Do You Have an Immortal Soul?

What is Man? What Happens at Death?

By Richard A. Wiedenheft


The nature of human life and death has been discussed by philosophers and theologians for centuries. To some, man is merely a glorified animal, destined to live out his physical existence and then face the extinction of death. To others he is an immortal soul held captive by a physical body until death, at which time the soul is finally liberated to receive its reward (or punishment); to still others the soul of man comes back, reincarnated a as another man or animal. But the final word on what man is and what happens at death belongs to the Creator Himself-as revealed in his word.

Creation of Man

The first chapter of Genesis reveals that man was specially created by God in His very own image and likeness: "Then God said, Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" (Gen 1:26-27). Man was shaped in the image of God, but he was not composed of the same substance as God. God is spirit; God is immortal; He possesses self-inherent eternal life. Man, on the other hand, was formed from the elements of the earth as an inert, physical corpse of organic matter lying on the ground—until God breathed into him the breath of life. At that point man became a "living soul" (Gen 2:27).

The precise nature of a "living soul" is at the heart of the discussion about what man is. To modern, orthodox Christian ears, the word "soul" denotes something that is immortal and conscious after death, something that goes to heaven or hell. But the Biblical usage of the word is quite different.

Living Souls

The Hebrew expression translated "living soul" in Gen 2:7 is nephesh; it is used in several other places in Gen 1 and 2 as well as throughout the Old Testament—and in many of these passages it refers to animals. The Englishmen who translated the King James Version of the Bible rendered nephesh as "living creature" in Gen 1:21 where it refers to sea animals; they rendered it "living creature" in verse 24 where it refers to land animals. In verse 30, this same Hebrew expression is use to describe all living things on the earth. In Gen 2:19, Adam was asked to name every "living creature"—again, the Hebrew expression is nephesh. So, when we are told that Adam became a "living soul" we are not informed that he was given any inherent immortality or a soul (in the modern sense of the word).

Mortal Man

Every indication in the Old Testament is that, of and by himself, man is mortal creature, subject to decay and death; indeed, God told Adam after he had sinned, "for dust you are and to dust you will return" (Gen 3:19). There is no reference here to a conscious, immortal soul going to heaven or hell or limbo when the body goes to the grave. Rather, the indication is that when the body returns to the dust, the conscious man, the "living soul", ceases to exist.

Of course, it was not long before Satan appeared on the scene contradicting God’s warning about sin and its deadly consequences. Tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit he said, "You will not surely die…For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:4-5). In a sense, the modern concepts of the immortal soul and reincarnation convey the same idea—that man is inherently immortal—that he won’t really die. Ezekiel stated just the opposite: "…the soul that sins, it shall die" (Ezk 18:4, 20). So, whatever a soul is, in the Old Testament sense of the word, it can die.

Solomon, the wisest king of Israel, wrote about the fate of humans, "As it is with the good man, so with the sinner…The same destiny overtakes all…For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten" (Eccl 9:2-5).

To be sure, Solomon, was writing from a human, temporal perspective—in a very melancholy mood at that; nevertheless, he corroborated the statements of Genesis—that death is the cessation of conscious life. The Psalmist wrote that the dead do not praise God, that they "go down to silence" (Pslm 115:17; compare with Pslm 6:5; 146:4).

The idea that death is merely a separation of a conscious, immortal soul from the body came not from the Bible but from Greek philosophy. Notice what Plato wrote in Phaedo:

The soul whose inseparable attitude is life will never admit of life’s opposite, death. Thus the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible…Do we believe there is such a thing as death? To be sure. And is this anything but the separation of the soul and body?…being dead is the attainment of this separation, when the soul exists in herself and separate from the body, and the body is parted from the soul. That is death… death is merely the separation of the soul and body.

An interesting philosophy—very much in harmony with the modern concept of the soul; but it is nowhere taught in the Old Testament. Even modern theologians who believe in the immortality of the soul admit frankly that it is not taught in the Bible. Consider what the The New Catholic Encyclopedia has to say about the Hebrew word nephesh or nepes:

Nepes comes from an original root…to breathe, and…thence, breath of life. Since breath distinguishes the living from the dead, nepes is used in regard to both animals and humans… After death, the nepes goes to sheol [Hebrew word for grave]. The above summary indicates that there is no dichotomy of body and soul in the Old Testament…other words in the Old Testament such as spirit, flesh, and heart also signify the human person and differ only as various aspects of the same being. The notion of the soul surviving after death is not readily discernible in the Bible. The concept of the human soul itself is not the same in the Old Testament as it is in Greek and modern philosophy…The soul in the Old Testament means not a part of man, but the whole man—man as a livingbeing (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, art. "Soul, Human, Immortality of").

