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 devise 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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: Troy Salinger

I am 55 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 32 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 36 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

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