Where did the idea of an "immortal soul" come from? The Bible?
FEW BELIEFS are more widely held than that of the "immortal soul." Virtually everyone is familiar with the concept. The average religious person, if asked, would state it something like this: A human person is both body and soul. The body is the physical flesh-and-blood "shell" temporarily housing the soul. The soul is the nonmaterial aspect, made of spirit. At death the soul leaves the body, and lives on consciously forever in heaven or in hell. (Some hold that liberated souls are reborn in new bodies in a series of "reincarnations" or "transmigrations.") Some form of this concept is found among virtually all peoples and religions in the world today. The average religious person generally takes the idea for granted. Science, which deals with the material universe, cannot verify or deny the existence of any such soul. How, then, can one know whether or not man really has an "immortal soul"? Few have stopped to ask where the concept came from. Many simply assume it is found in the Bible. So prepare yourself for what could be one of the big surprises of your life!
Back to Egypt
The idea of an "immortal soul" long predates the founding of today's major religions. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (5th century B.C.) tells us in his History that the ancient Egyptians were the first to teach that the soul of man is separable from the body, and immortal. This Egyptian idea was centuries before Judaism, or Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam came onto the scene. Nowhere in the ancient world was the afterlife of more concern than in Egypt. The countless tombs unearthed by archaeologists along the Nile provide eloquent testimony to the Egyptian belief that man possessed a spiritual aspect extending beyond his physical life. To the east, the ancient Babylonians also held a belief in a future life of the soul in a "lower world." But Babylonian beliefs were nowhere so elaborate as the Egyptian. A person, the Egyptians believed, consisted of a physical body and not one but two souls that lived on after his death: a ka soul and a ba soul. The ka was said to be a spirit replica of a man, containing the "vital force" given to him at birth. At death, the ka was believed to take up residence in a statue or picture of the deceased. The statue or picture was placed in the tomb for that very purpose. As the tomb was to be the eternal home of the ka, it was provided with everything the ka would need for a happy afterlife — food, furniture, games, reading material, grooming aids and the like. The other soul, the ba, was held to be that part of man that enjoyed an eternal existence in heaven. It was believed to fly from the body with the last breath. The ba was often depicted on tomb paintings as a human-headed hawk hovering over the deceased's body. The ancient Egyptians believed the ba occasionally came back to "visit" the body in the tomb and to partake of the food and drink offerings there. The famous Book of The Dead — a collection of ancient Egyptian funerary and ritual texts — lays out in great detail the many Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. In one version of the work, dating from the 15th century B.C., the ba of a deceased person is pictured as asking one of the Egyptian gods, "How long have I to live?" To which the god replied: "Thou shalt exist for millions of millions of years, a period of millions of years." What better depiction of the concept of immortality?
Passed on to Greeks
The idea of the soul's immortality did not cease with ancient Egyptian civilization. Notice again the testimony of the historian Herodotus: "The Egyptians were the first that asserted that the soul of man is immortal.... This opinion some among the Greeks have at different periods of time adopted as their own" (from Euterpe, the second book of Herodotus' History). The pagan Greeks got the concept of an immortal soul from the Egyptians! The foremost advocate among the ancient Greeks of the idea of an "immortal soul" was the Athenian philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.), the pupil of Socrates. Plato was the founder of the Academy, an institute for philosophical and scientific research just outside of Athens. The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers had no real conception of any nonmaterial element in man. The philosophers Socrates and Pythagoras were among the first of the Greeks to adopt the Egyptian view. They subsequently had a great influence on the thought of Plato. It was Plato who popularized the immortal soul concept throughout the Greek world. In the Phaedo — one of Plato's most famous works — Plato recounts Socrates' final conversation with his friends on the last day of Socrates' life. Socrates declared to them: "Be of good cheer, and do not lament my passing.... When you lay me down in my grave, say that you are burying my body only, and not my soul." Socrates' statement is little different from the teaching of most churches today! Notice also the following assertion from Plato, again taken from the Phaedo: "The soul whose inseparable attitude is life will never admit of life's opposite, death. Thus the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible.... Do we believe there is such a thing as death? To be sure. And is this anything but the separation of the soul and body? And being dead is the attainment of this separation, when the soul exists in herself and separate from the body, and the body is parted from the soul. That is death... Death is merely the separation of the soul and body." In Book X of The Republic — another of Plato's major works — he again wrote: "The soul of man is immortal and imperishable." Statements by such ancient Greek and Roman writers as Polybius, Cicero, Seneca, Strabo — and even Plato himself — have led some modern historians to question whether Plato really personally believed the immortal soul doctrine. They suggest that he may have simply popularized what he knew to be a fiction as a means of keeping the citizenry in line through the fear of mysterious "unseen things" beyond this life. The immortal soul concept, in other words, was a necessary companion doctrine to the doctrine of the terrible torments of parts of Hades or hell. Such fearsome teachings, some philosophers thought, were necessary to scare the masses into being good citizens. Regardless of his motives and personal beliefs, Plato's teachings did have a wide impact. They spread throughout the known world and were accepted as truth by millions.
