Is Your Soul Immortal?
What did the early Christians teach about the soul and immortality?
Where did Christendom get its ideas about immortality of the soul?
IN THIS materialistic epoch many persons doubt the idea of immortality of the soul, which they consider to be a basic teaching of the “Christian religion.” Few have any idea that early Christians taught something entirely different about the soul.
You might be surprised to know that modern religious scholars recognize that what the Bible teaches about the soul is far different from what today’s religions teach. In fact, a knowledge of what early Christians really taught about the soul and immortality could have a profound effect on your outlook toward modern religious teaching.
Christendom cites Justin (who died about the year 165 of our Common Era) as one of its martyrs. Rather than saying that all souls are immortal, as do today’s religious leaders, Justin Martyr wrote: “Some souls perish.”1 In a later day this idea might have gotten him classed as a “heretic” rather than as a “martyr.”
Tatian, a Christian writer who lived during the last part of the second century, wrote: “O Greeks! The soul is not by itself immortal . . . it dies and dissolves with the body, when it does not know the truth . . . if therefore it rests isolated from the light, it sinks into the matter and dies with the flesh.”2 Tatian, too, would have been in direct contradiction with modern religious teaching.
A recent scholarly Catholic book on Christendom’s early writers shows that other “Church fathers” also taught that many souls die. It says of the soul: “Like Justin and Theophilus of Antioch [of the second century], Arnobus [near the beginning of the fourth century] assumes that it is not immortal by nature, but that it can be made immortal by the grace of the Christian God.”3
Indeed, there is a great difference between this idea that the soul is “not immortal by nature” and the modern idea that it is inherently immortal.
AN ANCIENT GREEK IDEA
Since the idea that the soul is inherently immortal was not taught by early Christians, from where did it come? Where did Christendom get it?
The evidence indicates that it was from the idol-worshiping ancient Greeks. The Bible teaches that the soul dies, and that the hope of future life depends on the resurrection. The Greek idea was different from this. The Dictionnaire Encyclopédique de la Bible (1956), a leading French-language Bible encyclopedia, says that the ancient Greeks believed that “the soul, created before the body, remains when it is destroyed, continuing to live its own life; because the soul is immortal and the death of the body represents in its existence a real liberating deliverance.”4
A similar view is held by many professed Christians today. They say the soul is immortal, that it continues to live after the body dies, and that death is a great deliverance and liberation, which enables the soul to return to God. This idea existed in Jesus’ day, but he did not teach it—the idol-worshiping Greeks did.
As time passed, the mixture of this Greek idea into professed Christianity increased. The above-mentioned Bible dictionary edited by Westphal says:
“It was particularly when Christianity separated from Judaism that one began to mix closely the ideas of resurrection and immortality. . . . Contemporary Christian thought still suffers the effects of this confusion. Spiritual heirs of both the Greeks and the Jews, we still explain survival sometimes by the Jewish idea of a resurrection, sometimes by the Greek idea of immortality, without even noticing the internal contradictions of our thinking.”5
What, then, is the truth on the matter? Is the Greek idea of immortality true? Is it found in the Bible? What does the Bible teach about the soul and immortality?
WHAT IS THE “SOUL”?
The Bible’s teaching about the soul is very clear. It says that when man is animated by the breath of life from God, man becomes “a living soul.” At Genesis 2:7 it is written: “And Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground [elements found in the earth] and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” You will note that this passage does not say the soul was created before the body. Neither does it say the soul was “given to” or “put into” man. Nor does it say that the “breath of life” was the soul. Instead, it says that when man came alive, beginning to breathe, “man came to be a living soul.”
The Biblical dictionary edited by Westphal referred to above had to admit this, despite the fact that it is so different from what Christendom teaches. It notes that, according to the Bible, man’s being resides “in the body animated by the breath of the Lord, thus becoming a living soul (compare Gen. 2:7).” It also said that “this soul is inseparable from the body, a fact that explains why sometimes the Old Testament uses the word ‘soul’ for man . . . and sometimes the word ‘flesh’ . . . without the meaning being essentially different.”6
Thus, as used in the Bible, the word “soul” means a living, breathing, sense-possessing creature. This is why the Bible also calls animals “souls,” though it does not use this word for plants.
CAN IT DIE?
If, as the above-mentioned Protestant authority recognizes, “the soul is inseparable from the body,” does this mean that when you die your soul dies? Yes. The Bible speaks of souls as dying, and as being struck fatally, killed, destroyed or devoured. And it uses the specific term “dead soul.”*
It may further surprise many persons to know that, exactly opposite to what is taught in modern catechism classes and Sunday schools, Jesus’ own disciples said that the soul dies. In their gospels, epistles and other writings that are now included in the Christian Greek Scriptures of the Bible, the words “soul” and “souls” appear more than fifty times. Yet not one single time is the word “immortal” associated with them. Not even once does the Bible use the common expression “immortal soul.”
Instead, Jesus’ disciple James showed that a sinning soul dies. He wrote: “Know that he who turns a sinner back from the error of his way will save his soul from death.” (Jas. 5:20) In the apostle John’s vision of God’s anger “every living soul died, yes, the things in the sea.”—Rev. 16:3.
Further, Jesus and his apostles accepted, believed, and frequently quoted from the earlier books of the Bible. In those inspired books you can read: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezek. 18:4) Indeed, that differs from the ideas of the ancient Greeks—and from the ideas that modern Christendom inherited from them and now teaches in her churches.
