The Biblical Meaning of "Soul"
(adapted from an article by G.V. Growcott)
'Christendom' Admits "Immortal Soul" Teaching Is Based Upon Greek Philosophy
When we turn to works of reference by the "learned" expositors of the "immortal soul" theory, we see what exactly are its foundations. Most of the writers make no attempt to conceal the fact that scriptural teaching and popular theology are very different regarding the meaning of "soul." They think that they have developed many "improvements" upon what they consider the partial and hazy conceptions voiced by the "holy men of God who spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21).
We soon find that we are forced to choose between Scripture teaching and orthodox Christianity. We are very blessed that the issue is so clearcut, and that the leading exponents of the "immortal soul" theory are so frank in their admission of its non-Biblical origin.
Webster's Dictionary says:
"The Christian conception of the soul derives from the Greek, especially as modified by the mystery cults, as well as from the Bible...
The more exact determination of the Christian conception was reserved for the Church Fathers, especially Saint Augustine, who taught that it is simple, immaterial and spiritual, devoid of quality and spatial extension. He argued its immortality from the fact that it is the repository of imperishable truth."
Funk & Wagnall Dictionary is even more to the point:
"Among the ancient Hebrews 'soul' was the equivalent of the principle of life as embodied in living creatures, and this meaning is continued throughout the Bible...
It was Augustine especially who, in part on religious grounds and in part as the disciple of the later Greek Philosophy, taught the simple, immaterial and spiritual nature of the human soul--a view which has remained that of the scholastic philosophy and of Christian theologians down to the present time."
Hasting's well-known Bible Dictionary freely admits:
"Soul is throughout a great part of the Bible simply the equivalent of 'life' embodied in a living creature. In the earlier usage of the Old Testament it has no reference to the later philosophical meaning--the animating principle--still less to the idea of an 'immaterial nature' which will survive the body."
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says:
"Soul has various shades of meaning in the Old Testament, which may be summarized as follows: Soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, appetite, emotion and passion.
Nephesh or soul, can only denote the individual life with a material organization or body.
In the New Testament 'psuche' appears under more or less similar conditions as in the Old Testament."
Young's Concordance defines both nephesh and psuche as "animal soul."
Strong's Concordance defines nephesh as, "A breathing creature, an animal; or, abstractly vitality." Psuche it likewise defines as "The animal, sentient principle."
The noted lexicographer Parkhurst (himself a believer in 'immortal-soulism') says:
"As a noun nephesh hath been supposed to signify the spiritual part of man, or what we commonly call his soul. I must for myself confess that I can find no passages where it hath undoubtedly this meaning.
Gen. 35:18, 1 Kings 17:21-22 and Psalms 16:10 seem fairest for this signification. But may not nephesh in the three former passages be most properly rendered 'breath,' and in the last, 'a breathing or animal frame'?"
These quotations show clearly that the "immortal soul" doctrine is generally admitted by its supporters to be entirely different from the BIBLE meaning of soul, and that it is based mainly upon GREEK PHILOSOPHY.
Is God's Word a Final, Infallible Authority?
The issue then is this: is the Word of God to be our final authority, or is religious truth something to be gradually developed by man's speculation on the basis of pagan Greek philosophy?
For nearly 2,000 years, the bulk of 'Christendom', beginning with "the Church Fathers", have favored the latter, but there have always been a few who have regarded the Bible as wholly inspired by God, consistent from beginning to end, and the only possible source of true knowledge of such things as life, death and the nature and destiny of man.
A Bible that is anything less than this would be NO BIBLE AT ALL. And the Bible itself leaves no room for compromise. It takes a bold and unequivocal stand throughout as the direct Word of God in every part - for example see Isaiah 1:1,2; 8:20; Jeremiah 1:1-3; John 5:39-47; 1st Corinthians 2:9-13; Galatians 1:11-12; 2nd Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; 2nd Peter 1:19-21; Revelation 1:1-2. We must accept it as that, or else throw it away entirely.
Those who take the middle ground are the Bible's greatest enemies, and this unfortunately includes the vast majority of professing Christians. They dare not openly deny its Divinity, because it is so obviously divine, but they seek to rob it of all power, by spinning an endless web of theories around it that confuse the mind and distract the attention, and obscure its plain and clear teaching.
