An Analysis Of How Dr. Michael Heiser Interprets Scripture In Relation To His Divine Council Concept

In this article I will examine Dr. Michael Heiser’s views on the Divine Council, as found in various articles on his website The Divine Council.com. My purpose is to offer a critique of Dr. Heiser’s methodology in arriving at the conclusions he does regarding the biblical texts and to offer alternative interpretations. I find his interpretation of certain passages in both the OT and NT to be faulty. When one discerns what are the underlying beliefs which lead him to interpret Scripture the way he does, it then becomes clear that  the interpretive conclusions he arrives at are really the conclusions he began with.

What is my motive in this exercise? I have been listening to Michael Heiser’s podcast for a number of years now but had never read any of the available online material of his work until recently. I have heard a few radio interviews he has given regarding his books and on various topics for which he is known. When I was first introduced to his ideas I was intrigued. It was something I had not heard before and I was always willing to learn new things. I tended to accept what he was saying at first because he was a scholar and though I really did not fully grasp everything he was putting forth (some of it was technical), I was taken in by other personalities, who I admired, who were fast becoming devotees of Dr. Heiser’s work. But over the ensuing years I just lost interest in his work, due mainly to the fact that I was constantly in disagreement with him on his interpretation of specific verses of Scripture. This was while I was still trinitarian in my theology. Since renouncing trinitarianism in favor of biblical unitarian monotheism I have taken a closer look at Dr. Heiser’s work and I now understand more than at any time before what he is promoting. This is because I have actually read his material on a deeper level than ever before and have also listened multiple times to his lecture series Biblical Theology of the Spiritual World. Now that I more fully understand his theses and the underlying presuppositions he holds, I find that I am even more at odds with his biblical interpretation than before.

But so what, I am sure that I am at odds with many scholars’ interpretation of Scripture; why focus on Dr. Heiser? Michael Heiser is one of those rare scholars who have broken through the scholar / layperson divide. He has been able to bring his work down from the heights of academia to the level of popular Christianity. It is not often that scholarly work has such an influence on the folks in the pew. And coupled with that is the sort of awe with which many in the pew regard scholars, especially those who are as accessible as Dr. Heiser. I fear that many will and do take his conclusions for granted, without critical analysis, simply because of his status as a scholar. Many will assume that he knows what he is talking about, he is the scholar and they are just a layperson. To be sure, Dr. Heiser does know what he is talking about when it comes to his specific field of study. He knows the languages and the literature of the ancient near east (ANE) as well as the literature of the second temple period (c. 516 BCE – 70 CE). So when Dr. Heiser is giving data concerning ancient Semitic languages and ANE literature, listen to him, for he knows that material. I have learned a lot about the biblical text and about ANE studies from listening to his podcast. But many laypeople fail to distinguish between that kind of knowledge and biblical interpretation. They just assume that if he is knows what he is talking about with regard to those things he must be correct in his interpretation of Scripture. But this is just not the case. The fact of the matter is that the data he has collected from his field of study has caused him to develop certain presuppositions (along with presuppositions which exist due to orthodox dogma) which then determine how he will interpret Scripture. If the presuppositions are wrong then the interpretation of Scripture that flows from them will also be wrong. It is my contention that his presuppositions are indeed wrong and so his interpretation of Scripture cannot automatically be trusted by virtue of his scholarship.

The Priority Of Extra-Biblical Literature

In introductory material from Heiser’s websites and his podcast one will hear of “Dr. Heiser’s approach to the Bible.” What exactly is his approach to the Bible? Does he regard the Bible as inspired revelation or as a product of purely human invention, or perhaps a mixture of the two? It is hard for me to determine precisely his thinking on this matter as he seems a bit ambivalent. Sometimes he will make  statements in which he seems to regard scripture as revelatory, but at other times he will appear to regard Scripture on a completely human level, speaking of how the biblical authors borrowed from the literature of the surrounding nations in their portrait of the true God. One specific example involves a discussion about the visions of Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7, in which Heiser makes this statement:

This writer (i.e. Dr. Heiser himself) concurs with Collins’ carefully argued rejections of an Iranian or Babylonian background for the visions in favor of a Canaanite provenance, specifically that of the Ugaritic Baal Cycle.

He goes on after this to show the congruence between the imagery in Daniel’s vision and material found in the Baal Cycle. What is he saying here? Is he saying that the source or origin of these visions is Canaanite literature, i.e. the Baal Cycle of Ugarit? Is he suggesting that the authors of both Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7 were borrowing from a Canaanite source when they wrote these portions of Scripture? The texts themselves claim to be visions given directly by God to the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. Does Dr. Heiser believe that to be the case? It is unclear what he believes. Again, there is a certain ambivalence with him regarding how the biblical texts came about. Was it by divine revelation or was it by the Hebrew authors adapting Canaanite religious concepts and imagery to fit their Yahwistic religion?

Assuming that there is indeed a similarity of concepts about God and of imagery used to speak about God, and I have no reason to doubt that to be the case, how does that coincide with the self claim of much of the Hebrew Scriptures to be direct revelation from God? Because the extant ANE literature is chronologically prior to the Biblical texts, it is assumed by scholars in general that the authors of the Hebrew Bible borrowed from and accommodated the ideas found in these writings in the setting forth of their own religion. Many of the scholars that Heiser quotes no doubt fall into this category. Heiser himself seems to agree, at least to a degree, with this assessment. I might note here that most, if not all, of the scholars quoted by Heiser, do not regard the Scripture to be of divine origin, i.e. they do not believe in divine revelation. They view the Hebrew Bible the same way they view other writings of the time – products of human ingenuity and the result of an unguided process.

For what it is worth I offer here my understanding of why there is much similarity between the Hebrew Scriptures and ANE literature. Although the ANE literature is prior in time to the Hebrew Bible, the religious ideas and concepts of the Hebrew Bible were prior to ANE religion. If we go back to the beginning, when God first created man, we see that God revealed himself to the original human pair. Even after man sinned and was exiled from the garden we can still see that the knowledge of the Creator was still among the human race for a time. Eventually however, man’s knowledge of the Creator degenerated into false religion and the worship of false gods. This led to widespread immorality and debauchery and violence. God eventually destroyed the human race, by means of the flood, with the exception of eight people: Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives. These were spared because they were righteous, maintaining the worship of the Creator. As they began to repopulate the earth after the flood, they no doubt passed on the knowledge  and worship of the true God. So there would have been a time when the true worship of the true God would have been prevalent in the earth. Once again though, as time went on, men turned from the worship of the Creator and were eventually spread over the whole earth, bringing with them their false religions, with remnants of the true religion contained therein. Is it any wonder that similar religious concepts are found in various religions, especially those within the same cultural and linguistic environment. False religion was not a pure invention out of thin air, but rather a perversion of the true religion, and therefore elements of the original will still be seen in the false, only now in a mythologized version. Just because these false religious concepts were recorded prior to the recording of the true concept of God, the Creator, in the Hebrew Scriptures, does not mean these concepts predated those of the Hebrew Bible, or that the Hebrews developed their religious concepts from these false religions. In fact, the false religions were developed out of whatever revelatory knowledge of the true God would have been available to man after the flood. So yes we should expect to see an overlap of concepts and imagery between the Israelite religion and the false Canaanite religions.

The Divine Council

It should be clear to anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Heiser’s work, that the concept of the ‘Divine Council’ is the overarching idea that governs how he will interpret any given passage. Indeed, this is what he is mainly known for. Although the concept is not original to him, he more than any other scholar has brought these ideas to the people in the pew, and has made them popular, at least in some circles of American Christianity. The idea is that there is a council or pantheon of divine beings under the one true God, who administrate God’s rule upon the earth in various ways. It is confirmed by scholars that all ancient near east cultures had such a divine council in their religious systems. This only came to light after the discovery of  cuneiform tablets from ancient Ugarit in the late 1920’s. This is why there is no talk of a divine council among the commentators prior to this time. But if the concept of the ‘divine council’ is so clearly taught in the Hebrew Bible why did no one see it there until this discovery? The concept seems to be derived from the Hebrew Scriptures only by inference, while it is unambiguously laid out in Canaanite literature; and the inference from the Bible only appeared after the discovery of this literature. While I do not doubt that some such a system is employed by God, I do think that Heiser may be overstating it’s importance in understanding OT theology. He seems to think that one cannot fully or accurately understand the Hebrew scriptures without first understanding this concept. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he is obsessed with the idea of the divine council. This is proved by how he tends to see this concept in biblical passages where it really is not found. An example is Deut. 4:19-20, where God says to the people of Israel:

And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, and the moon and the stars, all the host of the heavens, beware lest you are driven to worship them and to serve them, which Yahweh your God has apportioned to all the nations under the whole heavens. And you Yahweh has taken and has brought out of the iron furnace of Egypt to be his people, a possession, as you are this day.

Heiser interprets the ‘host of  the heavens’  here to be the divine council members which he believes Yahweh gave to the nations, to be their gods, while he chose Israel to be his nation. But it seems plain enough to me that ‘the host of the heavens‘ is simply the corporate designation for the sun, moon and stars which were just mentioned. The phrase ‘the host of heaven‘ does not have a single meaning – it can refer to all of the heavenly bodies, as here, but it can sometimes refer to the angelic armies which serve at God’s pleasure {1 Kings 22:19}. It can even refer to the people of God as in Daniel 8:10-12. The context must determine the meaning in each specific passage. The context here speaks of the sun, moon and stars, not of members of a divine council. These gifts God gave to all nations for their benefit, not to be worshipped as the pagans did. Israel is being reminded of their privileged status as God’s possession, and as such they must not follow the practices of the other nations who have gone astray {see Deut. 17:2-5}.

Another passage heavily utilized by Heiser is Deut. 32:8-9:

When the Most High apportioned to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the boundaries of the nations with regard to the number of the sons of God (or Israel). For Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.

Heiser interprets the verse to be saying that when God divided up the nations he did so according to the number of divine council members (sons of God), to whom he then allotted the nations as their inheritance, while taking Israel as his own inheritance. But the context has to do with the geographical boundaries of the nations in relation to Israel’s numbers. What would national boundaries have to do with God giving dominion over the nations to divine council members? Heiser, of course, prefers the DSS reading of ‘sons of God‘ rather than ‘sons of Israel.’ But this makes no difference to the meaning of the verse. For in this whole chapter Israel is synonymous with the sons (or children) of God {see vv. 5-6, 18-20}. The LXX’s  ‘angels of God‘ is irrelevant, being a sort of paraphrase of ‘sons of God‘ from the DSS, though it does show that ‘sons of God‘ is probably original. The point is that ‘sons of God‘ in this context is not referring to angels or to divine council members, but to the people of Israel who are God’s children. When God divided up the nations (Gen. 10-11) he set their boundaries taking into account his planned intention to place a people of his own in the land of Canaan, which would be of sufficient size for his chosen nation.

Psalm 82

Of course there is Psalm 82, which in the first verse reads:

God takes his place in the congregation of God, he executes judgment among the gods.

Heiser translates the verse as “God has taken his place in the divine council… ” Obviously he assumes this passage to be referring to this divine council concept. But is this the absolute necessary way to understand this passage. Heiser thinks so. But why did no one prior to the discovery of the Ugarit literature understand the passage that way? The almost universal way of understanding this passage prior to the Ugarit discovery was that the psalmist was speaking metaphorically of rulers or judges in Israel. Heiser decries this interpretation and insists that the passage should be understood in light of the Ugaritic concept of a divine council (i.e. a group of gods, who, along with and under the authority of the supreme God, administer the affairs of the cosmos). It is clear that Heiser makes the correct understanding of the biblical text dependent upon the extra-biblical texts. Unless we read the biblical text in the light of the Canaanite text we will fall short of accurately ascertaining the meaning of it.

If we remember that Psalm 82 is poetic literature, then we should not find it strange to find the use of poetic imagery as metaphor. The psalmist is metaphorically portraying the human rulers of Israel, specifically the Davidic kings, but possibly the kings of the Northern kingdom also (judges may be included, as those who administer justice on the king’s behalf – see 2 Chron. 19:5-7), as an assembly of gods, who are being called to account by the Most High, who gave them their authority and commission, for failure to properly fulfill their divine duty. The charge against them is laid out in verse two. In vv.3-4 their divine commission is delineated:

Vindicate the poor and the fatherless; bring justice to the afflicted and the needy. Deliver the weak and the oppressed; rescue them from the hand of the wicked.

These are not the duties of heavenly beings but of earthly kings, as can be seen from the following verses – 2 Chron. 9:8; Ps. 72:2-4, 12-14; Jer. 21:11; 22:1-5. Here we have a number of passages that clearly set forth the divine duty of the Davidic king in the exact language used in Ps. 82:3-4. My question for Dr. Heiser is this – where in the Hebrew Bible is the commission and duty of the members of the divine council even spelled out at all, much less in these exact terms?  It isn’t; but perhaps it is spelled out in these terms in the Canaanite literature. If that is the case, then he is letting extra-biblical literature determine how we should interpret this passage rather than the Hebrew Scriptures themselves.  Therefore, vv. 3-4 are more conducive to the human ruler view than to the divine council view. But what of verse 6, where God says of these rulers:

I designated you gods, every one of you sons of the Most High.

The mistake of Heiser is to take this literally, but that is because his underlying presupposition is driving his interpretation. Why can’t human rulers, and even more specific, the David kings, be addressed in this way? They can be, but not in an ontological sense, but in a representational and functional sense. The reigning Davidic king is so designated in 1 Chron. 28:5-6 (son); Ps. 2:6-7 (son); Ps. 45:6 (elohim). If the common translation of Ps. 45:6 is correct, “Your throne O god is forever,” this should be understood as a representational and functional designation, i.e. the Davidic king is the visible representation of Yahweh’s rule over Israel, functioning as Yahweh’s vicegerent. It is not referring to the king’s ontological nature. On Heiser’s website The Divine Council.com, in a PDF titled The Plural Elohim of Psalm 82, at the end of page two he says, “there are actually five (he really gives six) different entities referenced as elohim in the Hebrew Bible.” In the list that follows he fails to include Moses, who is so designated in Ex. 7:1 and the Davidic king in Ps. 45:6, as noted above. The reason for this omission is found in the next section of the PDF (2.2):

All the figures called [elohim] in the Bible have one thing in common: they all inhabit the non-human realm. That is, they are by nature not part of the world of humankind …

Again, his underlying presupposition prevents him from seeing that certain humans can be designated by the word elohim.

Another reason Heiser thinks Ps. 82 can only be referring to divine beings is because of Ps. 89:5-7. But what does Ps. 89 have to do with Ps. 82? He is simply assuming (being driven to do so by his presuppositions) that a similar phrase in Ps. 89 is referring to the same thing as Ps. 82. I do believe that Ps. 89:5-7 is speaking about the angelic host that surrounds God in the heavens, but it is unclear to me why this has to determine the meaning of Ps. 82. Just as we saw above, regarding the phrase ‘the host of the heavens,’ even the exact same phrase can have completely different meanings according to context. So a similar phrase in Ps. 89 which does indeed refer to heavenly beings does not really have any bearing on Ps. 82, which to my mind has a totally different context.

In the same document, on pg. 13, after discussing Jesus’ use of Ps. 82:6 in John 10, Heiser makes this claim:

The human [elohim] view (of Ps. 82) derives from two assumptions brought to the text: (1) that it is required by the assumed impossibility of their being other [elohim] because of Judeo-Christian monotheism; and (2) that the phrase (used by Jesus in John 10) “to whom the word of God came” refers to the Jews who received the law at Sinai.

But I have argued for the human king view without any reference whatsoever to these two asumptions. In fact I do not accept either of those assumptions as fact. Heiser doesn’t even address the reasons for seeing the Ps. 82 ‘gods’ as human kings that I have presented here. Is he unaware of the points that I have made? Or is he just picking the low hanging fruit? I would be interested to hear how he would answer these objections to his view.

Verse 7 offers only a slight challenge to the human view:

But in fact, you shall die like men, and fall like one of the rulers.

Heiser interprets this as saying that the divine council members who have rebelled will lose their immortality. Does the phrase “you shall die like men” require that the recipients of these words are not men? Of course not. The phrase is in contrast to their exalted status and to God’s own designation of them as ‘gods’. Read Psalms 2, 45 and 72 and see the exalted ideal of the Davidic king ruling on Yahweh’s throne. God is reminding them of their mortality and that their exalted status will not prevent God’s hand of judgment from bringing them down because of their rebellion to him. That they will “fall like one of the rulers” signifies the exalted status of the Davidic king in relation to the kings of the nations. In Ps. 89:27 God calls him “... my firstborn, the most high (elyon – one of God’s titles) of the kings of the earth.” But this will not prevent God from bringing the rebellious in their ranks down to the ground. I think the NIV captures the intent of the psalmist here, “But you will die like mere men; and fall like every other ruler.” {see also Ps. 73:3-5}

Heiser then interprets the final verse in line with the divine council concept. He envisions the psalmist calling upon God to take back the rule of the nations from these corrupt members of the divine council. But what if the psalmist is simply recognizing that God’s ideal for the Davidic king ruling his kingdom in such a way as to bring under the shadow of his rule, as it were, the Gentile nations, had up to this point not been fulfilled. And this is a plea for that ideal to become a reality. Note the similarity of language with Ps. 2:8-9, where the Davidic ruler is promised the nations as his inheritance. And also note the apostle Paul’s declaration that God

…has set a day in which he intends to judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has furnished assurance of this to all men by raising him from the dead.                 Acts 17:31

John 10:30-38

Michael Heiser’s presuppositions regarding the divine council and orthodox Christology surely lead him to his faulty interpretation of John 10:30-38. In typical orthodox fashion he sees v. 30 – “I and the Father are one” – as a claim to deity by Jesus. This is simply assumed by Heiser and most other orthodox trinitarian believers. There is nothing in the words themselves which necessitate that meaning. In other words, the words, as they stand, do not definitively mean that Jesus is claiming deity; this meaning is merely assumed based on the presupposition of orthodox Trinitarianism. Because they believe Jesus is deity, then that must be what he means by saying these words. This is an example of how orthodox dogma stifles inquiry into a text of scripture. If you think you already know the meaning of any particular passage, based on orthodox dogma or creedal declarations, then why seek for other possible or more plausible meanings of the text. But we must ask, “One what?” The orthodox answer is ‘one substance.’ And so we are told that Jesus was claiming to be one in substance with the Father and that the Jews to whom he was speaking understood him in this way. This is why they picked up stones to stone him, they said, “because you, being a man, make yourself a god.” Yes I said ‘a god‘, but we will get to that soon.

But is ‘one substance‘ the only way or even the best way to interpret Jesus’ words? Is there no other possible tenable alternative? Of course there is, but many trinitarians may be completely unaware of it due to orthodox conditioning. I believe a much more adequate way to interpret these words is in light of the Semitic understanding of agency. As I have explained in other articles on this blog, the concept of agency is ubiquitous in the Scriptures, both in the OT and the NT. The main idea of agency in the ancient Semitic world was that the agent was to be regarded as the one who sent him, since he carried the name, authority, and resources of his lord. The agent came, not to carry out his own will or plans, but those of his master. In this sense it could be said of any faithful agent,  that he and his lord are one. The identity of the agent is in a sense hidden in the one who sent him. The lord is in his agent and the agent is in his lord. Forty times in the gospel of John Jesus is spoken of or speaks of being sent by God. I think that qualifies the idea of Jesus as God’s agent as being a major theme of John’s gospel. This language of being sent is the language of agency. There are other phrases and words in this gospel, other than sent, which also denote agency, such as:

  • Jesus makes the Father known – 1:18
  • Jesus is ‘come from God’ – 3:2; 7:17; 8:42; 13:3
  • Jesus is ‘given authority’ to act on the Father’s behalf – 5:27; 17:2
  • Jesus comes in the Father’s name – 5:43; 10:25
  • Jesus is given a task to do by the Father – 5:37; 17:4
  • The Father is in Jesus and he is in the Father – 10:38; 14:10-11; 17:21
  • Jesus speaks only the Father’s word -7:16-18; 8:28; 12:49-50; 14:10,24

The idea that Jesus was speaking of a metaphysical unity with God, and that the Jews understood him to be so speaking is out of context with the Hebraic culture and mindset. Heiser should know this but seems unaware of it. The Jews did not think or speak of God in such metaphysical terms. It was later Gentile Christians, who were imbued with the Greek mindset, who introduced metaphysical concepts about the relationship between God and Jesus into the church’s thinking. The Jews thought of God in terms of functional relationship, i.e. the ways God acted toward them in covenant relationship. The relationship of Jesus to the Father is laid out in terms of divine agency not divine metaphysics.

I was very delighted to find a prestigious Evangelical commentary that agrees with this understanding of Jesus’ words, the Expositor’s Greek Testament, whose comment on this verse I could not have said better:

An ambassador (another term for agent) whose demands were contested might quite naturally say: “I and my sovereign are one”; not meaning thereby to claim royal dignity, but only to assert that what he did his sovereign did, that his signature carried his sovereign’s guarantee, and that his pledges would be fulfilled by all the resources of his sovereign. So here, as God’s representative, Jesus introduces the Father’s power as the final guarantee, and claims that in this respect he and the Father are one. Whether this does not involve metaphysical unity is another question.

How refreshing to see an Evangelical, orthodox trinitarian commentary actually get it right on a passage that is all too often touted as a proof text for the deity of Jesus. Of course they did have to add the final sentence so as to not lose all credibility and respect with their peers.

The agency view is further borne out in what Jesus says in vv. 34-38. Heiser, working under his presupposition of orthodox trinitarianism and his divine council model, sees not only v. 30 as a declaration by Jesus of metaphysical equality with God, but also v. 38, where Jesus declared, “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” But Heiser is simply reading his predilection of some sort of metaphysical unity into this statement. The statement on it’s own accords well with the concept of Jesus as God’s agent, as does the rest of what Jesus says here.

But the fact that the Jews wanted to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for “making [himself] a god,” surely proves that they understood his statement as a claim to ontological sameness with the Father, doesn’t it? Not at all. First off, there is no definite article before the word theos in the Greek and so the better translation is ‘a god‘ rather than ‘God.’ It is absurd to imagine these Jews as understanding Jesus’ words to be a claim to being ‘the God‘ of Israel, Yahweh himself, or that he was claiming some sort of metaphysical sameness with Yahweh. These opponents of Jesus were prone to exaggerating Jesus’ claims and his actions {see John 8:56-57} to make him look foolish or guilty of sin, therefore to use their words as a proof that Jesus was indeed claiming deity in his statement is ridiculous. What if they understood him as I have proposed i.e. that Jesus was claiming to be the special agent of God who was foretold in the prophets, the Messiah, the final and ideal son of David. Then they would have understood his statement as a claim to functional equality with God, not of ontological equality. Then their accusation would be an extreme exaggeration of Jesus’ claim. Jesus was not claiming to be a god in a sense that would threaten the monotheism of Judaism, but he was claiming that as God’s set-apart  and sent agent {v.36} he would carry out the same function as Yahweh, that of shepherding the flock {vv.1-30}. But why should this be controversial? In the Hebrew Bible the chosen and anointed ruler was tasked with shepherding God’s flock {2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7-8; Ps. 78:70-72; Is. 63:11}, while God himself was seen as the ultimate Shepherd of Israel {Ps. 80:1}. The coming ideal Davidic ruler is also portrayed in these terms {Ezek. 34:23-24; Micah 5:2-4 (see also Matt 2:7)}. The idea is really quite simple – God, the ultimate Shepherd, carries out that function of his covenant relationship with his people, by means of an empowered human agent, the anointed of the Lord. God, as Israel’s ultimate King rules over his people through his appointed agent, the Davidic king.

But why would it be blasphemy for Jesus to be making this claim? If the Jews were exaggerating Jesus’ claim it may be because they saw it as a usurpation of God’s role by Jesus. These Jews did not consider Jesus to be the Messiah. They thought he was a false claimant to that title; he did not fit the bill of what the Messiah was supposed to be, a military leader who would lead Israel to victory against the oppressive Gentile nations. Such a claim by one who obviously didn’t meet the standard would be considered blasphemous. The idea that blasphemy is defined only as a claim to be God is nowhere found in the Bible. To blaspheme is to speak of one in such a way as to defame them. Hence, Jews held that Moses (as well as the patriarchs), and even the law and temple could be blasphemed {Acts 6:11-14}. In the Hebrew Bible a false claim to speak for God was punishable by stoning {Deut. 18:20}.

Jesus answers the Jew’s false accusation against him by referring them to Psalm 82:6:

34.”Is it not written in your law, ‘I have said you are gods’ ? 35. If he called them ‘gods’ to whom the word of God came — and the Scripture cannot be broken —36. what about the one whom the Father set-apart and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s son’ ? 37. Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does.”

Heiser thinks that the only way to make sense of Jesus’ use of this passage is if Ps. 82 is speaking about the divine council. In his document titled Jesus’ Use of Ps. 82 in John 10:34 he summarizes his conclusions as follows:

(1) Jesus uses Ps.82 to identify himself as belonging to the divine realm.
(2) Jesus also identifies himself with the Father, who belongs to the divine realm.

Briefly, I view John’s use of Ps. 82:6 in John 10:34 as making the point (from Jesus himself) that there are other non-human sons of God. By referencing Psalm 82, which is not about “human elohim,” Jesus is in effect tweaking his opponents by claiming to be more than human … John is both asserting Jesus is divine and distinct from other divine sons of God. In effect, Jesus is lord of the council.

I am sorry, but none of Heiser’s conclusions follow from the text itself. He is simply assuming his concept of the divine council (as well as orthodox trinitarianism) and forcing that upon the text.

Now I agree with Heiser that Jesus’ statement “to whom the word of God came” is not referring to the Law being given to the Israelite nation, so that all Israelites are being called ‘gods‘ here. But he acts as though that is the only alternative one has if they don’t take it his way. Yes “to whom the word of God came” refers to those whom God is specifically addressing in Ps. 82, but Heiser sees them as the members of the divine council, when, as I have shown, it is the kings who rule God’s people who are addressed there. Jesus’ point is simple – if God himself referred to his appointed representative rulers as ‘elohim’ (all of whom, by the way, failed to live up to the ideal), then what of the special, ideal and final representative agent, the long awaited coming one (this is the significance of the words “the one the Father set-apart and sent into the world“), who Jesus was claiming to be, is it blasphemy for him to claim to be God’s son? No, in fact he has a right to that title. Note that in Ps. 82:6 the designation ‘gods‘ is equivalent to the designation ‘sons of the Most High’, which, as we saw earlier, are both designations given to the Davidic kings. Far from the divine council view of Ps. 82 being necessary in order to make sense of John 10:30-38, it does not even adequately address the language of Jesus in the whole passage. If the divine council members are ‘sons’ of God, and Jesus is claiming to be God’s son also, how does that establish the distinction between Him and the other council members that Heiser envisions?

