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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, August 19 2021

What does the Bible say about the immortal soul?

Most religions teach some form of life after death. The most common Christian belief regarding the afterlife is that people possess souls and at death their consciousness, in the form of that soul, departs from the body and heads for heaven or hell.

by Gary Petty

The concept of the immortal soul was introduced into man's thinking at the beginning of human history. God told Adam and Eve if they sinned they would die (Genesis 2:17; 3:19). Satan then insinuated God was lying. He assured them they wouldn't die (verses 1-5), and thus introduced the unscriptural teaching of the immortality of the soul into human thought.

Belief in the immortality of the soul was also espoused by the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato (ca. 428-348 B.C.) "... reasoned that the soul, being eternal, must have had a pre-existence in the ideal world where it learned about the eternal Ideals" (William S. Sahakian, History of Philosophy, 1968, p. 56).

The doctrine of the immortal soul also caused much controversy in the early Catholic Church. Origen (ca. 185-254), an admirer of Plato, believed the soul was immortal and would depart to everlasting reward or punishment at death (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, 1995, p. 240). Augustine (354-430) also believed the conscious soul would continue to live on after death in either a blissful state with God or an agonizing state of separation from God (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, 1995, p. 245.)

Richard Tarnas, in his best-seller ‘The Passion of the Western Mind’, points to the influences of pagan Platonic philosophy on Origen and Augustine: "... It was Augustine's formulation of Christian Platonism that was to permeate virtually all of medieval Christian thought in the West. So enthusiastic was the Christian integration of the Greek spirit that Socrates and Plato were frequently regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints ..." (1991, p. 103).

Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) in ‘The Summa Theologica’ also taught the soul is conscious intellect and cannot be destroyed. A few centuries later the leaders of the Protestant Reformation generally accepted these views, entrenching them in traditional Protestant teaching.

The Bible, however, does not teach death is the separation of body and soul or that the soul is immortal. The Hebrew word translated ‘soul’ in the Old Testament is ‘nephesh’, meaning ‘a breathing creature’. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines ‘nephesh’ as "the essence of life, the act of breathing... The problem with the English term 'soul' is that no actual equivalent of the represented in the Hebrew language..." (1985, p. 237-238).

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible makes this comment on ‘nephesh’: "In the OT it never means the immortal soul, but it is essentially the life principle, or the living being..." (Vol. 4, 1962, "Soul"). ‘Nephesh’ is translated ‘soul’ or ‘being’ in reference to man in Genesis 2:7, but when referring to animals it is translated as ‘creature’ in Genesis 1:24, and as ‘body’ in Leviticus 21:11 in reference to a human corpse.

The Hebrew Scriptures state plainly the soul can and does die. "The soul [nephesh] who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). The Old Testament describes the dead as going to ‘sheol’, translated into English as "hell," "pit" or "grave." Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 describes ‘sheol’ as a place of unconsciousness: "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing ..." King David also lamented that death extinguishes a relationship with God. "For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?" (Psalms 6:5).

In the New Testament the Greek word translated ‘soul’ is ‘psuche’, which is also translated as ‘life’. Like ‘nephesh’, ‘psuche’ is translated into English as ‘soul when referring to a human being (Acts 2:41). For animals the same word is translated ‘life’ in the King James Version (Revelation 8:9; 16:3) and Jesus declared that God can destroy man's ‘psuche’, or ‘soul’ in Matthew 10:28.

Although Scripture does not speak of the soul as being immortal, it has much to say about immortality. Paul told the congregation in Rome to ‘seek’ immortality (Romans 2:5-7) stating that eternal life is a ‘gift’ from God (Romans 6:23), and he taught Christians at Corinth they must be changed and ‘put on’ immortality (1 Corinthians 15:51-55).

The Bible plainly teaches the dead lie in the grave, knowing nothing and possessing no consciousness. The Old Testament describes death as an unconscious state, and in the New Testament the apostle Paul describes it as ‘sleep’ (1 Corinthians 15:51-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Although mankind is subject to death God promises a resurrection to eternal life to those who repent, obey God and accept Jesus as the Messiah. The most powerful words on this subject come from Jesus Himself: "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:40).

The first resurrection to immortality will take place when Christ returns to establish God's Kingdom on this earth. Later another resurrection to physical life will occur for people who had never had a relationship with the Father and Jesus Christ. They, too, will have their opportunity for immortality.

The author of this article relates that when he was a boy his parents came to realize the Holy Days described in Leviticus 23 were commanded in both Old and New Testaments. Until then, his family had observed Christmas, Easter and Halloween, and he did not want to give these holidays up.

With time, he also came to understand the days observed by most of Christianity are not commanded in the Bible, and Scripture backed up his realisation that associating the name of Jesus with these days did not make them more acceptable: "... in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:9).

While in high school, he also discovered that in the King James Version of the Bible the word translated as "Easter" in Acts 12:4 was an erroneous translation of the Greek word ‘pascha’, a word clearly meaning the Passover (described in Leviticus 23:5). It was not until the second century, long after the New Testament was written, that people began to replace the Passover observance with Easter.

Jesus and His family observed the Holy Days of the Bible, travelling to Jerusalem, when He was twelve years old, to observe the Passover (Luke 2:41, 42). John 7 also shows Christ keeping the Feast of Tabernacles and Last Great Day (described in Leviticus 23:33-36) in spite of the threat of bodily harm. Jesus kept all of the annual festivals, not only because He was a devout Jew, but because God commanded them and He was setting an example for Christians today (Matthew 28:20).

These Holy Days were also observed following Christ's ascension. The disciples were gathered together to observe the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was sent (Acts 2:1), because Pentecost was still a "holy convocation," a commanded assembly (Leviticus 23: 15- 16, 21).

Gentile Christians also observed the biblical Holy Days. More than 20 years after Christ’s crucifixion, about the year A.D. 55, the Apostle Paul gave important instruction to the Church in the gentile city of Corinth, where most church members were gentile. A man was involved in an immoral relationship, and Paul instructed them to expel him from the church:"...Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump...For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with ...the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

The Corinthians had put out leaven to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, but had not applied the spiritual lesson. Paul’s intent, by instructing them to "keep the feast," was not to spiritualize away the Days of Unleavened Bread, but to magnify them. The New Testament builds on the foundation of the Old by emphasizing the spiritual intent of the Holy Days.

Colossians 2:16, 17 is perhaps the most oft-quoted New Testament Scripture used to discredit the Holy Days: "So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ."

Paul was not saying not to keep the Holy Days, he was addressing their proper observance. The Colossians had been introducing ascetic practices on the Holy Days, as they were being influenced to follow the commandments and doctrines of men (verses 18-23). If anything, these verses corroborate the practice of God's true Church in the first century was to observe these days,

Another misunderstood text is Galatians 4:8-10. Verses 8 and 9 refer to the practices of the Galatians before they knew the true God, and after learning the truth, they were beginning to return to these ‘weak and beggarly elements’. To say God's laws are weak and beggarly is blasphemous. These "days and months and seasons [times] and years" were pagan practices, possibly similar to astrology today.

When a person looks into the commands and examples in the Bible to determine which religious festivals to observe, there is only one choice to be found: the annual festivals and Holy Days of God. If we are to build on the foundation of the apostles and prophets and follow the example of Jesus Christ, we will faithfully observe these days, and come to learn more about God's plan of salvation for humanity.