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LOST SOULS?: Wrestling with Scripture #6

Are we born with an immortal soul? Since this seems like a central point of the Christian faith, it’s worth spending time to wrestle with what we believe. If we were created in the image of a triune God, is it logical to assume there are three components to man as well—a body, mind, and soul? Is that what Scripture teaches?

A quick concordance check reveals that, nepesh or nepes, the word translated “soul” in Genesis 2:7 (“... and man became a living soul”—KJV) actually means a “breathing being” and the same term is used of the animals that God created. The word can also refer to “dead beings” who have stopped breathing, and then again as “live beings” if the unbreathing one is resuscitated. Although “soul” is mentioned over 750 times in the OT, it always uses this Hebrew word which encompasses all that we are: bodies, breath, minds, and desires. It can even be translated “me!”

Notice that Gen 2:7 says man became a living soul. In Hebrew, therefore, we do not have a soul—we are a soul. (Spoiler alert: Rereading OT passages in this light may fundamentally change your understanding of even some very familiar verses.)

So, where did the idea of an immortal soul come from?

I was shocked to learn that the ancient Hebrews had no concept of a soul that existed separately from the body. It was only after their exile in Egypt and exposure to the pagan idea of an immortal soul that the idea crept into Jewish thinking. The idea was later popularized by Plato and Socrates and found favor with the early church leaders.

Our struggle continues in the NT where the soul is referred to less than forty times and is translated from the Greek word psuchē (i.e. “psyche”) which is similar in meaning to the OT idea of a living being. However, when the Bible refers to the spirit (which seems closer to what most of us think of when we hear the word soul), it uses either the Hebrew word rûwach, which means “blow” or “breath” as when God’s Spirit hovered over the waters (Gen 1:2), or the Greek word pnĕuma that means “wind”—reminiscent of the violent wind at Pentecost (Acts 2:2).

Scripture seems to delineate “soul” and “spirit.” In 1 Cor 15:45, Paul says, “The first man Adam became a living being (psuchē/nepesh), the last Adam, [Jesus], a life-giving spirit (pnĕuma), and Hebrews 4:12 states the Word is capable of “… the division of soul (psuchē/nepesh) and spirit ...” (pnĕuma).

All this is to suggest that, if man has a three-fold nature, it might be better described as a body (physical), a soul (the essence of who we are, our thoughts, and emotions) and a spirit (supernatural element), an idea seemingly supported by 1 Thes 5:23: “… may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete ...”

One commentator proposed that the soul is our inner being related to Self (our human passions, preferences, dreams, etc.) while the spirit is our inner life as it relates to God (faith, hope, love).

For the sake of argument, I will use “spirit” (not to be confused with the Holy Spirit) for what we traditionally think of as the soul. After all, when facing death, Jesus and Stephen both cried out, entrusting their spirits (pnĕuma) to God (Luke 23:46 and Acts 7:59).

So, is this spirit immortal? Or does immortality apply more to a physical body that does not die or decay (as may have been God’s original intention had Adam and Eve not sinned)? Are the words immortal and eternal synonymous? I was surprised that the word translated immortal/immortality is only used six times in the Bible—always in the NT—and means “deathless,” while the word rendered eternal is used relatively infrequently as well and is almost always paired with life (eternal life) unless it’s describing an attribute of God.

Whichever you accept, is this spirit innate? If we are born with an everlasting spirit, what happens to it when we die? Most Christians believe the spirit goes to heaven immediately upon death where it stays awaiting the resurrection body promised to all believers at the end of the age. Others think that the spirit dies with the body or “sleeps” after death, unaware of passing time, to be awakened to life and consciousness—in what will seem like an instant—when the final trumpet sounds and “… the dead will be raised imperishable …” (1 Cor 15:52).

Each position presents problems. If our spirit is eternal, it obviously needs to go somewhere, but Hebrews 9:27 says “… people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” How can we be rewarded with heaven or punished with hell immediately after death since “… we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad,” (2 Cor 5:10) and the day of judgment doesn’t happen until the end of the age?

There’s wrestling room with “soul sleep” as well, since Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” and Paul clearly desires “to be absent from the body and to be home with the Lord” (Luke 23:43 and 2 Cor 5:8).

Whether you believe in an immortal soul, an indestructible spirit, or new life in an imperishable resurrection body, one thing is certain: Jesus promises eternal life to all those who believe. Let’s take a look next time at what it means to believe.

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