Plato and the Jews
The Jewish communities of antiquity were deeply influenced by Greek philosophical ideas. Many will suppose that the Platonic view of the soul imprisoned in the flesh would have been nothing new to the Jews. But notice the testimony of Jewish scholars themselves: "The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is... nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture.... The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato, its principal exponent, who was led to it through Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in which Babylonian and Egyptian views were strangely blended" (The Jewish Encyclopedia, article, "Immortality of the Soul"). Many of you will undoubtedly be surprised to discover that the idea of the immortality of the soul was not derived by the Jews from the Old Testament scriptures, but rather taken from Plato! As we shall see, the Old Testament takes a completely different view!
But what of the professing Christian world? Certainly here we should find the doctrine of an immortal soul independent of any Greek influence. Now consider this fact: Many of the early theologians and scholars of the professing Christian religion — including such men as Origen, Tertullian and Augustine — were closely associated with Platonism. Tertullian (A.D. 155-220), for example, wrote: "For some things are known even by nature: the immortality of the soul, for instance, is held by many... I may use, therefore, the opinion of a Plato, when he declares: 'Every soul is immortal' " (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III). Notice, it is the opinion of Plato that is cited! Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) — held to be the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity — also taught the immaterial and spiritual nature of the human soul. But notice the source of his teachings. The Encyclopedia Britannica admits: "He [Augustine] fused the religion of the New Testament with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy." Why should those early professing Christian scholars have resorted to the opinions of a pagan Greek philosopher? Could it be that the immortal soul doctrine is not clearly supported in Christian Scripture? Notice the much later view of Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. More than a thousand years later, in 1522, he wrote: "It is probable, in my opinion, that, with very few exceptions, indeed, the dead sleep in utter insensibility till the day of judgment.... On what authority can it be said that the souls of the dead may not sleep... in the same way that the living pass in profound slumber the interval between their down-lying at night and their uprising in the morning?" Luther himself encountered difficulty in finding support for the immortal soul doctrine in the pages of Scripture. Notice that he asked, "On what authority...?" But the deep-seated teachings of centuries were not to be easily dislodged, even by Protestant reformers. Theologians and churchgoers alike persisted, for the most part, in their unquestioning embrace of the ideas passed down from the ancient pagan philosophers. As the Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes: "Traditional Western philosophy, starting with the ancient Greeks... shaped the basic Western concepts of the soul."
What the Bible REALLY Says!
Notice the warning of the apostle Paul, who once personally confronted Greek thinkers on Mars Hill in ancient Athens (Acts 17:15-34). To the Greeks in Colossae in Asia Minor he wrote: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" (Col. 2:8). Jesus Christ himself warned of "making the word of God of none effect through your tradition" (Mark 7:13). "In vain they do worship me," he lamented, "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9). So what does the Bible really say? Consider first the teaching of the Old Testament. As we have seen, the Jews living in the Hellenistic world admit they took the immortal soul doctrine from Plato. Why? Because it is nowhere found in the Hebrew Scriptures! Notice Genesis 2:7: "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." Consider carefully: Man — formed of the dust of the ground, not out of spirit — "became" a living soul. A soul is what man is. It is not something a man has. The Hebrew language further proves this point. The Hebrew word translated as "soul" in Genesis 2:7 in the widely used King James Version of the Bible is nephesh. Nephesh designates temporary physical life. It means a living, breathing creature. This is the same word used frequently in the first chapter of Genesis and elsewhere in reference to animals. Notice, for example, Genesis 1:24: "And God said, let the earth bring forth the living creature [nephesh] after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so." Here the word creature is the identical Hebrew word that is used in Genesis 2:7 and throughout the Old Testament for "soul." In biblical usage, a brute beast is also a "soul"! In Leviticus 21:11, Numbers 6:6, Haggai 2:13 and elsewhere, the word nephesh is even used with reference to a dead body! Nephesh clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with any sort of spirit essence. The soul is not a sepa rate entity from the body. It is the body! Man is a nephesh. He is a soul! Many additional Old Testament scriptures reveal clearly the mortality — not the immortality — of the soul. Ezekiel 18:4, 20, for example, declares that a soul can die! Read it for yourself: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." If the soul were immortal, how could it die? It's a direct contradiction of terms! No wonder Jewish scholars today have to point to Plato as the origin of the immortal soul doctrine!
