THE BIBLE MEANING OF "SOUL"
"Whosoever toucheth the dead body (nephesh) of any man that is dead,
and purifieth not himself... shall be cut off'”—Num. 19:13
TO THE average person, the word "soul" carries the meaning of an undying, immaterial essence that continues in conscious existence after death. This conception is accepted without thought or examination.
BIBLE SOUL COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FROM CHURCH “SOUL”
As soon as we start to look into the question, however, we begin to make very interesting discoveries. We find, first of all, that the BIBLE meaning of soul is ALTOGETHER DIFFERENT from this, and immediately the question arises:
How can the commonly accepted religious conception of soul be entirely different from the soul of the Bible, seeing that the beliefs of Christendom are supposed to be based upon the Bible?
The Scriptures themselves give the answer. They tell us that the Truth is hidden from all except those few whose minds and hearts please God. Divine truth is not a common thing to be probed by every curious scholar. Unless a man sets his heart to seek God and sets his life to conform to God's will, he can no more find the truth of the Scriptures than the men of Sodom could find the door of Lot's house.
God has said that He will send a strong delusion upon all those who receive not the LOVE of the Truth, that they should believe a lie (2 Thess. 2:10-11).
CHURCH SOUL ADMITTEDLY NOT SCRIPTURAL,
BUT BASED ON PAGAN GREEK PHILOSOPHY
When we turn to works of reference by the learned expositors of the immortal soul theory, we see how this "believing a lie" works out quite naturally. Most of them make no attempt to conceal the fact that scriptural teaching and popular theology are very different regarding the meaning of "soul." They are in fact, proud that they have developed many "improvements" upon what they consider the partial and hazy conceptions voiced by the—
"Holy men of God who spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21).
We soon find that we are forced to choose between Scripture teaching and orthodox Christianity. It is very fortunate for us that the issue is so clear cut, and that the leading exponents of the immortal soul theory are so frank in admission of its non-Biblical origin.
WEBSTER'S DICTIONARY says—"The Christian conception of the soul DERIVES FROM THE GREEK, especially as modified by the MYSTERY CULTS, as well as from the Bible...
"The more exact determination of the Christian conception was reserved for the Church Fathers especially Saint Augustine, who taught that it is simple, immaterial and spiritual, devoid of quality and spatial extension. He argued its immortality from the fact that it is the repository of imperishable truth."
FUNK & WAGNALL DICTIONARY is even more to the point—"Among the ancient Hebrews 'soul' was the equivalent of the principle of life as embodied in living creatures, and this meaning is continued throughout the Bible...
"It was Augustine especially who, in part on religious grounds and in part as the disciple of the later GREEK PHILOSOPHY, taught the simple, immaterial and spiritual nature of the human soul—a view which has remained that of the scholastic philosophy and of Christian theologians down to the present time."
HASTING'S well-known Bible Dictionary freely admits—"Soul is throughout a great part of the Bible simply the equivalent of 'life' embodied in living creatures. In the earlier usage of the Old Testament it has no reference to the later philosophical meaning—the animating principle—still less to the idea of an 'immaterial nature' which will survive the body."
The INTERNATIONAL STANDARD BIBLE ENCYCLOPEDIA says—"Soul has various shades of meaning in the Old Testament, which may be summarized as follows: Soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, appetite, emotion and passion.
“Nephesh, or soul, can only denote the individual life WITH A MATERIAL ORGANIZATION OR BODY."
"In the New Testament 'psuche' appears under more or less similar conditions as in the Old Testament."
YOUNG'S CONCORDANCE defines both nephesh and psuche as "animal soul."
STRONG'S CONCORDANCE defines nephesh as, "A breathing creature, an animal; or, abstractly, vitality." Psuche it likewise defines as "the animal sentient principle."
The noted lexicographer PARKHURST (himself a believer in immortal soulism) says—"As a noun nephesh hath been supposed to signify the spiritual part of man, or what we commonly call his soul. I must for myself confess that I can find no passages where it hath undoubtedly this meaning.
"Gen. 35:18, 1 Kings 17:21-22 and Psalm 16:10 seem fairest for this signification. But may not nephesh in the 3 former passages be most properly rendered 'breath,' and in the last, 'a breathing or animal frame'?"
These quotations show clearly that the immortal soul doctrine is generally admitted by its supporters to be entirely different from the BIBLE meaning of soul, and based mainly upon GREEK PHILOSOPHY.
THE BIBLE THE AUTHORITY—OR CHURCH SPECULATION?
The issue then is this: is the Word of God to be our final authority, or is religious truth something to be gradually developed by man's speculation on the basis of pagan Greek philosophy?
For nearly 2000 years, the bulk of Christendom, beginning with the Church Fathers, have favored the latter, but there have always been a few who have regarded the BIBLE as wholly inspired by God, consistent from beginning to end, and the only possible source of true knowledge of such things as life, death and the nature and destiny of man.
A Bible that is anything less than this is NO BIBLE AT ALL. And the Bible itself leaves no room for compromise. It takes a bold and unequivocal stand throughout as the direct Word of God in every part. We must accept it as that, or else throw it away entirely as the most brazen and blasphemous of falsehoods.
Those who take the middle ground are the Bible's greatest enemies, and this unfortunately includes the vast majority of professing Christians. They dare not openly deny its divinity, because it is so obviously divine, but they seek to rob it of all power by spinning an endless web of theories around it that confuse the mind and distract the attention, and obscure its plain, clear teaching.
t is impossible in any one consideration to fully examine the Biblical use and meaning of "soul." But it is possible to lay the foundation by demonstrating that popular theology on the subject is admittedly derived from other sources than the Bible, and is at direct variance with it.
The Bible meaning of "soul" (which modern writers mention briefly in passing), is regarded by them as a rather amusing phase of ancient Hebrew speculation, hardly worthy of serious attention, and which no one laying claim to "modern" learning would dare allow his name to be associated with.
The following brief outline of the BIBLICAL use of the term is for those few to whom the Bible is still the one unique Book among millions—the wholly-inspired divine message to man—one verse of which is worth more than countless volumes of the cloudy, inconclusive speculations of human philosophy and "modern wisdom."
BIBLE USES OF “NEPHESH” (Hebrew) AND “PSUCHE” (Greek)
IN THE Old Testament Hebrew, the original word for soul is NEPHESH. In the New Testament Greek it is PSUCHE. Both mean the same thing and are used interchangeably. One is used to translate the other.
Nephesh occurs about 750 times. About 500 times it is translated "soul" in the Authorized Version. The other 250 times it is translated by over 40 different English words, as shown on the following chart.
English—soul Hebrew—Nephesh Greek—psuche Latin—animal
MEANINGS OF NEPHESH
(1) A breathing body, a living creature, an animal (2) Animal life (3) Functions, qualities of human creatures
WORDS USED IN TRANSLATION
(soul, 472 times – all others together, 282)
USES OF NEPHESH
22 times—Of animals alone (Gen. 1:21-26)
7 times—Of men and animals together (Num. 31:28)
53 times—Of individuals, persons (Gen. 2:7)
96 times—Of persons doing things (Lev. 5:1, 2, 4)
22 times—Of man: appetites and animal desires (Prov. 6:30; Gen. 34:3)
231 times—Of man: mental faculties, emotions (Gen. 34:3; Num. 21:4)
22 times—Souls cut off by God (Psa. 78:50)
32 times—Souls killed by man (Josh. 11:11)
242 times—Souls subject to DEATH (Eze. 18:4 Psa. 22:29)
13 times—Souls actually DEAD (Isa. 53:12)
13 times—Souls going to grave (Job 33:22)
(Note—Last 5, over 320 times souls dead, dying and subject to death)
Psuche occurs about 100 times, and is translated similarly.
It is quite obvious at the outset that a word of such broad application, including all the animal kingdom in all its bodily, physical aspects, CANNOT POSSIBLY indicate some immortal essence in man distinguishing him from the lower creation.
