The Spirit That Returns to God
THERE should be no question in the mind of any sincere investigator that what the Bible speaks of as “soul” is not some immortal part of man that continues conscious existence after death. Yet when shown the overwhelming evidence about the true nature of the soul, some persons present other arguments in an effort to support their belief that something within man has continued existence after death.
One Biblical text that is often used is Ecclesiastes 12:7, which reads: “The dust returns to the earth just as it happened to be and the spirit itself returns to the true God who gave it.” In his Commentary, Wesleyan Methodist theologian Adam Clarke writes concerning this verse: “Here the wise man makes a most evident distinction between the body and the soul: they are not the same; they are not both matter. The body, which is matter, returns to dust, its original; but the spirit, which is immaterial, returns to God.” Similarly, A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture says: “The soul goes back to God.” Thus both commentaries imply that the soul and the spirit are the same.
Interestingly, though, other Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars present an entirely different view. In the “Glossary of Biblical Theology Terms” appearing in the Catholic New American Bible (published by P. J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1970), we read: “When ‘spirit’ is used in contrast with ‘flesh,’ . . . the aim is not to distinguish a material from an immaterial part of man . . . ‘Spirit’ does not mean soul.” At Ecclesiastes 12:7 this translation uses, not the word “spirit,” but the expression “life breath.” The Protestant Interpreter’s Bible observes regarding the writer of Ecclesiastes: “Koheleth does not mean that man’s personality continues to exist.” In view of such different conclusions, can we be sure just what the spirit is and in what sense it returns to God?
At Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 the effects of old age and death are portrayed in poetic language. After death, the body eventually decomposes and again becomes a part of the dust of the earth. The “spirit,” on the other hand, “returns to the true God.” So man’s death is linked with the spirit’s returning to God, this indicating that man’s life in some way depends upon that spirit.
In the original-language text of Ecclesiastes 12:7, the Hebrew word translated “spirit” or “life breath” is ruʹahh. The corresponding Greek term is pneuʹma. While our life does depend on the breathing process, the English word “breath” (as numerous translators often render the words ruʹahh and pneuʹma) is not always a suitable alternate translation for “spirit.” Furthermore, other Hebrew and Greek words, namely, ne·sha·mahʹ (Hebrew) and pno·eʹ (Greek), are also translated as “breath.” (See Genesis 2:7 and Acts 17:25.) It is nevertheless noteworthy that, in using “breath” as an alternate rendering for “spirit,” translators are showing that the original-language terms apply to something that has no personality but is essential for the continuance of life.
THE SPIRIT IDENTIFIED
That man’s life depends on the spirit (ruʹahh or pneuʹma) is definitely stated in the Bible. We read: “If you [Jehovah] take away their spirit [ruʹahh], they expire, and back to their dust they go.” (Psalm 104:29) “The body without spirit [pneuʹma] is dead.” (James 2:26) Hence, the spirit is that which animates the body.
But this animating force is not simply breath. Why not? Because life remains in the body cells for a brief period after breathing stops. For this reason efforts at resuscitation can succeed, also body organs can be transplanted from one person to another. But these things have to be done quickly. Once the life-force is gone from the cells of the body, efforts to prolong life are futile. All the breath in the world could not revive even as much as one cell. Viewed in this light, the “spirit” evidently is an invisible life-force, active in every living cell of man’s body.
Is this life-force active only in man? What is stated in the Bible can help us to reach a sound conclusion on this. Regarding the destruction of human and animal life in a global flood, the Bible reports: “Everything in which the breath [neʹ·sha·mahʹ] of the force [ruʹahh, spirit] of life was active in its nostrils, namely, all that were on the dry ground, died.” (Genesis 7:22) At Ecclesiastes 3:19 the same basic point is made in connection with death: “There is an eventuality as respects the sons of mankind and an eventuality as respects the beast, and they have the same eventuality. As the one dies, so the other dies; and they all have but one spirit [ruʹahh], so that there is no superiority of the man over the beast.” Accordingly, man is not superior to animals when it comes to the spirit animating his body. The same invisible spirit or life-force is common to both.
