THE IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL
T. PIERCE BROWN
We commonly speak of the immortality of the soul as if it is something that is clearly taught in the Bible. Since I am questioning in this article the propriety of speaking in that fashion, it is probable that I will be misunderstood, possibly misrepresented and maligned by some. Let me make clear at the beginning that I do not hold the position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists or any who claim membership in the Lord’s church and yet teach that wicked people will cease to exist when this life is over. When the Bible says “the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) it simply means that when a person sins, he is separated from God, as Adam was in the Garden of Eden, and if he stays separated he will suffer what is known as “the second death” (Revelation 20:14). So when I question the propriety of our talking about “the immortality of the soul” I am not suggesting anything resembling the false doctrines we have mentioned.
Without going into an extended study of all the passages where the term “soul” and “spirit” are used, let us be aware to begin with that this term “living soul” is also applied to the water and land animals (Genesis 1:20-21,24). When God breathed life into Adam, he became a living being (psuchan zosan). He was a person with life (psuche). The fact that he had a spirit does not imply, suggest or teach that he had two entities, sort of immortal Siamese twins in him. Neither does it mean that he had only one thing, a spirit, but also called a soul. The Bible teaches that God is the Father of Spirits (Hebrews 12:9 and that the spirit will return to the God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7). When Jesus died, he said, “Into thy hands I commend (or commit) my spirit” (Luke23:46). The primary thing some of us have missed, in my judgment, is that the word “spirit” signifies an entity, and the word “soul” signifies a quality (life) and they are not in the same category and are not synonyms. What makes them seem to be synonyms is that “soul” is often used metaphorically to refer to the person who has a spirit. For example, Acts 27:37 says, “And we were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen souls.” We surely can see that it does not suggest that some immaterial entities called “souls” but really spirits that were wandering around in the ship. It simply means that there were 276 persons there. If you were in the Navy and the Captain said, “All hands on deck” you would not expect to see the men fall on their faces and place their hands on the deck. You would realize that a “hand” was simply a person. So you should realize that the “souls” that were on the ship were simply living persons. Surely no one can read with any degree of intelligence Joshua11:11and assume that some “immaterial entity called the soul” was killed. It says, “And they smote all the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them: there was not any left to breathe: and he burnt Hazor with fire.” When we read in Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him,” surely no one who considers the context can miss the fact that he is talking about a person who sins is responsible for his own sin, whether it be a son or father. He is not talking about some “immaterial entity called the soul” that is going to perish or be annihilated forever. In Matthew 10:28 when Jesus said, “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: bur rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell,” He was not suggesting that to destroy meant to annihilate, but that it is destroyed in the same sense that a navy “destroyer” destroys an enemy vessel when it causes it to sink to the bottom of the ocean and lose any worthwhile existence. Nor does it mean, in my judgment, that the term “soul” and “spirit” are synonymns because it is the spirit that is to be in hell. We shall try to make that clearer in the later part of this article. He simply means that the body that will be in hell will have life—sensory capacity—and be able to suffer throughout eternity. It sould be understood that the body that will be in hell is not the body that will be decayed in the ground, but the body that shall be (1 Corinthians15:37). Surely none who read this assume that in Luke 16:22-23 when the beggar died and was carried away to Abraham’s bosom it was his pitiful earthly body that was there. Surely no one will assert that when the rich man was represented as wanting his tongue cooled that it was the same tongue that had tasted good food every day, and was still in the body that was buried. But it was still the rich man and Lazarus who were there, for their spirits existed in Hades and still had life—sensory capacity, though it was not the same life they had on earth. We realize that great scholars, both in the church and out, have written much about the relationship between the soul and spirit and many have confessed their inability to discern between them. Many have quoted Hebrews4:12and have indicated that although the word of God is able to discern between them, we are unable to do so. It is my judgment that the word of God enables us to discriminate properly if we but read and study carefully and make sure we are not blinded by preconceived notions.
