Does the Soul Survive Death?
“SOUL: The spiritual part of man regarded as surviving after death and as susceptible of happiness or misery in a future state.” (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary) Most religions more or less agree with this definition. The New Catholic Encyclopedia says: “The doctrine that the human soul is immortal and will continue to exist after man’s death . . . is one of the cornerstones of Christian philosophy and theology.”
Perhaps it would surprise you, then, to know that this cornerstone belief is derived from pagan philosophy. Long before the birth of Jesus, it was believed that the soul was something intangible that could exist apart from the body. It could thus survive the death of the body, living on in the form of a ghost, or spirit.
The Greeks articulated this belief in philosophical terms. Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher, has been quoted as saying: “The soul, . . . if it departs pure, dragging with it nothing of the body, . . . goes away into that which is like itself, into the invisible, divine, immortal, and wise, and when it arrives there it is happy, freed from error and folly and fear . . . and all the other human ills, and . . . lives in truth through all after time with the gods.”—Phaedo, 80, D, E; 81, A.
Not a Bible Teaching
How, then, did this pagan belief in the immortality of the soul come to be taught in Christendom and Judaism?
The New Catholic Encyclopedia understates matters when it says: “The notion of the soul surviving after death is not readily discernible in the Bible.” It would be more accurate to say that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is not found at all in the Bible! That encyclopedia admits: “The concept of the human soul itself is not the same in the O[ld] T[estament] as it is in Greek and modern philosophy.”
In the so-called Old Testament, the Hebrew word neʹphesh, commonly translated “soul,” occurs 754 times. In the so-called New Testament, the Greek word psy·kheʹ, also commonly translated “soul,” appears 102 times. When we examine how these words are used in the Bible, a surprising picture emerges.
At Genesis 2:7 we read that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, and Adam “came to be a living soul [Hebrew, neʹphesh].” Notice: Adam was not given a living soul; he became one. In other words, the newly created Adam was a soul! Little wonder that the New Catholic Encyclopedia concludes: “The soul in the O[ld] T[estament] means not a part of man, but the whole man—man as a living being.”
Other scriptures confirm this. Leviticus 7:20, for example, refers to “the soul who eats the flesh of the communion sacrifice.” Leviticus 23:30 says: “As for any soul that will do any sort of work.” Proverbs 25:25 says: “As cold water upon a tired soul, so is a good report from a distant land.” And Psalm 105:18 tells us: “With fetters they afflicted his feet; into irons his soul came.” Now, what is it that can eat meat, do work, be refreshed with water, and be put in irons? Is it a separate, spiritual part of man, or is it man himself? The answer is obvious.
Interestingly, being a soul is not unique to man. Genesis 1:20 tells us that in one creative epoch, God said: “Let the waters swarm forth a swarm of living souls.” Yes, even fish are souls! In another creative epoch, God indicated that the “domestic animal and moving animal and wild beast” are souls!—Genesis 1:24; compare Leviticus 11:10, 46; 24:18; Numbers 31:28; Job 41:21; Ezekiel 47:9.
“Soul” in the Bible, therefore, does not refer to some shadowy spirit entity that leaves the body after death. It means a person or an animal, or the life that a person or an animal enjoys.
What Happens After Death?
Clearly, then, the Bible is at odds with the pagan notion that man possesses an immortal soul. Who, do you think, taught the truth in this regard? Pagan Greek philosophers or God’s own covenant people? Surely, it was God’s people, to whom he gave his inspired Word.
Still, the question remains, What does happen to the soul after death? Since the soul is the person, clearly, the soul dies when the person dies. In other words, a dead person is a dead soul. Scores of scriptures confirm this. “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die,” says Ezekiel 18:4. At Judges 16:30 we read: “And Samson proceeded to say: ‘Let my soul die with the Philistines.’” Other scriptures show that souls can be cut off (Genesis 17:14), slain by the sword (Joshua 10:37), suffocated (Job 7:15), and drowned (Jonah 2:5). A deceased soul, or a dead soul, is a dead person.—Leviticus 19:28; 21:1, 11.