The Bible meaning of "soul" (which modern writers mention briefly in passing), is regarded by them as a rather amusing phase of ancient Hebrew speculation, hardly worthy of serious attention, and which no one laying claim to "modern" learning would dare allow his name to be associated with.
The following brief outline of the BIBLICAL use of the term is for those few to whom the Bible is still the one unique Book among millions--the wholly inspired Divine message to man--one verse of which is worth more than countless volumes of the cloudy, inconclusive speculations of human philosophy and "modern wisdom." See 1st Corinthians 1:17-31; 2:12-16; 3:18-20.
The Original Words translated "Soul"
In the Old Testament Hebrew, the original word for "soul" is 'nephesh'. In the New Testament Greek it is 'psuche'. Both mean the same thing and are used interchangeably. One is used to translate the other.
Nephesh occurs about 750 times. About 500 times it is translated "soul" in the Authorized Version. The other 250 times it is translated by over 40 different English words, as shown on the chart.
Psuche occurs about 100 times, and is translated similarly..
It is clear from the use of these two words that "soul" relates to all of the Creation, including man, and this will become more and more clear as we consider some of the passages in which the words appear. Therefore "soul" CANNOT POSSIBLY indicate some "immortal essence" in man which distinguishes him from the lower creation.
It can be readily seen, too, that with such a range of meaning, the translators could do much to color the various passages by their choice of English words--using one set of terms when used of the lower creation and another when used of man.
On the other hand, it is evident that in an article of this kind, it is impossible to quote sufficient of the 850 occurrences to fully illustrate the word, and we must follow up this consideration by a careful and prayerful study of the Bible.
Only an individual investigation, seeking divine guidance, can bring solid, durable conviction and enlightenment. THERE IS NO SHORT CUT TO THE ENLIGHTENED FAITH THAT LEADS TO SALVATION.
"Nephesh" first used of The Lower Creation
THE FIRST FOUR OCCURRENCES OF THE WORD "NEPHESH" RELATE EXCLUSIVELY TO THE LOWER CREATION. That is a good fact to start with and to remember. A good foundation. Let us cement them firmly into our minds:
Genesis 1:20: "And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life (nephesh--soul)".
Verse 21: "And God created great whales, and every living creature (nephesh--soul) that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind".
Verse 24: "And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature (nephesh--soul) after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind".
Verse 30: "every beast of the earth...every fowl of the air...everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life (nephesh--soul)".
Then used of Man
Then, having prepared our understanding by applying "nephesh" four times to every species of living creature on the earth, the Scriptures' next use of the word is in the record of the creation of man (Genesis 2:7). Note firstly man's origin: "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground…" (and that in itself is a phrase to be well noted when we consider the nature and composition of man).
"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 (nephesh)."
HERE IS EXACTLY THE SAME WORD as four times already applied to the lower creation, now applied to man, formed of the dust of the ground, who became a living (not an ever-living) soul (nephesh--an animal, breathing creature) when God breathed into him the breath of life.
Now the usual response at this point from the "immortal soulist" is to switch over to the word spirit, and to abandon the argument based on soul. Our present subject, is however, SOUL, and we hope to thoroughly dispose of that, but in passing it may be mentioned that exactly the same remarks apply to "spirit" (often referring to "breath", "life" or "aspect of mind"). It, too, in these early foundation chapters of Genesis, is used of the lower creation and man (Genesis 6:17;7:15,22), and to the same point Solomon says (Ecclesiastes 3:19): "men" and "beasts...have all one breath (Heb.'ruwach'--elsewhere translated as "spirit"); so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity". In the NT the Grk. word 'pneuma' has exactly the same meanings as 'ruwach' - link here to 'spirit'.
In applying both of these words, soul AND spirit, to the lower creation as well as to man, the Scriptures seem to be taking special care to protect us from erroneous conceptions. Surely we should heed and accept this Divine guidance, and not depend upon the Greek philosophers against whose teachings the Apostle Paul so bitterly contended and so vehemently warned.
Used of Man and The Lower Creation Together Indiscriminately
We have considered the first five occurrences. Of the next eight, six are applied to the lower creation. There are seven places where the word is applied to man and animals together without distinction. An interesting example is Numbers 31:28:
"And levy a tribute...one soul (nephesh) of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beeves, and of the asses, and of the sheep".
