Second Thoughts About Immortality of the Soul
LIFE is a precious gift of God. In the face of danger people display a desire to remain alive. When someone dies, surviving loved ones usually cherish a hope that death has not “ended it all” for that one.
The Word of God holds out a marvelous hope for the dead. For example, Jesus stated: “This is the will of him that sent me, that I should lose nothing out of all that he has given me but that I should resurrect it at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone that beholds the Son and exercises faith in him should have everlasting life, and I will resurrect him at the last day.”—John 6:39, 40.
What happens between the time of a person’s death and the resurrection “at the last day”? Have you been led to believe that, at death, an immortal “soul” separates from the body, remaining conscious and experiencing pleasure or torment while awaiting reunion with the body at the resurrection? Millions of persons who once believed such a teaching have had second thoughts about it. Why?
SOME SECOND THOUGHTS
For centuries noted Bible scholars and clergymen have seen a conflict between the doctrine of immortality of the soul and that of the resurrection. Among them was Bible translator William Tyndale, who said: “In putting departed souls in heaven, hell, or purgatory you destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection . . . If the soul be in heaven, tell me what cause is there for the resurrection?” Tyndale also noted that the doctrine of immortality of the soul originated with “the heathen philosophers.”
Similarly, Roman Catholic monsignor Ray T. Bosler wrote in a newspaper column that appeared in the fall of 1974: “The New Testament does not speak of the immortal soul distinct from the body. . . . When the New Testament uses the word soul it refers to the real self—body and soul—that enters a new life with the resurrection. . . . Our theologians disagree among themselves over just what the existence of the saints is like until the final resurrection. . . . Theologians are speculating about the unknown here; so we cannot expect too much help from them.”
The Jewish Encyclopedia comments: “The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture.”
What is the true Biblical view of the soul?
THE SOUL—WHAT IS IT? CAN IT DIE?
The first mention of the human soul in the Bible is at Genesis 2:7, which states: “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 man was not given, but came to be a living soul. The soul is the entire person, not an invisible part of him. Did you know that? Consider some further Scriptural statements to the same effect:
“And Joseph’s sons who were born to him in Egypt were two souls.” (Gen. 46:27) “Now in case some soul would present as an offering a grain offering to Jehovah . . .” (Lev. 2:1) “In case a soul sins by mistake . . .” (Lev. 4:2) “No soul of you must eat blood.” (Lev. 17:12) “Fear began to fall upon every soul.” (Acts 2:43) “Now, all together, we souls in the boat were about two hundred and seventy-six.”—Acts 27:37.
This too has been recognized for centuries by noted Bible scholars. For instance, Martin Luther wrote concerning the word for soul in Biblical Hebrew: “It refers not only to a part of man, as we Germans speak of the soul, but it refers to the whole man as he exists with his five senses and as he maintains himself with meat and drink.” Luther placed the doctrine of immortality of the soul among the “endless monstrous fictions in the Roman [Catholic] rubbish heap of decretals.”
More recently, theologian Karl Barth remarked in a radio interview: “Never lose sight of the fact that the Bible . . . depicts man in his unity, in his entirety, his soul, that is personal life, which can be distinguished from his body, but not separated from it, just as the body can be distinguished from his soul but not separated from it.”
Does that mean that when a person dies the soul dies? The Bible repeatedly mentions souls dying or being destroyed. To illustrate: “I must destroy that soul from among his people.” (Lev. 23:30) “Everyone who has killed a soul . . .” (Num. 31:19) “Then Jesus said to them: ‘I ask you men, Is it lawful on the sabbath . . . to save or to destroy a soul?’”—Luke 6:9.
What is the condition of a soul that has been killed or destroyed? Note the patriarch Job’s description of what would have happened to him if he had died at birth: “For by now I should have lain down that I might be undisturbed; I should have slept then; I should be at rest.” (Job 3:13) As far as Job was concerned, the dead were undisturbed, asleep. In agreement with this the Scriptures further state: “As for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.”—Eccl. 9:5; John 11:11-13; Acts 7:60; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 2 Pet. 3:4.
THE SOUL ‘GOING’ AND ‘COMING’—IN WHAT SENSE?
When describing the death of Jacob’s wife Rachel, the Bible relates: “As her soul was going out (because she died) she called [her newborn son’s] name Ben-oni.” (Gen. 35:18) And with regard to the prophet Elijah’s restoring to life the son of a certain widow, we read: “Finally Jehovah listened to Elijah’s voice, so that the soul of the child came back within him and he came to life.”—1 Ki. 17:22.
What is meant by the soul’s “going out” and ‘coming back’ in these cases? This becomes clear from the translation of 1 Kings 17:22 in the New American Standard Bible: “And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah, and the life of the child returned to him and he revived.” When persons die, their life as human souls ebbs away. It was life, not a conscious substance, that returned to the boy’s body cells. Thus Elijah said to the lad’s mother: “See, your son [the whole person, not just his body] is alive.”—1 Ki. 17:23.
IS THERE LIFE IN SHEOL/HADES?
Some have been puzzled about the following statement concerning “the king of Babylon”: “Hell [she·ohlʹ, Hebrew] from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: . . . it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave [she·ohlʹ, Hebrew], and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee.” (Isa. 14:9-11, Authorized Version) What is the meaning of those verses?
