|Topical Bible Study||April 1959|
The Bible versus Tradition—Article IV
Immortality and the Human Soul
“The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” —Genesis 2:7
TRADITION holds that man possesses an immortal soul which can and does live apart from the human body, in which it resides until the body dies. According to this tradition, when the body dies, the soul escapes. Being immortal it cannot die, so it continues alive either in a state of happiness or of suffering, depending on how well it managed the human body in which it once resided.
Science does not agree with this tradition, for no trace of this claimed separate entity has ever been discovered in the human body. There is no microscope powerful enough to reveal it. Some have weighed a human body just before and immediately after death, but without conclusive proof that a soul weighing even as little as an ounce had escaped.
To overcome the objection that a separate entity, living and vigorous, has never been found in a human body, one Methodist bishop defined the human soul as being without interior or exterior, without body, shape, or parts, and so small that a million of them could be put into a nutshell, and yet there would be room for more. As is often true with respect to traditions, some will go to extreme lengths in order to prove their validity. But we are not particularly interested in traditions, either the immortal soul tradition, or others, except to discover the extent to which they may be in harmony with, or contrary to, the inspired Word of God.
It is generally supposed that the Bible teaches that man possesses an immortal soul, but actually the Bible says nothing at all about an immortal soul. The expression, “immortal soul,” or any equivalent thereof, does not appear anywhere in the Bible. The King James Version does not contain it, nor do any of the more modern translations.
But this, of course, is a negative approach to the subject. It is more important to discover what the Bible does teach concerning the human soul, and we think that a good place to start is with the text which appears at the head of this article. This is a very important text, for in it we are informed as to how God created the first human soul, and of exactly what it consists. While the microscope fails to reveal the traditional “immortal soul,” which is so small that you could put a million of them in a nutshell and still have room left, the soul revealed by God’s Word is quite visible.
In our text we are told that man “became a living soul.” The body was formed from the elements of the earth, but it had no life; it was not a soul. God breathed into this body the breath of life. But the breath of life was not the soul. The body was lifeless until animated by the breath of life. The brain could not think; the eyes could not see; the ears could not hear; the tongue could not taste. It could neither smell nor feel. But all the organs of that perfect body at once became alive when God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life. Man “became” a living soul. From this explanation which the Bible furnishes, we learn that man does not possess a soul, but that he IS a soul, which means simply that man, when alive, is a living being.
Nor is the “breath of life” which animates the human organism any different than the breath of life given to the lower animals. Referring to the “beasts and every creeping thing” which perished in the Flood, we read, “All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.” (Gen. 7:21,22) In Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 we are informed concerning man and beast that they “have all one breath, so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast.”
Since the word soul simply means living being, we find the Bible referring to the lower animals as souls. Numbers 31:28 reads, “Levy a tribute unto the Lord of the men of war which went out to battle: one SOUL of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beeves, and of the asses, and of the sheep.” From this we see that we could just as properly speak of “sheep souls” as of human souls. Also, in Genesis 1:20, the expression, “the moving [margin, creeping] creature that hath life [margin, soul], and fowl that may fly,” shows that the lower creatures are souls,” and that the words, “life” and “soul” are synonymous.
A sheep soul is not inferior to a human soul because its body is different or because its body is animated by a different breath of life. The difference is in the construction of the organism, particularly in the formation of the brain. In some respects the organisms of some of the lower animals are superior to man’s. A dog, for example, has a much keener sense of smell and hearing. An eagle’s eyesight is far superior to man’s.
But God in his great wisdom was able to create man in his own image, in the sense that he gave him ability to reason, and the ability to know right from wrong. It is impossible for us to understand how a dog is able to smell and to hear. Much less are we able to know and to explain why the human brain can function on such a pre-eminently higher plane as to have a moral sense of right and wrong. Since man can thus reason on a moral plane he possesses what we call a conscience. He is ill at ease when he does wrong, and is happy when he has attempted faithfully to live up to that which he knows to be right.
When God said to Adam, “thou shalt surely die,” he meant that as a living soul Adam would cease to exist. In Ezekiel 18:4 the Lord says, “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth it shall die.” This simply means that the person who sins shall die, and since all are born in sin, the entire human race is dying.
