On the Immortality of the Soul
Most religions teach that after death, a soul within us leaves the body and lives on for eternity. Many people assume it’s also a biblical belief, but is it? What exactly is the history of this idea?
Humans have always wondered and worried about what happens after death. Many modern religions teach that we will live again, but archaeologists tell us that even ancient Neanderthals buried their loved ones with grave goods for the afterlife.
Today most of the religious world believes in an immortal soul that lives on in some form. It’s a shared teaching of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Bahá’í, as well as of native and tribal religions throughout Africa, the Americas and elsewhere. Some say that soul will live forever in either a heaven or a hell. Others suppose that after death the soul will reanimate other life forms in an endless cycle of reincarnation. Most nonbelievers, of course, dispute the idea of a soul, being convinced that after death there is only nothingness.
But from where have these ideas come? Alan F. Segal, late professor of Jewish studies, wrote that each religion’s views of the rewards and punishments of the afterlife reflect the particular values and aspirations of that culture in this life. For instance, he said, most Americans in the 21st century, Christian or not, believe that their soul is immortal by nature and that most if not all will be saved, because this idea of self-realization fits with American values.
This suggests that notions of immortality are a purely human construct. Because understanding of life after death runs the gamut of human experience and cultural values, anthropologists conclude that man invented religion and religious beliefs on an as-needed basis to explain life’s experiences and to offer solace from life’s troubles.
Is that all there is to it? Believers owe it to themselves to know whether the idea of an immortal soul stems from the human mind and if it has a biblical basis.
In our search for clarity, we begin with a brief review of immortal-soul beliefs down through history.
Ancient Egyptians, like other pagan peoples, observed the unending cycles of nature: in the heavens, the sun seemed to be reborn each morning and die each night; spring was a time of birth, growth and youth; autumn was a time of decline and old age; in winter plants died and even the sun seemed to fight for its existence; and the following spring the cycle began anew. Historians record that Egyptians interpreted these patterns of life, death and renewed life as applying to humans as well.
The ancient Egyptian civilization lasted more than 3,000 years. Its earliest beliefs persisted through most of that time and in some cases even contributed to the kingdom’s stability; for example, the idea that the king was divine, a god on earth, and with proper ceremony could take his place among the stars after his physical death.
In the Old Kingdom, which began around 2600 BCE and lasted for more than 500 years, it was only the king who was believed to live beyond death. But after the Old Kingdom collapsed, immortality was extended to ordinary people in what historians term “the democratization of the afterlife.”
The god Osiris played an important role in this shift and became the most important god of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2025–1700). Greek historian Plutarch (ca. 46–120 CE) described Osiris as the one who taught the Egyptians agriculture and civilized them. After Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, his wife Isis gathered the body parts and used them to create the first mummy, after which Osiris, through elaborate ritual, was resurrected as the god of the dead and the underworld.
“The Osiris-Isis mythology was central to Egyptian notions of the afterlife.”
In his monumental work The Golden Bough, James G. Frazer noted that Egyptian commoners copied the ritual ceremonies Isis had followed as “a representation of the divine mystery” that would bequeath to them life after death. A virtuous life, worshiping the gods, and a proper funeral were the only requirements for a happy afterlife. The mummy of the dead person was said to be a place of return for the wandering spirit, so it was ritually and magically preserved and protected. From that point in Egyptian history everyone could achieve eternal life.
Greek and Classical Ideas
Throughout the ancient world, various other cultures and religions were developing apart from that of Egypt. Farther east, Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism also taught some form of immortality).
A few centuries before the birth of Christ, the Greeks began to assert themselves in Europe, both culturally and in the evolution of their religious beliefs. The Greek idea of “soul” (psuche) was different from that of other civilizations. Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and the Stoics all worked out their own elaborate theories, which have since influenced much of Western philosophical and religious thought.
