What the Bible Does (and Doesn’t) Say About the Life (or Death) of the Soul

As Christians, we believe humans are more than merely physical creatures. We are also “soulish” beings; living souls who also possess physical bodies. As a result, the vast majority of Christians believe our souls are unaffected by our physical death. We are eternal beings, even though our earthly bodies eventually die. Other groups, also using the Bible as their source of information about the soul, have argued souls die along with the body, entering what is sometimes called “soul sleep”. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christadelphians all hold this position. Part of the problem is simply a matter of terminology. When we use the term “soul” as we have been using it in this post, we are referring to the existence of our immaterial being. But when Bible translators translate the original Hebrew and Greek words used by the Biblical authors, they are actually translating words typically used to describe something else:

Bible LIfe and Death

The Old Testament word, “nephesh” (neh’-fesh)
This word has been translated as “soul” on occasion in the Old Testament, but that’s not how the ancient Israelites understood the word. They used it throughout the Old Testament to describe any breathing creature or animal, and it is more often translated as “appetite”, “beast”, “body”, “breath”, “creature”, “dead”, “lust”, “man”, “mind”, “person”, or “life”, than it is translated as “soul”.

The New Testament word, “psuche” (psoo-khay’)
Like “nephesh”, this word has been translated as “soul” as well, but literally means “breath” and can accurately be translated as “heart”, “life”, “mind”, “us”, or “you” in addition to the connotation we would understand as “soul”.

How, then, are we to know exactly how the original writers of Scripture were using these words? How do we know whether they were using the words to describe some aspect of our temporal life or whether they were using the words to describe the soul? Let’s take, for example, Ezekiel 18:4, a passage often cited by Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to make the case we, as living souls, die or sleep when our bodies die:

Ezekiel 18:4
“Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.”

From a simple reading of this passage, it sure sounds like souls die. But the word being used as “soul” is “nephesh” and we know it is more often used to describe living physical beings (creatures). So this passage could just as easily (and may more accurately) be translated in this way:

“Behold, all lives are Mine; the life of the father as well as the life of the son is Mine. The person (life) who sins will die.”

See the problem here? We really can’t make the case for the mortality of the soul from a simple word study in the Old or New Testament. But Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the only ones who have to be careful. Those who try to prove the soul is immortal from a simple word study also fall into this same trap. Let’s take one example:

Psalms 84:2
“My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”

Those arguing for the immortality of the soul use this passage to demonstrate the soul is clearly defined as something different than the heart and the flesh of the body. But once again we have to remember the word used for “soul” (“nephesh”) is most often translated in a different way. This could just as easily be what the psalmist intended:

“My entire being yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”

What the Bible Says About the Everlasting Nature of the Soul
Word studies
simply don’t help us understand the nature of the soul in regard to its immortality. There is a better way to examine the Biblical evidence without relying on any interpretation of “nephesh” or “psuche”. Let’s simply study examples in the Scripture where people are described as living beyond their physical bodies. If we see instances of “living disembodiment”, it is fair to conclude we are immaterial beings who live beyond our physical existence:

Luke 23:39-43
And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us.” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom.” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

Even though both Jesus and the thief were about to experience physical death, Jesus clearly said something about our eternal life. He said our lives would continue and extend right from the point of death: “today you will be with me in paradise.” The word used here for “paradise” is the Greek word, “paradeisos” and it is the same word Paul used to describe heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know-God knows. And I know that this man-whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows- was caught up to paradise.”) The Bible clearly describes a disembodied life here (what we would describe as the “soul”), even though it is not given a name. From this passage it is obvious the soul lives beyond the death of the body. Here is another important passage:

Luke 16:19-31
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them,’ But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent. But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”

In this passage, the dead are repeatedly described as performing actions characteristic of the living. But that’s not all. How can this be? This is only possible if the physically dead are still immaterially alive. That’s why as Christians, we recognize we are living souls and immortal by nature:

Matthew 17:1-3
And six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.