But God in his great love has provided redemption from death for all sinful souls, or persons. This is through the gift of his beloved Son, Christ Jesus, who died that the dead world might have an opportunity to live. Concerning Jesus’ sacrificial death on behalf of the sin-cursed and dying race, the Prophet Isaiah wrote that his “soul” was made an offering for sin, and also that he “poured out his soul unto death.”—Isa. 53:10,12
It was the living soul Adam that was condemned to death, and all his descendants as living souls lost life through him, because all inherited sin and imperfection. Paul wrote that “in Adam all die,” adding to this, “even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” And again, “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.”—I Cor. 15:21,22
John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Adam and all past generations of his children have fallen asleep in death, but they have not “perished,” because through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, and by the exercise of divine power, they are to be awakened in the resurrection and given an opportunity to believe, and upon the basis of their belief and obedience, to live forever.
Some are given this opportunity in the present life. These are the ones who are called to discipleship. Accepting Jesus as their Redeemer and responding to the invitation to take up their cross and follow him, they gladly lay down their lives with him, being planted together in the likeness of his death. (Rom. 6:3-6) These are referred to in Revelation 20:4 as the “souls” which are “beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the Word of God.”
In connection with those who die “in Christ,” and emphasizing the importance of the resurrection, Paul wrote, “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.” (I Cor. 15:17,18) Because there is to be a resurrection of the dead, Paul speaks of Christians who die as merely being asleep. If there were to be no resurrection of the dead, then even those who faithfully lay down their lives in serving the Lord would “perish” in death.
Jesus emphasizes this same important truth in an admonition to his disciples to meet courageously any and all opposition that might be pitted against them, even though they might be persecuted unto death. He said, “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 [Gehenna].”—Matt. 10:28
This does not imply that the soul can live apart from the body, for actually the body is the organism of the soul. Rather, Jesus is speaking from the standpoint of the divine plan to awaken the dead in the resurrection. It was from this standpoint that Paul could say that Christians who fell asleep in death had not “perished.” If an enemy puts a Christian to death, he has not perished as a soul. The body dies, but the person, the soul, merely “sleeps” until the resurrection. But if a Christian becomes a willful sinner and is not worthy of a resurrection, then death means extinction of that person, or soul, forever.
Jesus explained this from another standpoint, as recorded in Luke 20:37,38. We quote: “Now that the dead are raised, even Moses showed at the bush, when he calleth the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him.” Jesus did not say that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had gone to heaven to live with God. He simply explained that because there is to be a resurrection of the dead, and these faithful servants will be restored to life, God does not consider them as having gone out of existence—they “live unto him,” or, to him they are alive.
So it is with all God’s faithful servants of the past. They may have been “sawn asunder” by their enemies; they may have been thrown to the lions, or beheaded, or burned at the stake, but to God they still live, they have not “perished,” for he has the power and will use that power to awaken them from the sleep of death.
The “souls” which are “beheaded,” as mentioned in Revelation 20:4, are brought forth in the “first resurrection” to live and reign with Christ a thousand years. The “souls” that died serving God during the ages preceding Jesus’ first advent will come forth to a “better resurrection,” to serve as “princes in all the earth.”—Heb. 11:35; Ps. 45:16
The Hope of Immortality
As we have already noted, the expression “immortal soul” is not found anywhere in the Bible. The word “immortal” appears only once in the entire Bible, and in that one instance it is applied to the Lord, and not to man. The text reads, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever.”—I Tim. 1:17
Also in this letter to Timothy, Paul wrote concerning the Lord, “Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honor and power everlasting.”—I Tim. 6:16
These two texts of Scripture prove beyond doubt that man does not inherently possess immortality. They reveal that immortality is a quality of the divine nature. Jehovah, the Creator, alone originally possessed immortality, but when Jesus was raised from the dead it was given to him as a reward for his faithfulness in laying down his humanity, his human nature, for the sins of the world.
