Your Soul, Your Spirit and the Hereafter
PERHAPS you have experienced the empty feeling that comes with losing a loved one in death. On such occasions most persons feel not only sad but also very helpless. It is only natural to wonder: What happens to a person when he dies? Is he still conscious somewhere? Is there a real hope that the dead will live again? The Bible contains a comforting answer to these questions.
Simply stated, death is the opposite of life. In sentencing the first man Adam for his willful disobedience, God said: “You [will] return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:19) Consider now: Where was Adam before God formed him from the dust and gave him life? Why, he simply did not exist. At his death Adam returned to the same lifeless, unconscious state. He went neither to a fiery hell nor to heavenly bliss, but died—as God said he would.—Gen. 2:17.
The Bible clearly teaches that the dead are unconscious and lifeless in the grave. Note what Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 (AV) says regarding the condition of the dead: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”
This means, therefore, that the dead cannot do anything and cannot feel anything. Their thoughts have ceased, as the Bible states: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”—Ps. 146:3, 4, AV.
DOES MAN HAVE AN IMMORTAL SOUL?
But what about the soul? Is it not a part of man that separates from his body at death and goes on living? To answer this properly we need to determine what the soul is.
You may be surprised to know that animals as well as men are called “souls” in the inspired Scriptures. For instance, Numbers 31:28 speaks of “one soul [Hebrew, nephʹesh] out of five hundred, of humankind and of the herd and of the asses and of the flock.” Notice here that both humans and animals are classed as souls. If you have a Bible that shows marginal readings either alongside or below the columns of Scripture verses, you can look at Genesis 1:20, 30 and note that fish, birds and animals are in the “living soul” class—the marginal readings showing “soul” for “life” in these verses.—See also Revelation 16:3, where the Greek word for “soul,” psy·kheʹ, appears.
What, then, is the soul? Let us see what the Creator’s own written Word says about it. At Genesis 2:7 we read: “And 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, please, that after God started man breathing “the man came to be a living soul.” Hence the man was a soul, just as a man who becomes a doctor is a doctor. (1 Cor. 15:45) Since the human soul is man himself, then it cannot be some shadowy thing that merely inhabits the body or that can exist apart from the person.
In harmony with this fact, the Bible makes plain that the human soul possesses physical qualities. For example, the Bible speaks of the soul’s desiring physical food, saying: “Your soul craves to eat meat.” (Deut. 12:20; see also Leviticus 17:12.) It says, too, that souls have blood traveling through their veins, for it speaks of “the blood of the souls of the poor innocents.” (Jer. 2:34, AV) Yes, your soul is really you, with all your physical and mental qualities.—Prov. 2:10.
What, then, of the texts that use such expressions as “my soul,” or those that speak of a person’s soul as though it is within him? These texts, of course, must harmonize with the scriptures already considered, for there can be no contradiction in God’s Word. It becomes evident, then, that the word “soul” may be used in different senses. At times it refers to one’s own self as a soul. So just as one says “myself” he also can say “my soul,” meaning basically the same thing. Thus the psalmist wrote: “My soul has been sleepless from grief.”—Ps. 119:28.
“Soul” can also refer to the life one enjoys as a living soul or person. Now, we can say that someone is alive, meaning he is a live person. Or we can say that he has life, meaning he has life as a person. In the same way, man, according to the Bible, is a soul; but, as long as he is alive, he can be said to “have soul.”
So, just as we speak of one’s losing his life, we can speak of his losing his soul. Jesus said: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26, AV) When Rachel had trouble in giving birth to Benjamin, her soul (or life as a soul) went out from her and she died. (Gen. 35:16-19) She ceased to be a living person and became a corpse. And when the prophet Elijah performed a miracle in connection with a dead child, the child’s soul (or life as a soul) came back into him and “he came to life.” He was no longer a corpse but was again a living soul.—1 Ki. 17:17-23.