Homer (ca. eighth century BCE) wrote of the soul as something that was lost in death and remained in a pitiful underworldly afterlife as a shadowy form of the deceased person. He didn’t attribute to it any virtue or activity other than as the marker of life. So when his characters risked their soul, they risked their life.
The sixth and fifth centuries before Christ saw a considerable widening in Greek philosophical thinking. By the end of Socrates’ life at the start of the fourth, the soul had gained various virtues and emotions as well as powers of thought and planning. Even magnets and plants were thought to have souls; the adjective empsuchos, or “ensouled,” simply meant “alive.”
In Plato’s Phaedo, the philosopher has his mentor Socrates declaring that the soul is both immortal and aware, capable of intelligent thought, and succeeding from life to death to life again. Plato’s own concepts are widely discussed and even argued today by scholars. Plato saw the soul as much more than mind, capable of thinking and guiding the body. Provided it was a wise soul, it led the person to virtuous actions; but more, it possessed life essentially.
“Plato’s notions of the afterlife . . . penetrated Jewish culture deeply.”
Plato’s student Aristotle, primarily in De Anima (On the Soul), described a relationship between the physical being—human, animal or plant—and the soul that makes up all of its normal vital functions. In his view, the soul was the collection of life systems that function in the body. The body was corporeal, but the soul was not a body or a physical thing. While Aristotle agreed with Plato’s thinking that souls are different from bodies, he did not agree that the soul could exist apart from the body.
In yet another view, two major Hellenistic schools taught that the soul, too, was corporeal, or physical. At risk of oversimplifying, one might say that Epicureans believed everything was composed of atoms, and so the soul must be also. The Stoics seemed to feel that the soul was responsible only for mental and psychological functions; they therefore disagreed with Plato and Aristotle that plants were ensouled.
It may be said, however, that among Greek philosophers immortality of the soul was accepted as a fact of nature.
Later Christian writers including Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa and, most importantly, Augustine of Hippo built on Greek philosophies with new ideas of their own that have come down to modern times.
Ancient Israel and Its Forebears
Hellenistic ideas penetrated Jewish society as well, but according to Segal, “the most long-lasting Greek contribution to Jewish culture was from the aristocratic, Platonist intellectual elite of Greek society that said that the soul was immortal. In return for a life of moderation and intellectual development, the soul went upward to receive its astral rewards.”
“In the thirteenth century, Dante’s Divine Comedy mapped out very exceptionally picturesque and graphic images of heaven and hell, which became canonical Christian dogma, promulgated throughout the Byzantine world and Europe.”
Ancestors of the Hellenized Jews had a different understanding, however. In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, it says that “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” (Genesis 2:7, King James Version). “Soul” is translated from the Hebrew word nephesh and also refers to other creatures in Genesis 1:24 and elsewhere. Because of our modern definition of soul we may have a different understanding, but to the speakers of Hebrew it simply meant a living, physical creature—whether human, animal, fish, fowl or insect. In fact, modern translations often render nephesh in Genesis 2:7 as “living being” or “living creature.”
The Creator next told Adam and Eve that they would die if they disobeyed His instructions (verse 17). He explained in Genesis 3:19 that they were made of the physical elements of the earth and would return to the dust of the earth in death. In 3:15 God pronounced a prophecy of the future Messiah, so they were also informed about the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation with the Godhead.
According to the Bible Knowledge Commentary, Job of the Old Testament lived in the patriarchal period (about 2100–1900 BCE). This was some centuries before the time of Moses and the Exodus. Job knew of a resurrection of the dead: “If a man dies, shall he live again?” he asked, and then answered, “All the days of my hard service I will wait, till my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer You; You shall desire the work of Your hands” (Job 14:14–15). This reference to an afterlife indicates that some of those who populate the pages of the Old Testament had some understanding of the subject.
Solomon, whom the Bible calls the wisest man who ever lived, apparently did not believe that humans have an immortal soul. He wrote, “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
The prophet Isaiah spoke not of an immortal soul but of a future resurrection of the dead: “Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead” (Isaiah 26:19).
