Immortality of the Soul—The Birth of the Doctrine
“No subject connected with his psychic life has so engrossed the mind of man as that of his condition after death.”—“ENCYCLOPÆDIA OF RELIGION AND ETHICS.”
1-3. How did Socrates and Plato advance the idea that the soul is immortal?
A 70-YEAR-OLD scholar and teacher is accused of impiety and of corrupting young minds by his teaching. Even though he presents a brilliant defense at his trial, a biased jury finds him guilty and sentences him to death. Just hours before his execution, the aged teacher presents to the pupils gathered around him a series of arguments to affirm that the soul is immortal and that death is not to be feared.
2 The condemned man is none other than Socrates, renowned Greek philosopher of the fifth century B.C.E.* His student Plato recorded these incidents in the essays Apology and Phaedo. Socrates and Plato are credited with being among the first to advance the idea that the soul is immortal. But they were not the originators of this teaching.
3 As we shall see, the roots of the idea of human immortality reach into much earlier times. Socrates and Plato, however, polished the concept and transformed it into a philosophical teaching, thus making it more appealing to the cultured classes of their day and beyond.
From Pythagoras to the Pyramids
4. Before Socrates, what were the Greek views of the Hereafter?
4 The Greeks prior to Socrates and Plato also believed that the soul lived on after death. Pythagoras, the famous Greek mathematician of the sixth century B.C.E., held that the soul was immortal and subject to transmigration. Before him, Thales of Miletus, thought to be the earliest known Greek philosopher, felt that an immortal soul existed not only in men, animals, and plants but also in such objects as magnets, since they can move iron. The ancient Greeks claimed that the souls of the dead were ferried across the river Styx to a vast underground realm called the netherworld. There, judges sentenced the souls either to torment in a high-walled prison or to bliss in Elysium.
5, 6. How did the Persians regard the soul?
5 In Iran, or Persia, to the east, a prophet named Zoroaster appeared on the scene in the seventh century B.C.E. He introduced a way of worship that came to be known as Zoroastrianism. This was the religion of the Persian Empire, which dominated the world scene before Greece became a major power. The Zoroastrian scriptures say: “In Immortality shall the soul of the Righteous be ever in Joy, but in torment the soul of the Liar shall surely be. And these Laws hath Ahura Mazda [meaning, “a wise god”] ordained through His sovereign authority.”
6 The teaching of the immortality of the soul was also a part of the pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion. Ancient tribes of Iran, for example, cared for the souls of the departed by offering them food and clothing to benefit them in the underworld.
7, 8. What did the ancient Egyptians believe about the soul’s surviving the death of the body?
7 Belief in life after death was central to Egyptian religion. The Egyptians held that the soul of the dead person would be judged by Osiris, the chief god of the underworld. For example, a papyrus document claimed to be from the 14th century B.C.E. shows Anubis, god of the dead, leading the soul of the scribe Hunefer before Osiris. On a pair of scales, the heart of the scribe, representing his conscience, is weighed against the feather that the goddess of truth and justice wears on her head. Thoth, another god, records the results. Since Hunefer’s heart is not heavy with guilt, it weighs less than the feather, and Hunefer is allowed to enter the realm of Osiris and receive immortality. The papyrus also shows a female monster standing by the scales, ready to devour the deceased if the heart fails the test. The Egyptians also mummified their dead and preserved the bodies of pharaohs in impressive pyramids, since they thought that the survival of the soul depended on preserving the body.
8 Various ancient civilizations, then, held one teaching in common—the immortality of the soul. Did they get this teaching from the same source?
The Point of Origin
9. Which religion influenced the ancient world of Egypt, Persia, and Greece?
9 “In the ancient world,” says the book The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, “Egypt, Persia, and Greece felt the influence of the Babylonian religion.” This book goes on to explain: “In view of the early contact between Egypt and Babylonia, as revealed by the El-Amarna tablets, there were certainly abundant opportunities for the infusion of Babylonian views and customs into Egyptian cults. In Persia, the Mithra cult reveals the unmistakable influence of Babylonian conceptions . . . The strong admixture of Semitic elements both in early Greek mythology and in Grecian cults is now so generally admitted by scholars as to require no further comment. These Semitic elements are to a large extent more specifically Babylonian.”*
10, 11. What was the Babylonian view of life after death?
10 But does not the Babylonian view of what happens after death differ considerably from that of the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Greeks? Consider, for example, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. Its aging hero, Gilgamesh, haunted by the reality of death, sets out in search of immortality but fails to find it. A wine maiden he meets during his journey even encourages him to make the most of this life, for he will not find the unending life he seeks. The message of the whole epic is that death is inevitable and the hope of immortality is an illusion. Would this indicate that the Babylonians did not believe in the Hereafter?
11 Professor Morris Jastrow, Jr., of the University of Pennsylvania, U.S.A., wrote: “Neither the people nor the leaders of religious thought [of Babylonia] ever faced the possibility of the total annihilation of what once was called into existence. Death [in their view] was a passage to another kind of life, and the denial of immortality merely emphasized the impossibility of escaping the change in existence brought about by death.” Yes, the Babylonians also believed that life of some kind, in some form, continued after death. They expressed this by burying objects with the dead for their use in the Hereafter.
12-14. (a) After the Flood, what was the birthplace of the teaching of the immortality of the soul? (b) How did the doctrine spread across the earth?
12 Clearly, the teaching of the immortality of the soul goes back to ancient Babylon. According to the Bible, a book bearing the stamp of accurate history, the city of Babel, or Babylon, was founded by Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah.* After the global Flood in Noah’s day, there was only one language and one religion. By founding the city and constructing a tower there, Nimrod started another religion. The Bible record shows that after the confusion of languages at Babel, the unsuccessful tower builders scattered and made new beginnings, taking along their religion. (Genesis 10:6-10; 11:4-9) Babylonish religious teachings thus spread across the face of the earth.
13 Tradition has it that Nimrod died a violent death. After his death the Babylonians reasonably would have been inclined to hold him in high regard as the founder, builder, and first king of their city. Since the god Marduk (Merodach) was regarded as the founder of Babylon, some scholars have suggested that Marduk represents the deified Nimrod. If this is so, then the idea that a person has a soul that survives death must have been current at least by the time of Nimrod’s death. In any case, the pages of history reveal that following the Flood, the birthplace of the teaching of the immortality of the soul was Babel, or Babylon.
14 How, though, did the doctrine become central to most religions of our time? The next section will examine its entry into Eastern religions.
B.C.E. means “Before the Common Era.” C.E. denotes “Common Era,” often called A.D., for Anno Domini, meaning “in the year of the Lord.”
El-Amarna is the site of ruins of the Egyptian city Akhetaton, claimed to have been built in the 14th century B.C.E.
See The Bible—God’s Word or Man’s?, pages 37-54, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Pictures on page 6]
Egyptian view of the souls in the underworld
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Socrates argued that the soul is immortal