Certain religious leaders recognize that the Bible uses the word “soul” in a manner far different from the way today’s churches use it. The Bible dictionary edited by Westphal says that the Hebrews did not imagine the soul “without a body to support it.”7 This Protestant authority adds: “Man is therefore an indivisible whole; without the body the soul remains inconceivable, and without the soul the body is only an inert mass.”7
Sincere Catholics and Protestants alike, who have assumed that the idea that the soul is immortal is supported in the writings of Jesus’ apostles, may be shocked to read what a major new Catholic reference work says about this. The New Catholic Encyclopedia (bearing the imprimatur of the archbishop of Washington; published in 1967 by the Catholic University of America) admits (Vol. 13, page 467): “The notion of the soul surviving after death is not readily discernible in the Bible.”
Showing how the Hebrew word that the Bible uses for “soul” differs from Christendom’s modern concept, that encyclopedia says:
“Nepes [or néphesh] is a term of far greater extension than our ‘soul,’ signifying life (Ex 21.23; Dt 19.21) and its various vital manifestations: breathing (Gn 35.18; Jb 41.21), blood [Gn 9.4; Dt 12.23; Ps 140:8 (141). 8], desire (2 Sam 3.21; Prv 23.2). The Soul in the OT [Old Testament] means not a part of man, but the whole man—man as a living being. Similarly, in the NT [New Testament] it signifies human life; the life of an individual, conscious subject (Mt 2.20; 6.25; Lk 12.22-23; 14.26; Jn 10.11, 15, 17; 13.37).”
The Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, by A. van den Born, points out that at Job 13:14 (a Hebrew poetical passage in which the same statement is made in different words on two lines parallel with each other) “my nefes” is found parallel with “my flesh.”
It says that when the part of the Bible written before our Common Era “speaks of rescuing or delivering a man’s nefes from the nether world (Ps 30,4 [Ps 30:3]; Ps 86:13 86,13; 89,49 [Ps 89:48]; Ps 116:4 116,4; Isa 38:17 Is 38,17; Pr 23:14 Prv 23,14), it means no more than that this man is saved from dying (cfr. Ps 33:19 33,19; 56,14 [Ps 56:13]; Ps 78:50 78,50; Job 33:18, 22, 28 Jb 33,18. 22. 28) or that he is snatched from mortal danger; in all these cases the man’s nefes is merely a synonym for the man himself.”—Columns 2287, 2288.
It also says that psykhé, the word used for “soul” in the Christian Greek Scriptures of the Bible, “frequently designates physical life.”—Column 2288.
The word “immortality” does appear in the apocryphal book of Wisdom, which was originally written not in Hebrew but in Greek, and is sometimes inserted into the pre-Christian Hebrew Scriptures. But even this apocryphal book does not say that the soul is immortal. This Catholic dictionary says specifically that “it is probable that in Wisdom immortality means the imperishable life that will be given to the elect in their resurrected bodies.” It adds: “In the New Testament also immortality is gained only in the resurrection. . . . This is the reward which awaits the just on Judgment Day.”—Column 854.
Actually, the words “immortal” and “immortality” are rarely used in the Bible. In the King James Version they appear a total of only six times. At 1 Timothy 1:17 and; 1 Ti 6:16 God and Christ are spoken of as being immortal, or incorruptible. At Romans 2:7 immortality (or incorruptibility) is spoken of, not as something inherent in man, but as something to be ‘sought.’ Second Timothy 1:10 says Christ ‘shed light’ on this subject. Finally, at 1 Corinthians 15:53, 54, the word “immortality” is used twice, not to describe something people have, but something they must “put on.”
Thus, the Bible teaches that the soul is the life you enjoy. Your soul is YOU. When you live, you are a living soul. When you die, the soul is dead.
Then, is there no hope for man?
Yes, there is hope. But it does not depend upon your having an “immortal soul.” Instead, it depends upon one’s being covered by the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ, so that he will be resurrected, or restored to life, on a perfected paradise earth after God destroys the present wicked system and establishes righteous conditions of lasting peace and justice earth wide.—Rev. 20:11-13; 21:1-4.
This resurrection hope, rarely discussed in today’s churches, is taught in both the Hebrew and the Christian Greek Scriptures of the Bible, and was stressed by first-century Christians. In fact, one modern religious authority said: “The most startling characteristic of the first Christian preaching is its emphasis on the resurrection.”8
Knowing the Bible truth about the soul enables you to make a vital decision. What is that? To determine which religion is true and which religion is false. For any religion that teaches the false doctrine of the immortality of the soul must be false. This being so, will you continue to associate with such or will you associate with those who teach God’s truth?
1 Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin Martyr, Dialogue V.
2 Oration to the Greeks, Tatian, Section 13. Quoted from French translation, Discours contre les Grecs, in Les Pères de l’Eglise, by de Genoude (Paris; 1838), p. 233.
3 Patrology, Berthold Altaner (originally published in German as Patrologie) (Friedberg, West Germany; 1960), p. 207.
4 Dictionnaire Encyclopèdique de la Bible, edited by Alexandre Westphal (Valence-sur-Rhone, France; 1956), Vol. 2, p. 557, column 1.
5 Ibid., column 2.
6 Ibid., column 1.
7 Ibid., column 2.
8 The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J. D. Douglas (London; 1962), p. 1086.
For examples see Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 6:6. More than eighty instances in which the Bible refers to the soul as being capable of dying are cited on pages 3558, 3559 of the 1963 one-volume edition of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.
When you look these verses up in your modern translation of the Bible, you may find that the word “soul” has been replaced by “body,” “man,” “me,” “person,” or another word. This is because translators who believed that the Bible teaches the soul is immortal obviously encountered a problem of conscience when they came across passages that say it dies. However, in each of the above-mentioned instances the word used in the Bible’s original Hebrew language is néphesh, which these same translators rendered elsewhere as “soul.”
The Hebrew word for “soul” is used 750 times in the Bible to refer to (1) a person, an individual, or a lower animal, or (2) the life that a person or animal enjoys as such. This is entirely different from the ideas modern Christendom has inherited from the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans.