“What is man that You are mindful of him?” This question posed by the psalmist is worthy of consideration, because if we are to know the nature of death, it is important to know the nature of human life.
The first man, Adam, was made from the elements of the earth. After rejecting the tree of life, he was told, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
The name Adam brings together an association between “a ruddy complexion” and “mankind,” leading to the conclusion in various reference works that man was made from red clay or red mud. In addition, according to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, “this word for man [adam] has to do with man as being in God’s image, the crown of creation.” So the word adam embodies not only the concepts of red earth and humankind, but also the image of God.
God molded or shaped man from the earth and gave life to this physical form: “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 being” (Genesis 2:7). This conceptualization of life has caused much confusion, probably because earlier translators had used the word soul for “being.” The Hebrew word translated in the New King James Version as “being” is nephesh.
What is interesting is that before the word nephesh is used of human life, it is used of lower life forms. In Genesis 1:21 and 24, for example, it is rendered “creature” in the King James Version. In Leviticus 24:18 it is translated “beast” (or, in the New King James Version, “animal”). Nephesh simply refers to physical life. In fact, it is translated “life” in numerous scriptures, including 1 Samuel 23:15, which states, “David saw that Saul had come out to seek his life.”
God breathed physical life (the breath of life) into man and he became a living, breathing human being. Job exclaimed, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). Man is a soul, or being, which is vastly different from having a soul.
Further evidence supporting the physical, temporal nature of man’s existence is contained in the book of Ezekiel, where we read that the soul (nephesh) that sins will die (chapter 18:4, 20).
At the point of death, the breath of life leaves the body, the mind ceases to function, and the body decomposes. “His breath goes forth, he returns to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4, KJV).
This facet of human life is perhaps best summarized as follows: “For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over the animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust” (Ecclesiastes 3:19–20).
Is there any difference, then, between humans and animals? The apostle Paul understood that there is a unique spiritual component to a human being—the “spirit of man” (1 Corinthians 2:11)—which accounts for the vast difference between humans and animals. Upon death, it is this spirit (not an immortal soul) that returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7). It acts rather like a memory chip, which retains the recorded imprint of the person’s life as it awaits a future resurrection.
The Bible teaches that we are a soul, and that the soul is mortal. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul, on the other hand, has no biblical basis.