What Is the Bible’s View?
What Is the Soul?
IN EVERYDAY life you have no doubt heard the expression, ‘There wasn’t a soul in the room.’ You have no trouble in understanding that the speaker means that there was not a human, a person, in the room. You never think that some invisible, disembodied spirit is meant.
Likewise, when the Bible uses the word “soul,” it always uses it with reference to a person, or an animal, something that lives, moves and has a measure of intelligence. The word, when used with regard to humans, is associated with the desires, emotions and experiences of the fleshly human. The Bible says that the soul “needs to eat,” it “sins,” can “pine away,” can ‘struggle for breath.’ (Ex. 12:16; Lev. 4:2; 26:16; Jer. 15:9) “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die,” Ezekiel 18:4, 20 tells us. The human soul is not immortal. But not only are souls that sin able to die. Jesus Christ, who had no sin, “poured out his soul to the very death” as a ransom, so that sinners, even the dead, might be restored to life.—Isa. 53:12.
Accordingly, “soul,” in Biblical usage, as applied to humans, means “life as a human,” or more specifically, “the intelligent creature who is a human.” It involves the whole person, including his body in every part, and his personality, with all its traits and tendencies. Do you find this unusual?
Note, then, what the New Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. 13) says under the heading “Soul (in the Bible)”: “Nepes [or, nephesh, the Hebrew word for ‘soul’] is used in regard to both animals and humans. If life is human, nepes is equivalent to the person, the ‘I.’ After death, the nepes goes to Sheol.
“The above summary indicates that there is no dichotomy [division into two parts]’ of body and soul in the OT [Old Testament]. The Israelite saw things concretely, in their totality, and thus he considered men as persons and not as composites. The term nepes, though translated by our word soul, never means soul as distinct from the body or the individual person.”
Then, under the subheading “in the New Testament,” the same work says as to soul: “It [psyché, the Greek word for soul] can mean the principle of life, life itself, or the living being.” This reference goes on to say that it was under Greek (not Christian) influence that psyche, unlike the equivalent Hebrew word nephesh, came to be considered as separate from the body and as immortal. It concludes: “As a living being, subject to various experiences, it [psyche] can refer to animals, ‘And every live thing [psyche] in the sea died’ (Apoc. 16.3), or to humans, ‘Fear came upon every soul [psyche]’ (Acts 2.43; Rom 2.9; 13.1). Thus the psyche feels, loves and desires. In this connection it can be used to mean the personal or reflexive pronoun, as in Jn 10.24, ‘How long dost thou keep us [our psyches] in suspense?’”—Pp. 449, 450.
Consequently, we cannot separate the body from the personality, as though the personality were something spiritual or immaterial inside the person, and could exist apart from the body. Biological research has shown that a great portion of our personality is due to inheritance from our father and mother and, through them, from our earlier ancestors. In every one of the billions of cells in an individual’s body there are exactly the same chromosomes and genes, the hereditary-carrying factors that make him what he is when he is born. At birth he already has certain leanings and characteristics in his makeup. These will be developed and will become manifest as he grows to adulthood. Even bodily structure, tallness or shortness, heavy or light build, and so forth, influence his personality. Disabilities affect one’s traits.
The soul, then, is indeed the entire person, every fiber of his being, along with his characteristics—his entire personality. And the body is such a close-knit structure that we cannot truly say that one part or organ can be affected without affecting all other parts. The apostle Paul used this unity of the human body for illustration. He wrote: “The eye cannot say to the hand: ‘I have no need of you’; or, again, the head cannot say to the feet: ‘I have no need of you.’ But much rather is it the case that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary, and the parts of the body which we think to be less honorable, these we surround with more abundant honor. . . . Nevertheless, God compounded the body, giving honor more abundant to the part which had a lack, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its members should have the same care for one another.”—1 Cor. 12:21-25.
In the light of this understanding of what a soul is, we can discern what Jesus meant when he said: “Do not become fearful of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather be in fear of him that can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matt. 10:28) Men can kill the body and put the person out of existence only for a time. They cannot take away the ‘title deed’ to life as a person. The faithful person is viewed by God as alive, and is sure to be a living soul again at God’s own time. In refuting the Sadducees, who claimed that there was no resurrection, Jesus said: “He [Jehovah] is a God, not of the dead, but of the living, for they are all living to him.”—Luke 20:38.
When a person is resurrected, it is therefore the entire being, or soul, that is restored. This does not mean that the identical body made up of the same atoms is brought back. The apostle Paul explains: “God gives it [that which is ‘sown’ in death] a body just as it has pleased him, and to each of the seeds its own body. . . . If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual one.” (1 Cor. 15:38-44) Those resurrected to heaven would receive a spiritual body, and those brought back to life on earth, a physical body. In resurrecting a human from the dead to life on earth, God can easily reconstruct, with different atoms, the body cells with the same genetic structure and arrangement. He can, in effect, imprint in that body the additional characteristics that the person had acquired during his lifetime. This is as simple for God as for man to register and reproduce picture and sound electronically by means of videotape.
On the other hand, if God destroys the individual in “Gehenna,” which is symbolic of everlasting death, not only is the person put out of existence at the time, but he is actually dead forever, because God has destroyed his “soul,” his ‘title deed’ to life.—Matt. 10:28.
Therefore, it behooves the individual who wants life to use his own soul, his entire being and faculties, in serving God. Jesus said about this: “He that is fond of his soul destroys it, but he that hates his soul in this world will safeguard it for everlasting life.” (John 12:25) Our concern should be, not merely for the present physical things, but for obedience to God, who can give our souls life everlasting.