The Soul in Western Thought

Silhouette of a man walking into light
A familiar image of death.
OF GHOSTS, LINGERING REALTIVES AND INK SPOTS

Science will be of little help to us here.  There is no hard scientific evidence for the existence of the soul. There is no observation to be made, no experiment to be conducted.  Everything we believe regarding the existence of the soul comes to us from somewhere other than empirical evidence.

While traditions of burial and the ceremony which accompanied one into the afterlife existed all the way back to the beginnings of civilizations, it was the Greeks who have been credited with being the first to carefully work out what they believed regarding how we transvers the hereafter – the existence of the soul1. From there this immortal entity takes on a life of its own through religious traditions, through works of fiction, television shows and movies. Yes, Hollywood has helped to shape what people believe about the afterlife.

So, what do we believe regarding the soul?

  • Is it, as in the movie Ghost, a manifestation that looks like its host that cannot move on to the afterlife until unfinished business is attended?  Do the souls of good people disappear in a soft burst of comforting light while the souls of the wicked are dragged off screaming by demonic spirits that resemble ink spots?
Zucker, Jerry. 1990. Ghost. United States: Paramount Pictures.
  • In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146, the soul is given a will of its own in that the poet asks it directly why it allows so much attention to be given the body, which will end up in death eaten of worms, and so little attention is given the soul.  Does the soul have a life of its own?
  • Do we believe that the souls of people linger on after the death of the body to haunt the living?  This is the picture painted by countless authors, both fiction and non-fiction, and by Hollywood.  From the noble motives of the ghost of Jacob Marley (Charles Dickens) to the abject horror of the ghostly influences on Jack Torrance (Stephen King), the souls of the departed are depicted as exerting influence on the living by lingering around after death.  Is this what we believe?
  • Or do the souls of the departed linger in a quieter, less intrusive way, silently watching their charges, stepping in only when necessary, as does Clarence Odbody, the awkward guardian angel in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life?  Maybe the souls of the departed become angels?

Whatever we as Christians believe about the hereafter, it should come from the Bible, right? So, does the idea of an immortal soul that lives on past the death of the body have scriptural support?

The first mention of the word “soul” in an English Bible appears in the first book:

The word “soul” here is translated into English from the original Hebrew – nephesh. The meaning of that word is where we must start. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (5315) gives us the following definition:

nephesh (neh’-fesh): a soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, passion, appetite, emotion.

It is translated, in the KJV, 428 times as “soul”, but is also rendered “person” (30), “heart” (15), “creature” (9), ‘body” (7) and even “mortal” (1). 

In the Old Testament passages below, the word into which the Hebrew nephesh is translated is presented in bold.  We do not appear to be talking about an immortal, intangible part of a human being that is conscious and aware beyond the death of the body; not in these passages anyway.

  • And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. (Genesis 32:30)
  • Then you shall appoint your cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee there, that has killed any person unawares.  (Number 35:11)
  • Neither shall he [high priest] go in to any dead body… (Leviticus 21:11)
  • For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee. (Proverbs 23:7)
  • But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. (Genesis 9:4-5)

The New American Standard Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon defines nephesh as follows:

  1. soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion
    • that which breathes, the breathing substance or being, soul, the inner being of man
    • living being
    • living being (with life in the blood)
    • the man himself, self, person or individual
    • seat of the appetites
    • seat of emotions and passions

The NAS rendering of the word nephesh favors “life” – 146, “lives” – 34, “person(s)” – 87 and variations of “self” – 73 (including herself, himself, myself, ourselves, themselves, yourself and yourselves). It is rendered “soul” just 238 times to the 428 times in the KJV.

So, 238 times in the NAS compared with 428 times in the KJV, the Hebrew nephesh is translated “soul”, but refers also to a living, breathing conscious body, rather than to an immortal soul. The Encyclopedia of Judaism says, “Even as we are conscious of the broad and very common biblical usage of the term ‘soul,’ we must be clear that scripture does not present even a rudimentarily developed theology of the soul.”2

Why did the translators have such trouble with the word, nephesh? When we think of the word “soul” we think of something that transcends life, yet the meaning of this ancient Hebrew word seems to dance around this mortal life alone. Could it be that we got it wrong?

“Indeed, the salvation of the ‘immortal soul’ has sometimes been commonplace in preaching, but it is fundamentally unbiblical.”3

“The concept of an immaterial soul separate from and surviving the body is common today but according to modern scholars, it was not found in ancient Hebrew beliefs. The word nephesh never means an immortal soul or an incorporeal part of the human being that can survive death of the body as the spirit of dead.”4

“A broad consensus emerged among biblical and theological scholars that soul-body dualism is a Platonic, Hellenistic idea that is not found anywhere in the Bible. The Bible, from cover to cover, promotes what they call the ‘Hebrew concept of the whole person.’”5

Our argument here, that the traditional concept of an immortal soul does not find its basis in scripture, enjoys a wealth of support from the world of biblical scholarship. In Appendix A, I listed nearly two dozen quotes and excerpts from Bible scholars, theologians, Biblical historians and so forth regarding this subject.

Let’s Go to the New Testament

The New Testament word translated “soul” is the Greek – psuche’.  Strong’s (5590) gives us the following definition:

psuche’ (psoo-khay’): the vital breath, breath of life, the human soul, the soul as the seat of affections and will, the self, a human person, an individual.

In the King James Version, it is translated “soul” 58 times, “life” 40 times, “mind” 3 times and “heart” once.

For example, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the original Greek (psuche’) is translated “life”.

  • Therefore, I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear.  Isn’t your life more than food and your body more than clothing?  (Matthew 6:25)

It seems, also, that the original words that were translated “soul” in our earliest English Bibles (nephesh in the OT and psuche’ in the NT) carry the same idea. The Septuagint, the first translation of the entire Hebrew Bible, a very important work, was translated from the ancient Jewish language into Greek. The Hebrew nephesh was rendered psuche’ throughout – another indicator that we are on to something here, the idea that Plato’s “soul” was never intended to find its way into Christian thought. The ancient biblical writers did not have the same concept of the human soul as is commonly held today. When they used those words, they had in mind “person”, “life”, or “living being” as opposed to something incorporeal – ghosts, disembodied spirits, souls, and other ghoulish apparitions.

There is little indication that when the Bible speaks of the soul that it is referring to an abstract part of our being that is conscious and lives on after we die.  The concept of the soul living on past the death of its body in some form has its origins in Greek philosophy, not in Biblical teaching.

Genesis 2:7 is the most authoritative passage of scripture we have on this subject and it lays the foundation about how God created us:

Ninety-nine percent of the human body is made up of a compound of just six chemicals: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus.  Scientists cannot tell us what “life” is, but without it we are nothing more than a lump of clay.  “Life” comes from God.

So, when God breathed life into Adam, He did not give a pile of dust a soul, but that pile of dust became a living soul [nephesh] – a living being.

Endnotes:

1Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Soul”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 6 May. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/soul-religion-and-philosophy. Accessed 3 May 2021.

2Avery-Peck, “Soul”, in Neusner, et al. (eds.), “The Encyclopedia of Judaism”, p. 1343 ©2000)

3Freedman, D. N., Myers, A. C., Beck, A. B., FREEDMAN, e. (2000). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Netherlands: W.B. Eerdmans.

4Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Father Xavier Leon Dufour, ©1985, and New International Dictionary all under the main article, Immortality of the Soul.

5McMinn & Phillips, Care for the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Psychology & Theology, Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, ©2001, pp. 107-108

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