Note that Isa 14 verse 4 of the same chapter introduces this account as a “proverb” (ma·shalʹ, “proverbial saying,” Hebrew; pa·raʹbo·la, “a parable,” Latin Vulgate). Poetic language here represents inanimate things as speaking. Isa 14 Verse 8 furnishes a further example: “Yea, the fir trees rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, Since thou art laid down, no feller is come up against us.”—Compare Judges 9:8-15.
Surely the Word of God is not suggesting that literal fir trees and cedars can rejoice and converse with one another. Nor is the understanding intended that souls of the dead are conscious in hell and seated on thrones. This account is simply a poetic prediction of the fall of the royal dynasty of Babylon as a world power.
“The use of the word belongs predominantly to the poetic language of the Old Testament . . . Sheol appears as the aggregate of all graves. Who could venture to deny this aspect of the matter, at least for the 31st and 32d chapters of Ezekiel 31, 32? It is the universal grave, which calls down to itself all earthly life, how high soever it may have reached.”
Similar to the parable set out above is the one at Luke 16:19-31. Here Jesus describes ‘a certain rich man’ as undergoing fiery torment in haʹdes (the Greek equivalent of she·ohlʹ), while “a certain beggar named Lazarus” receives blessings in ‘the bosom of Abraham.’ But once again there is no mention of souls suffering after physical death. This too is a parable; and, according to the context, the rich man depicts religious leaders of the Jews back there, whereas Lazarus represents the common people who accepted Jesus Christ. After Jesus’ death, both of these classes underwent experiences that corresponded to the figurative language of Jesus.*
“THE FIRE THAT CANNOT BE PUT OUT”
“And if ever your hand makes you stumble, cut it off; it is finer for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go off into Gehenna, into the fire that cannot be put out. And if your foot makes you stumble, cut it off; it is finer for you to enter into life lame than with two feet to be pitched into Gehenna. And if your eye makes you stumble, throw it away; it is finer for you to enter one-eyed into the kingdom of God than with two eyes to be pitched into Gehenna, where their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.”
Was Jesus here sanctioning popular Jewish views of a condition of fiery torment after death? Actually, there was no established view among Jews of that period with regard to the condition of the dead. Notes A Rabbinic Anthology compiled by Jewish scholars Claude Montefiore and Herbert Loewe:
“And, again, there is another confusion: for, according to one doctrine, when you die, you sleep till you ‘rise’ again at the general resurrection and for the last Judgment. According to another doctrine, when you die, you may, if you are righteous or repentant (and more especially if you are an Israelite), straightway enjoy in happy blessedness the life of the blessed world to come, and if you are wicked and an idolater and an enemy of Israel, you may, when you die, go straightway to hell. . . . Or, again, at the end of a period in hell, you may be annihilated. Or, again, you may be annihilated at your earthly death. Passages which imply or express all these various bizarre conceptions and confusions abound, and there is no one accepted theory or conception.”
Did you notice that Jewish views about the condition of the dead included “sleep” until the resurrection, as well as possible ‘annihilation’? Evidently annihilation is what Jesus had in mind by Gehenna, for on a later occasion he urged his disciples: “Do not become fearful of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather be in fear of him that can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”—Matt. 10:28.
But if this is true, why did Jesus associate “fire” with Gehenna? Some background information is provided in The New Bible Commentary (1965): “Gehenna was the Hellenized form of the name of the valley of Hinnom at Jerusalem in which fires were kept constantly burning to consume the refuse of the city. This is a powerful picture of final destruction.” Scriptural references to Gehenna, therefore, furnish no basis for the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hellfire.
“A FULLY PLATONIC POSITION”
If the Bible never mentions immortal souls leaving bodies at death, where did such an idea originate? Theologians borrowed it from the thinking of the Greek philosopher Plato, who, in turn, adopted it from pagan mystery religions that originated in ancient Babylon. Plato wrote: “Do we believe that there is such a thing as death? . . . Is it not the separation of soul and body? And to be dead is the completion of this; when the soul exists in herself, and is released from the body and the body is released from the soul, what is this but death?” (Phaedo, Sec. 64) Observes The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967):
“Everyone who maintains that the mind or the soul is a substance, in the sense that it could significantly be said to exist alone and disembodied, is thereby Platonizing, and everyone who identifies this putative substantial mind or soul as the real or true person is adopting a fully Platonic position.”
As to the extent that Greek philosophy has influenced Christendom, Professor Douglas T. Holden declares in his book Death Shall Have No Dominion:
“Christian theology has become so fused with Greek philosophy that it has reared individuals who are a mixture of nine parts Greek thought to one part Christian thought.”
According to the Bible, the human soul is the person himself. When an individual dies, therefore, the soul dies. (Ezek. 18:4, 20) The dead are unconscious, unaware of either pleasure or pain as they await restoration to life by means of a resurrection. (Eccl. 9:5, 10; Ps. 146:4; Acts 24:15) The popular religious teaching of immortality of the soul came, not from the Word of God, but from Greek philosophy. In view of this, should not you too have second thoughts about immortality of the soul?
See the book Is This Life All There Is?, chapter 12 (p. 98) entitled “A Rich Man in Hades.”