There seems to be much confusion as to the concept of a human soul. Is it immortal? Is it synonymous to the human spirit? If not, what is it? Many Christians remain divided on the issue while others choose not to have an opinion at all. Let’s uncover the truth behind the meaning of this word “soul” from the Word of God.
The term for “soul” in Hebrew is nephesh and it occurs 754 times in the Old Testament. It is translated as “soul” 472 times and in other places, it is represented by other words and phrases. The Hebrew Lexicon definition for nephesh is as follows:
Self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion. That which breathes, living being with life in the blood, seat of appetites, seat of emotions and passions, activity of the mind, activity of the will, activity of character.
There are many who teach that we do not have a soul. In actuality, they say, we are a soul, one that ceases to exist after physical death. Because an immediate afterlife does not exist, our souls are in a state of sleep until the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:35-38). Is this view correct? And if not, how can we know what is?
Take another look at the defintion again? Are you able to distinguish the soul of a creature (an animal) from that of a human based on the meaning of nephesh?
There used to be a time in the not-so-distant past when it was believed that man’s abilities were unmatched by any species. It seems those days are gone. Studies have proven we’re not the strongest or the fastest. In fact, many researchers believe we may not even be the smartest. If there’s any truth to this, then what makes a human different than an ape?
Well, we’ve already covered how we’re living beings (nephesh). Animals are also living creatures (nephesh). But if you recall from Genesis 2:7, God blew into man’s nostrils the breath of life, and man became a “living” nephesh. Or using the definition, a “living” living being.
This means when God breathed into man’s nostrils, man acquired life from the inside in the same form as his life on the outside, except this life was to be in the likeness of God, eternal. How do we know this?
Ecclesiastes 12:7 states, “then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” The Greek word for spirit is pneuma and means breath, blow, or denotes that of wind. The spirit that we all possess is what God breathed into us in Genesis 2:7. His spirit or breath or wind returns to Him at the point death.
If our bodies are made from the earth and return back to the earth, and if the breath that God breathed in us returns back to Him, then what’s left for our soul?
Back up to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. Verse 11 states, “He hath made everything beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.”
The Hebrew term for “world” here is hÄ·‘Å·w·lÄm meaning everlasting or eternity. This verse could easily be read this way, “also He hath set eternity in the human heart, so that…” Meaning while everything in the world impresses upon us finality, there’s something embedded within us that begs, seeks, and desires more.
Our world is no short of formulas, methods, and strategies for appearing and being anything we wish. We’ve become more health conscious and better fit. We strive to make choices with ourselves in mind. We do our best to stay clear of anything that poses a threat to our existence. We try out different concoctions in an effort to slow down what we know we can not prevent.
We try not to think about it. We dare not speak of it. But lingering still, there’s something deep down that ponders, “What’s next?” Whether we’re clinging to the research of world-renown scientists, or we’ve chosen to cling to what we feel makes sense, or we decide to wing it and let be what will be or further still, we may clutch the words of our Almighty and rest in His promises. But despite where our target for truth centers in our grip, inside we’re still reaching and hoping that there’s something out there to hold onto.
If not, then how does God plant hopes of an eternity inside of us, if inside of us, there’s no hope for the eternal? Let’s also take into account the times scripture describes souls after the body has experienced physical death?
In 1 Kings 17, Elijah was instructed to live with a widow in the village of Zarephath. During his stay, the woman’s son became sick. The scriptures say, “He grew worse and worse, and finally he died.” (NLT) Elijah cried out to the Lord and stretched himself three times over the child’s body. Scriptures read, “And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.”
And when Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin, the bible says her soul was departing. Genesis 35:18
In Matthew 10, Jesus instructs the apostles to preach about the kingdom to his lost sheep, Israel. He tells them in the 28th verse not to fear those that kill the body but are not able to kill the soul but to fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
If the soul, synonymous to some with the body, ceases at physical death, why did Jesus not only create a distinction between the two but also alluded to this act of destruction taking place outside of the physical realm in hell?
Additionally, Matthew 17:1-3 describes what is known as the transfiguration where Peter, James, and John were led by Jesus up a high mountain. Jesus' face shone as bright as the sun and his clothes became white as light. At that moment, appearing before them were Moses and Elijah.
How could they have appeared after having died if only the resurrection ensues after death? In light of this, however, many will continue to affirm soul sleep and use references to passages that compare death to sleep.
Why Is Death Compared to Sleep
Sleep in our bodies is a rest from daily labor. We can drink all the coffee we want. Sleep is as certain as death. Death is a rest from earthly labor. Both are temporary. Just like our bodies arise after sleep, so will our bodies rise again after death. The two are compared because the first is a representation of the second.
Notice how both involve the body. The body is sleeping. The body is dead. The body is resting. And the body will rise again. When you sleep, you still exist. After death, you’ll still exist as well. And as with the arrival of a new day, those awakened are greeted with newness as well. New body, new earth, and new life, eternally. 1 Corinthians 15.
You have a soul. You live in a body that has been made alive through God’s Spirit. You are made in the image of God, Triune. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit equal one God. Body, soul and spirit equal one person.
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