The charge may be made, “Since you claim that the Bible teaches that animals have souls, and Solomon said that animals have spirits, then it seems that you are making no distinction between men and animals.” The reference about Solomon is found in Ecclesiastes 3:21 “Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?”(NKJV)
My response would be: It does not really matter what I claim, but we should try to deal honestly with what the Bible teaches. Does the Bible use the term “living soul” with reference to animals as well as to men? Anyone who wants to check the Hebrew and the Septuagint as well as Vine, Thayer, or other Greek scholars or commentators such as Adam Clarke or others can easily verify that that it does. Does that prove that the life of a man is no different than the life of a beast? Surely anyone can see that it does not. A simple illustration may help, in case it is hard for you to see. A potato vine has life. An oak tree has life. Does that prove that a potato vine and an oak tree are no different?
Again, the fact that an animal is said to have a spirit and a man has a spirit in no way suggests, implies or teaches that there is no significant difference between them. In fact, the reference from Solomon, by itself, shows otherwise. In addition to that, the Bible is clear that man was made in the image of God. Animals were not. To show how baseless the charge or assumption is, let us state the facts another way without regard to what the Hebrew and Greek language or any commentary says. Everyone, even an atheist, must admit that animals have life—sensory capacity. When the word soul is used in that sense, as it most often is, then anyone can see that we may say that an animal has a soul. But there is no reason or logic or inspired statement that should lead us to conclude that the life of men and animals are therefore equivalent or comparable. Perhaps another illustration will help. Most of us know that human blood of any race can be properly used in a blood transfusion. Acts17:26says, “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” Leviticus17:11says, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood.” But most of us know that human blood and animal blood is not the same, though the words “blood” and “life” are used about both of them.
A realization of the fact that almost all words in the Bible (and probably out of it) have a basic meaning, but the exact meaning can only be ascertained from the context would help considerably. If we write on the board the words “bank” or “wind” and ask you to tell what I mean by those words, you cannot possibly do that. Even in a sentence, “I went into a bank” would not help much unless you had a larger context. It might be where I got a check cashed, or it might be where I had a wreck and someone else “cashed in” as my car went off the road into a bank. So my hope in this article is primarily to deepen your appreciation of how wonderful and varied the teaching of the Bible is in its speaking of the soul and spirit and to show the difference in what the Bible actually teaches and the false doctrines like annihilation, suggesting that the personality of an individual disappears when he dies.
Perhaps at this point we should examine two other terms that are translated “life” in the New Testament. We do not now want to discuss in detail the difference in psuche, zoe, and bios, which are all translated “life,” but it seems clear from the Bible usage and the statements of all Greek scholars of which we are aware that psuche is the individual life of the person or animal, but zoe is life in the absolute sense as God has it, or simply existence as God gives it. John 10:10 may help us to see that. He says, “I am come that they might have life (zoe).” It should be evident that he did not come that we might have life (psuche), for we had that from the time we were conceived in our mother’s womb, but came that we might have a quality of life as God has it. A close examination of the more than 120 times the word is used in the New Testament should convince us that while psuche is the word used for the quality we call “life” that every living man or animal has that gives him sensory capacities—the ability to taste, touch, smell, feel, hear and make decisions, zoe is the word used to describe a different kind of quality of life, such as “a life of fellowship with God,” or eternal life as in John 17:3, “This is life (zoe) eternal that they might know thee–.” Surely from John 10:10 and all the other passages, one can understand that a person may live—have psuche—life without having life (zoe) in any intensive sense. When one looks at the dozen or so cases where “bios” is used, it seems evident that it refers to the state of existence, or by extension the period or existence or the means or manner which enables one to have that state of existence. We have never heard anyone discuss the fact that we are told that when a person dies and his spirit leaves his body, and he no longer has any sensual capacity (soul-psuche), he still has some kind of life left in that body, for his hair and fingernails continue to grow. He has no spirit; he has no soul; he surely has no quality known as “zoe.” Since the Bible does not speak of that circumstance as far as we know, we cannot speak with any certainty about the implications of the fact that the body still has some form of life in it. It may be that if God had spoken of that fact, he would use the term “bios” to refer to that specific state of existence. We suggest that God can certainly give our new glorified bodies a kind of life that is not the old life-psuche which caused us to be living beings, but a different kind of life.
Probably part of the problem is that many do not understand what is meant by “soul” as we find it in the Bible, nor what is meant by “immortality.” Vine defines soul as “the breath of life” then gives what he calls ten different uses of “psuche. It is my judgment that we should not speak of them as ten different meanings, as is often done, but as ten different uses of the word, with one basic meaning, as Vine indicates. His first usage is “the natural life of the body.” His second is, “the immaterial, invisible part of man.” Surely we can see that these are not two different meanings, for the natural life IS an immaterial, invisible part of man. His third is “the disembodied (or ‘unclothed’ or ‘naked’ man” but the reference he gives in 2 Corinthians 5:3,4 does not even mention the soul, but is talking about the spirit which leaves the body and returns to God who gave it. My judgment that the mistake most of us make is in the assumption that the soul and the spirit are two similar entities (sort of like Siamese twins) abiding in the body, when they are not both entities. The spirit is an entity that can exist separate from the body. The soul is not an entity that can exist by itself, but is a quality of existence otherwise called “life.” If you can distinguish between an entity and a quality, you may be able to make sense out of my following statements. If you cannot, then you will probably mark the whole thing off as a wild theory, or simply a false doctrine.
Let us use a simple illustration to show what we are talking about. Suppose you have a tornado. The wind or air is an entity. It picks up sticks, leaves, dirt, and debris of various kinds, which are all separate entities. It picks up speed or velocity, but velocity is not an entity; it is a quality. The air can exist without any velocity, but the velocity of the air cannot exist without the air. God is Spirit. He has life, but life is not a separate entity, but a quality that God has. Man has a body. That body has a spirit. That is a separate entity, for the spirit may and will exist apart from the body. The body also has soul (psuche-life). But the soul is not a separate entity similar to or synonymous with the spirit. It is a quality of being that gives us the ability to taste, touch, smell, feel and hear. If your fingers lose their ability to feel anything, you may say, “They are dead.” They have no life in them.
His fourth listing is “the seat of personality” but the seat of one’s personality is his life. All the references he gives only indicate that the term “soul” simply refers to the life of the individual. For example when it is said that “he gave himself a ransom for all” (the reference he gives in 2 Timothy 2:6) it means exactly what Matthew 20:28 means when it says, “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Of course if he gives his life-psuche he gives himself. His next is “the seat of the sentient elements in man, that by which he perceives, reflects, feels, desires.” Surely all of us recognize that is exactly what the life of man is. A man is alive or has life when he can think, touch, smell, feel, desire, reflect, etc. and to the degree that he loses that ability he loses his life. We even use the expression that way if we say, “My finger is dead,” meaning we have no feeling in it. His next is “the seat of will or purpose.” Can we not see that this is not a “different definition” of life—psuche, but is simply a different aspect of one of the functions of life? Of course a man’s life is the “seat of his will,” but that simply means that if a person is not alive, he has no will or purpose. But this does not mean that “psuche” means something different than life. The same is true with his next “use” as “the seat of appetite.” We are fairly sure that a person who has no life has no appetite, but this does not mean that “psuche” means “the seat of the appetite.” “Psuche” simply means “life” which is where we find the seat of the appetite. This is why when the word “psuche” is used in some cases he mentions and of which we are surely aware, it simply refers to persons who had life. When God breathed into Adam the breath of life and he became a living soul, surely it should not take a Solomon or a scholar to be aware that Adam became a person with life. This does not mean that “psuche” has another meaning. It simply means that its basic meaning is “life.” So the word is used, as Vine says, to refer to “an antimate creature, human or other,” and gives 1 Corinthians 15:45, Revelation 16:3, Genesis 1:24 and other references. It may shock some of us to be told that the word “soul” in the Bible refers to the life in an animal as well as the life in man, but facts are facts, and no preconceived idea should prevent us from admitting those facts. My point is that all of these references show that the basic meaning of the term “soul” is “life” whether it refers to the life of mankind or an animal. Plants have life, but they do not have “psuche,” for the life of a plant is different from the life of man and animals.
At this point, it might be well to emphasize that when we point out some error in some great scholar’s statement or assumption, it does not imply that we think we are smarter than the scholar, or have anything to compare to his great knowledge and ability. It only means that we feel that we have both the right and responsibility to emphasize that scholars have blind spots and preconceived notions and theological assumptions that color and pervert their conclusions just as certainly as those of us who have less intelligence, knowledge and ability. An example or two may help make that point clear. Robert Young who gave us the valuable concordance doubtless had a greater mind and knew more Hebrew and Greek than most who may read this article. Yet after the word “Baptize” in his most valuable work he has in parentheses: “To consecrate by pouring out on or putting into.” The only way we can possibly justify such a ridiculous statement is to assume that in his parenthesis he is giving a theological or religious usage, not a biblical one. It would be hard to imagine Matthew 3:13 reading, “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of (consecrated by pouring out on or putting into) him.” Young knew very well that the word translated baptize meant “to dip, plunge, or immerse.”
Under “melody” (Ephesians 5:9) where Paul says, “Make melody in your heart” he says, “to play on a stringed instrument.” It is utterly amazing that a scholar can read all the similar passages where “psallo” is used and still say it means, “play on a stringed instrument.” It would be very interesting to hear him or some other person try to explain how “sing and make melody in your heart” could possibly mean, “play on a stringed instrument.” It should also be clear that one cannot “teach and admonish one another) as the reference in Colossians has it, by playing on a mechanical instrument. One only has to read the references Young gives under “psalm” to see that his definition as “a song of praise (on an instrument) does not make any sense. The reference in Luke 20:42, “David himself saith in the book of Psalms” should make it clear. Is the “book of Psalms” in your Bible a book of songs of praise on an instrument, or can you read or sing the psalms without having some kind of mechanical instrument? It is true that in the Old Testament they sang and played (Psalm33:3) on musical instruments, but “sing” and “play” are different words. These are only a few examples that should help us realize that for a person to take issue with a scholar who is far wiser and has far more knowledge does not mean that we are arrogant or condescending, but that even a wise and scholarly man can be blinded by some false theology or preconceived or traditional idea.
Although almost everyone seems to have trouble distinguishing between the soul and spirit, practically all scholars of which I am aware admit that “the spirit is the life principle bestowed on man by God and the soul is the resulting life constituted in the individual,” as Vine puts it. In our judgment, part of the problem is that we do not properly distinguish what these scholars imply, but not say clearly: the spirit is an entity that may exist separate from the body. The soul of man is not an entity that can so exist, but is a quality the man has when his spirit is still in the body. “The body without the spirit is dead” (James2:26) for its life-psuche has gone out. It does not exist without the body. Notice carefully: The spirit does not cease to exist when it goes out. It still has a life (zoe) of its own, but it is not the life (psuche) the body had, for that life is gone, just as the light from a light bulb goes out when the electricity is cut off from the bulb. Rather than discuss the immortality of the soul, we should be discussing the immortality of the spirit, for the terms are not synonymous, regardless of what some of our leading brethren have said. They only seem to be synonymous because one cannot have life without the spirit, and when the spirit of a man goes into the Hadean world, it is that individual spirit that lives or has life. When Moses and Elijah appeared on the Mount with Jesus as recorded in Mark 9, they were specific individual living spirits, so they could be said to have the life-psuche of Moses and Elijah. In the same way, it can be said that your life and mine will go on forever, but it is not the same life-psuche that was in the body when we die, but the life that our spirit has when it is given immortality. After I had written that I found this comment in the Abridged Theological Dictionary, p. 1349 that suggests what I have been trying to say: “Paul never used psyche for the life that survives death. He sees eternal life wholly as a divine gift on the basis of a new creative act. There is continuity with the earthly life, but that lies wholly with God, and is better described by pneuma rather than psyche.”
We never remember hearing anyone discuss the matter in the light of 1 Timothy 6:16, “Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting.” If God alone has immortality, do we have it? Most persons, both in the church and out, assume that when Adam was created, he was created with “an immortal soul” but he lost that immortal quality when he sinned, although for some reason they still talk about the soul as immortal! We admit that the immortality that is here mentioned is an intrinsic immortality of God and does not negate the idea that man may be given an immortality. My primary point is that the spirit of man is what goes back to God who gave it, and that there is nothing in the Bible of which I am aware that suggests that there is another entity in the body similar to the spirit that has immortality, or that the term “spirit” and “soul” refer to the same thing. As already indicated, almost every Greek scholar of which I am aware admits somewhere in his discussion of the two terms that the spirit is that life principle or entity given from God that will never cease to exist and the soul is the individual’s life that is in the body as a result of the action of God’s spirit. A simple illustration may help us understand what seems so complex. A light bulb may represent the body. The electricity may represent the spirit. The light that exists when the electricity comes into the bulb may represent the soul. When the electricity goes out, the light goes out, but the light and the electricity are not the same thing. If at a later time another charge of electricity comes into the bulb, the light that is there is not the same light.
