The Very Nature of the Soul
A serious examination of the logical and philosophical evidence for dualism (the existence of two realties: the seen and the unseen, the material and the immaterial) will lead us to conclude that there IS an immaterial reality, and we DO possess this thing we have come to know as the “soul”. We’ve already discussed this philosophical examination HERE. But natural revelation and human reasoning will only bring us so far, and these must always eventually default to SPECIAL revelation in order to understand the precise nature of the world in which we live. While we are encouraged as Christians that there is never a conflict between natural revelation and special (Biblical) revelation, we do understand the priority here. So let’s take a look at what the Bible says about the existence and nature of the soul.
Now it is interesting to note that while the Bible is clear about the nature of the soul, men and women have not agreed on this clarity. A small number of minority groups have interpreted the evidence from the Bible in different ways. So in this examination of the Biblical evidence, we are going to try to be very fair about what we examine in order to make our case. Each and every believer has the burden and responsibility of examining the evidence for themselves.
The Big Question: Immortality
The first and perhaps most important nature of our existence as a soul is our ability (or lack thereof) to survive death. Do we, as living souls, die when our bodies die, or do we live on as souls beyond the grave. Groups have disagreed on this issue, even though the vast majority of Christians believe that we, as living souls, are immortal. Well, let’s examine this one characteristic and along the way, see if the Bible tells us anything else about the nature of the soul. Remember that minority groups have argued that we are NOT immortal, believing that the soul dies with the body, entering what is sometimes called ‘soul sleep’. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christadelphians all hold this position, and they try to defend it using the references to the soul that are found in the Bible. But that may be where the problem lies. When you and I talk about the “soul”, we are talking about the existence of our immaterial being. But when the Bible translators TRANSLATE the original Hebrew and Greek words used by the Biblical authors, they are actually translating words that where NOT being used to describe what we are thinking of when we describe the soul. Let’s take a look at the words that are typically translated as “soul” in our Bibles:
The Old Testament word, “nephesh” (neh’-fesh)
This word has been translated as ‘soul’ on occasion in the Old Testament, but that is not how the ancient Jews understood the word. That’s why it is used throughout the Old Testament to describe ANY breathing creature or animal, and it is more often translated as ‘appetite’, ‘beast’, ‘body’, ‘breath’, ‘creature’, ‘dead’, ‘lust’, ‘man’, ‘mind’, ‘person’, or ‘life’, than it is translated as ‘soul’!
The New Testament word, “psuche” (psoo-khay’)
Like ‘nephesh’, this word has been translated as ‘soul’ as well, but literally means ‘breath’ and can accurately be translated as ‘heart’, ‘life’, ‘mind’, ‘us’, or ‘you’ in addition to the connotation that we would understand as ‘soul’.
OK, so how are we to know exactly HOW the original writers of the scripture were using these words? How do we know whether they were using the words to describe LIFE or whether they were using the words to describe the SOUL? Let’s take, for example, Ezekiel 18:4, a passage that is often cited by Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to make the case that we, as living souls, die or sleep when our bodies die:
“Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.”
From a simple reading of this passage, it sure sounds like souls die! But the word being used as ‘soul’ is ‘nephesh’ and we know that it is more often used to describe living physical beings (creatures). So this passage could just as easily (and may more accurately) be translated in this way:
“Behold, all lives are Mine; the life of the father as well as the life of the son is Mine. The person (life) who sins will die.”
See the problem here? We really cannot make the case for the MORTALITY of the soul from a simple word study in the Old or New Testament. But Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the only ones who have to be careful. Those who try to prove that the soul is IMMORTAL from a simple word study ALSO fall into this same trap! Let’s take one example:
“My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”
Here, people who argue for the immortality of the soul try to use this passage to demonstrate that the soul is clearly defined as something different that the heart and the flesh of the body. But once again we have to remember that the word used for ‘soul’ (“nephesh”) is most often translated in a different way. This could just as easily be what the psalmist intended:
“My entire being yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”
So word studies simply DON’T help us to understand the nature of the soul in regard to its immortality. We need a better way to examine the truth…
Proving Immortality From Life After Death
There is a better way to examine the Biblical evidence; a way that does NOT rely on our interpretation of “nephesh’ or ‘psuche’. Let’s examine the issue by simply examining examples in the scriptures where people are described as living beyond their physical bodies. If we see examples of “living disembodiment”, it is fair to conclude that we are immaterial beings that live beyond our physical existence; we are souls that live in immortality, despite what may happen to our physical bodies. Let’s look at some examples of this in the scripture:
And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
Now even though both Jesus and the thief were about experience physical death, Jesus clearly states a truth about a continuing life that extends right from the point of death. “TODAY you will be with me in paradise.” The word used here for “paradise” is the Greek word, “paradeisos” and it is the same word that Paul uses to describe heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know-God knows. And I know that this man-whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows- was caught up to paradise.”) The Bible clearly describes a disembodied life here, and this is what we know as the soul, even though it is not given a name. The soul does not die when the body dies.
