What Is Your Soul?
MANY people believe that man has a soul that is distinct and separate from the body. This soul is thought to leave the body at death. Depending on whether a person has lived a good life or not, his soul is said to go either to hell and suffer torment or to heaven and enjoy eternal happiness with God.
Belief in a fiery hell is thus seen to rest on the teaching that man has a soul that survives the death of the body. But is this teaching in harmony with the Bible?
The opening book of the Holy Scriptures, Genesis, reveals the nature of the human soul. Describing the creation of the first man, 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 [Hebrew, neʹphesh].” Note that the Bible does not say ‘man received a soul,’ but that “man came to be a living soul.”
In his inspired letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul shows that Christian teaching about the soul did not differ from what is set forth in Genesis. He quoted Genesis 2:7 in saying: “It is even so written: ‘The first man Adam became a living soul.’” (1 Cor. 15:45) Since Paul used the Greek word for soul, psy·kheʹ, this proves that, like the Hebrew word neʹphesh, psy·kheʹ can designate man himself.
It is noteworthy that numerous twentieth-century Bible scholars, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, have openly acknowledged that man himself is a soul. We read:
“The famous verse in Genesis [2:7] does not say, as is often supposed, that man consists of body and soul; it says that Yahweh shaped man, earth from the ground, and then proceeded to animate the inert figure with living breath blown into his nostrils, so that man became a living being, which is all that nephesh [soul] here means.”—Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, Volume 41.
“Man must not be thought of as having a soul; he is a soul.”—The New Bible Commentary.
“The soul in the O[ld] T[estament] means not a part of man, but the whole man—man as a living being. Similarly, in the N[ew] T[estament] it signifies human life: the life of an individual, conscious subject.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia.
“In the New Testament, to ‘save one’s soul’ (Mk 8:35) does not mean to save some ‘spiritual’ part of man, as opposed to his ‘body’ (in the Platonic sense) but the whole person with emphasis on the fact that the person is living, desiring, loving and willing, etc., in addition to being concrete and physical.”—The New American Bible, “Glossary of Biblical Theology Terms.”
“The Bible does not say we have a soul. ‘Nefesh’ is the person himself, his need for food, the very blood in his veins, his being.”—Dr. H. M. Orlinsky of Hebrew Union College, quoted in New York Times, October 12, 1962.
As the original-language words for “soul” (neʹphesh and psy·kheʹ) can refer to man himself, we should expect to find the normal physical functions or characteristics of humans attributed to it. Is this the case? Is your soul really you? Consider:
A study of the Bible’s use of these Hebrew and Greek words reveals that a human soul is born. (Gen. 46:18) It can eat or fast. (Lev. 7:20; Ps. 35:13) It can be joyful or sorrowful. (Ps. 35:9; Matt. 26:38) It can fall in love. (Gen. 34:3) It can bless others. (Gen. 27:4) It can listen. (Acts 3:23) The soul can sin, swear, crave things and give way to fear. (Lev. 4:2; 5:4; Deut. 12:20; Acts 2:43) It can be kidnapped and put in irons. (Deut. 24:7; Ps. 105:18) Are not all these things that you can do or that can be done to you? Yes, your soul is you.
So when your soul dies, you die, you cease to have conscious existence. The Bible repeatedly speaks of the soul as dying. Through his prophet Ezekiel, Jehovah declared: “Look! All the souls—to me they belong. As the soul of the father so likewise the soul of the son—to me they belong. The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezek. 18:4, 20) Respecting the Messiah or Christ, the prophecy of Isaiah foretold: “He poured out his soul to the very death.” (Isa. 53:12) And Jesus Christ said: “He that is fond of his soul destroys it.”—John 12:25.
But are there not at least some scriptures that could be understood as suggesting the possibility of man’s having an immortal soul? No. Interestingly, even Bible scholars who are not Jehovah’s witnesses have reached this conclusion on the basis of their study. Writing in Presbyterian Life (May 1970), David G. Buttrick, Associate Professor in Church and Ministry, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, states: “I find nothing in Scripture to back up the idea that souls have ‘an immortal subsistence.’” Regarding the significance of the word “soul,” this scholar observes: “When the Bible does use that word soul, it usually means ‘life’ or ‘livingness,’ and not some separate part of us. So think it out: When the Bible tells us we are mortal, it is saying that we die—we really die.” Continuing his line of argument, he says: “If we had immortal souls, we wouldn’t need God—our immortality would do the trick. But the Bible contradicts such vain hope: we are mortal and so we must cling to God’s love alone. Christians do not believe in continuation, but in resurrection.”
The Bible makes it plain that there is no conscious existence in the death state. Ecclesiastes 9:10, according to the rendering of the Roman Catholic Douay Version, reads: “Whatsoever thy hand is able to do, do it earnestly: for neither work, nor reason, nor wisdom, nor knowledge, shall be in hell, whither thou art hastening.” There being no immortal soul to survive the death of the body, there is nothing that can be tormented after death in a fiery hell.
God’s promise of a resurrection, however, gives assurance that the dead in hell will come to life. Just what is this hell and how can the dead be released from its grip? Please consider the next article.