Is the soul immortal?
Matthew 10:28 is a statement on God’s sovereignty over life and death, and a reassurance: What men can do to you is temporary. They can kill you and that is fearful, granted, but it is God, the one in whom we hope, who can end you forever, not just killing the body temporarily as men can, but ultimately ending your life. Don’t fear them. Fear him.
God alone is immortal, your soul is not by its own nature immortal. Immortality is only granted as gift by God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Did Jesus say that when people kill our bodies, our souls go marching on?
Matthew 10:28 is a problem for the traditional doctrine of hell. It’s one of the verses of Scripture that conditionalists won’t let traditionalists forget, and for good reason. It affirms in the clearest language possible that the worst that men can do is to kill us, but God can destroy us, “soul and body” in hell. This is the fate that awaits those who in the end reject God. Regardless of what you think the soul is, it too will be destroyed along with the body.
And yet, this passage is sometimes thought to present a problem for many of us. Most conditionalists believe that the idea of an immaterial soul that lives on when the body dies is not biblical. We weren’t created to die, so we don’t have a built-in death survival mechanism. When we die, we’re well and truly dead until the resurrection. And yet, here’s Jesus saying that human beings can kill our bodies but not our souls. What’s going on?
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Given what many people already believe about what they call “souls,” it is understandable that they would readily find here an example of a text that invites a dualist interpretation. But this is precisely why care is needed: Whether or not what people already believe about souls is correct is the very thing under examination. This is a case where theological presuppositions about English words are driving the interpretation of the Bible. Obviously it is no proof that the biblical writers were teaching dualism to simply point out that our English translations contain the word “soul,” otherwise there could be no disagreement on the subject. Our translations do contain that word, so dualism is biblical, end of story.
But of course that is not the end of the story. A crucial question here is whether or not we are required to interpret the biblical term translated “soul” (ψυχή, psuche in this case) in a substance dualist sense, referring to a non-material, simple conscious entity that, in principle, can live without a body. Certainly there have been people who did use the Greek word psuche that way. But is that how Matthew is using it, and does that reflect a wider New Testament use of the term? If not, then the initial appearance that this text supports a dualistic portrait of human beings may be an illusion.
What is the psuche?
Suppose you met a man who believed that we are all aliens from another planet. Aliens from another planet, he says, are called “souls.” What’s more, he claims, this is the biblical point of view. And there is evidence of this too: Just look at all the biblical references to a “soul.” And so, he concludes, the Bible repeatedly affirms his view: We are indeed aliens from another planet!
Of course, you would find this line of argument preposterous. Sure, the Bible uses the English word “soul,” but this isn’t evidence that we are aliens from another planet because that’s just not what the word means! The biblical writers don’t use the Greek word psuche to refer to aliens from another planet. As absurd as this scenario is, it is analogous to the dispute before us here. We cannot claim to have evidence for our view on human nature just because we find in the Bible the same terms that we use in our description of human nature. The real question is: Do the biblical writers use the terms the same way we do? Granted, we know that some people in the Greek speaking world used the word psuche to refer to a non-physical conscious being that could survive without a body (let’s call this a dualist way of using the term). But do the biblical writers use the word in a different way? In fact they use it in at least a couple of ways, and it’s not clear at all that they use it in a way that reflects dualism about human beings.
One of the common ways the writers of the NT use the term psuche is the familiar Hebrew / Old Testament sense where it simply refers to a person. This is the case even in examples that some readers have typically assumed to be a reference to the immaterial, conscious, disembodied soul of a person.
Herbert Luckock, a fine Anglican writer on the subject of death and the intermediate state in the late nineteenth century, defended the claim that “you will not leave my soul in hades” actually refers to the descent of Christ’s soul into the underworld. And yet in spite of that he honestly acknowledges:
It is quite true that the words were capable of a meaning which would limit the reference simply to the death and burial which preceded His Resurrection, for hell or Sheol is often used in the Old Testament for the grave, and the soul of man not infrequently indicates his person merely; indeed, it has been even at times regarded as a synonym for his body. In the Law it is written, “If a soul toucheth any unclean thing … he also shall be unclean,”; and, “the soul that eateth it shall be cut off”; again by the Psalmist, “God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave.”1
As Luckock noted, the great Reformed theologian and biblical translator Theodore Beza realised this. In his 1582 edition of the Greek New Testament he gave the following translation of Acts 2:17, “Non derelinques cadaver meum in sepulcra,” the equivalent of the English, “You will not abandon my cadaver in the sepulchre.” A fine translation that gets the point across: You won’t leave me dead in the grave. However as Luckock also noted, Beza later gave in to cultural and/or peer pressure and “he changed it in a later edition, because he said some persons were offended by the rendering.”2 Most modern translations, however, have dispensed with the unhelpful term “my soul” and used terms that really do translate the meaning from one language into another. A few examples illustrate this point:
Leviticus 26:11 “And I will set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you.” (King James Version)
- “I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you.” (NIV)
- “I will live among you, and I will not despise you.” (New Living Translation)
Psalm 3:2 “Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God.” (King James Version)
- “Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.’ ” (NIV)
- “So many are saying, ‘God will never rescue him.’ ” (NLT)
Isaiah 42:1 “Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth;” (King James Version)
- “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;” (NIV)
- “Look at my servant, whom I strengthen. He is my chosen one, who pleases me.” (NLT)
There are plenty of other examples. This usage of the term “soul” still survives in our day, but only thanks to some sayings preserved from times gone by. For example, “there wasn’t a soul in sight,” or “ship sinks with more than a hundred souls on board.” We’re all souls.