One final point, Heiser sees v. 38 as parallel to Exodus 23:20-23, where Yahweh tells Moses he is sending an agent ahead of them and that his name is in this agent. Again, driven by his presuppositions, Heiser  sees a metaphysical relationship between Yahweh and this agent, who he describes as “Yahweh in human form”, or at other times “the visible Yahweh” as compared to the invisible Yahweh i.e. the Father. But this is simply reading his foregone conclusion into the text. That Yahweh’s name was in the agent is completely intelligible from the agency view. Of course the name of an agent’s master is in him, this is what gives the agent the authority to speak and act in the master’s stead. No metaphysical or ontological connection between the two need be posited for this language to make sense, in fact it only brings confusion into what really is a simple concept.

The Divine Council Of Ugarit vs The Divine Council Of The Hebrews

In his Old Testament Godhead Language pdf, Heiser tells us the difference between the divine council in Ugaritic literature and the Hebrew Bible. In Ugarit religion there was a divine council consisting of three tiers, maybe four. The first tier consisted of El and his wife; the second of the royal family, the sons of God, of whom Baal served as El’s co-regent; and the third was for ‘craftsman deities’ (Heiser doesn’t explain what these are); and a possible fourth tier consisted of mere messengers, the malakim.

Heiser then explains the divine council according to the Hebrew Bible as follows. It is a three tier system, where Yahweh occupies the top tier. The second tier consisted of the lesser ‘elohim‘, called the ‘sons of God.’ The third tier consisted of the malakim, or angels.

Now let’s look at what Heiser says next in this paper:

Orthodox Yahwism replaced the co-regent spot that Baal occupied with a sort of binitarian Godhead, in which Yahweh occupied both slots … Within Israelite religion, Yahweh’s occupation of both of the two highest tiers resulted conceptually in two Yahwehs – one visible, the other invisible. At times both speak as characters in the same scene, but more frequently, they are virtually interchangeable.

Heiser sees Jesus as the second Yahweh. Even though he is called son of God, like the lesser elohim of the second tier, he is not a lesser elohim, but occupies the top tier along with the Father, as a second hypostasis in the Godhead, a second Yahweh figure, while remaining distinct from the Father. Heiser has simply fused his divine council concept with orthodox Christology. But please notice how he had to adjust the Ugarit divine council to arrive at an Israelite divine council that would accommodate orthodox Christology. How convenient. In Heiser’s scheme Jesus replaces the Baal figure of Ugarit; but a second tier deity won’t do for orthodox, creedal Christianity, so Heiser bumps him up to a first tier Deity along with the Father. He then asserts that this binitarian Godhead was simply a part of the orthodox worship of Yahweh.

This is quite an assertion; what evidence does he offer for it. Well he begins with the OT figure known as ‘the angel of Yahweh‘. I have dealt with the popular notion promoted by many trinitarian teachers and apologists that the angel of Yahweh was the pre-incarnate son of God in Part 1 of my series Pre-Incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT, so I won’t go into it too deep here. He mentions Ex. 23:20-23, where the angel has God’s name in him, which I dealt with above. He mentions Judges 6 but doesn’t explain much, except to say, “Yahweh and the Angel can be simultaneously – but seperately – present.” Judges 6 can be understood easily when one understands Semitic agency, where God would be acting in and through his agent so that the authors of Scripture can speak of the agent’s speech as Yahweh himself speaking and the agent’s actions as Yahweh himself acting. No postulation of a metaphysical unity between the two is necessary. He next mentions how Israel’s deliverance from Egypt is sometimes attributed to God and sometimes to the Angel of Yahweh, which is supposed to imply this metaphysical sameness. The solution to this is so simple that the fact that Heiser misses it is inexcusable. When God does a thing through an agent then surely it can be said that God did it or that the agent did it. Not only is the bringing of Israel out of Egypt attributed to God and to the angel but also to Moses {1 Sam. 12:6-8}. Should we then postulate a metaphysical relationship between Yahweh and Moses? God was acting in and through his agents (whether human or divine) and so he gets the ultimate credit, but Scripture still recognizes the role of the agents. This is why in the book of Judges Israel’s deliverance from their enemies is attributed to both Yahweh and the human judges {Judges 2:16-18}.

He next mentions Gen. 48:15-16, which reads, regarding Jacobs blessing of Josephs two sons:

May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm — may he bless these boys.

Heiser thinks that this establishes the identity of the angel of Yahweh as Yahweh himself, a sort of metaphysical sameness which he describes as “a tight fusion of the two divine beings.” But why can’t it just be understood that Jacob realizes that God’s deliverance of him from all harm was accomplished not by God’s direct involvement but rather by an agent assigned by God to protect him. He knows that ultimately God is the source of his protection, but he also knows that God accomplished it through an agent, whom he recognizes in this blessing. The singular verb bless in the phrase “may he bless” would be referring to God alone not to the angel who acted on God’s behalf.

Heiser then mentions the Rider on the Clouds of Daniel 7:13 which I will be examining in my next article, so I won’t here.

Next he references how Yahweh speaks sometimes of himself in the third person, as in Amos 4:11. This is a phenomenon known as illeism. There is a dissertation by Ervin Roderick Elledge on illeism in the Bible and in ANE literature, which is available online, which documents the widespread use of this rhetorical device among ANE gods and ANE kings, as well as in the speech of Yahweh and kings in the OT and Jesus in the NT. It really has nothing to say about whether their might be multiple persons in the Godhead.

Next he mentions the two powers in heaven doctrine of Judaism, which I will also deal with in the next article.

None of these supposed ‘evidences’ really merit the over confidence of Heiser in his assertion that orthodox Yahwism made room for a binitarian Godhead which consisted of a visible and an invisible Yahweh. Heiser never really tries to explain on too deep of a level how he conceives of the relationship between these two Yahwehs – how they are the same person but yet distinct, he just asserts it and expects his followers will accept his word for it. If Heiser wishes to view things the way he does, fine, he is free to do so. But he should tell his followers that this is just one way to see things, that there are other viable ways of explaining the data. Instead, he presents his interpretations as the only plausible way of reading the text. But as we have seen there are other alternative interpretations of these passages that are really much better than what Heiser offers.

In my next article we will examine Heiser’s interpretation of Daniel 7. Please come back.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pre-Incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth (Part 3)

Melchizedek

Melchizedek is an OT figure who typically gets nominated for being a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ by Trinitarian apologists and expositors. This conclusion is usually drawn not so much from what the OT says about Melchizedek, but from what the NT book of Hebrews says regarding him. If all we had was the OT record I do not think people would be making this claim; there is nothing in the OT record to lead one to the conclusion that Melchizedek was the eternally begotten son of God. It is based largely, or even solely, on what the author of Hebrews says concerning him that has led many to this false conclusion. It is my assertion that these folk are misunderstanding the author of Hebrews. I must say though, that this belief is not universal among Trinitarians, for one can find plenty in that camp who do not see Melchizedek as a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. In fact, when I was a Trinitarian, I myself did not hold that Melchizedek was Christ, so that my belief on this point has not changed since becoming a Unitarian.

OT Record Concerning Mechizedek

In Genesis 14, as Abram was returning from defeating the kings who had taken captive Lot and his family and other citizens of Sodom, Melchizedek is abruptly introduced into the story line as follows:

“And Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine. And he was priest of God Most High, and he blessed him and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of the heavens and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.  vv. 18-20

This is all we know from the OT record about Melchizedek, which is very little. We know he was the king of the city state of Salem, which would later be known as Jerusalem (see Ps. 76:2). He was a priest of the Most High God, who is identified by Abram in v. 22 as Yahweh. He met Abram, and those with him returning from the battle, with bread and wine, presumably as refreshments. He pronounced a blessing upon Abram, who then gave him a tenth of all the recovered goods. That’s it, we are given no other information concerning this man. The only other mention of Melchizedek in the OT is in Psalm 110:4, where God swears an oath to the Davidic King:

Yahweh has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, after the manner of Melchizedek.”

Here we are given one final bit of information concerning this Melchizedek, that he is a priest forever, i.e. his priesthood had no end, no one succeeded him. This passage becomes the ground upon which the author of the book of Hebrews makes a case for Messiah’s everlasting priesthood. So let’s turn our attention to Hebrews 7, for there the author draws some interesting conclusions based on this passage.

Hebrews 7

1.This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, 2. and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means ‘king of righteousness’; then also ‘king of Salem’ means ‘king of peace.’ 3. Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, having been made like the son of God he remains a priest forever.

In verses 1-2 the author gives us the exact information about Melchizedek that we saw in Gen. 14. It is in verse three that he tells us things about him which we would never have ascertained from the OT record. Can these things really be true? Melchizedek did not have a father or mother; he had no beginning of days or no end of life? And if none of this is recorded about him in the OT record, then from where did the author of Hebrews get this information? It is this verse alone which leads many to regard Melchizedek as a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. But this conclusion is based on a misunderstanding of what the author of Hebrews is really saying. It is supposed that the things said about Melchizedek, i.e. “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life,” are to be understood literally and that these coincide with facts about the son of God. But to read the passage this way is to misread it. So then what exactly is the author trying to convey to his readers?

If we back up a little in the letter we see that the author has already quoted or referred to the Psalm 110:4 passage three times, in 5:6, 5:10 and 6:20. In each case he is applying it to Messiah Jesus. Let’s look first at what is meant by “the order of Melchizedek.” This is  really not a good translation, because it actually works against the author’s main point. The word ‘order‘ implies a group of people united in some way; in this case a priestly order would denote a group of people functioning in the same priestly duties. It also implies succession within the order, i.e as members die others take their place. This idea is exactly opposite of what the author of Hebrews sees in Psalm 110:4, where Melchizedek is said to be a priest forever, i.e. no one succeeded him. The Hebrew for the phrase “according to the order of” is best translated “after the manner of” (see Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary). The point is not that there is a priestly order called ‘the order of Melchizedek‘ but that whoever is being addressed in Ps. 110:4 is being appointed as a priest in similitude to Melchizedek, the sole point of comparison being that their priesthood is everlasting. This understanding of “in the order of ” is confirmed by Hebrews 7:15-16:

“And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like (Gr. homoiotes) Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.”

So the point of the author in 7:3 is not to say Melchizedek is without father or mother, the son of God is without father or mother; Melchizedek is without genealogy, the son of God is without genealogy; etc. The only point of comparison between the two is the continuing nature of their priesthood. No one succeeded Melchizedek (based on the silence of Scripture) and no one shall succeed Jesus in his priesthood. Once again, this is substantiated by the context:

“And indeed, many are those who became priest (under the Mosaic law) because they were prevented from continuing by death. But because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood,”   vv.23-24

So what does the author mean by saying that Melchizedek was “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life?” Simply put, he sees in the statement of Ps. 110:4 that Melchizedek is a priest forever, as playing off the fact that the Scripture record regarding this man is silent as to his parents, his descent, his birth or death. He does not mean for us to take these statements about Melchizedek literally, but only that the complete silence of Scripture pertaining to these facts of his life was a deliberate device, by the Spirit of God, in order to make the point later in Ps. 110:4 that the Messianic King would have an enduring priesthood. In verse 3, after delineating these aspects of Melchizedek’s life which were not written in the historical record, the text literally says of him, “having been made like the son of God.” Note that it does not say that the son of God is made like Melchizedek but that Melchizedek was made like the son of God. How was he made like the son of God in respect to his continuing priesthood? By the fact that Scripture did not record his lineage, his birth or his death. Of course, Melchizedek was born, like all other men; he had a father and mother; he had a genealogy; he died like all other men do. But the silence of Scripture regarding these facts presents his priesthood as a seeming continuous or perpetual priesthood, and in this way he was made like the son of God, who’s priesthood shall never end.

The Fourth Man In The Fire

Daniel 3:24-25 – Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellers, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. He answered and said, Lo I see four men loose and walking in the midst of the fire and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.   (KJV) 

It is easy to see how people, eager to see the son of God active in the pages of the OT, would latch on to this verse as a proof text. But this underscores the problem with simply reading one’s favorite English version and just accepting it at face value, without ever studying beyond that. If you were to check all available English versions you would find that the vast majority render this phrase as ‘like a son of the gods.’ This is true even of staunchly Trinitarian versions, like the NIV, ESV and the NASB. Have all of these versions tampered with the text to take away a clear reference to a pre-incarnate appearance of the son of God in the OT? The answer is NO! There is a simple reason why these versions read differently than the KJV – the original language demands it.

This passage in Daniel falls in the section of the book that is written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. The phrase in question reads in the Aramaic dameh lebar elahin. Dameh means to be like; lebar means unto a son  – there is no definite article, so it should not be translated the son. Elahin is plural and means gods (the singular form is used in the next verse with the definite article in referring to the true God). The KJV is deceptive here, whether intentional or not, to capitalize the words son and god. What the pagan king of Babylon actually said was “and the form of the fourth is like unto a son of the gods.” Think about this, how would a pagan king 600 yrs. before Jesus was born know of the 2nd person of the Trinity, if such a thing even existed. But ‘a son of the gods’ to a pagan king would just be referring to a divine-like being. What he saw in the fire with the three Hebrews was simply one of God’s angels sent to protect them from the flames. This is even explicitly stated in v. 28:

Then Nebuchadnezzar said. “Praise be to the God… who has sent his angel and delivered his servants.”

Sorry, but no pre-incarnate appearance of the son of God here.

The Captain Of Yahweh’s Army

Joshua 5:13-15 – Now when Joshua was near Jericho he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, ” but as captain of Yahweh’s army I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my lord have for his servant?” The captain of Yahweh’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. 

This is another mysterious figure who is usually put forward as a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus, the son of God. This passage contains some of the typical elements which are supposed to establish this personage as either a theophany or a christophany. Just as a side note, from a Trinitarian perspective I fail to see the difference between a theophany and a christophany. The term theophany is usually reserved for what is considered a manifestation of the Father and christophany for a manifestation of the son. But if the son is fully God, as Trinitarians confess, then wouldn’t a pre-incarnate  appearance of the son be a theophany? Perhaps if they wish to distinguish between appearances of the Father and the son, they should use a different term for the Father, such as paterophany. Anyway, the typical elements which suggest a theophany or christophany in this passage are:

  1. Joshua fell to the ground and worshiped and the personage did not stop him from doing so.
  2. Joshua addressed the personage as ‘lord’.
  3. Joshua was told to remove his sandals because the place was holy.
  4. When the personage instructs Joshua (6:2-5) the text refers to him as Yahweh (v.2).

Let me say first that the passage nowhere explicitly states that this figure is Yahweh himself, whether the Father or the son. If one draws that conclusion it is based solely on the four implications above and the presupposition of Trinitarianism, or at least binitarianism. If one does not approach the text with this presupposition then the four implications can be interpreted just as easily within a Hebraic, unitarian monotheistic framework.

Now before I interpret these four implications from a biblically Hebraic framework, I want to suggest another candidate for who this personage might be. This suggestion cannot be proven absolutely, but I don’t see any obvious disqualifiers. I would like to propose that the captain of Yahweh’s army is Micheal. My reasons are these:

  1. The word translated as ‘captain’ is the Hebrew word sar (chieftain, ruler, official, captain, prince). In Daniel 10:13 & 21 Micheal is referred to by this same term. Dan. 10:13 specifically calls him “one of the chief princes” (sar).
  2. As a chief sar he would have other sarim under his authority. This is probably the same thing that is meant by archangel, in the NT.   See Jude 1:9  & Rev. 12:7
  3. Dan. 10:21 and 12:1 state that Micheal is the chief sar specifically in relation to the people of Israel.
  4. In the Joshua passage this personage is the sar of Yahweh’s army, presumably fighting for the benefit of the Israelites. The passage in Rev. 12:7 presents Micheal as commanding an army of angels.

Thus the Scriptural data concerning Micheal presents him as a chief prince (archangel) who commands an army of angels under him on behalf of Israel. This fits well the description of this figure in Joshua 5:14 as the ‘commander of Yahweh’s army.’ So assuming that this is Micheal, how would the four implications listed above be explained?

  1. Joshua did not worship this personage as God, but in keeping with the time and culture he was showing homage to a superior. This would not at all be out of place in that culture for it was quite common to demonstrate one’s honor for another of superior rank by bowing down before them. The Hebrew word translated ‘worship’ in some English versions is shachah. This word is used many times in the OT to denote proper honor or homage being given to fathers, brothers, husbands, masters of servants, officials, prophets, kings and angels. The problem is in our English versions, when translators chose to render this verb differently according to theological presuppositions. When the word is used of homage being given to men it is usually rendered simply as ‘bowed down‘, when used of God it is usually rendered ‘worship.’ Now here’s the rub. When the translators believe that a personage is a christophany they will translate the verb as ‘worship,’ thus giving the impression to the reader that the one giving the shachah believes the personage to whom he gives it to be God. This is exactly the case in this passage. Because the translators believe this figure to be a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ, many versions render the verb shachah as worship rather than as bow down. The reason why Micheal (assuming this is him) does not stop Joshua from paying him homage is because he knows the proper customs of the culture and knows that Joshua is not worshiping him as if he were God. But someone will point out that in Rev. 19:10 and 22:8-9 the Apostle John offered homage (Gr. proskuneo, the Greek equivalent of shachah) to angels and the angels refused it. First, it is ludicrous to think that John was attempting to worship this angel as if he were God. Again, he was simply paying homage to one whom he considered a superior being. Perhaps the reason these angel deflected such homage was because they viewed believers in Messiah, who was now their superior, as equals, rather than inferiors. In fact they both say to John, “Do not do it, I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers…”
  2. That Joshua addressed this personage as ‘lord‘ does not imply that he considered him to be God. The Hebrew word is adon, and once again, the custom of that time and culture was to address a superior by this designation. All of the types of people I mentioned above, who properly receive shachah in the OT are also addressed by this title. In fact, they often go hand in hand, someone will bow before a superior and call them ‘adoni’ i.e. my lord, just as Joshua does here.
  3. There is one other occasion in the OT where someone is told to remove his sandals because the ground where he was standing was holy. When Moses encountered an angel of Yahweh in the burning bush in Exodus 3 he was told to remove his sandals. Of course, most Trinitarians regard that event as a theophany, some as a christophany. The fact that Moses has to remove his sandals is supposed to confirm that perspective, as does Joshua removing his sandals. But here is a question for all Trinitarians who regard these two incidents as pre-incarnate appearances of the son of God. Why would the necessity of removing one’s sandals (in these two instances only) be a proof that a personage who appears must be God, when there are many more incidents in the OT, which are regarded as christophanies, that lack this requirement? Why only on two such occasions is this required? If one wants to assert that the removal of the sandals marks these incidents as theophanies or christophanies, then he should only claim these two incidents as such and not any of the others that are usually claimed to also be so. What about Gen. 18, Judges 6 and 13, which are all asserted by Trinitarians to be pre-incarnate appearances of Christ; no one is asked to remove their sandals in these passages? What about Ex.34:4-9 where the manifestation of God’s presence came down in a cloud before Moses, yet he is not told to remove his sandals? The fact of the matter is no one is certain as to why Moses and Joshua were asked to remove their sandals on those specific occasions. Yes it was because the ground was holy. But why was the ground holy on those two occasions and not at any of the other times when angels or even God’s presence appeared?
  4. This implication may appear to be the strongest, since the text actually attributes the speech of the personage to Yahweh. But in fact this is the easiest of the four to explain. In the ancient Semitic culture when one was sent by another to convey a message on that other’s behalf, his words were regarded as the words of the one who sent him. So in this case, Micheal is sent to give instructions from Yahweh, to Joshua, on how to defeat Jericho. Therefore the author of the book attributes the speech of the messenger to Yahweh, for it is Yahweh’s word that the messenger speaks. This reminds me of the occasion in Jesus’ ministry when a centurion came to Jesus to request his help on behalf of his dying servant. This incident is recorded in two of the gospels, in Matt. 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Matthew presents the story as if the centurion had come to Jesus personally and made the request, but Luke tells us the fact of the matter. The centurion actually enlisted the help of some Jewish elders, whom he sent to Jesus to make the request on his behalf, because he felt himself unworthy to approach Jesus himself. Matthew was free to report the request made of Jesus as being directly from the centurion simply because the request was indeed his, although it was presented through the Jewish elders. In the same way, the authors of the OT Scriptures will often present the messages given by agents of Yahweh as being spoken directly by Yahweh.

Abraham’s Three Visitors

We will now look at the incident recorded in Genesis 18, where Abraham is visited by three men. Verses 1-2 read:

And Yahweh appeared to him (Abraham) by the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. And he looked up and behold three men were standing by him …

Here we have an explicit statement that Yahweh appeared to Abraham. Trinitarians see this as a pre-incarnate appearance of the Son because they believe that the Father cannot be seen, and so this must be God the Son, who is also Yahweh. This is the reasoning that leads them to the conclusion. But is this sound reasoning? Yes, but only if the presuppositions which lie behind it are true. They start out with the belief in a second hypostasis in Yahweh as their presupposition and based on that they interpret the fact that God has not and cannot be seen (1 Tim. 6:16) as referring to the Father only. So then any appearance of God must be God the Son. Of course it is never explained how the Son, who is equal in deity and glory to the Father, can be seen while the Father cannot. Their presupposition is not grounded upon the Hebrew Scriptures but upon Greek metaphysical concepts.

Now someone is sure to point out the Jewish belief in ‘two powers in heaven’ during the second temple period. But the Jews that postulated a second power in heaven typically identified this power as a created being, either an angelic being such as Metatron, or an exalted human such as Moses or Messiah, to whom God gives authority to rule on his behalf. But this is quite different from the idea that God generated out of his own substance another hypostasis which is equal to him. The first idea is consistent with Jewish concepts of agency, while the second idea would not have been consistent at all with the Jewish understanding of God. I doubt that any Jew, uninfluenced by Greek philosophy regarding God, would ever have agreed with such a thought. The concept of God generating out of himself a second hypostasis is consistent with Platonic thought. Philo and early church fathers like Justin were highly influenced by Platonic thought and interpreted Scripture through that grid.

Back to the passage before us. When the text says that Yahweh appeared to Abraham can this be understood in a non-literal way? I think it can and here’s why. The Hebrew word for appear is raah, which has as it’s basic meaning to see. In the Niphal stem 3rd person imperfect it means to appear. While this word does usually denote literal seeing, it does not always have that precise a meaning. For example, it is used in the command for all Israelite males “to appear before the face of the Lord Yahweh” three times a year {Ex. 23:17}. This refers to the fact that all the men were required to go to the specified place where the tabernacle (and later the temple) was set up, to keep three of the seven yearly feasts – the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of weeks, and the feast of tabernacles. This was spoken of as appearing before Yahweh (some translations say present yourselves before Yahweh). Surely this denotes more than simply being seen by Yahweh. Did these men have to go to a specific place in order for God to see them? The sense is more that they were required to be present before the Lord at these specific times, at this specific place. We could understand Yahweh’s appearing to Abraham in the sense that he was present in the three visitors. This is in keeping with ancient Semitic thought. Let me repeat a quote that I gave in part one of this series, from the eminent Professor and Hebrew scholar Aubrey R. Johnson, in speaking of personal agents sent to transact business in the name of their lord in the ancient near east:

“In Semitic thought this messenger-representative was conceived as being personally — and in his very words — the presence of the sender.”

In other words, it is not necessary to assume a literal personal appearance of Yahweh from the word raah, but only that in some way Yahweh was representatively present; in this case in the three visitors.

We may also understand raah in a non literal sense based on God’s appearing to various people in visions and dreams. As I noted in part two of this series, visions and dreams are not actual real world events, i.e. the things being seen are not literally happening, but are images being cast upon the screen of one’s mind. Therefore, when God ‘appears’ to someone in a dream or vision he is not literally being seen by that person. What they are seeing is some representative image of God being played out in their mind. Take Jacob’s dream in Gen. 28:11-16, where Jacob is literally, in the real world, sleeping, with his head on a stone. Yet he is experiencing this dream/vision in which he sees Yahweh, presumably in the form of a man, who speaks to him. Later, in 35:1, he is told to go back to that place, Bethel, where “God appeared (raah) to you.” In v. 7 the original experience of the dream is described as when “God revealed himself to him.” Once again, in 48:3, Jacob relates this incident to Joseph saying, “God Almighty appeared (raah) to me at Luz in the land of Cannan …” Twice we are told that God appeared (raah) to Jacob but Jacob never literally saw God, he saw only a representative image of God in a dream.

Another example is in 1 Kings 3:5, “At Gibeon Yahweh appeared (raah) to Solomon  during the night in a dream.” There is no description of what form God appeared in in the dream, but probably in the form of a man. In v. 15 we read, “Then Solomon awoke and behold, it was a dream.”  In 1 Kings 9:2 we are told, “Yahweh appeared to him a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon,” i.e. in a dream. In 11:9 we are told concerning Solomon, that he “turned away from Yahweh, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.” Again, in both of these passages the word is raah. So again we see that raah can describe God appearing in a non-literal way. This is how Paul can say of God in 1 Tim. 6:16, “whom no one has seen or can see.” Paul must mean that no one has or can see God literally, but to see him in a vision or dream is not to see him literally.

One final example is in Deut. 31:15, where we read: “Then Yahweh appeared at the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood above the entrance to the tent.” Again we see the word raah referring to a non- literal appearance of Yahweh. By non-literal I do not mean that something was not seen, but that what was seen was not literally Yahweh but only a representational form, in this case the pillar of cloud. When the text says he appeared “in a pillar of cloud” this should be understood as he appeared by means of a pillar of cloud.

So just as God may appear, in a non-literal way, by means of a dream or vision, or a pillar of cloud, he may also appear by means of  his personal agents a.k.a. angels. Just like Matthew could record that the centurion personally appeared before Jesus, when in fact it was others acting on the centurion’s behalf, so the author of Genesis could record that Yahweh appeared personally to Abraham, when in fact it was his authorized agents acting on his behalf. Now most who believe that a christophany is happening in Gen. 18 will at least admit that two of the three visitors are indeed angels. These two angels then leave and go to Sodom (v. 22 and 19:1) and the remaining personage, presumed to be the pre-incarnate Son, then carries on a conversation with Abraham. But I hope you can see that to read the passage that way is to read a whole lot of much later theological development back into this text. And I hope you can see that to do so is completely unnecessary in order to explain the text. The explanation I give here is much more coherent and satisfying when viewed within the cultural milieu of the ancient near east. Abraham’s three visitors were simply personal agents of Yahweh. One of them especially was given the task of personally representing Yahweh and communicating to Abraham and I believe Abraham understood this. It should be noted that no where in this entire passage is Abraham portrayed as calling this personage Yahweh; he simply refers to him as ‘my lord.’ It is the author of Genesis who attributes the speech of the messenger/agent to Yahweh.

