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How was the concept of ‘hell’ understood in Old Testament times? Was hell a place of torment, that God warned his people to avoid? Did any faithful person ever long to go to hell? Of course not, you might say… but have another look.

Let’s begin by researching the Old Testament word for ‘hell’. In Strong’s Concordance the Hebrew word is ‘sheol’, and Dr. Strong defines it as ‘hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranean retreat), including its accessories and inmates’. Dr. Strong also tells us that in the KJV ‘sheol’ has been translated into the English words, ‘grave, hell, pit.’ 

In order to find out if Dr. Strong’s personal definition of ‘hell’ is accurate, we need to examine the way ‘sheol’ has been used in the Bible. 


The faithful man, Jacob, is the first person to talk about going to ‘sheol’. In Genesis 37:35 it says, And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave <sheol> unto my son mourning.” In speaking about the grief he would feel if Benjamin did not return to him, Jacob also said, “if mischief befall him by the way in the which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave <sheol>. (Genesis 42:38) So, the faithful man Jacob, believed that at death he would go to ‘sheol’. Jacob isn’t the one who longs to go to ‘sheol’, but he certainly believed that he will go there in death.

Jacob’s sons later reported the same belief to Joseph, saying that if they didn’t bring Benjamin back to their father, “that he will die: and thy servants shall bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to the grave <sheol>.  (Genesis 44:3) Remember, this word ‘sheol’ can be translated into English synonymously as ‘grave, hell or pit’. Jacob’s sons believed their father would go to ‘hell, the grave, or the pit’. 

Wicked Leaders

 Korah, Dathan and Abiram, wicked leaders who challenged Moses’ leadership, were swallowed up by an earthquake and went down alive into the pit <sheol>. (Numbers 16:30-33) So, it’s possible to go to ‘sheol’ alive… although they wouldn’t have stayed alive for long.

Job Asks to Go to ‘Sheol’

In the book of Job, ‘sheol’ features fairly often, as Job in his sufferings, was consumed with dying. His friend, Zophar, talks about hell as being one of the deepest places, in Job 11:8. Job, himself, asks to be hidden in the grave <sheol>, in chapter 14:13! He speaks of ‘sheol’ as a dark place of rest in the dust, surrounded by worms, where bodies corrupt. “If I wait, the grave <sheol> is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness. I have said to corruption, thou art my father: to the worm, thou art my mother, and my sister. And where is now my hope? As for my hope, who shall see it? They shall go down to the bars of the pit <sheol>, when our rest together is in the dust. (Job 17:13-16) Job certainly didn’t envision hell as a fiery place of torment. In his misery, Job longed to be at peace in the grave.


In the Psalms, David and the other psalmists, also refer to ‘sheol’ frequently. David says that no one gives God thanks in the grave <sheol> (Psalm 6:5). The wicked will be turned into hell <sheol> (Psalm 9:17) He speaks of the sorrows of hell <sheol> overwhelming him (Psalm 18:5), and is thankful that God has brought up his soul from the grave <sheol> and kept him from going down to the pit <sheol> (Psalm 30:3) Do any of these passages clearly indicate hell is a fiery place of torment? Or is hell just the place we go at the end of our life – the ‘world’ of the unconscious dead?

We have considered Psalms 16:10 in other blogs, as it is quoted in Acts 2, concerning Christ, “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell <sheol>; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” In death, Jesus spent three days in ‘sheol’ – hell, the grave or the pit. If ‘sheol’ is a place reserved for the wicked, why would faithful Jesus be sent there? If ‘sheol’ is simply the grave, this is consistent with the New Testament message – Jesus spent three days in the grave.

In Psalm 89:48, the writer asks, “What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave <sheol>?” We are powerless to escape death and the grave, only God can rescue us through resurrection. From this passage it is clear that all people go to ‘hell’ when they die, not only the wicked.

Psalm 139:8 says, “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell <sheol>, behold, thou art there.” However, deep and dark ‘sheol’ is, it’s not too deep or dark for God to see us and bring us back to Him.

Proverbs 7:27 refers to a harlot, saying, Her house is the way to hell <sheol>, going down to the chambers of death.” This could potentially sound like a place of punishment for the wicked. However, if this passage is simply saying that the harlot’s house is the way to the grave, eternal death is a sufficient punishment. Proverbs 15:24 is similar, “The way of life is above to the wise, that he may depart from hell <sheol> beneath.”

