A Better Hope for the Soul
THE Roman soldiers had not expected this. As they stormed into the mountain fortress of Masada, the last stronghold of the Jewish rebel forces, they braced themselves for the onslaught of their enemies, for the shouts of warriors, for the screams of women and children. Instead they heard only crackling flames. As they explored the burning citadel, the Romans learned the awful truth: their enemies—some 960 people—were already dead! Systematically, the Jewish warriors had slaughtered their own families, then one another. The last man had killed himself.a What had led them to this ghastly mass murder and suicide?
According to the contemporary historian Josephus, an important factor was the belief in the immortal soul. Eleazar Ben Jair, the leader of the Zealots in Masada, had first tried to persuade his men that suicide would be more honorable than death or slavery at Roman hands. Seeing them hesitate, he launched into an impassioned speech about the soul. He told them that the body was a mere encumbrance, a prison for the soul. “But when, freed from the weight that drags it down to earth and is hung about it,” he continued, “the soul returns to its own place, then in truth it partakes of a blessed power and an utterly unfettered strength, remaining as invisible to human eyes as God Himself.”
The response? Josephus reports that after Eleazar had spoken in this vein at length, “all his listeners cut him short and full of uncontrollable enthusiasm made haste to do the deed.” Josephus adds: “As if possessed they rushed off, everyone anxious to be quicker than the next man, . . . so irresistible a desire had seized them to slaughter their wives, their children, and themselves.”
This grim example serves to illustrate just how profoundly the doctrine of the immortal soul can alter the normal human view of death. Believers are taught to see death, not as man’s worst enemy, but as a mere gateway that frees the soul to enjoy a higher existence. But why did those Jewish Zealots believe this way? Many would assume that their holy writings, the Hebrew Scriptures, teach that man has a conscious spirit within him, a soul that escapes to live on after death. Is that really so?
The Soul in the Hebrew Scriptures
In a word, no. Right in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, we are told that the soul is not something you have, it is something you are. We read of the creation of Adam, the first human being: “The man came to be a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7) The Hebrew word used here for soul, neʹphesh, occurs well over 700 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, never once conveying the idea of a separate, ethereal, spiritual part of man. On the contrary, the soul is tangible, concrete, physical.
Look up the following cited texts in your own copy of the Bible, for the Hebrew word neʹphesh is found in each of them. They clearly show that the soul can face risk, danger, and even be kidnapped (Deuteronomy 24:7; Judges 9:17; 1 Samuel 19:11); touch things (Job 6:7); be locked up in irons (Psalm 105:18); crave to eat, be afflicted by fasting, and faint from hunger and thirst; and suffer from a wasting disease or even insomnia as a result of grief. (Deuteronomy 12:20; Psalm 35:13; 69:10; 106:15; 107:9; 119:28) In other words, because your soul is you, your very self, your soul can experience anything you can experience.b
Does that mean, then, that the soul can actually die? Yes. Far from being immortal, human souls are spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures as being “cut off,” or executed, for wrongdoing, being struck fatally, murdered, destroyed, and torn to pieces. (Exodus 31:14; Deuteronomy 19:6; 22:26; Psalm 7:2) “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die,” says Ezekiel 18:4. Clearly, death is the common end of human souls, since all of us sin. (Psalm 51:5) The first man, Adam, was told that the penalty for sin was death—not transfer to the spirit realm and immortality. (Genesis 2:17) And when he sinned, the sentence was pronounced: “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19) When Adam and Eve died, they simply became what the Bible often refers to as ‘dead souls’ or ‘deceased souls.’—Numbers 5:2; 6:6.
Little wonder that The Encyclopedia Americana says of the soul in the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Old Testament concept of man is that of a unity, not a union of soul and body.” It adds: “Nefesh . . . is never conceived of as operating separately from the body.”
