I want to preface this critique by saying that this is not an attack on Billy Graham or his organisation. It is a critique of the Biblical teaching on the immortality of the soul. I want to give Graham and his ministry team the benefit of the doubt. I am sure that he had pure intentions in presenting the gospel in the way he best understood it at the time this sermon was recorded. At the same time, I do think that as a pastor and evangelist who is repeatedly speaking to stadiums full of people about Jesus, Graham has the responsibility to present the Biblical truth accurately. I am sure that all of us have been wrong about something at some point in life and it was not until we were presented with different information that created cognitive dissonance that we were willing to rethink our view and become willing to change our minds. This critique is an attempt to balance grace and brotherly accountability to the Biblical text. With that set let’s examine Graham’s sermon theologically to see where I think he made several errors as it pertains to the understanding of the immortality of the soul.
Let’s begin by examining the Biblical text that Graham reads and uses as the launching point for his sermon. Below is the text in the NASB translation with a few of the original Greek words in parentheses that will help bring clarity to our discussion. As you read, notice that the Greek word psuche is translated into both the English words ‘life’ and ‘soul’.
Mark 8:31-38 (NASB)
“And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed (apokteinó), and after three days rise again. And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.”
And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save (sózó) his life (psuche) will lose (apollumi) it, but whoever loses (apollumi) his life (psuche) for My sake and the gospel’s will save (sózó) it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? (psuche) For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (psuche) For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
The first word that is important for us to examine is the Greek word apokteinó. The lexical definition of apokteinó means to put to death or to kill. Jesus uses this word in Mark eight to speak about his impending crucifixion. Jesus is speaking about being physically put to death and then rising again three days later, bodily. Jesus also uses this same word earlier in Mark when he is speaking to the Pharisees.
Mark 3:4 “And He said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save (sozo) a life (psuche) or to kill (apokteinó)?” But they kept silent.
Here we see Jesus’ use of the word psuche referring to the action of killing someone. Jesus is asking the Pharisees if it is better to save someone’s life through healing them, or to kill them. The obvious implied response it, of course, it is better to save a person’s life. Mark uses the same word later to describe how Herodias would like to kill or put to death John the Baptist but could not do so.
Mark 6:19 “Herodias had a grudge against him (John the Baptist) and wanted to put him to death (apokteinó) and could not do so;
In all three of these cases, Mark uses the Greek word apokteinó to refer to physical bodily death. The next word that becomes relevant is the Greek word sozo.
The Greek word sozo means to save, heal, preserve or rescue. Again, when we read Jesus words, he talks about the potential for a life (psuche) to be saved or killed. If a psuche has the potential to be saved it must also have the potential to be destroyed or killed. Again, we read in Mark:
Mark 3:4 “And He said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save (sozo) a life (psuche) or to kill (apokteinó)?” But they kept silent.
This word which means “to save” is often used in contrast to words that refer to death. When we think about being saved as Christians, our modern default setting is often to think about sin. The Biblical texts indicate that we are saved from death by receiving eternal life as a gift. This is the idea behind the famous passage John 3:16, God came to save the world by offering the gift of eternal life, so that we would not die.
The other Greek word that Jesus uses in Mark eight is apollumi. The lexical definition of this word also means to kill or destroy just like the Greek word apokteinó. Mark uses this word to describe how the Pharisees sought to kill Jesus, just like Herodias sought to kill John the Baptist.
Mark 3:6 “The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy (apollumi) Him.”
Both of these very strong Greek words apokteinó and apollumi are applied to the Greek word psuche. For Mark, the narrator of the Gospel, a psuche is something that can and does die when the person dies bodily.
Finally, we come to the most crucial word, the Greek word psuche. The New Testament writers use the Greek word psuche in place of the Hebrew word nephesh. When we examine these two words together, every single time an Old Testament verse that contains the word nephesh is translated into Greek, the word psuche is used as its translational equivalent. This should reveal without a shadow of a doubt that when the New Testament writers were using the Greek word psuche, they were thinking in terms of the Hebrew word nephesh. This translational pattern is confirmed by three different gospel authors, all drawing from the same exact text. The same translational choices are made in Mathew, Mark, Luke, the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters. In total, ten New Testament texts quote the Old Testament, which translate the word nephesh into psuche. The way the Hebrew and Greek authors use these words confirm that a nephesh/psuche; is a physical living being attributed to both animals and humans. Both words are used to describe a person’s, mind, emotions, will or desires. Both words are also used to describe a person or animal that can die, be killed, be destroyed, and eventually goes to the grave.