One more typical passage of the use of "soul" for animals before we go on, in Proverbs 12:10:
"A righteous man regardeth the life (nephesh--soul) of his beast; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."
Surely we can consider it definitely established, therefore, that there is no difference between man and the lower creation (including animals) in the matter of being or having souls. This IS VERY IMPORTANT. It is one of the first principles of Scripture. If we have not definitely fixed this in our minds, let us keep going back over these facts and passages and remember them. They are worth more than all the volumes ever written of Greek or modern philosophy.
Adam's Sentence "Dust Thou Art"
The sentence passed on Adam is in full accord with the record of his creation from the dust (Genesis 3:19):
"Dust THOU art, and unto dust shalt THOU return."
The sentence was passed upon the conscious, thinking, sinning individual--the LIVING SOUL, created from dust, and animated by breath from God. This is in harmony with the general expression of the dispensation of God's justice, as expressed through Ezekiel:
"The soul that sinneth, IT SHALL DIE". (Ezekiel 18:4)
Any attempt to transfer this sentence from the thinking, responsible Adam to his mere body, is such an obviously weak subterfuge as not to be worthy of serious consideration.
And finally, we note, in passing, very distinctly, that in this first pronouncement of the wages of sin, THERE IS NO MENTION OF ETERNAL TORTURE--but on the contrary, the sentence is dissolution into original dust.
Nephesh: Physical Functions of Fleshly Creatures
Now a few passages to show that "soul" (Hebrew "nephesh") is not some immaterial essence, but is applied to the ordinary, natural functions of fleshly creatures:
*Proverbs 6:30: "Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul (nephesh) when he is hungry."
*Isaiah 29:8: "an hungry man dreameth, and behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul (nephesh) is empty...a thirsty man dreameth, and behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul (nephesh) hath appetite".
*Leviticus 17:10-11: "I will even set my face against that soul (nephesh) that eateth blood...For the life (nephesh--soul) of the flesh is in the blood".
*Deuteronomy 12:20-23: "Thy soul (nephesh) longeth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh, whatsoever thy soul (nephesh) lusteth after...the blood is the life (nephesh--soul); and thou mayest not eat the life (nephesh--soul) with the flesh."
It is clear that the only solution of the "immortal soulists" is to do what they have done, and regard the Bible as merely the speculations of partially enlightened men. They could not possibly agree with Peter's statement (2nd Peter 1:21), that:
"holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit."
Souls Subject to Death
Now we reach what perhaps may be termed the climax of the subject--the soul's relation to death. The term "immortal soul" expresses one side of the argument. "Immortal" means "not subject to death." That is the stand of Plato and orthodox Christendom.
Let us look at what GOD says. Now it would have been quite possible for the Scriptures never to have mentioned "soul" in connection with death. Many other terms and expressions could have been used. However we find that in nearly 300 places (about one-third of the total uses of the word) "souls" are described as being mortal, subject to death, from which they can be saved and delivered. It is therefore quite clear that God is taking special care to give us correct ideas on this subject, with the object of removing all excuse for believing in "immortal souls" after the manner of the unenlightened heathen. Examples of this are:
*Psalm 22:20: "Deliver my soul (nephesh) from the sword."
*Jeremiah 38:17: "If thou wilt assuredly go forth unto the King of Babylon's princes, then thy soul (nephesh) shall live".
*1st Samuel 19:11: "If thou save not thy life (nephesh--soul) tonight, tomorrow thou shalt be slain."
*1st Kings 19:10: "and they seek my life (nephesh--soul) to take it away."
*Esther 7:7: "Haman stood up to make request for his life (nephesh--soul)".
*Psalm 22:29: "and none can keep alive his own soul (nephesh)."
About one out of every three occurrences of the word "soul" are of this character--referring to its mortality and liability to death. How could the "immortal soul" theory be more strikingly disproved? The most prominent fact regarding the soul that is forced upon our attention throughout is its frailty and danger of destruction. Upon this important scriptural truth is based a vital lesson of Scripture:
"hear, and your soul (nephesh) shall live" (Isaiah 55:3).
Let us go further. In 32 passages, souls (nephesh) are spoken of as being KILLED BY MAN. Examples are:
Joshua 10:28: "And that day Joshua took Makkedah, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and the king thereof he utterly destroyed, them, and all the souls (nephesh) that were therein".