Since the soul is the person himself, what happens to a soul at death? The Bible is very clear in stating that the soul is subject to death, saying: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezek. 18:4, 20) The apostle Peter quoted from the writings of Moses concerning the future Prophet Jesus, saying: “Indeed, any soul that does not listen to that Prophet will be completely destroyed from among the people.”—Acts 3:23.
Consistent with this basic truth, not once in any of its verses does the Bible say that either human or animal souls are immortal, deathless, cannot be destroyed or cannot perish. There are, however, dozens of scriptures that show that the soul can die or be killed. (Lev. 23:30; Jas. 5:20) Even of Jesus Christ the Bible says: “He poured out his soul to the very death.” (Isa. 53:12) We see, then, that the human soul is the person himself, and when the person dies, it is the human soul that dies.
Much of the misunderstanding about death has been due to the confusion in many persons’ minds as to the meaning of “soul” and “spirit.” The Bible shows they are not the same, as we shall see.
WHAT IS THE SPIRIT IN LIVING CREATURES?
From Job 34:14, 15 we learn that there are two things that man (or any other conscious earthly creature) must have in order to be and stay alive: spirit and breath. There we read: “If he [God] sets his heart upon anyone, if that one’s spirit [Hebrew, ruʹahh] and breath [Hebrew, neshamahʹ] he gathers to himself, all flesh will expire together, and earthling man himself will return to the very dust.” Also the Bible speaks of Jehovah God as “the One laying out the earth and its produce, the One giving breath to the people on it, and spirit to those walking in it.”—Isa. 42:5.
We know that the first man was formed by God out of the “dust of the ground,” that is, the elements taken from the soil. At the time of Adam’s creation, God caused the billions of cells in his body to live, to have in them the force of life. This active life force is what is meant here by the word “spirit” (ruʹahh). But for the life force to continue in each of Adam’s billions of cells, they needed oxygen, and this was to be provided by breathing. So, God next “breathed into his nostrils the breath [neshamahʹ] of life.” Then Adam’s lungs began to function and thereby sustain by breathing the life force in his body cells.—Gen. 2:7, AV.
This was similar to the case of certain newborn babies. Although there is life in the baby when born, it sometimes does not begin to breathe right after birth. The doctor finds it necessary to spank the child to make it start breathing, for without breath the child would soon die. So, too, the life in Adam’s body cells had to be sustained by the breathing process in order for Adam to carry on the activities of a living person.
Whereas the human soul is the living person himself, the spirit is simply the life force that enables that person to be alive. The spirit has no personality, nor can it do the things a person can do. It cannot think, speak, hear, see or feel. In that respect, it might be likened to the electric current of a car’s battery. That current can ignite the fuel to make the engine produce power, cause the headlights to shine, sound the horn, or cause the car’s radio to produce voices and music. But, without the engine, headlights, horn or radio, could that battery current do any of these things by itself? No, for it is merely the force that enables the equipment to perform and do such things.
This spirit or life force is found in all living creatures, being passed on from parents to offspring at the time of conception. Thus, God told Noah that he would cause a flood of waters “to bring to ruin all flesh, in which the active force [ruʹahh, spirit] of life is,” both of animals and men.—Gen. 6:17, margin, 1953 edition; see also Ge 7:15, 22, AV, marginal reading.
Because they all have this same life force or spirit, man and the animals die in a similar manner. For that reason, Ecclesiastes 3:19, 20 says: “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] . . . All are going to one place. They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust.”
Since God is the Giver of life, his Word says that when a person dies “the dust returns to the earth just as it happened to be and the spirit itself returns to the true God who gave it.” (Eccl. 12:7) At death the life force eventually leaves all the body cells and the body begins to decay. All conscious thought and actions end. (Ps. 104:29) How, then, does the spirit ‘return to God who gave it’? Does the life force literally leave the earth and travel through space to God’s presence? No, but it returns to God in the sense that now the future life prospects of the person rest entirely with God. Only God can restore the spirit, causing the person to live again.