This leads us to the question, why do the English translators at times us the word soul and at others use the word life? Jesus describes a psuche in Mark 3:4 as something that can be killed. Herodias seeks to murder John the Baptist or take his psuche in Mark 6:19. The Pharisees want to destroy Jesus or take his life which is the same word Jesus used to describe the death of a psuche. This becomes very problematic for what Graham has to say about the immortal soul. We have seen repeatedly in Mark that a psuche or soul can, in fact die. The problem is that this word has been translated as ‘life’ in some places and ‘soul’ in others. If Mark is, in fact, using the word psuche to refer both to a person’s physical material embodied life that can die, and their immaterial immortal soul that cannot die, how are we to know as a reader when to interpret the word one way or another?
A psuche cannot be both
A. Immortal and immaterial
B. Mortal and material
If the Biblical authors intended to use the word psuche to represent both of these ideas, the only reference we would have as a reader for determining which definition to give the word at any given reading would be its context. In addition, they would, by definition, be using a word as its opposite. This seems highly unlikely for an author to do. The problem arises not with the Biblical authors use of the word psuche but the interpretation of the word into the English word soul and attributing with that translation a set of preconceived notions about what a ‘soul’ is.
- How does one lose an eternal, immortal soul?
Graham reads an interpretation of the text that translates the word psuche as soul. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt of not knowing the Greek, we might ask the question how does one “lose” their eternal soul? If it is, in fact, eternal and immortal, it can never be said to be lost. Here the subtle shift in language changes the topic of the quantity of life, to quality of life, and this is precisely where Graham goes in his sermon. For him to ‘lose your soul’ is still to live forever but to live in a lesser or worse quality of life than someone who is saved. But the word “to lose” actually means to die. “To lose” is a deceiving translation of the word apollumi which is used elsewhere to refer to death or killing. Strictly from a logical standpoint; however, the idea of losing yourself, your soul, or what Graham calls the “true you” does not make any sense. We could talk of the potential of someone losing something they possessed like a coin or a dog, or even a part of them like their legs. However, how does one lose themselves if they are an immortal soul? You could talk abstractly, as in that person lost heart, or they have lost their passion, but it seems that actually to lose your soul would be to cease to exist. To translate apollumi as lose or lost is actually not a bad translation if psuche is translated as life. Then the translation reads that the person will lose their life, which makes sense.
- What is the difference between the Spirit and Soul?
In Graham’s opening minutes he states that the “Bible teaches you have a body but living down in your body is your soul or spirit”. He goes on to state that he will not discuss the difference between the spirit and soul Biblically speaking because that is a “technical theological discussion”. This seems to be a quick way to sugarcoat the idea that he is going to proceed to use the words as synonyms when, in fact, that is not how they are used in the Bible. This is a common mistake of many Christians who would call themselves dualists anthropologically speaking. They attempt to use the words synonymously when in fact the Bible predominantly uses the word spirit to refer to God, or God’s gift of life to mankind, while the English word soul is almost always better translated as a living creature or into a personal pronoun. The reason Graham won’t delineate between the words body and soul is that he wants to quote scripture that makes it seem like the word spirit can be used to reinforce the notion of an immortal soul. He does this then by quoting the book of Ecclesiastes stating that the “dust returns to earth and the spirit returns to God.” What he fails to mention is that this reflects Genesis 2:7. The spirit or breath of God is what gives Adam life, but Adam is not a spirit. In addition, animals are also said to have the spirit or breath of God. This becomes highly problematic for his theology unless he wants to say then even that “all dogs go to heaven” along with every other living creature. Here he quotes a text that uses one-word ‘spirit’, and he wants it to mean another ‘soul’.
Here is a practical example to help make sense of the Biblical language. Scripture says we are aphar the Hebrew word for dust. We are physical material. God gives us breath which animates us and gives us life. While we are living, we are called a living nephesh or creature. Think of your smartphone that most of us have. The phone is made out of physical material in a factory somewhere. Until the phone is charged and has battery life it is not a working phone. Once the phone has charged, it is a working phone and can be used. If the phone runs out of battery, it is no longer a working phone. We don’t say that the phone is the electricity or power that makes it work. The phone is the physical material that gives it form and makes it work — combining the two examples. Humans are phones. The breath of life that God gives is the battery charge. We can have battery life and be alive, or we can have dead batteries and be dead. We are not the electricity or charge that God gives. What Graham says is that humans are both the phone and the electricity within then. In fact, he goes so far as to say you are not actually the phone, you are really the electricity inside the phone and when you die that electricity dissipates or escapes. This is a Platonic understanding of Biblical anthropology and is incorrect.