See also verses 30, 32, 35, 37, and 39, and compare verse 40: "Joshua...utterly destroyed all that breathed".
Deuteronomy 27:25: "Cursed be he that taketh reward to slay an innocent person (nephesh--soul)."
Let us look particularly at Leviticus 24:17-18. The Authorized Version reads:
"And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast."
In the original, nephesh occurs here four times, as follows:
"And he that smiteth the nephesh (soul) of a man, shall surely be put to death. And he that smiteth the nephesh (soul) of a beast shall make it good; nephesh for nephesh."
Here again the translators have, by inconsistent and biased translation, obscured the true scriptural meaning of "nephesh" ("soul").
One more step, and then we are as far away from the "immortal soul" theory as it is possible to be.
In 13 places souls (nephesh) are said to be actually DEAD.
Numbers 6:6: "he shall come at no dead body (nephesh)."
Leviticus 21:11: "Neither shall he go in to any dead body (nephesh)".
These are parts of the Mosaic regulations concerning uncleanness and defilement by contact with corpses.
New and Old Testaments in Harmony
All references quoted so far have been from the Old Testament. That is the foundation of the New Testament, and the word "soul" occurs in the Old over seven times as often as in the New. It is ignoring the foundation work of the Old Testament that has prevented so many from understanding the New Testament. Jesus Christ and the Apostles quoted many verses from the Old Testament.
The Bible is one single, indivisible unit. It cannot be broken up and a part cast aside. Only when it is regarded as one equally inspired and equally divine Book can it be properly understood. See 2nd Timothy 3:16. God has varied His commands at different times to different people, but statements of FACT and TRUTH never change from beginning to end.
"Soul" in the New Testament cannot be considered apart from "soul" in the Old Testament. Considering them together, we find them in complete harmony. As in the Old, so in the New, "soul" is used of the lower creation; it is spoken of as dying; it is used for the mind, the heart, the appetite, and the emotions.
"Living Soul" equals "Natural Body"
Whenever writers in the New Testament quote from passages in the Old Testament containing the Hebrew word nephesh, they use the Greek word psuche. One outstanding example will illustrate this. In 1st Corinthians 15, beginning at verse 42, Paul makes a contrast between corruption and incorruption, weakness and power, mortality and immortality. Then (verse 44) he says:
"There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body."
The word "natural" here is psuchikos--soulish, from psuche--soul. He continues, verse 45:
"And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul (psuche)".
He is quoting Genesis 2:7, which we have considered. In verse 46, he calls this "living soul" "that which is natural". In verse 47, he calls it "of the earth, earthy". In verse 50, he calls it "flesh and blood" and "corruption". Paul's conception of "soul" fits perfectly with what we have already discovered.
Similarly "souls" are applied to the lower creation, and "souls" die, in the New Testament just as in the Old Testament. In Revelation 8:9, we read:
"And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life (psuche --soul), died".
Revelation 16:3: "and every living soul (psuche) died in the sea."
Also, "soul" is used for natural life and function, exactly as in the Old Testament. In Matthew 6:25, Jesus says:
"Take no thought for your life (psuche--soul), what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink".
The "soul" here is clearly that which is supported by eating and drinking.
In Acts 15:25-26 we read concerning "our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives (psuche--soul) for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
In faithfully serving Christ, they certainly could not have been hazarding "immortal souls", but they WERE hazarding their scriptural "souls"--their natural lives and bodies.
The same applies to Paul's words in Acts 20:24: "neither count I my life (psuche--soul) dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy".
And consider Jesus' words (John 10:15): "I lay down my life (psuche--soul) for the sheep."
Also consider Philippians 2:30: "Because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life (psuche--soul)".
In all these passages, psuche is used in the common sense of natural life, and cannot be harmonized with the "immortal soul" idea.
"Not Able to Kill the Soul"
There are a few passages where some try to twist God's word in a vain endeavour to teach an "immortal soul". The one most frequently misused is 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."
The essential meaning of this verse is clearly shown in v39, where 'psuche' (translated as "soul" above) is more correctly translated as "life". A temporary preservation of one's life for present advantage will result in a permanent loss of life…"he that findeth his life shall lose it". But disregarding one's life for Christ's sake will result in life for evermore…"he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it".