BIBLE SOUL RELATED THROUGHOUT TO ANIMAL BODIES
It is clear from the words used to translate it that it is related throughout to ANIMAL BODIES, including man, and this will become more and more clear as we consider some of the passages in which it is used.
It can be readily seen, too, that with such a range of meaning the translators could do much to color the various passages by their choice of English words—using one set of terms when used of animals and another when of man.
On the other hand, it is evident that in an article of this kind, it is impossible to quote sufficient of the 850 occurrences to fully illustrate the word, and that by choosing obscure, borderline passages, a very distorted picture could be drawn.
Therefore, only a careful, individual investigation, seeking divine guidance, can bring solid, durable conviction and enlightenment. THERE IS NO SHORT CUT TO THE ENLIGHTENED FAITH THAT LEADS TO SALVATION.
For instance, soul is used in relation to God. He says—
"My servant in whom MY SOUL delighteth" (Isa. 42:1).
But examination will show that this is a very exceptional, isolated use, and is a figure of speech that has no bearing on the literal meaning of soul. The expression "my soul" is often used simply as an emphatic term meaning "myself." Because of its undeniable animal basis, clearly it is in this secondary sense of emphasis only it is used of God.
* * *
AS IN THE case of most other Biblical subjects, we find ourselves taken back to the opening chapters of Genesis when we begin to examine the meaning of soul. There the foundations for many things are laid, and lost indeed are those poor "modern" thinkers who dismiss these early books of the Bible as folklore and fairy tales.
Here again, let us courageously face the consequences of our convictions. Christ put his seal upon the ancient Hebrew Scriptures as the unbreakable Word of God. He said—
"The SCRIPTURES CANNOT BE BROKEN" (John 10:35).
And again (John 5:47)—
"If ye believe not Moses' writings, how shall ye believe my words?"
If we reject Moses' writings, let us at least be consistent and reject Christ too. If we believe in Christ, let us give those Holy Writings he endorses our full assurance of faith.
FIRST FOUR OCCURRENCES REFER TO ANIMALS
THE FIRST FOUR OCCURRENCES OF THE WORD "NEPHESH" RELATE EXCLUSIVELY TO ANIMALS. That is a good fact to start with and to remember. A good foundation. Let us get them firmly in our mind—
Gen. 1:20—"And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life" (The word "life" here is nephesh—soul).
Next verse—"And God created great whales, and every living creature (nephesh—soul) that moveth, which the water brought forth abundantly."
V. 24—"The living creatures (nephesh) after his kind, cattle and creeping things."
V. 30—"Every beast…every fowl...everything that creepeth, wherein there is life (nephesh)."
Then, having prepared our understanding by applying nephesh four times to every species of living creature on the earth, the Scriptures' next use of the word is in the record of the creation of man (Gen. 2:7)—
"The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground"
—and that in itself is a phrase to be well noted when we consider the nature and composition of man—
"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 (nephesh.)"
—EXACTLY THE SAME WORD as four times already applied to animals. Man, formed of the dust of the ground, became a living soul (an animal, breathing creature) when God breathed into him the breath of life.
AT THIS POINT, ARGUMENT USUALLY SWITCHES TO “SPIRIT”
Now the usual response at this point from the immortal soulist is to switch over to the word spirit, and abandon the argument based on soul. Our present subject, is however, SOUL, and we hope to thoroughly dispose of that, but in passing it may be mentioned that exactly the same remarks apply to "spirit." It, too, in these early foundation chapters of Genesis, is used of animals alone, and also of men and animals together, and to the same point Solomon says (Eccl. 3:19)—
"Man and beasts—they have all ONE spirit."
In applying both these words, soul AND spirit, to animals as well as to men, the Scriptures seem to be taking especial care to protect us from erroneous conceptions, if only we will heed and accept its divine guidance, and not depend upon the Greek philosophers against whose teachings the Apostle Paul so bitterly contended and so vehemently warned.
