A very familiar passage, Matthew 10:28, says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (NIV). This text is often put forward as the ultimate proof, from the very lips of Jesus, that within the fleshly carcass of every human being is an immaterial entity, called “the soul”, and that while this frail body may die, the “soul” is immortal and lives on. Taken in this way this text proves more than the believer in the immortality of the soul ever intended to prove. This is precisely because Jesus says God is able to destroy both soul and body in the fire of Gehenna. Whatever else Jesus intended to say he clearly says that the soul is not immortal! The souls of the wicked can and will be destroyed by God in the fires of hell.
There is, however, a better, non dualistic interpretation of the text available to us. We should note the following:
1. The Bible very rarely draws a distinction between the body (as the material part of a person) and the soul (as the immaterial part of a person). Rather, a human soul is very much a whole person, to be identified with his or her body. A living soul is a creature of dust animated by the spirit or breath of life from God (Gen. 2:7). In death the body returns to dust and the spirit or breath of life returns to God, in an exact reversal of the creation process (Eccl. 12:7 c.f. Gen. 3:19). The result is that the soul (the person) is dead.
2. Whether the reference is to the armies of Assyria, or to literal forests and fields (the former is probable), Isaiah says, “The splendour of his forests and fertile fields it will completely destroy” (Isa. 10:18, NIV). The King James Version more accurately renders the original Hebrew. It reads “[h]e will consume … both soul and body”. The truth is that the Bible uses the phrase “soul and body” / “body and soul” to refer to the totality of a person. To destroy someone body and soul is to destroy them completely.
3. In view of the coming resurrection (Dan. 12:2; 1Cor. 15; 1Thess. 4:13-18) Jesus often spoke of the end of this life, a temporary death, as if it were not really a death at all but a mere sleep (Mark 5:35, 39; John 11:11-14). In the same way, from God’s perspective, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not dead (as spoken of by Jesus in the context of an argument about the future resurrection). Indeed, “all are living” (Luke 20:38) to him who, because of his unlimited power, including the power to raise the dead, calls “things that are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17).
4. Elsewhere Jesus says the same thing as is said in Matthew 10:28 but without any hint of dualism: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Luke 12:4-5). It seems best to say that Jesus taught us that we need not fear those who are able to kill the body (thus temporarily ending our life in this world), but have no power to destroy us completely (for at death we pass into a temporary sleep, awaiting the glorious awakening of the resurrection morning). Rather, we should fear God who alone has the power to deprive a person of a future resurrection life by throwing them into the fire of hell to suffer a second complete and irreversible death (Rev. 2:11, 20:6, 14, 21:8).
(First printed in “From Death To Life”, Issue 29, Jan /Mar 2006, p. 3).