Unconsciousness and Inactivity

Ecclesiastes 9:10, tells us that there is no work, or devices or knowledge or wisdom in the grave <sheol> where we are going. This passage indicates that ‘sheol’ is a place of unconsciousness and inactivity.

Lucifer – the King of Babylon

One oft-quoted passage in Isaiah 14, has very graphic language about hell. As you read it through, consider if this passage supports the fiery notion that hell is a place of torture, or the grave – a place where human life comes to an end and our bodies corrupt? Just to make it a little easier to read, we will use the ESV translation:

First take notice in Isaiah 14:4, that this passage is a PARABLE – a poetic story. Then, notice, who this proverb is speaking against?

 “…take up this proverb [parable] against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased!… Hell <sheol> from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; 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 <sheol>, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer [day star], son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God:…Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell <sheol>, to the sides of the pit. They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms.”  

In the parable above, poetic language is used to describe the mighty King of Babylon, who thought he was equal to God, and was greatly humbled in death. Lucifer is a Hebrew word meaning ‘day star’. Just as we use ‘stars’ today to describe the rich and famous, so does the Bible. Death is the great equalizer for all mankind – rich and poor, wise and foolish, renown and obscure. Great riches and power cannot deliver us from death – it is the one certainty of life! Once again, the grave and pit are used synonymously with hell, and worms are in abundance! There is no mention of fire or torment.


When faithful King Hezekiah heard that he was going to die, he cried out to God in Isaiah 38:10-18 and said, “I shall go to the gates of the grave <sheol>: I am deprived of the residue of my years.” In Isaiah 38:18, he says, “For the grave <sheol> cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.” 

Why would a faithful man like Hezekiah think he was going to the gates of ‘sheol’, if it is a place of fire and torment reserved for the wicked? If ‘sheol’ is simply the grave, this makes perfect sense, because all men die.


Another Old Testament passage that is often quoted in relation to hell, is Ezekiel 31. Again, we will use the ESV for this passage. Rather than choose ‘grave, hell or pit’ for this parable, the ESV translators have used the actual Hebrew word ‘sheol’! Notice that in verse 2, God is specifically giving this parable about Pharaoh King of Egypt. Pharaoh is the cedar tree.

In verse 15 to 18, the passage says, “Thus says the Lord God: On the day the cedar went down to Sheol I caused mourning; I closed the deep over it, and restrained its rivers, and many waters were stopped. I clothed Lebanon in gloom for it, and all the trees of the field fainted because of it. I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit. And all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, were comforted in the world below. They also went down to Sheol with it, to those who are slain by the sword; yes, those who were its arm, who lived under its shadow among the nations. “Whom are you thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below. You shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword. “This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, declares the Lord God.”

While this Ezekiel passage talks about ‘the world below’, there is no mention of fire or torment. Instead, there is the idea of rest, and lying among the dead.


Our last passage is Jonah 2:2. Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and would have died in its belly, had not he been miraculously rescued by God. In speaking of his experience, he refers to the whale’s belly as ‘sheol’. “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell <sheol> cried I, and thou heardest my voice.”

So, we can see from this little investigation, that in the Old Testament, hell, the grave and the pit are used synonymously. Never is there any mention of fire or torment. Instead, there are plenty of references to darkness, worms, unconsciousness, dust, corruption and the sorrows of death. For the first 4000 years of history, this was all that God revealed to mankind about hell – it was the place where all men go when they die. If however ‘hell’ was a fiery place of torment to punish the wicked, why wouldn’t God warn everyone that this was the case?

Incidentally,  if you google the definition of hell, you will get this comment on the origin of the word: “the Old English hel, hell, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch hel and German Hölle, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘to cover or hide.’” Hence, “helmet, to hell potatoes, etc.”

In the New Testament, the concept of hell is more complex, as there are four different Greek words that are used. We will investigate the New Testament hell, next blog, God Willing.

Paul expressed his great longing to “attain unto the resurrection of the dead,” (Philippians 3:10-12). He encouraged other believers to “look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body,” (Philippians 3:20-21). Paul’s hope was that when he was resurrected, his mortal body would ‘put on immortality’ (1 Corinthians 15:50-55). 

Does the New Testament teach an “immortal soul” concept?

