Hope for the Soul
How enduring are you? What do you face at death? Pain, pleasure, or extinction? This article aids you to consider the Bible hope for the soul.
WHY do men build monuments and statues to themselves? Why do they painstakingly preserve their memory in museums, biographies and history books? Answers one American general: “The monuments of the nations are all protests against nothingness after death; so are the statues and inscriptions; so is history.” Why do many dying men prefer illness and pain rather than death? Why, despite professions of hope in an afterlife, do they hold on to the last shred of this life, painful though it may be? Because they fear the possibility of hell instead of heaven? Rather, because they just cannot resign themselves to the thought that they, with feelings, abilities and aspirations, they, the most important persons in their universe, are coming to an end, are ceasing to be. They would actually prefer pain! To quote the poet Bailey, who did not have the Hindu or Buddhist hope of nirvana or extinction: “Hell is more bearable than nothingness.”
For the first man this posed no problem. His Creator had given him a vibrantly healthy body, a keen, active mind, a wife as a helpmate and a beautiful garden park to live in. Death was far remote from his thoughts, for there would be no such thing while he remained faithful to his Creator’s commands. (Gen. 2:15-25) But then he defected and “through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men.” (Rom. 5:12, NW) Thrust from Eden’s garden, man and woman experienced how their tempter had lied to the woman. He had promised a continuance of human life to rebels. But swiftly in Eden came the Creator’s death sentence upon them, their expulsion from Eden’s garden, and in time death’s blow landed on their son Abel and there he lay, still and cold. The sorrow that untimely death must have brought was just part of still more troubles to come. The fear it laid on their hearts was never to be lifted until their own hearts were stilled in death, for the dying Adam found that all he could father was a race of men “who for fear of death were subject to slavery all through their lives.”—Heb. 2:15; Gen. 3:1–4:16, NW.
What a bleak prospect, this! From their family head, Adam, mankind learned just how desolate was their lot. From the dust of the ground they had been formed and the breath of life, blown into their nostrils, had set them astir, made them alive. Obedience to the Creator would have given reason for their bodies of dust to remain alive to his praise. Disobedience robbed them of life-worthiness. Back to nothingness they would go! “For dust you are and to dust you will return.”—Gen. 2:7; 3:19; 5:1, NW.
But “the thought of being nothing after death is a burden insupportable to a virtuous man,” said Dryden, speaking for professed Christians. And, we might add, to the unvirtuous man as well. No man likes to see his works, whether good or bad, come to nothing, his person crumble to dust, his name die off men’s lips, his reputation sink into oblivion. Many who fail to get attention for themselves through good works will even turn to bad works so that they will be noticed, will be somebody in order that men will long remember and talk about them.
The desire for attention, memorability, or better still, durability, gave birth to a new thought in minds grasping for comfort and solace. Surely, they thought, this is not all there is to man. He is able to think, reason, imagine, even invent or “create,” in a sense of the word. “Can mere dust do that?” they reasoned. Their answer to this was put in words by the Greek philosopher Aristotle: “Whatsoever that be within us that feels, thinks, desires, and animates, is something celestial, divine, and, consequently, imperishable.” Ah, there it was! Man could not, did not really die! Man was immortal!
But how to harmonize the thought with the observable reality of death, cessation of existence? Some found that at night they dreamed and in their dreams went on long journeys, unhampered, as it were, by physical conditions. When they awoke, there they were in the same place as when they fell asleep. Their friends and relatives testified they had been there all the time. Hopeful men were quick to interpret this as proof that they possessed a life within them—a soul, they came to call it—that could overcome physical limitations and escape the body. An immortal soul it was, and so here at last was an escape from the awful reality of death, of nothingness.
The record of this shows up in archaeological diggings on ancient sites. Among the pre-Flood Ghassulians stone-lined graves were found with ornaments and pottery that originally contained food at the time of burial. Food for the departed soul! At ancient Eridu similar discoveries awaited. For them animals had immortality too. Proof? A young boy’s stone-lined grave containing not only the bones of the boy and his dog, but also a bowl of food for the boy and a bone for the dog!
With ideas of earth-bound man escaping to a spirit world, contact with a “world of the gods” was established in men’s minds. It was a short step, then, to belief in communication with departed loved ones, to ancestor worship, to deification of “great” men who had passed “beyond.”
THE HUMAN SOUL
And so a doctrine sprang up, the doctrine of soul immortality, soul escape, soul survival. The soul, according to this idea, was the real man, the inner man; the body was merely the outer shell that accommodated the soul during its earthly journeys and trials, only to be cast aside like a butterfly’s cocoon, while the soul wafted its way to heaven. An indefinable, immaterial thing was the soul.
The observer may find it strange, though, that evidence of this belief is found among those nations that were always outside the worship of Jehovah; namely, in the pre-Flood civilization that was destroyed, the post-Flood Babylonian culture, the Egyptian, Assyrian, Medo-Persian, Grecian and pagan Roman religious structures, among others.
Stranger still, at least to people of Christendom who have been taught the immortality doctrine, should be the extremely human picture that their Book of books paints of the soul. It does not say, like their teachers, that the soul is infused into the body at birth, that the body is born but the soul is not. The Bible says souls are born, that Jacob’s wife, Leah, “bore these to Jacob: sixteen souls.” Their religious pastors may accept evolutionary ideas on development of the human body from beasts, but they say that the infusion of the soul by God is what made that body a man in God’s image.—Gen. 46:18, NW.
