It is a surprisingly hotly debated question in some theological circles.

The biblical witness makes it difficult to answer the question with absolute certainty.

Are human beings born into this world with an immortal soul?

As with so many difficult questions the biblical witness is varied and lacking in the kind of dogmatic clarity for which we might long. As one might expect from a work of art, the Bible teaches more by inference and symbol than rigid consistent linear logic.

Those who argue against the existence in human beings of an immortal soul frequently cite I Timothy:

It is he (God) alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen. (I Timothy 6:16)

[see comment below on I Timothy 6:6]

The proponents of the no-immortal-soul position are also fond of Ecclesiastes:

19For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. 20All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. (Ecclesiastes 3:19,20)

The anxiety around belief in an immortal soul seems to relate to the possibility that such a belief must necessarily lead to the denigration of the body. If we believe in an immortal soul, we will come to view our physical bodies as a cage in which our souls are trapped. The goal then of the spiritual life is to find a way for the soul to escape from the body.

But there are other voices in the biblical testimony and it may not be necessary to diminish the body simply because we view the body as a container for the gift of immortality created in us by God.

Here are some texts that appear to point towards the existence within human beings of a deathless eternal dimension.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; …. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

God is immortal. [Refer to I Timothy 6:16 (see above) in which the author is speaking particularly about the nature of God who alone has “immortality” as a self-existent quality of his uncreated nature. The word excho (“has”) refers to having as a right or a possession.] If human beings are created with some “likeness” to God who has immortality as a fundamental component of his nature, it is not unlikely that human beings may share in common with God this deathless nature.

7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (nephesh). (Genesis 2:7)

The Genesis 2 account of the creation of human beings suggests there are two dimensions that constitute a human being. We are physical beings created “from the dust of the ground”. But we also contain another invisible dimension, “the breath of life.” It is the combination of these two that makes us “living beings.” This is not to diminish the physical material dimension or to argue for a radical separation between the two. In this material timebound realm, there is no “living being” without the form created “from the dust of the ground.” But nor are body and “breath of life” identical.

4Know that all lives (nephesh) are mine; the life (nephesh) of the parent as well as the life (nephesh) of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. (Ezekiel 18:4)

This description of nephesh implies the possibility of a life that does not “die.”

As her (Rachel) soul (nephesh) was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. (Genesis 35:18)

This verse appears to state clearly that there was an aspect of Rachel’s being that departed from her physical being at the moment of her death.

In Matthew 10:28 Jesus implies the possibility that there is a “soul” that can be killed, but need not be killed.

28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (psuche); rather fear him who can destroy both soul (psuche) and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)

In John’s great cosmic “revelation” the “souls” of the martyrs are portrayed as being present with Christ:

Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls (psuche) of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)

There are other texts (see tomorrow) that appear to suggest that there is a dimension of our human nature that can be experienced in this life, but that also transcends this physical time-bound material realm. So, the purpose of the spiritual journey is not to escape the body but to discover how the body and all of creation can be vehicles to open us to an awareness within ourselves of this deathless dimension of life.

Advertisements