The phrase “immortal soul” is never found in the Bible. Is this belief actually based on Scripture, or Greek philosophy?
The online Encyclopedia Britannica, under the topic of “Soul – religion and philosophy” says, “The early Hebrews apparently had a concept of the soul but did not separate it from the body, although later Jewish writers developed the idea of the soul further. Biblical references to the soul are related to the concept of breath and establish no distinction between the ethereal soul and the corporeal body. Christian concepts of a body-soul dichotomy originated with the ancient Greeks and were introduced into Christian theology at an early date by St. Gregory of Nyssa and by St. Augustine.” (our emphasis)
Did Greek mythology creep into Christian theology?
A Soul Equation
How does the Bible describe a “soul”? When God creates Adam in Genesis 2:7, the Bible says, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (KJV) See the equation? A body formed from dust + the breath of life = a living soul. Adam wasn’t given an immortal soul; he became a living soul! (See also 1 Corinthians 15:45)
Animals are Souls
If you look up the word for “soul” in Genesis 2:7, you will find it is the Hebrew word “nephesh” which means “a breathing creature”. In the KJV the word ‘nephesh’ is translated into the English words, ‘appetite, beast, body, breath, creature, dead, desire, fish, ghost, life, man, person, soul, thing…etc.’ Looking at all the occurrences of the Hebrew word “nephesh”, you’ll find it is used over 600 times! Not only is man a “living soul” (dust + breath of life) – so are the animals! In the first few chapters of Genesis, the same word “nephesh” is used of all living creatures, whether animal, fish or bird. (Animal – Genesis 1: 24; Fish – Genesis 1:20; Bird – Genesis 1:30) So, everything that breathes – animals, fish, birds and people are all described as ‘living souls’.
The Bible Project has a very helpful 4 minute YouTube presentation on ‘nephesh’. To view, click here on NEPHESH.
Sometimes a Soul can be Dead!
While most of the time the word ‘nephesh’ refers to a living creature, person, or just ‘life’ – there are occasions when it refers to a dead ‘person or creature’. For instance:
Numbers 9:10 “Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If any man of you or of your posterity shall be unclean by reason of a dead body <nephesh>, or be in a journey afar off, yet he shall keep the passover unto the LORD.”
Joshua 11:11 “And they smote all the souls <nephesh>, that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them: there was not any left to breathe: and he burnt Hazor with fire.”
Psalm 16:9-10 “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul <nephesh> in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” (This is speaking of Jesus! See Acts 2:31)
Psalm 22:29 “All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul <nephesh>.”
Ezekiel 18:4 “Behold, all souls <nephesh> are mine; as the soul <nephesh> of the father, so also the soul <nephesh> of the son is mine: the soul <nephesh> that sinneth, it shall die.”
So souls can be killed by the sword, they can be dead, they can be left in hell (Hebrew – ‘sheol’, translated ‘‘grave, pit, hell’), they can sin and die, and no one is able to keep their own soul alive. The KJV is one of the few versions that translates ‘nephesh’ as ‘soul’ in four of the passages above. In most modern versions of Joshua 11:11, Psalm 16:9-10 and 22:29, the words ‘me, person, himself, themselves,’ etc. have been used by the translators for ‘nephesh’, rather than ‘soul’. These are all legitimate translations, and do give the sense better in these passages, but may obscure the significance of the fact that a ‘soul’ <nephesh> is not immortal.
As you can see, the Old Testament does not teach the concept of an immortal soul. As we discussed in a previous blog, the expressed hope in the Old Testament involved resurrection to eternal life (Job 14:14-15; 19:25-27; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:1-3; Acts 2:29,24) and paradise on Earth. The faithful of old did not expect to receive immortality until they were resurrected at the last day.
A Departing Soul?
In the Old Testament, however, there is a passage that seems to give credence to the idea of an ‘immortal soul’. In speaking of Rachel’s death, the KJV says, “And it came to pass, as her soul <nephesh> was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin.” (Genesis 35:18) On the first read, this sounds like an immortal soul departing from a dying body. However, had the KJV translators chosen to use one of the other English words frequently translated for ‘nephesh’, the meaning would be clearer. For example, the NIV translates this passage, “As she breathed her last – for she was dying…”
We see the soul ‘equation’ reversed at death when a person or creature breathes their last, and the breath of life, that is, God’s ‘spirit’, leaves the body, the body returns to dust and the soul ceases to exist. In speaking of this fading time of life, Ecclesiastes 12:7, says, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”
You may ask, What is the spirit of God? Is this an immortal part of human existence? In our next blog we will briefly consider the word ‘spirit’ in both the Old and New Testament, and see if there is any link to immortality.
After looking at ‘spirit’, we will consider the word ‘soul’ in the New Testament? Is there any evidence of a belief in an immortal soul taught by Jesus or his disciples? Investigate for yourself now with our Discovery Lesson on What is a soul?