Based on the fact that many individuals in the Bible expressed their future hope for the resurrection, we considered in previous blogs whether or not the teaching of the ‘immortal soul’ is Scriptural. We looked at the word for ‘soul’ in the Old Testament – the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ and saw that it could be used for ‘body, person, creature, himself, person,’ etc. as well as ‘soul’. From looking at all the places where ‘nephesh’ is used, we found that any breathing thing, man, bird, fish, or animal, is referred to as a ‘living soul’. The equation in Genesis 2:7 is, “BODY OF DUST + BREATH OF LIFE = LIVING SOUL”. 

What is a soul in the New Testament?

Does the New Testament word for ‘soul’ have the same meaning as in the Old Testament? 

In the Greek New Testament, the word used for ‘soul’ is ‘psuche’, meaning ‘breath’, and translated into KJV English as ‘heart, life, mind, soul, heart, heartily’. Since the concept of an ‘immortal soul’ was introduced into the early Christian church from Greek mythology (see online Encyclopedia Britannica – The Soul – Religion and Philosophy) many modern translators and Christians still hold fast to this belief. Dr. Strong, who put together Strong’s Concordance believed in the immortal soul teaching. Therefore,  in his personal definition of the meaning of ‘psuche’, he writes that the soul as an essence which differs from the body and is not dissolved by death (distinguished from other parts of the body)”

Is Dr. Strong correct? If we examine all the places where ‘psuche’ is used, will we discover that the ‘soul’ differs from the body, and is not dissolved by death? How is this ‘psuche’ used in the Bible? 

A New Testament search on ‘psuche’

If you have a Bible program, a thorough search of how ‘psuche’ is used will be very informative. Occasionally, the word ‘psuche’ has been translated in the KJV as ‘soul’, quite often as ‘life’. We have listed out a few of the most ‘telling’ passages. The Discovery Lesson on “What is a Soul” will have others. Try reading the passages below, using ‘soul’ for every occurrence of ‘psuche’, and then try with the word ‘life’.

“For whoever would save his life <psuche> will lose it, but whoever loses his life <psuche>for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul <psuche>? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul <psuche>?” (Matthew 10:25-26)

“Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life <psuche>for the sheep.” (John 10:15; see also John 13:37-38

“Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul <psuche> in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul <psuche> was not left in hell <hades> [hell or grave], neither his flesh did see corruption.” (Acts 2:26-27,31 KJV)

“It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives <psuche>for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 15:25-26 KJV)

“And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life <psuche> is in him.” (Acts 20:10)

“And said unto them, Sirs, I perceive that this voyage will be with hurt and much damage, not only of the lading and ship, but also of our lives <psuche>… And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man’s life <psuche> among you, but of the ship.” (Acts 27:10,22)

“And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life <psuche>, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.” (Revelation 8:9)

From the passages above, you can see that the Old and New Testaments are in agreement. Both use the words for soul to refer to animals, and a life that can be given up or ended. Since it’s clear from the passages above that a soul can die, we cannot validate Dr. Strong’s personal definition for this word. 

Is the ‘spirit’ immortal?

However, some would say that the ‘spirit’ of man is immortal. If you like to do your own research, click here on the Discovery Lesson, Do we have an Eternal Spirit?

When we considered the word ‘spirit’ in the Old Testament we found that it refers to wind, breath, emotions, special spirit gifts from God, and a life-giving force for both man and animals. 

What about the New Testament?

Is the New Testament word for ‘spirit’ consistent with what we have discovered in the Old Testament?

Looking up the word ‘spirit’ in the KJV, we discover the Greek word is ‘pneuma’. Dr. Strong says it means ‘a current of air, i.e. breath or a breeze; by analogy or figuratively, a spirit, I.e. (human) the rational soul, (by implication) vital principle, mental disposition, etc., or (superhuman) an angel, demon or (divine) God, Christ’s spirit, the Holy Spirit’. The word ‘pneuma’ has been translated into KJV English Bible as ‘ghost, life, spirit, mind.’ It is from this Greek word that we get English words such as pneumonia and pneumatics, both which have to do with the movement of air!

The Holy ‘Spirit’ Power

The word ‘pneuma’ is used for the ‘spirit’ part of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 1:18, when Mary was, “found with child of the Holy Spirit <pneuema>”. The Holy Spirit is God’s miraculous power. 

Unclean ‘spirits’ = mental disease

‘Pneuma’ is used often of unclean ‘spirits <pneuema>’ in Matthew 12:43-45; Mark 5:13, etc.. The symptoms displayed by those with the unclean ‘spirits’ are mental disorders, which we are now able to treat with medicine and counselling.


