What Is This Thing Called “Soul”?
WHAT are you? Are you, in effect, two persons in one—a human body with a brain, heart, eyes, ears, tongue, and so forth, but also having within you an invisible spiritual person completely separate from your fleshly organism and that is called the “soul”? If so, what happens when you die? Does just your body die, while the soul continues living? How can you know for sure?
Nearly all religions teach that, in the case of humans, death is not the end of all existence. This is the case, not just in so-called Christian lands of North and South America, Europe and Australia, but also in non-Christian countries of Asia and Africa. Notes the book Funeral Customs the World Over: “People of most cultures believe that at death something which leaves the body has ongoing life.”
Belief in the immortality of the soul is very prominent among non-Christian religions. For example, the most esteemed of sacred Hindu writings, The Bhagavad Gita, specifically refers to the soul as deathless. It presents this as justification for killing in war, saying:
“These bodies come to an end,
It is declared, of the eternal embodied (soul),
Which is indestructible and unfathomable.
Therefore fight, son of Bharata!
Who believes him a slayer,
And who thinks him slain,
Both these understand not:
He slays not, is not slain.
He is not born, nor does he ever die;
Nor, having come to be, will he over more come not to be.
Unborn, eternal, everlasting, this ancient one
Is not slain when the body is slain.”
—The Bhagavad Gita, II, 18-20.
But what is the soul here spoken of? Though strong believers in the immortality of the human soul, Hindus describe its nature in vague terms. Says the publication Hinduism, by Swami Vivekananda:
“The Hindu believes that every soul is a circle whose circumference is nowhere, though its centre is located in the body; and that death only means the change of this centre from one body to another. Nor is the soul bound by the conditions of matter. In its very essence, it is free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect. But somehow or other it finds itself bound down by matter, and thinks of itself as matter.”
What, then, is the general belief among members of Christendom’s churches? Professor Cullmann (Theological faculty of the University of Basel and of the Sorbonne in Paris) states:
“If we were to ask an ordinary Christian today (whether well-read Protestant or Catholic, or not) what he conceived to be the New Testament teaching concerning the fate of man after death, with few exceptions we should get the answer: ‘The immortality of the soul.’”
When asked about the nature of the “soul,” members of Christendom’s churches, too, answer in vague, obscure terms. They have no clearer concept of an immortal soul than do adherents of non-Christian religions. This gives rise to the question, Does the Bible teach that the soul is an immortal part of man?
IS THE SOUL IMMORTAL?
In the Bible the word “soul” appears in many translations as a rendering for the Hebrew word neʹphesh and the Greek word psy·kheʹ. (See, for example, Ezekiel 18:4 and Matthew 10:28 in the Authorized Version, New English Bible, Revised Standard Version and Douay Version.) These same Hebrew and Greek terms have also been translated as “being,” “creature” and “person.” Regardless of whether your Bible consistently renders the original-language words as “soul” (as does the New World Translation), an examination of texts where the words neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ appear will help you to see what these terms meant to God’s people of ancient times. Thus you can determine for yourself the true nature of the soul.
Describing the creation of the first man, Adam, the opening book of the Bible says: “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) We may note that the Bible does not say that ‘man received a soul,’ but that “man came to be a living soul.”
Did first-century Christian teaching differ from this concept of “soul”? No. In what is commonly called the “New Testament,” the statement about Adam’s creation is quoted as fact: “It is even so written: ‘The first man Adam became a living soul.”’ (1 Corinthians 15:45) In the original language of this text the word for “soul,” psy·kheʹ, appears. Accordingly, in this scripture the Greek word psy·kheʹ, like the Hebrew word neʹphesh, designates, not some invisible spirit residing in man, but man himself. Rightly, then, certain Bible translators have chosen to use such words as “being,” “creature” and “person” in their renderings of Genesis 2:7 and 1 Corinthians 15:45.—New English Bible, Young’s Literal Translation, Revised Standard Version; compare The Bible in Living English, which uses “person” at Genesis 2:7 but “soul” at 1 Corinthians 15:45.
It is also noteworthy that the terms neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ are applied to animals. Concerning the creation of sea and land creatures, the Bible says: “God went on to say: ‘Let the waters swarm forth a swarm of living souls [“creatures,” New English Bible] and let flying creatures fly over the earth’ . . . God proceeded to create the great sea monsters and every living soul that moves about . . . ‘Let the earth put forth living souls according to their kinds, domestic animal and moving animal and wild beast of the earth according to its kind.’”—Genesis 1:20-24.