SIX OF NEXT EIGHT OCCURRENCES REFER TO ANIMALS
We have considered the first five occurrences. Of the next eight, SIX are applied to animals. There are seven places where the word is applied to man and animals together without distinction An interesting example is Num. 31:28—
"Levy a tribute... one SOUL (nephesh) of 500, both of the persons, of the beeves, of the asses, and of the sheep."
One more typical passage of the use of soul for animals before we go on, Prov. 12:10—
"A righteous man regardeth the life (nephesh—SOUL) of his beast; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."
Surely we can consider it definitely established, therefore, that there is no difference between men and animals in the matter of being or having souls. This IS VERY IMPORTANT. It is one of the first principles of Scripture. If we have not definitely fixed this in our minds, let us keep going back over these facts and passages and stick with them. They are worth more than all the volumes ever written of Greek or modern philosophy.
GOD SAID TO ‘LIVING SOUL’: "DUST THOU ART"
The sentence passed an Adam is in full accord with the record of his creation from the dust (Gen. 3:19)—
"Dust THOU art, and unto dust shalt THOU return."
The sentence was passed upon the conscious, thinking, sinning individual—the LIVING SOUL, created from dust, and animated by breath from God. This is in harmony with the general expression of the dispensation of God's justice, as expressed through Ezekiel—
"The soul that sinneth, IT SHALL DIE" (Eze. 18:4).
Any attempt to transfer this sentence from the thinking, responsible Adam to his mere body is such an obviously weak subterfuge as not to be worthy of serious consideration.
And finally, we note, in passing, very distinctly that in this first pronouncement of the wages of sin, THERE IS NO MENTION OF ETERNAL TORTURE—but on the contrary, the sentence is dissolution into original dust.
“He that killeth the soul of a beast shall make
it good…soul for soul”—Lev. 24:18
SOUL IS NATURAL, ORDINARY FUNCTIONS OF ANIMAL BODIES
NOW A few passages to show that "soul" (Hebrew: nephesh) is not some immaterial essence, but is applied to the ordinary natural functions of fleshly creatures—
Prov. 6:30—"Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul (nephesh) when he is hungry."
Isa. 29:8—"A hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul (nephesh) is empty—a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh, but he awaketh, and his soul (nephesh) hath appetite."
Lev. 17:10—“I will set my face against the soul (nephesh) that eateth blood, for the life (nephesh-soul) of the flesh is in the blood."
Deut. 12:20-23—"Thy soul (nephesh) longeth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh, whatsoever thy soul (nephesh) lusteth after...The blood is the life (nephesh—soul); and thou mayest not eat the life (nephesh—soul)."
It is clear that the immortal soulists' only solution is to do what they have done, and regard the Bible as merely the speculations of partially enlightened men. They could not possibly agree with Peter's statement (2 Peter 1:21), that—
"Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit."
SOUL IS MORTAL, SUBJECT TO DEATH: 300 REFERENCES
NOW WE reach what perhaps may be termed the climax of the subject—the soul's relation to death. The term "immortal soul" expresses one side of the argument. "Immortal" means "not subject to death." That is the stand of Plato and orthodox Christendom.
Let us look at what GOD says. Now it would have been quite possible for the Scriptures never to have mentioned soul in connection with death. Many other terms and expressions could have been used. So that when we find that in nearly 300 places (one-third of the total uses of the word) souls are described as being mortal, subject to death, from which they can be saved and delivered, it is quite clear that God is taking special pains to give us correct ideas on this subject, and remove all excuse for believing in "immortal souls" after the manner of the unenlightened heathen. Examples of this are—
Psa. 22:20—"Deliver my soul (nephesh) from the sword."
Jer. 38:17—"If thou wilt go forth unto the King of Babylon, then thy soul (nephesh) shall live.”
1 Sam. 19:11—"If thou save not thy life (nephesh—soul) tonight, tomorrow thou shalt be slain."
1 Kings 19:10—"They seek my life (nephesh) to take it."
Es. 7:7—“He stood to make request for his life (nephesh)."
Psa. 22:29—"None can keep alive his own soul (nephesh)."