In a sense, the spirit or life-force active in both animals and man might be compared to a flow of electrons or electricity through a machine or an appliance. The invisible electricity may be used to perform various functions, depending upon the type of machine or appliance being energized. Stoves can be made to produce heat, fans to produce wind, computers to solve problems, and television sets to reproduce figures, voices and other sounds. The same invisible force that produces sound in one appliance can produce heat in another, mathematical computations in another. But does the electric current ever take on the often complex characteristics of the machines or appliances in which it functions or is active? No, it remains simply electricity—a mere force or form of energy.
Similarly, both humans and animals “have but one spirit,” one activating force. The spirit or life-force that enables man to carry out functions of life in no way differs from the spirit that makes it possible for animals to do so. That spirit does not retain the characteristics of the dead body’s cells. For example, in the case of brain cells, the spirit does not retain the information stored there and continue thought processes apart from these cells. The Bible tells us: “His spirit [ruʹahh] goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.”—Psalm 146:4.
This being the case, the return of the ruʹahh or spirit to God simply could not mean the continuance of conscious existence. The spirit does not continue human thought processes. It is only a life-force that has no conscious existence apart from a body.
HOW THE SPIRIT RETURNS TO GOD
How, then, does this invisible, impersonal force or spirit return to God? Does it return to his literal presence in heaven?
The way in which the Bible uses the word “return” does not require that we, in each case, think of an actual movement from one place to another. For instance, unfaithful Israelites were told: “‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ Jehovah of armies has said.” (Malachi 3:7) Obviously this did not mean that the Israelites were to leave the earth and come into the very presence of God. Nor did it mean that God would leave his position in the heavens and begin dwelling on earth with the Israelites. Rather, Israel’s “returning” to Jehovah meant a turning around from a wrong course and again conforming to God’s righteous way. And Jehovah’s “returning” to Israel meant his turning favorable attention to his people once again. In both cases the return involved an attitude, not a literal movement from one geographical location to another.
That the return of something does not require actual movement might be illustrated by what happens in a transferal of a business or a property from the control of one party to another. For example, in a certain country the control of the railroads might be shifted from the hands of private enterprise to those of the government. When such a transferal takes place, the railroad equipment and even all the records may remain where they are. It is the authority over them that changes hands.
So it is in the case of the spirit or life-force. At death no actual movement from the earth to the heavenly realm need occur for it to ‘return to God.’ But the gift or grant of existence as an intelligent creature, as enjoyed once by the dead person, now reverts to God. That which is needed to animate the person, namely, the spirit or life-force, is in God’s hands.—Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:46.
The situation might be compared to that of an accused man who says to a judge, ‘My life is in your hands.’ He means that what will become of his life rests with the judge. The accused has no choice in the matter. It is out of his hands.
Similarly, in the case of a dead man, he does not have control over his spirit or life-force. It has returned to God in the sense that he controls the future life prospects of the individual. It is up to God to decide as to whether he will restore the spirit or life-force to the deceased.
But does this necessarily shut out all possibility of life after death? Is there not something else to consider?
WHAT ABOUT REBIRTH OR REINCARNATION?
Millions of persons of various religious persuasions, whether called Christian or non-Christian, believe that humans had an existence prior to their present life and will continue to live after they die. Though their concepts vary greatly, they share in common the conviction that some part of man is reborn or reincarnated in another body.
Presenting one line of argument in favor of the belief in rebirth, A Manual of Buddhism states: “Sometimes we get strange experiences which cannot be explained but by rebirth. How often do we meet persons whom we have never before met and yet inwardly feel that they are quite familiar to us? How often do we visit places and yet feel impressed that we are perfectly acquainted with their surroundings?”
Have you ever experienced such things? After meeting a person, have you ever had the feeling that you have known him for a long time? What accounts for such an experience?
There are many similarities in people. Perhaps, after some thought, you yourself realized that the person had personality traits and physical features resembling those of a relative or a friend.
Likewise you may have lived in a particular city or seen pictures of it. Then, when visiting another city, you may note certain similarities so that you feel that you are not really amid strange and unfamiliar surroundings.