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them,’ But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent! But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
In this passage, the dead are repeatedly described as performing actions that are characteristic of the living. But that’s not all! God tells the rich man that it is at least hypothetically possible that the dead could “go” to the living. Once again, the dead are not dead. How can this be? It can only be possible if the physically dead are still immaterially alive. That’s why as Christians, we recognize and believe that what we are living souls who are immortal by nature.
And six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.
In this scene from the scripture, Jesus is talking to Elijah and Moses. They obviously died long before Jesus was born, so how could this scene be true unless they exist truly as immortal souls, and not simply as physical bodies? Here once again we have another example of disembodied life after death, something that is ONLY possible if we exist as living immortal souls.
“But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read that which was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
Were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob alive at the time of this statement? No. So how can they be described as living? Only if they are actually immortal souls that were alive after death (and prior to their physical resurrection in the future). If they are immortal souls, immaterial beings, then the passage begins to make sense.
1 Kings 17:19-23
And he said to her, “Give me your son.” Then he took him from her bosom and carried him up to the upper room where he was living, and laid him on his own bed. And he called to the LORD and said, “O LORD my God, hast Thou also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and called to the LORD, and said, “O LORD my God, I pray Thee, let this child’s life return to him.” And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah, and the life of the child returned to him and he revived. And Elijah took the child, and brought him down from the upper room into the house and gave him to his mother; and Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.”
Now this passage is very interesting. It describes Elijah’s reviving of the widow’s son. What’s interesting is the fact that the “life” of the child is said to “return to him”. The word used here is “shuwb” (shoob) and it really means “to turn back”, as if to retreat. But to turn back from where? Where is the ‘life’ at when it is ‘returned’? To describe ‘life’ in this way is to say that after the body dies, the true life of the person exists beyond death and that God has the ability to return this ‘true’ life back to the body! That sure does sound like ‘true’ life is actually an immortal soul.
Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective. For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street. Remember Him before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed; then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.
This passage also describes life beyond the grave. After our death, while people are still mourning our absence, we are on our way to the God that created us in the first place. We are not stationary. We are not lying in the grave. We are alive and moving!
In all of these passages, we see the description of a disembodied PRESENT life. People who were physically dead and yet were still alive in some way, even before they are to have the resurrected bodies that we all hope for as Christians. In essence, they are somehow alive in the period of time between their physical death and their resurrection. These passages describing disembodied life are confirmation that our souls are immortal. As humans we are NOT eternal or infinite. Only God has NO beginning. We are created beings with a beginning, and as such we can say accurately that we are everlasting immortal beings. These passages confirm that truth.
We Shall NEVER Die
We all know that our bodies will someday die. We don’t need to make a case from the Bible for this; we get to see it (unfortunately), every day. The real question is: “Do we live beyond the grave, beyond the physical life?” Does the TRUE person die when the body dies? The scriptures seem to answer that question in a straightforward manner:
So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off; and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother. Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him; but Mary still sat in the house. Martha therefore said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother shall 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; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.”
Did you notice that we have a powerful promise here? When we place our trust in Christ we will NEVER see death. Our bodies may cease to function, but there will NEVER be a time when we could be considered DEAD. There is no soul sleep, even though the body dies.
There Is a Difference Between the Body and the Soul
Although the Bible uses two words that can be translated a number of ways in addition to “soul”, there are a few passages that make a clear distinction between the two realities:
“And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
2 Corinthians 5:1-8
For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight — we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.