Perhaps most relevantly here, one of the most common ways in which the word psuche is used in the Greek scripture is to refer to a creature’s life. Obviously “life” can mean different things in English. It can refer to something that spans a period of time, e.g. “I’ve never heard such a thing in all my life!” That is not what psuche means. That is what the Greek term bios sometimes means, so that a written record of one’s life would be called a biography.3 Rather than referring to the life that one lives, or life in the abstract (e.g. “to obtain eternal life,” where life is zoe) psuche refers to the life that a creature has. For example in Mark 3:4 Jesus askes, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life (psuche) or to kill?” In context Jesus was about to physically heal a man with a deformed hand, and was talking about saving a person’s physical life as opposed to doing the opposite: killing them.
There is no usage of psuche in the New Testament that requires any meaning beyond these common ones. Discarding the term “soul” where possible and using terms like “person,” “people,” “mind,” “heart,” or “life” would make a number of passages much clearer.4 In fact the inconsistency in the way this word is translated, even within a relatively small context, is surprising at times. Consider the somewhat staggering example of Mark 8:34-37 (taken here from the ESV).
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life (psuche) will lose it, but whoever loses his life (psuche) for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (psuche) For what can a man give in return for his soul? (psuche)
I suspect that the word “soul” was retained in this passage because of its traditional, familiar and perhaps even sentimental appeal, yet in context Jesus very clearly means “life.” How much clearer this passage would be if it read: “What good is it if someone gains the whole world but loses their life? What can you give in return for your life?”
Jesus’ story of the rich fool provides a good example of the first meaning of psuche: “And I will say to my soul (psuche), ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: Relax, eat, drink and be merry.’ ” This is not a particularly clear way of translating the idiom. Who speaks to their immaterial soul – even if they think they have one? “I will say to myself” is obviously what is meant. Similarly as Peter recalled the Genesis account of the flood he remarked (in many English versions at least) that Noah’s family on the ark consisted of “eight souls in all,” when clearly “eight people in all” is what is meant.
But regardless of what would have been a better translation in any given case, the point is that we must not let our doctrine drive our interpretation of Matthew 10:28. The presence of the English word “soul” should not distract us. That word is used on the back of a long tradition of translation that is just as much concerned about doctrine as it is about accuracy. The task of doing careful exegesis (textual interpretation) means that we have to set aside the way that people have translated the verse for us and investigate for ourselves. That God is able to destroy “life and body” makes good sense, indicating no more than that God is able to destroy us. On the surface you might be tempted to find this translation somewhat redundant: If God destroys our body then of course he destroys our life, so why should that fact that he can destroy them both be more fearful than the fact that other people can kill the body?
The answer to this question is found in the fact that God can do more than simply take our lives. He can do so in gehenna, which is permanent. More on this below. But before we move on from the point that psuche is life, rather than our immaterial soul, it’s worth making one further observation: Jesus doesn’t say that God will not only destroy the body but also, and more significantly, he will also destroy the soul. Instead, the order is reversed and Jesus says that God can destroy “both soul and body” (in our English versions). The destruction of the soul is not the climax of this saying, as though it represented something far worse than the destruction of the body. The climax is gehenna.
Can men take the psuche?
The understandable impression many would get from the first part of Matthew 10:28 is that there’s a thing called the soul that human beings can’t touch. They can’t kill it / take it at all. It’s impervious to human power. This thing could not possibly be simply our life because as everybody knows, human beings can take our life. But actually this places too much weight on too little evidence.
The fact is that in the New Testament – and even elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel itself, it is quite clear that human beings or forces in this world can take away a person’s psuche. A few examples illustrate this clearly enough. Recall that upon learning of Jesus’ birth, Herod wanted to kill him. Being warned of the danger, Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus into Egypt. And then the time came for them to return. This is how Joseph was advised to return to Israel in Matthew 2:19-20.
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life (psuche) are dead.”