What about 1 Corinthians 15:53, “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality?” What is meant by “immortality” and what is it that “puts it on” and when? It should be obvious that before we can study any subject intelligently, or make appropriate remarks about them, we must understand the meaning of the terms about which we are speaking. The two terms we are using here are “immortality” and “soul” and it is my judgment that most of us have not given much time to a study of what the Bible teaches about both terms, but have simply used them as they are popularly accepted and understood, or misunderstood. There are some outstanding scholars in and out of the Lord’s church who have studied and writtten much about the matter, but none of which I am aware have noted the difference between the spirit, that is descriptive of a separate entity, and the soul that is descriptive of a quality the body has when the spirit is in it.
Since the basic or root meaning of “immortal” is “not dying,” then it is natural for us to think that the expression, “the soul of man never dies” is clearly taught in the Bible, for those who are saved will live forever with God and never die. It seems clear from 2 Corinthians 5:4 that the Greek term “athanasia” expresses a little more than merely the fact that a person or thing does not die, but the quality of life to be enjoyed by those who are saved in heaven. A mailbox and a golf club do not die, but we do not speak of them as immortal.
However, what is now mortal and takes on immortality may need more study, as well as what the Bible means by the term, “soul.” It is generally agreed that man is mortal, and even if not generally agreed, the Bible teaches it. But what is meant by the statement that man is mortal? It simply means that man dies. Will man ever get to the place where he does not die. I affirm that he will, but it is not because he has in him an entity that is called “soul” that will still exist. The soul—life—that he now has will cease to exist, for when the spirit leaves the body, the life—soul—goes out, just as a light goes out when the electricity is turned off. But the man will have a life—zoe—and that life will be what the Bible speaks of as “eternal life.” In every reference of which I am aware, when the Bible speaks of eternal life it is not eternal psuche, but eternal zoe. If we think of the individual spirit that retains our characteristics being able to taste, touch, smell, feel, hear, then we can think of that spirit as having “psuche,” but as I understand it, we should not talk of life as something that dies, for life is simply a quality that exists where the spirit is. It is gramatically and theologically correct to say that a person dies, and we might say metaphoriclly, “That poor soul died in a tragic accident,” or as the Bible puts it, “the souls were slain by the edge of the sword.” But we should recognize that this is but a metaphor and the Bible does not mean that the life or soul died, but that the person who had the life died.
So the Bible has nothing to say about “the soul of man never dying” as we put it in the song, but I have no terrible objection to it, for I think we mean the right thing when we sing it. It would mess up the meter terribly if we sang, “Where the glorified body of man will never die,” and even “Where the spirit of man never dies” would be a little harder to sing. But it is my judgment that a Bible student should realize that the terms, “soul” and “spirit” are not synonyms, for soul refers to the life that came into man when God placed a spirit in him. The spirit is the entity that is in him; the soul is the quality of existence that was produced by that spirit being breathed into him. It is a very similar expression to that found in John 20:22, “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit.” In this case, when they received the Spirit it was the Holy Spirit. In the case in Genesis when Adam received the spirit, it was his own spirit, but the process and the language are similar. So, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:45, “The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit,” he simply means that Adam had a body that was given life; Christ (the last Adam) was a Spirit that gives life. Christ was a Spirit in the form of God, who became flesh and the term “quickening” simply means that he was the one who gives life.
What are we to understand about such passages as James 1:21? The NIV says, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” The Greek text says “psuche-soul-life.” If your soul is saved, does that not prove that it is an entity just as much as the spirit? We think not, because we understand that the spirit that goes into eternity will have life, but it will not be the life that the body had on earth, but a new life from God that is given all redeemed persons who will have a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44). We will have the same spirit we had here on earth, but we will have a new body and a new life, if I understand the scriptures properly. If my understanding is a misunderstanding it still does not deny that we will exist throughout eternity, either in a state of bliss or in a state of anguish. It is not the false doctrine of annihiliation of the lost person. It is simply the conclusion that it would be more appropriate to speak of the immortality of the spirit than it would of the immortality of the soul, for they are not the same.