In these two passages, it is clear that there is a distinction between the body and the soul. In the Matthew passage, although the word for ‘soul’ (psuche) can be translated in a number of ways, it really makes no sense in this context unless it is being used here to describe the REAL person, the real immaterial living and immortal ‘soul’. And this soul CANNOT be destroyed by the death of the body. Paul calls this our ‘house’ made by God Himself, ad he is clear to say that as soon as we are away from the body we are AT HOME WITH THE LORD. That sure sounds a lot like what Jesus said on the cross.
So What Else Does This Tell Us About the Soul?
From just these passages that describe the clear disembodied life of the soul, there is a lot we can learn. Let’s stay focused on these few passages, since these are the most definitive descriptions of the soul. Here is a quick summary of what these passages teach:
We Are Immortal Living Souls
There are two realities in the universe: the unseen, immaterial, spiritual realm and the visible, physical, material world. The soul DOES exist and, in fact, WE ARE LIVING SOULS. We live even when our bodies die (All the above passages)
- Souls Return to God: The spiritual world is the realm of God, and as living souls, we are spiritual beings. Therefore it shouldn’t surprise us to read that the moment we are NOT living in the physical world housed in our bodies, we WILL be living in the spiritual world with God. (Luke 16:19-31, Luke 23:39-43, 2 Corinthians 5:1-8)
- Souls Animate Bodies: The “soul” animates the body. While the soul obviously lives without the body, the body cannot live without the soul. When a soul returns to a lifeless body, the body is said to “rise from the dead” or to be “revived”. We are living souls, and our souls are ‘seen’ in this physical world when they are united with, and animating, our physical bodies (Luke 16-19-31, 1 Kings 17:19-23)
- Souls Are Active: Even after our bodies die, as living souls, we are not passively waiting for our resurrection bodies. In the time between our physical death and our resurrection at the Second Coming of Christ, we will no be in a state of dormancy. We will be active and available to God (Ecclesiastes 12:5-7, Matthew 17:1-3)
- Souls Interact: Souls are aware of each other in the spiritual realm. They are able to fellowship and communicate with each other, but it appears that Heaven and Hell are separate spiritual realms. There is no Biblical evidence to support the idea that we will have awareness or interaction with the physical world after our physical death. (Luke 16-19-31)
- Souls Have Experiences: The soul is described in such a way that makes it clear that it is LIVING, ad for this reason, it shares some traits commonly held by physically living persons. It is possible, for example, for the soul to experience great joy and great torment (Luke 16:19-31)
- Souls Are Subject to God’s Judgment: Physical death does not end our life. God has complete control over our TRUE life (as a living soul), and our final death is NOT dependent on our body, but IS dependent on our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. (Luke 23:39-43, John 11:17-26, John 8:51)
We come to these conclusions about the soul based on what the scripture teaches us, but it is interesting to note that none of these characteristics violate or contradict what can be known about the soul by simply analytical and philosophical reflection (like the kind that we explored HERE). God is consistent and his natural revelation is simple confirmation of what he as already revealed to us in His Word.
So How Does This “Soul” Thing Work With This “Body” Thing?
It’s one thing to say that we are beginning to understand the nature of the soul by examining the Bible and reflecting with our own God given logical reasoning ability, but it’s another thing to try to explain PRECISELY the practical, existential relationship between the soul and the body. We do know that they are somehow united while the body is physically alive, that the soul does exist beyond the death of the body, and that the two will be again united at the resurrection. But how can this be so, and what is the nature of this union? This is a mystery that is not clearly illuminated in the scripture, so the best we can do is to speculate and try to develop models that are consistent with what the Bible DOES say.
Millard J. Erickson (author of “Christian Theology”) has a reasonable term that he uses to describe the unity and relationship between the body and the soul. He describes it as “Conditional Unity”. That seems to be a great way to describe the relationship here. The Bible clearly teaches that man was created to be an immortal partnership between the material body and the immaterial soul. BOTH were intended to live forever. Remember that Adam was created as an immortal man, capable of living forever unless he chose to violate God’s singular requirement:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.”
Pretty simple: don’t eat and you won’t die. Your soul and body will be completely united as one forever and ever. That’s God’s initial design for us humans. ANY separation of the soul from the body comes simply as the result of ADAM’S REBELLION! So now, as fallen humans, we experience life in a way that was NOT God’s INITIAL design for us. We must endure a conditional unity that is punctuated by this separation of body and soul in the period of time between death and the resurrection.
