The Soul—Is It You? Or Is It in You?
DO YOU think you have an immortal soul that survives when you die? Most people with any religious background, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Shinto, Buddhist or Hindu, share this one basic idea. But why do they believe it? Because they have proof? Or because it has always been taught that way by most religions and by popular hearsay? How, in fact, did the immortal soul idea get into “Christian” teaching?
In his book Death Shall Have No Dominion, Douglas T. Holden writes: “Christian theology has become so fused with Greek philosophy that it has reared individuals who are a mixture of nine parts Greek thought to one part Christian thought.” This is well illustrated with regard to the generally held belief in an immortal soul. For example, Plato, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century B.C.E., wrote: “The soul is immortal and imperishable, and our souls will truly exist in another world!”
According to Plato, where did these souls go when the body died? “And those who appear to have lived neither well nor ill, go to the river Acheron, . . . and there they dwell and are purified of their evil deeds, and having suffered the penalty of the wrongs which they have done to others, they are absolved.” Does this not sound rather like Christendom’s purgatory teaching? And where do the souls of the wicked go? “Such are hurled into Tartarus [to the ancient Greeks, a section of Hades reserved for punishment of the worst offenders], which is their suitable destiny, and they will never come out.” Certainly, the ancient Greeks had their belief of everlasting torment in hell long before Christendom’s theologians took it over!
Is There Reason to Doubt?
If his Dialogue writings really reflect his own thinking, Plato was convinced that he had an immortal soul. And his teachings soon began to convince others who revered him as a philosopher. As a consequence, Platonic philosophy was even accepted by second-century Christian writers. The Encyclopædia Britannica states in this respect: “The Christian Platonists gave primacy to revelation and regarded Platonic philosophy as the best available instrument for understanding and defending the teachings of Scripture and church tradition. . . . From the middle of the 2nd century AD, Christians who had some training in Greek philosophy began to feel the need to express their faith in its terms, both for their own intellectual satisfaction and in order to convert educated pagans. The philosophy that suited them best was Platonism.”
However, down through the centuries there have been distinguished dissenters against the Greek concepts of an immortal soul. The Bible translator William Tyndale (c. 1492-1536) wrote in the foreword to his translation: “In putting departed souls in heaven, hell, or purgatory you destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection . . . If the soul be in heaven, tell me what cause is there for the resurrection?” That is a logical question. If death is defeated by means of an ‘immortal and imperishable’ soul, then what purpose is served by the resurrection that Jesus taught and that the ancient Hebrew patriarchs believed in?—Hebrews 11:17-19, 35; John 5:28, 29.
In his book The Agony of Christianity, Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno struggled with this same conflict. He wrote regarding Christ: “He believed . . . in the resurrection of the flesh, according to the Jewish way of thinking, not in the immortality of the soul, according to the Platonic way of thinking.” He even went on to say: “The immortality of the soul . . . is a pagan philosophical dogma. . . . It is sufficient to read Plato’s Phaedo to be convinced of that.”
“Soul” in the Bible
The poet Longfellow wrote: “Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul.” (Italics ours.) Was he right? When God said, “For dust you are and to dust you will return,” to whom was he speaking? To the first man, Adam. Did that death sentence apply only to Adam’s body? Or to Adam as a breathing soul?
Genesis 2:7 clearly states: “And Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” This text is fundamental to understanding the word “soul” as used in the Bible. It clearly states that “man came to be [not to have] a living soul.” Thus God told that living soul, or breathing creature, Adam, that if disobedient, he would positively die and return to the elements of the earth from which he had been formed.—Genesis 2:17; 3:19.
Please note that no mention is made of any alternative destination for man’s supposed soul. Why not? Because Adam, with all his faculties, was a soul. He did not possess a soul. If such places as a fiery hell and purgatory existed, this is the one point in the Bible when they should have been mentioned. Yet they are not even alluded to. Why is that? Because the simple judgment for disobedience was just the opposite of the life Adam enjoyed in Paradise—namely, death, not life somewhere else. Thus Paul states the case with simplicity in Romans 6:23: “For the wages sin pays is death.” (Compare Ezekiel 18:4, 20.) There is no mention here of any hellfire or purgatory, just death. And isn’t that punishment enough?
Another factor to bear in mind is that a basic sense of justice requires that man should have known the true extent of his possible punishment before he disobeyed. Yet there is absolutely no mention of any immortal soul, hellfire or purgatory in the Genesis account. Furthermore, if man had really been created with an immortal soul, then this whole set of doctrines relating to the immortal soul and its destiny should have been part and parcel of Hebrew and Jewish teaching from the very earliest times. But such was not the case.
Another logical question also arises. If God’s original purpose was for perfect, obedient humankind to live forever on a paradise earth, what purpose would there be in endowing man with a separate and immortal soul? Not only would it be immortal; it would be superfluous!—Genesis 1:28.
In addition, the Hebrew Scriptures clearly show that the faithful men and women of old awaited a resurrection, even as Paul commented in Hebrews 11:35: “Women received their dead by resurrection [in certain miraculous cases]; but other men were tortured because they would not accept release by some ransom, in order that they might attain a better resurrection [to everlasting life].” Evidently they were not trusting in the “butterfly” myth of human philosophy.
But perhaps you ask, What about the words of Paul where he speaks about immortality? True, he says: “For this which is corruptible must put on incorruption, and this which is mortal must put on immortality. But when this which is corruptible puts on incorruption and this which is mortal puts on immortality, then the saying will take place that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up forever.’” (1 Corinthians 15:53, 54) But in no way can an immortal soul be read into those words. Paul speaks of ‘putting on immortality.’ Therefore it is nothing inherent in man but, rather, a new creation of those who will reign with Christ in his heavenly Kingdom.—2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 6:5-11; Revelation 14:1, 3.a
Even modern theologians are coming around to recognize this point, after centuries of Christendom’s immortal-soul teaching. For example, Catholic theologian Hans Küng writes: “When Paul speaks of resurrection, what he means is simply not the Greek idea of the immortality of a soul that has to be freed from the prison of the mortal body. . . . When the New Testament speaks of resurrection, it does not refer to the natural continuance of a spirit-soul independent of our bodily functions.”
The German Lutheran Catechism for Grown-Ups (Evangelischer Erwachsenenkatechismus) states regarding the body-soul split taught by Plato: “Evangelical theologians of modern times challenge this combination of Greek and Biblical concepts. . . . They reject the separation of man into body and soul. Since man as a whole is a sinner, therefore at death he dies completely with body and soul (full death). . . . Between death and resurrection there is a gap; the individual continues his existence at best in God’s memory.”
Jehovah’s modern-day Witnesses have been teaching this for over a hundred years! They never swallowed Plato’s pagan philosophy, for they knew very well that Jesus had taught: “Do not marvel at this, because the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28, 29) The very expression “memorial tombs” implies that those dead persons are retained in the “memory” of God. He will restore them to life. There is the true hope for the dead that will be realized when this earth is under the full control of God’s Kingdom government by Christ.—Matthew 6:9, 10; Revelation 21:1-4.
a For a more detailed study of the soul doctrine, see the book Is This Life All There Is? published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
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Bible translator Tyndale wrote: “If the soul be in heaven, tell me what cause is there for the resurrection?”
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Spanish scholar Unamuno wrote: “The immortality of the soul . . . is a pagan philosophical dogma”
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Catholic theologian Küng: “When Paul speaks of resurrection, what he means is simply not the Greek idea of the immortality of a soul”