‘Pneuma’ is used of Jesus’ ‘spirit’ in Mark 8:12, “And he sighed deeply in his spirit <pneuema>.  We are told to restore sinners in the ‘spirit <pneuema> of meekness’ (Galatians 6:1). It is good to be ‘poor in spirit <pneuema> (Matthew 5:3), in other words, ‘humble’. Emotions are a precious gift from our Heavenly Father, as He also feels anger, love, joy, jealousy and sadness. Animals don’t enjoy this gift to the full extent that we do. Life without emotion, would be dreadfully dull! However, we are expected to rule our emotions, not allow the emotions to rule us.  (Proverbs 16:32).

Holy ‘Spirit’ Gifts

When Jesus was baptized, the ‘spirit <pneuema> came down on him like a dove (John 1:32-33). The Holy spirit <pneuema> gave the Apostles gifts of tongues and healing. (Acts 1:8,16) The ‘spirit <pneuema> gave the apostles direction on where and what to preach, and even caught them away to various places (Acts 8:29,39; 11:12, 28; 16:7).

This very same ‘spirit’ of God which gives us life and animates our beings, is also a power that transcends anything that we experience in our human existence now!

Imagine being able to to speak in languages which we’ve never learned, to be unaffected by snake venom, to read the minds of others, to heal those who are sick and to raise the dead! God has occasionally given mortal men these special gifts in the Bible. Imagine being filled with the ‘spirit’ ‘without measure’, like Jesus was (John 3:34). If mortal men experienced the ‘spirit’ power to this extent, will not immortality in a spiritual body be an incredible experience? (Joel 2:28-31; Isaiah 32:15; 1 Corinthians 14:35-49)

The ‘Spirit’ Goes Back to God

Jesus “gave up the ghost <pneuema> when he died. When he was being stoned to death, Stephen asked for God to receive his ‘spirit <pneuema>. (Acts 7:59-60)

We are given the encouragement, “But if the Spirit <pneuema> of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit <pneuema> that dwelleth in you.” (Romans 8:1)

Just like we saw in the Old Testament, when we die, the “spirit <ruwach>’ goes back to God who gave it’” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). BUT the Romans 8 passage tells us this ‘spirit’ will raise us up to life again!! Just like Jesus – the ‘first to rise from the dead’ – we have the hope of being reenergized by God’s ‘spirit’ in a new and much more powerful way that will last forever!


This higher calling of the ‘spirit’ mind is revealed to a greater extent in the New Testament than in the Old. In Romans 8, Paul discusses at length, the contrast to being ‘in the flesh’ – carnally-minded, or ‘in the spirit’spiritually-minded. “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” (See also Romans 8:6-9)

Jesus said that we have to be “born of water and of the spirit” to enter into the Kingdom of God (John 3:5-8). God is looking for a change of allegiance in our minds and thinking. The recorded words of God and Jesus in the Bible have power to cause this transformation, if we take them in. As Jesus said to his disciples, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63)

In our investigation into the soul and spirit in the Bible, we have seen that a body created out of dust, plus the breath of God equals a LIVING SOUL  – whether man, animal, bird, insect or fish! We don’t ‘have a soul’, we are souls – i.e. living creatures. The breath breathed into mankind and all other breathing creatures, is the spirit of God, an animating life-force that gives us the ability to live, to think, to feel, and to react. Most importantly, God hopes that human-beings will use this ability He has given, to think spiritually, and respond in a loving, thankful way to Him.

1 Corinthians 2:12 “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.”



An oft-quoted passage from Ecclesiastes says, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” (Ecc.12:7) This verse tells us that when our body of dust returns to the earth, the spirit goes up to God. Is this ‘spirit’ an ‘eternal spirit’? Is it unique to human beings?


Looking up the word for ‘spirit’ used in Ecclesiastes 12:7, we find it is the Hebrew word ‘ruwach’, (#07307) meaning “wind; by resemblance, breath, i.e. a sensible (or even violent) exhalation”, translated into the English words, spirit, wind, breath, side, mind, blast, vain, air, anger, cool, tempest, courage” and used 378 times in the Old Testament. The root word of ‘ruwach’ (#07306) is often used of ‘smelling’ (Genesis 8:21, 27:27; Leviticus 26:31 etc.)