What I have said here regarding Abraham’s three visitors applies to any and all OT occurrences of an ‘appearance’ of Yahweh. This would include such passages as Ex. 24:10-11; 33:18-34:7; Ezek. 1:25-28; 3:22-23; 8:1-4; and Dan. 10. All of these were either appearances of God in a vision or dream, or in some representational form.

To attempt to reconcile these OT appearances of Yahweh with the NT declarations that no  one has or can see God, by postulating multiple hypostases in Yahweh, one (or two if you include the Holy Spirit) which cannot be seen and one which can be seen, is both illogical and without scriptural warrant, as well as completely unnecessary.

This concludes this series. If you wish to express disagreement on any points made in this series please feel free to comment on the blog or through email.

 

Pre-Incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth (Part 2)

The Word Of Yahweh

In this part of our study I want to examine the claim that the word ‘word’ in the phrase ‘the word of the LORD (Yahweh)’ is an actual entity rather than merely that which Yahweh has spoken. The proponents of this idea hypostatize ‘the word of Yahweh‘ making it into a personal being. Hence, in the common OT phrase “the word of Yahweh came to” so and so, it is asserted that an actual entity, a personal being, has come to the person. Trinitarians have latched on to this idea in recent years, seeing it as another prop for the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. But how does this idea support those doctrines? Simply by asserting that this entity who was known as ‘the word of Yahweh’ is none other than the pre-incarnate son of God. So when it says in Gen 15:1,

“After this, the word of Yahweh came to Abraham in a vision saying …,”

we are supposed to understand that the Son of God himself came to Abraham. And because this entity, the pre-incarnate Jesus, says to Abraham in v.7,

“I am Yahweh, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land …,”

we are supposed to understand that the Son of God is Yahweh, or a part of Yahweh, or part of Yahweh’s identity, or something like that.

When I first heard this idea I thought it was laughable, and now after spending some time examining this claim, I still find it laughable, regardless of the fact that some heavy scholars have thrown their weight behind it.

The Source – The Memra

Where did this idea come from? I believe that among orthodox Christians, it derives from the more recent attempt to ground the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ in a Jewish context rather than, as has been widely thought, in a Greek philosophical context. It is an attempt to show that these doctrines were not developments within a gentile Christianity, but the natural outflow of Jewish ways of thinking about God. Some orthodox scholars believe they have found support for this proposal in the Targums (Aramaic paraphrases and expansions of the Hebrew scriptures) with the use of the word memra. It is claimed, that in the Targums, memra is used by the translators to denote the hypostatization of God’s word, i.e. God’s word is an actual entity distinct from God. One can often find today Christian apologists and Bible expositors claiming that ancient Jews believed in more than one hypostasis in God, and one of the evidences pointed to is the use of memra in the Targums. This is supposed to show that the idea of God as Trinity would not have been foreign to the Hebraic mind and was not an invention of Greek influence on gentile church fathers. The Memra is then interpreted by Christians to be a second hypostasis in God, and this second hypostasis, none other than the Son of God himself, a.k.a. God the Son, second person of the Trinity.

As I have looked into this assertion about the memra more closely than I had in the past, I have come to the conclusion that there is much misinformation being promulgated on the internet and through other means regarding the memra. I am not saying that it is being done on purpose, but people are to quick to jump on the bandwagon without sufficient investigation. There is an eagerness in many to find grounding for the Trinity in ancient Hebrew sources that causes them to too easily accept misinformation as truth.

So let’s look at some facts regarding the use of the word memra in the Targums. Memra is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew ma’amar, from the verb amar, which means ‘to say’. Both nouns refer to that which is spoken and can denote ‘a word’ ‘a command’ or ‘a decree’. As I have read some scholarly papers on the subject of memra  in the Targums, it has become quite obvious that much of what is being put out in popular internet apologetics websites and blogs is way overblown and simply does not match the actual data found in the Targums. To prove this I will be quoting extensively from one main source, an article published by Cambridge University Press in the Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan. 1922) pp.41-85. The article is titled Intermediaries in Jewish Theology: Memra, Shekinah, Metatron, by George Foot Moore. Dr Moore was an eminent scholar in his day who wrote numerous books on the Old Testament and the history of religion, as well as a Presbyterian minister.

To substantiate the credentials of Prof. Moore I quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica website regarding him:

“American Old Testament scholar, theologian and Orientalist, whose knowledge and understanding of the rabbinic source literature was extraordinary among Christians.

Graduated from Yale College in 1872 and from Union Theological seminary in 1877…He was Hitchcock professor of the Hebrew language and literature at Andover Theological Seminary, 1883-1902. In 1902 he became professor of theology and in 1904 professor of the history of religion at Harvard University.

Prof. Moore, in his day, put his finger on the underlying rationale for the investigation of Christians into ancient Jewish literature:

“As was pointed out in a former article in this Review, the material that was diligently collected to prove that Jewish theology made a place for a being (or beings) of divine nature through whose mediation the ends of the Supreme God were effectuated in the world of nature and of men as they were in Christian theology by the Son and Spirit, has more recently been appropriated to prove that Jewish theology, unlike Christian, interposed intermediaries between God and the world, rendered necessary by it’s ‘transcendent’ idea of God, of which error, conversely, the invention of such intermediaries is the proof. Christian investigation and discussion of the terms Memra and Shekinah have thus in all stages been inspired and directed by a theological motive, and the results come around in a circle to the theological prepossessions from which they set out.”      p. 42

One of the chief misconceptions regarding the use of memra in the Targums is that the phrases ‘the memra of Yahweh’ and ‘the memra of God’ are translations of the OT phrases ‘the word (Heb. dabar) of Yahweh’ and ‘ the word of God’. An example is on the website jaymack.net, in an article titled The Memra of God the author says:

“Whenever the Tanakh used the word Davar, the Aramaic used the word Memra.”

But this turns out to be exactly wrong, as Prof. Moore, who knew the literature firsthand, explains:

“To dispel misunderstandings at the outset, we may begin by showing when and how memra is not used. First, then, ‘the memra of the Lord’ in the Targums is not employed as the Aramaic equivalent of the ‘word of the Lord’ (dabar YHWH) in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew dabar, in all senses and uses, is customarily rendered in the Targums by pitgama. The ‘word of the Lord’ or ‘of God’ is pitgama de YHWH (e.g. Gen. 15:1), not memra de YHWH; and similarly in ‘my word,’ ‘thy word,’ ‘his word,’ when the pronouns refer to God. The word of the Lord to a prophet is pitgama nebu’a, a word of prophecy, e.g. Hosea 1:1, ‘the word of prophecy from before YHWH which was with Hosea’ … Therefore, wherever the ‘word of the Lord’ is the medium or instrumentality of revelation, or of communication to men, in Greek logos or rhema, the term employed for this medium in the Targums is not memra , but pitgama…” pp.45-46 (emphasis in the original)

Another misconception is that the Targums actually present the memra as a personal being. Again, I will quote from the article on jaymack.net :

“First, the rabbis taught that the Memra was a person.”

Now if he means to say that the Targums taught this, and that must be what he means because the Jewish Encyclopedia states that “rabbinic theology, outside of the Targum literature, made little use of the term ‘Memra,'” then once again, he has got it wrong. In the Targums the phrases ‘the memra of the Lord,’ ‘the memra of God,’ ‘my memra,’ ‘his memra,’ etc. are used as metonyms for ‘the Lord’ or ‘God’ . The authors of the Targums substituted these memra phrases for God himself. Nowhere do the Targums teach that ‘the Memra’ is a hypostasis or person, in the sense of a second hypostasis within the Godhead. Prof. Moore enlightens us here:

“The sum of the whole matter is that nowhere in these Targums is memra a ‘being’ of any kind or in any sense, whether conceived personally as an angel employed in communication with men, or as a philosophically impersonal created potency … or God himself in certain modes of self-manifestation … The appearance of personality which in many places attaches to the memra is due solely to the fact that the phrase ‘the memra of Y.,’ or, with pronouns referring to God, My, Thy, His, memar is a circumlocution for ‘God,’ ‘the Lord,’ or the like, introduced out of motives of reverence precisely where God is personally active in the affairs of men; and the personal character of this activity necessarily adheres to the periphrasis. The very question whether the memra is personal or impersonal implies, from the philological point of view, a misunderstanding of the whole phenomenon; and every answer to a false question is by that very fact false.”       pp.53-54

“It is an error of equal dimensions, when, in association with the Christian doctrine of the Logos and by abuse of a technical term of Christian theology, the Memra is described as a ‘hypostasis.’ … and to employ this term, with it’s denotation and all of it’s trinitarian connotations, of the supposed personal, or quasi-personal, ‘Memra’ of the Targums, is by implication to attribute to the rabbis corresponding metaphysical speculations on the nature of the Godhead. But of speculation on that subject there is no trace either in the exoteric teaching of Judaism or in anything we know of it’s esoteric, theosophic, adventures into the divine mysteries.”   p.55

Once again we see how popular misconceptions are being put forth as fact, and are then used to support the doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. Christian apologists are reading what they want to see into the use of memra in the Targums. You can often find in Christain literature on this subject statements like the following: “The Targums use the word Memra to describe a person whom they say is the creator of the world.” They will then go on to lead the reader to the false conclusion that this person is the pre-incarnate Messiah. Yes, personal actions are attributed to ‘the memra of the Lord’, but that is because the phrase is used as a substitute for ‘the Lord.’ To understand ‘the memra‘ as a hypostasis distinct from God is to misunderstand it’s usage in the Targums. Regarding it’s usage in the Targums let’s hear what Prof. Moore has to say:

“We have now surveyed the various uses of memra in the Targums of the Pentateuch and the Prophets… Most of the uses of the word are easily explicable in their contexts in the light of the ends and methods of the synagogue interpretation. If analogy, or some subtlety of interpretation that escapes us, has sometimes introduced it on less obvious occasions, these are exceptions which need cause us neither surprise nor perplexity. The inquiry must set out from the common and plain uses; and our conclusions must be drawn from them, not from the residuum, if there be such, of unexplained occurrences. Proceeding in this way we find that God’s memra has sometimes the connotation of command — we might in imitation of the etymology say ‘edict’ — the expression of his will which is an effective force in nature and providence; sometimes it might be best translated ‘oracle,’ the revelation of his will or purpose (not, however, a specific word of prophecy); sometimes it is the resolution of a metaphor for God’s power, his protection, and the like. In many instances it is clearly introduced as a verbal buffer — one of many such in the Targums — to keep God from seeming to come to too close quarters with men and things; but it is always a buffer-word, not a buffer-idea; still less a buffer-person.                                                                                                                                            pp.52-53

Also instructive is his footnote #24:

“It is to be observed that memra does not occur without a genitive — ‘the word of the Lord,’ ‘my word,’ etc., or a circumlocution for the genitive, ‘a memar from before the Lord.’The Memra,’ ‘the word,’ is not found in the Targums, notwithstanding all that is written about it by authors who have not read them.”

This statement refutes yet another misconception that I have seen among those who promote this idea. The fact that the phrase ‘the Memra‘, as a stand alone, never occurs in the Targums is certainly damaging to the proposal that memra is being used to denote a hypostasis who is at once Yahweh and distinct from Yahweh.

From what Prof. Moore relates in this article it appears that in the majority of passages in the Targums where memra is used it is an addition to the Hebrew text by the Targum author. In other words, in the majority of instances memra is not translating some word in the Hebrew text but is simply added in, with nothing corresponding to it in the Hebrew. Dr. Moore gives numerous examples but here are just a few. In Numbers 21:5 the Hebrew reads: “The people spoke against God and against Moses.” In the Targum it reads: “The people murmured against the word (memra) of Yahweh and contended against Moses.” The Hebrew of Deut. 32:51 reads: “Because you proved false to me in the midst of the Israelites,” whereas in the Targum, “because you proved false to my word (memra).” One last example, in Gen. 20:3, where the Hebrew has: “God came to Abimelech in a dream in the night and said to him.” The Targum reads: “A word (memar) from before Yahweh came to Abimelech …”

One final point on the Targums and other Jewish sources such as the Talmud. It seems that some Christian scholars and apologists who are eager to find support for the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and deity of Messiah in these Jewish sources are also all too eager to attribute some level of authority to them that is unwarranted. But should we really be putting all of that stock in these sources for a grounding for our doctrine? My first objection is this — who gave these rabbis the authority to add words to the Scriptures or to change the words of Scripture? For example Ex. 16:3 says,”The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by Yahweh’s hand in Egypt.'” Yet the Targum reads, “If only we had died by the word (memra) of Yahweh in the land of Mizraim.” I ask every Christian, especially those of the Protestant tradition, is this ok with you? And why should we think that these Jewish authors should be taken as authoritative? Even if they did teach that ‘the memra‘ was a distinct hypostasis ( the nearly unanimous conclusion of scholars in this field is that the memra is not regarded as a hypostasis in the Targums) why should we believe that? Jews are not automatically immune from misunderstanding their own Scriptures, are they? I think that the NT clearly demonstrates that to not be the case.

The Communication Of God

Before we take a closer look at the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ in the OT, I want to lay some ground work concerning how Scripture tells us that God has communicated with his people throughout history. I have discerned, in Scripture, four different means by which God has communicated his message to the prophets and the patriarchs.

  1. Visions – Often God’s message would come by means of a vision. A vision occurs when the mind of the visionary is thrown out of it’s normal state and mental images are impressed upon it. A vision is not an actual real time event; what is being seen in a vision is not actually happening in the real world. We know this from certain instances in Scripture where people have had visions. For example, in Acts 10:9-16 Peter is up on a roof praying when suddenly he finds himself in a trance and has a vision of a sheet being let down from the sky by it’s four corners. The sheet is filled with all kinds of unclean animals. Is this actually occurring in the real world? Can others who are nearby see this huge sheet coming out of the sky to earth? Or is Peter alone privy to this revelation? The images that Peter sees are only mental, cast upon the screen of his mind like a movie upon a theater screen. In Acts 12: 1-11 we find the story of when Peter was arrested by Herod and put in the prison. That night an angel comes and frees him from his prison cell. Now this was not a vision but a real time event, but Luke tells us something interesting in verse 9, “Peter followed him (the angel) out of the prison,but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision.”   The person seeing the vision is also often part of the vision. In Daniel 8:2 Daniel has a vision and describes it like this: “And I saw  in a vision, and it happened that I saw that I was in the citadel of Susa, in the province of Elam; and I saw in the vision that I was by the river Ulai.” Some suggest that Daniel was transported from where he was to this location, but this is unwarranted. That he was seeing images in his mind and not actual real world events is confirmed by the remainder of the chapter where he describes what he saw. Clearly these things were not actually taking place. The Lord would often use visions to communicate his word, his message, to the prophets.
  2. Dreams – Dreams are simply visions that one has while asleep. We easily recognize that dreams are not actual reality but just images being played out in the mind.
  3. Heavenly messengers – Sometimes God would send angelic messengers to convey his word to the prophet.  See Dan. 8:15-19; Joshua 5:13-15; Gen. 16:7-12
  4. Audible voice – See Num. 7:89; 1 Sam. 3:2-11; 1 Kings 19:13; Lk. 9:34-36

These are the ways in which God has conveyed his messages to his prophets. Sometimes the text will specify by which of these ways a specific message came to a specific prophet, but many times the means of communication is not disclosed to us in Scripture. In some of those instances we can discern from the context what means was used; in other instances we cannot.

Dismantling The Myth

In a recent podcast interview dealing with the roots of the Trinity and Christology in the religions of ancient Canaan and Israel, Dr. Micheal Heiser was queried by the host concerning ‘the word of Yahweh‘ in the OT being a visual experience rather than a mere verbal or spoken phenomenon.  His answer was as follows:

“I would never say that every time you run into the phrase ‘the word of the Lord’ in the OT that were dealing with a visual event. But there are certainly a number of instances where you are dealing with a visual event because the text pretty much says that point blank… In Gen. 15 you get, ‘After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.’ The profound moment there is realizing that, hey visions, those are things you see. Visions aren’t invisible, they’re visions. OK, you see things in visions. Here we have the word of the Lord coming visually. You get it in 1 Sam. 3… if you look at what the passage actually says … ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days, there was no frequent vision.’ And visions are things that you see. Verse 7, ‘the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to Samuel,’ again you get vision language. Verse 10, Yahweh comes and he stands, the Lord came and stood… so you wouldn’t describe an invisible thing or a sound in your head as standing. This is the language of a visual experience. The chapter ends… the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, the Lord revealed himself to Samuel as the Word of the Lord. Then in Jeremiah you have the same kind of language…”

This is typical of what one will hear from the proponents of the thesis that ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is an actual being and not simply the conveyance of a message from Yahweh to a person. Because something visual is happening in the context of Gen. 15 this is supposed to be evidence that we should regard ‘the word of Yahweh‘ as an actual entity who appeared to Abram. Personally, I find this kind of exegesis to be inane and not worthy of the kind of attention it seems to be getting in some circles.

The first point I want to make in dismantling this myth is the same point I made in Part 1 of this series regarding the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ The phrase with which we are now dealing is the same construction as that phrase, i.e. a construct state. Because ‘Yahweh‘ is a personal noun and is therefore definite, the first noun in the phrase must be translated as definite (if you have not read Part 1 please do so to fully understand this point). But just because the word ‘word‘ in the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is grammatically or technically definite, it does not have to be so on a practical level. In other words, it does not mean that every time we see the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ that it is referring to the same ‘word.’ In fact, every first mention of the ‘word of Yahweh‘ in any given passage can be translated as ‘a word from Yahweh.’ This by itself, knocks the legs out from under the proposition that ‘the word of Yahweh’ is a personal entity who appeared to the prophets, and the same personal entity every time, i.e. the pre-incarnate son of God.

In the quote above, Dr. Heiser mentions the three main passages which are put forward as proof texts by the proponents of this thesis — Genesis 15, 1 Samuel 3 and Jeremiah 1. Let’s take a look at 1 Samuel 3 first. Dr. Heiser, in the above quote, makes much of the supposed visual aspect of Samuel’s first encounter with Yahweh. This is supposedly confirmed by the use of the word ‘visions’ in v. 1, ‘revealed’ in v. 7, the phrase ‘the Lord came and stood’ in v. 10, the word ‘vision’ in v. 15, and the phrase ‘the Lord continued to appear’ in v. 21. The phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ appears three times in the chapter. Dr. Heiser wants us to believe that ‘the Word of Yahweh‘ is an actual entity that was seen by Samuel. Can this be substantiated simply by the use of the words and phrases just noted? If you read the passage carefully you will see that, besides the words and phrases noted, there is nothing in the narrative to suggest that Samuel actually saw anything. Samuel hears Yahweh calling to him in vv. 4-10. When Samuel responds with “speak, for your servant is listening,” v. 11 begins “And Yahweh said to him.” We are never told that Samuel saw Yahweh or some other entity. Dr. Heiser and others, have fixated on the visual language in vv. 1,7,10,15, and 21, and are assuming based on this that Samuel’s experience was a visual one.

Let’s take v. 10 first. That “the Lord came and stood” does not have to mean that he was visible, only that he was present in some sense, i.e. Yahweh was in the room. This is similar to Ex. 17:6, where Yahweh instructed Moses to strike the rock at Horeb and promised him “I will stand there before you by the rock.” Nothing in the context indicates that Yahweh was seen. This was probably just a reassurance for Moses that God would be there with him. So also here, the text never says that Samuel saw Yahweh or ‘the word of Yahweh,’ neither does it say that ‘the word of Yahweh’ appeared to Samuel. What the text does say is that Samuel simply heard the word that Yahweh was speaking to him.

In verse 1 the phrase “there was no widespread vision” is synonymous with the preceding phrase “the word of the Lord was rare.” The word ‘vision’ there in the Hebrew text is chazon, which, although it can mean something that is seen, can mean simply a revelatory communication, without a visual connotation. For example take Psalm 89:19-20:

Once you spoke in a vision, to your faithful people you said: “I have bestowed strength on a warrior; I have exalted a young man from among the people. I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him.”

When did God say this? There is nothing in Scripture prior to this Psalm that coincides with this statement. What we have here is an inspired, poetic extrapolation of either 1 Sam. 16:1-13, where Samuel is instructed by God to anoint David, the son of Jesse as king; or of 2 Sam. 7:4-17 where God sends Nathan to David with a message of promise to him and his descendants forever. In neither of these incidents do the contexts reveal anything that was visual, we are simply told that words were communicated to the prophets. In the 2 Sam. passage, v. 4 can be translated, ‘a message from Yahweh came to Nathan’ and then we are given that messageIn verse 17 we read that “Nathan reported to David all the words of this vision.” The word ‘vision’ here  (Heb. chizzayon) is a synonym of chazon, which is used in the paralell passage in 1 Chron. 17:15 in place of chizzayon. The point is, there is no hint of anything visual taking place in these passages. Words which denote visual activity can be used metaphorically to simply denote verbal revelation. 2 Sam.7:17 can be understood as “Nathan reported to David  all the words of this revelation.” All languages use words of ‘seeing’ in this way. In English we might say “I don’t see what you are saying,” or “I have come to see ” and everyone understands we are not being literal in the use of the word ‘see.’ So the use of these ‘vision’ words is not at all conclusive that the young Samuel had a visual encounter rather than a merely verbal one. The same thing can be said of the ‘vision’ word in verse 15, which is a different word in Hebrew (mar’ah).

Now in v. 7 the word ‘revealed’  (Heb. galah) means to uncover and is used of the  uncovering of hidden information by means of verbal communication in numerous passages. The verse means that Samuel, prior to this event, had never received communication from Yahweh as a prophet. And finally in verse 21, that Yahweh continued to ‘appear’ in Shiloh does not necessarily mean that Samuel’s initial encounter was visual. The word is raah and often denotes the idea of ‘presenting oneself’ to another. That Yahweh can present himself to someone as being present with them, without actually appearing visibly, but simply by verbal communication, should be obvious.

Let’s look now at the Genesis 15 passage. In verse 1 we read:

“After this, the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision …”

Here we are explicitly told the means by which God communicated his message to Abram, i.e. in a vision. I understand the initial vision to be in v. 1 -9. Then in vv. 10-11 Abram obeys the instruction he was given. In v. 12 Abram  falls into a deep sleep and the remainder of the chapter is a second vision, or rather a dream. Going back to the earlier discussion about visions being mental rather than actual, physical, real world events, we can better understand what is happening in this story. All that Abram is experiencing in this vision is purely mental — the being taken outside by Yahweh in v. 5, the smoking firepot and torch in v. 17.  In this vision it is possible that Abram is seeing Yahweh in some representative form. Yahweh used this means to communicate to Abram his covenant promise to him and his descendants. Nothing in the context requires us to understand ‘the word of Yahweh‘ in v. 1 as an entity, a personal being. This is confirmed by v. 4, which repeats the phrase again. But if this entity came to Abram in v. 1 then he was already there; why does the narrative have him coming again in v. 4. But if we understand it as Yahweh message coming to Abram then it makes sense. In v. 1 he receives a message and then in v. 4 he receives a different message. To see this as an entity distinct from Yahweh is pure fiction.

The next passage I want to examine is Jeremiah chapter 1. The thought goes like this: In v. 4 ‘the word of Yahweh‘ comes to Jeremiah and then in v. 9 Yahweh reaches out his hand to touch his mouth. So the ‘word’ can’t be a mere verbal phenomenon, because a message can’t be said to ‘reach out his hand.’ I’m sorry, I don’t want to be unkind, but this way of reading the text borders on infantile. Verse 1 should be understood as ‘a message from Yahweh came to me saying.” Remember back under the section The Communication Of God I noted the four means that God used to communicate his word to the prophets. I also noted that sometimes the text is ambivalent as to which means is being used, whereas sometimes it is explicitly stated. In this case we are not told explicitly how ‘the message of Yahweh’ came to Jeremiah, but the context aids us in discerning how. As we read through the rest of the chapter it becomes clear that Jeremiah is experiencing a vision. He is asked in vv. 11 and 13, “What do you see?” In the first instance he sees a branch from an almond tree and in the second a boiling pot tilting away from the north. These are clearly mental images he is seeing and not actual physical objects. Likewise v. 9 should be understood not as a physical phenomenon but as mental. In this vision he sees a representation of Yahweh, possibly as a man, who reaches out his hand and touches  him. I will note that the text does not say  “then the word of Yahweh reached out his hand,” but simply “Yahweh reached out his hand.” But this does not stop the proponents of this myth from saying exactly that.

Also we encounter the same thing in this text that we saw in Gen. 15, that the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came‘ is repeated in v. 11 and again in v. 13. Once again, if this is an entity who arrived on the scene in v. 4 why is he arriving again in v. 11 and again in v, 13? It makes no sense unless we understand it of different messages being communicated to Jeremiah at different stages of the vision.

The next point is that the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came to __________’ seems to simply be an idiomatic expression meaning something like ‘a message from Yahweh was given to so and so.’ Again, this should be obvious but apparently not. This can be proved easily by it’s usage. I would note first, in 1 Sam. 4:1, immediately following the 1 Sam. 3 passage we examined above, we find the same expression used of Samuel himself:

“And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.”

Are we to conclude that ‘the word of Samuel‘ is a entity distinct from Samuel but somehow still Samuel? Of course, no one would think something so ridiculous as that, but that is exactly what they are doing who claim the same thing about ‘the word of Yahweh.’ 

Now let’s go back to Jeremiah and see if we can follow the usage of this phrase throughout the book. Because the phrase appears so often in Jeremiah, we should be able to glean some helpful data from it. In Chapter one I want you to take note of how ‘the word of Yahweh came to me’ is substituted by other phrases, so that there is this back and forth between phrases. V. 4 contains our phrase, but v. 7 says simply ‘Yahweh said to me.” Our phrase occurs again at v. 11 but then in v. 12 simply ‘Yahweh said to me.’ This pattern is repeated in vv. 13-14. This is strong evidence that the two phrases are synonymous and if so then the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came to me‘ is to be regarded as verbal communication and not a physical, visual phenomenon.

In chapters 7:1 and 11:1 we find another phrase which is also synonymous with our study phrase, ‘The word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh‘. Note the similarities and the differences between this phrase and our study phrase. It is only rational to see the two phrases as meaning the same thing. 14:1 makes it even more clear:

“The word of Yahweh to Jeremiah concerning the drought.”

Clearly ‘the word of Yahweh‘ here is nothing but the message of Yahweh, specifically about the drought that was then occurring.

