One Truth, Many Lies
The immortality of the soul is the common denominator of all religions and religious currents, an idea without which the modern ecumenical movement itself cannot function. The study “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?” by Oscar Cullmann, published in 1956, gave rise to lively controversy, exposing the fallacy of the above doctrine and giving Ellen G. White credit for her biblical understanding of the topic. He similarly argues that the early fathers of the church (in the 2nd century) did not agree with the Platonic philosophy of the natural immortality of the soul, and that even later, although a minority, there always have existed both theologians and many other believers in opposition to the spiritualist wave which paganized the Christian Church.
In short, Cullmann said that the immortality of the soul and the resurrection are different and even incompatible concepts, the first being Greek and the second Hebrew. The resurrection means bringing back to life, so it presupposes death, the cessation of all existence, while the immortality of the soul from the Greeks presupposes that after the death of the body the soul remains alive. I propose to review the biblical texts that I consider the most eloquent for the subject. Perhaps a good starting point would be to examine Jewish conceptions of the soul during Jesus’ time.
Titus Flavius Josephus, the well-known historian who was also a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem shortly before the destruction of a.d. 70, tells us that Judaism was divided into three major religious currents: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.
Concerning the Pharisees, Josephus tells us that “they also believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again.”1 Elsewhere Josephus again presents the doctrine of the Pharisees: “They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.”2
“But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies.”3 However, Josephus states that few adhere to this teaching, while most Jews, the common people, are followers of Pharisaism. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were wealthy people who, once they became magistrates, used to please the crowds and even promoted Pharisaic teaching. The information is repeated elsewhere: “They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades.”4
The third direction of Judaism was represented by the Essenes, who taught “that bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever; and that they come out of the most subtile air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. And this is like the opinions of the Greeks, that good souls have their habitations beyond the ocean, in a region that is neither oppressed with storms of rain or snow, or with intense heat, but that this place is such as is refreshed by the gentle breathing of a west wind, that is perpetually blowing from the ocean; while they allot to bad souls a dark and tempestuous den, full of never-ceasing punishments.”5
We can complete this picture by recalling the philosophy of the Sadducees, who denied the concept of any resurrection (), “for the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both” ( ). Here it is strange that, although there are three elements (the resurrection, the angel, and the spirit), it is said that the Pharisees agree with both. Many have commented that it cannot be a question of denying the existence of angels or spirits, present throughout the Old Testament (in fact, there are not enough arguments to postulate that the Sadducees had a narrower biblical canon than the Pharisees, that is, only the Pentateuch). Rather, the “angel and the spirit” look at the teaching of the resurrection; they do not believe in the resurrection, “neither as an angel nor as a spirit.” They do not conceive of the idea that the soul, after subsisting like angels or like spirits, could in the end be resurrected. I think this would be the best solution for understanding the text and would be in agreement with other texts ( —a vision of the “spirit,” —a vision of the “angel”.
However, it is clear that in Josephus’ portrayal, the Pharisees did not believe that the soul disappeared through death, but that it went underground into the grave, where it received honor or punishment, depending on the life spent. Later, the good would be resurrected with the body (“another body,” of course, refers to the resurrection, not reincarnation), while the souls of the wicked continued to be punished in an eternal prison. The Essenes seemed to have similar understanding, where, although despising the body as a prison, they did not seem to believe in a resurrection of the body, only that souls would go to a happy place without the body. The Sadducees did not believe that the soul endured after death, but simply that it perished. Therefore, in their view, there are no rewards or punishments in Sheol (the abode of the dead), as the Pharisees believed.
It is therefore observed that in Judaism in the time of Jesus there was no unified concept. Most believed in the resurrection after the immortal soul (athanatossheol) spent time in the grave—, located underground. It is interesting that only the righteous were to enjoy the resurrection in the flesh (a different body from that of earthly life), while the souls of the wicked were to be tormented forever in an eternal prison. I do not think we are wrong to link this resurrection with the body of the good to the “resurrection of the last day” in, as Martha, Lazarus’ sister, puts it, testifying to what seems to have been a common concept among the Jews.
We cannot fail to notice that approximately the same belief has continued to this day. Most Christians (traditional Orthodox, and Catholic Churches, as well as most Protestant and Evangelical Churches) have an eschatological doctrine similar to that of the Pharisees. It remains to be seen whether the teaching of the Pharisees has an Old Testament basis or whether it is a new evolution, influenced by Greek culture.
Death has most often been defined as the end of life. But what is life? And how did it begin on planet Earth? If we want to understand the secret of what happens when we die, it’s important to know the nature of life.
In the book of Genesis, which means “beginnings,” we find the story of the Creator making Adam, the first human being. According to the Bible, on the sixth day of creation, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created he him; male and female he created he them” ().