Animals and Humans

Scanning through the 378 passages in which the word ‘ruwach’ (07307) is used, we find it first in Genesis 1:2 when the Spirit of God is moving on the waters to initiate the Creation of the world. ‘Ruwach’ is the same word used for the ‘breath’ of life in man and animal in Genesis 7:15, 21-22:

And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the ‘breath’ of life… And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the ‘breath’ <neshamah ruwach> of life died.” 

Therefore, ‘ruwach’ is not unique to human beings.  


‘Ruwach’ is used many times for a ‘wind’, like the wind that brought the locust plague in Exodus 10:13, and a rain storm in 1 Kings 18:45 (cp. Psalm 107:25).


The word ‘ruwach’ is also used to denote the feelings of individuals, whether of a sorrowful ‘spirit’ (1 Samuel 1:15), or a ‘spirit’ of jealousy (Numbers 5:14), or an evil ‘spirit’ (Judges 9:23; 1 Samuel 16:14), or a broken ‘spirit’, or a desire for God to renew a right ‘spirit’ within a person (Psalm 51:10,17). We aren’t to be quick in our ‘spirit’ to be angry and those who are patient in ‘spirit’ are better than those who are proud in ‘spirit’ (Ecclesiastes 7:8,9).  Those who rule their ‘spirit’ are better than those who take a city (Proverbs 16:32). 

Special Gifts

This same word for ‘spirit’ is often used when special gifts or abilities were bestowed by God. For example, the super-natural power that Samson was given (Judges 14:5-6), or the ‘spirit’ of wisdom God gave to Bezaleel to create the furniture for the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 31:3).

Breath – A Life-giving Force

As we read in Genesis 2, God’s breath <neshamah> of life’ was breathed into the body He had shaped out of dust, creating a living soul or being… Adam. Neshamah and ruwach have similar meanings and are used interchangeably (See Genesis 7:22 where both are used for ‘breath’) In Genesis 2 we find the equation:


The Hebrew word ‘ruwach’ is used numerous times of our ‘breath’. For example in Job 12:10, it says that in God’s hand is “the soul of every living thing and the ‘breath’ of all mankind.”

In Job 27:3 it says, “my ‘breath’ is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils.”

In Psalm 146:3-4 it says, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His ‘breath’ goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” 

Psalm 104:25-29 also speaks of the sea creatures returning to dust if God takes away their ‘breath’. (cp. Job 34:14-15; 33:4)

These passages show that the creative equation of Genesis 2:7 can be reversed:


Death results in returning to dust, a cessation of life, often described in the Bible as “breathing our last breath”.

The ‘Spirit’ is Eternal

However, in the Psalms and Job passages above we see that the ‘spirit’ is eternal! It is the life-giving energy which belongs to God. This spirit – breath – wind is the sustaining life-force for man and animal. God created man and animal from dust and gave us the ‘breath’ of life…and we became living ‘souls’ <nephesh>. How incredible to appreciate that life, breathing and the emotions we feel are all the gift of God’s eternal spirit!

One Breath

One last helpful passage is Ecclesiastes 3:19-21:

“For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one ‘breath’; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?”

We are clearly told here in Ecclesiastes 3, that this life-giving ‘spirit’ or breath is the same in humans as in animals. We are both creatures created from the dust of the earth and animated by God’s life-giving force. As it says in Ecclesiastes 3, when humans or animals breathe their last breath, their bodies return to the dust from which we all were created. Humans and animals all go to one place in death – the grave. As we read in Ecclesiastes 12:7, “the ‘spirit’ shall return unto God who gave it.” It was and is God’s spirit, it will always belong to Him.

Spiritual Thinking

However, Ecclesiastes 3:21 asks the question, “Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” Even though both humans and animals are animated by God’s spirit, only humans have the ability to think ‘spiritually’. Animals cannot think on this higher level.

So what are you doing with the life-force that God has given you? Does your spirit reach up for Godly things?

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1-11 ESV)

Next, we hope to consider the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ in the New Testament. If you would like to do our Discovery Lesson on the ‘soul’ in the Old and New Testaments, click on What is a Soul?



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…”

God’s Spirit

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?

This mortal life doesn’t last long. Some are content with 70 plus years, but most of us want to live as long as possible. Billions are spent on vitamins and supplements to slow the ageing process. If someone came up with a proven way to extend youthful life for even 100 EXTRA YEARS everyone would want to buy the cure. Imagine! People would give up their life savings, sell their home, volunteer years of their time, whatever the price, if it meant extending life for 100 more years!

