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Most religions teach some form of life after death. The most common Christian belief regarding the afterlife is that people possess souls and at death their consciousness, in the form of that soul, departs from the body and heads for heaven or hell.
The concept of the immortal soul was introduced into man's thinking at the beginning of human history. God told Adam and Eve if they sinned they would die (Genesis 2:17; 3:19). Satan then insinuated God was lying. He assured them they wouldn't die (verses 1-5), and thus introduced the unscriptural teaching of the immortality of the soul into human thought.
Belief in the immortality of the soul was also espoused by the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato (ca. 428-348 B.C.) "... reasoned that the soul, being eternal, must have had a pre-existence in the ideal world where it learned about the eternal Ideals" (William S. Sahakian, History of Philosophy, 1968, p. 56).
The doctrine of the immortal soul also caused much controversy in the early Catholic Church. Origen (ca. 185-254), an admirer of Plato, believed the soul was immortal and would depart to everlasting reward or punishment at death (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, 1995, p. 240). Augustine (354-430) also believed the conscious soul would continue to live on after death in either a blissful state with God or an agonizing state of separation from God (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, 1995, p. 245.)
Richard Tarnas, in his best-seller ‘The Passion of the Western Mind’, points to the influences of pagan Platonic philosophy on Origen and Augustine: "... It was Augustine's formulation of Christian Platonism that was to permeate virtually all of medieval Christian thought in the West. So enthusiastic was the Christian integration of the Greek spirit that Socrates and Plato were frequently regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints ..." (1991, p. 103).
Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) in ‘The Summa Theologica’ also taught the soul is conscious intellect and cannot be destroyed. A few centuries later the leaders of the Protestant Reformation generally accepted these views, entrenching them in traditional Protestant teaching.
The Bible, however, does not teach death is the separation of body and soul or that the soul is immortal. The Hebrew word translated ‘soul’ in the Old Testament is ‘nephesh’, meaning ‘a breathing creature’. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines ‘nephesh’ as "the essence of life, the act of breathing... The problem with the English term 'soul' is that no actual equivalent of the term...is represented in the Hebrew language..." (1985, p. 237-238).
The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible makes this comment on ‘nephesh’: "In the OT it never means the immortal soul, but it is essentially the life principle, or the living being..." (Vol. 4, 1962, "Soul"). ‘Nephesh’ is translated ‘soul’ or ‘being’ in reference to man in Genesis 2:7, but when referring to animals it is translated as ‘creature’ in Genesis 1:24, and as ‘body’ in Leviticus 21:11 in reference to a human corpse.
The Hebrew Scriptures state plainly the soul can and does die. "The soul [nephesh] who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). The Old Testament describes the dead as going to ‘sheol’, translated into English as "hell," "pit" or "grave." Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 describes ‘sheol’ as a place of unconsciousness: "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing ..." King David also lamented that death extinguishes a relationship with God. "For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?" (Psalms 6:5).
In the New Testament the Greek word translated ‘soul’ is ‘psuche’, which is also translated as ‘life’. Like ‘nephesh’, ‘psuche’ is translated into English as ‘soul when referring to a human being (Acts 2:41). For animals the same word is translated ‘life’ in the King James Version (Revelation 8:9; 16:3) and Jesus declared that God can destroy man's ‘psuche’, or ‘soul’ in Matthew 10:28.
Although Scripture does not speak of the soul as being immortal, it has much to say about immortality. Paul told the congregation in Rome to ‘seek’ immortality (Romans 2:5-7) stating that eternal life is a ‘gift’ from God (Romans 6:23), and he taught Christians at Corinth they must be changed and ‘put on’ immortality (1 Corinthians 15:51-55).
The Bible plainly teaches the dead lie in the grave, knowing nothing and possessing no consciousness. The Old Testament describes death as an unconscious state, and in the New Testament the apostle Paul describes it as ‘sleep’ (1 Corinthians 15:51-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Although mankind is subject to death God promises a resurrection to eternal life to those who repent, obey God and accept Jesus as the Messiah. The most powerful words on this subject come from Jesus Himself: "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:40).
The first resurrection to immortality will take place when Christ returns to establish God's Kingdom on this earth. Later another resurrection to physical life will occur for people who had never had a relationship with the Father and Jesus Christ. They, too, will have their opportunity for immortality.
The Good News magazine