Do People have Souls?

Within this piece, I will be considering the question of whether or not humans have souls. I won’t be exploring this question from a philosophical, but from a biblical angle, taking into consideration terms like “soul” and “spirit” as they are used in scripture. My position is that humans don’t have souls or spiritual natures, but rather become souls when they die.

“Soul” in the Old Testament

Let’s begin by considering the term “soul” as used in the Bible (this is the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psyche). In the old testament, this term is basically synonymous with the physical life of a person. For instance, consider the following passage in Ezekiel:

“The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20)

The word “soul” here clearly does not represent a part of a person’s nature, distinct from their physical body. It means their person, their physical life. In this verse, you could easily substitute the word “person” and it would make perfect sense. Consider also this passage in 1 Samuel:

“the souls of Jonathan and David were knit together” (1 Samuel 18:1)

This clearly does not mean that their respective ‘spiritual natures’ became entangled. It means that the life of Jonathan, including his passions, became closely interlinked with that of David. It means that they became extremely close friends. So then, the term “soul” used in the old testament (nephesh) means a person’s physical life and not a separate, spiritual nature.

“Soul” in the New Testament

But what about the new testament? How does that use the related Greek word (psyche)? Consider the following passage from Matthew’s gospel:

“For whoever would save his life [soul] will lose it, but whoever loses his life [soul] for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

Most English translations tend to use “life” rather than “soul” as the translation of choice in this passage. That’s exactly what the word means here. It doesn’t mean a sort of ‘spiritual nature’ – how could you lose an immaterial soul in order to gain an immaterial soul? Instead, it means that you have to be prepared to sacrifice your life in this age in order to inherit life in the age to come.

Unfortunately, the translators of the ESV (the translation I’m using here) were not consistent in their approach and translated the very next verse as follows:

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

A single verse later and the same Greek word is used, yet this time “soul” is chosen instead of “life”. Such a sudden change of meaning is unwarranted – it would make much more sense for the word to mean “life” throughout the passage, maintaining the contrast between this age and the age to come.

There are a few passages in which it could be argued that the word for “soul” does refer to a sort of ‘spiritual nature’. One of those is Revelation 6:9, which is speaking about those who have died and become souls.[1] The other is Matthew 10:28, which I quote below:

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

I would argue that the word for “soul” here once again simply means “life”. Matthew is drawing an opposition between this age and the age to come. He is saying that we shouldn’t fear those who merely kill the body in this age but cannot affect our life (or our body) in the age to come. This is confirmed by the use of the word “hell” (Gehenna), which is used only for the final judgement and is not to be confused with “hades” (the realm of the dead).

“Spirit” in the Old Testament

There is another word sometimes associated with a spiritual nature in humans, and that is the word “spirit” (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek). This word is used to refer to the Spirit of God, but also to other “spirits” (such as angels or demons) and to the “spirits” of people. It can also mean “breath” or “mind”. What does this word refer to in reference to human beings?

This word has a different meaning to the word “soul”. Whereas “soul” simply denotes the physical life of a person, “spirit” stands for the divine breath which gives life to all creatures. When God forms Adam, he breathes the breath of life into him: “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).

However, it isn’t just human beings who are given this life-breath. Animals are also made alive through this same life-breath (eg. Genesis 6:17). This life-breath is surrendered whenever a creature (human or otherwise) breathes its last breath. In a sense, the life-breath is loosely identical with the Holy Spirit, or is at the very least an operation of the Holy Spirit. The one Spirit gives life to both humans and animals and also takes that same life away (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20).[2]

At other times though, the term “spirit” used in reference to a person is more synonymous with their thoughts or their attitude. For instance, consider Psalm 51:10 – “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” The “spirit” here means a person’s thoughts, their mind. This is still not quite the same as a ‘spiritual nature’ but it’s conceptually closer.

“Spirit” in the New Testament

The new testament uses the related term (pneuma) in similar ways. Sometimes it refers to the life-breath which people receive from the Holy Spirit and give up when they die (eg. Matthew 27:50, Acts 7:59, James 2:26). At other times, it denotes a person’s character or their mind in general (eg. Matthew 26:41, Acts 17:16, 1 Corinthians 2:11). And at other times it denotes the Holy Spirit, evil spirits, angels as spirits, and so on.

Sometimes you also see a kind of ‘multiplication’ language in the new testament. For instance:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 27:37)

This passage doesn’t actually use the word for “spirit”, but you can see the effect. Jesus is not saying that people have three parts, a heart, a soul and a mind. Rather, he is multiplying terms in order to create emphasis – to show that the fullness of a person must be engaged in loving God.

A similar effect can be seen in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, which refers to “Spirit and Soul and body”. It’s just another way of emphasising the fullness of a person. You could say ‘life and breath and body’ but the point is the emphasis being created through multiplying terms. It’s not that human beings are made up of two (or three, or four) distinct parts; such ‘multiplication’ language is simply highlighting a number of different aspects of human nature.

Conclusion

So, having examined the two key terms typically used to refer to a person’s spiritual nature or “soul”, they don’t seem to mean what they are often taken to mean. Instead of teaching that human beings have a sort of ‘spiritual nature’ alongside their ‘bodily nature’, they actually teach that human beings are living creatures who receive their life from God.

All of which suggests that human beings do not have souls, as we would commonly understand them. Rather, human beings become souls (or ghosts) when they die, a shadowy echo of their former selves awaiting the resurrection yet to come.


[1] The “souls under the altar” in this verse are righteous martyrs. The word “soul” (life) is used to highlight the life-blood sacrifice that they have made in their deaths: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” (Leviticus 17:11)

[2] Verse 21 complicates this by having the spirit of human beings go upwards (to God) and the spirit of the animals go downwards (towards the earth). This can be explained by the key differences between animals and humans. Humans, being made in God’s image, have a more direct relationship with him than animals do. When an animal dies, the life-breath returns to the ground to produce more animal life. But when a human dies, the life-breath goes up to God as a memorial, since God remembers human beings and will raise them one day (eg. Matthew 22:31-32).

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