A more complete picture of the creation of Adam is found in the next chapter. Notice the details: “The Lord God formed man of the dust the breath of lifeof the ground, and breathed into his nostrils ; and man became a living soul [being] ” (, emphasis added). The term “formed” comes from the same Hebrew word used to describe a potter working to create a clay vessel (see ).
Did you notice how God combined two elements to create Adam?
The first element is the “dust of the ground” (Hebrew adamah, which simply means the soil, dust, or earth). We see the truth of this when a body decomposes at death. “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was” (). Further, after Adam sinned, God told him, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” ( ).
The second element in the creation of Adam came directly from God. The Lord breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. God used divine breath, joined with dust, to create a “living being” (Hebrew nephesh). Adam did not exist before breath and earth were combined; he came into existence only when God formed him and breathed into him the breath of life.
What, exactly, is the breath of life (Hebrew neshamah)?
The “breath of life” God gave Adam was the divine spark of life, a life-giving energy that came into the lifeless body of the first man. This vital life force did not belong to Adam but was given to him at his creation.
We see the nature of life elsewhere in Scripture. For instance, Job explained, “The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life” ().
It’s crucial to know that the same term (“breath of life”) is also used for animals. Speaking of the worldwide flood in Noah’s day, the Bible says, “All flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died” (, , emphasis added). Non-biblical accounts of the Creation written at the same time as Genesis describe people being made of divine matter, but the Bible says that humanity’s physical framework came from the elements of the earth.
The King James Bible translates the Hebrew word nepheshnephesh as “soul.” Thus, it rendersin this way: “Man became a living soul” ( ). Most modern translations render as “living being” or “living person.”
The word “soul” in this passage might be confusing because this term is often connected with the idea of the “immortal soul,” but this is a concept that this passage in Genesis doesn’t address. Genesis does not describe Adam as having a soul—became some type of ethereal entity that is distinct from his physical body. Instead, the Bible says that Adam a soul—a living person—when God combined the dust of the earth with the breath of life.
It’s clear from the Bible that a “soul” is simply a living human being. When you walk down the street and see another person strolling by, you are seeing a soul. Nothing in the Creation account indicates that a soul exists apart from the body. There is no reason to assume, then, that a conscious, immortal entity exists separate from the physical form given to us by God. The Bible even says, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” ().
Often the Bible uses the word “soul” to refer to the whole person, and sometimes translators used it to refer to our emotions. But Scripture does not teach that humans are made of two distinct parts that exist apart from each other. Again, a living being exists only when the body and breath come together. This indivisible union makes a soul—a living person. A soul is simply a living human being.
In the very simplest terms, death is the opposite of life. So, what happens at death should be the reverse of what happened when Adam was created. That is, the elements that make up the body return to the earth () and the breath of life returns to God ( ).
Again, we have no indication from Scripture that this “breath” that returns to God is some kind of conscious being floating up to heaven. Instead, it is simply the divine, life-giving energy that God gives to all living things.
In the New Testament, the Greek word psuche is sometimes translated as “soul.” Notice how the following passage uses the words “life” and “soul.” Jesus said, “Whosoever will save his life lifeshall lose it: and whosoever will lose his for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (, , emphasis added).
Did you know that both uses of the word “life” and both uses of the word “soul” come from the same Greek word—psuche? Thus, in this one passage, “life” and “soul” are used interchangeably.
This is important, as it clarifies what Jesus was actually saying. Though many believe we have an immortal soul that cannot be lost or destroyed, Christ clearly said we can lose our souls. (The good news is that our souls can also be saved!) The word “soul” is used in a similar way in a passage written by the apostle Peter. He wrote that “in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” (). He clearly meant eight living breathing persons were saved from the Flood, which is how many translations convey this passage.
The word “mortal” means “subject to death.” A “mortal blow,” for instance, describes an injury that leads to death. People instinctively know that everyone is mortal, because everyone eventually dies.
However, many today believe they have a soul that is not subject to death—that is, immortal—even though the Bible never indicates that we have an immortal part of us that is distinct from the body; rather, we are souls who can die, according to the words of Jesus.
Let’s consider this carefully; you may be surprised to find out what the Bible really says about immortality!
For instance, did you know that Scripture never once uses the term “immortal soul”? Indeed, the Bible rarely even uses the word “immortal.” The apostle Paul wrote, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever” (). He further stated that God “only hath immortality” ( ). Paul used the word “immortality” to describe what is given to the saints at the resurrection. See , . Never is it used as something inherent to humans. It’s clear that God is the only immortal being. If that is true, what does the Bible teach about the natural state of humans—are we mortal or immortal? Let’s look at the first statement in the Bible regarding death. God said it directly to Adam in the Garden of Eden: The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die ” ( , , emphasis added).
Notice that God did not say, “If you sin, you will live forever in hell.” Eve understood this reality. When tempted by the serpent, she said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die” (, ).