Now as we try to explain exactly how the soul and body are related, we find ourselves trying to find analogies to describe the relationship, and like analogies for the Trinity, our comparisons are usually insufficient or imprecise. But bear with me here for a moment as I give it a shot. Let’s start with an example of an inflated balloon. In order to have an inflated balloon, you need two things. You need the latex balloon and you need the invisible gas that is used to inflate it. Let’s imagine that the inflated balloon comes right from the factory as a pre-inflated product. It is certainly possible to untie the balloon and let the air escape. If we did this, the balloon would look somewhat similar to its inflated state, but it would no longer be an inflated balloon, and in this reduced and separated state, the limp latex shell would not be able to function to its original design specifications! It would no longer be an inflated balloon! But we could certainly blow air back into the balloon, couldn’t we? If we did this, the balloon would once again be what it was meant to be.
OK, let’s try one more weak analogy. Think about a wet sponge. Now in order to have a wet sponge, you need the sponge and the water that inhabits its pours. Imagine a wet sponge that comes from the factory pre-moistened. Now if we were to squeeze he sponge completely and remove ALL the water from the sponge until is was completely hard and dry, the sponge would no longer be able to fulfill its purpose as a wet sponge. Now at some later point, we could put the water back in the sponge and it would return to its originally intended design, wouldn’t it?
Well with these two quick analogies we are trying our best to understand the nature of humans as they were originally created by God. We were created to be immortal material AND immaterial beings, but the sin of Adam changed all that. We were designed by God. But to be who and what we are supposed to be, we need BOTH a body and a soul. Just like the balloon and the air, the sponge and the water. It’s not an either/or situation, it’s a both/and reality.
As a new Christian I used to wonder why God would have a plan in which we would eventually get a resurrection body. Why not just leave us as spiritual creatures after the death of our bodies? Why not just leave us as souls? Because it was God’s original design for us to be a completely united material AND immaterial being! And someday when Jesus returns we will all be in that original shape and design that was intended for Adam. We will be living souls, perfectly united to our bodies.
So What Can We Learn From This Unity?
So what’s the big deal? Why all this time spent on the nature of the body and the soul? Well, there is really no way to understand the nature of heaven and hell unless we first understand the nature of the soul. One examination is leading to another. But beyond that, there is a lot that we can learn from understanding that the body and soul were designed for one another in perfect harmony and unity
The Whole Person is Important
If the body and soul are united as the Scripture would lead us to believe, then it makes sense that this UNITY is important to God. He cares about us as holistic creatures, and our physical condition is inseparably connected to our spiritual condition. For this reason, the Bible does not make a distinction between physical health and spiritual health. One is related to the other in a way that we are yet to understand completely. That’s why Jesus healed in a holistic way:
When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.
Paul seems to affirm the interdependency of the material and immaterial world when he warns us not to live and behave as though materialism is the only reality:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
The Gospel Is Intended For the Whole Person
That’s why the Gospel of Jesus Christ is also a holistic Gospel, appealing to the WHOLE person, both physical and spiritual. If this were not true, God would have provided a way of salvation that would not have required that he come to us in a physical body.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
God values the physical nature of his creation and the Gospel is an inherently holistic provision for our salvation as both immortal material and immaterial beings.
The Body Is Not Less Important Than the Soul
If nothing else, we can at least conclude that our bodies are important to God. While there are many health reasons why we should take care of our bodies, we must first care for ourselves in response to God’s high value of the body. The proper care and feeding of the body includes not only proper diet and exercise requirements, but also proper moral care:
1 Corinthians 6:13-20
The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body…. Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.
In the history of Christianity, a number of movements related to aestheticism have come and gone. In these movements, believers attempted to deny their physical bodies in one way or another (through dietary, sexual or some other restriction). But this is not consistent with the value that God places on the body. We are NOT to deny ourselves the pleasures that God has allowed for us in the creation of our bodies, but simply to remember God’s Moral Will along the way.
We can learn a lot about the soul by studying the Biblical passages that describe the disembodied life that follows death and precedes the resurrection. But more than that, we can learn how it is that we are to think about our lives as living souls, and understand the importance of the salvation that God offers through Jesus Christ. We are immortal beings, whether we like it or not. We have no choice in this truth. But we do have a choice about how we can live our lives here in mortality and we also have a choice about how we can live our life in immortality as either a friend or enemy of God.