So, what did faithful Jews believe death to be? Simply put, they believed that death is the opposite of life. Psalm 146:4 tells what happens when the spirit, or life-force, leaves a human being: “His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.”c Similarly, King Solomon wrote that the dead “are conscious of nothing at all.”—Ecclesiastes 9:5.
Why, then, were many first-century Jews, such as the Zealots at Masada, so convinced of the immortality of the soul?
The Greek Influence
The Jews got this idea, not from the Bible, but from the Greeks. Between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C.E., the concept seems to have made its way from mysterious Greek religious cults to Greek philosophy. The idea of an afterlife where bad souls would receive painful retribution had long held great appeal, and the notion took shape and spread. Philosophers debated endlessly on the precise nature of the soul. Homer claimed that the soul flitted off at the time of death, making an audible buzzing, chirping, or rustling sound. Epicurus said that the soul actually had mass and was, therefore, an infinitesimal body.d
But perhaps the greatest proponent of the immortal soul was the Greek philosopher Plato, of the fourth century B.C.E. His description of the death of his teacher, Socrates, reveals convictions much like those of the Zealots of Masada centuries later. As scholar Oscar Cullmann puts it, “Plato shows us how Socrates goes to his death in complete peace and composure. The death of Socrates is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror. Socrates cannot fear death, since indeed it sets us free from the body. . . . Death is the soul’s great friend. So he teaches; and so, in wonderful harmony with his teaching, he dies.”
It was evidently during the Maccabean period, in the second century before Christ, that Jews began to assimilate this teaching from the Greeks. In the first century C.E., Josephus tells us that the Pharisees and the Essenes—powerful Jewish religious groups—espoused this doctrine. Some poetry that was probably composed in that era reflects the same belief.
What, though, of Jesus Christ? Did he and his followers likewise teach this idea from Greek religion?
The Early Christians’ View of the Soul
The first-century Christians did not view the soul as the Greeks did. Consider, for example, the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. If Lazarus had had an immortal soul that flitted off, free and happy, at the time of death, would not the account in John chapter 11 read very differently? Surely Jesus would have told his followers if Lazarus was alive and well and conscious in heaven; on the contrary, he echoed the Hebrew Scriptures and told them that Lazarus was asleep, unconscious. (Joh 11 Verse 11) Surely Jesus would have rejoiced if his friend was enjoying a wonderful new existence; instead, we find him weeping publicly over this death. (Joh 11 Verse 35) Surely, if Lazarus’ soul had been in heaven, reveling in blissful immortality, Jesus would never have been so cruel as to summon him back to live a few more years in the “prison” of an imperfect physical body amid sick and dying mankind.
Did Lazarus return from death with glowing tales of his marvelous four days as a liberated, disembodied spirit being? No, he did not. Believers in the immortal soul will respond that this was because the man’s experience was too awesome for words. But that argument fails to convince; after all, could not Lazarus still have told his loved ones at least that much—that he had had an experience too marvelous to describe? Instead, Lazarus said nothing about any experiences he had had while dead. Think of it—silent on the one subject that is the focus of more human curiosity than any other: what death is like! That silence can be explained in only one way. There was nothing to tell. The dead are asleep, unconscious.
So, does the Bible present death as the friend of the soul, a mere rite of passage between stages of existence? No! To true Christians such as the apostle Paul, death was no friend; it was “the last enemy.” (1 Corinthians 15:26) Christians see death, not as natural, but as horrible, as unnatural, for it is a direct result of sin and rebellion against God. (Romans 5:12; 6:23) It was never part of God’s original purpose for mankind.
However, true Christians are not without hope when it comes to the death of the soul. The resurrection of Lazarus is one of many Bible accounts that graphically show us the true, Scriptural hope for dead souls—resurrection. The Bible teaches about two different types of resurrection. For the vast majority of mankind who are asleep in the grave, whether righteous or unrighteous, there is the hope of resurrection to eternal life in Paradise here on earth. (Luke 23:43; John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15) For a small group to whom Jesus referred as his “little flock,” there is a resurrection to immortal life as spirit beings in heaven. These, who include Christ’s apostles, will rule with Christ Jesus over mankind and restore them to perfection.—Luke 12:32; 1 Corinthians 15:53, 54; Revelation 20:6.
