The Soul According to the Bible
“The man came to be a living soul.”—GENESIS 2:7.
1. What do we need to examine in order to determine what the Bible teaches about the soul?
AS WE have seen, beliefs about the soul are many and varied. Even among those who claim to base their beliefs on the Bible, there are differing ideas about what the soul is and what happens to it when we die. But what does the Bible really teach about the soul? To find out, we need to examine the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “soul” in the Bible.
“Soul” as a Living Creature
2, 3. (a) What word is translated “soul” in the Hebrew Scriptures, and what is the basic meaning of this word? (b) How does Genesis 2:7 confirm that the word “soul” can denote a whole person?
2 The Hebrew word translated “soul” is neʹphesh, and it occurs 754 times in the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly called the Old Testament). What does neʹphesh mean? According to The Dictionary of Bible and Religion, it “usually refers to the entire living being, to the whole individual.”
3 For example, Genesis 2:7 states: “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.” Note that Adam did not have a soul; he was a soul—just as someone who becomes a doctor is a doctor. The word “soul,” then, can describe a whole person.
4, 5. (a) Give examples showing that the word “soul” refers to a whole person. (b) How does The Dictionary of Bible and Religion support the understanding that a person is a soul?
4 This understanding is supported throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, where we find such phrases as “in case a soul sins” (Leviticus 5:1), “any soul that will do any sort of work” (Leviticus 23:30), “in case a man is found kidnapping a soul” (Deuteronomy 24:7), “his soul got to be impatient” (Judges 16:16), “how long will you men keep irritating my soul?” (Job 19:2), and “my soul has been sleepless from grief.”—Psalm 119:28.
5 There is no indication in these passages that the soul is some shadowy entity that lives on after death. “To say in our terms that the ‘soul’ of the loved one has departed to be with the Lord or to speak of the ‘immortal soul’ would simply not be understandable in the culture of the OT [Old Testament],” says The Dictionary of Bible and Religion.
6, 7. What word is translated “soul” in the Christian Greek Scriptures, and what is the basic meaning of this word?
6 The word translated “soul” more than a hundred times in the Christian Greek Scriptures (commonly called the New Testament) is psy·kheʹ. Like neʹphesh, this word often refers to a whole person. For example, consider the following statements: “My soul is troubled.” (John 12:27) “Fear began to fall upon every soul.” (Acts 2:43) “Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities.” (Romans 13:1) “Speak consolingly to the depressed souls.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) “A few people, that is, eight souls, were carried safely through the water.”—1 Peter 3:20.
7 Psy·kheʹ, like neʹphesh, clearly refers to the whole person. According to scholar Nigel Turner, this word “signifies what is characteristically human, the self, the material body having God’s rûaḥ [spirit] breathed into it. . . . The emphasis is on the whole self.”
8. Are animals souls? Explain.
8 In the Bible the word “soul” applies not only to humans but also to animals. For example, in describing the creation of sea creatures, Genesis 1:20 says that God commanded: “Let the waters swarm forth a swarm of living souls.” And on the next creative day, God said: “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 1:24; compare Numbers 31:28.) Hence, “soul” can refer to a living creature, whether human or animal.
“Soul” as the Life of a Creature
9. (a) What extended meaning can be attributed to the word “soul”? (b) Does this conflict with the idea that the soul is the person himself?
9 At times, the word “soul” refers to the life that a person or an animal enjoys. This does not alter the Bible’s definition of the soul as a person or an animal. To illustrate: We say that someone is alive, meaning that he is a living person. We might also say that he possesses life. In the same way, a living person is a soul. Yet, while he is alive, “soul” may be spoken of as something that he possesses.
10. Give examples showing that the word “soul” can refer to the life that a person or an animal enjoys.
10 For example, God told Moses: “All the men who were hunting for your soul are dead.” (Exodus 4:19) Clearly, Moses’ enemies were seeking to take his life. Similar usage of the word “soul” is seen in the following statements. “We became very much afraid for our souls.” (Joshua 9:24) “They kept fleeing for their soul.” (2 Kings 7:7) “The righteous one is caring for the soul of his domestic animal.” (Proverbs 12:10) “The Son of man came . . . to give his soul a ransom in exchange for many.” (Matthew 20:28) “He came quite near to death, exposing his soul to danger.” (Philippians 2:30) In each case, the word “soul” means “life.”a
11. What may be said of the Bible’s use of the word “soul”?
11 So the word “soul” as used in the Bible refers to a person or an animal or to the life that a person or an animal enjoys. The Bible’s definition of the soul is simple, consistent, and unencumbered by the complicated philosophies and superstitions of men. But what happens to the soul at death? To answer that question, we must first understand why we die.
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They are all souls