The much-quoted prophet Ezekiel also spoke of a future resurrection in his famous story of the Valley of Dry Bones. He taught that the long-dead ancients of his people would live again in physical life, in their ancient land, with the resurrected David as their king, and with their God guiding them. While the story here was directed specifically to ancient Israel, the implication is that all the dead of the human race will be resurrected in the same event and under the same God (Ezekiel 37:28).
The prophet Daniel added to Jewish understanding during and after the Babylonian captivity. He said, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2, English Standard Version).
Some modern authors look at these words as a simple anthropological progression of ideas and say the Israelites must have borrowed their understanding from neighboring Persian Zoroastrians and other peoples. But such an argument begins from an intrinsic disbelief in an all-powerful, miracle-working God. Israel’s own experience through the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, the judges, the kings and the prophets was that their God was real and had power over natural laws and phenomena on this earth. The people of Moses’ day experienced the miraculous plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, and they preserved those very real memories in their oral traditions and written records. Other miraculous events occurred down through their roughly 1,000-year experience from the Exodus to their return from Babylonian captivity. That history of supernatural power manifested by their God supported and gave credence to all the writings, wisdom literature and prophetic messages; the God of Israel was unique in that He involved Himself in history for the benefit of His people.
Although ancient Israel, and the later divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel, continually strayed from the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, their sacred writings maintained the core doctrine that the nephesh, or breath of life, was not immortal. It was simply the state of temporary physical life possessed by all living creatures, which expired at the time of death. From the book of Genesis onward, Bible writers expressed an understanding of a future resurrection. That belief stood in stark contrast to the idea of an immortal soul.
Christianity and Beyond
Today, thanks largely to church fathers Irenaeus and Augustine, most Christians blend the nonbiblical idea of an immortal soul with the biblical promise of resurrection and arrive at their own doctrine of immortality. This view reads the New Testament as though it teaches a form of Platonism (see “Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy”), and so it accepts that after the body dies, the soul continues and at the resurrection is combined with a spiritual body. Soul has come to mean that all humans were endowed with immortality either at creation or by a gift already given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“After an initial and telling phase of rejection, Platonism became the cornerstone of the Christian doctrine of immortality of the soul.”
This view has in turn led to the post-Christian notion that there is no need for a God to intervene on our behalf at the end of life. We already have immortality, and no one can take it away; therefore we don’t need a savior, mediator or intercessor. Our future is in our own hands. For good or for bad, we are self-made and in control of our own destiny. This is at the heart of the modern humanist idea of spirituality apart from religion.
But what does the Bible say? Many approach the Book of books with predefined notions and try to make its words agree with those preconceptions. The Apostolic Writings of the New Testament, however, build on the Hebrew Scriptures to reveal a fuller body of knowledge of God’s purpose and plan for human life.
While all religions have their ideas about the afterlife and immortality, the Bible teaches that the only beings in the universe who have inherent life are God the Father and His Son: “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. . . . Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:26–29, ESV).
Most Christians believe that after death their immortal souls will spend eternity in heaven, yet the apostle John also recorded these surprising words of Jesus: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13). Not even King David, described as “a man after God’s own heart,” is in heaven according to the apostle Peter: “Let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. . . . David did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:29, 34).
The apostle Paul wrote at length of the hope of the dead. In 1 Corinthians 15, often referred to as the resurrection chapter, he spoke of those who had died as having “fallen asleep” (verses 6, 18, 20). He wrote that “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive”—first Christ, and then “those who are Christ’s at His coming” (verses 22–23, emphasis added throughout). Note that prior to Christ’s second coming, none of the dead have been “made alive” yet; they’re asleep, just as David is asleep—dead and buried.
Paul went on to explain to the Corinthian church that “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. . . . The dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (verses 51–53).
The message of the Bible is that we are not immortal, but that God wants to give us immortality: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).