So, then, is it not reasonable to conclude that feelings of familiarity about previously unknown people and places are, not the product of some past life, but a result of experiences in the present life? Really, if all people had actually had previous existences, should they not all be aware of this? Why, then, do millions not even have the slightest sense or thought of having lived an earlier life? Furthermore, how can a person avoid the mistakes of his earlier lives if he cannot even recall them? Of what benefit would such previous lives be?
Some may offer the explanation that ‘life would be a burden if people knew the details of their previous existences.’ That is the way Mohandas K. Gandhi expressed it, saying: “It is nature’s kindness that we do not remember past births. Where is the good either of knowing in detail the numberless births we have gone through? Life would be a burden if we carried such a tremendous load of memories. A wise man deliberately forgets many things, even as a lawyer forgets the cases and their details as soon as they are disposed of.” That is an interesting explanation, but does it rest on a solid foundation?
While our ability to recall many things that we have experienced may be limited, our minds are certainly not totally blank respecting them. A lawyer may forget the precise details of certain cases, but the experience gained in handling them becomes part of his fund of knowledge. He would indeed be at a great disadvantage if he actually forgot everything. Then, too, which causes people greater disturbance—a poor memory or a good memory? Is not an old man who has a good recall of his fund of knowledge and experience far better off than an old man who has practically forgotten everything?
Really, what “kindness” would there be in having to learn all over again things that one had already learned during a previous existence? Would you consider it “nature’s kindness” if every ten years of your life you forgot practically everything you knew and had to start learning a language again and then begin building up a fund of knowledge and experience, only to have it eradicated? Would this not be frustrating? Would this not result in terrible setbacks? Why, then, imagine that it happens every seventy or eighty years? Can you feature that a loving God could have made such rebirth part of his purpose for mankind?
Many who accept the doctrine of rebirth believe that those leading a bad life will be reborn in a lower caste or as insects, birds or beasts. Yet why is it, then, that there is a big human population explosion at a time when crime and violence are increasing on an unprecedented scale? Also, why can even those in the lowest caste excel when given educational opportunities? For example, the New York Times of October 26, 1973, reported that a sixteen-year-old girl of low caste was the brightest girl in the school at Kallipashim, India. She was smarter than a girl of the highest caste, a Brahman. How might this be explained? Is it not true that the doctrine of rebirth or reincarnation cannot provide satisfying explanations for such things?
Think, too, of the fruitage that such teaching has produced. Has it not deprived many humans of a dignified standing, forcing them to take menial jobs under poor working conditions, with little possibility of improving their lot in life through education?
DOES THE BIBLE TEACH REBIRTH?
Of course, some persons might point out that logical deductions do not necessarily rule out the possibility of rebirth. Their reply to the aforementioned arguments might be: ‘Even the Bible teaches rebirth. This is just one of many things that humans cannot fully explain.’
Since believers in rebirth do bring the Bible into the discussion, we should want to consider what it does say. Just what Biblical evidence is there for the belief in rebirth? The book What Is Buddhism? answers: “For the Christian reader we would point out that [the doctrine of rebirth] is clearly present in such mutilated fragments of Christ’s teachings as are still extant. Consider, for example, the widely current rumours that he was John the Baptist, Jeremiah or Elijah come again (Matt. xvi, 13-16). Even Herod seemed to think that he was ‘John the Baptist risen from the dead.’”
What about such arguments? Did Jesus Christ himself claim to be John the Baptist, Jeremiah or Elijah? No, these claims were made by persons who did not accept Jesus for what he really was, namely, the promised Messiah or Christ. Jesus simply could not have been John the Baptist, for when about thirty years of age the younger man, Jesus, was baptized by John, who was older. (Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-23) King Herod came up with the unreasoning conclusion that Jesus was John raised from the dead, because of his feelings of extreme guilt for having executed John.
But are there not direct statements of Jesus Christ that are viewed as supporting belief in rebirth or reincarnation? Yes, there is one. On one occasion Jesus Christ linked John the Baptist with the ancient Hebrew prophet Elijah, saying: “Elijah has already come and they did not recognize him but did with him the things they wanted. . . . Then the disciples perceived that he spoke to them about John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17:12, 13) In stating, “Elijah has already come,” did Jesus mean that John the Baptist was Elijah reborn?
