[An extract from the latest book “Hell No!” by Michael Bieleski]
There are certain passages that have been used to support the idea of an immortal soul. Amongst these have been Genesis 2:7, where it says that God breathed the breath of life into man and he became a living soul. However, the word soul is the Hebrew word nephesh, which actually meant creature or being and this is the way it should be translated.1
God breathed life into man and he became a living being or nephesh. A being is someone or something that has life in itself. It explains the completeness of the nature of the creature that lives and breathes. There was no indication that the being was immortal or survived death in any shape or form.
In addition to this, nephesh is also applied to animals.2 The Bible says that the earth brought forward living creatures of every kind, including cattle and creeping things. If we insist on applying great significance to an immortal soul of man, then this significance can only undermined by the fact that animals were also created as living souls.
The use of the Hebrew words explain to us that God made things alive through the breath of life. This is why Bible might say that the spirit returns to God who gave it.3 Spirit in Hebrew meant wind or breath, and so a translation of this could say that the breath returned to God who gave it.
This sort of language does not mean that man’s breath is an immortal part of man that survives death. The breath of life is a metaphorical explanation of the creation of life with breathing being the evidence that something is alive. Importantly, it means that creatures did not become immortal beings, just because God gave them life. They were alive because they were living breathing creatures, and it is God who gave them the breath of life.
This idea of this God given life is contrasted by the significance of death. God gave man life as a living breathing creature, but Satan tricked man into disobedience. The consequence for man was the destruction of the physical self.
These ideas are strongly supported by Jesus’ own teaching. Jesus never suggests that one should believe in him to avoid eternal torment. However, he does say that whoever believes in him will not die, because he is the resurrection and the life.
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.4
This verse tells us that the judgment that the believer avoids is death. It cannot mean a spiritual death because Jesus was very clear about the nature of death. For example, his description of the death of the Israelites in the wilderness, clearly shows that he had in mind physical death. This is because the Israelites had eaten bread in the wilderness and yet they had died. However, Jesus is the bread from heaven and whoever ate of that bread would not die.
Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.5
And while believers still die a physical death, the promise that Jesus makes is that even though die we shall still live, but only through the resurrection.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 6
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He does not state that we will continue to live beyond the grave, because the promise is that we will return from the grave. This is a place where the dead are dead. But Jesus did not just say these things. He demonstrated what he meant by raising Lazarus from the dead. The return to life was a physical demonstration of the message that Jesus proclaimed. Even though Lazarus had died, he was brought back to life from a physical death, still wrapped in his burial clothes.
If we accepted the idea of the immortal soul, we would have to conceive of the fact that Lazarus went to heaven as an immortal soul and then came back to his body all wrapped in burial clothes and climbed out of the grave.
It is not likely that this is what Jesus thought was happening. Jesus wept when he heard that Lazarus had died. Why would you weep if you knew that Lazarus was a happy soul in Heaven with the Father? Jesus wept because death is an unpleasant thing. It is the end of self and existence.
The influence of the idea that man is a naturally immortal being or soul undermines the significance of the link between the body, life and the resurrection. A belief in the idea of a naturally immortal soul has also encouraged and developed the idea that the death of man was primarily a spiritual death or a type of separation from God.
One source for the emphasis on this spiritual death is possibly found in the statement by God that Adam and Eve would die in the day that they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The argument is that the moment man ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he became spiritually alienated from God and therefore spiritually dead. The major support for this idea rests on the assumption that man was created with an immortal soul. Once this immortal soul sinned it would then become subject to an eternal separation from God.
However, this statement is an idiomatic expression which means as surely as you eat of it. It means that the judgment would be an inevitable event. Therefore man become subject to the physical processes leading to death and explains why we all get wrinkles, grey hair and end up in the ground. The creation story is an explanation story. It explains why there is sin and why we die.
We should point out that man could still be considered spiritually dead in the sense that unregenerate man is not conscious of God or capable of relationship with God. Once man had sinned he found himself naked and fell into a downward spiral of evil leading to all sorts of folly. However, this spiritual death is not the death described by God.
The emphasis on a spiritual death is a distraction from the real issue, which is that death means the end of existence. For man, this meant the dissolution of the elements from which he was made. We have already seen how Satan’s lie was that we would not really die and the concept of spiritual death and immortality are part of this lie. It is a distraction from the fact that we all will physically die, and that the only solution offered by Jesus to this problem was the resurrection from the dead.