The Bible says Jehovah created, did not evolve, the first man: he “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.” No immaterial, indefinable something inside man, the soul is clearly defined as a combination of body of dust and breath of life. When he dies the process that made the man a soul reverses, “and the dust returneth to the earth as it was, and the spirit [the life force] returneth unto God who gave it.” (Gen. 2:7, NW; Eccl. 12:7, AS) Is consciousness preserved, then, through the escape of a “soul”? Or is this “spirit” that returns to God a conscious something? No, for when man dies “his breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” He descends to nothingness.—Ps. 146:4.
Between its birth and death the soul displays amazingly human attributes for something that is supposed to be ethereal and divine. It possesses blood, gets hungry, and eats meat, grapes and a honeycomb. It can be threatened by a sword and torn by a lion. (Gen. 9:5; Deut. 12:20; 23:24, NW; Prov. 27:7; Ps. 22:20; 7:2) Yes, the soul is indeed human; the human creature is the soul and when the human creature dies the soul dies, all of it. Do not take our word for it. Take God’s words: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”—Ezek. 18:4, 20.
“But,” some may object, “that dead body lying there before us when a man dies, that lifeless corpse, that cannot be all that is left of a soul. The life is gone, the consciousness, the sensitivity. There must be a ‘soul’ that leaves a dead body and continues on.” Oh, but the English translation of Haggai 2:13 speaks of a “dead body” and in so doing translates the one Hebrew word, nephesh, which it elsewhere translates “soul.” So the dead body, in Scriptural language, is actually a dead soul, and Numbers 6:6 (NW) uses the same expression when it warned one who wanted to remain ceremonially clean that “he may not come toward any dead soul.” What is wrong with speaking that way? Nothing! Do we not speak of a corpse as a “dead man,” though only part of what makes up a man is still in evidence? A live man is a living soul; a dead man, a dead soul.
Is it hard to accept that when a man dies there is no life left over and surviving somewhere? Do you still ask, “Where did the life go?” To aid understanding we might ask: “When you separate water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen, where does the water go?” Or again, when you rob a candle’s flame of oxygen, where does the flame go? A moment ago the process of combustion united the material on the wick with oxygen and there was flame. Where is the flame now? The answer in both illustrations is “nowhere.” It takes hydrogen and oxygen to make water; separate them and the water ceases to exist. It takes combustible material and oxygen to make flame; separate them and the flame ceases to exist. It takes body and breath of life to produce soul; separate them and the soul ceases to exist.
“Where does that leave me?” you may ask. “I expect to die some day, like everyone else. If God made me that way, what will be left for me then? What future will I have?”
WHAT FUTURE FOR THE SOUL?
In the minds of nations rejecting Jehovah God and his Son Christ Jesus that question has led to the doctrine of soul immortality. Not so, however, in the minds of those who penned the foregoing inspired Bible descriptions of a mortal soul. You may be sure that they had a hope. Rest assured that the God who gave his first perfect human creation the hope of living forever if obedient did not leave these faithful, if dying, Bible writers without hope.
Paul the apostle reviews some of their faithful life histories in his letter to the Hebrews, chapter eleven. With eloquence he records their triumphs of faith, triumphs over sword, fire, beasts, opposing kingdoms, yes, and their own weaknesses. Why did they endure all this so faithfully? “In order that they might attain a better resurrection.” (Heb. 11:32-35 NW) Not immortality, but resurrection is our hope!
Resurrect a soul that has disintegrated? How? What is there to resurrect? What trace remains of faithful men now dead for centuries? The one factor in the universe that allows resurrection is memory, the greatest memory in the universe, God’s memory. “The memory of the just is blessed: but the name of the wicked shall rot.” (Prov. 10:7) The willfully wicked may be gone forever, gone and forgotten, but, because of Jehovah’s powerful memory, faithful men like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob “are all living from his standpoint.” (Luke 20:38, NW) True, as living souls they have long since passed out of existence; they “are not,” but Jehovah is the God “who makes the dead alive and calls the things that are not as though they were.”—Rom. 4:17, NW.
Faithful life patterns are preserved indelibly, in all their intricate detail, in the mind of the One who is able to have a personal acquaintance with each and every one of seemingly innumerable stars: “He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.” (Ps. 147:4) Laid away in their tombs, wherever they may be, the faithful are encompassed by God’s illimitable memory. Moreover, “the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out.” (John 5:28, 29, NW) He whose matchless power created or constituted the first human souls can reconstitute faithful human souls back to life again, can re-stand them again to life. That is the meaning of resurrection.
That is the true object of man’s desire, the accomplished end of his long search for continued existence, the answer to his question, voiced by faithful Job: “If a man die, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14) “Yes,” answers the Bible, “if his faithfulness preserves him in God’s memory.” To some people in these troubled last days of this old world even greater blessings may come, the privilege of surviving this world’s end and never dying, even as “a few people, that is, eight souls, were carried safely through the water” when the flood of Noah’s day descended. (1 Pet. 3:20, NW) May your reasonings, longings, searchings, set your faith and hope, not on false pagan immortality promises, but on the God-given promise you have seen through the eyes of his Word.