The New Testament Speaks
What about the New Testament? Surely here we find biblical proof for an immortal soul. Or do we? In the New Testament, "soul" is a translation of the Greek word psuche. Psuche is the equivalent of the Hebrew word nephesh. Like nephesh, psuche is frequently rendered "life" in addition to "soul." Psuche is twice used in the New Testament for the lower animals, exactly in the same way as the Hebrew nephesh can refer to the life of animals. In these two scriptures (Rev. 8:9 and 16:3), psuche is rendered "life" and "soul' respectively, with reference to the life of sea creatures. The word psuche has no connotation whatsoever of "spirit essence" or "immortal soul"! Jesus Christ, in fact, declared that God is able to destroy one's soul (Greek psuche, or life) in gehenna fire (Matt. 10:28). The words immortal soul are found nowhere in the Bible — Old Testament or New. The word immortal occurs only once in the entire Bible — in I Timothy 1:17, where it refers specifically to Jesus Christ! The word immortality is found only in the New Testament, where it occurs fewer than half a dozen times. One of those places — I Timothy 6:16 — clearly states that, of all humans, Jesus Christ "ONLY hath immortality"! Romans 2:7 admonishes Christians to "SEEK FOR... immortality." If man already had immortality, he would not have to seek for it! I Corinthians 15 — the "resurrection chapter" of the Bible — shows that a Christian "puts on" immortality at a future resurrection of the dead (see verses 50-54). As Jesus clearly stated: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6). Man — born of the flesh — is flesh. He was not created with inherent immortality. He has only a temporary physiochemical existence. "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return," God told Adam (Gen. 3:19). Only when mortal man is "born again" in a future resurrection will he finally put on immortality and be spirit! Why would a resurrection of the body be needed if the soul were already in heaven? The soul does not go to heaven! The mortal soul — man's physical life — dies and turns to dust! (Write for our free publications Just What Do You Mean — Born Again? and The Three Resurrections for more about this much-misunderstood subject) The New Testament, then, teaches the resurrection — a rising from the dead — in direct opposition to the pagan Greek idea of an immortal soul. The resurrection is our only hope of eternal life! Jesus Christ's resurrection was a type or forerunner of the resurrection God promises to all who obey him (John 5:28-29; 11:25; Rom. 8:11; Phil. 3:10-11). Man has no hope of future life inherent within himself!
The "Spirit in Man"
Now understand an additional basic truth. Few have ever grasped it. Since man's material "soul" — his body and its physical life processes — are corruptible and perish after death, how is it possible for God to ultimately resurrect an individual? If everything is physical and turns to dust, what is there that remains of a person to be "brought back"? How are his personality, his memory, and his character preserved by God until a day of resurrection? The answer is simply that not everything about a man is physical! The Bible calls this nonphysical component the "spirit [Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma] in man" (Job 32:8; Zech. 12:1; I Cor. 2:11). It is not the man. It is in man. This spirit in man, however, has no consciousness apart from the physical human brain. It is not to be confused in any way with the fictional concept of a conscious "immortal soul." "The dead know not anything," the Bible declares (Eccl. 9:5, 10). In the day of a man's death, "his thoughts perish" (Ps. 146:4). The Bible clearly pictures death as a sleep — a state of unconsciousness (Dan. 12:2). At death, this spirit in man "shall return unto God who gave it" (Eccl. 12:7). It is then "filed away," so to speak, like a tape recording for God's future use at a resurrection. On it is indelibly recorded one's character and the many experiences accumulated during one's lifetime. (See the accompanying article "What Is Man?" in this issue for a further explanation) It is also this "spirit in man" — as often explained in the pages of this magazine — that sets man apart from the animals. It is what makes man unique. It imparts to the living human brain the power of intellect to comprehend materialistic knowledge. It is the source of human intelligence. It is not present in animal brain. (For a further examination of the spirit in man concept, write for editor-in-chief Herbert W. Armstrong's book The Incredible Human Potential. It is free upon request)
Whole World Deceived
There is no scriptural basis whatever for belief in an "immortal soul" surviving consciously after death. Throughout the centuries of professing Christianity, innumerable sermons have been preached and countless pamphlets written supposedly "proving" the soul's immortality. Upon careful and open-minded examination, they are all found riddled with gross error and misrepresentation! The doctrine of the immortal soul is built on a foundation of biblical mistranslations, false premises, sloppy scholarship and even outright dishonesty. Few ministers and laymen have had the spiritual courage to take a fresh, unprejudiced look at the question and accept the true Bible teaching. For when the false doctrine of the immortal soul is toppled, along with it falls the equally pagan and false concept of Heaven and Hell — one of the cornerstones of traditional Christianity! Satan the devil has succeeded — for the time being — in deceiving the whole world (Rev. 12:9). It was he who first introduced the idea that man does not really die, but is inherently immortal. "Ye shall not surely die;" Satan lied to Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:4). God's future for mankind is far more transcendent than the common picture of immortal souls floating on clouds and strumming harps for eternity. For those who choose it and qualify, there is life after death by a resurrection. But that life will come through a new birth as an immortal spirit being into the very family of God — by means of a future resurrection from the dead! Write for our booklets What Will You Be Doing in the Next Life?, What is the Reward of the Saved? and The Wonderful World Tomorrow — What It Will Be Like? It is time to cast off the fables and traditions of men and understand the great meaning and purpose of human life as revealed in the Bible! Will you have the courage to look into it for yourself?