We can also see that the consequence of being driven from Eden reveals that God did not create humans as immortal beings who would naturally live forever. “Now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: . . . he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” (, ).
The Bible uses another word for death—“sleep.” You might suppose that Bible writers used the term “sleep” only occasionally to soften the blow of the subject. In reality, however, they used the word consistently to describe the state of death. Israel’s ancient historians spoke of their kings “sleeping” or “resting” with their forefathers. “Solomon slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David” ().
Job wrote, “Man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up: So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep” ().
King David wrote, “Consider and hear me, O Lord my God; lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (). Daniel the prophet foretold, “Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” ( ).
New Testament writers also used the word “sleep” to describe the state of death. When Jairus’ daughter died, Jesus came to raise her up. “When he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this ado, and weep? The damsel is not dead, but sleepeth” (). When Lazarus died, Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth” ( ). When they misunderstood Him, “Jesus said unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead” ( ). When Jesus raised him up, notice that the Lifegiver called, “Lazarus, come forth!” ( )—not come “down,” clarifying that even four days after death, no part of the deceased had “gone” anywhere but rather had remained exactly where he had been when alive.
When Luke wrote about the martyrdom of Stephen, he said that Stephen “kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (). Peter also referred to death as asleep. (See .)
Sleep is the perfect illustration to describe the state of death. When we are asleep, we are unconscious of our surroundings. The Bible says of death, “The living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing” (). Our daily activities cease when we are asleep. So, of death, the Scriptures say that “there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” ( ).
Also, sleep implies that there will come a time of awakening. Jesus explains that “the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth” (, ).
Where do people go when they die? When a person dies, the spirit (the breath of life) returns to God and the body returns to dust. The Old Testament calls the place where people go at death sheol, hades. a Hebrew word that simply means “grave.” The New Testament uses the Greek word
The Bible teaches that everyone who dies goes to the grave. “What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave?” (). Both righteous and wicked people go to this place. When Jacob thought Joseph had died, his children tried to comfort him. But he refused to be comforted and said, “I will go down into the grave (sheol)sheol unto my son mourning” ( ). Likewise, wicked Korah and his cohorts went “down quick into the pit ()” ( ).
People are not conscious in the grave, again, the Bible compares death to sleep and explains that “the dead know not any thing” (). The soul does not have a separate entity that lives beyond the grave at death. The dead are in a state of unconsciousness in the grave until the resurrection when the grave (hades) will give up the dead. (See .)
If all this is true, then what did the apostle Paul mean when he wrote inthat he would rather be “absent from the body” and “present with the Lord”?
This famous passage says, “We are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight) we are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
In, the apostle compared our present mortal state with our future immortal life in heaven. He was showing us the difference between our earthly bodies that will someday perish and the new, perfect bodies that will someday perish and the new, perfect bodies that will be ours in heaven. Notice the expressions he used for the two conditions:
Present Mortal State
1. Earthly house
2. This tent
4. In the body
5. Absent from the Lord
Future Immortal State
1. Building from God
2. House not made with hands
3. Our habitation which is from heaven
4. Absent from the [mortal] body
5. Present with the Lord
Remember, the Bible is clear that when we die, we’re simply dead until the resurrection. So, being absent from the body means to be absent from the infirmities of our earthly bodies prone to disease, sickness, and death. To be present with the Lord means to have our glorious immortal bodies that we’ll receive when Jesus comes.
Because we have no consciousness of time in death, it is certainly true that following the moment of death, the believer’s next conscious thought is in his or her glorified body. But that does not happen until the return of Christ and the resurrection. Indeed, Paul very precisely noted the hour when the change from mortality will take place. In 6, , he wrote, “The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” That will happen only when Jesus comes. I couldn’t agree more with the Christian commentator Ellen G. White, who writes, “Our personal identity is preserved in the resurrection, though not the same particles of matter or material substance as went into the grave. The wondrous works of God are a mystery to man. The spirit, the character of man, is returned to God, there to be preserved. In the resurrection every man will have his own character. God in His own time will call forth the dead, giving again the breath of life, and bidding the dry bones live. The same form will come forth, but it will be free from disease and every defect. It lives again bearing the same individuality of features, so that friend will recognize friend. There is no law of God in nature which shows that God gives back the same identical particles of matter which composed the body before death. God shall give the righteous dead a body that will please Him.”
It is imperative that these biblical truths presented here be understood personally. The distinction between spiritualism and conditionalism is so great that we can speak not only of different denominations, but of different religions: a religion of life and immortality through resurrection, and another religion of death and the dead, of fables based on the theory of immortality of the soul. A spiritual religion, based on Scripture and the perfect creative power of God to raise the dead; and a materialistic, mystical religion, based on suspiciously universal human opinions.