Such references to animals as being souls are not limited to the opening book of the Bible. From the first book of the Holy Scriptures to the very last book, animals continue to be designated as souls. It is written: “Take away from the men of war who went out on the expedition one soul [neʹphesh] out of five hundred, of humankind and of the herd and of the asses and of the flock.” (Numbers 31:28) “The righteous one is caring for the soul [neʹphesh] of his domestic animal.” (Proverbs 12:10) “Every living soul [psy·kheʹ] died, yes, the things in the sea.”—Revelation 16:3.
The application of the word “soul” to animals is very appropriate. It is in agreement with what is thought to be the basic meaning of the Hebrew term neʹphesh. This word is understood to be derived from a root meaning “to breathe.” Hence, in a literal sense, a soul is a “breather,” and animals are indeed breathers. They are living, breathing creatures.
As to their application to humans, the words neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ are repeatedly used in such a way as to mean the entire person. We read in the Bible that the human soul is born. (Genesis 46:18) It can eat or fast. (Leviticus 7:20; Psalm 35:13) It can weep and faint. (Jeremiah 13:17; Jonah 2:7) A soul can swear, crave things and give way to fear. (Leviticus 5:4; Deuteronomy 12:20; Acts 2:43) A person might kidnap a soul. (Deuteronomy 24:7) The soul can be pursued and put in irons. (Psalm 7:5; 105:18) Are these not the kind of things done by or to fleshly people? Do not such passages of Scripture clearly establish that the human soul is the entire man?
Numerous twentieth-century Bible scholars, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, have been brought to this conclusion. Note their comments:
“The famous verse in Genesis [2:7] does not say, as is often supposed, that man consists of body and soul; it says that Yahweh shaped man, earth from the ground, and then proceeded to animate the inert figure with living breath blown into his nostrils, so that man became a living being, which is all that neʹphesh [soul] here means.”—H. Wheeler Robinson of Regent’s Park College, London, in Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (Journal for the Old Testament Science), Vol. 41 (1923).
“Man must not be thought of as having a soul: he is a soul.”—E. F. Kevan, Principal of the London Bible College, in The New Bible Commentary (1965), 2d ed., p. 78.
“The soul in the O[Id] T[estament] means not a part of man, but the whole man—man as a living being. Similarly, in the N[ew] T[estament] it signifies human life: the life of an individual, conscious subject.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), Vol. 13, p. 467.
“The Bible does not say we have a soul. ‘Nefesh’ is the person himself, his need for food, the very blood in his veins, his being.”—Dr. H. M. Orlinsky of Hebrew Union College, quoted in New York Times, October 12, 1962.
Does it seem strange to you that scholars of various religious persuasions are now saying that the soul is man himself? Is this what you have been taught? Or, have you been taught that the soul is an immortal part of man? If so, what effect has this teaching had on you? Has it moved you to spend money for religious purposes that you would otherwise have used for necessities of life? Could it be that your church has been dishonest in its teaching? Who is right—the church or its scholars?
If the scholars are right in saying that the human soul is the entire person, including his fleshly body, we should expect the Bible to refer to the soul as being mortal. Does it? Yes. The Bible speaks of ‘holding back,’ ‘rescuing’ and ‘saving’ a neʹphesh or soul from death. (Psalm 78:50; 116:8; James 5:20) We also read: “Let us not strike his soul fatally.” (Genesis 37:21) “The manslayer must flee there who fatally strikes a soul unintentionally.” (Numbers 35:11) “Their soul will die in youth.” (Job 36:14) “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.”—Ezekiel 18:4, 20.
But is it possible that at least in a few Scriptural references the original-language words rendered “soul” designate something that leaves the body at death and is immortal? What about such texts as the following? “As her soul was going out (because she died) she called his name Benoni.” (Genesis 35:18) “My God, please, cause the soul of this child to come back within him.” (1 Kings 17:21) “Stop raising a clamor, for his soul is in him.” (Acts 20:10) Do not these passages indicate that the soul is something that exists independently of the body?
The text at Job 33:22, written in poetic style, provides a key to understanding these passages. There “soul” and “life” are placed in parallel, so that the two words could be interchanged without changing the sense of the passage. We read: “His soul draws near to the pit, and his life to those inflicting death.” From this parallel we can see that the word “soul” can mean life as a person and, therefore, the departure of the soul can be understood to refer to the end of life as a person.
To illustrate: A man might say that his dog ‘lost its life’ when it was hit by a truck. Does he mean that this animal’s life left the body and continued existing? No, he is simply using a figure of speech indicating that the animal died. The same is true when we speak of a man as ‘losing his life.’ We do not mean that his life exists independently of the body. Similarly, ‘to lose one’s soul’ means to ‘lose one’s life as a soul’ and carries no meaning of continued existence after death. Recognizing this, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible states:
“The ‘departure’ of the nephesh [soul] must be viewed as a figure of speech, for it does not continue to exist independently of the body, but dies with it (Num. 31:19; Judg. 16:30; Ezek. 13:19). No biblical text authorizes the statement that the ‘soul’ is separated from the body at the moment of death.”