Chapter 13 is also illustrative of how our study phrase is simply one of various ways the authors of Scripture used to express the same thought, i.e. that Yahweh communicated a message to one of his prophets. In v. 1 we have “This is what Yahweh said to me,” followed by the message in v. 2. Then in v. 3 our study phrase shows up, but with a surprise: “The word of Yahweh came to me a second time saying.” The meaning of “a second time” can only be referring back to v. 1 saying, “This is what Yahweh said to me.” Thus once again, we see that our study phrase is used interchangeably with a phrase which is clearly verbal in nature and not visual. In all of these contexts it is messages that are being communicated to the prophet.

Throughout the rest of the book the different phrases are used interchangeably. In 16:1 it is “the word of Yahweh came to me,” but in 17:19 “this is what Yahweh said to me.” In 18:1 we see “The word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh,” but in 19:1, “This is what Yahweh says.”  Verse 21:1 has “the word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh,” and then 22:1 has “This is what Yahweh says.”  Verse 25:1 has “The word that came to Jeremiah concerning,” while in v. 15 “This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel said to me.” Verse 26:1 says, “this word came from Yahweh” and in 27:1 “This word came to Jeremiah from Yahweh.”  In chapter 44:1 we have again “The word that came to Jeremiah concerning.” In 46:1 and 47:1 we read, “The word of Yahweh that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning.” The phrases which include the word ‘concerning’ surely prove that we are dealing with a message that is being communicated and not a divine entity showing up.

My next point is that if you were to substitute the phrase ‘the pre-incarnate son of God‘ for ‘the word of Yahweh,’ for this is the claim being made, you will, in many cases, see the ridiculousness of this assertion. Take 1 Sam. 3:1:

“… In those days the word of Yahweh was rare.”

Could we read this as, “In those days the pre-incarnate of the son of God was rare.” Or how about  v. 7:

“Now Samuel did not yet know Yahweh. The word of Yahweh had not been revealed to him.”

Could we read this as, “The pre-incarnate son of God had not been revealed to him.” I am sure you can see the absurdity of this way of thinking.

Let’s Recap

Here are the main points I have argued in this article:

  1. It cannot be substantiated that the word memra in the Targums is regarded by the authors as a hypostasis. This seems to be simply the wishful thinking of those who are intent on finding support for the Trinity and Deity of Messiah in ancient Jewish sources. Since the memra seems to be the source of the proposal that the OT phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ should be understood as a divine hypostasis, this point greatly weakens that hypothesis.
  2. God communicated his word to the prophets through four means: visions, dreams, angelic messengers and audible voice. Whenever the means is not explicitly stated in the context of any given passage, it could be by any one of these four ways. Visions (as well as dreams) are merely images being played out in the mind of the visionary and are not real, actual, physical events.
  3. The OT phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is a construct state, and while it is technically definite (i.e. the word) it can and should be understood practically as indefinite (i.e. a word) according to context.
  4. In the three main passages, which are used as proof texts by the proponents of the idea that ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is a divine hypostasis, nothing in the context of these passages actually confirms that idea. Everything is easily explained according to God’s normal means of communication.
  5. The OT phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came to _____’ is an idiomatic expression meaning something like ‘a message from Yahweh was given to _____’ This was proved by it’s usage in 1 Sam. 4:1 and throughout the book of Jeremiah.
  6. One cannot substitute the phrase ‘the pre-incarnate son of God’ for the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ without it resulting in absurdity in most cases.

 

In part three we will look at Melchizedek and other supposed OT appearances of the son of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pre-incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth (Part 1)

Ever since the time of the early Christian apologist Justin (middle of the second century), it has been a popular trend among apologists, Bible commentators, pastors and teachers, to claim that Jesus, the son of God, can be seen to be actively at work in the pages of the Old Testament. This, of course, would be prior to his becoming a man in his birth from the virgin Mary, hence these instances are usually referred to as ‘pre-incarnate appearances of Christ’. This idea obviously grows out of the belief that Jesus existed prior to his birth in Bethlehem, either as God himself or as some kind of divine being. If one denies that Jesus the Messiah pre-existed his birth then he has no motivation to find in the OT, instances of  his ‘pre-incarnate appearances’. Trinitarians are more inclined than others to see these ‘pre-incarnate appearances’, and by pointing them out, hope to bolster the doctrines of the Trinity and Deity of Christ. But it must be pointed out that even if one could prove that Jesus did exist and appeared to men, prior to his proper incarnation, this would not ipso facto be proof of the Trinity or of the proper deity of Jesus. At best it would only prove that he existed in some form prior to his birth as man. The early Logos theorists, such as the Justin mentioned above, Arians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and others throughout Christian history, have believed that the son of God existed and made appearances to men prior to his becoming a man, but would not classify him as the true God himself, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

There are a number of mysterious figures that appear in the OT which are claimed to be ‘pre-incarnate appearances of Christ’ (i.e. Christophanies). We will, in this study, examine the ones most commonly used by the promoters of this idea:

  1. The Angel of Yahweh
  2. The Word of Yahweh
  3. Melchizedek

The Angel Of The Lord

Much discussion has been had over this mysterious figure in the OT throughout the centuries, with most of the ‘orthodox’ considering his appearance a Christophany. Yet it must be stated categorically that there is no explicit or unambiguous statement in either the OT or the NT that equates the ‘Angel of the Lord’ with Jesus, the son of God. This indeed is astounding when one considers the nearly universal acceptance of this figure as Jesus himself. So how is this to be accounted for. One reason is that the identification of this angel with Jesus is very ancient, going back to the aforementioned Justin, in the middle of the second century (he was the first to assert this idea). Subsequent church fathers followed his lead in this and for many within orthodoxy today these early church fathers are sacrosanct, and their writings are, at least on a subconscious level, considered nearly inspired. For many in the orthodox camp the more ancient a belief the more reliable it is and so it should be unquestionably accepted as truth. This is what is known as tradition. But the fact that the NT is absolutely silent regarding this ‘angel of the Lord’ (well not completely, as we will see) and no where unequivocally teaches that Jesus was actively appearing to people in the OT (notwithstanding 1 Cor. 10:4 & 9 and Jude 5, which have textual problems and are ambiguous), should provide a caution, as we proceed, against the unquestioning acceptance of this tradition.

Because of the lack of explicit biblical statements on this topic one must find scriptural support by inference. This is usually done as follows:

  1. The angel of the Lord often appears as Yahweh himself, speaking in the first person. E.g. Genesis 16:10; Ex. 3:1-15; Judges 2:1-5.
  2. Yet the NT says that no one has ever seen God, which is assumed to mean the Father – 1 Tim. 6:16; 1 John 4:12
  3. So then the angel of the Lord must be appearances of God the Son.

Now there are some serious flaws in this line of reasoning, which we will examine shortly. But before we do I want to first look at the issue of whether or not each time the ‘angel of the Lord’ is mentioned it is actually referring to one and the same specific individual being. If it can be shown that this is not the case, then the proposition that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is the pre-incarnate son of God is seriously weakened.

Arthrous or Anarthrous

The whole argument for the ‘angel of the Lord’ being a Christophany depends on the presupposition that this phrase refers to the same specific individual every time it is found. This presupposition depends largely on the inclusion of the definite article (i.e. the word ‘the‘) before the word angel. The inclusion of the definite article before a noun makes that noun arthrous, i.e. with the article. The absence of the definite article before a noun makes that noun anarthrous, i.e. without the article. An arthrous noun would be more specific – the angel, whereas an anarthrous noun would be more general – an angel. The problem is, that with some languages such as ancient Hebrew, the definite article does not necessarily have to be explicit in the text, but is sometimes implied by the grammatical relationship of the words in a sentence. There was no indefinite article in either Hebrew or Greek, so a noun that is anarthrous in the text could be translated as either indefinite (a or an) or definite (the), by implication. Of course when the article is explicit in the text it must be translated as so. So, in the OT, in the Hebrew underlying the English phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh’, is the noun angel arthrous or anarthrous?

There is in Hebrew what is known as the construct state. This is when two nouns are joined together in a construct relationship. The first noun is the construct noun and the second is the absolute noun. This forms a genitive construction and so the word ‘of‘ is placed between the nouns. This is the precise construction we have in the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ In Hebrew we have malak YHWH which literally translated is angel YHWH. Because this is a genitive construction denoting possession we get angel of Yahweh. The rule is that the definiteness or indefiniteness of the construct noun, here angel, is determined by the definiteness or indefiniteness of the absolute noun, here Yahweh. Now because all proper nouns are definite, and Yahweh being a proper noun,  the correct grammatical translation would be ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ But this in no way means that a Hebrew reader would have understood every instance of the phrase to be referring to the same specific being, as if ‘the angel of Yahweh’ was a title designating one specific individual. That the definiteness of the word angel just does not have to mean this is easily proved. First of all, it is noted by Hebrew scholars that when the construct state includes a proper name (Yahweh) as the absolute, though technically the construct noun would be definite, in actual understanding it can be considered indefinite, depending on the context. This is because there is no way to write in Hebrew ‘an angel of Yahweh‘ since Yahweh is always definite and therefore the construct noun preceding it is always technically definite. But if the context requires it, then the grammatically correct definite noun should be understood as indefinite. In Exodus 10:9 we find the Hebrew phrase hag YHWH = feast YHWH = the feast of Yahweh. It is grammatically correct to translate feast as definite for the construction requires it, but it is not necessary to understand it as definite. In fact every English translation I checked renders this phrase as ‘a feast of the Lord.’ This is because the context clearly requires it be indefinite. Up to this point in the story in Exodus there has been no mention of any feast of Yahweh. If ‘the feast of Yahweh’ was referring to a specific feast, which one? Later in Exodus, Yahweh establishes seven feasts for Israel to keep, but up to this point no such feast has been mentioned; this is obviously a general feast, unconnected to the seven feasts established later. This is why English  translators are nearly unanimous in translating it as ‘a feast of the Lord.” Also the Jewish translators of the LXX (the Greek version of the OT) rendered feast as indefinite in this passage.

Now let’s look at another example. In Deut. 22:19 we have in Hebrew bethulah Yisrael = virgin Israel = the virgin of Israel. Are we to assume from this that there is one specific virgin in Israel who is designated as ‘the virgin of Israel.’ No, of course not. Once again, although virgin is technically definite because of the grammatical construction, it clearly should be understood as indefinite. In the context of the passage it refers to any virgin in Israel to whom the aforementioned circumstances apply. All English versions and the LXX render virgin as indefinite.

Now let’s look at examples where even though the English versions translate a construct noun as definite in a phrase, it cannot possibly be understood to be referring to one and the same individual person in every instance that phrase occurs. Take the Hebrew phrase ebed YHWH = servant YHWH = the servant of Yahweh. If what the proponents of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ being one specific individual person say is true, because of the definiteness of the word angel, then the same must apply here, for it is the exact same construction. But is this the case? Obviously not, for the OT tells us of various people who were so designated:

  • mosheh ebed YHWH = Moses the servant of Yahweh – Deut. 34:5
  • yehoshua ebed YHWH = Joshua the servant of Yahweh – Joshua 24:29
  • lebed Yahweh ledawid = of David the servant of Yahweh – Ps. 18:1

No one would conclude that Moses, Joshua and David were all the same individual person because they were each designated ‘the servant of Yahweh.’  We also see the paralell phrase used by Yahweh himself, “my servant.” Surely whoever Yahweh calls ‘my servant‘ must be ‘the servant of Yahweh.’ Yet the phrase ‘my servant’ is applied to:

  • Abraham – Gen 26:24
  • All Israelites – Lev. 25:42
  • Caleb – Numbers 14:24
  • The future Messiah – Is. 42:1
  • Zerubbabel – Haggai 2:23
  • all prophets – Ez. 38:17

It seems to me that one of the reasons that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is taken as a single individual is because whenever there is an appearance of the angel of the Yahweh there is no proper name given to him, as in the case with ‘the servant of Yahweh.’ But it must be remembered that in all of Scripture only two names of angels are ever given, Michael and Gabriel, yet there is said to be myriads of angels. It just doesn’t seem to be the norm to give the names of God’s celestial messengers when they appear, probably because they are not coming in their own name but in the name of Yahweh. If it had been common practice for these divine messengers to give their names when appearing then we might not be having this discussion because we would have seen that more than one specific messenger was being designated by the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh. But the lack of proper names for each messenger of Yahweh has aided in the misconception that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is referring to a single individual messenger.

One last example is found in Judges 13:6 and 2 Chron. 25:7 where we find the phrase ish haelohim = man the god = the man of God. Because the word elohim  has the definite article prefixed, the construct noun should technically be rendered ‘the man’ i.e. it is grammatically correct to translate it so. Yet, once again all English versions and the LXX render the word man, in these passages, as indefinite. Why? Because the context demands it. In the context of Judges 13, Manoah’s wife tells him for the first time about a man of God that came to her. In most languages this would be expressed by an indefinite noun. If I approach someone to tell them about a speeding ticket I got last week I wouldn’t begin by saying, “I was stopped by the police officer last week for speeding,” but rather, “I was stopped by a police officer.” (By the way, I did not really get a ticket last week). In the context of the 2 Chron. passage, the man of God is being introduced into the story for the first time in verse 7, and so it is proper to understand the noun man as indefinite. Also, as with the phrase ‘the servant of Yahweh’, the definite phrase ‘the man of God’ is applied to multiple persons:

  • Moses – Deut. 33:1
  • Elisha – 2 Kings 4:7
  • Shemaiah – 1 Kings 12:22
  • David – 2 Chron. 8:14
  • Igdaliah – Jer. 35:4

So if the definite phrases ‘the servant of Yahweh‘ and ‘the man of God‘ need not be referring to one single individual then neither must the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh‘, at least not based on the grammatical construction. If the definiteness of the ‘angel of Yahweh’ is to be maintained it must be solely on exegetical grounds.

Further evidence that the definite phrase, ‘the angel of Yahweh’ may be understood practically as indefinite is found in the LXX. As noted with the other definite phrases mentioned above, we find the same thing regarding this definite phrase – the Jewish translators of the LXX consistently render the phrase as indefinite (an angel of the Lord) at the first mention of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in any given passage. Subsequent mentions are then rendered as definite (the angel of the Lord), referring back to the initial indefinite first mention. Here is an example from Judges 13. In the Hebrew text all occurrences of the phrase are grammatically definite based on the construction. But in the Greek version we find something different. Verse 3, and the 2nd mention in vv. 16 and 21, are rendered as indefinite by the translators, while the remaining occurrences  are clearly given the definite article. How does one who insists that the phrase be taken strictly as definite account for this? Did these Jewish scholars not know how to read their own scripture and translate it into another language? The fact that there is no way to write in Hebrew ‘an angel of Yahweh‘ does not mean that Hebrews reading the scriptures were not able to parse in their minds when a definite construction should be read as indefinite, and then translate that understanding into another language.

One last point on why the definite phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh’ cannot be a designation for one single individual. There are actually two occurrences of this phrase where we are told exactly who is being referred to:

Haggai, the angel of Yahweh, spoke the message of Yahweh to the people …”
 Haggai 1:13

“The lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction, because he is the angel of Yahweh of hosts.”
Malachi 2:7

In light of these two passages, it cannot be maintained that one single individual being is denoted by the definite phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh.’

 Faulty Reasoning

Having ruled out the necessity of seeing ‘the angel of Yahweh’ as a single individual being, this does not mean that at least some of the time, appearances of the angel of Yahweh could be pre-incarnate appearances of Christ. Let’s go back to the syllogism I noted earlier. First we will look at the second premise and how it relates to the conclusion. The premise is that the NT {1 Tim. 6:16; 1 Jn. 4:12} states that no one has ever seen God, meaning the Father, and so the conclusion is that if it can be shown that God did appear and was seen in the OT it must be someone other than the Father, but who is also God. My first objection to this is that it seems rather arbitrary on the part of Trinitarians to make ‘God’ in these passages to mean ‘the Father’ in the trinitarian sense i.e. one of the three persons of the Godhead. Why couldn’t it be referring to the Trinity? How do they come to the conclusion that it refers to the Father?  Simply by reading their presupposition into the text. It is true that the word God in these verses is referring to the Father, but in the biblical sense i.e. God and the Father are numerically identical, they are the same being. In fact the NT tells us explicitly that the Father alone is the God, i.e. the God of the OT whose name is Yahweh:

“Father … you, the only (one, single, alone, sole) true God.”     John 17:3

“Yet for us (i.e. Christians) there is one God, the Father …”      1 Cor. 8:6

“… one God and Father of all, the one over all …”                        Eph. 4:6

Not only this, but in all of Paul’s letters he often speaks of  “God the Father.” This is read by trinitarians as if Paul is distinguishing ‘God the Father’ from ‘God the Son’ and ‘God the Holy Spirit.’ But please note that Paul never once speaks of ‘God the Son’ , since such a concept was still a couple of hundred years in the future from when Paul wrote his letters. What should be plain to any unbiased reader is that what Paul means by “God the Father” is “God, who is the Father.”

To read the word God in 1 Tim.6:16 and 1 Jn.4:12 as meaning ‘the first person in the Trinity’ is anachronistic, for the word God would not take on that meaning until the 4th century.

But let’s assume that the Trinity doctrine is true. Does it not teach that the Son is of equal substance and glory, co-eternal with the Father? Does it not say that the Son existed in the form of God prior to his incarnation, which presumably is the same form in which the Father exists? So by what kind of logic can it be said that the Father cannot be seen but the pre-incarnate Son can? What is it about the pre-incarnate Son, that differs from the Father, that enables him to be seen while the Father is unable to be seen? This distinction is never made, at least not that I have seen. This exposes the completely arbitrary nature of this premise — they are just making it up as they go.

Now let’s examine the first premise in the syllogism. It states that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks in the first person and is spoken of as if he was Yahweh himself, and therefore it must be Yahweh himself (yet not Yahweh the Father, but Yahweh the Son). Now there are some scholars who see ‘the angel of Yahweh’ as a theophany rather than a christophany, i.e. that it is an appearance of Yahweh the Father himself. The explanation that I am about to present refutes the theophany concept as well as the christophany concept.

An Ambiguous Figure

Is there any other way to explain the fact that when the angel of Yahweh appears, he speaks in the first person, as if he was Yahweh himself, other than just concluding that he must be Yahweh in some sense? I think there is, but before I get to that let’s look at a few passages where the angel of Yahweh appears. There are things said in some passages which should caution us against being to quick to see a numerical identity of the angel with Yahweh.

It is true that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks as if he is Yahweh. Here are some examples:

  • In Gen 16:6 Abram’s wife Sarai causes her maidservant Hagar, who is pregnant with Abram’s child, to flee into the desert. There  ‘the (LXX- an) angel of Yahweh’ appears to her, and in v.10 says, “I will so increase your descendants that they will become too numerous to count.” Surely it is not an angel who is making this promise but Yahweh himself. The angel seems to be Yahweh himself.
  • In Gen 22:11, as Abraham is about to slay Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering to Yahweh, ‘the (LXX –an) angel of Yahweh’ calls out to him and says, “Do not lay a hand on the boy, … now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Was Abraham going to offer Isaac to the angel or to Yahweh. The angel seems to Yahweh himself.
  • In Exodus 3:2 “the (LXX- an) angel of Yahweh appeared to him (Moses) in flames of fire from within a bush.”  Verse 4 then says, “When Yahweh saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush …” In v. 6 God says, “I am the God of your father Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” The rest of ch. 3 through ch. 4:17 is a conversation between Yahweh and Moses. So the one first identified as ‘the angel of Yahweh seems to be Yahweh himself.
  • Judges 2:1 says: “The (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, ‘I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers…'” Here the angel of Yahweh speaks as if he were Yahweh himself.
  • In Judges 6 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh’ appears, as a man, to Gideon. After a brief conversation between the two we read at v.14, Yahweh turned to him and said, ‘Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midians hand. Am I not sending you.'” Once again, it seems as if the angel is Yahweh himself.

Now I could give more examples but this will suffice. So as you can see, the proponents of both the theophany and the christophany views do have a point. But is this phenomena a sufficient reason to conclude either of these views. Let me point out, first of all, that this phenomena concerning ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is not consistently seen in all occurrences of his appearance, and not even in the immediate context of the passages where this phenomena is seen, as in some of the passages above. For example:

  • In the Gen. 16 passage the angel switches from speaking in the first person, as Yahweh, in v. 10, to speaking of Yahweh in the third person at v. 11.
  • In the Gen. 22 passage the angel goes from speaking as if he were Yahweh himself, in v. 12, to speaking on behalf of Yahweh at vv. 15-18.
  • In the Judges 6 passage there is a switching back and forth between the angel and Yahweh. In vv. 11-13 it’s ‘the angel of Yahweh’; then in vv.14-18 it’s simply Yahweh; then i vv. 20-22 it’s back to ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ If we were meant to understand the angel to be Yahweh himself by vv. 14-18, then why revert back to calling him ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in vv. 20-22?
  • In Judges 13 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh’ appears as a man to Manoah’s wife. The angels never speaks in the first person as Yahweh, he only gives the woman a promise and instructions. Later he shows up again to Manoah and his wife, but they only think he is ‘a man of God.’ The angel speaks of Yahweh in the third person in v. 16. Throughout the whole account he is consistently called ‘the angel of Yahweh’ and never simply ‘Yahweh.’
  •  In 1 Chron. 21:11-27 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of  Yahweh’ is clearly, throughout the passage, distinct from Yahweh himself, as seen in vv. 14-15, 27.
  • In Numbers 22:21-35 ‘the angel of Yahweh’ seems to be distinct from Yahweh from vv. 22 and 31. Nothing in the passage would suggest the angel just is Yahweh.
  • In Zech. 1:11-13 ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is explicitly distinct from Yahweh for he addresses Yahweh at v.12 and is spoken to by Yahweh at v. 13.
  • In Zech. 3 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh’ seems to be called Yahweh at v. 2, but immediately speaks of Yahweh in the third person. In vv. 6-10 the angel speaks on Yahweh’s behalf with the common prophetic announcement, “This is what Yahweh Almighty says.”

So what we see from this is that while sometimes ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks as Yahweh, in the first person, at other times, even within the same context, he speaks of Yahweh in the third person. Sometimes the angel is called Yahweh but is mostly called ‘the angel of Yahweh’ , and the text can switch between the two within a single pericope. As I noted earlier, these facts should caution us about being to quick to simply identify the ‘angel’ as numerically identical to Yahweh.

So, is there a way of understanding ‘the angel of Yahweh’ that would explain all of the data we find regarding this figure, and not just part of the data. Proponents of the  theophany view focus on the aspects of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ that seem to identify him as Yahweh, while ignoring the data that seems to make him distinct from Yahweh. The proponents of the christophany view acknowledge both aspects of this person, and think that this supports their trinitarian belief. They see the angel as Yahweh himself but somehow also distinct from Yahweh, hence two distinct persons who are both Yahweh.

The Missing Piece Of The Puzzle

One mistake that many people make when trying to interpret scripture is to not consider the cultural milieu in which the scriptures were written. In the culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE) the concept of agency would have been a common idea, but the concept has escaped most within Christendom for the past two thousand years. Scholarship in the area of ANE studies, in the 20th century, has helped to throw much needed light on this subject. Once this concept is understood and applied to the biblical text, much of what seemed confusing or contradictory in scripture suddenly becomes lucid. The ancient Hebrew people certainly understood this concept and it should not surprise us to find the language of agency permeating the pages of Scripture.

OT scholar, John Walton, in his commentary on Genesis in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary said this regarding this ancient concept and it’s relationship to the angel of Yahweh:

“In the ancient world direct communication between important parties was a rarity. Diplomatic and political exchange usually required the use of an intermediary, a function that our ambassadors exercise today. The messenger who served as the intermediary was a fully vested representative of the party he represented. He spoke for that party and with the authority of that party. He was accorded the same treatment as that party would enjoy were he there in person. While this was standard protocol, there was no confusion about the person’s identity.

This explains how the angel in this chapter [Gen. 16] can comfortably use the first person to convey what God will do (16:10). When official words are spoken by the representative, everyone understands that he is not speaking for himself, but is merely conveying the words, opinions, policies, and decisions of his liege. So in Ugaritic literature, when Baal sends messengers to Mot, the messengers use first person forms of speech. E.T. Mullen concludes that such usage ‘signify that the messengers not only are envoys of the god, but actually embody the power of their sender.'”

Aubrey R. Johnson, in The One and the Many In the Israelite Conception of God, expressed the concept of agency as follows:

“In Hebrew thought a patriarch’s personality extended through his entire household … in a specialized sense, when the patriarch, as lord of his household, deputized his trusted servant as his malak (his messenger or angel), the man was endowed with the authority and resources of his lord, to represent him fully and transact business in his name. In Semitic thought this messenger-representative was conceived of as being personally — and in his very words — the presence of the sender.”

Did you catch that? The duly appointed agent becomes, as it were, the person who sent him, the one whom he represents. However the agent is received and treated is in reality how the one who sent him is received and treated. This understanding is reflected even in the NT:

“When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me , but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me he sees the one who sent me.”                   John 12:44-45

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me…”                                                                                                                           John 5:24 

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.”                                                                                                Matt. 10:40

“He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”                                               Luke 10:16

This is the language of agency, which every Jew hearing Jesus’ words would have understood. The above statements of Jesus were indeed axiomatic within the culture of ancient Israel and her surrounding neighbors. There are two incidents in the gospels which really drive home this point that the agent is regarded as the one who sends him — the story of the centurion seeking healing for his servant and the story of two disciples who wanted places of honor above the others in Jesus’ kingdom. The first incident is recorded in two Gospels, Matthew 8 and Luke 7. In Luke’s account, at verse 3, we are told that the centurion sends a delegation of Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. But in Matthew’s account, at verses 5 & 6, we are told:

“When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralyzed and in much suffering.'”

Matthew says nothing about the delegation of Jewish elders whom the centurion sent to Jesus, but rather portrays the account as if the centurion himself had come to Jesus. Is this a contradiction? Whose version of this event is correct? Actually they both are. Because the Jewish elders had not gone to Jesus of their own initiative, but were enlisted by the centurion to ask the Lord on his behalf, they were acting as his agents, bringing the request to Jesus in the centurion’s stead. Therefore it is perfectly acceptable for Matthew, in his retelling of the story, to bypass the messengers and portray the centurion as personally asking Jesus for his help.