By “sought the child’s life” it is clearly meant “sought to take the child’s life,” i.e. sought to kill the child. It is fairly evident that Herod was not trying to do something that human beings literally cannot do. On the contrary, he had a number of young boys killed in the attempt to kill the child Jesus (Matthew 2:16). He was perfectly capable of taking the psuche and had done so before.
When Paul was visited by an angel who told him that God had granted safety to everyone on the ship with him, he told his shipmates, “there will be no loss of life (psuche) among you, but only of the ship.” Not only can other people take your psuche, but you can lose it accidentally in a storm.
The point of all of this is that it is apparently wrong to take Matthew 10:28 as hard and fast rule about what can happen to the psuche in every possible sense. The saying was simply not intended to anticipate every possible sense of losing one’s psuche. The answer to the question “Can humans kill / take your life?” is actually: “Yes – in the here and now, but not ultimately. Not forever.” It is the “not ultimately” that Matthew is stressing when he says that men cannot kill the soul (after all, Matthew has already said that Herod would have taken the psuche of Jesus, had he not been taken into Egypt). In theological disputes, sometimes people who would be reasonable in most circumstances can suddenly become the strictest of fundamentalists: “No, it says that people can take your life but not your soul, and you’re saying that they can take it. Stop trying to qualify the text and wriggle out of it.” As is often the case, this sort of fundamentalism is selective, and there are many times when all of us allow precisely this sort of qualification. For example:
“And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” (Matthew 23:9-10)
I suspect the same people who insist that people cannot take away your psuche in any way, shape or form on the basis of Matthew 10:28 still refer to their fathers as their “fathers,” and have no problem calling their university instructors as “instructors.” Their defence, which I accept, is that the prohibition of using these terms is implicitly qualified. Although Jesus did not say that he was only talking about a certain way of regarding people as father or instructor, this is what he was doing.
The same is true in Matthew 10:28. In fact other people and forces of nature can take your life, your psuche. There is, however, a sense in which people cannot really take your life, and this is the sense that Matthew is conveying. Saying that humans cannot take your life (even though they might actually kill you) is akin to our familiar expression: They may win the battle, but they will not win the war. The point of Jesus’ saying in Matthew 10:28 was not about which parts of you are vulnerable to human attack and which are not (indeed it is really not about “parts” at all). Instead the point is about what is temporary and what is final. Human beings can kill you – for now. But God is able to do away with you forever. That this is the point, rather than the indestructability of the “soul” at human hands, is confirmed by the way Luke records the same saying of Jesus (Luke 12:4-5):
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.
The truth is that we do not know which version of the wording is the closest to what Jesus said, so our main concern should be to understand the point that Matthew and Luke understood Jesus to be making. The point is the same in Matthew as in Luke: The fearsome fact is not simply that God can take your life (even humans can do that – in this life at least), but the fact that he can do so in gehenna, translated “hell,” referring to a place where death is truly final. Gehenna represents the final act of divine judgement, and this is what marks the difference between what men can do and what God can do, a point perhaps made more clearly by Luke, but made also by Matthew. Those who belong to Christ need only fear death in this life, which is really not the end of our life at all, because we still have a future. Gehenna, on the other hand, is the end of the road.
In fact there is a rather striking parallel within Matthew’s Gospel of his use of psuche in reference to losing one’s life at the hands of men. In Matthew 16:25 Jesus promises that “whoever loses his life (psuche) for my sake will find it.” Obviously Jesus is not commending people who lose their eternal soul for his sake (!), but rather those who are willing to lay down their lives. In fact there is a strong parallel here to Matthew 10:28, for these are both teachings given to followers of Christ about losing their life for his sake. Both passages reassure them that men ultimately cannot take their life, and Matthew 10:28 adds that God can. Matthew 16, however, notes that to be killed by men is still to lose your psuche, on the proviso that you will get it back again. This is what the reader is reminded of in Matthew 10:28. Of course men may actually take your life, but in a different sense, they are not really taking it away, for it belongs to God, and “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:6). God will give life back to those who will enjoy it forever through the resurrection, as though they had never lost it. As for the rest the rest, God will take their life forever by destroying them in hell.
Instead of serving as biblical evidence for dualism, Matthew 10:28 is a statement on God’s sovereignty over life and death, and a reassurance: What men can do to you is temporary. They can kill you and that is fearful, granted, but it is God, the one in whom we hope, who can end you forever, not just killing the body temporarily as men can, but ultimately ending your life. Don’t fear them. Fear him.
- Herbert Mortimer Luckock, The Intermediate State Between Death and Judgment (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1891), 130.
- Luckock, The Intermediate State, 130
- Interestingly, bios also frequently means the sum of money that a person has earned over the course of their life.
- There are instances where psuche can mean something like “mind” or “heart” in the New Testament, but these are comparatively rare in the New Testament. For example, Acts 14:2, “But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.”