In the whole of the Old Testament, there is simply no support for the idea that a conscious immortal soul goes to heaven or hell (or some other place) at death. Rather, all indications are that conscious life ceases until the time of a future resurrectionthe prophet Daniel recorded "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan 12:2). "As for you (Daniel), go you way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance" (Dan 12:13). Both verses compare death to a sleep, an unconscious state, which is to continue until the time of the resurrection.

The "Soul" in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the word "soul" is translated from the Greek psuche, which is virtually equivalent to the Hebrew nephesh. There is no indication that the soul of the New Testament continues in a conscious state following death. Rather, the evidence is that psuche, like nephesh, refers to a living mortal being who can die. Consider several verses.

Mark wrote that Jesus came to "…give his life [psuche] as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). Isaiah had written that Jesus "…poured out his life [nephesh] unto death" (Isa 53:12). Clearly Jesus’ nephesh or psuche was given up, it was poured out, it ceased to exist; it was not merely separated from His body as Greek philosophy would have one believe. John, in the book of Revelation wrote that when the second angel poured out his bowl,…every living thing [psuche] in the sea died" (Rev 16:3).

Consider the following statement from The New Catholic Encyclopedia:

The soul in the OT means not a part of man, but the whole—man as a living being. Similarly in the NT, it signifies human life: the life of an individual conscious object (Matt 2:20;6 :25; Luke 12:22-23;14:26; John 10:11,15,17; John 13:37; Acts 27:10,22; Phil 2:30; 1Thess 2:8).

Recent exegetes…have maintained that the NT does not teach the immortality of the soul in the Hellenistic sense of survival of an immortal principle after death (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, art. "Soul, Human, Immortality of, In The Bible.").

Eternal Life is God’s Gift

The Greek concept of the immortal soul assumes that individuals already possess eternal life—that the only question is where this eternal life is spent after death. In stark contrast, many Bible passages portray immortality strictly as a gift to be given by God. Paul refers directly to the fact that God alone has immortality (1Tim 6:16). In a well-known statement to the Romans, Paul insists that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. In other words, the normal consequences of sin is death; but immortality, the opposite of death, is something that man does not have of and by himself; it comes only as a gift from God (Rom 6:23).

John echoes Paul’s statement. "And this is the testimony. God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life" (1John 5:11-12; compare with 1John 3:14-15). Jesus, referring to Himself, prayed to the Father just before He was crucified, "For you granted him (Jesus) authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:2-3).

If man is inherently immortal and his life continues eternally beyond the death of the body, these passages don’t make sense—unless, of course, one redefines death as separation of soul and body, a definition not supported in the Bible. If, however, death is the absence of life and consciousness, these statements make very good sense.

Death Compared to Sleep

Throughout the Bible, death is compared to sleep. Notice a couple of Jesus’ statements:

"Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going to wake him up" (Jn 11:11).

"The girl is not dead, but asleep" (Matt 9:24).

Matthew records that at the time of Jesus’ death, "… the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many" (Matt 27:52,53).

If these saints were already experiencing the bliss of heaven, it would have been cruel to bring them back to frail human existence to live and then die again; but if they were truly asleep, unconscious, it would have been a blessing to them and to all who were witnessed to by their new lives.

The Apostle Paul referred to dead Christians as sleeping until awakened by the last trump at the resurrection (1Cor 15:51 and 1Thess 4:14;5:10). Daniel wrote of both believers and nonbelievers as sleeping—until they are resurrected: "Mutitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan 12:2). Notice that the focus is on the resurrection—not on a reward in heaven or punishment in hell experienced by a conscious immortal soul at death.

A Spiritual Element in Man?

What then is man? To be sure he is a special, glorious creation, made in the very image of God—with the potential of living for eternity in God’s kingdom. Certainly, there is a dimension of his being that separates him from animals—it is a spiritual dimension, a capacity to understand spiritual, eternal, godly things. Several passages of the Bible indicate what might be called a "spirit in man"—a spiritual ingredient that makes a man human, that turns an animal brain into a human mind, that gives him the capacity to reason and plan and to consider spiritual questions. Paul refers to a "man’s spirit" in 1Cor 2:11. Solomon, Ecclesiastes, wrote "…the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Ecc 12:7). Perhaps this "spirit in man" is what the Holy Spirit unites with when a person experiences conversion.

On the other hand, these passages are far from definitive. It’s possible Paul was simply referring to "a person’s very self, or ego" (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, under pneuma);and Solomon could have been referring to a man’s breath. But if there is a spiritual essence in man, and I believe there is, it is not conscious apart from the body. It is not an immortal soul. And regardless of whether a person is a Christian or not, his "spiritual essence" returns to God at death—perhaps waiting like a computer record to be plugged back into a conscious body at the resurrection—thus preserving the personality and character of the individual.

The important fact is that, although man does not possess an immortal soul, he can receive eternal life through accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Then he enters the heavenly kingdom of God and receives the promise of eternal life—which will be given when Jesus returns to this earth as King of kings and Lord of lords. &