What are we human beings? Are we made of a mortal body plus an immortal soul that departs the body at death? Or are we an indivisible whole, all of which perishes at death and is brought to life again at the promised future resurrection? Christianity, Islam, Judaism. . . almost every different religion has its own beliefs on the matter, and it can be difficult to separate theory from fact. Hinduism, for example, believes in the “atman”, an immortal, spiritual part of a person which exists beyond the confines of the physical body. This idea of the immortality of the soul was also championed by the ancient philosophers like Plato, Socrates or Aristotle who all debated whether the human soul is a kind of separate life-force, distinct from the physical, or an essential part of human life intrinsically tied to the material world.
But, despite the millennia of discourse, we have yet to discover a definitive answer on the topic. Theories and questions abound, but answers are slightly harder to come by. In this article, we will explain the Christian perspective on the nature of the soul.
Genesis 1:26, 27 tells us that when God created Adam and Eve, He said: “Let us make man in our image.” What is this image of God? Some contend that it’s an immaterial soul implanted in the human body. The New Testament speaks of Christians being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:49). However, we don’t understand this to mean that Christ’s image in us is an immortal soul. Rather, it’s conformity to His righteousness and holiness. In the same way, the image of God that we received at Creation is not an immortal “soul.” It’s our reflection of God’s mental, emotional and moral characteristics.
Genesis 2:7 contains another biblical statement that’s critical to understanding human nature at Creation: “God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (KJV). Many Bible students have assumed that the “breath of life” was an immaterial, immortal, individual soul. They interpret the phrase “man became a living soul” to mean “man obtained a living soul.” However, the breath of life that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils was not an immortal soul; it was God’s life-giving Spirit. Job 33:4 says, “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
The parallelism between the “spirit of God” and the “breath of the Almighty” suggests that the two phrases are used interchangeably and that both refer to the gift of life that God imparts to His creatures.
A person who no longer breathes is dead. Job said, “As long as my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils; my lips will not speak falsehood” (Job 27:3, 4, RSV*). Here the human “breath” and the divine “spirit” are equated, because breathing is seen as a manifestation of the sustaining power of God’s Spirit.
Possession of the breath of life does not in itself confer immortality, because at death this breath returns to God. Ecclesiastes 12:7 expresses this truth: “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit [which in the original language means “breath”] returns to God who gave it.”
This spirit, or breath, is not an immortal spirit or soul that God confers on His creatures. Rather, it’s the gift of life that human beings possess for the duration of their earthly existence. As long as the “breath of life” remains in them, human beings are “living souls.” But when the breath departs, they become dead souls. This explains why the Bible sometimes refers to human death as the death of the soul (Job 33:22; Psalm 33:19, KJV).
Most scholars of scripture recognise that the “soul” (Hebrew nephesh) in Genesis 2:7 (KJV) is not an immortal essence implanted in the body but is the animating principle of the body. For instance, commenting on this verse, Catholic scholar Dom Wulstan Mork wrote: “It is nephesh [soul] that gives life to the bashar [body], but not as a distinct substance. Adam does not have nephesh; he is nephesh, just as he is bashar. The body, far from being divided from its animating principle, is the visible nephesh.”
A most compelling proof that “living soul” does not mean “immortal soul” is the repeated use in Genesis of the same phrase, “living soul” (nephesh hayyah), to describe the creation of animals (Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, 30). Most people don’t know this important fact, because in most English versions the Hebrew phrase nephesh hayyah is translated “living creatures” when it refers to animals and “living beings” when used for humans. Norman Snaith rightly condemned this arbitrary mistranslation as “most reprehensible,” because “the Hebrew phrase should be translated exactly the same way in both cases. To do otherwise is to mislead all those who do not read Hebrew. There is no excuse and no proper defence.” The distinction between the different types of living things, that is human beings and animals, is not the soul but the fact that humans were created in God’s image—that is, with godlike possibilities unavailable to animals.
After the Fall
The Fall—when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (see Genesis 3)—didn’t change our human nature, but it did change us from a state in which it was possible for us to live forever to a state in which it was inevitable that we would die. Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve had the assurance of immortality because they had access to the tree of life, not because they possessed immortal souls. After the Fall they no longer had access to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22, 23), and as a result they began experiencing the reality of the dying process.
The warning God gave Adam and Eve shows a clear connection between life and obedience on the one hand and death and disobedience on the other (Genesis 2:17). Disobedience resulted in death, not just for the body, but for the whole person. God didn’t say, “In the day that you eat of it your body shall die, but your soul will survive in a disembodied state.” Rather He said, “You”—that is, your whole person—“shall die.”
This is a fundamental teaching of the Bible. The wages of sin is death, not just for the body, but for the whole person. Ezekiel 18:4 says that “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” The death of the body is linked to the death of the soul because the body is the soul and the soul is the body. This explains why the Bible often describes the death of the person as the death of the soul (Job 33:22; Psalm 33:19).
Jesus Christ didn’t come to earth to liberate our souls from our bodies. He came to provide: (1) the spiritual regeneration of the whole person in this present life, and (2) the physical resurrection of the whole person in the world to come.
Spiritual regeneration Paul attributed vital importance to the role of the Spirit in the new life of the believer (Romans 8:9). This is indicated by the fact that in his letters he referred to the “spirit” 146 times and, by contrast, referred to the “soul” only 13 times. Furthermore, Paul never used the word “soul” (psyche) to denote life that survives death. On the contrary, he used a phrase that means “soulish body” to describe the physical body that will be changed into a spiritual body at the resurrection. This dichotomy between body and soul then, is not one which separates aspects of who were are at present, but highlights the difference between our body now, and how it will be after the second coming (with the soulish body referring to the form we will take after resurrection, not a distinct soul).
Physical resurrection. The ultimate transformation of our human nature will be realised on the glorious day of Christ’s second coming, when “the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Paul reassured believers that “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead . . . will also give life to your mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11). It’s evident that immortality is not a natural endowment of the soul but a divine gift that mortal bodies will receive at the resurrection.
Paul doesn’t mention the soul in 1 Corinthians 15, the only chapter in the Bible entirely devoted to the resurrection of believers. If the resurrection does involve the reattachment of the soul to the body, it surely is strange that Paul failed to mention it even once.
The biblical view of human nature is holistic; that is, it consists of an indivisible person in whom the “soul” is the animating principle, of the body. At Creation the whole human nature was conditionally immortal. The Fall made the whole human nature become unconditionally mortal. But in Redemption, God has provided a way for the whole human nature to be morally renewed in this present life and physically restored in the world to come. This is God’s glorious plan for us.
Curious about some of the key beliefs of Christianity? Check out the other articles in our Fundamentals series to see if you can find the answers you need.