in The Summa Theologica. He taught that the soul is a conscious intellect and will and cannot be destroyed.
A few centuries later the leaders of the Protestant Reformation generally accepted these traditional views, so they became entrenched in traditional Protestant teaching.
The immortality of the soul is foundational in Western thought, both philosophical and religious. Belief in going to heaven or hell depends on it. But does the Bible teach that death is the separation of body and soul or that the soul is immortal?
Hebrew Understanding of the Soul
The Hebrew word translated "soul" in the Old Testament is nephesh, which simply means "a breathing creature." Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines nephesh as "the essence of life, the act of breathing, taking breath ... The problem with the English term 'soul' is that no actual equivalent of the term or the idea behind it is represented in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew system of thought does not include the combination or opposition of the 'body' and 'soul' which are really Greek and Latin in origin" (1985, p. 237-238, emphasis added).
The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible makes this comment on nephesh: "The word 'soul' in English, though it has to some extent naturalized the Hebrew idiom, frequently carries with it overtones, ultimately coming from philosophical Greek (Platonism) and from Orphism and Gnosticism which are absent in 'nephesh.' In the OT it never means the immortal soul, but it is essentially the life principle, or the living being, or the self as the subject of appetite, and emotion, occasionally of volition" (Vol. 4, 1962, "Soul," emphasis added).
That nephesh doesn't refer to an immortal soul can be seen in the way the word is used in the Old Testament. It is translated "soul" or "being" in reference to man in Genesis 2:7, but also to animals by being translated "creature" in Genesis 1:24. Nephesh is translated "body" in Leviticus 21:11 in reference to a human corpse.
The Hebrew Scriptures state plainly that, rather than possess immortality, the soul can and does die. "The soul [ nephesh ] who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, Ezekiel 18:20).
The Old Testament describes the dead as going to sheol, translated into English as "hell," "pit" or "grave." Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 describes sheol as a place of unconsciousness: "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished ..."
King David laments that death extinguishes a relationship with God. "For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?" (Psalm 6:5).
The immortal-soul concept isn't part of the Old Testament, but it began to make inroads into Jewish thought as Jews came in contact with Greek culture. In the first century the Jewish philosopher Philo taught a Platonic concept: "... The death of a man is the separation of his soul from his body ..." ( The Works of Philo, translated by C.D. Yonge, 1993, p. 37). Philo followed the Hellenistic view that the soul is freed upon death to an everlasting life of virtue or evil.
The Apostles' View
In the New Testament the Greek word translated "soul" is psuche, which is also translated "life."
In Psalm 16:10 David uses nephesh ("soul") to claim that the "Holy One," or Messiah, wouldn't be left in sheol, the grave. Peter quotes this verse in Acts 2:27, using the Greek psuche for the Hebrew nephesh (notice verses 25-31).
Like nephesh, psuche refers to human "souls" (Acts 2:41) and for animals (it is translated "life" in the King James Version of Revelation 8:9 and Revelation 16:3). Jesus declared that God can destroy man's psuche, or "soul" (Matthew 10:28).
If the Old Testament describes death as an unconscious state, how does the New Testament describe it?
No one wrote more about this subject than the apostle Paul. He describes death as "sleep" (1 Corinthians 15:51-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Many people are surprised to find that the term immortal soul appears nowhere in the Bible. However, though the Scriptures do not speak of the soul as being immortal, they have much to say about immortality. For example: "You know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him" (1 John 3:15).
Paul told the members of the congregation in Rome to "seek" immortality (Romans 2:5-7). He taught Christians at Corinth that they must be changed and "put on" immortality (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). Paul proclaimed that only God and His Son possess immortality (1 Timothy 6:12-16) and that eternal life is a "gift" from God (Romans 6:23).
The most powerful words come from Jesus Himself: "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:40).
True Origin of Immortal-soul Teaching
We've seen in this brief look at the supposedly immortal soul that the Bible teaches no such concept. The idea filtered into Western thought through Greek philosophy. Its origins are older than Athens, in fact as old as man.
The concept of the immortal soul was introduced into man's thinking at the earliest beginnings of human history. God told the first human beings, Adam and Eve, that if they sinned they would die and return to the dust from which He had created them (Genesis 2:17; Genesis 3:19). Satan, the embodiment of evil, the powerful entity who opposes God, assured them they wouldn't die (verses 1-5).
Satan slyly injected into Eve's consciousness the notion that God was lying and that she and her husband would not die, thus ingraining the unscriptural teaching of the immortality of the soul into human thought. Satan has since deceived the world on this important understanding as well as many other biblical truths (Revelation 12:9). Much of the world, including millions of people in religions outside of traditional Christianity, are convinced they have—or are—immortal souls and hope they will go to a happy place or state of being immediately after they die.
The Biblical Answer to Death
Yet the Bible plainly teaches that the dead lie in the grave and know nothing, think no thoughts, have no emotions, possess no consciousness. Does this mean death, the cessation of life, is final, the end of everything?
The Bible answers this question too. Although mankind is physical, subject to death, the good news is that God promises a resurrection to eternal life to everyone who repents, worships God and accepts Jesus as the Messiah and His sacrifice. The first resurrection to immortality will take place when Christ returns to establish God's Kingdom on this earth.
Later will come another resurrection—to physical life—for people who had never had a relationship with the Father and Jesus Christ. They, too, will gain the opportunity for immortality. The true final answer is not death but resurrection.