The second incident is recorded in Matt.20:20-21 and Mark 10:35-37. In Matthew’s account the mother of James and John, the son’s of Zebedee, came to Jesus to request of him that her two sons might be given the special places of honor at Jesus’ right and left hand in his kingdom. Yet in Mark’s account the mother is not mentioned, but only that “James and John, the son’s of Zebedee, came to him.” We see again that the request can be portrayed as being made personally by the two brothers because they, no doubt, enlisted the aid of their mother to speak to Jesus on their behalf, i.e. the request was really coming from them, not from their mother.

So how does the concept of agency enable us to make sense  of the information we have in Scripture concerning ‘the angel of Yahweh’ ? I believe it has explanatory value for the passages where ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks as Yahweh in the first person and where the text seems to call him Yahweh. We can understand the angel as being an extension of Yahweh’s person and as such is rightfully regarded as Yahweh, the one who sent him and on whose behalf he speaks and acts. To receive the angel favorably is to receive Yahweh favorably; to receive the angel’s message is to receive Yahweh’s word. Of course, it also explains why on some occasions ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is clearly distinct from Yahweh and may speak of Yahweh in the third person and may even use the prophetic formula “thus says Yahweh.”  We may never know the reason behind this diversity of speech in God’s agents but we can certainly understand that as Yahweh’s representatives it is acceptable for them to speak in either manner.

I will not go through each passage where ‘the angel of Yahweh’ appears, but I encourage each reader to apply this concept of agency to each of the passages where the phrase occurs and see if it does not help to clarify what is going on in the text.

Objections To The Representative View

But what about the fact that some who saw ‘the angel of Yahweh’ believed they had seen Yahweh and were fearful for their lives. This is not really as weighty as it may seem at first. First, we should not assume that the patriarchs and the early Israelites, during the time of the judges, would have had a comprehensive understanding of what was going on in these appearances. They surely would have understood the concept of agency which was part of their culture, and that an agent was in a sense the personal presence of the one who sent him. They seem to have had the notion that if one were to see God they would die, but where they attained that idea from is unknown. It is not hard to imagine that such experiences would have been very traumatic for them and a cause of confusion. It’s not as though they had some definitive revelation from God to tell them how to decipher these experiences. Caught up in the ecstasy of the moment they uttered things which betrayed their confusion.

But what did they actually see? It seems that in most cases ‘the angel of Yahweh’ (or angels in general) appeared to them as a man; this is either explicitly stated in the text or is a reasonable inference {see Gen. 16:7-14; 18:2; 32:24-30; Joshua 5:13-14; Judges 6:11-22; 13:2-23}. We know that in the case of Jacob wrestling with the man, that although at the end of the encounter he declared, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared,” in actuality he only saw an angel, according to the inspired interpretation of the prophet Hosea, in 12:3-4. Now, if in this case, we know that the appearance of an angel was either misunderstood to be God, by the one to whom he appeared, or he was called God in some other sense than literally, then can we not conjecture the same in the other instances where men declared to have seen God after seeing ‘the angel of Yahweh’.

Another objection to the view that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is simply an agent of Yahweh, is the assertion that he receives worship. Exodus 3:5 (along with Joshua 5:15) and Judges 6:17-22 are offered as proof of this. In the Exodus passage (as well as in the Joshua passage) the angel of Yahweh, speaking as Yahweh, tells Moses to remove his sandals because the place where he was standing was holy ground. Why is Moses told to do this if ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is simply an agent of God and not God himself? First, it is not clear that the removing of his sandals amounts to an act of worship. Perhaps we can understand it to be an act of recognition that God’s presence being there makes the place holy. We can understand that Yahweh’s agent here carries with him the personal presence of Yahweh i.e. the agent in some way embodies the presence of the one who sent him. My question is this: If this is the proper response to a theophany or christophany, why is this the only time someone is told to do this when ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is encountered? Perhaps there is something unique about this encounter that we do not understand as yet. Anyway, I think it is going to far to call this an act of worship.

In the Judges passage, the first issue we must deal with is this: Who did Gideon think he was interacting with? The proponents of the theophany and christophany views  must believe that the ancients would have known that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ was actually Yahweh himself i.e. that it was common knowledge that if one saw the angel of Yahweh he was literally seeing Yahweh himself. Now in vv.18-19 Gideon prepares an offering and presents it to the angel. Was he offering this to one who he believed was God? This seems unlikely because he doesn’t even come to realize it is ‘the angel of Yahweh’ until after the offering is consumed by the fire that came out of the rock and the angel disappeared suddenly (vv. 20-22). When the angel first comes on the scene he sits under an oak tree and starts a conversation with Gideon (vv.11-12). Who does Gideon think this is? We can assume the angel looked like an ordinary man, for Gideon doesn’t seem startled or afraid. When this man starts speaking in the first person for Yahweh (vv.14 &16), who does Gideon think this man is then? Most likely he thinks the man is a prophet of Yahweh who has come to him with a message from Yahweh. Following the accepted norms of that culture he receives Yahweh’s messenger as Yahweh himself, yet not thinking he is literally Yahweh. But according to v.17, he’s not completely sure this is a prophet sent by Yahweh, and he wants a sign that Yahweh is indeed speaking to him, through this messenger. Gideon then expresses his intention to prepare and present an offering, which he does (vv.18-19). The point is, that if he believed this was a prophet of Yahweh then he was not making the offering to him but to Yahweh. It is most likely that he was presenting the offering to the prophet so that the prophet could offer it to Yahweh on his behalf, like the priests. In Lev. 2:8 we read:

Bring the grain offering made of these things to Yahweh and present it to the priest, who shall take it to the altar.”

It should also be noted that in Judges 13:16 ‘the angel of Yahweh’ tells Manoah, “If you prepare a burnt offering you must offer it to Yahweh.” It certainly appears that the angel is careful to make sure that Manoah understands that he is not Yahweh himself.

Further Considerations

As I noted earlier, the NT is completely silent regarding any connection of Jesus with ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in the OT. This is hard to conceive if the authors of the NT really understood ‘the angel of Yahweh’ to be the son of God, especially since this has been a constant assertion by Christian apologists, pastors, expositors, etc. from the middle of the second century down to our very day. Not only that, but in the one and only place in the NT where an OT appearance of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is recounted, no connection is made to Jesus. In fact, in this passage, some light is thrown on this subject, as to how Christians in the first century perceived this OT figure. In Acts 7 we have Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin, where he recounts the history of Israel from Abraham’s day to their own day. In vv. 30-38 he relates the story of Moses and the burning bush. How many times in the past 1900 yrs. has the opportunity not been missed by Christian teachers, to identify ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in Exodus 3 with the pre-incarnate Son of God. Yet Stephen is completely silent in this regard. In fact, Stephen does not even refer to the figure who appeared in the flames as ‘the angel of the Lord’ but only as ‘an angel’. This coincides with what we saw above, where in almost every case of the first mention of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in an OT passage, in the Hebrew text the phrase is technically, grammatically definite, but in the LXX is translated as indefinite. But if it was just common knowledge among the first Christians in Judea that Jesus had appeared on earth many times in past generations, as ‘the angel of Yahweh’, and that it was in fact the son of God who appeared to Moses in the flames within the bush, then why does Stephen, in recounting that event, simply refer to this figure as “an angel“? Why does he fail to tell his hearers this all important revelation? This is similar to the prophet Hosea’s brief account of Jacob wrestling with God. The story in Gen. 32:22-32 tells of Jacob’s encounter with a man with whom he wrestles all night. Now the text does not refer to this man as ‘the angel of Yahweh’ but this does not stop zealous trinitarians from asserting that he was Jesus. Others see the man as a theophany. But in Hosea 12:3-4 the prophet simply calls the man “an angel” (neither the Hebrew or Greek texts have the definite article). For those who believe the Scriptures to be God-breathed, we have two inspired commentaries, one by Stephen and one by Hosea, which refer to a supposed christophany or theophany as simply one of Yahweh’s malakim.

One argument put forward by proponents of the christophany view as further proof of that position, is that once the Son of God is incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, ‘the angel of Yahweh’ disappears from history, never to be seen again. This is supposed to be positive evidence that this figure was indeed pre-incarnate appearances of the Son of God. But do they not see that this is begging the question? First of all, if the assertion were true that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ disappears in the NT, this is only proof that he was the Son of God if you already presuppose he was. That is not a positive proof, but only a circular argument. But the fact is, that the assertion that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ disappears when the NT begins, is easily proven to be invalid. As noted in the examples given earlier, the Hebrew phrase malak YHWH = messenger (angel) Yahweh must be grammatically and technically translated as definite, hence the angel of Yahweh. But as I stated earlier, this definite construction can be, on a practical level, understood as indefinite. This is because there is no way to write in Hebrew ‘an angel of Yahweh’. Since Yahweh (the absolute noun in the construct state) is definite, by virtue of being a proper noun, so malak (the construct noun) must of necessity also be definite. We saw however, that when the Jewish translators of the LXX translated this phrase, when it occurs as a first mention of this figure in any given context, they always render it with an anarthrous noun i.e. as indefinite. This means that these Jewish scribes understood, that this definite phrase should be rendered practically as indefinite when the context demands it.

Now let’s carry this knowledge over into the NT. The only reason you do not see the phrase ‘the angel of the Lord’ in the NT is because it is written in Greek, instead of Hebrew. The definite phrase only occurs once, in Matt. 1:24, and this is definite because it refers back to the angel mentioned in v.20. The indefinite phrase ‘an angel of the Lord’ occurs 10 times, in the following passages: Matt. 1:20; 2:13, 19; 28:2; Luke 1:11; 2:9; Acts 5:19; 8:26; 12:7, 23. My contention is that, if the NT would have been written in Hebrew, each of these occurrences would have been in the construct state and would therefore have been grammatically definite. Hence ‘the angel of Yahweh’ would be seen to still be making an appearance in the NT, even after the incarnation. The absence of ‘the angel of the Lord’ in the NT is not proof that when he appeared in the OT he must have been the pre-incarnate Son of God, but rather that the OT phrase was understood by Jews to be practically indefinite.

Conclusion

So let’s recap what we have learned regarding the proposition that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in the OT is a christophany.

  1. We learned that the belief that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is a designation for one specific individual cannot be maintained on grammatical grounds. Although the phrase is technically definite it can be understood on a practical level as indefinite. This is confirmed by other Hebrew phrases of the same construction and by the LXX. This greatly weakens the case for the christophany view.
  2. The biblical data concerning the angel of Yahweh shows an inconsistency in his speech and identification i.e. sometimes he is identified and speaks as Yahweh and other times he is clearly distinct from Yahweh.
  3. The concept of agency is adequate to explain the different ways that the angel of Yahweh presents himself and speaks.
  4. The lack of mention of OT christophanies by the NT authors is not what would be expected if this assertion were true.
  5. Various peripheral points made by proponents of the christophany view, in order to support the view, do not hold up under scrutiny.

In part 2 we will examine the claim that ‘the word of Yahweh’ in the OT is a pre-incarnate appearance of the son of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Immortality Of The Soul – Truth Or Myth (Part 2)

We will now survey the New Testament to discover it’s concept of the soul. Does the NT concept of the soul differ from the Hebrew scriptures? Many who agree that the OT does not really teach the concept of the immortal soul do not feel the same when it comes to the NT. They believe that the NT definitely does teach this idea. They attribute this to what is called ‘progressive revelation‘. They say that the truth of what happens in death was not revealed until Messiah came and made it known to his disciples. And this is given to account for why there seems to be a difference of understanding between the testaments.

Progressive Revelation

But we must be careful here. I can understand truth being revealed at different times in history so that there is a progression in revealed truth. Paul speaks of the “mystery of Messiah, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.”  But a newer revelation can never abrogate a former revelation (this does not preclude older commands from being abrogated once they have fulfilled their purpose). In other words, the Hebrew scriptures cannot portray God in a certain way and then the NT scriptures portray him in a way contradictory to that prior revelation. Though new truth did come to light in the progress of biblical history, no new truth can overturn a prior revealed truth. Progressive revelation may add to the knowledge contained in the OT, but it will not contradict it. So, is what the Hebrew scriptures tell us about the soul revealed truth, or is it simply the way the authors of the OT scriptures expressed their lack of understanding of the subject, owing to the fact that the full revelation was not yet given?

Given the fact that the Israelite nation was formed while they were in Egypt, where a concept of the immortal soul did exist, and then when they possessed the land of Canaan they failed to drive out all the inhabitants of the land, who also had a belief in the immortal soul and probably influenced later generations of Israelites, it is a wonder that their scriptures do not reflect this concept. It is not as if this idea did not exist then and so was unknown to the Hebrews. They would have been aware of this concept of the immortal soul, yet, as we saw in part 1 of this study, their scriptures do not reflect a positive belief in it. In other words, what Moses and the prophets wrote regarding the soul is not the popular belief of Egypt and the Canaanite peoples, that the Israelites would have been influenced by. This is strong evidence that what they did write about the soul was revelation, revelation that was contrary to the beliefs of the surrounding peoples. Therefore, we should not expect to see a change in the understanding of the soul from the OT to the NT. And, in fact, this is what we find – a continuity of thought on this subject.

The Soul In The Greek NT

The Greek word used consistently in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures, known as LXX) to translate nephesh is psuche. Psuche appears 104 times in the New Testament, where it carries the same semantic range of meaning as nephesh does in the OT. This is because it is being used as a translation of nephesh. We must remember that the authors of the NT were all Hebrews, who spoke either Hebrew or Aramaic (a closely related Semitic language). If they originally wrote in Greek, which is the consensus of nearly all scholars, then psuche was the natural choice for conveying the Hebraic concept of the soul, since this word was used in the LXX to translate nephesh. Although the word psuche, among classical Greek writers and philosophers, carried the meaning of the immaterial part of man, distinct from the body, and which is immortal, we should not expect to see that meaning applied to this word in the NT. Again, the authors of the NT are writing from a Hebraic perspective, not a Greek one. So with that in mind, let’s see how psuche is used in the NT.

Psuche As Life

As with the word nephesh in the Hebrew bible, psuche can simply refer to one’s life in this world. Perhaps the clearest examples where this meaning is evident are three verses in John’s gospel where Jesus, the good shepherd, tells the Jews that he will “lay down (his) psuche for the sheep” { Jn. 10:11,15,17}. Along with these verses is John 13:37-38, where Peter declares to Jesus that he will lay down his psuche for Jesus, and 15:13 where Jesus says, “Greater love than this has no man, that he should lay down his psuche for his friends.” In every English version I checked the word psuche is translated as life in these verses. This includes the KJV, NIV, NASB, HCSB, ESV, ASV, ISV, and NET. It is clear that Jesus laid down his life for his sheep, not his immortal soul. Here are other verses where psuche carries this meaning:

  • Matt. 2:19-20“After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking his psuche are dead.”  Surely Herod was seeking Jesus’ life, to take it from him, i.e. to kill him. But why would Herod be seeking Jesus’ immortal soul?
  • Matt. 6:25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your psuche, what you will eat or what you will drink …” Is Jesus telling his disciples not to worry about their immortal soul? Isn’t this what believers in the immortal soul think that we should do, i.e. be concerned about our soul? And what would being concerned about our immortal soul have to do with what we eat or drink? No, it is our lives that we are not to be worried about, as all English versions state.
  • Mark 3:4“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save psuche or to kill?’ ”  The contrast is not between saving an immortal soul or damning it, but between preserving a life or destroying a life.
  • Mark 8:35 – “For if someone should be determined to save his psuche, he will lose it; but if someone loses his psuche on account of me and the gospel, he will save it.” If the psuche referred to the immortal soul how would this verses make sense according to popular Christianity. Shouldn’t a person be determined to save his immortal soul rather than lose it? The meaning is clear – if one is willing to lose his life for Jesus and the gospel he can be assured of life in the age to come. Yet if one, in an attempt to preserve his present life, should deny Jesus and the gospel, he can be certain that he will not have life in the age to come.
  • Acts 15:25-26“So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their psuches for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Were these men putting their immortal souls in danger for Jesus or their lives?  {see also Phil. 2:30}
  • Acts 20:24 “But I count my psuche of no value to myself, so that I may finish the course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.”  If Paul believed he had an immortal soul, would he really place no value on it. We can see that this concept does not fit Paul’s words here. It was his life in this present age that he placed no value on.
  • Acts 27:10“Men I can see that our voyage is going to be with injury and much loss, not only to the cargo and ship, but also to our psuches.”  Could a shipwreck imperil a so called immortal soul? No! But it could certainly bring about loss of lives.
  • Other verses where psuche carries this meaning are Matt. 16:25-26; Mark 10:45; Luke 12:20; Rom. 11:3; 1 John 3:16; Rev. 12:11.

Psuche As The Self

As with nephesh, psuche can denote the self, and be translated with various self-relating pronouns.

  • Matt. 11:29“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your psuches.”  At first glance this might seem to support the common Christian idea that salvation is about the immortal soul of a man being forgiven and so assured a place in heaven upon death. But when you look at the context of the preceding verse we see that psuche is parallel to hymas which is the common Greek pronoun for ‘you.’  So Jesus’ words in v. 28, “I will give you rest,” is equivalent to “you will find rest for your psuche” in v. 29. Psuche is simply used for the whole self, not one part of a person as distinct from some other part.
  • Matt. 12:18“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom my psuche has delighted; I will put my Spirit on him …”   Does God have an immortal soul? Translate “in whom I have delighted.”
  • Mark 14:34 “My psuche is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death …”  Was Jesus saying that his immortal soul was sorrowful to the point of death? Would that even be possible for an immortal soul? Jesus’ words here are a figure of speech which is explained by Mark in v. 33, “he began to be struck with terror and distressed.”   {see also Jn. 12:27}  Translate “I am overwhelmed with sorrow.”
  • Luke 1:46-47 – “And Mary said, ‘My psuche magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”   Here psuche and pnuema (spirit) are synonymous and do not refer to a distinct, immaterial part of Mary’s nature. This is a figure of speech expressing that something is done with deep conviction and intensity. This is a common idiom in poetic literature such as the Psalms. It simply means I, with deep conviction and feeling, magnify the Lord and rejoice in God my Savior.”
  • Luke 12:19“And I will say to my psuche, ‘Psuche, you have many good things laid up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink and be merry.'”  Can one’s immortal soul enjoy the wealth of this world? Can it eat and drink? Translate “I will say to myself, “You have many good things … ‘”
  • 1 Thess. 2:8 – “In this way, being affectionately desirous of you, we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own psuches, on which account you have become dear to us.”  How could Paul and his ministry team share their immortal soul with these people? Rather they gave themselves to them. This verse could also fall under the previous category, hence they shared their lives.
  • Other verses in this category are Acts 2:27; 2 Cor. 1:23; 12:15; Heb. 10:38; 13:17; 1Pet. 1:22; 4:19.

Psuche As Person And Living Creature

In this category, psuche refers to persons in general and creatures of all kinds, in imitation of nephesh.

  • Acts 2:41“Those who accepted the message were baptized and about three thousand psuches were added on that day.”  Psuche = people.
  • Acts 7:14 “After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five psuches in all.”   Psuche = persons
  • Rom. 13:1“Let every psuche be subject to the governing authorities…”  Psuche = person.
  • 1 Cor. 15:45 “So it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living psuche.'”  Psuche = person.
  • 1 Peter 3:20 ” … God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built, in which only a few, that is eight psuches were saved through water.”  Psuche = persons.
  • Rev. 8:8-9” … a third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living psuches in the sea died …”  Psuche = creature.
  • Other verses in this category are Acts 3:23; 7:14; 27:37; Rom. 2:9; 2 Peter 2:14; Rev. 16:3; 20:4.

Unusual Usages Of Psuche

  • John 10:24 “How long will you lift up our psuches? If  you are the Messiah tell us plainly.”   The phrase “lift up our souls” seems to be a figure of speech meaning, “how long will you keep us in suspense.”
  • Acts 14:22 “… strengthening the psuches of the disciples, exhorting them to persevere in the faith …”   This most likely means they strengthened the resolve of the disciples. 
  • Col. 3:23“Whatever you do, working from out of the psuche, as unto the Lord and not unto men.”   This means to work with sincerity and fervency.
  • Rev. 18:13 “… cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep, horses and carriages, and bodies and psuches of men.”   Bodies and souls of men is an idiom for slaves, i.e. slaves were being bought and sold.

Other Uses of Psuche

Another meaning of psuche, which corresponds to the OT use of nephesh, is to denote those inward activities or functions in contrast to that which is outward. This can be seen clearly in Psalm 103:1: “Bless the LORD my soul and all my inward parts bless his holy name.” This would involve such things as conscience, intellect, emotions, desires, affections, etc.

  • Acts 14:2“But the unbelieving Jews stirred up and embittered the psuches of the Gentiles against the brothers.”  What was stirred up and embittered in these Gentiles, their immortal souls? This is speaking of their feelings toward the believers being negatively influenced by the Jews.
  • Acts 15:24“We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and troubled you with words, unsettling your psuches.”  We know that what these men were saying is that unless the Gentiles were circumcised they could not be saved. This was disturbing the Gentile converts’ confidence and throwing them into confusion. It can be translated in various ways: “upsetting your lives” or “unsettling your minds” or “subverting your inner conviction.”
  • Phil. 1:27“… I might hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one psuche striving together for the faith of the gospel.”  Here psuche could refer to will or resolve or purpose. Paul is exhorting a congregation of believers to strive together with one purpose and will, as one person.
  • Hebrews 6:19“(Hope) which we have as an anchor of the psuche, both certain and steadfast …” Here hope is portrayed as a secure and trustworthy anchor which keeps the psuche from going adrift. Psuche here probably refers to one’s resolve to keep his faith to the end.
  • 3 John 1:2 “Beloved, I pray that in all things you may prosper and have good health just as your psuche is prospering.”   How was Gaius’ psuche prospering? Verse 4 gives the answer – his faith was sincere and he was maintaining his resolve to walk in the truth.

The Saving Of Our Souls

The popular Protestant Evangelical notion of salvation goes something like this: All human beings have an immortal soul and will live forever, either in heaven or in hell. Because of sin we are separated from God and cannot enter into God’s presence (heaven). Jesus died on the cross for our sins and so if we accept what he did for us we can be forgiven of our sins. This means that when we die our soul can enter heaven and live out it’s eternal existence with God. If we do not accept what Jesus did for us on the cross our sins cannot be forgiven. This means that when we die our soul must remain separated from God for all eternity, living out it’s immortal existence in hell. In this scenario the purpose of Christ’ coming was to save our souls so that we can, upon death, go to heaven.

In contrast to this, the biblical understanding of salvation is this: Because of Adam’s sin all men are doomed to die once before the judgment {Rom. 5:12-14; Heb. 9:27}. Because all men have sinned personally they are doomed also to die the second death {Rom.2:5-9; 6:23; Rev. 2:11; 20:6; 21:11-15}, after having been raised from the first death {John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Dan. 12:2} and facing judgment before the throne of God. Death in both cases refers to literal cessation of life, where one, being destroyed, is removed from the land of the living {Ps. 37:9-13, 20, 38; 52:5; Ez. 26:20-21}. The first death is temporary, for all will be raised bodily; the second death is final, from which there is no return to life, ever. All who are saved in Messiah Jesus are saved from the first death through resurrection unto immortality { Lk. 20:34-36; Jn. 5:29a; Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:20-23}, and because of the gift of righteousness are exempted from the second death {Rom. 5:17; Rev. 20:5-6}. These will not live forever in heaven as disembodied souls but will live on the renewed earth in immortal bodies through out the ages to come {Matt. 5:5; 1 Cor. 15:50-55; 1 Peter 3:13}.

The popular Protestant Evangelical notion is confirmed to many Christians by passages in the Bible which speak of our souls being saved. Because the predominate tradition is that the soul is immortal, it is easy for unknowledgeable Bible readers to read these passages as saying that the soul is saved from spending eternity in hell, to spend eternity in heaven with God. Here are a few verses which speak in this way (you should read these verses from various English translations):

  • Heb. 10:39 “But we are not of those who shrink back unto destruction, but of those having faith unto the preservation of the psuche.”  If the soul is immortal how can having faith preserve it? Why does it even need to be preserved? Whatever psuche means in this passage it is in danger of destruction, if one draws back into unbelief. This shows that psuche is not by nature immortal; it can be destroyed or preserved. Here psuche should be understood as ones life in this world. This is what shall be preserved in the age to come for those believing unto the end. {See also Matt. 16:25-26; Mk. 8:35-37; Lk. 9:24-25}
  • James 1:21” … in humility take hold of the implanted word which is able to save your psuche.”   James simply means that the word is able to save you, to preserve your life in the age to come.
  • James 5:20 “Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his psuche from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”   How is an immortal soul in danger of death? To avoid this obvious contradiction to the tradition, theologians have concocted the concept of spiritual death which they define as separation from God, i.e. the immortal soul is separated from God in Hell, where it lives out it’s immortal existence. Yet Scripture never uses the term spiritual death, especially not in reference to the fate of the wicked. Death, in Scripture, means death, i.e. the cessation of life.
  • 1 Peter 1:9“For you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your psuche.”   Is the goal of our faith merely the salvation of one distinct part of our nature, i.e. our immortal soul? Paul makes clear in Rom. 8:13-25 that we are saved in the hope (eager expectation) of the redemption of our bodies, i.e. in the resurrection, when the mortal shall put on immortality. The salvation of our soul is equivalent to the preservation of our life in the age to come.

Difficult Passages

A correct understanding of the Hebraic concept of soul and of how the words nephesh and psuche are used in Scripture, creates a difficulty for the traditional view of the immortal soul (i.e. the soul is the immaterial part of man’s nature, distinct from the body, which lives on in conscious existence after the death of the body). However, there are a handful of passages which seem to create a difficulty for the position I am presenting, the Hebraic view (i.e. that man is an integrated whole, a body with the breath of life, and that no part of man continues to live after death). Let’s examine some of these passages now.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (psuche). Rather, be afraid of the one who can utterly destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”
Matt. 10:28

Now this certainly sounds as if Jesus is making a clear distinction between the body and the soul, and saying that even if the body is killed the soul will still live on. Admittedly, one could read the text that way. When someone has their mind established in a certain way of thinking, they will tend to read that way of thinking into any language that will accommodate it, and this language seems to accommodate the idea of the immortal soul. But language that accommodates a certain belief is not the same as language that positively teaches that belief. Jesus would surely have been accustomed to the Hebraic understanding of man’s nature and so we must be careful in interpreting his words contrary to the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first clue that we get, that we may need to take a closer look at these words of Jesus, is the parallel passage in Luke’s gospel, which reads somewhat different:

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you must fear. Fear him who, after the killing (of the body) has authority to cast into Gehenna.”   Luke 12:4-5

Notice the underlined parts, which show the difference in comparison to the Matt. passage. What can account for this difference? When you are reading the gospel accounts and you come across a difference in wording, of the same saying of Jesus, between two or more of the accounts, there is one or more of three things going on. First, there may be a variant reading in some manuscript, a scribal addition or deletion. These are usually easily detected by scholars and are so noted in footnotes in most modern versions today. The second reason may be due to the fact that the original saying of Jesus was spoken in Hebrew or Aramaic, which was then translated into Greek by the authors of the gospels. Now when you translate something from one language to another there is more than only one way to do so. Also they may be trying to translate Jesus’ thought more than just his words. A third reason may be that they are interpreting Jesus’ words, for the reader, in their translation, not wanting the reader to miss the real significance of what he said.

