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The most common Christian belief about the afterlife — that people possess a 'soul' and at their death their consciousness, the soul, departs from their body on the way to heaven or hell — is not a biblical teaching.
So what exactly does the Bible say about the soul?
Virtually every civilization since the beginning has held the belief that something of this life transcends death. A part of us goes on after death and this thought is expressed in the belief of the immortality of the soul.
The ancient Egyptians had elaborate customs to preserve the body and provide for the soul in its journey into the afterlife. The pyramids of Egypt are the oldest surviving testament to this idea of the hereafter. Yet it wasn’t just the Egyptians. Cultures from China to North America buried their dead in ways to show a belief that a soul departs the body at death and lives on in another world. It’s become an almost universal belief, and not just limited to Christians.
The idea of the immortal soul is so critical it ranks as THE fundamental question for theologians and philosophers, and centers on the question of what is a human being.
The origin of the idea of an immortal soul is found in the Book of Genesis. Immediately after Adam and Eve were created God told them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they did, God said, “in that day you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).
What did God mean when He warned Adam that he would die? He told them “for out of [the ground] you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). God didn’t say that only their bodies would die. There is absolutely no indication in the Bible that some kind of spiritual soul would continue to live on in some other form or in some other place.
So in verse 1 we read that the serpent, the devil, asked Eve, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?’” Of course Eve replied, “God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’” Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:1-4). Satan introduces the erroneous concept of the immortal soul in what was the first recorded lie in history.
What Scripture does say in Genesis 2:7 is quite different. “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being [Hebrew: 'nephesh'].” In some Bible translations, nephesh is interpreted as soul. But nephesh simply means a living, breathing creature. It can mean even an animal or a human being because both live and breathe and the Bible shows that it applies to all animate life.
The biblical text does not say Adam was given a soul or that some form of spirit life called 'a soul' was put in him. It says that he became a living being. People are living beings, miraculously given the gift of life by God through creation. The Bible says that man is a soul, a living breathing mortal soul. We do not have a soul, but we are living souls. We are temporary beings capable of death.
So we can die, and cease to live, but thankfully, that's not the end of the matter. God promises to give faithful believers something that mankind does not yet have. It’s found in one of the most often quoted scriptures in the Bible. Jesus describes God’s ultimate purpose for mankind. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). His promise is to give us something that we don’t yet have. Immortality.
The incorrect teaching of the immortality of the soul hides God’s awesome and incredible plan to grant us the gift of eternal life to the faithful believers. The truth of the Bible reveals the genuine hope we have in this life and what lies beyond.
This Bible Insight was adapted from the Beyond Today Television program, 'Do I Have an Immortal Soul?' https://www.ucg.org/beyond-today/beyond-today-television-program/do-i-have-an-immortal-soul