And now the hope of attaining immortality is held out in the Scriptures to all those who follow faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus, laying down their lives in sacrifice even as Jesus did. It is in this connection, and with reference to Jesus’ true disciples, that Paul wrote: “To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality.” (Rom. 2:7) We do not seek for that which we already possess.
The Christian’s hope of immortality will find fruition in the resurrection. Writing concerning this Paul said, “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” (I Cor. 15:53) Yes, immortality is a quality which, by divine power, must be “put on” in the resurrection. It is not an inherent quality of humans, or human souls.
I Corinthians 15:54 reads, “So when this corruptible shall have put in 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.” Notice how clearly the apostle states that Christians are now “mortal,” not immortal. It is in the resurrection that they “put on” immortality.
It is also interesting and revealing to notice Paul’s reasoning in connection with his use of “shall have” and “then shall be.” Taking his position after the true disciples of Christ have been raised from the dead and exalted to immortality he explains that when this “shall have” been accomplished “then shall be brought to pass the saying …, Death is swallowed up in victory.”—vs. 54
The “saying” that “death is swallowed up in victory” which Paul explains will be “brought to pass” after the disciples of Christ are brought forth in the resurrection and exalted to immortality, is found in Isaiah 25:6-9. This is a prophecy of the kingdom of Christ and the blessings it will bring to the people of all nations. In this kingdom, the followers of Jesus who prove worthy of the “first resurrection,” will “live and reign with Christ.” In this kingdom, symbolized by a “mountain,” the Lord will “make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.”
And in this kingdom the Lord will also “destroy … the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people will he take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it. And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
Here is a marvelous prophecy assuring us that through the administration of Christ’s kingdom, death, with all its attendant evils, will be destroyed. And, as Paul explains, this glorious work of the kingdom follows the resurrection and exaltation of the followers of Jesus to glory, honor, and immortality. It is in this exalted position that they will reign with Christ for the purpose of sharing with him in the dispensing of health and life on earth to the millions of mankind who have died, and are dying, as a result of Adam’s sin.
The Apostle Peter refers to the period in the plan of salvation when the work of restoring mankind to life is to be accomplished as “the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of his [God’s] holy prophets since the world began.” (Acts 3:19-21) Just as the Apostle Peter declares, all the Old Testament prophets, speaking as the mouthpieces of God, foretold this coming time of blessing, when, through Christ, all will be given an opportunity to believe, obey the laws of the kingdom, and live forever.
However, Peter points out that this will not necessarily mean universal salvation. All will be released from the original condemnation which came upon the race through Adam. But after that, each individual will need to prove his worthiness of everlasting life. Concerning this Peter says, “It shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.”—Acts 3:23
Notice, Peter in telling us that those who are enlightened by “that Prophet” and refuse to obey, will be destroyed, refers to them as “souls.” This agrees with Ezekiel 18:4 which declares, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” In these texts, as throughout the whole Bible, the word “soul” applies to the entire being. It is not a separate entity which dwells within the human body and escapes when the body dies.
While, as we have seen, the Bible does hold out the hope of immortality as a reward for faithfulness in Christian discipleship, it nowhere makes mention of the traditional “immortal soul.” Seemingly this particular tradition had its origin with the Babylonians, although many give credit to the ancient Greeks. In the year 1946, a committee of eminent churchmen in Great Britain, five of them bishops of the Church of England, issued a report on the need of converting Great Britain to Christianity. In this report, these men, who had been appointed to the committee by the Archbishop of Canterbury, set forth what they believed to be the Gospel which should be preached, or re-preached to the British people. In this connection the committee said:
“Ultimately all that is found valueless in God’s sight must and will be abolished, that that which he can use may be set free, that God may be ‘all in all.’ Revelation and reason alike point to this inevitable consummation. The idea of the inherent indestructibility of the human soul (or consciousness) owes its origin to Greek, not to Bible sources.”
We are glad for this forthright statement of fact by these eminent men of the Church of England. We are glad, even as they say, that all things out of harmony with God, including these misleading human traditions, are to be destroyed. This will be accomplished by the reign of Christ, at the conclusion of which, God’s will shall be done in earth even as it is in heaven. Then the true knowledge of God will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.—Isa. 11:9