THE SOURCE OF THE BELIEF
The Scriptural evidence is unmistakably clear that man does not have an immortal soul but is himself a soul. How, then, did this belief about an immortal soul find its way into the teachings of Christendom’s churches? Today it is frankly acknowledged that this has come about through the influence of pagan Grecian philosophy. Writes Professor Douglas T. Holden in his book Death Shall Have No Dominion:
“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.”
The Catholic magazine Commonweal, in its issue of January 15, 1971, confessed that the idea of an immortal soul was a concept that “the late Jews and early Christians inherited from Athens.”
Who is to blame for this mixture of pagan Greek and Christian thought? Is it not the religious clergy? Surely the church members did not on their own come up with this teaching, one that Bible scholars now openly admit to be unscriptural.
But from where did the ancient Greeks get their basic religious foundation? As has already been pointed out, there is strong evidence that the religious concepts of the Greeks and other peoples were influenced by the Babylonians. And as to Babylonian beliefs about the soul note what The International Standard Bible Encyclopædia says:
“After death the souls of men were supposed to continue in existence. . . . The Babylonians . . . placed often with the dead articles which might be used in his future existence. . . . In the future world there seem to have been distinctions made among the dead. Those who fell in battle seem to have had special favor. They received fresh water to drink, while those who had no posterity to put offerings at their graves suffered sore and many deprivations.”
So the Greeks could easily have gotten their basic ideas about the immortality of the soul from Babylon, which ideas were then enlarged upon by the Greek philosophers.
Something similar appears to have taken place in connection with the non-Christian religions still in existence today. For example, a comparison of the ancient civilization of the Indus Valley, where Hinduism is the dominant religion, with that of Mesopotamia reveals notable similarities. These include structures like the religious ziggurat platforms of Mesopotamia and pictographic signs bearing a strong resemblance to early Mesopotamian forms. On the basis of his study, the noted Assyriologist Samuel N. Kramer suggested that the Indus Valley was settled by a people who fled from Mesopotamia when the Sumerians took control of the area. It is not difficult to understand, then, where Hinduism got its belief in an undying soul.
The evidence thus points to Babylon as the most ancient source from which belief in the immortality of the human soul radiated to the ends of the earth. And there at Babylon, according to the Bible, a rebellion against God occurred. In itself that would be reason enough to view the doctrine of an immortal soul with reservations. But do not forget that, as we have already seen, this teaching is also in direct conflict with the Bible.
Furthermore, is not the idea that the soul is immortal contrary to what you personally have observed? For example, what happens when a person is knocked unconscious, faints, or is placed under an anesthetic at a hospital? If his “soul” is really something separate from the body and is able to function intelligently apart from the body, so that even death itself does not affect its existence and its functions, why is it that during such period of unconsciousness the person is completely unaware of all activity around him? Why is it that he must be told afterward what happened during that time? If his “soul” can see, hear, feel and think after death, as religions generally teach, why does something far less drastic than death, such as a period of unconsciousness, stop all these functions?
Also, a dead body, whether it be that of a human or of an animal, eventually returns to the elements of the ground. Nothing about death even hints at there being an immortal soul that lives on.
EFFECT OF THE DOCTRINE ABOUT THE SOUL’S IMMORTALITY
What a person believes about the soul is of no little consequence.
The teaching of the immortality of the human soul has been used to override the conscience of people in times of war. Religious leaders have made it appear that taking life is not so bad, as those slain do not really die after all. And those who die in battle against the enemy are promised bliss. Typical are remarks such as those reported on in the New York Times of September 11, 1950: “Sorrowing parents whose sons have been drafted or recalled for combat duty were told yesterday in St. Patrick’s Cathedral that death in battle was part of God’s plan for populating ‘the kingdom of Heaven.’” The idea here expressed differs little from the ancient Babylonian teaching that the war dead gained special favors.
Misrepresentations of what the Bible says about the soul have thus contributed toward the placing of a cheapened value on human life and have made people feel dependent on the great religious systems that have falsely claimed to care for their souls.
Knowing these things, what will you do? It is obvious that the true God, who is himself “the God of truth” and who hates lies, will not look with favor on persons who cling to organizations that teach falsehood. (Psalm 31:5; Proverbs 6:16-19; Revelation 21:8) And, really, would you want to be even associated with a religion that had not been honest with you?
[Picture on page 40]
THEY ARE ALL SOULS