Now if Jesus had spoken these words in Hebrew he would have used the word nephesh, which was then translated by Matthew with the Greek word psuche. But Matthew is a Jew and thoroughly Hebraic in his thinking. He most likely wrote his gospel to Jews in the dispersion and would have assumed that they would know the Hebraic concept of nephesh behind the Greek word psuche. But Luke, on the other hand, is writing for a mainly Gentile audience, who would have a different concept of soul than Jews would. Perhaps Luke was hesitant to use the word psuche here, fearing that his readers might construe by it the Greek concept of the immortal soul, so he gave the meaning of Jesus’ words rather than a word for word translation. If this is true then Luke’s account should inform us as to how to understand Matthew’s account, not vice-versa.

In Luke’s account Jesus is saying that we should not fear those who can kill us but have no power to hurt us further. This is said in the context of the fear of persecution, where one, out of fear for his life, disowns any relationship to Jesus {see vv.8-9}. There is a fate worse than death – the second death, i.e. being cast into Gehenna. From the first death there is a return to life in the resurrection; from the second death there is no return to life forever – it is final. Matthew’s account says that men can kill the body but not the soul. This is not because the soul is immortal, but because Jesus’ followers are promised everlasting life in the resurrection, which men cannot take from us. Only God has the power to take away one’s place in the age to come and after the resurrection to cast the whole person, body and soul, into Gehenna, where they will be completely destroyed. Luke’s “has authority to cast you into Gehenna” is equivalent to Matthew’s “who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” This takes place only after the resurrection of the wicked according to Rev. 20: 5, 11-15. Therefore, this passage in Matthew, and in Luke as well, is not teaching that the soul survives the death of an individual to live on in a disembodied state.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one believing in me, even though he should die, he will live. And whoever is living and believing in me will never die.’ ”   John 11:25-26

The typical way of understanding this verse is that even though a believer dies he is not really dead, but alive in heaven as a disembodied soul. But the context is against that interpretation. Jesus begins this statement with the declaration that he is the resurrection and the life. This is because, as the first man to be raised immortal, God has entrusted to him the task of overseeing the resurrection of all other men {see John 5:21-30; 1 Cor. 15:20-22}. But what does that have to do with the idea of the immortal soul flying off to heaven upon one’s death? That is no resurrection of the dead. The statement speaks of Jesus in his coming to judge the living and the dead. The dead who believed in him during their life will be raised to immortality, and those believers still living when he comes will never see death but will be changed from mortal to immortal.

Another similar misunderstood passage is Luke 20:38, where Jesus states that because Moses called Yahweh the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob that therefore:

“He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

This verse is supposed to be saying that the dead patriarchs are really still alive, whether in Sheol or in heaven. But once again, the context must be ignored to arrive at this conclusion. The whole passage, starting at v.27 is about the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees, who did not believe in a resurrection, came to Jesus with a question concerning the resurrection, with which they hoped to embarrass him ( vv. 27-33). Jesus answers their question, exposing their ignorance {see Mark 12:24-27}. But then Jesus shows them from their own Scripture (the Sadducees only accepted the five books of Moses as Scripture) that the resurrection of the dead is indeed a truth clearly inferred by the Scriptures. From Exodus 3:6 he quotes how God is called “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He then concludes, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” The Lord’s point is that God would not identify himself as the God of people who were dead and forever gone, who, in effect, have perished.

So did Jesus mean that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were living at the time he said this, and that they had been living for many centuries, as disembodied souls; that even though they had died they were not really dead, but very much alive as immortal souls? I don’t think so. Verse 37 clearly establishes that God being identified with the patriarchs is showing or declaring that the dead do in fact rise. But this would be no proof at all of the resurrection if the patriarchs were then and had been alive as immortal souls. If the patriarchs had been alive (as disembodied souls, since their deaths) then God would, by that fact, be the God of the living. What need would there be of a resurrection? And how would a resurrection help to establish that God is the ‘God of the living’? In other words, a resurrection would not be necessary to show that God is the ‘God of the living’ if the dead are already alive in any way. The fact that God identified himself with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is proof that God will raise them to life again. He counts them among the ‘living ones’ (present participle, masculine plural of zao) for their names are written in the book of life and they are slated for resurrection unto life everlasting. Not only is this passage no proof text for the immortal soul doctrine, but if that doctrine were true then Jesus’ words here would make no sense whatsoever.

Next, we will look at Rev. 6:9-11:

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls (psuche) of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.”

Now this seems like a clear cut passage telling us that the souls of certain people who had been killed were consciously existing in heaven and even praying to God. How does this square with the Hebraic view? Quite well actually, once you understand what is really going on in this passage.

The first thing to understand is the kind of writing the book of the Revelation is. It is what is called in scholarly circles ‘apocalyptic literature’, in which vivid imagery is used to convey or reveal information of future events and/or of hidden things. This means that one has be careful, when interpreting this book, to not take everything as literal. The whole book is filled with images that represent realities which are other than that of the images. The souls under the altar are not the reality but the image or symbol of a reality. Just a little contemplation should make this clear. For example, if these are immortal souls in heaven why are they segregated from the rest of the souls in heaven? People have been dying for many centuries and their souls supposedly going to heaven, but these specific souls are confined to a place under the altar, while the rest are presumably free to roam about heaven. Why? And why are they told to wait a little longer? Are they discontented with their present circumstances? This is a clue that something here is not what it seems to be.

Like most of the imagery in the Revelation, the images in this passage are allusions to ideas found in the OT. The ‘souls under the altar‘ are a clear reference to Leviticus 4:7 & 34, where the high priest pours out the blood of the bull, used as a sin offering, at the base of the altar, where it undoubtedly flowed under it. But why then did John not see the ‘blood‘ of those who were slain under the altar, rather than the ‘souls.’ This is another allusion to the OT, specifically to Leviticus 17:10-14:

10.”Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood – I will set my face against that person who eats blood and I will cut him off from his people. 11. For the nephesh ( psuche) of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for the nephesh … 14. because the nephesh of all flesh is its blood. It’s blood is as it’s nephesh.

Here we see that the nephesh/psuche (soul or life) of every creature is in it’s blood – there is a close connection between the two. The image of the souls under the altar is meant to convey that the life-blood of these martyrs has been, as it were, poured out at the base of the altar, showing that their sacrifice was acceptable to God.

The third allusion in this text, that of the souls crying out for vengence, is a reference to Gen. 4:10:

The LORD said (to Cain), ‘What have you done? The voice of the blood of your brother (Abel) cries out to me from the ground.”

Now did anyone in Israel, long ago, reading these words, think that blood has a literal voice and can speak? Does anyone today believe such a thing? No! We understand that this is a figure of speech meant to convey a reality different than the figure itself. The reality it conveys is that when innocent blood has been spilled there is required an accounting for that blood, the one responsible must pay, for justice to be served. Though the LORD did not spell this out in Gen. 4:10 he did so later in Gen. 9:5-6:

And indeed, I will require the blood of your souls (nephesh) from the hand of all the living, and from the hand of the man (the murderer) I will require it. From the hand of each man’s brother I will require the soul (nephesh) of the man (the murderer). Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God he made man.”

Therefore, the image of the souls under the altar crying out to God to avenge their blood is not to be taken literal, anymore than Abel’s blood crying out should be taken literal. It is meant to convey that God will indeed require the blood of those who unjustly shed the innocent blood of these martyrs. This passage gives no positive evidence for the doctrine of the immortal soul.

“For to me, to live is Messiah and to die is gain. However if I am to live in the flesh, this means to me fruit from labor. And which will I prefer? I do not know. I am hard pressed from the two; having the desire to depart and to be with Messiah, indeed much better by far, but to remain in the flesh is necessary for your sake.”
Phil. 1:21-23

It appears as if Paul is saying that if he departs this life, through death, that he will be with Messiah, presumably in heaven. Of course, this is what Christians, at least Protestants, have believed for many centuries. But if this is what Paul means here then we have a problem. First of all, we have seen that the Hebraic view does not involve the concept of the immortal soul. That idea came from pagan religions, then into Greek philosophy, then into Christianity. Second, if Paul means that when Christians die, some part of them is still alive and goes to be with Jesus in heaven, then he has contradicted his own clear teaching in his epistles. Throughout Paul’s letters he always presents the hope of the believers to be the personal return of Jesus and the resurrection and/or transformation from mortal to immortal of the believers. Here are some passages which illustrate this – Acts 23:6; 24:15; Rom. 2:6; 8:22; 1 Cor. 15:12-23, 50-55; 2Cor. 5:1-5; Phil. 3:10-11, 20; Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Thess. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:1; Titus 2:13.

In none of his letters, does Paul speak of believers who have died, as being in heaven with Jesus. In fact, in the place where you would have expected him to say such a thing, he fails to mention it. For in 1 Thess. 4:13 he said, “Brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant concerning those who have fallen asleep (i.e. died), so that you may not grieve like the rest, the ones not possessing hope.” Now here Paul is going to tell us something about believers who have died. Here is his opportunity to tell us about how they are not really dead but are with Jesus in heaven. But is that what he tells us? No! He goes on to clearly establish the believer’s hope to be the personal return of Jesus and the resurrection, not going to heaven when we die. This is significant, because if you ask most Christians today what their hope is concerning life after death, they will answer, “to be with Jesus in heaven when I die.” It is rare to find a Christian whose hope is set on the resurrection of the dead or the personal return of Messiah.

Also, in a few of the above passages, as well as others, Paul refers to dead believers as those who have ‘fallen asleep.’ This fits with the language of resurrection. The Greek word consistently used to refer to the resurrection of both Jesus and of believers is  egeiro, which literally means ‘to awaken from sleep‘. The dead are in a state which is metaphorically spoken of as sleep. But how can that be if the dead are fully conscious and active in the intermediate state? Why would such a state be referred to as sleep. The resurrection is clearly being presented as an awakening from the sleep of death. Therefore it is the resurrection which is the hope of the believer.

In 1 Cor. 15 Paul is addressing those among the Corinthian believers who were saying that there was no resurrection of the dead (v.12). This probably stemmed from the fact that these Gentile Christians were formerly indoctrinated in the Greek mindset, which regarded a bodily resurrection as an absurdity. In verse 18 Paul said something that must come as a shock to those who hold to the immortality of the soul, and who think that believers who have died are now enjoying heavenly bliss in the presence of God, fully conscious and active, as disembodied souls. For if there is no resurrection “then those who have fallen asleep in Messiah have perished.” But how can this be? How can such a state of existence ever be spoken of as perishing? They would have perished because there would be no awakening from their sleep. Later in the chapter (vv.30-32) he speaks of his daily exposure to danger (in the carrying out of his ministry to the Gentiles) as to no profit or advantage, if indeed, there is no resurrection. But why would he say this? Doesn’t Paul believe that when he dies he will be with Messiah in heavenly bliss? Why would no resurrection mean no profit from his labors? Won’t he still be in heaven with Jesus and the Father, even if only as a disembodied soul? Notice that Paul’s language does not include that concept at all. For him “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”

So then what does Paul mean in Phil 1:23? Whatever Paul might mean, it is incumbent on us to interpret his obscure words here consistently with his plain and constant teaching throughout his letters. If our interpretation of him here makes him contradict himself in the many statements he has made throughout his letters, then we should look for another way to understand his words. This is what I propose to be Paul’s meaning – if the dead are not alive in any sense, not conscious and active, but are, metaphorically ‘asleep’, then when they die they will know nothing during the time of their death and the resurrection. They will not be aware of any passage of time; their last conscious moment before death will lead right into their next conscious moment, i.e. when they are raised from the dead at the return of Messiah. It will seem to them like just a moment of time has elapsed, when in reality it may have been many years. So when Paul says he wants to depart and be with Messiah, he means at the resurrection, for that will be his next conscious moment, which to him will seem simultaneous with his death.

Now someone is sure to say to me, “Did not Paul say, ‘To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.'” Well, actually no! That is a misquote of Paul’s words and puts on them a meaning which the context does not bear out. What Paul actually said was:

“But we are hopeful and we choose rather to be away from home, out of this body, and at home, with the Lord.   2 Cor. 5:8

Now, if taken by themselves, apart from the immediate context of the letter, and the larger context of Paul’s overall teaching in all of his letters, his words here could be construed as referring to an intermediate state between one’s death and the resurrection. But these words do have the contexts described above and so must be interpreted with those contexts in mind. We have already seen Paul’s overall emphasis on the resurrection of the body as the hope of the believer and that no where does he mention believers who have died as being in heaven enjoying personal fellowship with Messiah. Now let’s look at the context of this specific passage.

Verses 1-5 are clearly a reference to the resurrection body. Our present mortal bodies are compared to a tent, a temporary dwelling, while the resurrection body is compared to a building, which he says “we have from God, an eternal house, not made with hands, in the heavens.” This language is meant to express the idea that this is predestined, a promise of God that is certain and sure. Our confidence is that even if this mortal body is destroyed (i.e. if we do not remain alive until the coming of Messiah) we have the hope of the resurrection. While we wait for the Lord’s return “we groan, longing to be clothed upon with our dwelling place from out of heaven.” For “if we are clothed upon” with our immortal body (while still alive) “we will not be found naked” i.e. without a body. “For being in this tent we groan, being burdened, not wanting to be unclothed” i.e to die, “but to be clothed upon” with our immortal bodies, “so that the mortal may be swallowed up by the life.” God is the one who has “prepared us for this very thing and gave to us the Spirit as a deposit” guaranteeing it’s fulfillment in us.

Now if Paul is speaking of the resurrection in the first five verses, setting that out as our hope and expectation, why would he then speak of preferring to be absent from the body and present with the Lord as a disembodied soul. Didn’t he just say we groan, not wanting to be unclothed? We cannot interpret Paul in such a way that makes him contradict himself in a matter of five verses. To be sure, Paul’s switching of metaphors, from tents and buildings to being clothed or unclothed, is somewhat awkward and confusing. But if you carefully follow his train of thought, remembering his emphasis on the personal return of Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, it is easy to see his meaning. The statement in v.4 about not wanting to be unclothed was probably written in contradiction to the Greek concept of the immortal soul. To the Greek philosophers the body was a sort of prison in which the soul, the true you, is trapped. Only by death can the soul be freed to move on to a higher plane of existence. The idea of a resurrection of the body was nonsense to them – why would you want to be imprisoned again in a body. Therefore the hope of the pagan was to die and so be freed to live on unencumbered by the physical world. But this is the opposite of the Christian’s hope.

He then switches metaphors again in verses 6-8, going back to the tent and building metaphors of verse one, denoting two different dwelling places. He uses two Greek words to express his point – endemeo which means ‘to be at home’ and ekdemeo which means ‘to be away from home.’ Again, Paul’s use of these metaphors can get confusing, so follow his thought closely. I will add words to clarify what I believe his thought is:

v.6 “Therefore, being always hopeful and having come to understand that being at home in (this mortal) body, we are away from home (in our immortal body) away from the Lord. v.7 We walk by faith, not by sight.
v.8 But we are hopeful and choose rather to be away from home, out of (this mortal) body and at home (in our immortal body), with the Lord.”

As I said earlier, the language of Paul here, if isolated from it’s contexts, could be taken as speaking of an intermediate disembodied state between death and resurrection, as most commentators take it. But that is not a necessary interpretation of his words and not even the best way to understand his words, in light of the contexts noted above. Paul clearly teaches that believers are ‘with the Lord’ only as a result of the Lord’s personal return and their being gathered to him {see 1 Thess. 4:17}.

The Rich Man And Lazarus 

The next passage we will examine is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, from Luke 16:19-31. I will not write out the whole passage here so please follow along with your Bible as we go through it. First I want to address the issue of whether or not this is a parable or a recounting of an actual happening. I myself used to hold to the immortal soul doctrine and at that time I believed this to be an actual event that the Lord was recounting. But there was only one reason that I could offer for this belief, which is also the common reason given by those who think this is an actual occurrence, i.e. parables do not give names to the characters in them, but this story does name Lazarus, the poor beggar, and Abraham, an actual historical person. This alone was the reason that I thought this had to be an actual historical event. Of course, needless to say, I do not see it that way anymore. In fact, I now think that reasoning to be rather shallow. Why couldn’t someone be named in a parable? Are there parable rules that one must follow? What if this were the only recorded parable of Jesus that gave names to characters within it? This does not seem like a strong objection, especially since I believe there is a specific reason why Jesus named the beggar in this parable, but I will save that for later. The reasons for seeing this as a parable seem much stronger. First, it comes in a section (chs. 14-16) in which five other parables are presented, along with other teaching material. Second, two of the other parables begin with the phrase, “There was a certain man” and the parable before this one begins with the exact same phrase as this one, “There was a certain rich man.”  To my mind, there is no good reason to conclude this was an actual event.

But if one wanted to insist that this is a parable, I had an objection to the idea that since it is a parable, therefore, it is not teaching the doctrine of the immortal soul. My objection was that all other parables spoke of actual things that occur in real life to teach some spiritual lesson. Therefore, what the parable is portraying must be something that is an actual reality, even if not an actual historical event. This seems like a reasonable argument and does bear out concerning all other parables. But is it possible that at least one of Jesus’ parables does not fit that criteria, and that for a very good reason? Again, there is no ancient set of rules for parables that we can consult; we just have to use good biblical sense when thinking through these things.

Since we are dealing with a parable we should not interpret the elements in it literally, as if Jesus were simply recounting an actual historical event. Rather, we should interpret it allegorically, as we do all other parables.

We have already seen the biblical view of the Hebrew scriptures concerning the soul and Sheol, in Part 1 of this study, but it is important for a correct understanding of this parable, to get a sense of the Jewish beliefs concerning the afterlife in the first century. When one looks into the various sources (Josephus, Talmud, 2nd Temple period writings, the NT) he finds a mixed bag of beliefs. Certainly there was no one, standard, universal belief regarding the afterlife, among Jews. It appears that by the time of Jesus, Greek ideas had influenced Jewish thinking in this area. Josephus tells us that the Pharisees believed in the immortal soul and that after death, rewards and punishments are meted out according to how one lived in this life (see Wars 2.8.14 and Antiquities 18.1.3-4). They believed the conscious souls of Jews were retained in Sheol/Hades until the resurrection when, it seems, only the righteous would be restored to life, while the wicked would be consigned to everlasting punishment. The Sadducees, on the other hand, did not hold to the immortality of the soul and denied a bodily resurrection of any {see Acts 23:8}. Though the Pharisees were purists, in a sense, they did seem to succumb to Greek influence, at least with regard to the immortality of the soul, which as we have seen, is no where taught in the OT. It must be understood that because a certain sect within Judaism believed in the immortal soul that this does not validate that belief as true or in accordance with OT Scripture. It also does not appear that Jesus taught such a doctrine (this passage would be the only place, if Jesus was positively teaching that doctrine in this parable).

I will now present the way that I have come to see this parable. I believe the Lord had at least four purposes in telling this parable:

  1. To reprove the religious leadership for their love of money and their wrong view that wealth was a necessary indication of God’s favor and approval.
  2. To reprove the Pharisees for their succumbing to Greek influence regarding the immortality of the soul.
  3. To reprove both Pharisees and Sadducees for hardness of heart regarding the manifest work of God in his own ministry.
  4. To hint at a near, future miraculous wonder which would prove and solidify the hard-heartedness of the religious leaders.

The rich man stands for the high priest, Caiaphas, who was probably the wealthiest man in Israel, but not just him alone. He is the symbol of all the wealthy religious leaders who deemed that their wealth was proof of God’s favor on them and that poverty was a curse proving one’s wickedness. That the rich man represents the high priest, and so by extension all of the wealthy religious leaders, can be seen in the description of his attire in verse 19, which would bring to the mind of the hearers the description of the high priest’s garments in Exodus 28:5. This identification is further strengthened by the mention of his five brothers, which would have been understood of Caiaphas’ five brothers-in-law, who all held the high priestly office in turn.

Lazarus represents the ‘sinners’ among the people, who were despised and written off by the religious elite {see ch. 15:1-2}. His extreme poverty was proof to the religious aristocrats of his rejection by God. These despised ‘sinners’ desired some measure of grace to be given them by the religious leaders, even the smallest degree of compassion. But they received more comfort and compassion from the Gentiles (v.21 – dogs) than from their fellow Israelites.

It is evident that these two men symbolize two groups or kinds of people in Israel at that time (in fact, the audience he is talking to consists of both of these groups – see Luke 15:1-2). The parable is really not about what happens to individuals after they die. Three of the preceding parables highlight the difference between these two groups, that of the lost sheep (15:3-7), the lost coin (15:8-10), and the prodigal son (15:11-32).  To take the story and these two men literally would lead to the absurdity that the wealthy are to be regarded as unrighteous simply by virtue of their wealth, and that the poor are to be deemed righteous simply by virtue of their poverty. Now many of these ‘sinners’ were repenting and turning back to God, through the preaching of first, John, and then of Jesus, but the religious leaders were not {see Luke 7:29-30 and Matt. 21:32}.

In the false concept of the Pharisees, it is the ‘sinner’ who would have ended up in torment in Hades, and the rich man at Abraham’ side. Jesus uses their own false idea of the afterlife to reprove them for their hardness of heart, for he has them, symbolized by the rich man, in conscious torment in Hades. I believe the Lord is using this parable as a sort of taunt or mocking of their erroneous belief regarding the soul, similar to Isaiah’s taunt of the king of Babylon in chapter 14:4-20. In that passage also, there is an allegorical depiction of the dead in Sheol/Hades as conscious, aware, speaking and rising from their thrones – all clearly not to be understood literally. Jesus further shows the absurdity of their position in the description of the two men in Hades. The departed souls of these two men seem to look the same as they appeared in life, complete with a body (v.24). Look at the ridiculous way Jesus portrays this scene. Can the rich man’s tongue really be cooled by Lazarus dipping the tip of his finger in water and then touching it? Most of the elements in the parable (Abraham’s bosom, the torment of the wicked and the comfort of the righteous, the great gulf and the ability to see across this gulf) come straight from the then popular notion among the Pharisees, regarding souls in Hades.

In the lead up to the punch line, the rich man asks for Lazarus to be sent to warn his five brothers. He is clearly depicted as asking for the disembodied soul of Lazarus, i.e. his ghost, to go and warn the brothers (vv. 27-28, 30). This would also be a mocking of the Pharisaical belief that departed souls could be allowed to appear to living family members for a time after death, a belief probably derived from a Hellenistic reading of the story of king Saul’s attempt to contact Samuel from the dead (see Part 1 under the heading But What About…).

Then comes the main lesson of the parable (v.29), where Jesus has Abraham answer the rich man’s request like this:

They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.”

Here Jesus presents a denial of the rich man’s request, amounting to a denial of the idea of such a thing being possible. This is a major rebuke to the religious leaders, who deemed themselves the keepers of the Law and the Prophets. How could anyone accuse them of not listening to the Scriptures they so clearly honored and cherished? Yet these Scriptures foretold of the days they were living in and of Messiah’s coming, which was now being fulfilled before their eyes, and yet they had placed themselves in opposition to the very one they claimed to be awaiting.

In the finale Abraham says: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Could Jesus be hinting at the soon to occur resurrection of his friend Lazarus (perhaps this is the reason Jesus named the character in the story Lazarus), and if so, we can see from the account of that event in John 11, that the religious leaders did indeed respond just how Jesus predicted they would {see John 11:45-53 and 12:19}.

Once again we see, that when interpreted in line with the Hebrew Scriptures, the NT is not teaching something contradictory to the OT. This passage does not promote the pagan concept of the immortal soul, which infected Christianity through the early Gentile  church fathers.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this study, in which we will examine the scriptural concept of spirit and how that differs from soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Immortality Of The Soul – Truth or Myth? (Part 1)

In this study we will examine the biblical data to answer questions regarding the soul. What is the soul? Is the soul immortal? What happens when people in general and Christians in specific die? What is the difference between the soul and spirit? We will examine these questions from a biblical and a popular Christian perspective, but will not look at beliefs of other religions regarding the soul.

What Is The Soul?

Before we delve into Scripture I want to look at what Christians of the past and at present have said concerning the nature of the soul. It has been the common belief from the times of early Church fathers, starting with Justin (c.150), that the human soul is the immaterial part of a person, distinct from the body. It is believed that this soul is the true person which inhabits the body, the ‘ghost in the machine‘ as it were. The soul is assumed to be immortal and so lives on in conscious and sentient existence after the death of the body. Now not all the church fathers believed the same things concerning the soul. Tertullian, for example, held that the soul was not immaterial but corporeal in substance. He seems to have come to this understanding based on the story of Lazarus and the rich man found in Luke 16, which we will examine later, and on certain philosophical arguments.

Some fathers did not hold to the immortality of the soul, such as Tatian. However, the immortality of the soul does appear to have been the predominate view among the church fathers. (By immortality of the soul I am referring to the belief that the soul is alive, conscious and active in the intermediate state between a person’s death and resurrection). Here are a few quotes to demonstrate this fact:

  1. Irenaeus c. 180 – “… souls not only continue to exist (after death) … but that they preserve the same form as the body had to which they were adapted, and that they remember the deeds which they did in this state of existence, and from which they have now ceased …”    Against Heresies: Book II, Ch. 34
  2. Tertullian c. 210 – “The attributes which belong to the soul’s own proper condition are these: immortality, rationality, sensibility, intelligence, and freedom of the will.”
  3. Origen c. 248 – “That the human soul lives and subsists after it’s separation from the body is believed not only among Christians and Jews, but also by many others among the Greeks and barbarians.”
  4. Origen c. 225 – “The apostolic teaching is that the soul, after it’s departure from the world, will be recompensed according to it’s deserts. For it has a substance and life of it’s own.
  5. Methodius c. 290 – “It is the body that dies; the soul is immortal.”
  6. Novation c. 235 – “Only the flesh suffers the effects of wasting and death. But the soul is uncorrupted and beyond the laws of destruction and death.”
  7. Lactantius c. 304-313 – The soul cannot entirely perish,  for it received it’s origin from the Spirit of God, which is eternal … So long as the soul is united with the body it is destitute of virtue, and it grows sick by the contagion of the body and from sharing it’s frailty … However, once the soul is disunited from the body, it will flourish by itself …  It is not the soul that becomes senseless when the body fails. Rather it is the body that becomes senseless when the soul takes it’s departure.”