One out of every three occurrences of the word is of this character—referring to its mortality and liability to death. How could the immortal soul theory be more strikingly disproved? The most prominent fact regarding the soul that is forced upon our attention throughout is its frailty and danger of destruction. Upon this is based the one great lesson of Scripture—
"Hear, and your soul (nephesh) shall live" (Isa. 55:3).
SOULS KILLED BY MAN: 32 REFERENCES
LET US go further. In 32 passages, souls (nephesh) are spoken of as being KILLED BY MAN. Examples are:
Josh. 10:28—"Joshua took Makkedah, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and the king thereof he utterly destroyed, and all the souls (nephesh) that were therein."
This is repeated in vs. 30, 32, 35, 37, and 39.
Deut. 27:25—"Cursed be he that taketh reward to slay an innocent person (nephesh-soul)."
Let us look particularly at Lev. 24:17-18. The A.V. reads—
"He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death, and he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast."
In the original, nephesh occurs here 4 times, as follows—
"He that smiteth the nephesh (soul) of a man, shall be put to death. And he that smiteth the nephesh (soul) of a beast shall make it good, nephesh for nephesh"
Here again the translators have, by inconsistent and biased translation, obscured another clear divine lesson in the meaning of nephesh, or "soul."
SOULS ACTUALLY DEAD: 13 REFERENCES
ONE MORE step, and then we are as far away from the immortal soul theory as it is possible to be—in 13 places souls (nephesh) are said to be actually DEAD. Examples are—
Num. 6:6—"He shall come at no dead body (nephesh)."
Lev. 21:11—"Neither go in to any dead body (nephesh)."
These are parts of the Mosaic regulations concerning uncleanness and defilement by contact with corpses
“SOUL” IN N.T. CANNOT BE SEPARATED FROM “SOUL” IN O.T.
ALL REFERENCES quoted so far have been from the Old Testament. That is the foundation of the New, and the word "soul" occurs in the Old seven times as often as in the New. It is ignoring the foundation work of the Old Testament that has prevented so many from understanding the New.
The Bible is one single, indivisible unit. It cannot be broken up and a part cast aside. Only when it is regarded as one equally inspired and equally divine book can it be properly understood. God has varied His commands at different times to different people, but statements of FACT and TRUTH never change from beginning to end.
"Soul" in the N.T. cannot be considered apart from soul in the Old. Considering them together, we find them in complete harmony. As in the Old, so in the New, "soul" is used of animals; it is spoken of as dying; it is used for the mind, the heart, the appetite and the emotions.
“PSUCHE” IS SAME AS “NEPHESH”: BIBLE PROOF
Whenever speakers in the N.T. quote from passages in the Old containing the Hebrew word nephesh they use the Greek word psuche. One outstanding example will illustrate this. In 1 Cor. 15, beginning at v. 42, Paul makes a contrast between corruption and incorruption, weakness and power, mortality and immortality. Then (v. 44) he says—
"There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body."
The word "natural" here is psuchikos—soulish, from psuche—soul. He continues, v. 45—
"And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul (psuche)."
He is quoting Gen. 2:7 that we have considered. In v. 45 he calls this living soul, "that which is natural." In v. 47 he calls it "of the earth, earthy." In v. 50 he calls it "flesh and blood" and "corruption." Paul's conception of "soul" fits perfectly with what we have already discovered.
Similarly souls are applied to animals, and souls die, in the N.T. just as in the Old. In Rev. 8:9 we read—
"And the third part of the creatures that were in the sea, and had life (psuche—soul) died."
Rev. 16:3—"Every living soul (psuche) died in the sea."
And "soul" is used for natural life and functions, as in the Old. In Matt. 6:25, Jesus says—
"Take NO THOUGHT for your life (psuche—soul), what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink."
The soul here is clearly that which is supported by eating and drinking. Acts 15:25 we read—
"Our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that hazarded their lives (psuche) for the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
In faithfully serving Christ they certainly could not have been hazarding immortal souls, but they WERE hazarding their scriptural souls—their natural lives and bodies.
