Most religions teach some form of life after death. The ancient Egyptians, for example, practiced elaborate ceremonies to prepare the pharaohs for their next life. They constructed massive pyramids and other elaborate tombs filled with luxuries the deceased were assumed to need in the hereafter.
In some civilizations when a ruler died others who had accompanied and served him in his life were put to death so they could immediately serve him in the afterlife. Wives and other relatives, servants, sometimes even household pets joined him in death and a supposed entrance into a new life on the other side.
Belief in the immortality of the soul was an important aspect of ancient thought espoused by the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato, in Phaedo, presents Socrates' explanation of death: “Is it not the separation of soul and body? And to be dead is the completion of this; when the soul exists in herself, and is released from the body and body is released from the soul, what is this but death?”
Socrates explained that the immortal soul, once freed from the body, is rewarded according to good deeds or punished for evil. Socrates lived ca. 470-399 B.C., so his view of the soul predated Christianity.
Plato (ca. 428-348 B.C.) saw man's existence as divided into the material and spiritual, or “Ideal,” realms. “Plato reasoned that the soul, being eternal, must have had a pre-existence in the ideal world where it learned about the eternal Ideals”. In Plato's reasoning, man is meant to attain goodness and return to the Ideal through the experiences of the transmigration of the soul. Thus secular philosophies sanction the idea of the immortal soul, even though the Bible does not. Believe it or not, God's Word teaches something entirely different.
History of a Controversial TeachingThe doctrine of the immortal soul caused much controversy in the early Catholic Church.
Origen (ca. 185-254) was the first person to attempt to organize Christian doctrine into a systematic theology. He was an admirer of Plato and believed in the immortality of the soul and that it would depart to an everlasting reward or everlasting punishment at death.
In Origen De Principiis he wrote: “… The soul, having a substance and life of its own, shall after its departure from the world, be rewarded according to its deserts, being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its actions shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this …”
Origen taught that human souls existed before the body but are imprisoned in the physical world as a form of punishment. Physical life, he reasoned, is a purification process to return humans to a spiritual state.
Later Saint Augustine (354-430) tackled the problem of the immortality of the soul and death. For Augustine death meant the destruction of the body, but the conscious soul would continue to live in either a blissful state with God or an agonizing state of separation from God.
In The City of God he wrote that the soul “is therefore called immortal, because in a sense, it does not cease to live and to feel; while the body is called mortal because it can be forsaken of all life, and cannot by itself live at all. The death, then, of the soul, takes place when God forsakes it, as the death of the body when the soul forsakes it”
The influences of pagan Platonic philosophy on Origen and Augustine are profound. Richard Tarnas, in his best-seller The Passion of the Western Mind, points to this influence: “… It was Augustine's formulation of Christian Platonism that was to permeate virtually all of medieval Christian thought in the West. So enthusiastic was the Christian integration of the Greek spirit that Socrates and Plato were frequently regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints …” .
Centuries later St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) crystallized the doctrine of the immortal soul in The Summa Theologica. He taught that the soul is a conscious intellect and will and cannot be destroyed.
A few centuries later the leaders of the Protestant Reformation generally accepted these traditional views, so they became entrenched in traditional Protestant teaching.
The immortality of the soul is foundational in Western thought, both philosophical and religious. Belief in going to heaven or hell depends on it. But does the Bible teach that death is the separation of body and soul or that the soul is immortal?
Hebrew Understanding of the SoulThe Hebrew word translated “soul” in the Old Testament is nephesh, which simply means “a breathing creature.” Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines nephesh as “the essence of life, the act of breathing, taking breath … The problem with the English term 'soul' is that no actual equivalent of the term or the idea behind it is represented in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew system of thought does not include the combination or opposition of the 'body' and 'soul' which are really Greek and Latin in origin”.
The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible makes this comment on nephesh: “The word 'soul' in English, though it has to some extent naturalized the Hebrew idiom, frequently carries with it overtones, ultimately coming from philosophical Greek (Platonism) and from Orphism and Gnosticism which are absent in 'nephesh.' In the OT it never means the immortal soul, but it is essentially the life principle, or the living being, or the self as the subject of appetite, and emotion, occasionally of volition”.
That nephesh doesn't refer to an immortal soul can be seen in the way the word is used in the Old Testament. It is translated “soul” or “being” in reference to man in Genesis 2:7 which says: And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
The Hebrew Scriptures state plainly that, rather than possess immortality, the soul can and does die. “The soul [ nephesh ) who sins shall die” In Ezekiel 18:4, it says, "Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins, it shall die." And, Ezekiel 18:20 says, "The soul that sins, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on him."
The Old Testament describes the dead as going to sheol, translated into English as “hell,” “pit” or “grave.” Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 says: "For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun."
The American King James Version of the Bible describes sheol as a place of unconsciousness: “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished …”
The immortal-soul concept isn't part of the Old Testament, but it began to make inroads into Jewish thought as Jews came in contact with Greek culture. In the first century the Jewish philosopher Philo taught a Platonic concept: “… The death of a man is the separation of his soul from his body …” ( The Works of Philo, translated by C.D. Yonge, 1993, p. 37). Philo followed the Hellenistic view that the soul is freed upon death to an everlasting life of virtue or evil.
The Apostles' ViewIn the New Testament the Greek word translated “soul” is psuche, which is also translated “life.”
In Psalms 16:10, it says, "For you will not leave my soul in hell; neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption." David uses nephesh (“soul”) to claim that the “Holy One,” or Messiah, wouldn't be left in sheol, the grave. Peter quotes this verse in Acts 2:27 "Because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption."
Like nephesh, psuche refers to human “souls”. In Acts 2:41. "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added to them about three thousand souls.
Jesus declared that God can destroy man's psuche, or “soul” in Matthew 10:28:,"And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."
So, if the Old Testament describes death as an unconscious state, how does the New Testament describe it.
No one wrote more about this subject than the apostle Paul. He describes death as “sleep” In 1 Corinthians 15:51-58, it says, "Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be you steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for as much as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
Many people are surprised to find that the term immortal soul appears nowhere in the Bible. However, though the Scriptures do not speak of the soul as being immortal, Jesus said, "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which sees the Son, and believes on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day."