What, then, is the condition of dead souls? Simply stated, death is the opposite of life. All our senses are linked to our physical bodies. Our ability to see, hear, and think depends on the proper functioning of our eyes, ears, and brain. Without eyes we cannot see. Without ears we cannot hear. Without a brain we cannot do anything. When a person dies, all these physical organs cease to function. We cease to exist.
In harmony with this, Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 says: “As for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all . . . There is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [the grave], the place to which you are going.” Similarly, Psalm 146:3, 4 states: “Do not put your trust in nobles, nor in the son of earthling man, to whom no salvation belongs. His spirit [life force] goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.” So when people (souls) die, they simply cease to exist.
From Pagan Teaching to Church Doctrine
‘But does not the New Testament teach the immortality of the soul?’ some may ask. Not at all. The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits: “The N[ew] T[estament] remains faithful to this [Old Testament] understanding of death.” In other words, the “New Testament” teaches that the soul dies. Jesus Christ demonstrated that he did not believe that the soul was immortal. He asked: “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do a good deed or to do a bad deed, to save or to kill a soul?” (Mark 3:4) The Christian apostle Paul likewise endorsed the “Old Testament” view of the soul by quoting Genesis 2:7: “It is even so written: ‘The first man Adam became a living soul.’”—1 Corinthians 15:45.
How, then, did Platonic thinking become church doctrine? The Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, by James Hastings, explains: “When the Christian gospel passed out through the gate of the Jewish synagogue into the arena of the Roman Empire, an idea of the soul fundamentally Hebrew was transferred into an environment of Greek thought, with no slight consequences in the process of adaptation.” Church teachers endeavored to make their message “intelligible to a Greek-thinking world” by using “the established terms and conceptions of Greek psychology.” Jewish theologians likewise began to demonstrate “strong influences of Platonism” in their writings.—Encyclopædia Judaica.
The Biblical teaching about the soul was thus discarded and replaced with a doctrine that was unmistakably pagan. This can in no way be justified on the grounds that doing so made Christianity more appealing to the masses. When preaching in Athens, the very heart of Greek culture, the apostle Paul did not teach the Platonic doctrine of the soul. On the contrary, he preached the Christian doctrine of the resurrection even though many of his Greek listeners found it hard to accept what he said.—Acts 17:22-32.
Indeed, the apostle Paul warned against any combining of Bible-based truth and paganism when he said: “What sharing does light have with darkness? Further, what harmony is there between Christ and Belial?” (2 Corinthians 6:14, 15) There can be no question that in allowing a pagan teaching to become one of the cornerstones of her philosophy and theology, Christendom has brought dishonor on God himself!
Hope for the Dead
People are free to believe what they choose. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is unscriptural. Do humans, then, have no hope of life after death?
After Job asked the question, “Can [man] live again?” he went on to give the inspired answer. He said: “You [Jehovah] will call, and I myself shall answer you. For the work of your hands you will have a yearning.” (Job 14:14, 15) Yes, the Bible holds out the hope of a resurrection for all those in God’s memory. He yearns to restore faithful servants of his, like Job, to life! Christ Jesus confirmed the reality of this hope, saying: “Do not marvel at this, because the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgment.”—John 5:28, 29.
When the time comes for that prophecy to be fulfilled, Isaiah 25:8 promises, God “will actually swallow up death forever.” This means a world in which, as Revelation 21:4 puts it, “death will be no more.” Would you like to live in a world with no funerals or funeral parlors, no gravestones or graveyards, no more tears of grief but only tears of joy?
True, you may have been raised to believe in the doctrine of the immortal soul. But by studying the Bible, you can develop faith in the Bible’s liberating promises.* You can also learn what you must do to inherit the Bible’s promise, not of surviving as an immortal soul, but of receiving “everlasting life” in Paradise on earth!—John 17:3; Luke 23:43.
If you would like to do this, please feel free to write the publishers of this magazine or contact the local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.