- Is the physical and material creation good?
One of the other problems with Graham’s anthropology that he presents during the sermon is that he creates a dualistic approach to the physical creation that sets the material against the immaterial. Graham says that the “body is a house, and the soul is the tenant”. He says the “real you”, is your soul, not your physical body. This Platonic view sets anonymity against the flesh, deeming it bad and something to be escaped. In stark contrast to this, the Biblical view is that creation is good, very good in fact. God has created the physical material world as something to be enjoyed as God’s wonderful and marvellous creation; it is not something that we are trying to escape. Paul tells the Roman church that all of creation is longing for redemption. (see Romans 8) Graham defines the soul as our; understanding, wisdom, knowledge, judgement, will, affections, memory, and consciousness. These are all non-material attributes that attempt to define the psuche as non-material and detached from the material body. The Biblical use of the word, however, is very much tied to and conditional upon being embodied.
- Where does the Bible ever say the soul is immortal?
Graham states that the soul is the eternal part of you. This truth claim is nowhere supported in scripture. Scripture says the opposite over and over again. Humans are mortal beings, and only God is immortal. (see 1 Tim 6:16) Immortality or eternal life, scripturally speaking, is something that Christ has brought through the resurrection. (see 2 Tim 1:10) Eternal life is something that is sought after, it is a gift, and it is only ever said to be given to the saved. The Biblical words that have been translated as immortal are only ever attributed to human beings after the resurrection. Paul, in his most substantial treatment on the resurrection, tells the church in first Corinthians chapter fifteen that as mortals, we must put on immortality. He says that we are perishable beings, and after the resurrection, we will become imperishable. Immortality then is not something that we possess by nature, or acquire prior to the resurrection.
- How can one be separated from God if he is omnipresent?
Graham goes on to logically contradict himself, defining death as what happens when the soul/spirit leaves the body. In this way, he can then describe both death and Hell as separation from God. The problem with this is that traditionally speaking, Christianity has also held to the idea that God is omnipresent. King David says there is nowhere someone can flee from God’s presence. If this is true, the concept of death as separation does not make sense. It is contradictory to say God is both omnipresent and that Hell will be separation from God’s presence. Either God will be with people in Hell, or God is not omnipresent.
- How can you be destroyed and live forever?
Graham’s also seems to contradict himself in regards to the judgement of the wicked and their innate immortality. The irony is that he quotes Jesus who says that there are two roads, one that leads to life and one that leads to destruction, while at the same time he says that we are immortal beings. The Greek words apokteinó and apollumi speak of death and destruction, not an eternal quality of life that is diminished by torture. This would be similar to saying something along the lines of “I am going to send you to the end of the tunnel that has no end.” This concept makes no sense, and the use of the word “end” in the sentence loses its meaning. There cannot be a location that is both the end of the tunnel and at the same time, the tunnel has no end. To explain this, the shift of emphasis must be taken away from the common understanding of the words such as kill, destroy or lose. Something that is killed is no longer alive, something that is destroyed is no longer functioning, and something that is lost by definition is something you no longer possess.
In his sermon, Graham makes several Biblical and exegetical errors and in doing so, propagates the myth of the immortal soul to an entire stadium of people. In my opinion, this could have been easily avoided with a more detailed analysis of the text from which he was preaching. In his sermon, he describes the loss of something that he also attributed to humans having eternally and, in that sense, can never lose. Part of the error is that Graham confuses the language of the spirit and soul, treating them as synonyms. He also downgrades the listeners understanding of God’s creation and paints a picture of escape rather than redemption of God’s creation. Finally, he presents his audience with puzzle pieces that cannot fit together. He describes Hell as separation from an omnipresent God and an eternal state of life that is somehow also defined scripturally as death and destruction. If we begin in Genesis with the creation account of humanity and keep that in mind when we talk about eschatology, we are less likely to betray the Biblical narrative. Scripture says that in the beginning, God created mankind from the physical earth and called it good. The redemption story of the Bible reveals that God’s desire is for creation to return to that original state. Graham is correct in that the value of the soul is of great worth to God. He is wrong; however, in that God created humanity from physical matter and not immaterial. The human problem is physical death, and the remedy is a bodily resurrection.