Everybody knows what “soul” is, right? The common definition says, “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal”. Christians delete the animal thing and – that’s it!
Or maybe that’s not it?
Let’s see what the Old and New Testament say about soul and how different translations deal with the issue.
The word “soul” in the Bible can be easily researched (good news!) as there is only one Hebrew and one Greek word which translate for it. The Hebrew one is “nephesh” – and it appears about 750 times in the Old Testament; while the Greek “psyche” can be found about 100 times in the New Testament.
The problem is that various editions of the Bible translate it in different ways. Actually it is hard to find 2 Bibles that would translate these words everywhere the same way. Why is it so?
This is a million dollars question. I will try to answer it, and I’ll try to do it without reaching to theology. Just from lingual and logical point of view. The theological point of view is too complicated to be considered here as there are countless ideas and human imagination has no boundaries. I believe, though, we don’t really need to reach to theology to prove my point.
Years ago I really enjoyed taking part in never ending theologian discussions about the nature of soul and… nobody ever really convinced anyone else. One of the most common subjects was whether human soul is immortal. Most Christians believe it is, but a growing number believe that unsaved souls will be eventually killed (annihilated) or that they die together with body and then get resurrected and are given immortality.
My goal here, however, is not to answer what happens to people after they die. It is solely to research what the term “soul” means in the Bible. What I want to prove is that even though it’s a very common biblical term it is not understood correctly by the entire mainstream theology. First of all, it’s not even translated well in vast majority of Bible translations.
Let’s start with comparing the definition I already quoted – “spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal” – with the Bible.
If the word “soul” means an immortal part of human being – what will we say to this verse?
The soul that sinneth, it shall die (Ezekiel 18:4, KJV)
Well… how is that possible? An immortal soul can die? According to the verse, it can.
Let’s a look at a more modern translation now:
The one who sins is the one who will die (Ezekiel 18:4, NIV)
Oh, now it looks better, doesn’t it? The problem is that NIV doesn’t really translate this verse. NIV interprets it. Literally – word by word – Ezekiel 18:4 ends with “the soul – that sins – it will die”. NIV does translaste used here “nephesh” as “soul” in other places, here they choose to use the word “the one”.
Would the word “soul” ruin the NIV translators’ theology so bad that they decided to delete it from this passage?
Some theologians try to convince us that nephesh/psyche can mean different things in the same way many other words in Hebrew and Greek languages have a lot of meanings. English has lots of ambiguous words, too. I remember when I started learning English I was amazed at how many pages were dedicated to the word “get” in my dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary gives 289 meanings of “get” but today I know this result is actually far from best – there are also 464 definitions of “set”, 396 of “run” and 368 or “go” and somehow we still are able to communicate using these words without any problems. The rule is multiple meanings usually concern common, simple words and must always be made clear by context. And if the Bible doesn’t really define nepehesh/soul, there must be no doubt about what these words meant.
There is a Bible verse we could almost think of as the definition. Look here:
Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7, NIV)
Oh, where’s the word “soul”? I forgot the creators of NIV don’t really like that word. Let’s look at good’ol King James Version:
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 soul. (Genesus 2:7, KJV)
Yes, the Hebrew word here is “nephesh”. And even though it’s in the very beginning of the Bible, it’s not the first occurrence of it. “Nephesh” is also used 4 times in Genesis 1, in verses 20, 21, 24 and 30 and . NIV translates the word as “creature” in the first three times and “breath” in the last one, and – surprisingly – KJV does almost the same thing, only putting “life” instead of “breath”.
Please pay attention – the very fact that the word “nephesh” in Genesis 1 regards animals denies at least one common belief – that only humans have a soul. I am not saying by no means that humans are no different than animals. I am saying that whatever the word “soul” means, concerns both people and animals.
Let’s make a little experiment and see how we would react to see these verses if the word “nephesh” would consistently be translated as “soul”:
And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living souls, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great souls of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
And God said, ‘Let the land produce living souls according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.’ And it was so. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the living soul in it—I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so. (parts of Genesis 1:20-30)
Does it look weird? Of course, it says that animals have souls! Everyone knows that only people have souls, right?!
Everyone? But did everyone read it in the Bible? Where does the Bible say that?
Show me. I can’t see.
Oh, is this getting uncomfortable to you? Great!
I remember myself about 20 years ago, when I was reading a book by Jehovah’s Witnesses quoting Ecclesiastes 3:19 saying that animals and people die in the same way, implying that neither people have any special “souls” or that they are immortal. I was thinking bad things about the authors putting it like this, and it took me many years to realize that all they actually did was quoting the Bible; it was just in conflict with my belief that was already set – I simply believed that people have souls and animals don’t, even though there is no Bible verse saying that.
The problem with most of people is that after we have an opinion for a really long time – then, when we see a different one, we mark it as wrong without any thinking at all.
Imagine if I told you you’re supposed to wear gloves on your feet, not hands.
That’s ridiculous – you’d say – and you wouldn’t even bother to waste a second thinking if I might be right. Your intuition – or let’s call it common sense – would tell you that you know well how to wear stuff.
The really good question is – is this intuition of yours infallible?
Nope. What it “knows” is based on your experiences and your interpretation of them. I think the most important reason we argue is that people tend to confuse intuition with facts. If you were raised in a religious family and most of your friends are religious, and if they all believe almost the same things, your intuition tells you, “It’s the only truth in the world. Let’s don’t waste time for thinking about it.”
Please, do “waste” some time and think!