The answer to this question must be determined on the basis of what the Bible says as a whole. Many Jews back in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry did think that Elijah would come back literally. And the prophecy of Malachi pointed forward to the time when Jehovah God would send the prophet Elijah. (Malachi 4:5) John the Baptist, however, did not view himself as Elijah in person or as a reincarnation of that Hebrew prophet. On one occasion certain Jews asked him, “Are you Elijah?” John replied, “I am not.” (John 1:21) It had, however, been foretold that John would prepare the way before the Messiah “with Elijah’s spirit and power.” (Luke 1:17) Accordingly, when Jesus linked John the Baptist with Elijah he was merely showing how the prophecy was fulfilled in John who did a work like that of Elijah of old.
Another passage of Scripture appealed to by believers in reincarnation is Romans 9:11-13: “When [Esau and Jacob] had not yet been born nor had practiced anything good or vile, in order that the purpose of God respecting the choosing might continue dependent, not upon works, but upon the One who calls, it was said to [Rebekah]: ‘The older will be the slave of the younger.’ Just as it is written [at Malachi 1:2, 3]: ‘I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated.’” Does this passage not show that God’s choosing was based on what Jacob and Esau had done during lives prior to their being born to Rebekah?
Why not reread it? Note that it specifically says that God’s choosing was made before either one had practiced good or bad. So God’s choice did not depend upon a record of past works in some earlier life.
On what basis, then, could God make a choice before the birth of the boys? The Bible reveals that God is able to see the embryo and, therefore, knows the genetic makeup of humans before birth. (Psalm 139:16) Exercising his foreknowledge, God perceived how the two boys would be basically as to temperament and personality and thus he could make a choice of the one who might be more suitable for the superior blessing. The record made by the two boys in life confirms the wisdom of God’s choice. While Jacob demonstrated spiritual interests and faith in God’s promises, Esau manifested a materialistic bent and lack of appreciation for sacred things.—Hebrews 11:21; 12:16, 17.
As to the apostle Paul’s quotation from Malachi about God’s ‘loving Jacob’ and ‘hating Esau,’ this, too, relates to Jehovah’s view of them based on their genetic makeup. While recorded by Malachi many centuries after their lifetime, the statement confirmed what God had indicated about the boys before their birth.
A question raised by Jesus’ disciples is yet another example cited by some in support of reincarnation. Regarding a man blind from birth, the disciples asked: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, so that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) Do these words not reveal that the man must have had a previous existence?
No! Jesus Christ did not go along with any suggestion that the child developing in the womb of its mother had sinned of itself before birth. Jesus said: “Neither this man sinned nor his parents, but it was in order that the works of God might be made manifest in his case.” (John 9:3) That is to say, human imperfections and defects such as this man’s blindness provided the opportunity for the works of God to become manifest in the form of a miraculous cure. Had no one ever been born blind, humans would not have come to know that God can give sight to one born blind. Jehovah God, in allowing a sinful human race to come into existence, has used their imperfections and defects to show what he can do for them.
So while there may be Bible texts that some persons think support the concept of rebirth, closer examination indicates otherwise. In fact, nowhere in the Bible do we find any mention of the rebirth or transmigration of a soul, spirit or something else that survives the death of the body. Some have tried to ‘read into’ the Holy Scriptures the idea of rebirth or reincarnation. It is not a Bible doctrine.
The Bible dearly shows that conscious existence does not continue by means of a soul or spirit that leaves the body at death. When sentencing the first man to death for disobedience, God did not set before him any prospect of rebirth or reincarnation. Adam was told: “In the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19) Yes, the man was to return to the lifeless dust of the ground.
Are we, then, to understand that this life is all there is? Or, is there a provision for future life that is available in some other way? Might this provision make it necessary for the living to help the dead, or are the dead beyond any help from the living?
[Picture on page 51]
The spirit is much like electricity, which activates many things but does not take on their qualities