But consider what God has offered… and it’s MORE than just 100 extra years:

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life …” (Daniel 12:2)

“…to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7)

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

God is offering ETERNAL Life!!

Our Heavenly Father is offering Eternal Life. God has proven He has the power to give this gift as shown by His resurrection of Jesus Christ – the “FIRST to rise from the dead” (Acts 26:23). Paul says he lived “in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began,” (Titus 1:1-2). Shouldn’t everyone be lining up for this GIFT?

So WHEN Does God Plan to Give us Eternal Life?

After Lazarus died, Jesus comforted his sister Martha with the hope, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:21-26)

Jesus told the Jews:

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:21, 24-29. See also Matthew 25:31-32, 45-46; John 6:51,54)

Jesus promised to give us eternal life when he raises the dead, on the ‘last day’ (John 6:44). Jesus Christ was the FIRSTBORN from the dead (Revelation 1:5; 3:14; Colossians 1:18) – the first to rise and be given immortality. What God did for his Son, He promises to do for us. (Philippians 3:10, 20-21)

Will EVERYONE Receive Eternal life?

Immortality is a gift from God (Romans 6:23). When Adam and Eve sinned, God said, “Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden…  he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:22-24)

Barred From the Tree of Life

God barred access to ‘living forever’ after our first parents chose to disobey His clear and simple command. However, the true way and door to living forever has been given to us through the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ.

“For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man [ADAM], much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:15-17; John 14:6; 10:1-9)

If we don’t choose to repent and seek forgiveness in Christ, we won’t have hope of receiving eternal life. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.(1 John 3:15) And in Ephesians, Paul speaks about our lives before we find Christ, saying, “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

The same message is given in the Psalms, “Turn away from evil and do good; so shall you dwell forever. For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever.” (Psalm 37:1, 9-11, 22, 27-29, 34-38)

What is Immortality Like?

There is only one man who has been raised and given immortal life, so far. If we want to know what immortality is all about, Jesus Christ is our model. He was on earth in his immortal state for 40 days. Jesus ate (Luke 24:42-43), he talked, he walked, (Luke 24:15-19) he had a physical body that could be touched, but yet he was able to appear or disappear instantly (Luke 24:31), seemingly without the need for doors (John 20:26-28). He told his disciples that he wasn’t a spirit, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:39; John 20:26-29)

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say ‘flesh and blood’, which is often a description of mortal humans (Hebrews 2:14; 1 Corinthians 15:50; see Leviticus 17:11) . In his crucifixion, Jesus gave his mortal body and his blood (his life) for us (Luke 22:19-20; John 6:48-58). Being made immortal his body is now energized by God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:42-49); it is a ‘spiritual body’. Jesus ascended up to heaven to be with his Father, (Luke 24:51) where he was given all power sitting at God’s right hand (Matthew 28:18). Now, 2000 years later, he is still actively working in the lives of believers to make us ready for the day of his return! (Revelation 2&3)

No Pain, Sorrow, Crying or Death!

We are told that when we are made immortal, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) Immortality means no more pain, sorrow, crying or death!

Equal to Angels

Jesus told us clearly that when we are made immortal we will be like the angels. ““The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” (Luke 20:34-36) Angels were often mistaken for men (Genesis 18; 19:1-5; Joshua 5:13-15), can eat (Genesis 18), had tangible bodies that can be wrestled and touched (Genesis 32:24-32; Genesis 19; Daniel 10), can possibly fly (Daniel 9:20-21), can appear and disappear instantly, are not restrained by locked doors (Acts 12:6-11) and occasionally glow with light (Judges 13; Luke 24:4-5).

As we have considered in previous blogs, the Bible Hope in the Old and New Testament is for resurrection. Immortality is a gift to be granted when Jesus raises us from the dead, but not everyone receives this gift. Just as Jesus’ flesh ‘rested in hope’ and didn’t ‘see corruption’, so our mortal bodies must PUT ON immortality.

What is a “Soul”?

However, there is a very popular, dearly cherished, Christian belief which states that every human being possesses an ‘immortal soul’. When did this teaching become part of Christianity? What does the word ‘soul’ mean in the Bible and how is it used? Does the phrase ‘immortal soul’ ever occur in the Bible? These are the questions we will answer in our next blog. If you’d like to investigate on your own, try our new Discovery Lesson on “What is a Soul?”