I encourage you to take concordance and find the word “nephesh” in the Bible – maybe not all 754 occurrences – but let’s say 50 – to see how inconsistently it’s translated in today’s translations. You can find a list of all occurrences of “nephesh” here: http://predi.us/pewnosc-zbawienia/filez/nephesh.pdf . No matter what vast majority of Christianity says, soul does not mean an immortal part of a person!
But what does it mean then?
Before we answer, let’s also have a look at the New Testament “soul.”
Psyche – ψυχή – is the word that translates “nephesh” in Septuagint (translation of Old Testament into Greek from the 3rd century BC) and also is the only word that English Bibles translate as “soul“. It occurs over 100 times throughout the whole New Testament. Let’s see how New American Standard Bible translates it:
soul, souls (47 times)
life, lives (43 times)
persons (3 times)
heart (1 time)
We have a very similar situation to the Old Testament – terrible inconsistency! English readers usually understand the word “soul” as the ghostly part of us, which after death leaves the body and flies somewhere (to God, or for judgement, or to heaven/hell), while “life” is something that ends when we die. One definition aims for afterlife, the other – only for the earthly one. How can the same word mean two completely different things?
Let’s look at this verse:
Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39, NIV)
Here “psyche” got translated into “life“. Now tell me, what would happen if we put the word “soul” here? “Losing soul” could mean nothing other than either going to hell or total death… in either case we would not suspect Jesus to want it to happen to us. Actually, I checked all popular translations, and I couldn’t find one which would translate “psyche” here as “soul“.
Now let’s look at another verse. More translations use the word “soul” here, but some use ‘life’.
What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? (Mark 8:36)
Take a moment to think how the meaning of this verse changes depending on whether psyche is translated as “soul” or as “life“.
The first meaning is ascetic – don’t try to gain wealth because when you lose your soul (in hell?) it won’t make you happy.
The second way of translation would keep the focus in this world – what would money help you when you die?
The same idea can be found in Luke 12 where we have a story about a rich man whose harvest was so great one year that he couldn’t fit his barns. He was planning on a happy and lazy future for himself until God showed up and told him, using the beautiful ancient English language, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?”.
Actually we don’t know which language God used – New Testament is written in Greek, Jesus spoke Aramaic, and the rich man could actually speak neither one of these languages – but if what we have is Greek, it has to suffice. Greek says “psyche“. English used to say “soul” (KJV) which made you worry about your eternity, but now it says “life” (NIV) which makes you way less worried as it only concerns life on earth.
Don’t you see a repeating pattern here?
Older translations say “soul“, newer ones say “life“.
I checked how many times the words “soul” and “life” appear in both KJV and NIV. Here’s the result:
KJV – soul: 55, life: 172
NIV – soul: 23, life: 229
So from about 100 uses of “psyche” King James Version translates it as “soul” in about 50% cases, while New International Version only about 25% cases. Clearly translators learned over years that Bible spends definitely less time on “the other world” than previously expected.
And I believe it makes great summary of the main subject of this article.
The Bible obviously does speak about what happens after we die. But not too often. In most of Old Testament it’s almost nonexistent. The New Testament is much better, but it doesn’t seem that verses referring to afterlife would make even 1%.
I know! It’s very hard to believe in the beginning. The vast majority of Christians who often go to church, or at least often read the Bible, believe this life only focuses on working for heaven or hell, and that this is what the Bible mostly talk about.
Religion takes God’s warnings to Israel about coming military problems, and – just because it uses the word “judgement” a lot, it applies them to us as a threat and warning from the judgement that will happen after we die… even though there isn’t a single verse describing someone’s worrying about that.
Religion takes multiple warnings from Jesus and apostles about the terrible war that will strike Jews, and… in the same way, we are told that we should worry.
Religion teaches us that Jesus came to this world to give people a chance to avoid hell… even if again there isn’t a single verse about that. Instead, what I do find in the Bible is this:
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10 b)
Religion will add “eternal life” here but… religion is just good at adding stuff. Jesus shows lots of times how important this life is. He heals, He feeds, He teaches how to live this life the best way that is possible.
Let me say one more time – just because I conclude “soul” means “life” or “person” in the Bible, and thus it turns out the Bible emphasizes this life much more than the other, it doesn’t mean I reject actual eternal life! The Bible is still clear we all will raise from the dead and physical death is more the beginning, rather than the end. In Philippians 1:23nn Paul doesn’t have any doubts that dying means being with the Lord, and that is far better than this life.I also believe that most of “near death experiences” are real glimpses at the spiritual world, so – shortly speaking – no, I do not claim people have no soul.
I only claim that “soul” in the Bible has nothing to do with the soul we usually mean.
I still use the word “soul” when I discuss things about afterlife with people and I don’t think there is anything wrong with it, as long as we remember what that term really means when we read the Bible. There, we should rather look for the word “spirit” (greek “pneuma”), as this word actually referring to “person minus body”. Look here:
Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. (Matthew 27:50)
May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
There’s only a few references to this meaning of “spirit” in the New Testament though, most of the times it speaks about Holy Spirit or evil spirits. Again, this shows how little the Bible talks about afterlife.
Should it upset us? On the contrary! First of all, if authors of the Bible don’t spend much answering the question what will happen to us after we die, they clearly also do not worry about it. Neither should we worry then. This fact alone should improve the quality of our lives tremendously!
Please, try reading all the verses, especially in the New Testament, where you see “soul”, this time remembering it has nothing to do with heaven or hell. You will learn lots of new things. The Bible will start to make a lot of more sense. And I am pretty sure you will often feel like you’ve never seen these verses before!