The Immortal Soul — Biblical Language?
The word “soul” is hardly used outside of the church anymore; at the most still in the expression “heart and soul” or “he bared his soul”. In the church it is used and that is because this word often occurs in the Bible. Therefore also we refer to pastoral work as “caring for souls”. I even heard someone say: “Think about it; home visits are soul visits”. It also happens that someone in prayer will ask for the salvation of “our immortal souls”.
Now, the understanding of “soul” is not something we encounter only in the Bible. The ancient Greeks also used it. They say that the soul, at death, leaves the body and goes to the underworld to continue to exist there without an individual personality.
The philosopher Plato (427-347) went further and introduced the idea of the immortality of the soul. The soul has a godly continuation. As a result of wrong desires, it was placed in a body. That body functioned as a prison for the soul; it was a punishment for the soul to have to live in a mortal body. But man is able, through his own power, to free himself from this prison. He must raise himself above this sensual world. Then the soul, the immortal component in the person, will be happy in its continuing existence.
The question now is: how must we appraise the expression “immortal soul” in our spiritual usage of language? Have we been influenced by Plato to too great a degree? Or must we look at it differently?
What Does the Bible Say About the Soul?
When we consult God’s Word on the point of speaking about the soul, it is apparent that it is a complex subject. It does not mean the same in every instance. Therefore we must always pay close attention to the connotation in which the word is used.
The Old Testament uses the word nefesj. We quickly encounter the word, already at the creation of the man. We read in Genesis 2:7 “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (nefesj) other translations read “a living soul”.
Here we see a differentiation between the body that was still “without a soul” (formed by God) and the breath of life or life itself. Moreover it is also said of animals that they are living creatures (souls) (Gen. 1:21). Only for the human being is it said that there was a singular action from God to make him a “living soul”.
Thus the word is often used, not to signify a separate spiritual component in the man, but as an indication of the whole person as a living being, the totality of his being a person.
But there are shades of differences. For example in the Psalms, the words “my soul” indicate the seat of inner feelings. Consider only the well known words of Psalm 42: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” There can be feelings of sorrow, but also of joy or longing which fill the soul. You might say “soul” is the sensitive side of the human personality here.
In the New Testament, these lines of meaning continue to a great degree. Still, there is also a progression in the revelation. In several places, the New Testament more strongly shows the differentiation (not separation) between body and soul.
We think of Matthew 10:28 where the Lord Jesus says to his disciples regarding the threat of persecution, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Clearly it is possible that the body of a Christian may be killed, but that the soul is unreachable from the onslaught of the enemy.
In Revelation 6, we also encounter this in a specific manner. There we read about the souls of the martyrs under the altar in heaven (v. 9). They cry out to the Sovereign God, holy and true, to do justice on the earth. They are thus consciously involved in all this. They have not yet received their resurrected bodies — that is still waiting for the day of Christ’s return. They are clothed with long, white robes (v. 11).
1 Thessalonians 5:23 asks for separate attention: “…and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Is it the intention here that we see a sort of trisection of a person: spirit, soul and body? That would be reading too much into this. Here it is about the total person seen from different angles. Throughout Scripture, spirit and soul are used interchangeably more than once. At the most, we would be able to see a specific accent in this: the spirit to represent thinking, the soul more as a descriptor of feelings, but these influence each other.
Can we now speak about the “immortal soul”? That depends on which understanding we give to these words. Also in that we desire to let ourselves be led by God’s Word.
In 1 Timothy 6:16, it is said about the Lord: “who alone has immortality”. He is in possession of this. From eternity to eternity, he is God (see Ps. 90:2). He is immortal (1 Tim. 1:17). He has life in himself (John 5:26). It has not been given to him by another and no one can take it from him.
God is thus totally unique in his immortality.
This is totally different from us, as people. We are not from eternity — before our lives we did not have a sort of pre-existence and our existence does not continue automatically either. At a specific moment, we have been called into being.
But, can we not say that before the Fall into sin, Adam and Eve were immortal? This is about very careful wording. The first pair of people would not die, if they remained obedient to God’s command. There was thus a prerequisite attached to it. Life could still be lost.
And we know the Fall into sin became reality. Through that Fall, death came to reign (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12; 6:23). That means: communion with God was broken. That rending permeated all relationships, also that of the body and soul of a person — see, for example Ephesians 2:1. It is not without cause that we speak about the death of the body, spiritual death and eternal death.
But now we must be careful to guard against a misunderstanding. In the Bible, being dead does not mean no longer being there, being annihilated. On the contrary, in the future it is one of the two, eternal life or eternal pain (Matt. 25:46) (see also the article “Eternally lost?” in Officebearers Contact, May 2010).
There is only one way to be released from death; through faith in Jesus Christ. He conquered death and brought to light life and incorruptibility through the Gospel — and that word “incorruptibility” comes close, in meaning, to “immortality”. Whoever believes in him, has eternal life (John 3:36). There is thus no question of an inherent, but rather of a conferred immortality.
That is the great difference with Plato’s vision. He applies immortality to people in general. In Scripture, immortality can only be applied to God and in a certain sense to those who believe in Christ. Another difference is that for Plato, immortality is an endless continuing existence for the soul. In the Bible it is about the eternal blessedness of all who are in Christ.
Moreover, that blessedness does not come with a diminishing of the salvation of the body. That body is namely not a prison from which the soul must be freed, but a temple of the Holy Spirit. Also the bodies of God’s children will once be removed from death’s power; I believe in the resurrection of the body!
Dying is, in truth, for the Christian, an entrance into eternal life with the Lord (Heidelberg Catechism answer 42), but at the same time an unnatural, temporary separation of soul and body. Also God’s child does not escape the sorrowful consequence of the Fall into sin (aside from the exceptions named in 1 Cor. 15:51 and 52). For that reason answer 57 in the HC is very concise: “Not only shall my soul after this life immediately be taken up to Christ, my Head, but also this my flesh, raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul and made like Christ’s glorious body.” Soul and body belong together in an unbreakable bond! That is how God intended it and how it will again be: people who in their completeness will serve the Lord perfectly.
The Value of the Human Soul
Is it inaccurate to speak about “winning souls for the Lamb”? May we no longer pray for the salvation “of our immortal souls”? That is not necessarily wrong. In it we taste the emotional quality of the eternal well or woe of people.
We do have to guard ourselves against an unbiblical undervaluation of the body, as if it is only about the “soul”. The Lord saves complete people, with soul and body — see question and answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
However, in a culture based on the physical body, William Booth’s word remains important: “Do not forget your soul!”