Some persons live in fear of the dead and make offerings to appease dead ancestors. But we can find comfort in knowing that, since the dead are unconscious, it is not possible for them to harm the living. And though one may have loved very much some person who died, God’s Word shows that one cannot benefit the dead person by having religious acts or ceremonies performed for such one, perhaps at great expense to the survivors. (2 Sam. 12:21-23) The knowledge of the true condition of the dead also protects us against the practice of trying to speak with the dead. The Bible warns that those who claim to speak with the dead are really getting in touch with demons, wicked spirits that falsely pretend to be the one who has died.—Deut. 18:10-12.
WHAT IS HELL?
Many religious organizations teach that the wicked are tormented endlessly in a hellfire. At its ecumenical council a few years ago the Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed belief in the reality of hell as a place of eternal punishment. But is this belief taught in God’s Word? You may know the meaning that your own particular church organization gives to “hell,” but have you ever investigated to see the meaning given it in the Scriptures? What is hell according to the Bible?
In the Hebrew Scriptures of the Bible the word “hell” is translated from the Hebrew word sheolʹ. This word occurs 65 times in all. The King James Version of the Bible, however, translates sheolʹ 31 times as “hell,” 31 times as “grave,” and 3 times as “pit.” The Catholic Douay Version of the Bible translates sheolʹ as “hell” 63 times and as “pit” once and as “death” once. In the Christian Greek Scriptures the word “hell” is sometimes translated from the Greek word haʹdes. Both the King James and Douay versions translate haʹdes as “hell” in each of its ten occurrences.
Is hell a hot place? Do sheolʹ and haʹdes refer to some place where the wicked suffer after death? It is plain that they do not, for we have already seen that the dead are not conscious and therefore cannot suffer. The Bible does not contradict itself with regard to the condition of those in hell. This is proved by the fact that the Bible says that Jesus was in hell. (Acts 2:31, AV, Dy) When the apostle Peter stated this on the day of Pentecost, he clearly meant that Jesus had been in the grave, not in a place of fiery torment. (1 Cor. 15:3, 4) In saying this the apostle quoted from Psalm 16:10 (15:10, Dy]. Here the Hebrew word sheolʹ was used, and at Acts 2:31 this word is translated by the Greek word haʹdes. This shows that sheolʹ and haʹdes refer to the same thing. The Bible “hell” is actually mankind’s grave.
As further proof of this, consider what occurred after the prophet Jonah was swallowed by the big fish. The Bible says: “Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” (Jonah 2:1, 2, AV) Where was Jonah? In some fiery place? No. Jonah was in the fish’s belly, which would have been his tomb or grave if God had not delivered him from there. That is why the marginal reference in the King James Version substitutes here “the grave” for “hell.”
Also consider the case of the righteous man Jacob. When sorrowing for his son Joseph, he said: “I will go down to my son into hell [sheol΄; the grave, AV], mourning.” (Gen. 37:35, Dy) Now think: Did Jacob believe that his good son Joseph was in a fiery-hot place, and did he himself want to join him there? It is obvious that Jacob merely thought his son was dead and in the grave, and in his sad state Jacob himself wanted to die.
Job, a righteous servant of God, who was suffering much, prayed to God: “Who will grant me this, that thou mayst protect me in hell [sheol΄; the grave, AV], and hide me till thy wrath pass, and appoint me a time when thou wilt remember me?” (Job 14:13, Dy) How unreasonable to think that Job desired protection in hell if it is a fiery-hot place! Clearly, this “hell” is simply the grave, and Job desired to go there so that his sufferings might end. Good people as well as bad people go to the Bible “hell,” the common grave of all mankind.
RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
There is one place where haʹdes occurs, however, that has caused some persons to believe that the Bible hell is a place of physical torment. That is where Jesus spoke of the rich man and Lazarus, and said that the rich man died, and in haʹdes experienced torment. (Luke 16:22-31) Why is the use of haʹdes here so different from its use in other places? Because Jesus was giving a parable or illustration and was not speaking of the literal haʹdes or the grave.—Matt. 13:34.