In this scene, Jesus was talking to Elijah and Moses. They obviously died long before Jesus was born, so how could this scene be true unless they still existed as immortal souls (and not simply as physical bodies)? We have another example of disembodied life after death, something possible only if we exist as living, immortal souls.

Matthew 22:31-32
“But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read that which was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

Were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob alive at the time of this statement? No. How, then, could they be described as living? This could only be true if they are actually immortal souls alive after death (and prior to their physical resurrection in the future). If they are immortal souls (immaterial beings), the passage begins to make sense.

1 Kings 17:19-23
And he said to her, “Give me your son.” Then he took him from her bosom and carried him up to the upper room where he was living, and laid him on his own bed. And he called to the LORD and said, “O LORD my God, hast Thou also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and called to the LORD, and said, “O LORD my God, I pray Thee, let this child’s life return to him.” And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah, and the life of the child returned to him and he revived. And Elijah took the child, and brought him down from the upper room into the house and gave him to his mother; and Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.”

This passage describes Elijah’s reviving of the widow’s son. The “life” of the child is said to “return to him”. The word used here is “shuwb” (shoob) and it really means “to turn back”, as if to retreat. But to turn back from where? Where is the “life” prior to being “returned”? The passage affirms the notion our true lives exist beyond death. God has the ability to return this “true” life to the body. This is consistent with what has been described elsewhere about the nature of the disembodied soul.

Ecclesiastes 12:5-7
Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective. For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street. Remember Him before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed; then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.

This passage also describes life beyond the grave. After our death, while people are still mourning our absence, we are on our way to the God who created us. We are not stationary. We are not lying in the grave. We are alive and moving. We all know that our bodies will someday die. We don’t need to make a case from the Bible for this; we get to see it (unfortunately) every day. The real question is: “Do we live beyond the grave, beyond the physical life?” The scriptures seem to answer that question in a straightforward manner:

John 11:17-26
So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off; and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother. Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him; but Mary still sat in the house. Martha therefore said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother shall rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”

John 8:51
“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.”

We have a powerful promise here. When we place our trust in Christ we will never see death. Our bodies may cease to function, but there will never be a time when we could be considered dead. There is no soul sleep, even though the body dies. Once we understand what the Bible does (and doesn’t) say about the life (or death) of the soul, we can have confidence we will be reunited to God and in His presence the moment we leave this temporal life.

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9 replies
  1. David says:

    If humans have a soul that is supposedly eternal why don’t we have memories of our existence prior to our human incarnation? And why do head injuries sometimes change one’s personality or erase all memory of the past? Wouldn’t this indicate that who I really am resides in the chemistry of my brain and not in some immaterial thing like a spirit or a soul?

  2. Ed Vaessen says:

    Indeed. If a soul goes to heaven, it cannot know why it is there and if it deserves to be there, unless it is equipped with a physical brain.

  3. Sanford says:

    I believe that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is one that is prevalent in every religion EXCEPT Biblical Christianity. I don’t find anywhere in the Scriptures the notion that we are souls living in a body possessing a spirit. I am one person, consisting of three parts – body, soul, and spirit – made in the image God, who is also three in One. A lot more could be said about that, but I wanted to share some verses that were not included in the article that address the subject of immortality directly. 1 Tim 6:16 states that Jesus “alone possesses immortality”. Romans 2:7 shows that man is not a possessor, but a SEEKER of immortality, and 2nd Tim 1:10 says that Jesus has brought immortality to light THROUGH THE GOSPEL. The blessed and ONLY hope of believers is the resurrection which will take place upon Jesus’ return, which is when, according to 1 Cor 15:53, “this mortal must put on immortality”. Verse 54 continues, stating:
    So when this corruptible shall have put on immortality,THEN shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. What relevance could the resurrection of the dead at the second coming possible hold if we are already alive?

