The Mystery Solved!
MOST people assume that death is not the end of human life, that after physical death something lives on. Usually, this something is described as a soul.
In answer to the question: “How do we know that the Ruh [soul] leaves the body when it is in the grave?” The Straight Path magazine answers: “Death is nothing other than the departure of the soul. Once the soul has left the body it is transferred to Barzakh (the past-death period). . . . The grave is a reservoir for the body only, not the soul.” These are Muslim sentiments, but they differ little from Christendom’s teachings.
Take, for example, two questions from A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, a British Roman Catholic publication used in schools:
Q. “How is your soul like to God?”
A. “My soul is like to God because it is a spirit, and is immortal.”
Q. “What do you mean when you say that your soul is immortal?”
A. “When I say my soul is immortal, I mean that my soul can never die.”
Although children can be taught to believe this, the book does not attempt to substantiate the assertions made.
Yet, there is a source of information that tells us exactly what the soul is. That source is the Bible, the oldest book known to man. You may be surprised at what it says.
The Soul—The Bible’s Definition
Genesis, the first book of the Bible, gives us the account of the creation of man and the other creatures living on our planet. It was written in Hebrew, and in the first two chapters, the word “soul,” translated from neʹphesh, appears four times; only once, however, does it refer to man.* To what do the other occurrences refer? Let us see.
“And God proceeded to create the great sea monsters and every living soul [neʹphesh] that moves about, which the waters swarmed forth according to their kinds, and every winged flying creature according to its kind.”—Genesis 1:21.
“And to every wild beast of the earth and to every flying creature of the heavens and to everything moving upon the earth in which there is life as a soul [neʹphesh] I have given all green vegetation for food.”—Genesis 1:30.
“Now Jehovah God was forming from the ground every wild beast of the field and every flying creature of the heavens, and he began bringing them to the man to see what he would call each one; and whatever the man would call it, each living soul [neʹphesh], that was its name.”—Genesis 2:19.
A quick comparison of these three verses reveals that neʹphesh is used to describe all forms of animal life.
Now compare this with the account of the creation of the first man, Adam:
“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 [neʹphesh].”—Genesis 2:7.
Commenting on this, the Jewish Publication Society of America, in a translation of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, says: “The Bible does not say we have a soul. ‘Nefesh’ [neʹphesh] is the person himself, his need for food, the very blood in his veins, his being.” (Italics ours.) Logically, the same is true of all other forms of life described as “soul.” They do not possess souls. All are souls.
Plato and the Soul
Where, then, does the idea that a soul leaves the body at death originate? The Jewish Encyclopedia, referred to earlier, says this: “Only through the contact of the Jews with Persian and Greek thought did the idea of a disembodied soul, having its own individuality, take root in Judaism.”
Even earlier in human history, the Egyptians believed that the human soul was immortal and that it could revisit its dead body. For this reason the Egyptians went to great lengths to preserve their dead by embalming, or mummifying, them.
Interestingly, the new German Lutheran Evangelischer Erwachsenenkatechismus (Evangelical Catechism for Grown-ups) openly admits that the source of the teaching that the human soul is immortal is not the Bible but the “Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 B.C.) [who] contended emphatically that there was a difference between body and soul.” It continues: “Evangelical theologians of modern times challenge this combination of Greek and Biblical concepts. . . . They reject the separation of man into body and soul.”
What, then, happens to the human soul at death? On this matter our preeminent authority is the Bible, God’s inspired Word. It states clearly: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) And speaking of “a resurrection,” Jesus said: “All those in the memorial tombs will hear his [Jesus’] voice and come out.”—John 5:28, 29.
So where are the dead? In the grave, “in the memorial tombs,” that is, in God’s memory awaiting a resurrection.* A resurrection? What does that mean? How real is that hope? The concluding article about a recent tragedy in England shows how real this hope can be.
The Lutheran catechism agrees with the Bible, saying: “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.”
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Did You Know?
Nowhere in the Bible do we read of an “immortal soul.” The two words are never linked. The words “immortal” and “immortality” occur only six times, all in the writings of the apostle Paul. When applying to humans, immortality is described as a prize to be given only to the 144,000, who are redeemed from the earth to reign with Christ Jesus in heaven.—1 Corinthians 15:50-54; Revelation 5:9, 10; 14:1-4; 20:6.
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The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “soul” as follows: “Spiritual or immaterial part of man, held to survive death.” This definition highlights the fact that the concept of life after death by means of a “soul” remains a matter of religious assertion. No authority can prove it. In contrast, the highest authority, the Bible, says: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.”—Ezekiel 18:4.
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The “soul” of an Egyptian scribe, depicted as a human-headed hawk, supposedly ‘revisiting his body in the tomb’
Courtesy of the British Museum, London