Consider: Is it reasonable or Scriptural to believe that a man suffers torment simply because he is rich, wears good clothing and has plenty to eat? Is it Scriptural to believe that one is blessed with heavenly life just because he is a beggar? Consider this too: Is “hell” literally within speaking distance of heaven so that an actual conversation could be carried on? Also, if the rich man were in a literal burning lake, how could Abraham send Lazarus to cool his tongue with just a drop of water on the tip of his finger? What, then, was Jesus illustrating?
In this illustration the rich man stood for the class of religious leaders who rejected and later killed Jesus. Lazarus pictured the common people who accepted God’s Son. The Bible shows that death can be used as a symbol, representing a great change in one’s life or course of action. (Compare Romans 6:2, 11-13; 7:4-6.) A death, or change from former conditions, happened when Jesus fed the Lazarus class spiritually, and finally by Pentecost they came into the favor of the greater Abraham, Jehovah God. At the same time, the false religious leaders “died” with respect to having God’s favor. Being cast off, they suffered torments when Christ’s followers after Pentecost forcefully exposed their evil works. (Acts 7:51-57) So this illustration does not teach that some dead persons are tormented in a literal fiery hell.
GEHENNA AND PURGATORY
Perhaps someone may object and say that the Bible does speak of “hell fire.” (Matt. 5:22, AV, Dy) True, some versions use this expression, but in such cases the original Greek word here used for “hell” is Geʹenna, and not haʹdes. “Gehenna” occurs twelve times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, and refers to the valley of Hinnom outside the walls of Jerusalem. When Jesus was on earth this valley was used as a huge garbage dump where fires were kept burning by adding brimstone (sulfur) to burn up the refuse. Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, Volume I, explains: “It became the common lay-stall [garbage dump] of the city, where the dead bodies of criminals, and the carcasses of animals, and every other kind of filth was cast.”
So when Jesus said that persons would be thrown into Gehenna for their bad deeds, what did he mean? Not that they would be tormented forever. Jesus used that valley (Gehenna) of fire and brimstone as a proper symbol of everlasting destruction. That is what his first-century listeners understood it to mean. The “lake of fire” mentioned in Revelation has a similar meaning, not conscious torment, but “second death,” everlasting death or destruction. It is evident that this “lake” is a symbol, because death and hell (ha΄des) are thrown into it. Such things cannot literally be burned, but they can be done away with, or destroyed.—Rev. 20:14; 21:8.
What, then, about purgatory? This is said to be a place where human souls are conscious and going through fiery purging after death. Since the Bible clearly shows that the dead are unconscious, how could God be tormenting anyone in such a place? (Ps. 146:4 [145:4, Dy]) Actually, neither the word “purgatory” nor the idea of a “purgatory” occurs in the Bible.
WILL THE DEAD LIVE AGAIN?
The Bible teaching on the true condition of the dead relieves one’s mind of much unnecessary fear and worry regarding those who have died. To know that such ones are not suffering helps us to appreciate far more God’s love, and his justice. Yet, one may still wonder, If a man dies and simply goes to the grave, what hope is there for the dead? The Bible reveals that there is a wonderful hope, the hope of living again.
During his earthly ministry Jesus Christ showed his power over death, actually bringing dead persons back to human life. (Luke 7:11-16; John 11:39-44) He thus provided a preview of what he will do on a grand scale in God’s new system of things. The heartwarming prospect is that then hell, mankind’s common grave, will be emptied of its unconscious dead. (Rev. 20:13) Some receive a resurrection to heavenly glory as spirit creatures, even as did Jesus Christ. (Rom. 6:5) However, the vast majority of mankind will be brought back to enjoy life in a restored earthly paradise.—Acts 24:15; Luke 23:43.
In God’s new system the resurrected dead, if they carry out God’s righteous laws, will never need to die again. (Isa. 25:8) Certainly this grand provision for blessing mankind is reason for us to take in more knowledge of Jehovah and his Son, Jesus Christ. Doing so can lead to our eternal life and blessing.