So we see that this was the nearly universal belief of the early fathers. But from where did they derive this view that the soul of a man can live in conscious and sentient existence apart from the body? From Scripture? We will answer this question shortly, but first let’s see how modern Christians have carried on this view of the soul.

The popular internet site GotQuestions.org answers the question, “What is the human soul?” like this:

“Simply stated, the human soul is the part of a person that is not physical. It is the part of every human being that lasts eternally after the body experiences death … we know that the soul is different from the body and that it continues to live after physical death.”

“The human soul is central to the personhood of a human being. As George MacDonald said, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a human body.”

Christian author and apologist J. Warner Wallace, on his website Cold-Case Christianity, has an article titled The Brief Biblical Case for the Eternal Life of the Soul. In this article there are four subheadings which are assertions he is making about the soul.They are as follows:

  1. Souls Are Alive With God Immediately After the Death of the Body
  2. Souls Are Functional Immediately After the Death of the Body
  3. Souls Are Available Immediately After the Death of the Body
  4. Souls Are the Source of Life Immediately After the Death of the Body

Under each of these subheadings he gives what he deems is sufficient scriptural support for the assertion. We will come back to this article later to interact with this scriptural support.

Dr Wayne Grudem answers the question “What is the soul?” in his online systematic theology course. Here is what he says:

“Most evangelical theologians don’t hold this view (monism) because so many scriptural texts seem to affirm that our souls or spirits live on after our bodies die.”

“… Scripture is very clear that we do have a soul that is distinct from our physical bodies, which not only can function somewhat independently of our ordinary thought processes … but also, when we die, is able to go on consciously acting and relating to God apart from our physical bodies.”

These leading voices within Christianity today seem to agree with the early fathers in their view of the soul and also in their affirmation that scripture teaches this view. But is this view of the soul really derived from scripture?

If The Root Is Unholy …

Now whether or not this view of the soul is based on scripture may be subjective. Each of  the above articles provide what the authors feel are scriptural proofs for this belief. Later we will examine these scriptures to see if they really do support this view or if this is a case of reading into the scriptures what is perceived as the ‘orthodox’ view. In other words, is this view assumed and then scripture read in such a way as to lend credence to it. It seems that today’s Christian world simply accepts this view because it has been the dominate view for so long. It is the view which Christiandom today has inherited from the early fathers. Only fringe ‘Christian’ groups have denied it, such as Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christadelphians. What is clear is that the concept of the soul as a distinct entity from the body that can live on independently apart from the body is most certainly of pagan origin. The roots of this belief are to be found in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian religion:

“The belief that the soul continues in existence after the dissolution of the body is…speculation…nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture…The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato, its principal exponent, who was led to it through Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in which Babylonian and Egyptian views were strangely blended” ( Jewish Encyclopedia, 1941, Vol. 6, “Immortality of the Soul,” pp. 564, 566).

As the above quote states, the foundations of the belief in the immortal soul are in ancient Egypt, but the more immediate influence upon early Christianity was Greek philosophy. Plato was the chief proponent of the concept of the immortal soul among the Greek philosophers and it appears that he derived it from direct contact with Egyptian mystery religion. Clement of Alexandria, a Christian philosopher, in his work titled Stromata (c. 195), in Book 1 Ch. 15, states:

“And Plato does not deny that he procured all that is most excellent in philosophy from the barbarians; and he admits that he came into Egypt.”

By the time of the early church fathers, the belief in the immortal soul was so well established and universally accepted through the predominance of Greek culture and philosophy, that it is no wonder they just passed on what they themselves had been taught. For most of these church fathers had a thoroughly Greek education in one or more of the philosophical schools prior to their conversion to Christianity.

Not only were the Greeks influenced by Egyptian religion, but many centuries before, the Canaanite peoples would have been influenced by and would have influenced Egyptian religion. For more than three hundred years Egypt ruled Canaan, and from the constant concourse between the two there was much intermingling of their religions, cultures, art, etc. Elements of Egyptian religion can be found in Canaan and vice versa. It would appear from biblical texts that a belief in a soul which survives the death of the body was common among the Canaanites. Perhaps the Canaanites derived it from ancient Babylonia and passed it on to the Egyptians. At any rate, we can see from the prohibition in the law of Moses against following the detestable practices of the Canaanites, that a belief in life after death must have been a part of their religion. In Deut. 18:9-12 the Israelites are forbidden to practice many of the occult practices of the Canaanites, including “inquir(ing) after the dead.” If one is going to inquire after the dead they must necessarily believe the dead to be alive in some sense. This prohibition does not say anything about the legitimacy of that belief, only that the attempt to contact the dead is detestable to God {see also Is. 8:19}. Later we will look at 1 Sam. 28:4-20 where King Saul consults a medium to inquire of the prophet Samuel who had previously died.

Just as Israelites living in Canaan were influenced by the religious beliefs and practices of the original inhabitants remaining among them, so were early Gentile Christians influenced by the predominate beliefs of the cultures in which they had been brought up. Some of these beliefs were carried over into their new found faith and adapted to the biblical writings. The belief in the immortality of the soul is one such belief. Yes, there were passages in the scriptures which seemed to lend credence to this belief and so it was easy and natural for them to see this concept as part of divine revelation. They even praised the Greek philosophers for having seen this ‘truth’ without the aid of revelation.

The Soul In Hebrew Scripture

The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh. It occurs 754 times in the Hebrew Bible, with a wide semantic range, but even then The Westminster Theological Wordbook Of The Bible can say this regarding the word ‘soul’:

“The English word ‘soul’ often denotes the inner person, conceived of as independent of the body. This is a rare usage in Scripture …”    pg. 482

Perhaps the most important occurrence of this word, as it relates to the nature of human beings is in Gen 2:7, which reads:

“And Yahweh God formed the man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living nephesh.”

It should be noted just how the scripture speaks concerning man. It does not say that God formed a body for the man out of the ground and then put a soul into it. It says “Yahweh formed the man of the dust of the ground and breathed into (him) the breath of life.” This is important to our understanding of what constitutes a human person from a biblical perspective. The common belief that the true person is distinct from the body is a false notion. Whatever it means to be a human person must include the body. It is not uncommon to hear pastors or Christian teachers say to their students, “You are not your body” or “Your soul is the real you.” But I think that misses the point. From this verse we can conclude that a human being is a body + the breath of life. This (the body + the breath of life) is what scripture calls a living soul.” Most English versions translate this as living being” or living creature.”

Now the strange thing about this is that I had always been taught that what set man apart from the animals is that man had a soul and animals did not. But this turns out to be a false idea. The very same words used with reference to man are used in reference to animals – “living creature” (Heb. nephesh chay). In the creation account in Genesis 1 we  read:

“And God said, ‘Let the waters teem with a swarm of living creatures” (nephesh chay) … So God created great sea creatures and every living creature (nephesh chay) that glides, which swarm the waters according to their kind …’ ”   vv. 20-21

Here we see that the oceans teem with ‘living souls.’ The same is said of land animals:

“And God said, ‘ Let the earth bring forth living creatures (nephesh chay) according to their kind, livestock and creeping things and living things of the earth, according to their kind.’ ”  v.24

In Gen. 9, after the flood, God tells Noah, “Behold I establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you”:

“and with every living creature (nephesh chay) that is with you, the birds, the livestock and every living thing that came out of the ark with you – every living thing of the earth.”   vv. 9-10

Other occurrences of the word nephesh (soul) in reference to animals of all sorts are found in Lev. 11:10, 46; 24:18- (lit. kills the soul of an animal); Job 12:7-10; Prov. 12:10; Ez. 47:9.

Nephesh As Life

Often nephesh denotes a persons life. This can be seen clearly in many passages, such as Ex. 21:23 – “But if injury occurs, you shall appoint life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” Here “life for life” translates ‘nephesh for nephesh.’ This verse speaks of the penalty to be meted out upon one who causes injury to another. It is easy to see how the idea of soul as an immaterial part of a man that can live independent from the body, does not fit this verse. It obviously refers to the life of a person, i.e. if death occurs then the one at fault must pay with his own life. Here are other verses where nephesh carries this obvious meaning:

  • 1 Sam. 28:9“But the woman said to him, ‘Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my soul (nephesh = life) to bring about my death.’ ”
    Because ‘set a trap for my soul‘ is juxtaposed to ‘bring about my death‘ we know that the medium is referring to her ‘life’ not some supposed immortal soul.
  • 2 Sam. 14:7 – “Now the whole clan has risen up against your servant, saying, ‘Hand over the one who struck his brother down, so that we may put him to death for the soul  (nephesh = life) of his brother whom he killed.’ “
    A man had slain his brother and so must pay with his own life. Did he slay his brother’s immortal soul or did he take his life?
  • Joshua 2:14 – The two spies sent into Jericho told Rahab, “Our souls for yours!” nephesh = lives).
    Were the two spies trading off their immortal souls for the immortal souls of Rahab and her family or their lives for the lives of Rahab and her family?
  • Gen. 19:17 “It came to pass when they had brought them out, that he said, “Escape for your soul (nephesh = life); do not look back or remain in the plain. Escape to the mountains are you will be destroyed.’ ”
    Was Lot’s immortal soul in danger by the impending judgment on Sodom or was his life in danger?
  • Deut. 12:23“Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the soul (nephesh = life) and you may not eat the soul with the meat.”
    Is a creatures blood it’s immortal soul or it’s life?
  • Other verses are Ex. 4:19; Jdg. 12:3; 18:25; 1 Sam. 19:5; 22:23; 25:29; 2 Sam. 19:5; 1 Kings 20:39; 2 Kings 1:13; 10:24; Jer. 38:16; Ez. 27:13.

Nephesh As The Self

Another obvious meaning of nephesh is that it denotes the self, and in this regard can be translated as I, myself, me, you, us, they, etc. Here are some verses in this vein:

  • Gen. 27:4“Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you (Lit. that my soul may bless youbefore I die.”
  • 1 Sam. 1:26“And she said to him, ‘As surely as you live (Lit. as your soul lives), my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to Yahweh.’ “
  • Psalm 124:4“the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us.” (Lit. over our soul).
  • Psalm 11:1“In Yahweh I put my trust. How then can you say to me (Lit. to my soul), ‘Flee like a bird to your mountain.’ “
  • Isaiah 66:3c ” …They have chosen their own ways, and they delight (Lit. their souls delight) in their abominations.”
  • Psalm 78:50“He prepared a path for his anger; he did not spare them (Lit. spare their souls) from death but gave them over to the plague.”
  • Psalm 139:14“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, that I know (Lit. my soul knows) full well.”
  • Other verses are Gen. 19:20; 49:6; Num. 23:10; Judges 16:30; 1 Sam. 17:55; 1 Kings 20:32; Ps. 59:3; 88:3; 143:3; Jer. 18:20.

This category is obvious and self- explanatory, and makes up the majority among the different usages of nephesh.

Nephesh As Person

In this category, people and even animals are simply referred to as nephesh. This meaning is clear in the following verses:

  • Gen. 12:5“Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people (Lit. the souls) they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan …”
    Did Abraham acquire immortal souls in Haran or did he acquire people?
  • Ex. 31:14 – “Therefore you shall keep the Sabbath because it is holy for you. Anyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death. For whoever does any work on that day, that person (Lit. soul) shall be cut off from among his people.”
    Was it immortal souls which were to be cut off from their people or was it individual persons who had profaned the Sabbath?
  • Num. 31:19 “Whoever has killed a person (Lit. a soul) and whoever has touched one of those killed, must remain outside the camp seven days.”
    Can the immortal soul be killed by man?
  • Joshua 10:28“That day Joshua took Makkedah. He put the city and it’s king to the sword and utterly destroyed them and the people (Lit. souls) who were in it. He left no survivors.
    Joshua did not destroy immortal souls but the people in the city.
  • Jer. 43:6 “They also led away all the men , women  and children and the king’s daughters and every person (Lit. every soul) whom Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard had left … “
  • 1 Chron. 5:21“They seized the livestock of the Hagrites — fifty thousand camels, two hundred fifty thousand sheep and two thousand donkeys. They also took one hundred thousand people (Lit. soul of man) captive.”
    How did these Israelites capture 150,000 immortal souls?
  • Num. 19:13“Whoever touches the dead body of anyone (Lit. the dead soul of the manwho has died and fails to purify himself defiles the LORD’s tabernacle. That person (Lit. soul) must be cut off from Israel.”
    Here a dead soul seems to refer to a dead person, hence a corpse. Certainly nephesh cannot be a reference to an immortal soul here.
  • Other verses are Lev. 7:20-21, 25, 27; 23:29-30; Num. 31:35, 40, 46; Joshua 11:11; Prov. 27:7

Unusual Usages Of Nephesh

Here are some unusual occurrences of nephesh which clearly demonstrate that the meaning of an immortal soul is impossible.

  • Gen. 34:3His heart was drawn to Dinah ( lit. his soul clung to Dinahdaughter of Jacob and he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her.”
  • Ex. 23:9 –  “Do not oppress an alien for you yourselves know what it is to be aliens (lit. know the soul of an alien) because you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
    This could be translated “know the life of an alien.”
  • Lev. 7:27“Any soul who eats any blood, even that soul shall be cut off from his people.”
    Can immortal souls eat?
  • Deut. 19:11“And if anyone should hate his neighbor and he lies in wait for him, and rises against him and he strikes his soul so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities …”
    Can a persons immortal soul be struck and killed by another person?
  • Deut. 24:7“If a man is found kidnapping a soul from his brothers from the sons of Israel, and he makes him a slave or sells him, the kidnapper shall die …”
    Can someone’s immortal soul be kidnapped by another person and made his slave?
  • 1 Sam. 18:1 – “After David had finished talking with Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and he loved him as his own soul.”
    Jonathan became loyal to David and loved him as himself.
  • Psalm 44:25 – “For our souls sink down to the dust, our bodies cleave to the ground.”
    Here the soul is depicted as going down to the dust along with the body, which doesn’t fit the concept of the immortal soul.
  • Isaiah 42:1“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, My chosen one, in whom my soul delights … ” 
    God is depicted as having a nephesh (see also Lev. 26:11,30; Jer. 6:8; 12:7; 15:1; 51:14; Amos 6:8). Translate simply, “in whom I delight.”
  • Numbers 6:6“All the time of his separation to Yahweh he must not go near a dead soul.”
    How could this be referring to an immortal soul? Translate simply “a dead person.”

Minor Uses Of Nephesh

One use of nephesh is when joined with a noun or adjective denoting some distress or anguish which has come upon someone because of some unpleasant circumstance.

  • 1 Sam. 1:10 – “And Hannah was in bitterness of soul and she prayed to Yahweh and wept greatly.”
  • 2 Kings 4:27“When she reached the man of God at the mountain, she took hold of his feet. Gehazi came over to push her away, but the man of God said, ‘Leave her alone! Her soul is made bitter within her, but Yahweh has hidden it from me and has not told me why.’ “
  • Prov. 31:6“Give strong drink to those who are perishing, wine to those who are bitter of soul.”
  • Other verses are Lev. 26:16; Deut. 28:65; Job 3:20; Is. 19:10

Nephesh is used to denote ones will, intention, or desire.

  • Gen. 23:8 “Abraham said to them, ‘If it is your soul that I bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf …’ “
  • Deut. 12:20“When Yahweh your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you say, ‘let me eat meat,’ because your soul craves to eat meat, you may eat all the meat your soul desires.”
  • 2 Kings 9:15 ” … and Jehu said, ‘If it is your soul, let no one leave the city to go and tell the news in Jezreel.’ “
  • Jer. 44:14“None of the remnant of Judah who have gone to live in Egypt will escape or survive to return to the land of Judah, to which they lift up their soul to return and dwell there; none shall return except the fugitives.” 
    See also Jer. 22:27 and Hosea 4:8. In the Psalms, to ‘lift up one’s soul’ to Yahweh means to set one’s desire upon Yahweh – see 25:1; 86:4; 143:8.
  • Other verses are Deut. 14:26; 1 Sam. 2:16; 20:4; 23:20; 1 Kings 11:37

Nephesh appears with lebab (heart) in the phrase “with all your heart and with all your soul.” In much of popular Bible teaching, expositors make a distinction between these two words, assigning differing functions for the heart and the soul. But I don’t think this is correct. In this phrase, these two words are not being used as technical terms for distinct parts of man’s nature, but the phrase seems to be a figure of speech meaning whole-heartedly, without reserve, sincerely, with loyalty. This seems to be the thought behind this phrase as Deut. 13:1-4 shows. Other verses where this phrase is found are Deut. 4:29; 6:5; 10:12; 11:13,18; 26:16; 30:2,6,10; Joshua 22:5; 23:14; 1 Kings 2:4.

So what can we conclude from this survey of the word nephesh in the Hebrew Scriptures? I have not found any occurrence of nephesh that would require the traditional understanding of an immortal soul i.e. a distinct immaterial part of man that continues to live in conscious and sentient existence after death. In fact, not only does no passage require that meaning, but that meaning does not seem to fit at all in the vast majority of passages where nephesh occurs. However, there are a couple of texts where this idea could be read into the passage. We will examine these verses next.

But What About …

In the GotQuestions article mentioned above, the first text presented as proof of the concept of the immortal soul is Gen. 35:18, which reads in the NASV:

“It came about as her soul was departing, for she died, that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.”

This verse, for most people, probably conjures up the image of Rachel’s soul, or what is typically in the secular world called ‘ghost’, leaving her body and floating upwards, perhaps stopping to look back down at her now lifeless body before heading to her after-life destination. But does anything in this verse demand us to understand it that way, apart from the fact that tradition leads us to that conclusion? I think not. The little phrase ‘for she died‘ is added by the author or a later editor precisely to explain what it meant that her nephesh was departing.’ The fact that she could still speak to name her child while her ‘nephesh was departing‘ should clue us in on what is being said in this text. As we saw above, one of the meanings for nephesh is life. So the verse could be translated, “It came about as her life was departing, for she died …” This makes much better sense. It could even be translated, “as she was dying …” Here are some English translations that have followed this understanding of the Hebrew text:

  • HCSB – With her last breath – for she was dying – she named him Ben-oni …”
  • NET – With her dying breath she named him Ben-oni.”
  • NIV – “As she breathed her last – for she was dying – she named her son Ben-oni.”
  • ISV – Just before she died, Rachel called her son’s name Ben-oni.”

Another passage which seems to lend support to the traditional belief in the immortal soul is 1Kings 17:17-24. In verses 21-22, in the ASV, we read:

“And he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried unto Jehovah and said, ‘Oh Jehovah my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again.’ And Jehovah hearkened unto the voice of Elijah: and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.”

Again, for one who has been trained to think in line with the tradition, this passage can be read as confirmation of that tradition. If you think of the soul as the immaterial part of a person, the real person inside the shell of the body, which can survive independently of the body, then you will see that idea in this text. But is that the necessary meaning of the text? Let’s see how other versions render this passage:

  • ESV – “Oh LORD my God, let this boy’s life come into him again … and the life of the boy came into him again, and he revived.”
  • HCSV – “My LORD God, please let this boy’s life return to him!” … and the boy’s life returned to him and he lived.
  • NET – “O Lord, my God, please let this boy’s breath return to him” … the boy’s breath returned to him and he lived.
  • Other versions which translate similarly are the NASB, NIV, and ISR.

As we can see, it is not necessary to introduce the pagan concept of the immortal soul in order to understand what is going on in this text. The Hebraic concept found in the Hebrew scriptures is sufficient to explain it’s meaning.

Now we come to a passage which is indeed strange and for which various interpretations have been offered – 1 Samuel 28:4-20. I will not write out the passage here, so please take a minute to read it. This is, of course, the story of King Saul consulting a medium in order to contact Samuel, from the dead, to find out what he should do. This passage seems to give credence to the belief of an immortal soul that lives on in conscious existence after one’s death. Although the word nephesh is not used in this passage in connection with the appearance of Samuel from the dead, it can be assumed that the departed soul of Samuel appeared to Saul. This would be the only occurrence of an alleged visitation by a departed soul in the entire Hebrew Bible.

Various interpretations of the passage have been put forward by commentators and Bible teachers. The question that arises is whether or not the soul or spirit of Samuel actually appeared to Saul. The typical answers to this question are:

1. The  disembodied soul of Samuel actually appeared to Saul. This is said to have been allowed by God in order to pronounce judgement on Saul. This is supported by the fact that the text says it was Samuel (vv. 14-16, 20), by the medium’s reaction, and by Samuel’s prophecy of Saul’s death coming to pass. Of course, this view presupposes that the soul of Samuel was consciously existing in some location from which he was ‘brought up.’
2. The disembodied soul of Samuel did not appear to Saul. Some in this camp believe that a familiar spirit impersonating Samuel appeared, while others believe the whole thing was a con pulled off by the medium. Support for this view is the fact that God had forbidden the Israelites to consult mediums and to contact the dead, so it would be inconsistent for God to bring up Samuel from the dead to speak to Saul. Also the text does not say that Saul saw or even heard Samuel, but only the medium was supposedly able to see and hear Samuel. Mediums supposedly speak for the spirit they are channeling, so fraud is easily perpetrated upon the gullible. This view does not necessarily presuppose the belief in the immortal soul, only that Saul believed it to be possible to contact someone who was dead.

There is another option that I have not seen mentioned by anyone before, but which seems to me to be a better solution than the two options above. I propose that what happened in this incident was not an apparition of the disembodied soul of Samuel (which requires belief in the immortal soul), nor was it a deceptive spirit masquerading as Samuel (why wouldn’t the text tell us this), nor was it a scam on the part of the medium (the surprise reaction of the medium when she saw Samuel suggests that what was happening was not under her control). I believe the simple solution is that what was seen was not real but merely a vision. Visions do not present actual reality to those who experience them. What is being seen by a visionary is only a mental image and not an actual real time event.

Take Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16, where he sees a sheet being let down, out of heaven, to the earth, filled with all kinds of unclean animals. Now was this actually occurring in the real world? If someone else were passing by at that moment would they have seen the sheet coming down from heaven also? No! What Peter was seeing was only in his mind and could not be experienced by anyone else even if they were standing right next to Peter at that moment. In v.10 Luke tells us that while Peter was on the roof praying “a trance came upon him.” The Greek word for ‘trance’ is ekstasis which refers to a state of mind. Thayer defines it as “a throwing of the mind out of it’s normal state.” Luke then calls what Peter saw a ‘vision’ in vv. 17 & 19. Later, when Peter is recounting his experience he says, “in a trance I saw a vision” {see Acts 11:5}.

Not long after this Peter is arrested and put in prison. While awaiting trial, Luke tells us that an angel suddenly appeared in the cell and woke Peter, whose chains miraculously fell from his hands. The angel instructed him to dress and follow him, which Peter did {see Acts 12:1-8}. What Luke says next is instructive:

“Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision.”  Acts 12:9

No doubt Peter had related this story to Luke himself. Peter understood that a vision was not a real event but only something seen in the mind. Now lets relate this understanding to the incident with Saul and the medium in 1 Sam. 28.

Mediums at that time, as well as today, declared their ability to contact those who have died. This of course presupposes belief that the person lives on after death in some form, in another dimension. This is what is called the immortal soul or is also commonly referred to as a ‘ghost.’ That Saul sought out a medium in order to contact the deceased Samuel does not necessarily mean that he had always believed such an idea as this. Saul was in a very distraught frame of mind, in rebellion to God and abandoned by God. “He was afraid and terror filled his heart,” because of the Philistines (vv.4-6). Desperate people will sometimes do things they would never think of doing otherwise. Saul may have just thought, “What have I got to loose. Perhaps the dead can be contacted.”

Now I do not believe that mediums then or now have the ability to contact the dead, simply because I do not think the dead are consciously existing somewhere to be contacted. I will address the issue of what happens to a person after death later in this study. What mediums do can be explained in two ways:

  1. They are actually contacting deceiving familiar spirits who have knowledge of and imitate the dead.
  2. They are perpetrating a hoax upon the gullible who seek them out. This probably fits the majority of so-called mediums.

Whether the medium, whom Saul consulted, was actually in regular contact with deceiving spirits or she was just a con artist , we may never know. When she sees the vision of Samuel she seems genuinely surprised (v. 12), as if she wasn’t expecting it. Also it should be noted that Saul himself did not see Samuel, only the medium did (v.13). When Saul asks her to describe what she sees

“The woman said, ‘ I see a spirit being ascending out of the ground.’ He asked, ‘What does he look like.’ ‘An old man wearing a robe is ascending,’ she said.”  vv.13-14

If this is the immortal soul of Samuel appearing in person, why does he look like an old man wearing a robe. Do immaterial souls where clothing and do they reflect age in their appearance? This is a common thread among so called apparitions and ghost sightings – they always appear looking just like the person they presumably were before death, clothes and all. But why should this be the case? It makes more sense to me that the medium was seeing a vision of Samuel as he was in life rather than an apparition of Samuel as he is in death.

When Samuel speaks to Saul the text seems to imply that Saul himself is hearing Samuel, but this need not be the case. The medium may be relating the words of Samuel to Saul (that is what mediums do) and the author of this account is simply leaving out that detail as assumed and so unnecessary. But why does Samuel say, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” This seems to imply that it really is the departed soul of Samuel. I reiterate that I do not believe the soul of Samuel literally appeared in the room. If so, why did Saul not see it? I suggest, that because Saul had once again rebelled against Yahweh by seeking the dead, that Yahweh, who is controlling the vision, plays along with Saul’s expectation. But instead of Samuel giving Saul advice on what to do concerning the Philistines, he pronounces Yahweh’s judgment on him.

Now someone may object to the fact that God would give a vision to a medium and speak through her. But this would not be the only time in scripture where God does something of this nature. Did not God give visions to and speak through Balaam, who was a practitioner of divination {see Num. 24:2-4; Joshua 13:22}. In Judges 7:13-15 we read that God gave a dream to a pagan enemy in order to encourage Gideon. John tells us in chapter 11:49-51 of his gospel that Caiaphas, who was in rebellion to God and seeking to kill Jesus unjustly, prophesied of Jesus’ death on behalf of the Jewish nation. Even Saul himself, after being forsaken by God and openly seeking to kill David, prophecies under the influence of the Spirit of God {see 1 Sam. 19:23-24}. God cannot be put into our boxes and neither should our prejudices control how we think of Him.