Why, then, do we find the churches of Christendom teaching, not the resurrection, but the immortality of the human soul? Consider the answer provided by theologian Werner Jaeger in The Harvard Theological Review back in 1959: “The most important fact in the history of Christian doctrine was that the father of Christian theology, Origen, was a Platonic philosopher at the school of Alexandria. He built into Christian doctrine the whole cosmic drama of the soul, which he took from Plato.” So the church did just what the Jews had done centuries earlier! They forsook Biblical teachings in favor of Greek philosophy.
The Doctrine’s Real Origins
Now some may ask, in defense of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, Why is the same doctrine taught, in one form or another, by so many of the world’s religions? The Scriptures offer a sound reason why this teaching is so prevalent in the religious communities of this world.
The Bible tells us that “the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one” and specifically identifies Satan as “the ruler of this world.” (1 John 5:19; John 12:31) Obviously, the world’s religions have not been immune from Satan’s influence. On the contrary, they have contributed greatly to the trouble and strife in today’s world. And on the matter of the soul, they seem to reflect Satan’s mind all too clearly. How so?
Remember the first lie ever told. God had told Adam and Eve that death would result if they sinned against him. But Satan assured Eve: “You positively will not die.” (Genesis 3:4) Of course, Adam and Eve did die; they returned to the dust as God had said. Satan, “the father of the lie,” never forsook his first falsehood. (John 8:44) In countless religions that deviate from Bible doctrine or ignore it outright, the same idea is still purveyed: ‘You positively will not die. Your body may perish, but your soul will live on, forever—like God!’ Interestingly, Satan had also told Eve that she would be “like God”!—Genesis 3:5.
How much better to have a hope that is based, not on lies or human philosophies, but on truth. How much better to be confident that our dead loved ones are unconscious in the grave rather than to worry about the whereabouts of some immortal soul! This sleep of the dead need not terrify or depress us. In a way, we may view the dead as being in a safe resting place. Why safe? Because the Bible assures us that the dead whom Jehovah loves are living in a special sense. (Luke 20:38) They are living in his memory. That is a profoundly comforting thought because his memory has no limits. He is eager to bring countless millions of beloved humans to life and give them the opportunity to live forever on a paradise earth.—Compare Job 14:14, 15.
The glorious day of the resurrection will come, as all of Jehovah’s promises must be fulfilled. (Isaiah 55:10, 11) Just think of this prophecy coming to pass: “But thy dead live, their bodies will rise again. They that sleep in the earth will awake and shout for joy; for thy dew is a dew of sparkling light, and the earth will bring those long dead to birth again.” (Isaiah 26:19, The New English Bible) So the dead who are sleeping in the grave are as safe as a baby in its mother’s womb. They are soon to be “born,” brought back to life on a paradise earth!
What hope could be better than that?
a Two women and five children reportedly survived in hiding. The women later related the details to their Roman captors.
b Of course, as with many words that have a very broad usage, the word neʹphesh also has other shades of meaning. For instance, it can refer to the inner person, especially in reference to deep feelings. (1 Samuel 18:1) It can also refer to the life one enjoys as a soul.—1 Kings 17:21-23.
c The Hebrew word for “spirit,” ruʹach, means “breath” or “wind.” In connection with human beings, it does not refer to a conscious spirit entity but, rather, as The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology puts it, to “the life-force of the individual.”
d He was not the last to think along these rather eccentric lines. In the early part of this century, a scientist actually claimed to have weighed the souls of several people by subtracting their weight immediately after death from their weight immediately before death.
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The Jewish Zealots at Masada believed that death would free their souls