Now it is rather peculiar at the outset that the one passage most quoted to support the "immortal soul" theory is one that speaks of the soul as being DESTROYED. However, we find that those misquoting it do not regard "destroyed" as meaning "destroyed", but rather the opposite--"eternally preserved". And we find further that they do not regard "kill" as resulting in "death", but rather the opposite--"eternal life in misery". We can see that with definitions such as these we could make anything prove anything. Those who use them "wrest...the...scriptures, unto their own destruction" 2nd Peter 3:16.
Biblical words translated as "hell" do not carry the meaning of a place of eternal torment, and this heresy (as with the "immortal soul") was adopted from pagan mythology - link here to 'judge'…'the Lord's day' - 7th Vision. These two lies are complementary, and of great benefit to those in spiritual power, who, by their means, extract money from gullible people - link here to 'departure' - pages 1 & 2.
We have noted that according to the Scriptures, a man can and DOES kill the "soul". We have looked at several passages to this effect, and there are many others. The first use of the word in the New Testament (Matthew 2:19,20) speaks of Herod seeking "the young child's life" (psuche--soul). The first appearance in the gospel of Mark is similar. Jesus says (Mark 3:4): "Is it lawful...on the sabbath...to save life (psuche--soul), or to kill?"
Paul in Romans 11:3 quotes Elijah from 1st Kings 19:10,14: "I am left alone, and they seek my life (Heb. nephesh--soul translated by Grk. psuche--soul)."
What is meant here by saying that man cannot kill the "soul"? The answer is that man can kill the body, but this has no permanent effect on the final destiny of the faithful - Romans 14:7-9; Colossians 4:3,4. In the ultimate, eternal sense, man can not kill the future "soul" (life) of those who are faithful. To them this is but a temporary sleep before a resurrection from the dead ,as illustrated in the ministry of the Lord - Matthew 9:18,19,23-26; 27:52; Mark 5:35-43; Luke 8:49-56; John 11:11-14,23-27,43,44; 1st Corinthians 15:6,16-23,50-53; 1st Thessalonians 4:13-18. But the wicked will be completely destroyed - Malachi 4:1; 2nd Thessalonians 1:5-10.
Some will never be raised from the grave, and will perish for ever - Proverbs 21:16; Jeremiah 51:39,57. And note the stark contrast in the following quotations between those who will be redeemed by God from the sleep of death and those who will perish forever - Job 14:12-15; Psalm 49:12,15,19,20; Isaiah 26:13,14,19,21; 1st Thessalonians 4:13-18. At the resurrection, Jesus Christ will judge all those who are responsible by a knowledge and conviction of the Truth. Those who have been faithful will be granted eternal life. Those who have been unfaithful will be rejected and destroyed - Daniel 12:1-3; Malachi 3:16 to 4:3; Matthew 25:1-46; John 5:28,29; 12:48; Acts 17:24-32; 23:6; 24:14,15,22-25; 26:6-8; Romans 2:1-16; 14:10-12; 2nd Corinthians 5:10; 2nd Timothy 4:1; Revelation 22:7-15.
Now, to sum up the points that have been covered:
1. We have seen that the doctrine of the "immortality of the soul" is admittedly traced back to pagan Greek philosophers, and many of its followers are quite willing to concede that the Bible meaning of "soul" is something very different.
2. The issue is clear and there is no middle ground--we must choose between Bible teaching and human speculation.
3. The words nephesh and psuche, translated "soul," occur about 850 times in the Bible, and these words provide absolutely no support for "immortal soulism".
4. The translators have used over 40 words in translation, and a glance at this list shows how far different the Bible "soul" is from the orthodox one.
5. The word is first used of the lower creation, and is often applied to animals etc.
6. About one-third of all its occurrences speak of it in terms which teach its mortality and subjection to death.
7. It is often spoken of as being killed by man, and it is several times spoken of as actually being dead, and being handled and touched in a dead state.
ANYTHING MORE DIFFERENT FROM THE "IMMORTAL SOUL" THEORY WOULD BE EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE. THE CHOICE WE HAVE TO MAKE IS CLEAR - BIBLE TEACHING OR PAGAN PHILOSOPHY.