One other thing in the Hebrew Scriptures which may seem to promote the idea of the immortal soul is the concept of Sheol. The early church fathers were nearly unanimous in the belief that Sheol (Gr. Hades) was a literal place where the departed souls of those who have died, whether righteous or unrighteous, reside in conscious and sentient existence, awaiting the final judgment. No doubt it was passages like Ezekiel 32:20-21 that fostered this idea:

“They will fall among those killed by the sword … From within Sheol the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies.’They have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.’ “

And in the NT, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man {Luke 16:19-31} was a key passage for early fathers as a proof of this concept. We will examine this parable later to see if it really does support the concept of the immortal soul.

So what about Sheol? Is it a literal place where fully conscious departed souls go to await final judgment? We must look carefully at what scripture says to answer that question. One thing that aids us here is the poetic device in the Hebrew Scriptures known as synonymous parallelism. This occurs when an author presents a thought and then presents the same thought in the next line with the use of synonyms. Here are some examples where the word Sheol occurs:

“For Sheol cannot praise (Heb. yadah) you, death cannot praise (Heb. halal) you.”  Isaiah 38:18

Here we see that Sheol = death (Heb. maveth) and yadah = halal. The rest of verse 18 and verse 19 help clarify the meaning:

“Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living he shall praise you …”

So we see that Sheol is equivalent to death and those who are dead cannot praise God, only the living can. If Sheol was a literal place and conscious souls were there, why couldn’t they praise God or hope for his faithfulness? Sheol is not a literal place but only a concept, presented, in allegorical fashion, as a place, to denote the state of being dead.

“The cords of death surrounded me, the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of Sheol encircled me, the snares of death confronted me.” Ps.18:4-5

Again we see the parallel ideas of death and Sheol; these are synonyms. Sheol simply refers to the state of death. One more example from Hosea 13:

“From the power of Sheol I will ransom them; from death I will redeem them.
O death, where are your plagues; O Sheol, where is your sting.”

It should be noted that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:55, quotes this passage, but replaces the word Sheol with the Greek word thanatos which means death, showing that in his mind Sheol is just a euphemism for death.

Sometimes Sheol denotes the grave. In the passage quoted above from Ezekiel 32, if we continue to read we see what is going on. In verses 22-26 two Hebrew words which denote grave, tomb or sepulchre, are used six times. Then in v.27 we read this:

“Do they not lie with the other uncircumcised warriors who have fallen, who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war, whose swords were placed under their heads.”

Did the immortal souls of these slain warriors take their weapons of war with them into the place of departed souls? Or were their swords placed with their dead bodies in their tombs? It was in that time a great show of respect to place the weapons of fallen heroes in their graves with their bodies. Verse 21 is not to be taken literally. The portrayal of the dead in Sheol consciously interacting is merely a literary device, an allegory, meant to convey some truth in a vivid and even mocking way. In this case it was to foretell the destruction of the Pharaoh of Egypt and his armies by the Babylonians.

No Consciousness In Death

I recently heard a Christian minister describe death as a doorway. He and his co-host were discussing ‘near death experiences’ and their belief in the immortal soul. To his mind, physical death is just a doorway to another kind of life; there is no real cessation of life. This, to my mind, gives credence to the lie of the serpent, “You shall not surely die.” {see Gen. 3:1-4}

The Hebrew Scriptures deny the ongoing conscious existence of the soul after death. In Hebrew thought the soul is so vitally joined to a person as to comprise one single whole being. Man is not viewed as consisting of distinct constituent parts but as a unified whole. When a person dies their is no element of his nature that continues to live; the whole man dies.

“Do you perform wonders for the dead; the dead do not arise to praise you.
Is your covenant mercy recounted in the grave; your faithfulness in the place of destruction. Shall your wonders be made known in the darkness, and your righteousness in the land of oblivion.”         Ps. 88:10-12

“All that your hand finds to do, do it with your might. For there is no working and reasoning and knowledge and wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.”  Eccl.9:10

“Why did I not perish at birth and die as I came from the womb … for now I would be lying down and undisturbed. I would have been asleep and at rest.”    Job 3:11-13

“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. Also their love, yes even their hatred, yes even their envy have now perished … ”   Eccl. 9 5-6

“It is not the dead who praise Yahweh, those who go down to silence.”   Ps. 115:17

“No one remembers you (O LORD) when he is dead. Who praises you from Sheol.”                                                                                                                                           Ps.6:5

“For he can see that wise men die, together with the fool and the senseless they perish and leave their wealth to others … but man, in his splendour, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.”   Ps.49:10-12

“(Man) springs up like a flower and withers away; like a fleeting shadow he does not endure … man dies and is laid prostrate; he breathes his last and is no more … so man lies down and does not rise; till the heavens are no more, men will not awake or be roused from heir sleep.”     Job 14:2, 10-12

Conclusion 

In conclusion to this part of our study I think we can say without contradiction that the concept of the immortal soul is not a part of the record of the Hebrew Scriptures. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, under the word ‘Death’, agrees:

“… the Greek, Platonic idea that the body dies, yet the soul is immortal… is utterly contrary to the Israelite consciousness and is nowhere found in the Old Testament.”

In the next part of this study we will examine the NT data concerning the soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Death – Truth or Myth?

There is a prevalent belief in Christianity that people just assume is true but which has no actual foundation in scripture —- the concept of spiritual death. This belief is nothing more than a myth built upon a handful of biblical texts and erected with the aid of an arbitrary and false definition of death. In this study we will examine the roots of this belief and the supposed biblical ground for it. I hope that you will come to see, as I have, the flimsy scriptural support for this idea and abandon it.

Defining Our Terms

The concept of spiritual death is dependent upon a definition of death which is completely arbitrary and just assumed to be true, although there is no scriptural support for it. The Got Questions website answers the question, “What is spiritual death?” in this way:

Answer: Death is separation. A physical death is the separation of the soul from the body. Spiritual death, which is of greater importance, is the separation of the soul from God.

They then go on to give what they believe is the scriptural support for this definition of death and of spiritual death, which we will examine shortly. But I will note here that none of the verses put forward actually say what they propose. Their definition is just assumed and then used to interpret the passages accordingly; their definition is not derived out of the texts.

This concept of spiritual death is very important in Reformed theology which teaches that all men are born in this state of separation from God due to the sin of Adam. We will examine this belief also to see if it squares with scripture.

The concept of spiritual death goes back to early church fathers, who were the first to define death as the separation of the soul from the body. For example, Tertullian, c. 210, said: “The operation of death is plain and obvious – it is the separation of body and soul.” Likewise Lactantius, c.304-313, wrote: “We define the first death in this manner; death is the dissolution of the nature of living beings. Or we can say that death is the separation of body and soul.” This was a commonly held meaning of death among the early church fathers and is, no doubt, the original source of the definition of death as separation, which Christians today simply take for granted. What most Christians today are unaware of, as I myself was for the first 33 yrs. of my Christian experience, is that this concept among the early Gentile Christians was derived not from Scripture, but rather from the philosophical worldview in which these men had been previously educated, i.e. the Greek metaphysics which was so ubiquitous during their times. This predominant worldview included the idea that the soul was a part of man distinct from the body, which inhabited the body and animated it.  Some believed this soul was created while others believed it to be eternal, but nearly all believed it to be immortal, i.e. incapable of dying. The soul was the true person, the body being simply an instrument which the soul used to function in this world. The common belief was that the soul lived on in conscious existence after being separated from the body in death. Some believed the soul would be reincarnated in another body, others believed it would ascend to higher realms of existence until it reached perfection or deification of some sort. We can see that while some of these ideas were rejected by the church fathers the core beliefs of this worldview concerning the soul were retained by them and incorporated into the theology of the developing orthodoxy. It must be understood that the concept of an immortal soul which continues on in conscious existence after death is not derived from the Hebraic culture and worldview, in which the Scriptures came down to us, but from the Greek philosophy which imbued the early Gentile Christian writers of the 2nd – 5th centuries. These church fathers, though sincere in their devotion to God and to Christ, interpreted the Scriptures according to the philosophical worldview of their times. Hence, much error was introduced into the common beliefs of the Christian assemblies and eventually became enshrined as orthodoxy. While the Reformation of the 15th -17th centuries removed some of the errors of ‘orthodoxy’ which had accumulated during the Middle Ages, it retained in it’s tenets the errors that had crept in early on, under the influence of the ubiquitous Greek metaphysical worldview.

The Christian world today is the inheritor of the beliefs of former times, the traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation, which are uncritically taken for granted and proclaimed from pulpits all across the world.

Now back to the definition of death. The most widely held definition of death by Christian teachers and apologists today is simply separation. This can be confirmed simply by doing an internet search for the biblical meaning of death. This definition of death is assumed and taken for granted but is in fact completely arbitrary. The concept of spiritual death is dependent upon this definition of death, especially within the Reformed tradition or what is known as Calvinism. The verse that supposedly teaches unequivocally that death means separation is James 2:26, which says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” We are told, based on this verse, that death equals the separation of the spirit from the body. Here, spirit (Gr. pneuma) should be understood as breath i.e. the breath of life that is in all living creatures {see Gen. 6:17}. Now lets use our reason here. When a person dies, to be sure, the breathe of life departs from them, but their death is not to be attributed to that fact. Their death is attributed to some malfunction of a bodily system, some failure of a vital bodily function. And when that occurs, when the bodily systems can no longer function as needed then the breath of life departs. This verse says nothing about death being the separation of some supposed self-conscious, immortal soul from the body. Now it may be true that separations of various kinds are the consequence of death, namely that the dead are separated from the living, but defining death as such a separation is going to far.

In Scripture death is often put in opposition to life, e.g. Deut. 30:15,19; 32:39; 2 Sam. 15:21; 2 Kings 18:32; Jer. 21:8, so that the two concepts are exact opposites. Death can be defined simply as the cessation of life. But from a biblical perspective something more needs to be said, for in scripture death is not the natural cessation of life but a judgment for sin.

Death As Judgment

Death entered into the human experience as a direct result of our first parents’ act of disobedience. When God created the first humans he put them in a lush garden in which was the tree of life {Gen.2:8-9}. Whether you take the tree of life literal or symbolic it was the source of man’s immortality, and God intended for man to freely partake of it and live forever {Gen.2:16; 3:22}. But the Lord God had given man a warning:

“You must no eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”    Gen. 2:17

Amazingly, the standard interpretation of this passage is that it refers to spiritual death. This is because it is mistakenly understood to be saying that the man would die on the very same day that he ate of the forbidden fruit, and since he obviously did not physically die until many years later, he must have died spiritually, on the day he ate of it. But is this the necessary interpretation of this passage? Part of the misunderstanding stems from the Hebrew text which reads, “dying you shall die.” This has been wrongly interpreted to mean ‘dying spiritually you will eventually die physically.’  But this meaning is unjustified. The phrase occurs dozens of times in the Hebrew scriptures and never bears such a meaning, e.g. Gen. 20:7; 26:11; Ex. 19:12; Num. 26:65; Judges 13:22; 2 Sam. 12:14; 1 Kings 2:37. The double use of the Hebrew word muth (= to die) is a Semitic idiom used to express the certainty of death and is translated in most English versions as “you shall surely die.”  The entire phrase can mean nothing more than, “in the day you eat from it your death is certain.” “In the day” need not refer to the time of the man’s death but to the certainty of it. There is no warrant in the context of the passage to assign the meaning of spiritual death to it. Later, when God confronts Adam and pronounces judgement on him, nothing is said about a separation of his soul from God, but rather that:

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.”  Gen 3:19

God then takes action to ensure the man’s death:

” … he must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and live forever.” So Yahweh God banished him from the garden of Eden … and he cast him out and he stationed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden and a flaming sword turning about to guard the way to the tree of life. Gen. 3:22-2

In order to carry out the sentence of death God had to prohibit the man’s access to the tree of life, which was obviously the source of his immortality. Perhaps the fruit of the tree renewed the cells of the body so as to prevent degeneration and once this was taken from man his body began to degenerate until he finally died.  In this whole account there is no mention of spiritual death being the consequence of man’s sin. In fact, in the subsequent material, after the account of the fall, while man’s relationship to God, his surroundings, and other humans is altered in a negative sense, there is not the total separation from God that spiritual death proponents declare is the result of Adam’s sin. Yet it is the common belief that as a result of Adam’s sin all human’s are born in a state of spiritual death, i.e. separated from God. But after Adam’s sin we still see God conversing with the man and his offspring, in chapters 3 & 4. Though the relationship with God is strained it does not seem like a total break in the relationship occurs. To get around this, Reformed theology proposes and assumes some kind of unconditional election and regeneration of any individuals who are presented in the OT as having a relationship with God.

The apostle Paul makes reference to this first sin of man and it’s consequent judgement in Romans 5:12-21. Once again, this passage also is arbitrarily interpreted by most as referring to spiritual death. But again, this is without warrant. There is not one thing in this passage that necessitates that Paul is speaking of spiritual death. Death in this passage means what it means in the Genesis account, i.e. the deprivation of life as a consequence of sin, a returning to the ground from which we came. The Greek adjective pneumatikos (= spiritual) occurs 26 times in the NT. The Greek noun thanatos (= death) occurs 120 times in the NT. Yet there is not even one occurrence of the adjective pneumatikos being used to modify the noun thanatos. We are supposed to believe that this concept of spiritual death is so prevalent in the NT that almost every time the word death appears it means spiritual death, yet the words spiritual and death never occur together. One online article on spiritual death stated that Paul’s use of the word condemnation in Rom. 5:16 and 18 is proof that he is referring to spiritual death rather than physical death. The Greek word is katakrima and refers to the sentence handed down after a guilty verdict, the penalty to be exacted. In verse 16 the word translated judgement is krima, which refers to the verdict, whether guilty or innocent, given by the judge. The phrase means this: “the (guilty) verdict followed one man’s sin and resulted in the sentence (of death).”

Further proof that the result of Adam’s sin was real death, i.e. a deprivation of life and a returning to the dust from which he came, is seen in 1 Cor. 15:20-23:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

If the death spoken of here is spiritual death then the resurrection must also be spiritual and not bodily. Paul is clearly saying that death, i.e. the deprivation of continued life in this world, came into the world through a man; and so the restoration of that life, by means of resurrection, comes also through a man. We can see how our understanding of what the consequence of Adam’s sin was affects our understanding of Messiah’s redemptive work. The standard evangelical notion is that Adam’s sin caused us to be separated from God and so Jesus’ death brings us back into union with God; this is what salvation is supposed to mean. But the biblical picture is different. Adam’s sin resulted in the privilege of living on in this world forever being taken from him and from his descendants through death. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and subsequent resurrection provides the forgiveness of sin and the eventual immortalization of the believing ones, fitting them for everlasting life in this world.

Misunderstood Passages

What about verses which speak of people, who are alive, as dead. We are told that such verses must be referring to spiritual death since the persons in view are physically alive. The one most resorted to by the spiritual death proponents is Ephesians 2:1,5:

And you being dead in your transgressions and sins … we being dead in our transgressions, he (God) made us alive together with Christ; by grace you are the saved ones.

Along with this passage is Colossians 2:13:

And you being dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, (God) made you alive together with (Christ), forgiving us all those sins.

Do these verses teach the concept of spiritual death or is that concept being read into these passages? Can these verses admit of any other interpretation? I believe Paul is simply using an idiom, prolepsis, where something which is future is spoken of as a present reality, because of the certainty of it’s fulfillment. Because the judgement of death is the certain destiny of all who do not know God and his Messiah, men can be said to be dead, even now while they still live. This figure of speech is meant to heighten the awareness of the inevitable consequences of sin. Even in our culture and language we use such expressions. We might say of someone, “he’s a dead man” meaning that death is near and certain. In our prisons, one who is on his way to his execution is called a ‘dead man walking.’  Another example of this idiom in Paul’s writing is found in Rom. 8:10: “But if Christ is in you, indeed your body is dead because of sin, yet the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Paul speaks prolepticly of the Christian’s body as dead, in anticipation of it’s eventual death because of sin, i.e. Adam’s sin. In the next verse Paul assures the believers of the certainty of the resurrection. This idiom is also found in the OT. In Genesis 20 we have the story of Abraham and Sarah’s stay in Gerar, where he requested of her to say that she was his sister. This resulted in Abimelech, the king of Gerar, taking Sarah for his harem. Verse 3 reads:

But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, “You are a dead man because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”

This use of prolepsis, by God himself, is explained in verse 7:

“Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be certain that you and all yours will die.”

Other examples can be found in Gen. 48:21; 50:5, 24; Ex. 12:33; Is. 38:1; Ez. 18:18, in the Hebrew, but the English versions do not translate the prolepsis. In each of these cases, in the original Hebrew, persons literally alive are spoken of as dead, because the prospect of death was looming over them.

Another passage is 1 Timothy 5:6: “But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.”  Paul is supposed to be saying that such a widow is spiritually dead. But this could be understood in a proleptic sense, i.e. the widow who lives for pleasure is headed for certain death. The same could be said for Matthew 8:22: “But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.'” Although this could refer to the spiritually dead there is nothing in the verse that necessitates that interpretation, especially in light of the fact that the term spiritual death (sd) does not occur even once in scripture. Taking it as another example of prolepsis is a viable way of reading it and would mean something like, “let those who are doomed to die bury their own dead.”

Death As Metaphor

Passages where death is used as a metaphor are often read as a reference to spiritual death. For example, Rev. 3:1 reads: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead.Here death is likely being used metaphorically and it’s meaning would depend upon the meaning of “being alive,” for it would be in contrast to that. Now if the sd proponents want to say that dead here refers to spiritual death, then being alive must be in contrast to that. And since sd is defined as separation from God, the condition of all men before they are saved, then being alive here must refer to being saved i.e. being reconciled to God. This would mean that Jesus is addressing  an assembly of Christians like this: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation for being saved, reconciled to God, but you are separated from God.” This seems like a rather strange thing for Jesus to say to a congregation. Can a congregation be saved and reconciled to God; can a congregation be separated from God?

The congregation at Sardis had a reputation for being alive, i.e. from an outward perspective it was a thriving, vital community of believers. But beneath the surface something wasn’t right. Verse two certainly must throw light on the meaning of verse one: “Wake up! Strengthen the things that remain, which are about to die …” Obviously there were some things that had already died, and the congregation was being called upon to strengthen the things which had not yet died but which were on the verge of doing so. We may never know exactly what these things were but the deadness of the congregation of Sardis must be directly related to the things which had died and the things which were about to die. Therefore dead is used here as a metaphor for the condition into which this congregation had fallen.

Another verse that is commonly  pointed to as a proof text for sd is in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. In verses 24 & 32 the father characterizes his relationship to his once erring but now repentant son by stating that his son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” If dead here means spiritually dead i.e. separated from God, then alive must mean no longer separated from God. But the major purveyors of the sd concept, the Calvinists, will find themselves in trouble here, for they teach that all men are born in this state of sd and need to be made alive by God. But the text says unambiguously that the repentant son is considered alive again. This does not fit the Reformed doctrine at all, which would never say that one who has been made alive is alive again. Plus, there is another metaphor in play here – that of being lost and found. Both of these metaphors, dead & alive again and lost & found, are meant to convey something about the relationship between this father and son. From the father’s perspective it was as if his son had died or was lost when he left home. As far as the father knew, he might never see his son again, the relationship was over. When the son returned it was as if he had come back from the dead; the relationship the father had thought was forever over was now renewed.

Now the application of this parable is primarily concerning the children of Israel who had, as it were, left the Father’s house and squandered away their inheritance on profligate living – the prostitutes and tax collectors and drunkards, the ‘sinners’ of society. Many of these had been turning back to God under the preaching of John and the Messiah { see Matt 21:31-32}. From the perspective of God his wayward children were returning home. The point of the parable is the same as the two parables which precede it i.e. there is great joy in heaven over the repentance of even one sinner. This parable and the two preceding ones all depict the restoration of a relationship which was lost, which doesn’t fit well at all with the Reformed notion of all men being born spiritually dead.

Another passage where death is used as a metaphor, but which is taken to mean sd, is Romans 7:9-13:

Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death… Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means. But that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me, through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

Paul here refers to the time of his childhood, before the full force of his obligation to the law was etched upon his conscience. He refers to this time, metaphorically, as being ‘alive.’ But “when the commandment came” i.e. when he first understood his personal obligation to the law and the law’s condemnation for disobedience, then “sin came alive” in him, i.e. he became keenly aware of his own disobedience to the law. As a result he “died” i.e. he felt himself under the law’s condemnation.

This passage should not be read as if it were a theological explanation, but rather as a testimony of his personal experience with the law and sin. The whole passage is highly metaphoric.

Separation from God

I do believe in the concept of separation from God, but the Scripture never calls this spiritual death, nor does it teach the idea that all men are born in the state of sd due to Adam’s sin. Rather it teaches that all are born under the condemnation which came upon Adam as a result of his sin, which was death. This is why all men die. Scripture speaks of two deaths. In the book of the Revelation we are told of the second death, which implies a first death {see 2:11; 20:6, 14}. While it is true that the book of Revelation is replete with symbolism and imagery, I think we should take the term second death literally because we are told in 20:14 that “the lake of fire is the second death.” In other words, the imagery of the ‘lake of fire‘ is interpreted to mean ‘the second death.’ Often throughout the book the symbols are explained by the angel, e.g.  1:20;12:9; 17:9-10,12,15,18. Just like in all of these instances, where a symbol in the imagery is interpreted as something literal, so is the symbol ‘lake of fire’ interpreted to be literally the ‘second death.’

Now the first death is interpreted by sd proponents as physical death, and the second death as eternal separation from God. But this is an arbitrary interpretation, based not on the grammar or context of these passages, but based on the presuppositions of the theological system. There is no reason not to understand the death in the term ‘the second death’ as literal death, except for presuppositional bias. Here is how I see the situation as revealed in Scripture. All men are doomed to die the first death as a direct result of Adam’s sin {Rom. 5:12-14; 1 Cor. 15:21-22}. The only exception to this are those believers who are alive at the time of Messiah’s return in glory, these will be transformed i.e. made immortal, without ever experiencing death {1 Cor. 15:51-53; 1 Thess. 4:15-17}. All who have died will be physically raised from the dead, but not all at the same time {John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 1 Cor. 15:21-23}. Those who are in Messiah will be raised immortal, to live forever in the renewed earth. Those who have not believed the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness will be raised only to be judged and condemned to die a second time, this time not because of Adam’s sin but because of their own iniquities. From the second death there is no escape, no further resurrection. Therefore the second death is only experienced by those who have refused to love the truth. In other words, the first death is experienced by all because of Adam’s sin, but the second death is experienced only by those who do not know God, because of their own sin. The redemption of Messiah is salvation from death, both the first death and the second death. The forgiveness of sins is not the ultimate goal of redemption, but the means by which we can be reconciled to God, which then puts us in position to receive the promised immortality. All who die the first death while in a state of separation from God will experience the second death. But let me say categorically, no one has ever experienced separation from God or eternal condemnation as a result of Adam’s sin. The Scriptures no where teach such a concept.

There are only a few verses which speak of separation from God and these are used to bolster the idea of sd — Is. 59:2; Eph. 4:18; and Col. 1:21. But if you carefully read these passages you will see that in each case the separation is the result of the personal sins and iniquities committed by those who are thus separated from God. There is no hint in these passages that anyone is spiritually dead i.e. separated from God, because of Adam’s sin. In Is. 59:2 it is specifically the Israelites, as a covenant people, who are in view. Their many sins, enumerated throughout this  chapter, had caused a separation between them and their God. God would no longer hear their prayers for blessing or their cries for help {see also Is. 1:14-17}. In Eph. 4:18 it is Gentiles who are in view. But this verse does not say that they are separated from God, but rather from the life of God, i.e. the immortality that God had intended for man but which was forfeited by Adam. The Greek is strange here, reading ontes (present active participle of eimi) apellotriomenoi (perfect passive participle of apallotrioo) and literally meansbeing in a state of having been estranged from the life of God.’ The word apallotrioo is better rendered as estranged or alienated or excluded rather than separated. One of Strong’s definitions is ‘to be a non- participant.’ Now the combination of two verbs, the first being a present active participle and the second a perfect passive participle, is strange indeed. The present active verb is referring to a present state or condition in which the subjects of the verb are active in maintaining. The perfect passive is referring to a completed past action in which the subjects were passive, i.e. the action was done to them. So then the Gentiles (unsaved according to context) are continuing, by their own action, in a state of exclusion from the life (immortality) that God had intended for man originally. The initial exclusion from this life was not the direct result of their actions (it is the result of Adam’s sin, i.e. death), but their continued exclusion from that life is because of their actions (their refusal to acknowledge the true God and turn from sin to him). This verse has nothing to say about some supposed spiritual death.

Col. 1:21 is addressed to Gentile believers, whom Paul says were once in the same condition described in the Eph. 4:18 passage. The same two Greek verb forms are used here and so Paul is saying these Gentiles were once in that same state. The NIV says “alienated from God” but the ‘from God‘ is not in the Greek text. Most versions translate the Greek correctly as “alienated and enemies in mind.”  There is no reason, exegetically, to read into this the concept of sd. Of course, their “evil deeds” had estranged them from God and excluded them from his promise of immortality. Now, however, they have been reconciled “in the body of his flesh through death.” This reconciliation is typically viewed  as simply the removal of the enmity, i.e. sin, but there may be more involved here. The purpose of the reconciliation is so that we may be presented before God holy, unblemished and blameless (v. 22). Holy speaks of being set apart unto God; blameless speaks of having nothing against us for which we can be accused, and refers to the fact that our sins have been forgiven. But what exactly is meant by unblemished? Though the word can be used in an ethical or moral sense, since that idea seems to be covered by the word blameless, I think we can understand it to be referring to the our physical condition after the resurrection. This word (Gr. amomos) is used in the LXX to refer to unblemished animals for the use of sacrifice. In this regard it means without physical defect. Our being presented before God takes place only after the resurrection {see 2 Cor. 4:14; Jude 1:24}, when the corruption we inherited from Adam is annulled and we are made incorruptible and immortal {1 Cor. 15:50-55}. Part of our reconciliation therefore, is the bringing of our physical bodies into line with God’s purpose {see Rom. 8:20-25; Phil. 3:20-21} so that God’s original plan for man, immortality, may be realized.

Conclusion

It is easy to see how a misconception in one area can lead to misconceptions in other areas. If we imagine man’s problem to be spiritual death then we will view God’s solution to be primarily about that. Scripture teaches us that our problem is sin and death, alienation and deprivation of immortality. God’s solution, through Messiah’s atoning sacrifice, is reconciliation and life everlasting through resurrection from the dead.

In my next article we will study the question of whether or not man has an immortal soul that lives on consciously even after we die. We will answer the question of what happens to believers in God when they die. Is the hope of the Christian to die and go to heaven to be with  Jesus? May God enlighten us through his word.