  4. Sanford says:

    The request of the thief on the cross was that Jesus would remember him “when You come into Your Kingdom”. He’s talking about Jesus’ 2nd coming, when the resurrection takes place, when mortals will “put on” immortality. Also, Jesus did not go to heaven on that day. Jesus died and was in the tomb for three days. When Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Lord on the first day of the week (John 20:17) He told her He had “not yet ascended to my Father”. So we know for sure that Jesus and the thief were not in Heaven the day of the crucifixion. I also don’t believe that Paul’s vision in 2 Cor 12 is a clear description of disembodied life. How does Paul having a heavenly vision make it “obvious the soul lives beyond the death of the body”?

  5. Sanford says:

    You state that Ecclesiastes 12:5-7 describes life beyond the grave. But does it really? First, if it is true that a person’s spirit goes to be with God immediately upon death, then this has to be true for all men, because this passage is not referring to believers alone. So do both the saved and the unsaved go to Heaven when they die? (I can’t find one Bible verse that says anyone goes to Heaven when they die). We know from Genesis 2:7 that “God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”. So, in my opinion, when it says in Ecclesiastes 12:7 that “the dust shall return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it”, it’s describing the opposite of what took place in Gen 2:7. Man had no consciousness until the breath of life was given by God. Upon death, that breath returns to God, and, as it was, no consciousness exists at that point.

  6. Robert Morgan says:

    There are numerous other scriptural passages to consider. For example, Job 14:10-12 and Deuteronomy 32:50. Then there is 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 50-56.
    Furthermore, Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3 that no one has gone to heaven. Peter told the Jews on Pentecost in Acts 2:34 that their beloved king, David, did not go to heaven.

  7. Val says:

    Does not Christ say that He is going to prepare a place for us in John 14:2?

    Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in Me. it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.’>2In My Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

    And he does tell the other criminal on the cross that (HCSB Luke23:43) “And He said to him, “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.”

    And was Paul not taken up to the 3rd Heaven and shown things that he was not allowed to disclose?

    I think Robert Morgan is taking the Nicodemus conversation with Jesus out of context. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must be born again (Accept Jesus as Lord and Savior) in order to see the Kingdom of God.

    So here’s my question: Are the terms “Kingdom of God”, “a place Jesus prepares a place for us” 3rd Heaven” and “Paradise” referring to Heaven. Also, is Heaven where Moses and Elija descended from at the transfiguration?

  8. Christian G. says:

    I would like to echo some of the comments above with a few more points. In the article, Jn 11 about Lazarus seems to match Paul at 1 Thess 4 (at resurrection/coming 11:24+, there will be two categories of saved people – those that died will be raised (though they died) and those still living will be translated and never die) – which seems to be what Jesus had thought Martha – at the resurrection at the last day we will live again. No hint here of anything happening apart from the resurrection. Note that this miracle seems to fully establish for them and us that Jesus had power to raise others, so we would trust in Him.
    Now, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man is I think the only place where the unbelievers seem to go to torment immediately at death. In all other texts, it is always at the resurrection or judgment or last days, etc, (i.e. not at death), when the good and bad are separated (wheat and tares, sheep and goats, good fish, bad fish, etc). Similarly, although the words heaven/heavenly are used in almost 300 verses in NT, I don’t think one is directly linked to the “intermediate state” or as souls immediately going to heaven at death, but again usually related to judgment or last days, or simply as the place where God lives. So we seem to have built a doctrine of disembodied immortal souls going to heaven immediately upon death, without considering any of the verses with the word heaven. What are the odds?
    Think of it, in Rev 20:5, we are told that the “dead lived not again” until they were raised for fiery judgment (2nd resurrection). To be both “dead” and “not living” seems rather very complete to me, and in fact does not seem to describe “living souls” in torment in an intermediate state. Further, in Mat 10:28 it is said that God can destroy entire person – both “immaterial soul and material body” in judgment of Hell. Perhaps as mentioned we are to seek immortality, and souls are not inherently immortal. For an awesome summary on the soul from a Jewish standpoint, refer to “jewishnotgreek”.

  9. David says:

    John 8:51
    “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.”

    God said to Moses, I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
    How can that be so when at that point Jesus had still not died on the cross?

    If everyone who dies will continue to live spiritually or in any other manner, for the sake of argument, then what is the role of Jesus? What is the significance of his death on the cross?


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