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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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