The same applies to Paul's words in Acts 20:24—
"Neither count I my life (psuche) dear to myself, so that I might finish my course with joy."
And Jesus' words (John 10:17)—
"I lay down my life (psuche) for the sheep."
And Phil. 2:30—
"For the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, NOT REGARDING his life (psuche)."
In all these, psuche is used in the common sense of natural life, and cannot be harmonized with the immortal soul idea.
FEW PLACES (OF100s) CAN BE TWISTED TO FIT IMMORTAL SOUL
NOW, AS in the Old, so in the New, there are a few passages where the use of the word could possibly be made to fit with the immortal soul idea. There are none, of course, that prove or even support this idea—that would be impossible as we can see from the basic meaning and general use of the word—but there are some where it could be read in if the rest is ignored.
The passage most frequently quoted is Matt. 10:28—
"Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him which is able to DESTROY both soul and body in Gehenna."
Now it is rather peculiar at the outset that the one passage most quoted to support the indestructible soul theory is the very one that speaks of the soul being DESTROYED, but, we find that these people do not regard "destroyed" as meaning destroyed, but the opposite—eternally preserved.
And we find further that they do not regard "death" as meaning death, but "eternal LIFE in misery." We can see that with definitions such as this we could make anything prove anything.
MAN CAN AND DOES KILL THE SOUL
We have seen that according to the Scriptures elsewhere, a man can and DOES kill the soul. We have looked at several passages to this effect, and there are many others. The first use of the word in the New Testament (Matt. 2:20) speaks of Herod "seeking the young child's life" (psuche—soul). The first appearance in the gospel of Mark is similar. Jesus says (Mark 3:4)—
"Is it lawful on the sabbath to save life (psuche) or to kill?"
Paul in Rom. 11:3 quotes Elijah as saying—
"I am left alone and they seek my life (psuche)."
What is meant here by saying that man cannot kill the soul? Are the Scriptures contradictory? Of course they are not. We must use wisdom to discern them properly. There is no difficulty in understanding what Christ means, if we sincerely seek a scriptural solution. Man can kill the body, but this has no permanent effect on our ultimate existence. To the faithful, this is but a brief sleep. In this sense, the ultimate, eternal sense, man can not kill the soul, or life. But God on the other hand is able to blot us out of existence forever and make all our memory to perish.
NOW, TO sum up the points that have been covered:
1. We have seen that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is admittedly traced to heathen Greek philosophers, and its followers are quite willing to concede that the Bible meaning of soul is something very different.
2. The issue is clear and there is no middle ground—we must choose between Bible teaching and human speculation.
3. The words nephesh and psuche, translated "soul," occur 850 times in the Bible and in not one case is there any suggestion of immortality.
4. The translators have used over 40 words in translation and a glance at this list shows how far different the Bible soul is from the orthodox one.
5. The word is first used of ANIMALS.
6. One-third of all its occurrences speak of it in terms indicating its mortality and subjection to death.
7. It is often spoken of as being killed by man, and it is several times spoken of as actually being dead, and being handled and touched in a dead state.
Anything more different from the immortal soul theory it would be difficult to imagine.
* * *
IN CONCLUSION, let us urge two points of action—
FIRST, make a thorough, scriptural examination of the soul. The word occurs 850 times. Make the effort to trace them through. Compare them with the general, hazy ideas on the subject. It takes time, but there is no other way God requires us to work and search.
And SECOND, having determined the facts of what we are—perishing creatures of dust—investigate God's great offer of what we may become—
“There is a natural (soul) body, and there is a spiritual body."
"As we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly."
"This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written. Death is swallowed up in victory."
These glorious words of the Apostle Paul will be fulfilled someday in the great joyful host of the redeemed, as they stand assembled before the judge of all the earth.
For all others it will be—
"As the beasts that perish.”
"Like sheep are they laid in the grave, death shall feed upon them, and their beauty shall consume in the
Let US choose the path of wisdom and life.
G.V.Growcott, The Berean Christadelphian, March & April 1972
(originally December 1960 & January 1961)